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The Recent History of uOttawa Undergraduate Tuition

This article was originally created with the intention of being posted in the Summer of 2020. After multiple delays, it is ready to be posted in December, corresponding with the end of the Fall 2020 university term. It is worth noting that university policies are constantly changing, both within schools and governments. This means that even though this article is accurate upon its time of posting, some details may not be up to date if this article is read months or years later.

Undergraduate tuition has been one of the most prominent issues at the forefront of University of Ottawa students’ minds. This has been particularly true over the past decade as the past three Ontario governments and the University of Ottawa itself have changed policies in ways that have impacted how much undergraduate students have to pay for their education year after year. Each major Ontario government policy which was theoretically aimed to ease the financial burden on students has sparked controversy. All the while, the university campus has continued to physically expand and update its infrastructure and services.

The following graphs are meant to visually put in perspective how tuition has risen for uOttawa’s undergraduate students over the past thirteen years, while also visually representing possible reasons why tuition has risen. Reasons displayed include population growth, budget growth, construction of new buildings on campus and key events such as policy changes.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 are the most important graphs because they cover the topic of undergraduate tuition itself. The other graphs are intended to be helpful at putting in perspective other external factors that may have contributed to the trends of tuition costs or may be related to tuition in some other way.

On Figure 1 and Figure 2, the tuition costs from the arts and common law programs were sampled because they are offered to all undergraduate student groups including Canadian citizens, permanent residents, exempt international students and non-exempt international students, while also having a significant price gap between them. This price gap allows both of the first two graphs to display a sample view of the broad range of uOttawa’s undergraduate tuition costs.

On Figure 4, Approved Operating Fund Total Revenue per Student refers to the revenue anticipated to be allocated to the operating fund of uOttawa’s approved budget divided by the total student population for each given year. The operating fund, by uOttawa’s definition, encompasses the money that is “dedicated to the University’s teaching and research mission,” which means most day to day operations, as opposed to other parts of the university budget, which are dedicated to issues such as infrastructure and major research efforts. The operating fund is the largest portion of the overall budget and is currently primarily funded by tuition.

On all graphs, the green building names on the x-axis represent the opening of newly constructed buildings on uOttawa’s main downtown campus. The blue letters connecting to the x-axis represent key events that may have had an impact on tuition costs or other trends connected to tuition costs. These events are listed by their corresponding letters below the graphs.

Key Events:

A. (2007) The Ontario government allowed post-secondary students with permanent disabilities who are taking a reduced course load to be eligible to pay $20 per each course taken in years after the program would usually be completed by most people.

B. (2010) The Ontario government introduced a policy making the six-month grace period before OSAP loans must begin to be repaid interest-free.

C. (2011) uOttawa limited its student population to roughly 43,000 at most.

D. (2012) The Ontario government developed the Ontario Tuition Grant, meant to cover roughly 30% of tuition for undergraduate students from families making $160,000 or less.

E. (2012) Since 2012, the financial aid given from the Ontario government to universities via operating grants has remained stagnant, as opposed to years before where government aid would substantially increase year after year.

F. (2013) The Ontario government introduced a new tuition framework that lowered the maximum allowed average tuition increase per year for undergraduate programs, (often called the tuition cap,) from 5% to 3%. This new framework lowered the maximum annual increase from 4.5% to 3% for regular fee programs and from 8% to 5% for high demand programs.

G. (2013) After a period of conflict, uOttawa and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa reached a tentative agreement which included salary increases and the hiring of 60 more full-time professors.

H. (2013) uOttawa adopted a policy which reduced tuition costs for French international programs in order to attract more Francophone international students. The policy was implemented in the following year.

I. (2014) After being urged by the Ontario government to differentiate from one another, many Ontario universities released Strategic Mandate Agreements detailing the respective schools’ unique strengths and the areas of study in which they each plan to specialize. These agreements were partly meant to inform Ontario Government decisions on their allocation of resources to universities. Differentiation became integrated into uOttawa’s long term goals for the rest of the 2010’s decade.

