It is fundamental to the purpose of this site to assess these issues from a student perspective. After all, they are the intended beneficiaries of this educational process, and they are the people who will suffer most from its excesses and inefficiencies.

They are also the people who will be significant players in defining Canada’s social and economic future. In many instances, they will graduate with substantial debt to repay, and fulfilling that responsibility will dominate years of their professional and personal lives.

In order to gain a fuller perspective on the change in student cost, we need to look way back to before international enrollment really started to accelerate. I have the CAUBO data going back to 1988, but a rider should be attached. Some definitional change in 1999-2000 impacted the split between Instruction and Central Administration costs; however, this impact was not particularly significant, and it is effectively obliterated by the clear long-term trend in the graph lines.

With that rider, the following table shows just how much things have changed over the past three decades.



This is not just a depiction of the (inflation-adjusted) increase in student cost, but an insight into how the major national issue of student debt has developed.

Of course, it can be rightly pointed out that, while there has been a dramatic growth in student costs, there has also been much-needed growth in student financial aid. However, given the resource allocation issues outlined on this site, it certainly could be argued that the growth in financial aid is masking the issue of fiscal inefficiency. As necessary as this student aid is – and the need increases year-on-year, it’s really just one publicly-funded sector writing cheques to cover for the mounting inefficiencies of another.

Another notable factor in the chart is the difference between the Québec schools and those in the rest of Canada. While some might write-off the difference with a sweeping assertion that “PSE is different in Québec”, which is certainly true, two of Québec’s universities (McGill and Montréal) sit well above most of their rest of Canada counterparts in global academic rankings tables. That fact should heighten the interest in how many of the Québec universities can seemingly out-perform their rest-of-Canada peers in most of this site’s fiscal efficiency areas.


Four factors stand as backdrop for a more-detailed assessment of the change in student cost since 2001:

  • Our ability to measure change from the student angle is complicated by the growth in international student numbers. It skews the provincial funding and student fee averages, more so at some schools than others, and therefore impairs – but doesn’t invalidate – the comparisons. (There’s more on international enrollment in the “Income” topic.)
  • Each university’s Tuition Fee average is impacted by its mix of academic programs, because some courses involve significantly higher Tuition Fees.
  • Differing provincial ideologies are reflected in the split between public and student funding. The numbers show that some provinces are much more supportive of students than others. (The cost averages are only part of the story, as different provinces also take different approaches to scholarship and bursary support, and to student aid.)
  • The numbers suggest that some universities, especially (but not only) in provinces with legislation limiting tuition fees, have circumvented the legislation by implementing major increases in compulsory non-academic fees that are not covered by fee cap legislation.


Against that backdrop, we can review Student Cost in greater detail. We won’t do that simply by comparing student fees across Canada; that exercise is conducted by countless organizations, and only paints part of the picture.

We do it by asking a different question:

How much do students pay for what they receive?

That melds together both sides of this crucial equation. It provides insight not just into cost but delivery as well. Of course, there is a related follow-up question for those who make decisions regarding funding and resource allocation:

How much do we want students to go into debt?

This website is not going to enter the ideological debate about whether post-secondary education should be free; that’s another debate for other places. What the site will do, however, is provide analysis of the price that that students are required to pay for their education and support services.

The analysis provides the latest numbers and those from 2001, to show how the student cost equation has changed. Students are at a disadvantage when it comes to this kind of awareness; most of them don’t know what their predecessors paid even three years ago, never mind ten or twenty. They know what it costs today, and how much their student debt is growing.

In a major, publicly-funded sector that lacks effective value measures, this angle of analysis has merit.


The Rankings Tables at the foot of the page cover a range of measures. The first four, together, are the components of the Student Cost Ranking on the Front Page.

An important point is that a cost above $1.00 in the Rankings Tables indicates that the fee component is larger than the cost component (e.g., Instruction or Student Services expenditure). This means that students are being required to go beyond paying for what they are actually receiving, and to start paying for other costs (such as the Operational Support functions, including Central Administration).

Students understand that there are other costs involved in the operation of a university, besides faculty, classrooms and student services, and trust in their university “to do the right things”. The emergent issue is the degree to which they are now being required to contribute to those other costs. If this trend is going to grow further, it becomes all the more important to start confronting the underlying issues.


