Editorial: Take a deeper look before vilifying tuition increases

Another year, another international tuition increase.

When it was announced in November that tuition would be raised by at least 3.02 per cent for all international students with no such increases on domestic students, many were left crying foul.

How can they not? Their tuition, already nearly triple what domestic students pay, is increasing for undergraduates by anywhere from $614.40 and $1,334.32 per year in 2017-18. Coupled with being away from family, language barriers, and uncertain financial situations, I — and every other domestic student — can’t begin to comprehend the stress this would bring.

The narrative surrounding this increase has, so far, vilified the university at every turn. Students have expressed feeling like cash cows, and as though the university is balancing its budget on the backs of international students. This is true in many ways, but don’t be fooled into thinking domestic tuition wouldn’t be going up too if the university had its way.

In a presentation to council, University Vice President (Academic) and Provost Steven Dew said that the increases in tuition were in line with what the university refers to as the “Academic Price Index,” a measure of inflation separate from traditional CPI and more reflective of the unique costs that universities face. The API is set at 3.02 per cent, exactly the amount the international students will be charged. If tuition were not capped, domestic students could rest assured that their tuition would go up by the same figure.

For the university’s part, they depend on a government endowment and student fees for 89 per cent of revenue in their operating budget. With the tuition freeze extended through 2017-18, one of those sources of revenue has been capped. In addition, the government has not guaranteed a budget backfill to compensate for the discrepancy between frozen tuition and inflation.

With newly implemented carbon tax and minimum wage increases, in addition to rising costs of employee salaries and benefits, the university is projecting a loss of revenue of $3.9 million. Where will these losses be felt? Likely instructors, support staff, and other positions and programs that will almost immediately impact students.

Through all this uncertainty, the Students’ Union has not wavered on its position against increasing student costs. A student-friendly NDP government seeking support in the next election has given the SU an over-inflated idea of what is possible, and seemingly blinded it to bulletproofing student interests against a change in government, and a potential return to the chronic budget cuts of the PC dynasty. In a presentation to council on December 6, the heads of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) said they were lobbying the government for a return to the tuition levels of 1992, plus 24 years of CPI.

A return to this system would see students shell out approximately half the tuition they currently pay. The CAUS representatives went so far as to say it was unlikely they would get actually achieve decreases in tuition. So, rather than focusing on achievable lobbying goals, SU fees go to funding groups like CAUS that push less for change than they do pipe dreams.

I still believe the SU has the best interests of students at heart, and I recognize that taking a hard stance on the cost of being a student, a topic that pervades every aspect of the work they do, is highly efficient in terms of maintaining an organizational message. What I cannot abide by is an unwillingness to cushion financial blows to student pocketbooks in favour of lobbying for goals they admit are likely unattainable. By advocating for the tuition freeze before guaranteeing backfill funding, the SU must take some part of the blame for any cuts brought about by budget shortfalls.

For now, the SU will continue to advocate for lowering the cost of education for students. It’s a lobby position that doesn’t often make significant breakthroughs at the provincial level, and freezing tuition for three years should be seen as one of the great successes of the past decade for student groups across the province, regardless of the end it brings about. My concern would be that if a non-NDP government is voted in next election, that the freeze goes away and the university covers three years of inflation all at once in tuition fees. Combine that with even a slight budget cut, and tuition could be raised on domestic students by somewhere around 10 per cent.

But, maybe that’s just me. The SU has a mandate from the students to focus on what is affecting students now, not what might happen next year or the year after that. They have to focus on freezing costs when and where they can. My concern would be that after years of consistent tuition payments, students are saddled with a massive increase. Currently, there exists two distinct arguments about student fees, one from the SU and another from the university. As a governance outsider, I see the SU as a strong, if sometimes misguided voice for what is best for students. You can count me as someone who would like to see alternate solutions to the problems associated with student fees.