J. (2015) The Ontario government allowed OSAP qualifiers to withdraw custom amounts of aid less than the full amount offered to them. This policy was gradually implemented over two school years.

K. (2015) The Ontario government no longer considered vehicle ownership to be an asset when assessing students for financial aid. The first $3,000 in students’ accounts and investments were also exempted from the financial aid assessment process.

L. (2016) The Ontario government overhauled its student aid programs, consolidating them into one program. This program allowed students from families making $50,000 or less to avoid tuition payments, while also continuing to provide aid to other students. Other aspects of Ontario’s 2016 budget included increasing the amount of money given in grants and centralizing the grant-delivery process. Mature students became eligible to benefit from these changes. These plans were finally fully implemented by the start of the 2017–2018 school year.

M. (2016) After having realized that their student population was bound to decrease and having considered the financial consequences of a possible decrease in revenue, uOttawa began to once again pursue expanding its population, thereby no longer holding itself to its 43,000 student population limit. The linked excerpt also sees the university further declare its intention to increase its international student population.

N. (2017) uOttawa’s Board of Governors passed a resolution which allows most international students to accurately foresee how their tuition fees will increase throughout the time of their program.

O. (2018–2019) Financial fraud scandals led to the collapse of the SFUO and the establishment of the UOSU in its place.

P. (2019) With the Progressive Conservatives in power, having taken the place of the Liberals who were in power throughout the timeline until 2018, the Ontario government reduced post-secondary tuition fees for domestic students by 10% and froze costs for the following year. OSAP funding was reduced. The previous free tuition plan (see Event L) was ended. In its place, more loan and grant funding has been allocated to low-income students. However, the ratio of grants to loans provided to OSAP qualifiers decreased. The six-month grace period (see Event B) was changed to allow interest to accumulate. The Ontario government allowed students to opt out of some ancillary fees.

Q. (2019) The Ontario government adopted a policy that ties a gradually increasing portion of each university’s funding to its performance. Originally designed to take effect in 2020 with 25% of funding tied to performance, the funding aspect of the policy was later pushed back to 2022 in response to COVID-19 while the evaluation of schools continued as planned.

R. (2019) The Ontario Divisional Court struck down the Ontario government’s policy to allow students to opt out of ancillary fees (see Event P).

S. (2020) Safety restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 forced many students to complete part of the Winter 2020 term online and away from campus. The Spring/Summer 2020, Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 terms were also offered online.

T. (2020) The Federal government provided small amounts of financial aid to students in the wake of COVID-19.

U. (2020) The Ontario government decided to defer OSAP payments and freeze the accrual of interest until the end of September 2020.

V. (2020) Fewer students attending uOttawa as a result of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is set to financially damage the University of Ottawa.

W. (2020) Ancillary fees collected by the UOSU in the Winter and Spring/Summer 2020 terms were used to create a hardship fund, providing small amounts of financial aid to uOttawa students in need of financial support due to COVID-19.

X. (2020) For the 2020–2021 year, uOttawa decided to make non-exempt international tuition fees the same as the previous year’s corresponding fees for many programs.

From the graphs, certain trends can be summarized. Please note that all of the following statements about tuition are in reference to first year full-time undergraduate University of Ottawa students unless otherwise stated. Statements about population are in reference to both part-time and full-time uOttawa students together. The following percentages are rounded to the nearest percent.

For Canadian, permanent resident and exempt international undergraduate students, who make up the majority of uOttawa students, the tuition costs of the common law program increased by approximately 77% over the thirteen-year period, or a 5% increase on average per year. Adjusted for inflation, the overall increase was 45%, or an average 3% increase per year.

Meanwhile the arts program costs for the majority of students increased by 34% over thirteen years, or a 2% increase on average per year. Adjusted for inflation, the overall increase was 10%, or an average 1% increase per year.

