Tuesday, 15 May 2007

It's not about TUITION fees

And so the debate rages on about what to do about post secondary education. With the Ontario government lifting the university tuition freeze for the province, and an endless amount of student protests on the go - I have to state my objection to the cost of tuition being the constant centerpiece of the debate. The greater issue concerning post secondary education is much more about access to it, and less so about the actual cost of tuition. Without dramatically changing the government-university relationship in ways I cannot see possible, for an Ontario university to stay at the top of their game in delivering high quality education; to be a leader in their fields of specialty; to develop new and innovative programs to prepare students for new industries/types of employment; and to continue to attract some of the brightest intellectuals - it will cost them a great deal of investment on their part and tuition prices should remain high to accomodate for this (unless people are willing to accept a decent up-front tax hike or cuts elsewhere - which I'll bet that they won't).

Having said that, something needs to be done about the cost of a university education for students from low income families and others struggling in this area - for this I see greater value in a restructuring of government loan programs. The most fundamental issue about any reform to be made is that anybody who desires a university education and who has worked hard to get accepted into a program should be able to receive said educational opportunity.

The second issue, while being more difficult to address, is that of financial cost and how the decision to attend university should not be influenced by the possibility of having to carry an exceptionally intimidating debt upon graduation. The cost of a first rate post secondary education must no longer serve as a deterrent to a promising young scholar's ability to enroll and achieve their dreams if the careers they seek demand such an education. During my time abroad I've had some interesting discussions with some Australian friends about university financing and was quite fascinated with some of the ideas coming out of their end. I cannot remember which jurisdiction (federal or one of their provinces) was under discussion, but the basic tenets of the student loan system that was described to me were something along the lines of:
1. If you cannot afford to attend the university you have been accepted to, the government will foot the bill under loan-conditions
2. Unlike with the OSAP-Mafia, repayment of the loan only begins when you start working - and not by a specific time frame after graduation
3. The rate at which a loan is paid back is proportional to salary such that if you land a higher paying job you pay more of the loan back until it's gone, and if you land a lower paying job you pay it back at a lower rate
4. Payback is automatic upon employment; a portion will come right off your paycheque just like another tax, and as you pay it off the amount you pay will reduce until there is nothing left to pay
5. If one cannot find work after graduation they do not pay the loan back until they commence employment

I do not know enough about economics or the finances of this stuff to really judge/sell the practicality of this idea just yet for Ontario. But on the surface, a post secondary government loan system such as this appears to have several positive attributes such as:
1. It addresses the problem of financial access to educational opportunities;
2. As a loan the province still gets their financial investment back (with interest) in addition to having a more educated population;
3. As graduates no longer have to fear seemingly insurmountable debt payments - the related pressure of landing a high paying job right away also fades as they know their debt will slowly be wiped clean as soon as they start working and not before then when they may not be in a suitable financial position to manage debt.

1 comment:

Bryan Heal said...

From Dr Ramzy Galil, University of Western Ontario Medical School & Canadian Armed Forces:

I totally agree with this sentiment, Bry. To add: I have always been upset with the quality of debate around tuition fees for Medical School - sure they are in the range of $17,000 per year (at least in Ontario) but so often I have heard these costs being framed as an access issue.

But a medical degree virtually guarantees an ability to pay off all loans as well (more importantly?) guarantees employment for life. Those who have already invested the time, effort, and energy to meet all criteria for medical school acceptance, are not -- acceptance letter in hand -- going to say "well, I'm going to turn this down as it's just too darn expensive, despite all my hard work and money getting an undergraduate degree."

My only point is -- access to medical school is not about med-school tuition costs. Rather, access to medical school is a direct reflection of barriers to undergraduate education. Fix that, and we've gone a long way to fixing access issues in areas of medical education as well