Law school tuition in Canada has been a contentious issue for many years now. Earlier this year, Canadian Lawyer magazine stated,
Law school tuition has steadily increased since professional school tuition was deregulated in the late 1990s. According to Statistics Canada, between the 1995-1996 and 2001-2002 school years, average law school tuition increased 61 per cent, accounting for inflation. The increase was particularly large in Ontario, where tuition shot up 141 per cent.
Since then, tuitions have risen, even at schools with relatively low tuition. McGill’s tuition, while still very low compared with that of other law schools, has almost doubled since it was just more than $2,000 in 2013-2014. In the 2017-2018 school year, it cost $4,388 to attend.
That’s nothing compared to the most expensive law school in Canada, the University of Toronto. In 2017-2018, a student could expect to pay $36,441 for one year’s tuition — a 20.5-per-cent increase from four years ago.
This week, the Dean of UofT indicated at the Annual Tuition and Budget Session of the Faculty Council that tuition would be raised an additional 5%, the maximum allowable rate per year. Students expressed concern because there was no corresponding commitment to increasing financial aid in a commensurate manner.
In addition to the impact of six-figure debt on access to justice, these rates of tuition are having a discernible effect on the mental health of students.
A group of unaffiliated UofT Law students, supported by some alumni and faculty members, are attempting to raise interest under the name “Barriers to Excellence,” playing off a similar name of a fundraising campaign by the school. Students estimate that by the time current Grade 10 students are able to apply to UofT Law at this rate, tuition will be as high as $51,236 a year. They note that at the time when the Dean attended law school in 1995, he paid $2,450 a year. This is about 10 times the amount, even when accounting for inflation.
As a result, the Barriers to Excellence group are asking some tough questions about the justification behind tuition increases. Soon after the Faculty Council meeting this week, the students released an Open Letter to the Dean, which directly questions how raising tuition can improve the goals of a law school,
We share your vision of a top-tier law school accessible to all qualifying students—regardless of socioeconomic background—from application to graduation. Unfortunately, the Faculty’s current trajectory does not align with this vision. As you know, excellence requires drawing from the widest and most diverse pool. Achievement, not debt tolerance, ought to be the sole criteria of admission.
In order to achieve this excellence, accessibility must be a guarantee built into the system of the law school—not merely an aspiration contingent on the charity of alumni donors. Without a plan to address tuition and operating costs, donations will have a diminishing return on investment for alumni and our law school will become increasingly inaccessible for low and middle-income students. Given the racialized nature of poverty in Canada, this also has significant consequences for racial diversity at U of T Law. Fostering diversity in law schools tangibly furthers the Law Society of Ontario’s vision of a more equal and inclusive profession, as recently ensconced in the individual Statement of Principles required of all licensees.
The students request a concrete commitment from the Faculty to control costs and protect financial aid allocations, and ask for a comprehensive financial review of the law school, including:
- Current fair value of the financial aid pot, as well as sources and amounts of revenue to the fund over the past 5 years
- A detailed breakdown of current expenses related to student experience, including costs of teaching (adjunct vs. faculty), clinics, moots, externships, trainings, and extracurricular programs
- Average and median parental incomes of students receiving financial aid since 2015
- The number of students expected to graduate with private debt over $100,000 in 2019
What makes this request particular interesting is that they are asking for a public report on the law school’s operations, primarily to allow scrutiny from the student body and the alumni that the school is targeting for donations. The school is likely to resist any public disclosure, out of disproportionate concern of other schools obtaining competitive information, but if other schools in North America are any indication, tuition raises are largely linked to increases in administration expenses and infrastructure costs.
Although UofT has undertaken a recently completed expansion and renovation of its law school, some of this cost was placed on previous law students, and some of it is presumably deferred to future law students. Although the law school itself moved several times since its founding in 1887, the current facilities date to 1902. The 2016 construction included an $11 million donation from a wealthy alumnus, as well as other alumni donations.
Why a steady tuition increase is necessary for building costs that were presumably amortized appropriately over a set period is certainly a valid question. The costs of faculty, including discourse over the growing use of contract faculty and the related precarious employment, has a direct impact on the quality of student education.
The CUPE 3902 local at UofT has put together a Working Group on Precarious Employment, and released a report this month. I spoke to this local at an event this week, where we explored how contract faculty are also less able or willing to challenge administrative practices given their lack of security. Given this context, it’s perhaps understandable why the faculty who are supporting the Barriers to Excellence group often do so more silently.
Calls from the bar, the law societies in Canada, academics, and faculty members, to keep tuition rates affordable have all been largely ineffective to date. It may fall on the students, who have shown in other jurisdictions to vote with their feets, to push for effective change.
The Law Students Society of Ontario, who have already demonstrated considerable leadership in this area, is currently conducting a survey, Just or Bust, to help create a province-wide report at the end of the year. They intend to use the report to apply further pressure on law schools and the Law Society of Ontario, to consider larger grants and bursary programs, implement a tuition freeze, or consider other alternatives.
Legal education cannot simply follow the basic economic dictates of supply and demand. Doing so ignores the absolute essential role that our justice institutions play in a democracy. The composition of our bar, and the financial barriers or burdens imposed on new entrants to the profession, is central to the effectiveness of us fulfilling our role.
Law schools cannot with conscience divorce themselves of these broader effects of rising tuition, and should indeed consider greater transparency in light of calls by the student body.