[The memosphere strikes again! Between submission and publication of this column, Omar Ha-Redeye posted a very informed and insightful Slaw entry entitled, "Access to Justice Starts With Legal Tuition". Playing Bell to my Meucci (that reads rather strangely), Omar covers much of the same analytical territory as me—with the bonus of journalistic rigour. Still, I like to think that both posts deserve your attention.]
A lot happens in a year, and the Quebec student protests that dominated the news last spring are a distant memory now. The students went back to school, Quebec elected a new government that swiftly imposed a tuition freeze, and the once boiling issue of access to higher education was reduced to a slow simmer in la belle province. But the issue trickled back into the national consciousness this April when the Alberta government—typically yin to the Quebec government’s yang—imposed a tuition freeze of its own.
Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister announced that a one-year tuition freeze would make "education more accessible for our students, particularly from low-income families", while overlooking that the estimated $16.5 million revenue freeze followed a $147 million cut to operating grants for the province’s post-secondary schools. Nonetheless, Alberta joined Newfoundland, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as the only provinces with tuition freezes. BC once instituted and maintained a multi-year tuition freeze, but since 2005 has limited annual tuition fee increases to 2%. Likewise, Ontario had a tuition freeze until 2006, then permitted annual tuition fee increases up to 5% (8% for graduate schools), and now limits increases to 3% (5% for graduate schools).
Unsurprisingly, the patchwork of provincial tuition regulations has led to significant post-secondary tuition disparity across Canada, particularly among law schools. For example, first year tuition for law school is about $9,000 at the University of Victoria, compared to about $29,000 at the University of Toronto. Fees can even vary wildly within regulated provinces because of odd timing and exceptions. Thompson Rivers University Law—located in Kamloops, BC and established in 2011 as the first new Canadian law school in 33 years—charges about $17,000 in first year tuition because it is exempt from government limits. That is roughly 55% more than UBC Law, and 90% more than UVic Law.
It is no wonder, then, that many law schools lament the competitive disadvantage that tuition regulation imposes on them. Less tuition revenue means less money to hire and pay faculty, to acquire library holdings, to maintain and build new facilities, etc. And the competition among Canadian law schools for top rankings, top students, endowment support, and the good graces (i.e. donations) of large national firms is fierce. So every dollar counts. What is a law school with regulated tuition to do?
A law school with low regulated tuition should benefit from its price advantage over competitors, particularly in the face of a grim job market for graduates. But there is scant evidence that students are choosing to attend specific Canadian law schools on the primary basis of affordability. Instead, reputation and diploma marketability seem to be the main drivers of law school selection. And nothing bespeaks a good reputation more than a hefty tuition fee.
Tuition regulations permitting (or notwithstanding in the case of the University of Toronto and a few others), Canadian law schools appear to charge however much the market bears. A brand new unregulated school like TRU Law can thus afford to charge about twice the amount in tuition fees as a well-established and regulated school like UVic Law. If all current law school tuition freezes and regulations (i.e. price controls) were lifted, it is easy to conceive of rapid and substantial tuition hikes from coast to coast.
Can a law school with low regulated tuition at least boast greater student diversity? Canadian law schools have certainly made concerted efforts over the past decade to ensure that their student population better reflects the ethnic, cultural, and sexual diversity of the society it will eventually serve. The public interest, after all, requires a legal profession that is both competent and diverse. But while law schools have made some significant forward strides in achieving a gender balance and diversifying the ethnic composition of their graduates, it is difficult to believe that they are making any headway on socioeconomic diversity. When the median individual Canadian income is about $27,000 after taxes, a $29,000 price of admission to one year of law school speaks for itself.
Just the path to law school covers some expensive ground. To meet the very competitive standard for law school admission, a typical “pre-law” student must afford the real costs of high undergraduate tuition, enrichment activities, LSAT training, LSAT fees, law school application fees, and the opportunity costs of unpaid internships and volunteer activities that are increasingly vital to a law school application. Only then does the student arrive at a three-year commitment to $30,000-90,000 in tuition (alone) for a law degree that provides no guarantee of gainful employment. Financial aid regimes have ramped up to soften some of the skyrocketing costs of a legal education, but the decision to pursue a prohibitively expensive law degree is made long before the realistic prospect of an offsetting bursary or scholarship emerges.
In the United States—where tuition at top-tier law schools is universally unregulated and commonly exceeds $50,000 per year—the class of 2016 is expected to graduate into a collapsed job market with average personal debt upward of $215,000. An effect, then, of tuition deregulation and climbing law school tuition fees is to create an increasingly narrow social category of student who can afford the professional gamble of a law degree. And for a slew of reasons that I will explore in Part 2 of this column topic, a more elite class of law school graduate spells trouble for the Canadian legal profession’s ability to contend with the current crisis of unequal access to justice.