Universities, colleges should be tuition free in Ontario

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The university tuition debate is multi-faceted. Some want lower fees, arguing that citizens have a right to obtain a university education and public institutions have an obligation to make it accessible to all who are qualified. Others say university research requires funds have to be levied from students.

One fact stands out. Universities in more egalitarian countries, like in Scandinavia, charge much less than countries like the U.S. and the U.K. If Ontario aspires to close its wealth gap, measured by its Gini coefficient, its universities and colleges should scrap their tuitions.

Charging no tuition at public universities is not so radical. Many leading world economies charge none, like Germany, France, and Sweden. According to Statista, 2.9 million students studied, tuition-free, at universities and colleges in Germany last academic year. Although the policy has changed in France for non-European students, current beneficiaries pay only €170 ($251 CAN) to €601 ($888 CAN) annually in public universities. In Sweden and Denmark, domestic and European students do not have to pay tuition.

University should be free, above all because it is an important component of the social safety net, like health care. Tertiary education may not be for everyone, but they should be accessible to all who need it. There are many ways to achieve this, but a no-tuition policy would be more flexible than government bursaries and loans, which often require students to apply before or soon after high school graduation and sometimes with a guarantor.

Furthermore, free university helps the Ontario population become better informed citizens, and there are intrinsic social benefits to it. Major academic studies have already linked education to good health.

Studies have shown that people who are more educated are less likely to be poor, have children out of wedlock, and abuse and neglect their offspring. Education even has some unintended effect on crime reduction. In this politically engaged province, having easy access to the top scholars on government matters would help one exercise their civic duties.

Finally, offering free tuition invariably leads to a more vibrant academic experience. At Uppsala University in Sweden, a student can minor in Kurdish, Saami, and special education. The Sorbonne in Paris has student clubs for entrepreneurs, an improv troupe, and a group for people who understand sign language.

No doubt this diversity reflects the social diversity of Sweden and Paris that would likewise exist in Ontario if more Indigeneous, older and low-income students, and people with disabilities are admitted. Legal studies programs may become more common to help non-law students navigate Ontario’s legal system. Students may start consulting projects to serve small business, rural, and Indigenous communities.


As an egalitarian statement — to strive for a more inclusive society — Ontario should follow the successes in Europe and implement a no-tuition policy in its public universities and colleges, in what may turn out to be a global trend.

Gary Lai is an economist and the founder and director of the anti-poverty campaign TKO Poverty.

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