It’s not uncommon for the University of British Columbia to raise tuition fees for international and domestic students. In fact, it’s become an annual tradition.
But it’s not every year the university, B.C.’s largest, pivots to providing classes almost entirely online due to a global pandemic.
Or that a continent-wide racial reckoning forces institutions of all kinds, including UBC, to grapple with the systemic racism baked into their policies and procedures.
Or that the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, for building on its truth and reconciliation commitments, begins implementation.
All of these efforts require more money. And it’s money that UBC says should come from tuition increases for students — the same students the university says this money will fund supports for.
On its tuition consultation 2021/22 page, now deleted but captured by internet archives, the university laid out the case for increasing tuition by two per cent for all domestic students, two per cent for continuing international students, and four per cent for all new and unclassified international students starting this September.
The university, which has a $2-billion endowment fund, estimates these increases will result in an additional $19 million in revenue.
On its tuition consultation page, UBC says that if approved, the tuition increase will go towards hiring new faculty, technology upgrades, COVID-19 financial and educational supports for students, student bursaries, implementing the Indigenous Strategic Plan and “continued equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
While student consultations have concluded, tuition increases are not yet a done deal. The proposed increases go before the university’s board of governors next month. The board will make the final call.
“While we understand the tuition consultation process and the proposed increases may be a challenge for some of our students, we also recognize the importance of providing our students with the supports and services they require, and we remain committed to working with our students so those needs are met as best as possible,” said UBC’s director of university affairs Matthew Ramsey in an email.
But some students see irony in asking students to pay more in order to receive the financial, health and educational support they already pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees to receive in the first place.
“Why should we ask students to give us money so that we can give it back? Doesn’t make sense,” said Kimani Karangu, an international PhD student and president of the Graduate Students Society at UBC, which represents 10,000 masters and PhD students.
The society has seen almost a tripling of students seeking psychological help this current school year, Karangu said.
“Why? Everybody’s citing the hardships of money,” he said. “Why should we subject students to these psychological financial burdens and then tell them, ‘Sorry, you can have your money back?’”
Gillian Glass, a UBC PhD student and president of CUPE 2278, which represents teaching assistants, markers and English language instructors at the university, is blunter in her assessment of UBC’s justification for raising fees.
“It’s a morally bankrupt thing to do,” she said. “A budget is a statement of values. It’s not a coincidence that people say things like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ And the fact that the university would rather offload that cost on to its students, rather than absorb it into a different portion of their budget, is infuriating.”
UBC does have a financial aid policy that states no eligible student will be prevented from starting or continuing their studies for financial barriers alone.
Ramsey said that student aid and the number of students receiving it have grown at UBC: 29,400 full-time students received some kind of aid in 2019/20, almost 1,000 more students than in 2018/19. UBC increased its non-repayable financial assistance spending to $104 million in 2019/20 as well, a five-per-cent increase over 2018/19.
But students must first be in dire straits to receive this type of funding, Karangu said, adding the majority of graduate students live below the poverty line.
“The systems at UBC have been crafted in a manner likely to suggest that students will have to beg first as poor people, before they can start living as decent human beings,” Karangu said.
For the students she represents, Glass said the tuition increase will effectively claw back the two-per-cent annual wage increase the union secured for teaching assistants over three years.
“If I take the standard domestic PhD, for example, their wage went up to $13,223.92 if they are working a full position over the full year,” she said.
“So the monetary increase is for $513.52, salary increase, but the tuition increase is $101.91. So effectively, that member, that teacher’s assistant is actually only going to make $412 approximately more than they did last year.”
The Alma Mater Society, the student union representing all UBC students, is always against tuition increases, according to AMS president Cole Evans.
He said the union lets the university know where students’ funding priorities lie, and to its credit, UBC hears students on this, noting that last year saw more board of governors’ members vote against the tuition increase than usual — though they were outvoted.
“The university is usually pretty receptive when we identify priorities for them,” Evans said.
Students were also asked to rank their financial priorities as part of the tuition consultations, said UBC’s Ramsey. Their choices included student aid for tuition costs; aid for supporting the costs of attending UBC; aid for education materials such as books, technology, learning resources; or online learning supports. The results are pending.
But Evans believes COVID-19 supports, racial equity work and the implementation of the Indigenous Strategic Plan will happen regardless of whether tuition increases are approved. Some are priorities the university identified before 2020, whereas pandemic supports are necessary to keep the university in operation.
“I’d be pretty confident that those would be funded either way,” he said. “They could definitely find the money by moving things around internally. Now, of course, that might come at the expense of other things.”
UBC did receive $14.3 million from the federal government for COVID-19 research, and was eligible to apply for post-secondary continuing research funding from the federal Canada Research Coordinating Committee. But there were no federal funds provided to cover the costs associated with delivering post-secondary education during a pandemic.
Nor does the federal government provide post-secondary institutions like UBC with funding for equity, diversity and inclusion work. A federal grant pilot program for building institutional equity, diversity and inclusion capacity at post-secondary institutions was launched earlier this year, but only colleges and small institutions are eligible.
Karangu said international students are hit hardest by tuition fee increases, because they are not eligible for all of the grants and bursaries available to domestic students.
UBC’s international enrolment increased 38.6 per cent between 2015/16 and 2019/20, with the majority of students coming from China and India. Unlike domestic students, whose tuition increases are limited to two per cent provincewide, there is no provincial cap on international student tuition.
“Why is it that the students should be burdened to make sure that the university fulfills its mandate of equity, diversity and inclusion?” Karangu said.
Glass suggests UBC find the money by cutting back on the construction of new campus buildings and renovations beyond safety requirements. Or it could cut some senior department, faculty and administration positions or salaries, which reach into the high six figures.
Karangu, Glass and Evans all agree the provincial and federal governments could be contributing more money to help cover these costs, such as COVID-related expenses including rapid testing and increased online learning infrastructure. They could also increase the grants they pay to post-secondary institutions back to their 1970s levels.
“Back in the 1970s, 90 per cent of university funding came from government,” Glass said. “Today, it’s barely 44 per cent — not quite, it’s 43.6. And so it’s not a surprise that universities are raising their tuitions year over year over year, because they don’t have the government support that they once had.”
If governments don’t increase their funding, however, and the university continues to rely on annual tuition increases to stay afloat, Karangu said the gap between those who can and can’t afford to attend UBC will only continue to grow.
“[Do] we want people to be slaves to their debt, once they are completing their studies?” he asked, noting graduate student debt is $36,000 on average. Meanwhile, undergrad debt is $28,000.
“No. It does a lot of harm more than good to most people.”
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