Of course, these overall increases and per year averages are skewed by the mandatory 10% tuition cost decrease in the 2019–2020 school year (see Event P).

These tuition increases are consistent with the rules imposed by the Ontario government which cap the amount by which universities can increase the tuition costs of domestic programs each year. The average maximum increase per year (not adjusted for inflation) has been regulated to be 5% throughout the timeline until 2013 (see Event F) and 3% from then until 2019. Regarding the tuition caps on individual programs, the costs of domestic undergraduate programs classified as “regular fee” programs (for example arts) could increase by at most 4.5% each year until 2013 and by 3% each year until 2019. Domestic undergraduate programs classified as “high demand” programs (for example common law) could increase by at most 8% each year until 2013 and by 5% each year until 2019. Throughout the thirteen-year timeline, the University of Ottawa always increased the tuition costs of their domestic programs to exactly the maximum allowed amount each year.

For non-exempt international undergraduate students, the overall tuition cost increase over the thirteen-year period for the common law program was 180% or a 9% increase on average per year. Adjusted for inflation, the overall increase was 130%, or an average 7% increase per year.

Meanwhile, for arts, tuition increased by 161% overall or by 8% on average per year. Adjusted for inflation, the overall increase was 114% or an average 7% increase per year.

This is reflective of the fact that there has not been a tuition cap for first year non-exempt international students in Ontario throughout the time period captured in the graph.

Over the thirteen-year period, the ratio of non-exempt international undergraduate student tuition costs to the tuition costs for other undergraduate students increased from 2.32:1 in 2007 to 3.66:1 last year for common law. For arts this ratio increased from 3.05:1 to 5.94:1. This too is reflective of the fact that the tuition costs for the majority of students have increased at a controlled rate while first year non-exempt international student tuition has not been subjected to these regulations.

While the Ontario government’s 2019 tuition reduction strategy (see Event P) made the trend in tuition costs negative for most undergraduate students, the costs for non-exempt international students continued to rise at the highest rate visible throughout the thirteen-year period. This was done at least partly to offset the University of Ottawa’s loss of revenue from domestic students.

It is also important to note that while Event P reduced tuition, it was not widely seen as the ideal method for making university education more affordable. This is because the cuts to OSAP, the greater emphasis on providing loans rather than grants and the elimination of free tuition for low-income students (see Event L) caused some domestic students to be worse off in their ability to afford university tuition fees. These externalities, of course, are not captured in the graphs.

Throughout the thirteen-year period, the University of Ottawa’s undergraduate population (including part-time and full-time students) gained less than 6,000 new members, increasing by only 17%. The total population experienced a bit more noticeable growth, gaining around 8,000 students since 2007, increasing the population by 22%. Both the undergraduate and total student populations gradually rose until they peaked in 2014. Both populations then generally declined (with slight fluctuations) until 2017, (a year with the lowest population since 2011,) and have grown since then. Last year uOttawa saw its highest student population numbers ever. A series of events that could explain these fluctuations is discussed later in this article.

The Approved Operating Fund Total Revenue per Student increased by 41% overall or an average increase of 3% per year over the thirteen-year period (although the actual annual increase was often quite different each year). Adjusted for inflation, this amount of money per student increased by 16% overall or an average increase of 1% each year, demonstrating that the operating fund increases were notable but moderate. These numbers, too, are skewed by the effects of the 2019 10% tuition cost reduction because it lessened uOttawa’s revenue during that year.

The addition of new buildings to the University of Ottawa campus do not each cause a subsequent noticeable change in slope of the tuition cost lines or operating fund lines. This suggests that new buildings are not the most significant drivers of tuition cost increases.

In order to gain a greater understanding of these and other trends present in the data, many people involved (and formerly involved) in the University of Ottawa, the Government of Ontario and various advocacy groups were interviewed. The interviews were meant to provide insight that could help explain the trends.

The people who were interviewed for their thoughts on these trends were:

  • Nicole Brayiannis, National Deputy Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities also provided an official statement in lieu of an interview.

