Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rising tuition fees are a myth? Maclean’s needs to check its facts.

Maclean’s has done it again.

Controversial title? Check. Factual errors? Check. Hyperbolic statements that expose bias? Check. Citing the Educational Policy Institute (EPI), a right-wing think tank, as the leading voice on post-secondary education in Canada? Check.

Karen Pinchin’s piece “Rising tuition? It’s a myth,” hits all the elements needed to be fit to print on the Maclean’s Online education blog.

Rather than a being a piece about a report written by the EPI and its views on tuition fees and funding, the article reads like it was commissioned by the EPI itself. It takes the report of the EPI pretty much as gospel. With the exception of a few obligatory paragraphs to a BC-based critic, the 1,800-plus word homage to the EPI is a slap in the face of the vast majority of people who support lower tuition fees.

To digest this wordy piece, one must first overlook the embarrassing error in the first paragraph (“Nationwide, thousands rallied, demanding protection from what everyone knows are skyrocketing tuition fees.”—unless Pinchin considers Ontario and Manitoba a nation, November 5 was only a province-wide day of action in those provinces).One must also overlook the fact that the subject of this piece, “a new report by Canada’s only higher education think tank” could only be considered new in the cosmic sense—the report was penned months ago. But these details are only fodder for journalist-types who care about minor facts. Let’s delve into the real issues.

Pinchin makes no mention of who funds the EPI. Here’s a list of the clients and funders that pay into EPI Canada:

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)
Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE)
Government of Ontario
Government of New Brunswick
Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation

…hardly a list of agencies that can even pretend to be neutral on the subject. It’s no wonder the EPI keeps producing biased studies, which help its funders make their case that tuition fees can go higher.

The bio of the author, Alex Usher, also sheds light on another potential source of bias. His former employers include: the Association of Universities and Colleges, Canada, Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, the Government of Canada and the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Each of these organizations have very specific policy that is pro-higher tuition fees.

Usher was also the first national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), a group that is known to have been started with the help of the Federal Liberal Party[*] to oppose legitimate calls by students to stop downloading costs of college and universities onto students. Unsurprisingly, CASA still avoids tuition fees as an issue in its campaigns.

In Pinchin’s piece, our favourite line from Usher is: “ ‘By any reasonable measure, education is a lot more affordable now here than it was 10 years ago’. ” Here’s a reasonable measure, how about the upfront cost? Here’s another: rising cost of student debt? And maybe one more: public opinion? Whether or not these are the best measures are irrelevant to Usher’s statement: they are all reasonable and all would refute Usher’s essay.

Pinchin also repeats Usher’s claim that in Ontario, “net tuition” has only risen by two percent since 2000. She doesn’t explain how Usher calculated “net tuition,” nor does she mention that, according to Statistics Canada, the percentage change in undergraduate tuition fees for Ontarian full-time students was 4.7, this year alone. For any reputable media outlet, it would be normal to cite StatsCan in a story like this, but Pichin somehow forgets to double-check Usher’s story. Further probing could have revealed many other studies which paint an extremely different picture.

Maclean’s’ ability to dress up their editorial bias as news stories should not cease to amaze or fool anyone. Pinchin’s article should not be considered news any more than Usher’s piece should be considered unbiased research.

At the very least, this article, and the report on which it was based, should be considered opinion. The report’s use is limited to demonstrating the perspective of the EPI’s funders and clients. On second thought, it may also be useful as fuel for the fire the next time students decide to camp outside in a ‘Freeze for the Fees’ event.

[*] Greenspon, Edward and Wilson-Smith, Anthony 1996, Double Vision: The inside story of the Liberals in power, Doubleday, Toronto.