One of the strengths of post-secondary education in Ontario is the level of autonomy devolved to our publicly assisted institutions. This system encourages innovation, experimentation, and structural diversity within our universities. But these benefits come at a cost.
When students choose to attend a university and enrol in a specific program, they are making important decisions about their futures. Students have to contemplate potential career paths, consider their skills and strengths, and increasingly, students must decide whether the benefits of receiving an education will outweigh various costs, including financial ones.
Experimentation in educational environments, whether successful or unsuccessful, can be a resource intensive process. With the financial bases of universities becoming increasingly reliant on student fees and tuition, costs associated with experimentation, innovation and expansion of services are inevitably falling onto students. Furthermore, while students make a conscious and voluntary decision to pursue a university education, it is important that their decisions are also well informed, and this includes understanding the financial costs of university.
There are several principles institutions can consider implementing in order to help students make informed decisions before accepting their offers of admission. Two such principles include, transparency and predictability. Transparency ensures that potential students are able to assess not only what they can expect to pay, but also a right be informed about what services they will be receiving.
Predictability is important as well. Students, whose degrees span multiple years and billing periods, should have accurate expectations about the prices and services they will receive throughout their entire post-secondary journey. Ensuring students have this predictability will help them plan their educational paths accordingly.
So, what does this mean for those in the post-secondary sector? Firstly, for universities, up-to-date fee schedules should be made easily available online as well as at recruitment events such as the Ontario Universities’ Fair. Secondly, institutions should also endeavour to engage in financial planning such that they can lay out expected increases over multiple years, and in an ideal scenario, lay out caps on fee increases. Alternatively, in some scenarios where large fee expansions prove necessary, but were not openly discussed prior to a student’s enrolment decision, institutions should consider grandfathering fees for students to whom fee increases were not communicated.
Thirdly, student associations and students must continue to actively advocate for transparency and predictability within their institutions. Ensuring that fees are clearly communicated to students and that fee growth be predictable and reasonable, are key areas for on-campus advocacy. Student associations should maintain their important role under Ontario’s Ancillary Fee Guidelines, and ensure that for fees where students are given a voice, students take the lead in emphasizing these principles. Furthermore, for student associations, having a level of autonomy over their own fees provides another opportunity to create predictable fee increase caps, the chance to consult with students on the topic of fee caps, and the chance to seek well-informed student mandates for increases above set caps. Associations can also explore developing budget formats that inform students where their fees go.
Finally, the provincial government should maintain a domestic tuition increase cap, and institute an international tuition increase cap as clear commitments to the value of predictability. The ancillary fee protocol is similarly an excellent step to ensuring fee transparency. In the future, the government should mandate clear communication of fee and tuition schedules to potential students in a variety of highly visible promotional media.
In a world of thousands of educational options, students deserve to be well informed, and have a transparent understanding of what their decision will mean for them. Fee predictability and transparency is only one piece of that goal, but it is an important and achievable piece of it. As partners in Ontario’s post-secondary educational system, let’s move towards a system where our future students have just a little bit more of the critical information they need to make an informed choice.