Access for Whom? Students Fight for Survival in Canadian Universities

Canadian graduate students are at an impasse. User fees at Canadian universities have more than doubled in the last 10 years--a rate of increase more than six times greater than that of inflation--and graduate students are getting hit the hardest. 1 If students do not act now to put public pressure on governments to reinvest in higher education, then the door to accessible education will close on many of us.

Tuition fees have risen nationally by approximately 126% since 1991, and in that same time frame student debt has nearly tripled. Despite a slight slowing of tuition fee increases for undergraduate programs, graduate students continue to face staggering increases to the tune of 9.8% per year (see this Next Wave article for more details.)

Cuts to postsecondary education implemented by the federal government are clearly undermining access to postsecondary education for those most in need of the skills and opportunities it offers. For this reason, the Canadian Federation of Students has called for a day of mass action across Canada on Wednesday, 6 February 2002, to demand tuition fee freezes and reductions, adequate funding of postsecondary education, and an expanded needs-based grant program for students.

Within the national trend, however, there is considerable disparity in both the accessibility and quality of graduate studies from province to province. There is no doubt that the crisis facing Canadian graduate students is worse in Ontario than anywhere else in the country. For this reason, we will focus here on the situation in Ontario as a case study of the privatization of postsecondary education in Canada.

Down and Out in Ontario

Over the past 6 years, the Ontario government has moved decisively to lay the foundation for the development of a two-tiered system of postsecondary education. In 1995, the same year that the federal government implemented its devastating cuts to social programs in the form of the Canada Health and Social Transfer Act, the Ontario government imposed annual $400 million budget cuts to postsecondary education.

This strategic underfunding has created a crisis in higher education in Ontario. Institutions have been forced to compete with each other for private sector dollars, while simultaneously increasing tuition fees for students. As a result, average undergraduate tuition fees in Ontario are the second highest in the country. Comparatively, in the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Québec, and Newfoundland, tuition fees have been either frozen or reduced.

Looking across the province, we can see how Ontarians from average working families are losing access to postsecondary education. According to Statistics Canada, between 1986 and 1998 the gap in participation rates between young people from the highest and lowest economic backgrounds has increased. 2

Since 1998, the provincial government has allowed tuition fees for certain programs to increase exponentially:

  • Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario is up by 239%.

  • Medicine at the University of Toronto is up by $10,000.

  • Computer Animation at Sheridan College is up by an astronomical 784%.

Deregulation: Access Denied

The reason, of course, is that in Ontario tuition fees for graduate, professional, and postdiploma programs were fully deregulated in 1998--meaning the government has eliminated its control over tuition fee increases. Massive tuition fee hikes have followed for a number of programs at both universities and colleges.

The impact is already being felt. Independent studies undertaken at the universities of Guelph, Waterloo, and Western Ontario have all suggested that deregulated tuition fees are a factor in the reduced enrolment of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 3 Now, consider the impact on access of $25,000 a year for law school tuition fees at the University of Toronto. 4

The government of Ontario is fond of telling students that they should pay more for their education because they are the chief beneficiaries. But everyone knows that a well-educated populace is the foundation of a vibrant society. And economists of all stripes agree that it is necessary for Canada to flourish in a knowledge-based economy. We all know that education is the mechanism for ensuring equality of opportunity. This is especially important for low-income families.

The right to education is a fundamental principle that binds us together in Ontario and across Canada. That is precisely why 82% of Ontarians do not want tuition fees to increase any further. 5 Many would like to see tuition fees reduced.

In December 2001, students learned that the Ontario government is considering a proposal from Queen's University to allow tuition fees to be fully deregulated for all undergraduate programs at the institution.

We know that access has already been compromised. And we know that the vast majority of Ontarians want an accessible system of education. Yet the Ontario government has turned its back on ordinary families. This appears to be a conscious strategy to eliminate equality of opportunity in the province. Now, many institutions are crying poor and, like Queen's and the University of Toronto, they are claiming that students need to pay more in order to guarantee the quality of their education.

However, the argument that there is a direct link between the sticker price and the quality of an education is both imaginary and deceptive. Here in Ontario, undergraduate tuition fees are the second highest in the country, yet Ontario has the lowest professor-student ratio in the country. Clearly, the real culprit in the quality crisis is government underfunding. Ontario is now the lowest among the provinces in per-capita funding for higher education. This ignoble distinction is at once responsible for degrading quality and for propelling tuition fees.

The situation is therefore critical. Should the government acquiesce to the Queen's University proposal, there is no doubt that other institutions will want to follow suit. (For that matter, Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, the Ontario liberal education critic, recently indicated publicly that she knows of four other Ontario universities that are pushing for tuition deregulation.) There will be a domino-like effect across the province and pressure will be increased on other provincial governments to open education up to the ravages of the free market.

All Out on 6 February

On 6 February 2002, the Canadian Federation of Students will be calling on graduate students across the country to join undergraduate and college students in protest rallies designed to increase the pressure on provincial governments to make a real commitment to improve the accessibility and quality of postsecondary education.

There is no doubt that bringing the issue to the foreground is necessary in order to galvanize the widespread public opposition we know exists. Students are committed to mobilizing the vast majority of people in the province who continue to support publicly funded education. Together, we will be calling for tuition fee freezes and reductions and for adequate funding for postsecondary education.

Students know that a victory on the issue of tuition fees would be a significant step forward in the fight against the privatization of postsecondary education and for the preservation of equality of opportunity for all.


1. Statistics Canada, The Daily, "University Tuition Fees" (27 August 2001).

2. Statistics Canada, The Daily, "Participation in Postsecondary Education and Family Income" (7 December 2001).

3. Medical Students of the University of Western Ontario, Access to Medical Education: A Proposal to the University of Western Ontario Senate (2001); Sid Gilbert, Ian McMillan, Linda Quirke, and Joanne Dunca-Robinson, "Accessibility and Affordability of University Education," University of Guelph (December 1999); Federation of Students, The Changing Face of Ontario Universities: Are Universities Becoming the Domain of the Rich? (1998).

4.. On 12 December 2001, the Toronto Star reported that the University of Toronto is considering doubling tuition fees in the faculty of law over the next 5 years. Sarah Schmidt, "Academics bash U of T's fee hike plan. Will create gap: experts," Toronto Star (12 December 2001).

5. Feedback Research Corp. poll, GTA Survey (September 2001, for poll results and tables, see the OCUFA Web site at See also: Ipsos-Reid poll, Ontarians and Access to Post Secondary Education (April 2001, for poll results and tables, see the OCUFA Web site at Finally, see also Angus Reid poll, Ontarians to Harris--Hold the Line on Tuition Fees (February 2000).

Joel Duff is the Ontario Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students and is on leave from his graduate studies in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Jesse Greener is the National Graduate Caucus Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students and is a graduate student in chemical physics at the University of Western Ontario.

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