Editorial: New tuition increases hurt students, BoG is comfortable ignoring that

The Board of Governors shouldn’t be able to hide from students when raising  tuition yet again — they need to face them.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, on March 22, the University of Alberta’s Board of Governors (BoG) approved tuition increases for the 2024-25 academic year. While tuition increases aren’t anything new for U of A students, certain aspects at the BoG meeting were different this year. BoG seemed to anticipate a greater uproar from students and, in a complete overreaction, tried to shield themselves from it. And when it came to concerted protesting efforts, the Students’ Union (SU) underdelivered. The whole meeting was a mess, from the way BoG acted to how little preparation the SU did when it came to a protest. While students didn’t cause this disaster, they’ll have to deal with the aftermath.

Outside University Hall, police officers checked students’ OneCards as they entered the meeting. Students who didn’t present their OneCards weren’t allowed entry. When students entered the meeting, BoG chair Kate Chisolm warned protestors that “bad behaviour” wouldn’t be tolerated, even when protesters were sitting quietly. All of this seemed to be in anticipation of students’ frustration and anger reaching a boiling point. But significantly less students showed up to protest than previous years, which is a disappointment in and of itself.

It’s clear that the university knows that students are upset and desperate right now, yet they are only making the situation worse by overreacting. Students have the right to be frustrated with the never-ending tuition increases and the damaging effects that will have on their lives. And students should be able to have their say on decisions that are harming them, no matter how uncomfortable it makes BoG. While it’s important to have procedures in place to maintain an orderly meeting, BoG can’t assume students presence will result in disruptions.

But just because students are being ignored doesn’t mean they should be quiet — they need to get louder. The SU plays a big part in that — or at least they should. The SU needs to empower students to show up and speak up, especially when barriers are increasing. They have been successful in rallying students with their tuition townhalls and a letter-writing campaign. For months, the SU built momentum to rally students, but at the very last second, it fell flat. On the day of the BoG meeting, the student turnout was minimal. 

The Alberta Public Interest Research Group (APIRG) helped organize the protest, which they largely advertised over social media. While APIRG made five posts regarding the BoG meeting and protest, the SU only made one. But evidently, this wasn’t enough. Had the SU and APIRG put more efforts into outreach ahead of the protest, more students likely could have attended. While more protesters may not have changed the outcome of the meeting, BoG members would’ve had to face the students impacted by their vote. Added pressure was necessary, but the SU and APIRG dropped the ball.

However, even the small number of students in attendance was too much for President and Vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan to face. In past years, Flanagan has given an opening statement ahead of proposed tuition increases at BoG meetings. This year he didn’t give an opening statement — nor did he seem to have much to say at all. 

This demonstrates a total lack of responsibility and a reluctance to speak to students. You’d think as president, Flanagan would be able to show leadership and responsibility, especially in tough times. If the university expects students to make up for inflation and cost pressures, Flanagan should be able to tell them why. Speaking to students at the BoG meeting would have been the absolute bare minimum Flanagan could have done. But he didn’t even do that.

Instead it was Deputy-provost (students and enrolment) Melissa Padfield that explained the choices behind the tuition increases. Padfield said the increases will help the university continue to be a quality institution and invest in program delivery. Frankly, that won’t matter to the students who may drop out due to the rising cost of tuition. While the university is increasing financial support for students, not every student will get financial support. Higher tuition, however, is guaranteed for every student. And for the students who are able to continue their studies, there’s plenty of doubt that the U of A is providing “quality” education. 

Vice-president (academic) Verna Yiu went on to say that the university is in an “unenviable position.” I don’t disagree with her — between inadequate provincial funding and rising costs, it can’t be easy to find funding where it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t justify the U of A’s decision to shove costs off onto students when students themselves are struggling. It isn’t students’ responsibility to make up for budget shortfalls and rising costs. Raising tuition should be the last resort — yet the university seems to turn to it every year. 

In fact, it’s the easy way out for the university. Student tuition only accounted for 24 per cent of the U of A’s revenue in 2023. The rest came from grants, donations, and sale of products and services. When asked about exploring alternative revenue sources, Yiu couldn’t give a real answer. It’s unclear what — if any — efforts the U of A is making to increase revenue in other areas. Exploring revenue sources that don’t depend on students should come before raising student tuition, not the other way around.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges that come along with looking at other sources of revenue. Given the Government of Alberta’s reluctance to invest in post-secondary education, it’s undoubtedly tough for the U of A to get more funding. But that doesn’t mean the U of A shouldn’t try. The university should be doing all it possibly can to keep up with rising costs without putting it on students. 

Students are taking on multiple jobs, racking up student debt, and turning to food banks to cope with  rising tuition. If students can do all that to keep up with rising costs, surely the university can too.

At the end of the day, the U of A isn’t about the money. It’s about the people. The contributions students make to not only our campus, but our broader communities, have incredible value. BoG needs to recognize that and start listening to students, rather than shielding itself from what students have to say. And the SU needs to amplify students’ voices or they’ll get lost in the noise —  which only makes it easier for BoG. Maybe if both BoG and the SU had done more, students’ wouldn’t be dealing with yet another year of tuition increases.

Leah Hennig

Leah is the 2024-25 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She is in her first year studying English and media studies. In her spare time, she can be found reading, painting, and missing her dog while drinking too much coffee.

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