University Students, Classes & Tuition: A Comparative Perspective

Today, the Canadian Federation of Students released a news release in response to a Statistics Canada report on how higher tuition fees are having an effect on Canadians – in terms of saving for retirement, for their children to be able to afford to go to university and so on.

It’s hard to sometimes compare what things cost, except I have been using an example with students that I teach for the last ten years or so. Essentially here is what I do (of course, figures will vary, from institution to institution….).

Here’s the ‘twitter’ version:

1-year tuition fees: 1978 – 1 month min. wage work VERSUS 2010 – 4 months min. wage work

average 3rd-year class sizes: 1978-early 1980s: 12-30 VERSUS 2010 – 50+ with reaching upwards to 60, 70 & more

full-time profs: 1978-1980s: 88-90% VERSUS 50-65% (some depts rely on greater percentages of contract faculty)


First, I remember what it cost for my first year’s university tuition:

(1a) in 1978 around $450 = which at that time = four (4) weeks (1 month) of full-time work (4o hours per week) at minimum wage ($3 per hour).

(1b) I then compare it to what the students I teach at Wilfrid Laurier University, for example, have to pay for one  year’s tuition. The average since 2005, when I first started the exercise in some classes, was 15-17 weeks (around 4 months) with annual increases in the minimum wage in Ontario 2008-10 with annual increases in tuition fees, it’s safe to say an average of 4 months work.

(2a) 1978 – the other 3 months of summer work could be used to save up for living expenses (if you could live at home)….

(2b) Instead, students have to work all summer just to earn tuition. Of course, if their parents are rich or well-off or willing to go into debt to finance their children’s education…..

Otherwise, if you came from where I did, you probably wouldn’t go. In 1978, I certainly didn’t want to go into debt, and back then if you were a university student, you could NOT get a credit card. My memory was that it was an automatic disqualification. Of course, in 2000s, I’ve heard from students that some received credit cards (or pre-approved ones, I think) on their 18th birthdays!!

(3a) 1981 – My third-year classes (with one notable exception – about 50-60 students) frequently had anywhere from 12 to 20 to (less common) 30 students.

(3b) 2011 – At WLU, my first year classes have gone up from 100 to 300+ (except for one summer offering). Third-year classes have usually been around 50, but some caps in third-year classes were increased upwards of 100 last year (we’re not the only increasing class sizes, while students pay more)!! And, with the cuts that the Admin are going to punish the Arts faculty for a downturn in recruits….

(4a) Again, I don’t have numbers, but I do remember in the five (5) years I was studying at university for my BA, I had about five (5) non-tenure faculty (including at least two who were on some sort of one-year contract (as opposed to being paid per course). Probably, no more than one-in-eight (12%??) of classes.

(4b) More money in 2000s for more courses taught by contract faculty (at WLU called Contract Academic Staff or CAS). They teach officially something like 35% of the courses (although there are loopholes….) and about 40% of contact time (this probably means they are teaching more first- and second-year courses and tutorials and labs).

(5a) 1978 – 1980s – Administrators were few and far between (or so it seemed). I’m afraid I don’t have the memory of this because you had time to see your profs (they were more likely to know your name…. and know when you weren’t in class!!)

(5b) 2011 – Administrators are increasing at far greater rates than students or faculty. For example, WLU Faculty Association, drawing upon the Admin’s own figures, compared the increases over five (5) years at WLU, 2005-2010:

Student enrolment up: 18.5%

Faculty numbers up: 13%

Administrators up: 48%.

Where’s the money going??

(Ps. Admin refers NOT to the support staff who do the jobs that ensure the university operates so that students can attend classes and faculty can teach, research and engage in service.)


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Filed under Education, Higher Education, Wages, Youth

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