Tuition Burden Creates Barriers to Excellence

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.

(courtesy of Barriers to Excellence)

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 schoolnot 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.


  1. The size of the UoT Law School’s tuition fees indicates that it wishes to become Canada’s first Ivy League law school, i.e., a law school for the sons and daughters of the rich. Given the subsidies paid to university faculties, padding the incomes of law school professors that much is objectionable. My law school tuition fees from 1961-64, were less than $700 per year at Osgoode Hall Law School. See the incomes of professors and deans over $100,000 listed in the April 10, 2017, issue of the Law Times, page 5; and the April 4, 2016, issue of the Law Times, page 2.

  2. Great review. However, one issue also relevant. When governments deregulated tuition in 1990, they also stated to cut grants to universities creating the necessity to raise tuition.

    Also, why the need for such high rates for law schools? When I went to U of T, law school tuition was the same as undergraduate tuition. Why the need for more than a science undergad program. Where’s the additional expense?

  3. Jan and Omar, I have been advised that the comprehensive universities (the ones with law and medical schools) use law school tuition as cash cows to fund other sectors of their universities. Tuition is not paid to the given faculty but to the university whose central admin office then decides where and how to apply all the boodle. Law schools are relatively cheap to run and thus provide cash for other programs. What that has to do with the best interests of the law school graduates or the legal services seeking public is not addressed. Of course, the universities with law schools are not required to consider the long-term best interests of those groups, only their own.

    The tragedies in all this are that our cash-strapped government (really, the sad-sack taxpayers) is on the hook for the government grant money paid for each admitted student, and that the huge surfeit of graduates, year after year, contains hundreds of new lawyers who cannot find work as lawyers or who must enter a saturated market and try to make a meager living on insufficient revenues.

    The government continues to subsidize unneeded law students while other education sectors cry out for students, STEM and medical schools to name two. Of course, the government deliberately rations doctors lest they cost the treasury too much upon entering medical practice. Thus, we have evolved a system that rations needed doctors and pours out unneeded lawyers. Sigh.

    The folly in all this is partly clear and partly obscure. The clear folly, resulting from artificially low medical school enrollment, is the harm to the physical and mental health of the citizenry. The obscure folly, resulting partly from ridiculously high law school enrollment (read, graduation rates) and partly from the ridiculously high cost of drawn out litigation, is the immense social cost of the drawn out stress on the litigants, the reduced productivity at work, the increased needs for health care, and the financial reduction in the litigant’s ability to deal with life in general. All of this costs the government and society immensely but in ways that are hard to measure and are, therefore, largely ignored as factors to consider.

    Paradoxically but predictably, too many lawyers per capita does not result in a decrease in the cost of legal services (as the Americans have proved and Ontario is now proving); it results in an increase as each lawyer must extract more money from a reduced number of clients per lawyer. The pool of self-represented litigants increases in such an environment because the cost of the file becomes so high that fewer people can afford it, and that is who the lawyers all chase after. A problem is that, once the lawyer is on the record, it is deucedly hard to get off. If you quote too low or quote an all-in fee, you can slowly drive yourself to financial ruin as the hours mount up at too low a rate of remuneration, hours that are no longer available for other paying work or work/life balance.

    As usual, writing brief summaries of this multi-faceted problem does not do justice to the problem.

  4. Bradley,

    If that’s the case, with tuition from law schools being used outside of the school generally, then the law students rightly have a basis for asking questions.

    It also suggests that the law schools themselves might be facing administrative pressures that are far more significant than what they are dealing with from scrutiny by the profession.

    I agree that these issues are indeed quite complex, and I’ve written about other facets of it before here on Slaw many times. We may need to continue to raise these questions in order to get some answers.

  5. Thanks Omar. I meant ‘my’ brief summaries do not do justice to the problem. I commend you and others for raising these and other important issues.

    There are two predominant ways to solve problems. One, do nothing or tinker at the margins until it becomes so large a crisis that the whole cake collapses into an unnecessarily worse mess or, two, apply analysis and will toward solutions. Human nature being what it is, we tend to opt for the former.

  6. I don’t get the complaint about UofT’s tuition. Yes, it’s high. Yes, if I were going to law school again, I wouldn’t pay it. And, the good news is, I wouldn’t have to, because there 6 other law schools in Ontario, and numerous other great ones across Canada, which charge significantly lower tuition fees. You have a choice, people, it’s foolish to complain that you don’t like the choice you made.

    Any student who can get into UofT can get into any common law law school in Canada they want (with the possible exception of McGill if they can’t manage French) – and many great ones in the US (often with substantial scholarships). If they CHOOSE to go to UofT and pay – what is it now, $36k? – well, that’s their choice, it’s ridiculous to complain about it.

    It’s not as if UofT is a uniquely exceptional law school. It’s a fine school, sure, but I wouldn’t rate it better than Osgoode, UBC, McGill – generally – and, depending on the subject matter, places like Queens, Western, Windsor, Dalhousie, Victoria or Ottawa (indeed, in some areas, many of those schools may be stronger). You can get an excellent legal education at all of them.
    UofT has better students (e.g., stronger, more accomplished students), because it has more selective admission standards than the others, but it doesn’t provide a materially better education. The strong and accomplished students who go to UofT would still be strong and accomplished students at any other university in Canada (and at many US schools).

    If people are upset about UofT’s tuition, if they don’t think they’re getting value for money from the school, for God’s sake, stop agreeing to pay it. Go to other schools, get quality educations for half the price. Go to the States and get a free-ride at a top school. But don’t CHOOSE to go to UofT and then complain about how the price you chose to pay is too high. So long as people keep agreeing to pay UofT’s tuition, why on earth would they lower it?