Tuition Caps

When asked about factors that have contributed to the general trends of tuition cost increases, Ghossein said that two of the most important “stressors for the university” are “provincial funding and provincial regulations.”

Provincial regulations, specifically the aforementioned cap on tuition increases for the majority of students, are important because “universities will increase tuition fees, generally, to the maximum allowable [amount each year],” according to Ghossein. This is because universities want to “achieve excellence and increase ranking, and they want to grow as fast as possible. So they’re going to be looking to achieve a revenue that [imposes a] financially feasible [price upon] the students attending university, but one that would allow for exponential growth.” Some of the most highly-regarded sources for ranking universities include the QS World University Rankings (which ranked uOttawa 279th best in the world), Times Higher Education World University Rankings (which ranked uOttawa 145th), Academic Ranking of World Universities (which ranked uOttawa in the 151–200 range in 2020) and Maclean’s University Rankings (through which uOttawa tied for the position of 8th best Medical Doctoral school in Canada).

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities stated that “The primary factors driving tuition levels in Ontario are the Tuition Fee Framework, as well as student demand and market competition.”

The importance of the market for Canadian post-secondary education as well as the importance of provincial funding will be covered later in this article.

Ultimately, for the majority of students, the most important factor deciding their tuition each year is the cap imposed by the Ontario government. The fact that these students’ tuition has been allowed to increase is reflective of Ontario’s general approach to tuition policy throughout most of the thirteen-year timeline, particularly during the Liberal Party’s reign.

Milloy said that rather than focusing on lowering university tuition, Ontario’s overarching strategy throughout most of the timeline has been providing aid to domestic students on the basis of need.

“Under my watch and under [the watch of most other Liberal Ministers after me,] tuition fees were allowed to increase […] at a controlled rate. […] However, the argument might be made, ‘Why didn’t you cap [the rate of increase] at zero [percent]? Why didn’t you provide universities with more money so that they didn’t have to charge as much for tuition? The answer to that is that we focused on those students who needed it the most.”

Milloy referenced the 2016 policy which provided free tuition for the lowest-income students (see Event L) as a clear example of the Liberals’ strategy to allocate resources in such a way that it reduces the financial burden of tuition for students rather than reducing tuition itself.

“So you talk about increasing tuition costs, but you also have to measure that against student aid that was there,” said Milloy.

Milloy, along with Moridi and the Ontario Liberal Party as a whole, were proponents of the need-based aid approach which was a main theme throughout the thirteen-year timeline. This helps to explain the abundance of financial aid policy changes in the pre-2018 part of the timeline. “[The children from the richest families] should go to university,” said Milloy, “but I didn’t worry so much about their kids’ ability to pay the tuition. I worried about the struggling single mom who wants to send [her] kids.”

It is worth noting that the Ontario Liberal Party did not invent this approach and annual tuition caps were used in Ontario before the Liberals came into power in 2003.

Faye criticized the province’s overall approach, saying that “student aid and student grants have been used as a way to circumvent the root issue which is the price and cost of tuition. I think that governments have been too concentrated on student grants, student aid and student loans, rather than making post-secondary education more affordable.”

Hussen and Shaker also criticized the province’s approach based on how aid programs can be easily reversed (see Event P), making these aid programs not as enforceable as tuition policy.

When the Progressive Conservatives took the place of the Liberals in 2018, their approach to easing the financial burden on students was evidently less aid-based and more based on targeting tuition itself, hence the mandatory tuition decrease and the aid reductions (see Event P). These policy changes are examples of the kind of program reversals that Hussen and Shaker were talking about.

The Progressive Conservatives’ cuts to OSAP also make sense in the context of their overall political platform, which generally sought to cut government spending, at least in the pre-COVID-19 period.

Regarding how domestic tuition rose consistently in accordance with the province-imposed cap and then directly reduced by 10 percent upon the imposition of Event P, Shaker said that this “shows [that] the reason that there are these big changes in tuition policies is definitely a provincial matter.”

