New study says the real cost of university is falling. One province is even paying its students
On Nov. 5, the streets of downtown Ottawa were flooded with angry students frantically waving red-and-black “Drop Fees” signs. Nationwide, thousands rallied, demanding protection from what everyone knows are skyrocketing tuition fees. This is probably the image that springs to mind when you think about the price of a university education in Canada: students protesting, and tuition fees that just keep going higher and higher.
But according to a new report by Canada’s only higher education think tank, the cost of a university education for the average Canadian is actually going down: when inflation and a growing list of federal and provincial tax breaks are taken into account, a degree is now slightly cheaper than at the turn of the century. The real cost of an education has fallen in most provinces. In Manitoba, real tuition costs are down more than 100 per cent in the last eight years—which means that the average student in that province is effectively being paid $51 a month to go to school.
These surprising findings come from a recent report from the Educational Policy Institute (EPI). Alex Usher, director of the Canadian arm of the international think tank and the study’s co-author, says the commonly held view that university is becoming unaffordable is just plain wrong. “By any reasonable measure, education is a lot more affordable now here than it was 10 years ago,” says Usher.
Tuition and related fees have been steadily rising in most provinces. But according to, “Beyond the Sticker Shock 2008–A Closer Look at Canadian Tuition Fees,” the tuition sticker price is not the real measure of the cost of university. Governments are offering a growing list of tax credits and rebates, targeted at students, which greatly reduce the real cost of university. It’s as if you walked into a car dealership and saw that the sticker price of a car was $20,000—but were also told all buyers would receive a $5,000 rebate. The real cost of the car would be $15,000, not $20,000.
That’s what’s been going with Canadian university costs: sticker prices are going up, but student tax credits and rebates are increasing, too. “Since 1999-2000, these credits have completely offset out the effects of any increases in tuitions,” says the report. “[Tuition] is no higher now than it was eight years ago.”
In order to accurately measure real tuition costs, Usher and EPI created a measure that takes into account inflation, as well as the growing amount of tax relief offered to students, calling the resulting number “Everybody’s Net Tuition”. Over the past few years, governments have introduced a number of large tax breaks targeted at higher education students. For example, for every month that they are enrolled, full-time students can claim a $400 tax credit from the federal government; part-time students can claim $120 per month. The textbook and technology tax credit, introduced in 2006, gives $65 off a month to full-time students and $20 a month to part-timers. Usher says taking such tax benefits into consideration and subtracting them from average tuition gives a more accurate picture of what university actually costs.
Value of Available Tax Credits per Full-Time University Student (click on charts to enlarge)