Is it possible to have a future without tuition?

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The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), an independent, non-partisan research institute, has published a comprehensive report outlining the measures for eliminating tuition and other compulsory fees at the post-secondary level.&nbsp;</p>

David Macdonald, CCPA’s senior Ottawa economist, explained that the report’s two primary focuses — eliminating undergraduate tuition fees and cancelling all existing student financial aid programs — were put forth in response to the concerns of students, parents, and the Canadian Federation of Students amid rising tuition costs and record-high levels of student debt.

According to Macdonald, undergraduate tuition fees need to be eliminated “to put Canada in line with most developed countries.” Although Canadian universities and colleges receive considerable amounts of funding from the federal government, changes to the funding formula as well as the federal transfer payments have resulted in significantly higher tuition fees, with the national average tuition costs for Canadian post-secondary education increasing from $1,872 in 1992 (an amount closer to $2,826 after factoring in inflation) to $6,191 in 2015.  

The CCPA report criticizes the current Canada Health and Social Transfer model established in 1996 (later split into two transfers in 2004) and deems student financial aid programs “expensive and inefficient,” maintaining that they largely deliver “the greatest benefits to those students who need the least help financially.” Macdonald described the current existing financial aid programs consisting of overlapping grants and loans as “overly complicated” and “impossible for ordinary students to navigate successfully.”  

Current Canada Social Transfer  payments also correspond to a reduced level of provincial accountability and, according to the CCPA report, there is “no guarantee that the federal funding intended for post-secondary education reaches students and their families.” 

The February 2016 CCPA report also revealed that most parents do not take advantage of the Registered Education Savings Plan to save for their children’s post-secondary education, noting that “less than half of all eligible children receive any funding and those that do are primarily from higher-income households” with “over 50 per cent of grants … directed to families earning over $72,000 in 2013.”

In its 21st Alternative Federal Budget (AFB), which takes a fresh look at the federal budget from a progressive perspective, the CCPA, for the first time, proposed that undergraduate tuition fees be entirely eliminated. They also called for the establishment of a Federal Post-Secondary Education Act based on the principles of “accessibility, comprehensiveness, collegial governance, public administration, and academic freedom,” that includes a “new post-secondary education cash transfer which is conditional on the provinces meeting these principles.” 

When asked about the Ontario Liberal plan to make post-secondary education more accessible for low-income students, Macdonald replied that the CCPA will have to investigate it in more detail but warned that, once the plan is implemented, “the current restrictions on tuition growth may be removed” causing tuition rates to skyrocket even further.

According to Macdonald, increasing student debt provides “a disincentive to make big purchases and to save for retirement.” The CCPA report confirms that “research shows … student debt holders have a lower net worth, fewer assets, and are less likely to have savings or investments than non-student debt holders of the same age.” The research institute warns that denying individuals the necessary post-secondary education to fully participate in the work force also appears to correspond to a higher demand for social services and a higher involvement in criminal activity.

The CCPA report concluded that government financing of post-secondary education is “a smart investment for the future” that brings “fiscal and social benefits in the long term” and is achievable by eliminating loan-based financial assistance, education-related tax credits, and RESPs.  Macdonald added that “the elimination of tuition fees is absolutely possible and can be paid for by closing tax loopholes.”

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