Full Professor Salaries

Both members of the Board of Governors who were interviewed claimed that the salaries of full professors, which typically increase every year, are largely funded by tuition, giving these salaries a significant impact on tuition costs. Ghossein went as far as saying it plays “the biggest role in terms of expenses going up.” In the past few years, academic salaries, which includes the salaries of all types of professors, have typically made up between roughly a quarter to a third of the University of Ottawa’s operating fund expenditures.

Before COVID-19 forced the University of Ottawa to reevaluate their financial situation, their two year outlook planned for academic salaries to increase by millions of dollars each year under the assumption that revenue from “tuitions and other fees” would increase by tens of millions of dollars each year. It is also worth noting that in this pre-COVID-19 outlook, tuition was the only revenue source that was expected to significantly increase.

Operating Grants

Both Ghossein and Hussen explained that another key cause of tuition increases has been the fact that financial support via operating grants from the Ontario government has plateaued since 2012 (see Event E). Hussen said that this aid “has not [significantly] increased whatsoever, whereas the salaries for researchers, professors, [costs of] maintenance in general [and] everything else has increased. And what that tends to bring is an increase in the operational budget. [In response, one way for the university to increase] that budget is by increasing tuition.”

Faye’s comments on the subject were similar. He discussed the stagnation of funding by operating grants in the context of the operating costs of running universities increasing. “The rise of the costs haven’t been reflected in the amount of government investment and education hasn’t been as much of a priority for the government,” said Faye.

The University of Ottawa’s need to increase their operational budget due to rising operating costs for the aforementioned reasons helps to explain the upward trend of the operating fund revenue per student displayed on Figure 4.

Ghossein pointed out how the fact that provincial aid has held steady while operating costs, professor salaries and inflation have grown over time has helped to ensure that provincial aid gradually became a lower percentage of uOttawa’s budget each year. He said “you can even think about that as an effective decreasing in contribution because they’re not adjusting for inflation. As professor salaries and expenses go up, provincial contribution is the same.”

Shaker claimed that the approach to governance that normalized expense cutting can be traced back to the 1990s when the Federal government passed budgets meant to help Canada financially recover from the high amount of debt the country had at the time. While these budgets made cuts that successfully reduced the national debt, they controversially downloaded significant costs to the provinces, prompting many provincial governments to make drastic budget cuts as well. These budgets “basically slashed federal funding and changed the funding mechanisms by which public funding for post secondary education and training was allocated. So as a result, provinces were in a position where they could actually start reducing their funding, and many of them did. […] Tuition fees rose as a direct result of this shift. So this really started to accelerate in the mid 90s.”

Non-Exempt International Student Tuition

As was mentioned before, the gradual reduction of the Ontario government’s focus on providing financial aid for universities, which Brayiannis called “an ongoing erosion of public funding within post secondary institutions,” has forced the University of Ottawa to become more financially reliant on students’ tuition. This is true for most students, but it is particularly true with regards to non-exempt international students, whose tuition is not regulated by a province-imposed cap, unlike the majority of students (at least in the first year). Hussen said it is these provincial “regulations set in place [or lack thereof] that allows the university to have this fluidity and this freedom when it comes to [deciding] international students’ [tuition] increases.” An important result of this, as is shown in the graphs, is that not only do non-exempt international students each pay significantly more than their majority counterparts, but their tuition costs have also been increasing at a higher rate than those of their peers.

“They have no protection,” said Ghossein.

It is worth noting, however, that the previously unpredictable nature of non-exempt international student tuition fees at the University of Ottawa has been lessened by a Board of Governors resolution that allows non-exempt international students to accurately foresee what their fee increases will be throughout their time in their program (see Event N). This means that while first year non-exempt international student tuition remains unregulated, the tuition fees of returning international undergraduates are capped by university policy. Returning international students’ tuition fee increases are capped at 5.5% per year for those who were initially admitted for the Spring/Summer 2020 term or earlier. In the absence of this resolution, returning non-exempt international students could have their tuition increased by up to 20% each year.

