With somewhat less media coverage than previous years, Statistics Canada has released its tuition fee estimates for 2019/20. And for the first time since I can remember, the national average for undergraduate tuition fees actually declined from the previous year.
Good news, right?
Well, not so fast. Turns out that all provinces except two (Alberta and Ontario) increased average tuition fees for undergraduate students.
Tuition fees are only part of the story, of course. Additional compulsory fees are set by individual institutions and are, for the most part, unregulated by provincial governments. As public funding continues to be insufficient, and as provincial governments place some limits on how frequently tuition fees can increase and to what level, universities look to other revenue sources. And additional compulsory fees are much less scrutinized and often unregulated, offering opportunities for universities to come up with new ways to charge students money. On average, these fees are about $900 this year, and cover things like athletics, student health services, and clubs and student organizations.
This year, the national average for additional compulsory fees also declined slightly. But don’t dig out the confetti just yet. In the spirit of our many studies on post-secondary education in Canada, I’ve gone through the latest tuition fee numbers from Statistics Canada, and provided you with a bit of context to help understand what’s really going on.
Here are the highlights:
While a useful indication of levels of provincial support for post-secondary education, undergraduate tuition fees never tell the whole story, particularly as “average” fees obscure what students are actually paying (depending on province of origin, province of destination, and the specifics of grant or bursary programs which can be tweaked, changed, or cancelled as recently seen in Ontario and New Brunswick). Likewise, average increases and decreases, particularly on a national scale, must be more closely examined to determine context, cause, and effect.
That the national average for undergraduate tuition fees has declined is particularly significant for what has prompted it—a tuition fee rollback Ontario, combined with the abrupt cancellation of a recently-implemented student aid program, and cuts to OSAP that limit the number of students eligible for grants and reduces the amount of loans provided overall. In addition, other compulsory fees are slightly down on average because the government of Ontario—the province with the most universities, the greatest number of students, and some of the highest tuition fees in the country—implemented a policy resulting in the defunding of those organizations whose mandate is to advocate for students and which have consistently pushed the government on issues of education affordability, student well-being, and campus safety.
While a tuition fee rollback makes for great headlines, when it comes to how we support our public institutions and those who attend them, the devil is always in the details. And what these details mean for broader, overarching issues of universality, debt, accessibility and student advocacy remains to be seen.
Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.