Monday, July 24, 2006

Higher learning

As already noted by BCer in Toronto, a new debate has broken out over Canada's universities. From the CBC article (which unlike the Globe and Mail equivalent also features the counter position of the Canadian Federation of Students):
Canada's student aid system is facing a crisis fuelled by rising interest rates and a politically motivated trend by governments to broaden assistance without regard to need, according to a report released Monday...

Authors Alex Usher and Sean Junor, who both previously worked in senior research roles for the scholarship foundation, noted that many studies have shown grants targeted at low-income students serve to expand access to post-secondary education, while subsidies to higher income students have little or no effect on whether they attend.

Despite this, the report said governments are spending billions of dollars annually on tuition freezes and tax credits and making subsidized student loans more broadly available without regard to need...

The Canadian Federation of Students immediately attacked the report, calling it an attempt to distort the legitimate pressures placed on Canada's student financial aid system to justify tuition fee increases...

The federation argued that tuition fee increases over the past decade are the primary force driving up the cost of providing financial aid to students.

"Student aid can only be effective if it is delivered in an environment where fees aren't skyrocketing," Aziz said. "The authors of this study fail to understand that simple fact."
There doesn't seem to be too much doubt that aid and loans are both in need of some significant support. But it seems to me that each side is only part right when it comes to the details of how to improve accessibility.

On the question of whether improved aid or loans should come at the expense of higher tuition or be considered a reasonable government investment in improving accessibility at all income levels, it's hard to disagree with the CFS' position. A good chunk of the debt loads now borne by many students can be readily traced to tuition increases over the past couple of decades, and any effort to at least slow that trend can only help matters - regardless of how the tuition fee is funded for a particular student. And with rising interest rates making individual loans (both through government programs and elsewhere) more expensive as pointed out by the EPI report, it's hard to see how it could be a bad investment to make sure that up-front costs are kept manageable.

At the same time, once the need to maintain reasonable tuition levels is recognized, the EPI report does have a strong point in that loans and aid should be targeted as thoroughly as possible toward need. If the loans system is now creeping into areas where students could realistically find alternate funding arrangements, then it may well be necessary to tweak the system to be genuinely needs-based. And a new program to match the intent of the Millenium Scholarship Fund would indeed be a plus...though of course if the original had been made into a sustainable long-term program that would have been all the better.

In sum, there's plenty of room for improvement in both general and specific accessibility to Canada's universities. And if nothing else, hopefully both sides to the dispute in the article will do their best to ensure that the end is kept in sight, whichever means they may prefer to get there.

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