Graduate students at the University of Alberta are calling for collective action following a proposed tuition increase for the next academic year.
Tuition is proposed to increase by 5.5 per cent for all domestic students, and 6.5 per cent for all international students entering new programs in 2024. This is the maximum allowable amount under a cap set by the Government of Alberta, based on the inflationary measure of Consumer Price Index (CPI).
In a letter addressed to graduate students and the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), the Graduate Psychology Association (GPA) called for polling student interest in a strike.
“We at the GPA petition our GSA to advocate for graduate student wellbeing by strongly protesting this tuition increase; to inform the student population of our ability to strike and what it may entail; and to poll the student population campus-wide for interest in striking,” the letter said.
In light of the proposed increases, the GPA polled its membership and found that 93 per cent “find the tuition increase unfair” and that approximately three-quarters are open to the idea of a strike.
The GPA letter also said that graduate students were facing other issues such as delayed contracts, delays in reimbursements for travel, and the university set up teaching appointments a year in advance, “only to slash their promised salaries in half either shortly before, or a month after the fall 2022 term began.”
In a comment provided to The Gateway, the university said that salary changes were due to a miscategorization.
“Regarding graduate student salaries, the university recently became aware that, based on information provided, a small number of graduate students were issued appointments under the incorrect category and has been working with the GSA to resolve this.”
In regard to the tuition increase, the university said that they are wrapping up a four-month long consultation process and “incorporating feedback to help support student proposals and ensure the sustained quality of our programs.”
The GPA letter comes out alongside the approval of a similar tuition increase at the University of Calgary (U of C). The increase was protested by the U of C Students’ Union last week.
The Sociology Graduate Student Association (SGSA) replied to the GPA letter in solidarity, and urged the GSA and other student organizations “to stand up against this unjust plan and the university leadership.”
“The university must immediately stop any attempt to further the burdens of graduate students, who have been suffering and working in a highly precarious condition despite their continuous and significant contributions to the teaching and research of this institution,” the statement said.
The SGSA declined The Gateway‘s request for an interview.
The Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA) released a statement this afternoon, expressing solidarity for students.
“The AASUA stands in solidarity with students as they fight for an affordable education,” the statement said. “Together, workers and students have made the University of Alberta a world-class institution — we all deserve to be treated fairly, not as fodder for university administration’s bottom line.”
Graduate students struggle with affordability amid inflation, tuition increases
Elmira Khiabani, co-chair of the GPA, said tuition increases matter to graduate students because of affordability.
“Because the grad student pay is already quite minimal, increasing tuition but not increasing our wage really reduces how much we’re actually making in a year. So it just really hurts us in the terms of being able to pay rent, and just living wages.”
Khiabani said she hopes with this letter, they are able to get more supports for graduate students and raise awareness about this increase, as many students did not know it was being proposed.
Ping Lam Ip, a graduate sociology student, echoed that not many students knew that these increases were being proposed — despite the fact they were brought to the GSA council in November. He noted that the proposed increase was presented by the university and in the same meeting, was a presentation from the Campus Food Bank (CFB) — which has been facing double the demand this year.
In the annual report presented, CFB said that in a recent client survey 47 per cent of respondents listed tuition increases as a reason they use the food bank. Graduate students make up 59 per cent of CFB’s clients.
“I think the GSA has failed us,” graduate students disappointed with association’s response
Andrea DeKeseredy, a graduate sociology student, said that a strike is overdue. She said that the effects are being felt from the university’s move towards a shared services model.
“We should have been on strike in September. And I think you can draw a complete straight line from the graduate contract crisis to the tuition being raised because we had no one fighting for us.”
“I think the GSA has failed us. They failed us in September, and they’re failing us now.”
Ip also expressed his disappointment with the lack of response from the GSA this year — first when graduate students were facing contract delays, and now with the tuition increases.
“I already have no faith in the GSA at all now,” he said. “If I was in any position that large, I would be organizing a protest … just direct protests in front of the president’s office.”
“They’ve been far too cozy with the people that are increasing our tuition and not giving us our contracts,” DeKeseredy added.
In a comment provided to The Gateway, GSA President Anas Fassih said that these tuition increases are being felt by students in a combination with other factors like inflation and the approved exceptional tuition increase last year.
He said that the GSA has expressed disapproval of the increases and that work is being done to help graduate students with the situation.
“The university administration expressed openness to work with us on bringing a measure of relief to graduate students,” the comment said. “One measure of relief that the university committed to graduate students is the removal of instalment fees, increase in financial aid, and providing guaranteed minimum funding packages for doctoral students.”
“We echo the sentiments from our student groups in individual departments and join them in opposing those tuition increases. Working with the University to save students some money does not mean we are agreeing to the increases.”
When asked if the GSA would consider the requests to do a strike vote, Fassih said that they “neither encourage nor discourage members from expressing their resistance to tuition increases.”
“Protesting takes resources, coordination, mobilization and wide interest from the larger membership. That is why it is a call the GSA executive team can make alone, especially since the GSA is also a union of Academically Employed Graduate Students (AEGS), a union that is bound by provincial legislations and a collective agreement with the university.”
DeKeseredy said that she wants students to remember that their voices are important, especially before this proposal goes to the Board to Governors to get approved in the spring.
“Coming out of COVID-19 restrictions, and the isolation that we all felt and the university restructuring, I believe the students at the University of Alberta have forgotten that they have a voice and have forgotten that they have power.”
“I understand that the university and the government, they beat you down into thinking you don’t, but we still have time to do something. And your voices matter.”
UPDATE: This article was updated January 23 at 5:11 p.m. to include the statement released by AASUA in solidarity with students.