A recent report from the Montreal Economic Institute challenges a common argument made by student associations that increasing tuition restricts access to university education.
The report focuses primarily on Quebec, which has the lowest tuition in Canada thanks to a provincial tuition cap, but draws wider conclusions using data from all 10 provinces. According to the report, Nova Scotia has the highest tuition in Canada, but also the highest enrolment rate among 20- to 21-year-olds. Enrolment rates in Quebec, by comparison, are "among the lowest in Canada," the report states.
"The general argument is if tuition fees go up, there will be dramatic decreases in enrolment," said the author of the report, Economist Norma Kozhaya. "But you can't pretend or ensure that decreasing tuition fees and accompanying this with financial aid will increase participation rates. This is the only thing we're saying."
Quebec's enrolment rate in the 2000-2001 academic year was higher than those of four other provinces, including Alberta, and only slightly lower than those in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan.
The statistics for Alberta seem to fall outside of Kozhaya's model. While Alberta's tuition is the third highest in the country, Alberta's enrolment rate is only higher British Columbia's.
Kozhaya's conclusions are at odds with conventional arguments made by tuition lobby groups such as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
"I would argue that a study like that doesn't take into account who is filling the seats," noted James Kusie, National Director of Ottawa-based CASA. "Tuition increases affect students the greatest that come from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.
"Studies can say that tuition increases don't affect access, but students from [less wealthy] backgrounds are 2.5 times less likely to attend."
According to Kozhaya's report, differences in enrolment between students from varying backgrounds are inevitable, and the dominant factor is the so-called "family effect."
"It is an indisputable sociological reality that, even if higher education were free, people from underprivileged and less educated backgrounds would be less inclined to continue to university for all sorts of other reasons," wrote Kozhaya.
Her report draws further conclusions from a similar study in the United States.
"In other words, children whose parents have high incomes are more likely to attend [university] because they have access to better quality primary and secondary education and are more qualified to attend higher education," the report stated.
Kusie disagrees. Quoting numbers from a Statistics Canada survey, Kusie contends 85 per cent of Canadian families want their children to attend post secondary education, but half of those are concerned as to how they are going to pay for it.
"Twenty-eight per cent of students who drop out in their first year, do so because of financial reasons," stated Kusie. "I don't think the family effect bears any weight on this."
Kozhaya's report argues broadly subsidizing higher education is tantamount to the average taxpayer "financing many young people from well-off families and the high salary-earners of tomorrow."
"There is no doubt that higher education is good for society," affirmed Kozhaya. "But it costs something. You can't have education for free."
Kusie remains undeterred.
"The numbers are interesting but I don't think [the report] is reflective of what's happening in Canadian post-secondary education," he said. "Students from low-income backgrounds are still feeling the heaviest burden."