Make the rich (not) pay!

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
Remember that old slogan the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) used when you were in university? They used to cite Albania as a workers’ paradise. Enver Hoxha was their ideal leader. “Make the rich pay!” was their mantra. Anyone recall that? Anyone?

Don’t ask me why, but I was reminded of this during two recent speeches by the  deans of the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria law schools.

They were discussing how they can’t sleep well at night because they’re unable to raise law school tuition to levels charged in other parts of Canada because of a B.C. government mandated tuition freeze that applies to both undergraduate faculties and professional schools.

B.C. universities aren’t going to get any more money from government (that’s obvious), but a freeze on law school tuition means that UVic and UBC will find it harder to attract the “best and brightest” legal scholars and may well have to lay off support staff. Fewer dollars means they won’t have the resources to hire those who would be paid buckets more money elsewhere. It’s nice here in B.C., but you can’t eat scenery in the most expensive part of Canada. And if positions at Queen’s, the University of Toronto, or Western open up and offer to pay current faculty more money than UVic or UBC can afford, do you blame faculty for leaving B.C.?

I’m sure the Canadian Federation of Students will want my head on a platter for this, but the artificially low tuition fees the B.C. law schools are forced to charge are a national joke when you see what other law schools cost and what lawyers have the potential to earn.

Not only is low tuition for law school a taxpayer-funded subsidy to well-off students or soon-to-be-well-off lawyers, it’s a B.C. taxpayer subsidy to rich or soon-to-be-rich Ontario lawyers who can come to B.C. for law degrees that are 30- to 60-per-cent cheaper than one from Ontario.

It’s not only make the rich not pay, its make the rich Ontarians not pay!

Let me explain.

The artificial freeze on tuition in B.C. law schools is an example of “public policy gone wrong.” Although the CFS continues to demand that tuition be lowered or eliminated to allow for greater accessibility to higher education for poorer students, there is research that says that this is all horse malarkey. But it does give the CFS something to endlessly complain about to justify its existence.

Stephen Gordon (of my favourite newspaper, the Globe and Mail), suggests that its not the tuition fees that determine whether you go to university, but other factors such as the socio-economic status of one’s parents, the opportunity cost of being out of the workforce, and the cost of living while at university. Oh, and I’d add: your grades in high school.

“Reducing tuition fees,” says Gordon, “will do very little to close the gap between university participation rates in people from the higher and lower ends of the income distribution.” He cites a study prepared for the government of Quebec by Université de Sherbrooke professor Valérie Vierstraete, that the outright elimination of tuition fees in Quebec would only increase university enrolment by 7.8 per cent. 

Now let’s look at professional schools like law. Law is a profession. Students aren’t going to law school to read chief justice Brian Dickson’s eloquent decisions as if he were Lord Byron or Chaucer. The vast majority go to law school to be admitted into the profession so they can make a better, and arguably more interesting, living than what they were doing before law school. 

And there are monetary rewards in the legal profession. Starting associate salaries for lawyers in downtown Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto firms are between $80,000 and $120,000. And yes, we all know it’s lower in the burbs and in small towns, but it’s not chicken feed either.

Now let’s look at current tuition levels.

UVic law’s annual tuition is $8,508; UBC’s is $10,338. But wait. Move eastward and you’ll see tuition for Queen’s is $14,220, Western is $16,626, Osgoode Hall Law School is $19,041, and U of T is a whopping $25,389 per year.

So what we have is a situation where those entering the legal profession can expect to make, very conservatively, $50,000 and not so conservatively, $90,000 in their first year of practice. They’ll make more money in subsequent years, and way more money if they’re at big firms.

Sounds to me like tuition is pretty cheap at UVic and UBC when compared to what many will make in their first few years at the bar, and really cheap compared to what they’d have paid if they’d gone to law school in Ontario.

Admittedly, not everyone will be making what the big firms pay, but let’s face it: law grads won’t have to wait tables at The Keg anymore like I did before (and during) law school. And I suppose if I was earning less as a lawyer than what I was earning before (and during) law school, I’d have stayed at The Keg, moved to where there was a law firm that would hire me, or found something more lucrative to do.

So, to be blasphemous, there is no valid public policy reason why B.C. needs law school tuition frozen at artificially low levels when it is $5,000 to $15,000 higher in Ontario. Low law school tuition is nothing more than a subsidy funded by B.C. taxpayers for those who would otherwise be able to pay for their valuable law degree soon after they start practising (or get hired in other industries that find a law degree an asset).

“Make the rich not pay!” must be the B.C. government’s motto!

But in addition to being a subsidy for wealthier law students and soon-to-be-wealthier lawyers, the freeze on law school tuition has created a market for non-B.C. students obtaining comparatively inexpensive law degrees that are subsidized by the B.C. taxpayer! It’s so cheap to go to law school in B.C. that our schools are flooded with students from other provinces who get can their legal education at one of two world-class institutions at bargain basement prices, only to “head back home” once they’re done! 

Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers: 40 per cent of UVic’s first-year law class comes from outside B.C., and about 35 per cent of them leave B.C. to article back in Ontario or Alberta. 

“Make the rich Ontarians not pay” may well be the most appropriate motto of Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto and the rest of the B.C. Liberals, who refuse to allow UBC and UVic to increase law school tuition levels (except by a measly two per cent per year for inflation) to match the average charged across Canada: $14,300 per year.

And to make the most obvious point imaginable, does anyone in their right mind think that Osgoode provides a profoundly better legal education than UVic does because its tuition is $11,000 a year higher? Are UBC students getting a poorer legal education than Western students because Western charges $6,000 more a year? Anyone want to argue that one?

Yet the B.C. government allows a new law school, Thompson Rivers University, to charge $16,800 per year. Now if you were Yamamoto, why on earth would you allow a new law school to charge that and not allow the other two law schools to match it? 

The answer is that UBC and UVic were subject to the government mandated (read “politically motivated”) tuition freeze, but because TRU’s is new, it is only subject to the freeze once the tuition is established. Now that it’s been established, TRU is subject to the freeze. And by the way, TRU has 75 students enrolled and had close to 500 applicants willing to pay $16,800 a year for tuition.

Do you not think the thousands of applicants to UVic and UBC in 2011 would not have been prepared to pay what TRU is charging? Maybe UBC and UVic should de-certify their law schools for 24 hours on Aug. 1, then re-establish them on Aug. 2 as “new institutions” so they can match TRU’s fees!

Or maybe the B.C. government should unfreeze tuition at professional schools like law, capping them if they want at what TRU charges. But clearly, lower tuition for everyone gives everyone a subsidy, including those who can most afford law school. Higher tuition would ensure that those who really needed financial assistance could get it.

Oh, and what happens to “accessibility” if UVic and UBC charge, say $6,000 more a year for law school tuition? Well, it improves.

Right now there is very comprehensive and generous financial aid available from UVic and UBC law schools that assists all students in financial need. If tuition were raised to, say, $16,800 per year, I would expect the deans would bend over backwards to ensure that additional funds from that increase were allocated to needy students.

But for now, the UBC and UVic law schools wallow in a public policy catch-22 where they can’t get more money from government, yet they’re prevented from getting more from the students.

It’s not just bad public policy. It’s idiotic.

Ontario law students must just love how profoundly stupid we are here in B.C.!

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