On the subject of non-exempt international students paying much more than domestic students, Moridi said “the reason is understandable” because domestic students and their families have been paying taxes which fund Ontario’s universities throughout their whole lives while international students have not. “So they have to pay more than other students. But again, when you compare our universities with comparable universities in the United States, our fees are much much lower than [those of] US universities.”

Many people interviewed for this article touched on the idea that non-exempt international students are being used by the university as sources of large amounts of money.

“Universities […] have been increasingly reliant on just tuition to fund [its] programming and government measures haven’t been conducive to finding out a solution or encouraging funding from alternative sources” said Faye, calling the idea “valid.”

Milloy expressed his agreement with the idea bluntly. “International students have more and more been seen as a very important revenue source,” he said on the grounds that the number of international college and university students in Ontario and the amount of money they bring into the province have both grown. These trends of international student population and revenue growth have been reflected at the University of Ottawa.

Brayiannis credited this approach to Ontario universities’ need to make up for being unable to financially rely on government funding to the same extent that they previously could. She said that universities take advantage of the lack of regulation surrounding international student tuition “as they strive to use international students as measures to pick up the costs that the governments no longer invest into post-secondary institutions.” As evidence, she cited the fact that operating grants from the Ontario government used to make up more than 50% of university operating funds, but no longer do.

Moridi expressed his disagreement with the idea that non-exempt international students are deliberately being used as a major revenue source.

“[Non-exempt international students] are paying much, much less in tuition fees than in countries such as the United States. Now, the university’s income or revenue comes from government grants, [it] comes from tuition fees, which again, tuition fees are partly supported by the government, and of course, [it] comes from international students as well. [Additionally,] members of the public and certain people are giving donations to universities and colleges. So that is where they get the revenue. It’s not only because international students are supporting […] our university system.”

Moridi pointed to demand to explain the exponential increases in non-exempt international tuition.

“People are coming to Western countries to get educated. [Non-exempt international students] are prepared to pay for the expenses to go to other countries to study. And in some cases, [non-Western governments] also give grants and scholarships for their nationals, to send them to Canada, [the] US [and the] UK to get the best education possible to return back […] to serve their country. In the business sense, you can say ‘I have this commodity I’m offering you to take it and if you don’t you can go somewhere else.’ […] People compare and they say ‘Well, let me send my daughter and my son to Canada for their education rather than country X or Y or Z.’ It’s an open market, if you’re looking at it from a marketing point of view. If you look at it from a quality point of view we have one of the best post secondary education systems in the world. In terms of living conditions, we have a safe country [and a] nice environment. So all these positive aspects make [families in] overseas countries comfortable sending their children here. […] The trends show that they want to pay, and even the numbers [of international students in Canada] are increasing on a yearly basis.”

Again, these comments are important to understand in the context of stagnant provincial aid and international student tuition becoming an increasing portion of the University of Ottawa’s budget. The amount of money that the University has received via donations has also been stagnant over the past few years, often making up about 10 to 13 million dollars of the annual budget.

As a side note, it is true that the Canadian free market for university education does influence broad tuition trends across Canadian universities, particularly regarding the tuition fees imposed upon first year non-exempt international students, which, again, are not regulated by the province. According to Ghossein, these international tuition “fees are set as competitive rates with competing programs from nearby universities [and] other universities our size […] If you look at entrance student tuition fees at other universities, they’ve taken up an increase of a similar magnitude.” As is shown in the graphs, first year non-exempt international student tuition has a tendency to increase dramatically each year.

Regarding the increased amount of international students studying in Canada, this too can be partly explained by demand and competition.

