The cost of a university degree in Canada is getting steeper, with tuition and other compulsory fees expected to have about tripled from 1990 to 2017, and students in Ontario are paying most, according to research by a policy think-tank.

Average fees, in current dollars, have increased from $1,464 in 1990-91 to $6,348 in 2012-13, and they are expected to climb to $7,437 in 2016-17. This fall, they are predicted to be $6,610, according to a report released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Adjusted for inflation, fees across the country were $2,243 in 1990-91, and are predicted to rise to $6,842 in 2016-17, according to the centre.

University fees by province

Provincial tuition and compulsory fees for full-time undergrads from 1990-91 and projected for 2016-17. The national average is weighted based on enrolment per province, so isn't based solely on provincial averages, according to a spokesman for the centre.

  • Canada: $2,243 to $6,842
  • N.L.: $2,059 to $2,655.
  • P.E.I.: $2,871 to $6,710.
  • N.S.: $2,974 to $6,969.
  • N.B.: $2,949 to $6,527.
  • Que.: $1,385 to $3,759.
  • Ont.: $2,574 to $8,756.
  • Man.: $2,316 to $4,086.
  • Sask.: $2,367 to $7,280.
  • Alta.: $1,970 to $7,431.
  • B.C.: $2,770 to $5,639.

Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Statistics Canada

The 41-page report, titled "Degrees of Uncertainty: Navigating the Changing Terrain of University Finance," is by the centre's senior economist, David Macdonald, and co-authors Erika Shaker, director of the education project, and Nigel Wodrich, an economics and politics student at the University of Ottawa.

"Some provincial governments are taking notice of and responding to growing public concern over student debt loads, economic and employment uncertainty, and the long-term ramifications being felt by students and their families," they write. "These responses have not resulted in across-the-board fee reductions.

"Provincial governments have largely preferred to go the route of directed assistance measures," the Ottawa-based centre adds, noting that students are increasingly having to turn to loans, grants and bursaries, tax credits and loans forgiveness to work their way toward a post-secondary education.

"While this does impact in-province affordability, it undermines any commitment to universality because it creates a situation where the only students who leave the province to pursue a degree are the ones who can afford to."

The report says Ontario inflation-adjusted fees were $2,574 in 1990-91, but will surge to $8,756 in 2016-17.

Newfoundland and Labrador, where tuition fees have been frozen since 1999, has the lowest tuition and other compulsory fees in Canada, with universities charging an average of $2,872 this fall. The cost was $2,059 in 1990-91, and is expected to rise to $2,886 in 2016-17, according to the report by the independent, non-profit institute.

Schools defend education costs 

According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), enrolment at post-secondary schools is at an all-time high, signalling the importance of higher education.

In 2011, undergraduate enrolment surpassed one million for the first time ever, according to a 2012 by AUCC, which represents nearly 100 public and private universities and university degree-level colleges. Since 2000, the number of full-time undergraduate students in Canada has grown by nearly 44 per cent, the association says.

The report also suggests that getting a university degree is a necessity to keep pace with jobs in this global economy, and quotes federal government estimates that indicate 75 per cent of new jobs in the coming decade will require post-secondary education. AUCC also estimates that between 2010 and 2020, 2.1 million jobs will be created for university graduates, who also earn much higher incomes and experience more stable employment than workers without a post-secondary education.

But in this era of rising student debt and government loan writeoffs, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives isn't the only one to raise the alarm on the cost of a post-secondary education — an issue that has sparked major protests.

In February, the federal government announced it is writing off another $231 million in unpaid student loans in 2013 from more than 44,000 cases, putting taxpayers on the hook for more than half a billion in uncollected student debt over the past few years.

In Montreal, tens of thousands took to the streets in the spring of 2012 over the Liberal government's planned 75 per cent increase in tuition at Quebec universities, and there were subsequent clashes between protesters and police that lasted through the summer. Since then, the Parti Québécois has formed a new government, and the planned 75 per cent tuition hike was shelved, with tuitions fees in Quebec now indexed to the cost of living.

Canada 5th highest in OECD

  • Canada as a whole has the fifth-highest tertiary tuition in the OECD behind Chile, the United States, Korea and Japan.
  • Eight of the 26 countries with tuition data charge nothing at their equivalent universities or colleges.
  • The most expensive Canadian province in which to attend "tertiary" education (university and college) is Alberta. Were Alberta its own country, it would also rank fifth highest in the OECD.

Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Statistics Canada's latest tuition report found that each full-time student in an undergraduate program paid five per cent more on average for the 2012-13 academic year than a year earlier, following a 4.3 per cent increase in 2011-12, with every province reporting rising fees except Newfoundland and Labrador.

On average, undergraduate students in Canada paid $5,581 in university tuition fees in 2012-13 compared with $5,313 a year earlier. The federal agency notes that inflation only rose 1.3% between July 2011 and the same 2012 month.

Tuition fees rose in 2012-13 in all but one province, Newfoundland and Labrador.

According to the report released Wednesday, the idea of universal education is becoming a thing of the past.

"The price tag for a university degree is significant: when books, living expenses and transportation costs are added to tuition and other compulsory fees, the cost of a four-year university education is estimated to reach over $80,000; of that, residence is estimated at about $31,000," the authors write.

As well, they quote research suggesting parents are postponing retirement and taking on additional debt to help put their children through school.

Roshelle Lawrence, a master's student at Ryerson University in Toronto, says she's studying social work so she can one day help others. But once she graduates, she'll have a debt of more than $50,000, so may end up staying home longer than she anticipated to pay off her debt, while looking for work.

Are student debt caps an answer? 

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers note that a number of provincial governments have implemented debt caps that limit the amount of public debt that students can accumulate. However, they add, students are still accumulating more personal debt by borrowing from other means to fund their educations.

They cite Statistics Canada figures that estimate students with both public and private debt end up owing an average of $37,000 by the time they graduate. And repaying that debt is becoming more of an issue, says the report, citing research indicating that from the late 1990s to 2013, there has been "a significant increase of young workers in temporary, insecure, or contract work, from eight per cent to almost 12 per cent — a much greater increase than in the [age] 25-plus category."

Student activists have been pressing for tuition fee reductions and freezes for a number of years, and say Wednesday's report points to further erosion of university affordability.

A news release from the Ontario University and College Coalition, representing student, staff and faculty associations, says most provinces "have introduced complex and unpredictable financial aid measures such as the Ontario Tuition Grant instead of universal measures to address affordability concerns."

The Canadian Federation of Students, a member of the coalition, says eliminating interest on student loans — an idea that has been floated by various political parties — doesn't attack the student debt problem and may even lead to further tuition increases. The CFS wants provinces to adopt more widespread provincial grants systems, as well as reductions and freezes in tuition fees across Canada.

"Students have been sounding the alarm about how high fees are pricing them out of a university education in Ontario," said CFS chair Alastair Woods in the release. "This report confirms that even when the Ontario Tuition Grant is taken into account, the Liberal government’s policy of year-over-year tuition fee increases has eroded the affordability of university education in Ontario."