Recently, university students in Quebec have been protesting plans to boost tuitions in that province – currently the lowest in Canada. One student leader has argued that the proposed increases threaten the principle that “education should be something that is available to everyone, regardless of social status.”
That argument certainly sounds plausible. However, study after study has shown that reducing or eliminating tuition fees would make education less accessible to the very people the students aim to help. Across Canada and in other parts of the world, jurisdictions with low tuition fees tend to enrol fewer university students per capita than those with higher fees. In the European countries with free tuition, for example, participation rates are about two-thirds of Canada’s. And Quebec’s participation rates are sharply lower than Ontario’s.
Why? A low- or no-tuition policy limits the supply of places in universities. Conversely, higher tuitions make more spots available. With enlightened policies that see institutions using new revenues to discount tuitions for lower-income students, more of those spots can be taken by the best and brightest, regardless of socio-economic standing.
U of T has long provided bursaries to students in need, and turned that practice into policy more than a decade ago. In 2011, U of T spent $157 million on scholarships and bursaries – or $2,416 for every full-time equivalent student. That’s 36 per cent more than the average Ontario institution (excluding U of T) spends on student aid. Thus, although the “sticker price” of an arts degree at U of T is now about $5,700 a year, the more than 2,000 students in the Faculty of Arts and Science who receive support under the Ontario Student Assistance Program effectively pay zero tuition because of the financial support they receive from the university, while 8,000 students pay $4,000 or less.
I believe the rate of growth in student debt should be moderated. However, attacking that problem with tuition reductions for all will simply benefit those who are relatively well off. In that regard, 54 per cent of students in first-entry programs at U of T already graduate with no government loans.
Today’s accessible excellence at U of T is built in meaningful measure on a legacy of student support provided by alumni and friends. To sustain that legacy, our Boundless campaign, launched almost a year ago, aims to raise $300 million for student financial aid. Signaling the priority we place on student support, U of T will match – in perpetuity – the annual income generated by new endowed donations of $25,000 and up, whenever those donations address the financial needs of full-time undergraduates.
Last, while statistics on access and student aid are relevant, sometimes a story is more salient. Wendy Cecil (BA 1971 VIC) is a tireless volunteer and generous benefactor. She is the Chancellor of Victoria and a former chair of the university’s governing council. Cecil is also the first person from either side of her family to ever attend university. She entered U of T with a summer of hard-earned savings and a cheque for an Ontario Scholarship that almost covered her first year’s tuition fees. The next year, absent the scholarship, she could not afford her second tuition installment. With no expectation of student aid, young Wendy went to advise the Vic bursar, Fred Stokes, about her intent to withdraw. To her astonishment, Stokes simply said, “I think we can find a little something to help you.” Cecil was tearful with surprise at his kindness and her good fortune. She remains certain today that the course of her life was changed by that moment.
When Cecil shared this account with me, she added: “My dream is that other students, who receive any form of financial aid while at U of T, will feel the same debt of gratitude that I feel for that assistance, and will come back to serve and to give – so that others will have the opportunity for a University of Toronto education.” These words beautifully capture the cycle of generosity and opportunity that I hope our alumni and friends will sustain now and in the years ahead.