Across Canada, student organizations and other activists for low tuition fees often argue that reduced tuition levels are necessary to ensure both a high rate of university participation and greater access to higher education for young people from low-income families. Canadians generally agree that the development of a well-educated workforce is important for the country’s long-term prosperity.
Further, there is a consensus that financial obstacles should not prevent young adults from low-income families from furthering their studies. Maintaining very low tuition is an expensive public policy approach, but it may be justified if it contributes significantly to achieving these important social objectives.
This paper examines Statistics Canada data to determine the relationship between tuition fees and university participation rates in Canada. The data show that the Canadian provinces with very low tuition rates do not have consistently higher university participation rates than do provinces with higher tuition levels.
This confirms previous analysis by the Montreal Economic Institute.1 Perhaps more surprisingly, the Statistics Canada data show no positive correlation between low tuition fees and university participation in the specific case of young adults from low-income households. In other words, during the period studied, young adults from low-income households in the provinces with the lowest tuition levels were no more likely to attend university than young adults from similarly low-income households in provinces with much higher tuition rates.
Key Findings Include:
• Across Canada, Statistics Canada data from 2007 show there was no positive relationship between lower-tuition levels and higher rates of university participation. In other words, young adults in low-tuition provinces were not, on average, more likely to attend university than young adults from high-tuition provinces.
• The data similarly showed no correlation between low tuition levels and high rates of university participation in the specific case of young adults from low-income families. In fact, lower tuition provinces tended to have lower participation rates for low-income families than did high-tuition provinces.
• Ontario and Nova Scotia, which had the highest average tuition levels during the time period studied, had the highest rate of university participation for young adults from low-income families. Ontario’s low-income university participation rate was 42.5 per cent and Nova Scotia’s was 42.7 per cent, the highest rate in the country and well above the national average of 36.6 per cent.
• Low-tuition provinces Newfoundland (30.1 per cent) and Quebec (30.6 per cent) had the very lowest rates of university participation for young adults from low-income families.
• Manitoba’s participation rate (36.7 per cent) for young adults from low-income families was close to the national average, and almost identical to neighbouring Saskatchewan’s (37.5 per cent), despite the fact that Saskatchewan’s average tuition was approximately 50 per cent higher than Manitoba’s.
• University access in the three lower-tuition provinces was more unequal than in the rest of Canada. When compared with the national average, Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland—all low-tuition provinces—had substantially larger gaps between participation rates for students from high- and low-income families.
Our comparison of the 10 provinces suggests that contrary to the claims of student organizations and other activists, lower tuition fees in the Canadian context are not associated with higher university participation rates. Furthermore, our study demonstrates that the provinces with the lowest tuition have not generally achieved higher participation rates for students from low-income families compared with provinces with higher tuition levels.
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