istock_education-cost-12106

Tuition fees for the average undergrad in Canada have more than tripled in the last 20 years, far outpacing inflation. ((iStock))

Talk about the high cost of higher education.

It now costs an average of more than $1,000 to take a single full-year university course in this country — about $5,100 for a full course load. 

The stats reveal the trend behind those tuition bills — that students are paying an ever-growing share of the cost of running their schools.

Thirty years ago, tuition fees accounted for less than a seventh of university operating revenue. Now, it's more than a third, as governments increasingly download the cost to the students (and their parents).

The current crop of Canadian university students may find it hard to believe, but there was a time when tuition fees were so small, they were almost an afterthought.

Once upon a time

The years following the Second World War saw a gusher of public funding for the country's universities. Such was the depth of federal and provincial government support for post-secondary education that fees were set at nominal levels. Governments seriously began talking about scrapping tuition fees altogether.

Newfoundland and Labrador actually did that briefly in the late 1960s.

Those funding gushers of the 1960s and '70s, however, gave way to complete policy reversals in the '80s and '90s as governments sought to cut their share of post-secondary spending and demanded that students and their parents make up the difference.

   Where universities get their money (as % of total operating revenue)
 Year  Gov't funding  Tuition fees
 1977  84.0%  13.7%
 1987  81.4%  16.3%
 1997  67.1%  29.0%
 2007  57.1%  34.2%
   Sources: Statistics Canada and CAUBO

It didn't take long for the cost of tuition to regularly top the list of student grievances. By the early 1990s, average tuition fees were galloping higher by an average of more than 15 per cent a year — far surpassing the inflation rate.

In recent years, those double-digit spikes have largely disappeared, with some provinces imposing fee freezes or even lowering costs. But after a couple of decades of being asked to shoulder an ever-growing share of the cost of running the country's cash-strapped universities, students in most parts of the country find the average tuition bill now has a sobering bottom line.  

The specifics

Statistics Canada tells us the average annual tuition cost for a university undergrad was $5,138 in 2010-11. That was a jump of 4.0 per cent from the previous year, even though the cost of living dropped 0.8 per cent over the same period.

That $5,138 average, however, hides a range of fees that depend on everything from the institution involved, to the province it's in, to the particular program of studies and where the student hails from. Foreign undergrad students, for instance, always pay much more than Canadian students.

  Average fees for full-time students, 2010-11
 Region  Undergrad tuition
 Canada  $5,138
 N.L.  $2,624
 P.E.I.  $5,131
 Nova Scotia  $5,495
 New Brunswick  $5,516
 Quebec  $2,415
 Ontario  $6,307
 Manitoba  $3,588
 Saskatchewan  $5,431
 Alberta  $5,318
 B.C.  $4,802
 Source: Statistics Canada 

Community college students generally pay less than university students. Academic fees are set by the individual institution and can range from $1,800 to $3,700 for an eight-month academic year, depending on the college and the program of study. In Quebec, general and vocational colleges (CEGEPs) are publicly funded, so students pay only nominal registration fees.

Statistics Canada's most recent annual report on university tuition fees turned up some noteworthy comparisons. Among them:

  • Quebec has by far the lowest undergrad tuition fees of any province – just $2,415 a year on average. But that average includes students from Quebec as well as those from the rest of Canada. Surely the fees are the same, you say? Not in Quebec. If you are a Quebec resident, your undergrad tuition is now just $2,067 — less than half the average tuition in the rest of the country. Quebec students can thank a tuition fee freeze that was in place for more than 10 years, ending in 2007. But for all out-of-province Canadian students, tuition soars to about $5,668.
  • Ontario is once again the province with the highest undergraduate tuition fees in the country — $6,307. Nova Scotia's undergrad fees actually dropped for the third year in a row — down almost $250 to an average of $5,495.
  • Student groups in Newfoundland and Labrador may have some things to complain about, but rising tuition isn't one of them. Since 2001, the average undergrad tuition has actually dropped by 14 per cent. Next to Quebec, Newfoundland has the lowest university fees in the country ($2,624).
  • Graduate tuition fees averaged $5,182 in 2010-11, with Quebec's $2,60 average the lowest and Nova Scotia the highest, at $7,350. Graduate students paid, on average, 6.6 per cent more than a year earlier.

Tuition fees vary dramatically — even within the same institution — depending on the program. At many universities, students enrolled in arts programs are charged the least. But at some universities, programs like commerce, education or computer science attract higher fees than arts programs, even though they may be offered by the faculty of arts. Engineering students usually pay more than the average student in a general science program.

Average undergrad tuition fees, 2010-11  

 Discipline   Tuition
 Education  $3,859
 Visual and performing arts, communications technologies   $4,768
 Humanities  $4,660
 Social and behavioural science  $4,590
 Law   $8,697
 Business  $5,422
 Physical and life sciences  $5,041
 Mathematics, computer and information science  $5,550
 Engineering  $5,881
 Architecture  $5,140
 Agriculture, natural resources and conservation  $4,791
 Medicine  $10,244
 Parks, recreation, fitness  $4,715
 Source: Statistics Canada 

When it comes to the professional programs of medicine, law, and dentistry … well, the sky seems to be the limit. Many provinces have ramped up the fees for these programs. The average annual tuition fee for Canadian law students, for instance, is $8,697. But that includes provinces where the fees are all still regulated. Law students at McGill University pay just $2,067 for 2010-11 (if they're Quebec residents) as that province still regulates fees for its professional programs. In Ontario, a student entering the University of Toronto's law program faced a first-year tuition bill of $21,767.

Dentistry is the most expensive professional program. At Dalhousie University, for example, the cost of tuition, dental instruments, clinic fees and other charges totals $93,000 over the four years to get a doctorate in dental surgery. And that doesn't include food or lodging.

Getting that MBA can also be an exceedingly costly exercise. Want an MBA from UBC's Sauder School of Business? That will be $40,541 for the 15-month program, please.

It's possible to pay more. The 15-month executive MBA program at Queen's University, for instance, costs $84,000 — but that includes everything. Students enrolled in executive MBA programs, it should be pointed out, almost always have their fees paid by their employers.

Other fees

tp-cgy-university-of-calgar

Students stroll the campus of the University of Calgary. Compulsory 'ancillary' fees at Alberta universities are the highest in the country, at $818 a year for undergrads, according to Statistics Canada. ((CBC))

And finally, let's not forget what are called "ancillary fees." These are compulsory extra charges over and above tuition to cover things such as athletic programs, health services and student associations. The bundle of these extra fees added $702 to the average university bill for a full-time undergrad in 2010-11 — up seven per cent from a year earlier. The fees ranged from a low of $407 in New Brunswick to $818 in Alberta.   

Add in room and board, and you can see why it's not uncommon for students to graduate in debt by $40,000 or $50,000.

The Canadian Federation of Students doesn't buy the argument that higher tuition fees translate into better education. Citing case studies in the U.K. and New Zealand, the CFS said higher tuition fees in those jurisdictions were "consistently offset by cuts in public funding, reduced access to higher education, massive student debt burdens, and no quality improvements."

What about the future? With the federal and many provincial governments now running huge deficits, the pressure to control spending will be fierce. The billions earmarked for post-secondary education may continue to be a tempting target for the country's finance ministers.