A Modest Proposal for Linking Tuition Fees to Minimum Wage

If increasingly employers require a minimum of an undergraduate degree, even when the necessary job skills do not demand such education (and perhaps such demands are used as a means to sift through greater numbers of applicants for fewer positions), then surely it is a broader responsibility than the student’s (or her/his family’s) to pay for that education.

If it is the case that employers demand that new employees have a degree, then surely there needs to be some kind of commitment from those employers who are the beneficiaries of their new recruits studying for their university degrees. That is, perhaps employers need to think about paying for the education of the people that they hire – or paying their ‘fair share’ in taxes to support such educational provision.

We also have to rethink about providing access to a greater number of young people to obtain the necessary education to earn the degree while thinking about how it should be paid for.

So, I am wondering if it is more ‘realistic’ or ‘pragmatic’ to propose a linking of tuition fees to a certain number of weeks of employment at a minimum wage?

Essentially, I would suggest that we identify a reasonable number of weeks at full-time hours at minimum wage to be equated to one year’s tuition fees for undergraduate education in the humanities and social sciences (or ‘liberal arts’). (Perhaps, sciences, engineering and related disciplines may require a slightly different model, but I will confine my proposal to the areas I know best.)

While the first university degree, the bachelor of arts or science or education, is becoming the equivalent of the high sch0ol diploma, then perhaps we have to work to ensure greater access by more youth to the first degree as part of a social-economic commitment of the nation to its youth.

While my proposal is primarily directed towards the Canadian situation, it may also have some impact upon those involved in combatting the tripling of tuition fees at universities in the UK (I have been both a student and a lecturer in post-secondary institutions in Canada and the UK).

As you can read in a wee bit more detail below (and in an earlier post in this blog where I made a comparison between the late 1970s and today), I would suggest that it should be in the 4-6 week range. That is, we should think about 160-240 hours (4-6 weeks of 40 hours per week) of full-time minimum wage work.

This link would also have an impact upon the concerns and issues in linking up student jobs and what they earn or, more commonly, what minimum wage pays.

Indeed, perhaps such a link would also work to help identify the problems that minimum wages generally don’t meet the costs of living in the same way that the ‘living wage’ does (perhaps there will be the belated recognition that current minimum wages are any where near what they were in the 1970s and early 1980s).

However, we shouldn’t expect people to have to pay more than the 4-6 weeks of work at minimum wage especially when the lack of employment opportunities often force young people to take contract, temporary and part-time employment.


Below are the comments that I made that helped to formulate this proposal, and which are posted on the University Affairs website with the original column by Dr Doug Owram and his thoughts on tuition fees, which can also be accessed via the link (http://www.universityaffairs.ca/thoughts-on-tuition.aspx).

While I appreciate your identification of inflation as part of the equation that saw the low percentage of university costs (or income?) paid for by student tuition fees, I do think we have to consider something comparable between minimum wage rates and tuition fees to make universities accessible for students from non-affluent backgrounds.

As a working-class teenager, the costs of tuition were always a concern. I certainly would not go to any university, including the one that I teach at now, with the kind of costs that I have to incurr.

In 1978, however, I could afford to go to university (in BC)for the equivalent of 4 weeks of full-time work (40 hours per) at minimum wage ($3 per hour). In Ontario at present, students pay closer to 16 weeks: basically four (4) times the amount of work that my generation had to do to pay for tuition.

I don’t believe that it is just the cost of faculty salaries that is a root cause here if for no other reason than classes are so much larger than what I took when I was an undergraduate.

For example, in my department at Wilfrid Laurier University, we teach first-year classes of 300-400 students. Our third-year classes are 50 and last year many classes exceeded that number to cope with cutbacks by the Administration (even though the provincial government made no cutbacks).

However, the Administration has been expanding the number of administrators (estimated at a 48% increase in the last five years versus a 13% increase in faculty and a 18.5% increase in students). (These are the University’s own numbers, by the way.)

Compare that with the late 1970s and early 1980s and third-year classes of 15-30 students (I think there was one I took – a required course – with around 40-50 students in it). My professors were usually full-time and permanent, whereas today at my own university at least 35-40% of classes are taught by Contract Academic Staff or contract faculty (who may be teaching at more than one university to try to earn enough to pay off student loans and other debts incurred while studying for a doctorate). (This, of course, is another issue: the lack of respect shown by Administrators for contract faculty in terms of pay and conditions. Ironic, isn’t it, that universities encourage people to study for a PhD and then want to hire them at McJob rates of pay – even when they’ve earned the PhD from the very same university that treats them with such disdain?!)

Part of it the problem are the low wages available to students when they do graduate: many students also study for a one-year diploma in PR or marketing or Human Resources but still end up working for $25-30,000 per year in Toronto and owe anywhere from $25-42,000.

Universities need to re-think what is at the heart of their mission as well as rethinking how they charge for tuition. Perhaps, we need to consider what the minimum wage is and ensure that NO student has to pay more than say four (4) to six (6) weeks of minimum wage for their full-time university tuition fees.

Universities also need to re-think why they have become so top-heavy with senior administrators and why so much money is being expended in extra-curricular areas rather than in the core missions of the university: teaching and research.


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Filed under Canadian Universities, Economics, Education, Faculty Unions, Higher Education, Tuition, Uncategorized, Wages, Youth

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