Saturday, 23 June 2012

Law school tuition in BC is out of whack and someone should do something about it

Come September BC’s three university law schools will experience the continuing force of our incoherent and indefensible provincial tuition policy.

Now, I am not about to suggest that law students in British Columbia should man the barricades in Quebec.  Thanks to Canada’s generous equalization policies, BC taxpayers like you and me have been subsidizing Quebec university tuition for many years, and so I am not at all disappointed that the Quebec government has finally decided to take some action to adjust tuition levels in that province.
The issue I want to talk about is the tuition differences at BC’s three law schools.  Here are the numbers for this September:

First year tuition
Ancillary fees
University of Victoria
Thompson Rivers University

No one would even begin to suggest that these figures are a fair representation of the difference in quality of the instruction available to the students at these three institutions.  Rather, the difference between these numbers is an accidental byproduct of the tuition policy decisions made during the first term of the Gordon Campbell government - of which I was a member - that have not, since then, been adjusted to correct for the errors they have produced over time.
Step one was the much needed elimination of the NDP tuition freeze, which was a good-politics-bad-policy initiative that Glen Clark introduced in the run-up to the 1996 election.  Good politics because of course everyone wishes tuition was free.  Bad policy because anytime you artificially freeze the price of a service, the impact of unavoidable increases in the cost of delivering it is that quality declines.  In the case of post-secondary tuition, another impact was an increase in admission standards, as universities, in particular, raised the bar for admission as a way of managing costs.
When our government lifted the tuition freeze in February 2002, the province’s universities reacted in different ways.  Some seized the opportunity and made significant and immediate increases.  Others decided on a more gradual, phased-in approach.
In the law school context this played out in the following way.  UBC raised tuition sharply and quickly, with a 65% increase from $3,039 to $5,000 imposed in September 2002. The University of Victoria raised its tuition by approximately 30%, with plans to phase in further increases over time.
The public reacted to the tuition increases, and there was a sense on the part of the government that some universities were taking undue advantage of the opportunity.
Accordingly, a partial freeze was re-instituted.  Effective September 1, 2005, government decided by policy to limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation.
The impact of the freeze was that the University of Victoria law school tuition was left at a lower number, because the plan to phase in further increases over time was halted in mid-stream.
You might think that lower tuition would have given UVic a competitive advantage, and in the short term this is probably a good argument.  If both law faculties were roughly comparable in terms of the quality of the education they provided, you would expect a greater demand for the available places at UVic, and presumably better qualified students.
But it doesn’t take very long for the tuition differential to have a much less positive impact.  Because lower tuition means less money, for example, to hire and pay faculty.   In the competition for academic recruitment, the universities that charge higher tuition have more funds available for salaries and facilities.  In the case of UBC and UVic, the difference in tuition revenues is hundreds of thousands of dollars, not huge numbers, perhaps, in the context of university budgets, but big enough to make a difference over time.
Into the mix comes the new kid on the BC law school block - the law faculty at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, which held its first classes in September of last year.  Because that faculty did not exist at the time of the re-freeze, it is exempt from the tuition policy limit.  Accordingly, TRU was free to set tuition at a level that reflected its own sense of the right balance between what the market could bear, its need for resources, and affordability.  (The policy will limit future increases to the rate of inflation.  This may help explain why students in the first intake class will receive a $3700 grant for each of their three years.  Get it?  The university has protected itself against the restrictions of the tuition freeze by starting at a high number, but at the same time, offering students a grant reduces the impact on them.  A clever strategy.)  
The TRU law faculty is brand new.  It may enjoy great success (and it has some outstanding faculty members), but it cannot plausibly be contended that, right from the start, a TRU law education will be either vastly superior to, or more marketable than, a law education from UBC or UVic. (For a sense of context, University of Toronto’s law school tuition is over $25,000.)
And yet the table shows the perverse results of the province’s tuition policy.
It’s time for change.  What to do?
Well, I am not going to argue that TRU tuition should be artificially reduced.  The answer is to find some way to allow UBC and UVic tuition to increase.
One option would be for governments to engage in dialogue with UBC and UVic to negotiate a plan to allow them - or at least UVIc - phased-in increases.  This would at least solve the here-and-now problem.  
There is another option.  Professional schools exist not just to provide students with the opportunity to explore their passion for learning.  They are also training schools.  Most students who study law, medicine, dentistry, and engineering are planning careers in those fields.  In a very direct sense this phase of their education is about earning the right to earn a living, and the credential obtained at the end of their studies has economic value.  Significant economic value.  Why not treat tuition as the investment expense it is, and charge something more like its actual cost? 
Maybe it is time to deregulate professional school tuition.  Allow our professional schools to set tuition at the level they think the market will support.  I think the idea warrants serious consideration.  There are factors for and against.  In favour is the point already made, which is that for students who are likely to recover the cost of their professional education over the careers, there is less reason to subsidize that cost, and good reason to ask students to pay something closer to full freight for their training.  A factor against is that the market for professional schools in Canada is constrained, and although many students are forced to study outside their home province because of limited spaces and tight entry requirements, it’s hard to say there is really a free (and therefore competitive) market for post-secondary professional training opportunities.
Of course, at almost any level, tuition can represent a barrier to access for those who are academically qualified but unable to pay.  For most professional school students, it’s much easier to get bank loans, because financial institutions are willing to recognize that your long-term income earning potential is high, and so you are seen as a good credit risk.  But I have always thought that institutions and governments which seek higher tuition fees need to do a better job of providing means-tested financial aid, whether through government programs or privately endowed scholarships.
My goal here is not to prescribe the answer but simply to suggest that there is a problem, and it is high time that government and the universities sat down to find a way to solve it.

1 comment:

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