Professional Education in Canada: State-of-the-art Programs Offset Premium Price Tags

In its September 17 issue, Maclean’s magazine included a set of statistics on Canada’s professional schools. Significant information was provided on tuition levels and access to programs ranging from engineering to environmental studies. An assessment of these figures reveals an environment in which students have a wide variety of options to choose from, but many of them require tough financial decisions. The monetary investment varies quite widely across the country and across professional areas. Below, a few key findings from three fields: MBA, law and medicine.

MBA: expensive programs, but lots of choices

Canada offers a wide variety of Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs. Maclean’s points out that “tuition and program length vary considerably – the differences are often determined by the type of program – as does the average GMAT score of incoming students. The traditional MBA – two years, full time – is no longer the only way to go, with many schools offering part-time studies.” Canada also offers a large range of Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, “targeted at people who already have a career but want to take it to the next level by earning an advanced degree […]. Tuition, often covered by employers, is generally high” – over $100,000 at some schools, but these programs are among the best in the world.

The vast majority of Canada’s MBA schools have a significant population of international students – at seven of 38 schools over 50% of the student population are international students. Two universities (Thompson Rivers and Vancouver Island – both in British Columbia) have well over 75% international students in their MBA programs. As with other specialties, tuition fees vary considerably from province to province and from school to school (Quebec programs charge significantly less – for provincial residents – than programs in the rest of Canada).

While the full cost of a MBA program at Université Laval is $4,563 ($10,163 for students who are not Quebec residents), the program tuition at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is $88,446. Carleton’s Sprott School of Business charges $15,418 for its MBA program, while tuition at Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management is $22,702.

LAW: Quebec vs. Rest of Canada

In the province of Quebec, private law is based on the “civil law” tradition (and public law follows the “common law” tradition). This makes Quebec a hybrid legal system, as opposed to the rest of Canada where the common law is the standard. For this reason, most law schools in Quebec are teaching civil law (McGill, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and the University of Ottawa). McGill, Ottawa and Montreal offer, however, dual common/civil degrees or the choice between the two legal specializations (the University of Windsor and York University do the same in Ontario).

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the traditionally lower fees in Quebec, the yearly tuition for civil law schools is just $2,493 ($6,183 for students who are not Quebec residents). The only exception is the University of Ottawa, where the tuition for a civil law program is $8,165 per year. For common law schools the tuition fees range widely, from $2,493 (McGill, for Quebec residents) to $27,420 at the University of Toronto – a ten-fold differential! The fees at the University of Ottawa’s common law school are $14,568 per year. These figures do not include “other compulsory fees.”

MEDICINE: significant financial investment and high competition

Some of the lowest tuition fees for medical school in Canada can be found – again, unsurprisingly – in Quebec (in some cases even if you are not a provincial resident). The highest, on the other hand, are at Ontario medical schools. The average tuition at four Quebec universities – Laval, McGill, Montreal and Sherbrooke – is $3,906 yearly, not including compulsory fees ($10,302 for students who are not Quebec residents). The average yearly tuition to attend a medical school in Ontario, based on figures from six universities – McMaster, Ottawa, Northern Ontario, Queen’s, Toronto and Western – is $20,955, not including compulsory fees.

Besides the high price tag, gaining admission to one of Canada’s medical schools is in itself a difficult process, given the soaring competition for the relatively few spots. This is a reflection of the value placed by students and the Canadian society on medical education and formal qualifications, and the high level of development reached by Canada’s medical schools. Maclean’s notes that “success rates for in-province applicants are generally higher than for out-of-province.” The international students’ success rate is the highest at the University of Calgary, AB (26%), Dalhousie University, NS (18%), and the University of British Columbia (12%).

Canada’s high tuition fees and record investment in education

In its latest Education at a Glance report (2012), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists Canada among the countries with high levels of tuition fees, but also well-developed student-support systems. The report’s country notes confirm that Canada is “a leader in higher education, with its high attainment rates and its ability to produce a skilled workforce with generally good labour-market outcomes.” The country spends about $21,000 per post-secondary student per year – the third-highest amount among OECD countries after Switzerland and the United States.

OECD research also suggests that Canada’s model (high tuition fee and student support) “can be an effective way for countries to increase access to higher education. However, during periods of economic crisis, high levels of tuition fees can put a considerable financial burden on students and their families and can discourage some of them from entering [post-secondary] education, even when relatively high levels of student support are available. This topic is highly debated in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.” The 2012 Quebec student protests were one of the latest and most visible efforts to engage the students and the larger society in a conversation on tuition levels in this country. As indicated in a recent blog post, the choice Quebec made will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in the province (and beyond) for years to come.

Quebec’s Political Choice: More on University Tuition in Canada

National Post recently published a set of graphs looking at tuition levels in Canada, by province and by area of study. The trigger for these new data, of course, was the student crisis in Quebec, which continues to make headlines not just across Canada, but around the world. At the core of students’ fight with their provincial government (a section of the student population, not necessarily a majority of them!) is a proposed tuition fee hike over the next few years.

Most observers of the developments in Quebec, including this author, have indicated that tuition fees for university studies in Quebec are roughly half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education. (For more detailed facts and observations on university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly Francophone province click here). According to National Post figures, for a four-year undergraduate degree, the annual tuition is on average $2,519 in Quebec, compared with $5,853 in New Brunswick or $6,640 in Ontario. Only Newfoundland & Labrador – with its $2,649 annual tuition – can somewhat match Quebec’s low tuition levels (at Canadian standards). The tuition fees reflect 2011-2012 data.

English: Québec Province within Canada. Españo...

English: Québec Province within Canada. Español: Provincia de Quebec en Canadá. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The difference between Quebec and other Canadian provinces is even more dramatic though when one looks at tuition levels for specific areas of study. Take medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, for instance. While Quebec students pay $2,711/year for a medical degree, their counterparts in British Columbia pay $15,766 and in Ontario $19,462. A $2,284 annual tuition in pharmacy in Quebec becomes $8,975 in Nova Scotia and $23,144 in Ontario. The figures for dentistry are even more dramatic: while studies in this discipline cost $3,175 yearly in Quebec, they cost $26,406 in Ontario and $32,960 in Saskatchewan – a tenfold gradient!

Equally interesting however, and relevant to the discussion on provincial tuition levels, is the contribution to university operating budgets from (i) government funding, (ii) students, through tuition, and (iii) other sources. The percentage from tuition is one of the lowest in Quebec amongst Canadian provinces (17%). Only Saskatchewan at 16% and Newfoundland & Labrador at 9% have lower contributions – compare those figures with 33% in New Brunswick and 35% in Ontario. The Quebec government’s contribution to university operating budgets, on the other hand, is one of the highest in Canada, at 70% (it stands at 77% in Newfoundland & Labrador). This is in stark contract with government contributions of 49% in New Brunswick and 52% in Ontario.

What all this list of numbers boils down to, in the end, is political choice. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – or free university education, for that matter. In the end, someone needs to pay for the quality education students receive in Canada. This is the crux of the matter and there’s no right or wrong answer: who and to what extent should share that burden? As any Political Science student will tell you, life’s often a series of political struggles and decisions, with the more determined, more articulate and stronger advocates of one position or another being able to impose their preferences upon the rest.

In Quebec’s students vs. government fight both parties seem to be formidable opponents. Both are using compelling arguments for why tuition fees should go up or should rather stay at the current levels (inflation-indexed perhaps) and both are trying to increase their share of supporters. What started as an inconspicuous clash over financial contributions has become, over the past 3+ months, a complex political debate, with ramifications beyond Quebec proper. The choice Quebec makes will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in this province (and beyond) for years to come.