The study shows that in 1990, a middle-income family in Ontario could earn the equivalent of four years of tuition fees in 87 days. Two decades later, that middle-income family needs to set aside the income of 195 days to earn tuition. For low-income families, of course, the situation is much worse: paying for four years of university tuition would take the equivalent of two years' worth of income.
In other words, paying for a child's tuition is a huge stretch for many families, and completely out of the question for many more. Young people either don't pursue their educational goals - so their life chances are automatically restricted - or they begin their young-adult lives shackled by debt.
In my country of origin, this situation is even worse, and it's accepted as the norm. Only the wealthiest families can afford higher education. The children of the middle class begin their careers with massive debt burdens. For those from the bottom rungs, there are scholarships for the gifted few, which are often inadequate, as even the "incidental" expenses are well out of reach for most low-income families. Most young people from low-income families simply cannot pursue higher education. This works out very nicely for military recruiters. How else would the supposedly volunteer military keeps its numbers up?
The situation in Canada is not yet as dire, but it's headed in that direction. We can do better - and we must.
The demise of affordable higher education in Ontario can't be blamed on the Harper government, and it can't be blamed on Mike Harris, Ontarians' excuse for everything bad. I'm not suggesting that the Harris government was anything but brutal. But Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have been in government since 2003. Massive corporate tax cuts and sharply rising tuition fees are not coincidental.
There is an alternative.
From David MacDonald and Erika Shaker, the authors of the CPA study:
Rather than focusing on stop-gap measures that provide minor assistance while still requiring families to take on debt, the tuition fee burden must be addressed upfront in order to remove this significant barrier to access.Progressive Ontarians shudder at the thought of a Tim Hudak provincial government, with good reason. But will another round of Liberal corporate giveaways improve anything? Why vote for the party who sounds like the NDP during the election, then governs like the Conservatives? Why not vote for the real thing?
There are alternatives to increased downloading onto families. The government of Ontario can maximize investment benefits and create a highly educated populace not overburdened with debt, and in so doing help ensure that university is affordable to students and their families regardless of income.
The 2009 Ontario corporate tax cuts cost an estimated $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2011–12. Rolling back undergraduate university tuition rates to 1990 levels (adjusted for inflation and a growing student population) only costs $1.5 billion for the same year.
If Ontarians prefer to pay for lower university tuition fees in slightly higher income taxes, for just $100 a year for the average family, fees could be reduced to 1990 levels. For an average of $170 a year, undergraduate tuition fees in Ontario could be eliminated.
Since 1990, the system of financing higher education has become more regressive, exploiting already over-stretched families who want to help their children pursue their educational aspirations. By forcing all but the wealthiest families to play priority roulette, assume still more debt, or make the difficult decision that higher education is too great a financial burden to bear, Ontario is hampering its economic and educational potential, and we are all paying the price.
For a good infographic on the impact of rising tuition fees, go here.