An investigation of countries that vie for free tuition, and the problems they face

Last week, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) lobbied at Parliament Hill against rising student debt, which has now reached over $15 billion — the highest it has ever been in Canada. The CFS takes the formal stance that students should not have to pay any tuition. Some Western European countries demonstrate a successful system wherein free post-secondary education is available — the question remains whether such a system can be instituted in Canada.

In 2010, Higher Education Strategy Associates ranked Canada the fourth most expensive country for post-secondary education, with an average cost of US $5,974, and this sum continues to rise. As the demand for skilled workers possessing post-secondary credentials goes up, students increasingly see post-secondary education as a necessity. As a result, many are forced to take out loans or are unable to afford post-secondary education. As education is free up to the secondary level in Canada, students from across Canada have been expressing their desire for universities to lower tuition fees and reduce student debt. The argument goes that, just as primary and secondary education are free, post-secondary education should also be accessible to all.

A few countries have successfully maintained a system where post-secondary education is kept at a very low cost or in some cases, is entirely free. In Norway, state universities and post-secondary institution fees are subsidized entirely by the government, meaning students are entitled to free education for undergraduate and post-graduate programs. This free education also applies to foreign students. Universities require an administrative semester fee ranging from 300–600 NOK (approximately $52.65–$105 CAD), this fee includes membership in the local student union, health and counselling services, and reduced costs on public transportation and sporting, and cultural events. Sweden, Finland, and Austria have similar systems. While public education may be free, Norway’s high standard of living demands higher taxes and living expenses. The University of Oslo’s recommended monthly expenses for students in Norway total 10,000 NOK (approximately $1,774 CAD), which includes housing, food, books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. In contrast, U of T estimates $1,500 CAD per month for the same expenses, and health insurance.

Although Norway’s post-secondary education system can be seen as a model for Canada, the economic and demographic situations between the two differ greatly. Norway is a unitary state, with a significantly lower population, compared to Canada, a federal state. Norway’s higher GDP and higher taxes create more revenue to fund the country’s free tuition. According to the CIA World Factbook, Norway is ranked within the top 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita, while Canada is ranked 19th in the world. Even with a much higher GDP per capita, however, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which also provides free post-secondary education — spends over 25 per cent of government expenditure on education, whereas Canada spends a little over 12 per cent. Currently, the CFS is calling on the federal government to invest more into post-secondary education, as most of the costs are currently funded by the provinces.

One concern that many have about free education is a possible decline in the quality of education. There is a concern that as education becomes more accessible, its value diminishes. While Canadian universities are internationally ranked, free European universities are not. Due to the lack of English classes, European universities are at a disadvantage in terms of international reputation. However, changes have been made to remedy this. In 2010, in order to compete internationally, Sweden began to charge international student fees, which they aim to put back into their education system. Furthermore, the European Union has introduced the Bologna Process — an internationally recognized academic system, while Norway invests heavily in vocational education, to encourage student employment after graduation. The UAE also heavily invests in the Emirates Institute for Banking and Financial Studies (EIBFS) to meet the rising demand for employees in the country’s growing financial sector.

At present, Canadian tuition fees continue to rise despite the fact that, in 1976, Canada was one of the countries that signed and ratified the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — which aims for the “progressive introduction of free education,” for secondary and post-secondary institutions. However, Canada has not yet made a major move towards free post-secondary education. Based on current trends of most post-secondary institutions, including U of T, which typically raise tuition at the maximum permitted annual rate, such a move seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required