“There has been an effort by Canadian institutions to attract them.” said Milloy. His statement is particularly true in the case of the University of Ottawa. This school has invested a significant amount of focus on international engagement through various means such as increasing its presence and reputation internationally and creating international programs with partner universities. These efforts have been able to succeed in attracting international students because “on the other end, […] the supply side, [in] countries like China and India, [the past decade has seen] a burgeoning middle class in both those countries. There is a lot more interest and capacity to travel and study elsewhere and these folks are able to pay [the tuition fees].”

Shaker stated that disproportionately high international student fees and the accompanying arguments which assume that all international students who attend Canadian post-secondary institutions can comfortably afford to do so are “problematic.” This is because, she claimed, it ensures that “university and college education is the domain of the wealthy” and maintains “the same old argument that education is a privilege that should be provided to the wealthy and those who can pay for it as opposed to recognizing [education] as an opportunity to help overcome [income] inequality.”

Hussen’s view on the idea claiming finance-driven use of international students takes a more middle-ground approach.

“I can’t negate that [idea claiming international students are being used as a large revenue source]. But when we look at it, it comes down to understanding the market and seeing what other universities are doing. So I wouldn’t simply pin this on the University of Ottawa. In fact, I [think it is more appropriately viewed] much more broadly. And it’s something that all universities and post secondary institutions are doing. […] From what I’ve seen, the University of Ottawa does pride itself in having this diversity and having this variation of demographics. And they do want not only to have the [international] students admitted, but also [to] retain them. And I think it’s [very] much reflected in the equalization of the fees especially for Francophone students.” (See Event H)

Faye also added to the conversation by saying that advocacy efforts to lower tuition fees have been more “concentrated” on lowering domestic tuition fees. Less focus, he said, has been given to pushing for lower international student fees. Faye claimed that this is due to some domestic advocates’ lack of “awareness” about the situation of international students until more recently.

Infrastructure

Regarding how campus expansion and infrastructure updates influence tuition, Ghossein framed the school’s motivation to improve their infrastructure as an attempt to increase the university’s ranking, particularly by improving student satisfaction. He does think that the recent infrastructure updates play a role in tuition costs, but recognizes that this role is mitigated by many important factors.

“The university seeks to increase in ranking and achieve excellence and wants to become the best university in Canada. That’s every top university’s goal. And to do that they have to increase the infrastructure. [The University of Ottawa has seen] above normal growth in terms of capital investment. […] And obviously, with that comes large expenses that you can only address through increased revenue. So I think that’s been playing a role, but […] a large [amount] of this infrastructure has been financed by [the provincial] government. For example the STEM building. […] Certainly it plays a role in tuition fees but a lot of these projects are being financed longitudinally, over [decades]. Like, we’ve taken out a debenture recently of $300 million over the next 50 years to fund capital expenditures. So the per-year impact of those is, surprisingly, not as high as you would expect, because they’re being financed over a long period of time at historically low interest rates.”

Ghossein also points out that funding the creation of an entirely new building can sometimes be less expensive than maintaining whatever building is already there. In such cases the option to begin a new construction project is chosen. So, the University of Ottawa’s motivation to construct new buildings cannot always just be explained as an attempt to have the nicest campus.

Hussen frames infrastructure updates as being not particularly impactful toward tuition costs, with the impact being indirect.

“When it comes to deferred maintenance, [it] would simply impact the budget itself. And then that might have slight impacts on tuition. But if I were to [consider its direct impact on] tuition fees, as far as I’m concerned, the majority of the tuition we pay comes down to paying for the profs’ salaries, and it wouldn’t have much of an impact when it comes to infrastructure.”

Ultimately, infrastructure updates are not really a key cause of tuition increases, but rather a product of the university’s efforts to improve rankings, student satisfaction and space available to the growing student population.

Population Limits

Throughout the interview with Ghossein, he explained one more series of events that has not necessarily contributed to tuition increases, but nonetheless helps to explain the fluctuations in uOttawa’s student population and the opening of many buildings throughout the timeline.

Starting in 2011, the University of Ottawa made the choice to freeze population growth, keeping the university’s total student population under an upper limit of around 43,000 (see Event C). This decision, alongside efforts to hire more professors (see Event G) and physically expand the available teaching space, was meant to improve student satisfaction, freeing up more resources for each individual.

