Sep 04, 2003

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Free tuition a gimmick we shouldn't copy

Free tuition, and some other recruiting strategies, raise serious questions about the organization of higher education, the use of public funds, and fairness to students.
During the spring it was announced that most doctoral students at the
University of British Columbia will no longer pay tuition fees. Not surprisingly I have been asked if SFU will follow suit, especially by faculty members who are concerned about our ability to recruit graduate students. Tuition fees are set by the board of governors, so the decision does not rest with me. However, I would advise the board not to take this step. There's no doubt that free tuition is a good recruiting incentive, but whether or not universities should use this gimmick requires some analysis and thought. In my opinion, free tuition, and some other recruiting strategies, raise serious questions about the organization of higher education, the use of public funds, and fairness to students.

Why? First, we need to look at this initiative in a national context. In a series of papers over the last couple of years, the federal government has expressed its concern about Canada's ability to recruit enough qualified people to replace retiring baby boomers and to fill new positions created by the changing economy. Graduate degrees are needed by people who will teach in post-secondary institutions, undertake research in public and private sectors, run the health care system, and manage complex public and private organizations. At the same time, the federal government has also announced plans to increase Canada's investment in research and development, and this too will require more people with graduate level education.

Universities are being asked to recruit more graduate students and to do more research, and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies have responded positively to this request. At the national level there have been well-funded initiatives that have created a renewed vibrancy in university research. These include the Canada Research Chairs program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and increases to research councils' budgets, all of which indirectly create new opportunities for graduate student supervision, research facilities, and student support. There have also been direct increases to student support through increases to existing scholarship programs and, very significantly, the creation of the Canada graduate scholarship program, with the first recipients being announced this summer.

Provincial budgets in many parts of the country have been less capable of this type of support, perhaps because health care and K-12 education are priorities for voters. Across the country undergraduate and graduate tuition fees have increased at rates well above the consumer price index. Whereas the federal government seems to be supporting the full range of disciplines, provinces tend to provide more targeted funding for graduate education and research. In British Columbia there have been some welcome initiatives of this nature, but we have also seen some failures to provide financial support for graduate education. For example, successive provincial governments have failed to provide increases to universities' base funding as graduate enrollments have increased.

Generally, there is a demand for graduate students across the country. There is more money for research and graduate funding, and universities are in the middle of faculty renewal and growth that is likely to create more opportunities for student supervision. Universities want to attract the best graduate students for two reasons. We all want to work with the best students we can recruit. They are key members of research teams and their successes add to a university's reputation. But there is a more mercenary reason for recruiting the best. Universities cannot provide full support for all graduate students. Students who receive external support relieve some of the pressure on the university's budget. Therefore, any strategy that results in the recruitment of students likely to win national awards will be beneficial to the university's graduate student funding budget, provided that students holding external awards are given restricted access to internal university funding.

UBC's free tuition is one of a number of similar initiatives, first introduced by University of Toronto, designed to attract students through financial guarantees. These systems all work in a similar fashion. First, they generally apply only to doctoral students, all of whom are guaranteed a certain level of support for a certain number of years. Second, the program is subsidized by cutting or freezing existing funding programs. Third, responsibility for funding students is downloaded to academic departments. What is the effect of such policies?

If an academic department wishes to recruit doctoral students it must be able to find the required level of funding. The inevitable outcome of this policy will be a reduction in doctoral enrollments in the more poorly funded disciplines, mainly in the humanities and some social sciences. We have yet to see the figures on PhD enrollments, but we can predict that enrollments in humanities and social sciences will decline at universities that impose on their departments a responsibility to provide full funding.

Departments have finite resources to support graduate students, and most resources ultimately derive from public funds. Increasingly, these public funds will be used to compete with departments at other universities for students who already have funding or students who are likely to obtain funding. Here's how it works. Joe Smith is finishing his MSc in chemistry, and has been awarded a two year NSERC award, valued at $19,000 per annum. He's looking at offers from various doctoral programs, including one from department x where a guaranteed funding policy is in place. According to university policy, department x must fund their PhD students at $18,000 per annum. So if they can recruit Joe they won't have to find $18,000 for the first two years of his program, because he is funded by an external scholarship. They offer him a $9,000 per annum top-up to his NSERC scholarship. If he accepts, Joe will receive $56,000 of public money over two years, but department x has saved $18,000, enough to cover half the costs of another PhD student for the same two years. Furthermore, department x is fairly sure that Joe's history of NSERC funding will make him a good candidate for further funding from sources external to their department, thus saving them more money in the future.

Let's assume that the minimum income required by a graduate student is $20,000 per annum. Joe is being supported for two years by public money ($56,000) that would be sufficient to support him for almost three years. From the perspective of department x this is a sensible use of their limited resources, as they have Joe and half another PhD student funded. But is this a wise use of public funds? If Joe hadn't been topped up, department X would have enough money to fully fund a second PhD student. I believe that guaranteed funding programs will create bidding wars for students with external funding, and that the resources used in these wars ultimately derive from the same public purse. As a result, money that could be used to support other students is being used to support students who already have adequate support from public sources.

I am also concerned about the effect of programs that guarantee funding (or free tuition) only for doctoral students. I can see no rationale for providing financial benefits to PhD students as a group when master's students are important contributors to the university. If departments are required to provide a certain level of funding for doctoral students, it is inevitable that, in the absence of new money, funding for master's students will decline. A better use of public money would be to support as many students as possible with salaries that range between some reasonable upper and lower limits.

Jonathan Driver is dean of graduate studies.

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