This past month has seen two important initiatives addressing barriers created by untenably high (and rising) tuition rates in Ontario law schools:
(1) The Osgoode Initiative for Income Contingent Loans; and
(2) The LSSO “Just or Bust” survey on law school student debt.
We offer our analysis of these new initiatives. (For our take on the LSSO “Just or Bust” survey click HERE). We believe these efforts are helpful developments in the fight to address rising tuition rates. Though neither initiative is, or purports to be, an answer to the current student debt problem, recognition of the problem and a call to action are exactly what the hour calls for, and on that point this initiatives hit the mark.
Income Contingent Loan Pilot Program at Osgoode Hall
Osgoode Hall is launching its new initiative in 2015 as a five-year pilot program. The aim is to offer five students admitted at Osgoode Hall’s JD program a loan, with pay back contingent on the student’s ability to find employment and earn a threshold income post-graduation. The program is not debt forgiveness, but is progressively rated so that students who do not manage to obtain employment may receive debt forgiveness after several years. Students who do manage to obtain employment will be required to pay back their loan over a multi-year pay back arrangement tied to their income level.
The catalyst for this initiative, Osgoode’s Dean Lorne Sossin, acknowledges that this is not a “solution” to the problem of skyrocketing tuitions and is at odds with the approach of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). They argue such initiatives download the problem of debt to the student (by deferring the debt burden) as opposed to focusing on the underlying problem of the Province’s withdrawal from funding post-secondary education. The focus of this initiative is to respond the problem of staggering debt loads in the present with available resources.
Many believe the solution to accessibility is not greater access to loans but greater access to education through lowering tuition and increasing government support for Universities and Colleges. We passionately agree. That said there is no indication such a change in government policy is coming any time soon. Until and unless there is some plausible pathway to greater public investment in postsecondary and/or professional education, the question is what we can do with the means at our disposal.
This leaves open the question of whether Osgoode may advocate a freeze or reduction of tuition rates. Yes, tuition fees are practically needed to defray operating costs, but what are those costs exactly? Universities need to maximize transparency. Students and the legal community deserve to know how tuition fees are being allocated. Transparency is an endemic problem facing all law schools across the province.
Some might cynically consider that the Income Contingent Pilot Program from Osgoode—the belly of the beast, where tuition fees are currently at $24,424.32—is a form of damage control to effectively justify the status quo by offering of a nominal gesture to five students per year. Instead let’s be optimistic. What is striking about Sossin’s initiative is that it wasn’t incumbent on Osgoode to have made such a maneuver, nor was it incumbent on Sossin to transparently lay bare his rationale for developing the initiative, and acknowledge that it’s a stopgap measure.
The door is now open for other law schools to weigh in on the debate of controlling tuition fees. Sossin’s position is a far cry from the reactionary politics of former U of T dean, Ron Daniels who triumphantly ushered in an era of dramatic free-market tuition escalation between 1995 and 2004. Law schools must now decide what kind of leaders they want to be on this issue, and which path they want to walk down.
More importantly, the opportunity is ripe for law students and the Ontario legal community (more broadly) to demand greater accountability from law schools, so that they take a position on rising tuition levels. While progressive thinking, such as that demonstrated by Osgoode, is welcome, the impetus for revamping the system should not simply be a top down process.