Skyrocketing tuition and new need-based scholarships may indicate U of T will begin to emulate its American counterparts in the near future—and according to critics, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The Faculty of Law has announced that it intends to raise tuition to $22,000 per year by 2007 in a bid to transform the law school into one of the top five in the world.

According to U of T’s law school’s administration, this will help the school compete for the best students and professors with the most prestigious universities south of the border. The law school says it will increase grants while it increases tuition. But some worry students will not have access to the financial aid infrastructure that exists at American universities with similarly exorbitant fees. U.S. institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford charge students upwards of $40,000 Canadian a year, but operate a “need-blind” admissions system that offers admitted students as much financial aid as they require, mainly in the form of grants and scholarships.

Last September U of T president Robert Birgeneau announced plans to introduce similar need-based scholarships to address the growing disparity between tuition levels and students’ ability to attend university without being saddled with crippling debts.

Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) chairperson Joel Duff is skeptical. Ivy League institutions have endowment funds that far exceed U of T’s, and American students have access to more funding resources, including a national system of need-based grants, which does not exist in Canada, he said.

As the gap grows between wealthy, more privatized “super-universities” and chronically under-funded public institutions, Canadian students will be getting “the worst of the American system—a two-tiered education system without the infrastructure to support it,” said Duff.

Regardless, U of T maintains a guarantee that no student will be excluded from attending the university because of financial need. Faculty of Law dean Ron Daniels is adamant that accessibility will be the top priority for the law school.

“Although our endowment is not nearly as large, the priority that we’ve attached to financial aid….is not only just as good but indeed greater than most institutions in our peer group,” said Daniels.

He noted that the law school will invest 30 per cent of tuition revenues in financial aid, whereas its American rivals invest only 28 per cent. Despite this commitment, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) executive director Jim Turk doubts the law school will be able to fulfil one of its main goals in increasing tuition: offering competitive salaries to renowned scholars.

“If they’re going to give the increased tuition back to students in the form of grants, then there’s going to be no net increase in revenue for the university, so clearly they’re not intending to do that,” said Turk.

“Their system only works if they… attract students who do not need grants.”

Turk, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate, said this effect is most visible at private U.S. universities, whose composition is “skewed toward children from high-income families.”

Even the minimal contribution expected by these institutions can be overwhelming for many families, Turk said.

More than three-quarters of American students attend public universities, where many are taking on greater debts and working longer hours to pay their way.

Public universities in a number of states are currently facing recession-related funding cutbacks that have driven up tuition fees by up to 20 per cent, said Corye Barbour, Legislative Director for the Washington-based United States Student Association (USSA).

“There is already a fair amount of unmet need,” said Barbour. The volume of federal student loans in the U.S., she added, has increased by 250 per cent since 1997.

Dean Daniels acknowledges that high tuition can create a “sticker shock problem,” where students from low and middle income families do not apply to pricier schools because they fear incurring large debts.

“I don’t for a moment want to say… that there are no challenges here,” he said. But the faculty of law plans to make sure prospective students know about its overarching commitment to financial aid and accessibility.

About 40 students at the Faculty, said Daniels, are attending tuition-free.

For the CFS and CAUT, the root of the problem is the Ontario government’s funding cuts to post-secondary education, which have totalled $400 million per year since 1994.

“There’s not a serious remedy apart from government funding,” said Turk.

Daniels admitted the law school’s tuition increases are in part an attempt to compensate for public funding losses.

“Make no mistake, this would be a whole lot easier if we weren’t having to make up for our disappointments in the Ontario budget fund,” he said.

Like our content? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required