Explanatory notes regarding some of the Rankings Tables:

6.3 Credit Course (Tuition) Fees in General Operating Per Dollar of Instruction Expenditure

The most direct assessment involves the relationship between Tuition Fees and expenditure on Instruction (essentially, their education).

6.4 Credit Course (Tuition) Fees in G.O. Per Dollar of Academic Salaries (Academic Ranks) in Instruction

This measure plots the relationship between Tuition Fee income and the expenditure (within Instruction) on the Academic Staff (Academic Ranks) category – defined by CAUBO as “full and part time staff members who hold an academic rank at the reporting institution and are engaged in instruction and research activities”. The utilization of this senior grade of faculty is diminishing, as many universities seek to save money by utilizing more adjunct (part-time) faculty, sessional lecturers and graduate teaching assistants.

6.5 Other Student Fees in General Operating Fund Per Dollar of Student Services Expenditure

Some years back there was a fairly close relationship between compulsory non-academic fees (CNAFs) and Student Services, because those CNAFs were intended to partially fund the services. That relationship has changed significantly, and many students believe that the CNAFs (which are often not covered by provincial tuition fee limitations) have been used by some universities to circumvent those restraints. This measure assesses the changing relationship.

6.6 Total Fees in General Operating Per Dollar of Instruction AND Student Services Expenditure

This measure combines Credit Course (Tuition) and Other fees, and plots their changing relationship with expenditures on Instruction and Student Services expenditures.


Other measures can be seen in the Rankings Tables, but one is especially noteworthy.

Table 6.9 involves the Other Fees vs Student Services measure, but with Scholarships & Bursaries removed. The rationale for exploring this angle is that using mandatory student fees to fund Scholarships & Bursaries places an onus for funding Scholarships & Bursaries on the students themselves. That is a bizarre concept, especially if the universities are claiming credit for boosting this kind of vital student support. Table 6.9 assesses the degree to which this might be happening at the various universities.

The schools with the highest costs in this table are those with the highest compulsory non-academic fees and the lowest expenditures on actual services.




While this section covers Student Cost, it could also be seen as a “value for money” assessment. That is not a popular viewing angle for some PSE purists, but there’s a strong rationale for adopting it.

We often hear it said that a post-secondary education is not a commodity but an investment, and it’s difficult to disagree. However, that opinion is usually voiced as support for fee increases, and nearly always by people who made that “investment” years or even decades ago – when it was far cheaper than it is today, and when it didn’t leave them with the task of starting to build a life while repaying a substantial student loan.

For students. a college or university education is one of the most costly expenditures they will ever make, and the resultant debt will be with many of them for years. In that respect it’s similar to the other major expenditures we make in our lives; we seek good value for our money, and we make our choices carefully, with that as a prime consideration.

The “value for money” angle allows us to see these issues from a student perspective.

Whether they are viewed as cost or value-for-money numbers, they are troubling – not just for students but for Canadian society as a whole.

For students, pursuing a post-secondary education is a statement of faith – not just in themselves, but also in the school they choose to attend and the system within which it functions. It’s not unreasonable to expect that this faith will be respected and reciprocated.

That’s why the “value for money” perspective is not just valid, but a pulse on which we should always keep a tight finger. It’s a poignant insight into the driving forces behind the mounting costs and debt levels facing today’s students – tomorrow’s workforce, parents and community leaders.

Society is finally starting to take notice of the debilitating debt loads that students take into their lives beyond campus. Of course, this issue should have triggered concern long ago, which heightens the urgency of implementing lasting and effective solutions now.

It’s difficult to fathom why society (represented by successive governments, boards of governors and senior administrators) has been so ineffective in keeping student costs down and protecting value, so unconcerned about student debt and its entirely-negative ramifications, and so slow to recognize that these factors are root causes of the increasing stress and mental health issues. The longer that situation continues, the more it transitions from insensitivity and ineptitude into something of a national disgrace.








A special note about “The Big 5” (Toronto, UBC, Alberta, McGill and Montréal)

Interestingly, the deteriorating Fee/Value dynamic is most evident at the largest schools – the Big 5. Seeing that, it’s difficult not to think back to the pitch made by the presidents of those schools to Paul Wells of Macleans in 2009. The resultant two-part article is well worth a read, and you can find Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.

The part that triggered the most controversy was this one, from Part 2:

Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities—to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system.

Those aspirations of the Big 5, and the tactics they adopted in pursuit of them, is another topic – a fascinating but rather troubling one, which we’ll address at a later date.