Law School Tuition

It’s still early days in term one. For the incoming class of 2012 this means a steady parade of professors and administrators telling you that you are really something—U of T Law is the best school, and since a school is just the sum of its students, you must be the best students. It is all very flattering and far be it from me to tell you not bask in the adulation, I sure did. The challenges which lie ahead of you will also be hinted at—exams, job interviews, etc—and many of you will begin to think hard about what sort of career you would like, and what you need to do to get there. Between school work, charting out your career path, and involving yourself in law school social life there will be time for little else.

But please, during your three years, save a little time for this question: what kind of school is U of T Law? It is an open question, a subjective question—and ultimately an important question. Understanding exactly what I mean here requires a little background.

A brief (recent) history of U of T Law tuition fees

Over the last fifteen years, the school has undergone a tremendous amount of change. In the early to mid 1990s, the student body was smaller and the tuition fees were regulated by the provincial government at $4,000 per year. Though the slow economy of the early 1990s led to a downturn in student hiring, a student of this era could generally cover the costs of school through the combination of a summer job (not necessarily in law) and government student loans.

In the mid-1990s tuition fees for law schools in Ontario were deregulated and U of T Law under the leadership of Dean Ron Daniels (1998-2005) embraced this new reality. Seeking to make U of T Law more international both in focus and in stature—a ‘Harvard of the North’—Dean Daniels championed the cause for higher tuition fees. He argued that higher fees would attract and retain better professors, create a more intimate classroom experience, and allow for a broad range of clinical experiences. Moreover, a robust and well-funded financial aid system would protect student access at the front-end of law school and student career choice at the back-end, regardless of debt levels. Many students and some faculty (notably Jim Phillips, Denise Rheaume and Martha Schaffer) pushed back on this vision but Daniels’ vision carried the day.

Fast forward to 2006. First year tuition now stands at $17,280 and Dean Moran is running the faculty. She brings a softer touch to faculty-student relations (see: Muffin Madness) but also a strong will to build upon Daniels’ vision. If tuition increases under Dean Daniels were sporadic (14% one year, 0% the next) and often contested, Dean Moran’s tenure marked the point when they became regularized and normalized. Every year since 2005/2006, first year tuition has increased by 8%. It took seven years for first year tuition to rise to its current level of $27,420. At the current pace—and the faculty has given no indication that the rate of increase will be slowed—first year tuition rates will reach $40,289 by 2017. Taking the twenty year view, this would represent a 1,000% increase in the tuition fees at U of T Law since 1997.

You get what you pay for?

Last year, the sls released a report called Perspectives on a Decade: the Vision for U of T Law which compared the Daniels era promises with current realities at the faculty. The goal of the report was to create the beginnings of an institutional memory for students, so that they might have a baseline from which they can judge if they get what they pay for. You should read the report (estimated time commitment: 10 minutes) and use the information to help form your own conclusions.

My own conclusion, after altogether too much thought on the issue, is that students don’t get what they pay for, they get what they demand. Accountability will only be the product of an informed student body exerting pressure on the faculty to live up to their promises or, if the promises simply cannot be kept, to admit that U of T Law cannot have its cake and eat it too.

It is scandalous that the financial aid pot has increased at half the rate of tuition during Dean Moran’s tenure—but the fact of the matter is that students have not demanded anything different. In fact, perhaps the greater scandal is that most students haven’t even noticed.

If you as a student have any interest in the long-term direction of your school, the first step is to inform yourself.

The Bigger Picture

In Professor Stewart’s Hail & Farewell speech to the graduating class of 2012, he began his remarks by noting that our class entered the school in the shadow of the Great Recession and left the school with the shadow still looming over us. I hope the same will not be said at your convocation, but who can say? The uncertainty in the global economic climate is open ended at this point and we do not know when (if?) 1990s or mid-2000s style growth will return. Lawyers never feel the pain of a recession too deeply but a poor economic climate nevertheless affects hiring in the private bar. For those interested in government employment, the debts burdening governments at all levels are likely to slow hiring and wage growth. Anecdotal reports from job-seeking students generally take the form of “it ain’t what it used to be”. Gone—long gone—are the days of guaranteed hire backs on Bay St.

The common response around U of T Law to this emerging reality is that U of T students will be fine—we’re the best, remember? While this belief has some truth, it can only be true to a degree, not true in the absolute. The global economy does not take its cues from the school on your transcript. Neither do the repayment commitments on your Scotiabank loans.

The Great Recession has begun to impact students, yet there is little evidence that the faculty has adjusted to this new reality. Meanwhile, a regrettable truth is that we do not even have the data necessary to judge the larger effects of U of T Law’s drive towards Harvard or Yale like status. What is the median total debt level of graduating students? We don’t know, it is not tracked. How many students feel pressured by looming debt and a tighter labour market when deciding their career path? We don’t know, it is not tracked. Why do some students turn down their offers to come to U of T Law in the first place? We don’t know, it is not tracked.

Whether U of T Law continues on the path set by Dean Daniels is, of course, dependant on many factors beyond simply student feedback or advocacy. However, the pressures of the times will only increase the importance of student discussion the faculty’s vision and its effects.

You may be of the opinion that U of T Law’s evolution since the 1990s has been on the whole beneficial for students. The point is not that all students agree. My opinions must be quite obvious but I would be loathe for you to accept them uncritically. Rather, the point is that students discuss the issue in the first place, that students save a little time for
the question—what sort of school is U of T Law?