Ultra Vires


Previously On: Tuition Roundtable Discussion Series

SLS and Faculty conclude dialogue for the academic year

In response to the Students’ Law Society’s (SLS) 2021 Tuition Letter, the SLS and the Faculty have engaged in a series of three roundtable discussions over the winter term in efforts to foster meaningful dialogue between the two parties. The Tuition Roundtable was primarily composed of nine SLS-appointed members and three Faculty professors; however, other Faculty members participated in certain roundtable discussions when appropriate. SLS Vice-President, Academic Eloise Hirst (2L) generously offered Ultra Vires a glimpse into key takeaways from the Roundtable series and provided an SLS perspective on our student body’s enduring clash with rising tuition costs and capricious financial aid.

Roundtable Meeting #1

The first Roundtable Discussion was held on February 7 and was intended to provide necessary background information for student Roundtable members to understand the tuition landscape. Vice-President, Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Maybury and Chief of Government Relations Andrew Thomson presented an overview of the budget, expenses, and revenues of both the Faculty of Law and the central University of Toronto.

Hirst noted that this first meeting’s most significant takeaway is that the law school currently receives more funding back than it contributes to the University’s funds by way of tuition. This means that law students’ tuition is effectively subsidized by other students at the University. Two reasons were cited as the underlying causes of the current tuition price: a decline in government funding over time (through stagnant grants that do not adjust for inflation), and the desire to maintain the quality of the program. The Faculty of Law’s largest expense (55 percent) is compensation for faculty and staff. 

Maybury also discussed how the last provincial Progressive Conservative government gave law schools the opportunity to increase tuition during the mid-1990s to 2003. U of T Law, under then-Dean Ron Daniels’ leadership, was the only school which elected to pursue increased tuition and faculty compensation. However, Maybury stated that other law schools now wish they had taken that opportunity. 

Roundtable Meeting #2

The second Roundtable Discussion was held on March 4 and centred on the financial aid program at the Faculty. 

“The goal of the financial aid program is to ensure that financial considerations do not prevent admitted students from attending U of T Law,” stated Hirst. “[The program] is exclusively needs-based, which the Faculty believes makes U of T a comparatively cheaper option than other law schools with less robust financial aid programs that also offer merit scholarships.”  

Each year, the Financial Aid Office is given a fixed amount of money derived from donations and through tuition paid by students (30 cents on every tuition dollar paid goes into the financial aid budget). However, students have pointed out that the calculations for deemed unmet need do not reflect the cost of living in Toronto. The Financial Aid Committee has recently looked at changing the deemed amount to reflect these increased costs. For example, the financial aid calculations deem the cost of living for students who live away from home (including rent, food, transportation, cell phone bill and utilities) to be $1,661 per month.

The second session also featured Professor Benjamin Alarie, who covered admissions trends and post-graduate pathways. The Faculty stated that admissions trends have been constant over the past decade, as have post-graduate career pathways. Presenters stressed that U of T Law should be compared to U.S. schools such as Harvard or Stanford in terms of post-graduation success in New York firms. Certain members of the Faculty also emphasised that their realistic preference to combat high tuition is by improving the Financial Aid Program rather than by decreasing tuition, noting that decreasing tuition for all students is a less progressive approach than ensuring that students in need receive adequate financial aid. 

Finally, Dean Brunnée acknowledged that a principal reason for why tuition is in its current state is that the Faculty is locked in by its decisions to increase tuition in the early 2000s. The Faculty claims these decisions are not reversible, and are examining forward-looking solutions to address the tuition problem. 

Roundtable Meeting #3

The third Roundtable Discussion was held on March 11 and provided an opportunity to discuss solutions and takeaways after all parties had the requisite background information. Prior to meeting, the SLS circulated a feedback form to elicit opinions from the broader student body. The form received 65 responses and indicated that 86 percent of students do not believe that the benefits they receive from attending U of T law are proportional to the cost of attending. Furthermore, 49 percent indicated that they have serious regrets about attending U of T law related to the financial burden. Major themes and concerns that were raised in the feedback form included:

  • The cost of tuition should be compared to other law schools in Canada, not U.S. law schools;
  • The deemed parental contribution as the measure for access to the Financial Aid Program is often a poor reflection of students’ socio-economic status;
  • The poor quality of instruction in relation to tuition cost;
  • The Bay Street pipeline and lack of true agency in job selection; and
  • Some students support pursuing greater financial aid as a solution, rather than lowering tuition for all.

The meeting covered the student survey’s responses, the long-term impacts of high tuition rates, and potential next steps. Due to budgetary constraints, especially related to cost of living increases under collective agreements, the Faculty maintained that lowering tuition is not an option, and that it would likely need to be raised (once unfrozen) to cover these costs. Hirst said the central question raised by the student members of the roundtable was: when does it stop?

Student members also raised that students’ perception of the quality of education provided by the Faculty is grounded in their experience of law school during a pandemic when many of the benefits of attending U of T Law disappeared. Students have lost valuable time in the physical building, were deprived of opportunities to interact with faculty and alumni in both formal speaker sessions and in less formal environments. Students have also not seen the teaching abilities of faculty members at their best: teaching online in an effective and engaging manner requires different skills and techniques that have not always been fully developed.  

Dean Brunnée acknowledged that tuition prices cannot rise indefinitely and agreed that long-term thinking is required to ensure that a decline in quality does not happen due to the price going too high. She also acknowledged that an alumni satisfaction survey would be one possible way to better understand tuition’s impact on how alumni determine their career paths, manage their debt load, and feel in relation to general post-graduation satisfaction. 

In opening their dialogue last year, the SLS’ 2021 Tuition Letter laid out a list of requests for the Faculty regarding tuition, financial aid, and data collection, and the spirit of these requests appears to remain unfettered. 

“The SLS maintains its position that tuition remains a significant barrier to many students considering attending U of T Law […] and alters the life and career trajectories of students currently studying at the Faculty,” commented Hirst. “Our desired outcome remains that tuition be frozen, or that it rises only with the cost of inflation in the short term, and that a long-term plan is implemented to ensure that tuition does not increase indefinitely. The SLS also continues to support more data collection regarding the effects of tuition on post-graduate trajectories.”

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