Leaves are falling, but what about tuition fees?

With somewhat less media coverage than previous years, Statistics Canada has released its tuition fee estimates for 2019/20. And for the first time since I can remember, the national average for undergraduate tuition fees actually declined from the previous year. 

Good news, right? 

Well, not so fast. Turns out that all provinces except two (Alberta and Ontario) increased average tuition fees for undergraduate students. 

Tuition fees are only part of the story, of course. Additional compulsory fees are set by individual institutions and are, for the most part, unregulated by provincial governments. As public funding continues to be insufficient, and as provincial governments place some limits on how frequently tuition fees can increase and to what level, universities look to other revenue sources. And additional compulsory fees are much less scrutinized and often unregulated, offering opportunities for universities to come up with new ways to charge students money. On average, these fees are about $900 this year, and cover things like athletics, student health services, and clubs and student organizations. 

This year, the national average for additional compulsory fees also declined slightly. But don’t dig out the confetti just yet. In the spirit of our many studies on post-secondary education in Canada, I’ve gone through the latest tuition fee numbers from Statistics Canada, and provided you with a bit of context to help understand what’s really going on.

Here are the highlights:


Ontario’s 10% tuition fee roll-back is solely responsible for the decline in undergraduate fees in Canada (on average). But even with this decline, Ontario’s undergraduate fees are still second highest in the country, improving only one position since last year. And this doesn’t even begin to address the issue of student debt, which will be directly impacted by the provincial government’s $670-million in OSAP funding cuts , which gave many students a nasty shock this summer when they found out about the amount of aid for which they had actually qualified. When it comes to student debt, it appears Ontario really is positioning itself as “a place to grow.”


This year’s decline in the national average for additional undergraduate compulsory fees happened as a result of Ontario’s newly implemented so-called “Students First” plan which makes a number of fees optional (except those that fall within the government’s “established framework”).
This essentially forces a trial-balloon version of the so-called “right to work” on student unions that advocate for students collectively and manage a number of initiatives that enrich campus life, including campus newspapers, LGBTQ2S+ and human rights groups, and food banks.


A number of provinces continue their de facto two-tier fee policy, charging out-of-province students a premium while providing in-province students with a bursary.

Quebec began this practice in the early 90s, followed by Nova Scotia (which effectively deregulated out-of-province, tuition fees in 2015); PEI has a bursary for in-province students (Saskatchewan had a much smaller one, but that has recently changed).


Last year, Newfoundland and Labrador implemented a two-tier fee structure, which meant that since the three year rollback starting in 2000 and subsequent freeze, average fees in the province increased for the first time in 15 years (and eliminating the last remaining supporter of a universal approach to low tuition fees). This year they continue to rise, though they are still the lowest, on average, in the country.


Because universities have recognized the lucrative potential of international tuition fee deregulation, the national average for international undergraduate tuition fees is almost $30,000.

Interestingly, international student fees are more highly subsidized in Newfoundland and Labrador than in other provinces; they are at $11,400, well below the national average, but still significantly higher than undergraduate students studying in the province who are still covered by the tuition fee freeze (and even, at least until now, those who are not).


Alberta’s undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen, at the 4th lowest in the country, but given the direction and recommendations (below) from the Blue Ribbon Task Force, that trend isn’t likely to continue.

Recommendation 8:
Achieve a revenue mix for post-secondary institutions comparable to that in British Columbia and Ontario, including less reliance on government grants, more funding from tuition and alternative revenue sources, and more entrepreneurial approaches to how programs are financed and delivered. Lift the current tuition fee freeze.

Recommendation 9:
Assess the financial viability of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions and move quickly to address the future of those that do not appear to be viable in future funding scenarios


Manitoba removed the cap limiting annual tuition fee increases to inflation (approximately 2%) implemented in 2009/10; as a result, the percentage increase this year was 5.3%. BC maintained its 2% cap on annual increases. 


For the second year in a row, the provincial budget froze funding for universities in Saskatchewan, and tuition fees continued to increase. The Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship ($500 for all high school graduates going on to post-secondary education), has been converted to a
needs-based scholarship. 


In 2019 the provincial government eliminated New Brunswick’s tuition relief and tuition-free program (implemented by the previous Liberal government) for students from families making under $50,000, replacing it with the (revived) tuition bursary.


The Ontario government eliminated the province’s tuition-free (for students from families making under $60,000) program, replacing it with the aforementioned tuition fee reduction and a re-jigged grants-loans combo through OSAP. The government also lowered the family income threshold to qualify for the Ontario Student Grant, and reduced the size of the grant available to Ontario students studying outside of the province (50% of the Ontario funding will now be a loan).

While a useful indication of levels of provincial support for post-secondary education, undergraduate tuition fees never tell the whole story, particularly as “average” fees obscure what students are actually paying (depending on province of origin, province of destination, and the specifics of grant or bursary programs which can be tweaked, changed, or cancelled as recently seen in Ontario and New Brunswick). Likewise, average increases and decreases, particularly on a national scale, must be more closely examined to determine context, cause, and effect. 

That the national average for undergraduate tuition fees has declined is particularly significant for what has prompted it—a tuition fee rollback Ontario, combined with the abrupt cancellation of a recently-implemented student aid program, and cuts to OSAP that limit the number of students eligible for grants and reduces the amount of loans provided overall. In addition, other compulsory fees are slightly down on average because the government of Ontario—the province with the most universities, the greatest number of students, and some of the highest tuition fees in the country—implemented a policy resulting in the defunding of those organizations whose mandate is to advocate for students and which have consistently pushed the government on issues of education affordability, student well-being, and campus safety. 

While a tuition fee rollback makes for great headlines, when it comes to how we support our public institutions and those who attend them, the devil is always in the details. And what these details mean for broader, overarching issues of universality, debt, accessibility and student advocacy remains to be seen. 

Table comparing tuition fees in 2009/10 2018/19 and 2019/20, including % change since 2018/19. Canada average tuition $4,942 2009-2010, $6,822 2018-2019, $6,463 in 2019-2020, a 5.3% decrease over last year. NL (1) 2,624 2,971 3,038 2.3  PE (6) 4,969 6,632 6,762 2.0  NS (10) 5,752 8,086 8,368 3.5 NB (7) 5,516 7,108 7,628 7.3 QC (2) 2,309 2,956 3,065 3.7 ON (9) 5,985 8,793 7,922 -9.9 MB (3) 3,408 4,462 4,698 5.3 SK (8) 5,173 7,511 7,756 3.3 AB (4) 5,240 5,713 5,714 0.0 BC (5) 4,706 5,806 5,924 2.0

Longitudinal comparison of annual tuition fees by province (rank in parantheses).

Longitudinal comparison of annual tuition fees by province (rank in parantheses).

Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.