05 July 2013

The price of subsidy – MUN Tuition

In early June, a CBC investigation revealed that Memorial University is charging special fees for some international graduates students. That was just one of a series of problems with the international student programs noted in the report. 

Some of the students were Chinese.  As it turns out, 36% of [all] Memorial’s grad [international] students are from China.*  That’s a figure that turned up in a news release on June 27 that came out of the recent junket by the Premier, a couple of her retiring ministers, Ed Martin from Nalcor and Memorial president Gary Kachinowski.

One agreement signed on the trip set up “the China Scholarship Council and Memorial University of Newfoundland Joint Funding Program, which will support up to 20 qualified doctoral students who will be jointly funded by Memorial University and the CSC to pursue doctoral studies.”

International students are a potential money-making proposition for the university.  They pay higher fees than domestic students.  Those higher fees become much more important for the university since they are one of the few ways to make up the revenue the university loses every year as a result of the freeze on tuition fees for domestic students.

Talk to anyone in any department at the university and they will tell you about stuffing more and more students into undergraduate courses in order to pay for the lecturers.  The calibre of instruction in those situations inevitably goes down.  The money from the provincial government doesn’t really offset the losses that come from the freeze. The result is obvious.

Now for all those who believe that lower tuition fees allow more people to go to university guess again.  There’s actually evidence that low tuition fees won’t make it easier for promising students from low income families to attend university. A study of tuition fees by the Frontier Institute for Public Policy last year found a number of interesting things across Canada:

  • The data show that university participation for 23 year olds from low-income families was lower in Quebec and Newfoundland, the two lowest-tuition provinces, than in any other province.
  • Manitoba, the remaining low-tuition province, had a low-income participation rate that was nearly identical with the
    national average.
  • Nova Scotia, with the highest average tuition fees in the country, boasted the highest university participation rate for
    students from low-income families.
  • Ontario, with the second-highest tuition fees in the country, had the second highest participation rate for young people from low-income families.

That’s along the same lines established by other research discussed at SRBP during and after the 2011 provincial election.

There’s no specific point to reach in this post beyond the observations made already.  This one is about a bunch of things that go together.  it’s actually rather curious that the university is charging all sorts of extra fees to Chinese students on one hand and on the other setting up a scholarship program – paid for our of public money? – to assist Chinese students to attend Memorial.  Does the math on that make the scholarship effectively a subsidy for Chinese students courtesy of local taxpayers?  That’s a question worth answering.

And at the same time, it is worth asking whether we ought to abandon the fallacy of frozen tuition fees and instead allow Memorial to develop into the kind of academic institution where the government doesn;t have to pay people to show up.  A scholarship program based on merit would allow deserving students to get a hand dealing with the tuition fees.

If we want to help students from low and fixed-income families to get to university, we’d be better off improving the quality of education in our school system.  Placing the emphasis on achievement and excellence  - instead of discounts and cash subsidies - would be a novel approach to many things in Newfoundland and Labrador.  In other places, the kinds of places where they do that sort of thing,  the economy is thriving and populations are healthy and growing.  That’s their strategy for population growth and prosperity.


*  Corrected 08 Jul 13