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No tuition too high

Tuition problem has been a popular topic lately. Not that it has not been just that in the past, but a new wave of student protests has been taking place following Queen’s University’s request to deregulate tuition.<br>
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Granted, there is much to be debated about the cost of higher education in Canada. However, excessive attention has been paid to lobby for the impossible, rather than for the more beneficial.<br>
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Let me put this simple and plain: the tuition problem is not solved by freezing the tuition now. Such short-sighted solution will be both detrimental to universities and students. At the very least, tuition cost has to reflect inflation, staff pay, and other straightforward annual economic changes. Why should tuition remain the same even when the prices of basic human necessities such as butter and bread increase? Imagine now that every penny of our tuition fees goes toward buying pencils for multiple choice exams. If tuition were to freeze, there would soon come a day when students need to share pencils to record their answers; that is not the best situation to find oneself in.<br>
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Besides accounting for the normal inflationary prices of common school supplies such as tables and chairs, keep in mind that no one wishes to work at the same wage forever. Co-op students would complain loudly and in unison if they were told that their salary would be capped to what they earned on their first work term, with earnings above that limit going to United Way campaigns. Therefore, do expect that faculties and other staff would enjoy a reasonable increase in pocket money year after year as an appreciation for their hard work.<br>
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Someone needs to pay these things. Recent election campaign slogans at UW summarize tuition activists’ thoughts fairly: the government should be fully responsible for any increase in tuition cost.<br>
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That is an interesting thought. It is interesting because the government gets its money not from some magical place, but from taxes paid by innocent civilians like you and I, and the granny living next door whose two sons work in Maryland and has not the slightest concern over whether UW has enough competent chairs to seat all its students. No government will be foolish enough to introduce a “tuition tax”, because anything that imply by the narrowest degree the words “tax” and “increase” will be feverishly resisted by the popular majority. The irony of forcing the governments to pay for tuition deficits would be that the end result would still translate into a higher tuition cost for every one of us, since we are also taxpayers. The only twist is that what was once an unpleasant issue for thousands is now unpleasant to millions. It is true that education is beneficial for the society as a whole, and that the government needs to encourage better and accessible learning environments both politically and financially. However, governments cannot be regarded as the solution, but rather as part of a more comprehensive and sustainable solution.<br>
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So, instead of lobbying for the impossible, impractical, and illogical, more effort should be focused on understanding how tuition is being used. How much is used to invest in library service? How much is shuffled into bursary? And how much is spent on the electricity bills at Davis Computing Centre alone? How much did we pay for third-party services and products, and could we have provided those services in-house by co-op students on work term who are still searching for jobs on Valentine’s Day? After the tuition checks are sent in, how much say do the students get to determine how this money can best be spent or invested? I have no idea where my money went. I am positive many others would claim the same.<br>
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Obviously, I am not advocating for tuition freeze. I am not for fixed percentage tuition increases, either. However, I would fully back a fee that makes sense. Artificially low tuition fees do not do anyone justice if they suppress the growth potential of students; a high though reasonable tuition may improve learning environments and attract more talents from around the world.<br>
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I believe that the low tuition fees are directly hurting the quality of education in Canada. It is true that a low tuition fee allows all academically qualified students to compete regardless of their bank balances. However, this is so only because student loans are difficult to apply and repay, and bursaries and scholarships are usually hidden on page 56 in the admission encyclopaedias. Student loan process needs to be revamped, so that instead of the commercial banks eyeing the enormous financial gains extracted from honours history graduates, student loans should be regarded as national investments with unmatchable returns over the long run. The sheer number of the student population who default is not only unhealthy for the banks, but also delays the productiveness of those students, who could otherwise have spent more time contributing to the society instead of tackling the huge task of putting their lives back together and desperately wondering what went wrong. Tuition fees should reflect the true cost of operating the learning institutions with sufficient government funding. It is certainly hoped that government funding would continue and increase over time, but that should in no way be regarded as the only possible solution to the tuition problem. A high tuition fee would still be paid in full by those who can afford it. Then, a significant part of those fees collected in their entireties would be set aside in the scholarship and bursary pools, and be used to assist all eligible students. A higher tuition would translate into a greater supply of bursaries and scholarships to offset the tuition problems of those with real financial need. This solution makes sense, but would be a little tricky to implement. Students who pay their tuition in full would demand more return for their money. It is the common goal of the Canadian universities to respond to this challenge.<br>
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Canadian universities often boast programs that match the excellence at premium American schools. However, without serious financial injections into our system, that do-more-with-less attitude will not be able to stand the test of time. Students should be lured to Canadian institutions not by their substandard tuition fees, but rather by their quality of teaching. Few people would choose to attend a school with a bad reputation even if the degrees are offered for free. Good things come with a cost. Tuition fees should reflect and cover that cost.<br>
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Without increase in tuition, many options at current universities are gravely limited. For example, universities hesitate to sign quality professors, because the money just is not there. The other way around, professors hesitate to go to universities with an unreliable financial base, because the size of their research funds will consequently be severely restricted, limiting resources and the potential to achieve.<br>
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In addition, improvements to learning facilities are also confined to a tight budget. Be it the construction of a new auditorium or the upgrades of SDRAM, many decisions come down to either-or-nothing situations. A higher income from tuition would certainly simplify many decisions, such as replacing old manufacturing lab machineries that have been repaired nineteen times in the past twenty years. With more investment, students are better positioned to compete on the international stage, and better equipped and prepared to meet the challenges in real life.<br>
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Certainly, there are other ways of raising school capital other than tuition. Private fundraising, especially alumni support, is a very important process. UW has been fortunate to enjoy strong alumni support in the past, with the construction RCH as a prime example. Nevertheless, it would be very preferable if all the alumni are encouraged to do more to sustain the wellbeing of their alma mater.<br>
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Of course, raising tuition fees to reasonable levels requires great transparency on the university’s part to succeed. Universities need to be held accountable, and to actively take responsibilities, for every cent that is spent. If the money is not being used to improve the quality of the school, directly or indirectly, someone’s job should be under intense scrutiny. Students are not piggy banks. They pay the price to come to schools such as Waterloo to experience what it means to be reputable, responsible, and honourable. Anything that taints that experience should be regarded as an utter administrative failure.<br>
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The danger for Canadian universities to introduce higher tuition fess is to ultimately become centres of the financial elites, rather than the academic ones. Certainly, more rich kids help a university’s coffer. Unfortunately, this situation can only be avoided if the universities choose to stay on the right side of the line between need and greed.<br>


February 18 2002
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