According to Ghossein, this strategy had an undesirable consequence for the university. He explained that “When they limited the amount of students, that also limited the amount of revenue that the university receives.”

The restriction on the amount of students admitted put the university at risk of facing detrimental financial effects. According to Hussen, “student enrollment is actually the largest and single most impactful [source of] budget revenue. And it poses the largest challenge when it comes to balancing the budget every year.”

In 2016, after the University of Ottawa examined the financial consequences of their population numbers and also after a new university president came to power, the choice to limit the student population at roughly 43,000 was undone and the university began to accept more students (see Event M). This helps to explain why, starting in 2018 and continuing into last year, the student population has been growing after a period of general decline.

Ghossein stated that he prefers this strategy over the one that was dismantled because, he says, it lowers the per capita financial burden. (This claim is difficult to verify using the graphs because tuition and operating fund revenue per student have both gradually increased throughout the timeline except in 2019 in spite of population fluctuations. It also has not been long enough since the strategy change to see significant changes in trends.) Nonetheless, he also said the 2016 decision had downsides that the university was not fully prepared to address, particularly in its delayed effects that resonate more recently.

An important consequence of the population-growing approach has been the university’s services not expanding in anticipation of a growing population, which has contributed to some services being stretched too thin in order to meet demand; a reality that has been “neglected.” This has ultimately become one of the most defining topics regarding the University of Ottawa in the past year. Ghossein pointed to the low number of councillors on campus as an example of this.

Ghossein said that there has been a greater push within the Board of Governors in recent years to invest more in student services and a greater focus on student satisfaction, citing the establishment of uoSatisfACTION as evidence. However, “those were issues even when the number of students were stagnant. Adjusting them now is obviously […] too late.”

Conclusion

To summarize all that has been learned from the interviews, these are the factors that have been most influential upon tuition fees over the past thirteen years:

  • For the majority of students, the most important factor deciding tuition costs has been the provincial tuition cap. This cap has partly been a product of the Liberal government’s preference to let tuition rise and ease the financial burden via student aid.

Despite three Premiers, nine Ministers and three uOttawa presidents all bringing different approaches to university policy, the ideal approach to tuition has not been found. The controversy continues as each new major policy change brings both support and criticism.

To any activists who seek to mobilize the public toward a solution, the advice of Minister Milloy may be useful. He recommends that advocates have a set of preferred policies in mind which they would like to push for, ultimately recommending that people should know what they want.

“I think you’ve got to figure out what the problem is you’re trying to solve. As Minister for many years I heard lots about high tuition costs, but I used to always say ‘What is it that you want?’ I said, ‘Do you want [everybody] to have their tuition cut [or eliminate tuition entirely] or should we be focusing on those students who are struggling?’ […] You have to ask yourself, are high tuition fees the problem or is it a lack of student aid and student assistance and the whole culture around it? Is the problem access? Well, if the problem is access, should additional revenues be going into trying to lower those tuition fees for everyone including [students from families who can easily afford it]?”

The current economic downturn and the coming aftermath of COVID-19 leaves the next decade of tuition, university affairs and provincial policy uncertain. For many, this may bring a sense of hopelessness for the future. However, the enthusiastic willingness of this article’s interviewees to participate in this important discussion, along with the public activism surrounding tuition policy and its extensive coverage by student media, all suggests that a solution lies out there, and that there is enough will among decision makers and the public to reach it.

Ryan Banfield is an undergraduate Public Administration student at the University of Ottawa and the host of CivNews. He can be reached via LinkedIn and his work can be found at ryanbanfield.com

Notes about the graphs:

  • The tuition costs displayed for each school year consider the costs of the Fall and Winter terms and not the Spring/Summer terms.

Undergraduate Public Administration student and host of the CivNews podcast.

Undergraduate Public Administration student and host of the CivNews podcast.