Written by: Srijani Datta, Assistant News Editor
SFU is proposing an increase in tuition fees, but students are not happy.
On October 23, SFU administration emailed students to invite them to a consultation session on their proposed tuition hikes, which would be held from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on October 30. Roughly 20 to 30 students attended the event.
The proposed fee increase
If approved, the proposed hike would be in effect from Fall 2019, and it would entail a 2% general tuition increase for all domestic undergraduate students. For all continuing international undergraduate students, there would be a 4% increase.
The highest fees would apply to incoming international undergraduate students. With the added 4% increase, most of those students would face a total increase of 12%. Those taking computing science, engineering science, or mechatronics courses would instead face a 16% increase, and those taking Beedie courses would experience a 20% increase.
Domestic and most international students in graduate programs will see a similar increase of 2%, except in those programs which have a different tuition rate for international students, in which case the increase will be by 4% for the international graduates.
Protesters reminded the audience that while the plan to raise fees would hit some students harder than others, it would ultimately affect every student at SFU, current and future.
“This proposed hike is dividing and conquering us,” said undergraduate student Giovanni Hosang. He explained that the hike was pitting the domestic students against the international students, while in reality, all students were facing a fee hike.
“We should stick together as a united front,” Hosang continued.
“SFU Tuition Freeze Now” campaign surfaces
As a response to the proposed hike, the Teaching Support Staff Union, SFU Left Alternative, and SFU Students of Caribbean & African Ancestry mobilized members of the SFU community to attend the consultation and give the school feedback. Members of these groups organized a Facebook event called “SFU Tuition Freeze Now!”, intended to gather students to protest the fee hike and represent student voices at the consultation. The organizers also distributed pamphlets and put up posters across campus.
“Considering the current state of tuition costs, the proposal is absolutely unacceptable. Whether you are a domestic, international, or grad student, the price of tuition is already too high,” read the Facebook event description.
Consultation held on Burnaby campus
On October 30, the consultation took place at SFU’s Burnaby campus. Student activists mobilized by the “SFU Tuition Freeze Now!” campaign met prior to the meeting to organize support and entered the consultation premises in a procession, chanting slogans such as “No students are cash cows! Freeze Tuition Now!”
During the consultation, Martin Pochurko, vice-president finance and administration, and Peter Keller, vice-president academic and provost, headed the discussion as representatives of the SFU administration.
Keller and Pochurko presented on the financial breakdown of SFU’s budgetary needs and highlighted the lack of funding from the provincial government.
“The provincial government is paying the university for a set number of domestic undergrads and grad students. That means we have a set target of how many undergrads and grads we are expected to enroll at SFU. But SFU has exceeded that target by the most of all universities and colleges in B.C,” explained Keller.
“Currently 35% of domestic students are unfunded by the provincial government.” – Peter Keller, SFU vice-president academic and provost
Later, Pochurko stated that tuition fee increases for domestic students were currently capped at 2% a year. Keller noted that because of this freeze, raising international tuition fees is the only way for the university to compensate for its current lack of funds.
Keller and Pochurko stated that the university was committed to helping students in financial need through bursaries and scholarships.
In response, Hosang pointed out that bursaries were not a solution for students in extremely difficult financial situations with no major alternative source of funds.
Bursaries are awarded to applicants based on their financial needs, but with the added clause that they cannot be the “primary source of funding” for applicants to qualify.
“I am too poor to be eligible for bursary,” said Hosang, referring to his lack of other primary sources of funds.
Following Hosang’s statements, undergraduate student Jane Buckshon noted that not only did earning too little money disqualify students from receiving bursaries, but so did earning too much.
“If you get a job, you also don’t get bursaries,” Buckshon said, arguing that students who work a full-time job to pay tuition are often deemed ineligible for bursaries, because the pay from their job implies that they are no longer in financial need.
Students also collectively pointed out how the combination of full-time work and school negatively impacted students’ mental health and grades.
As a third year international student, Ong explained that she would have to drop out of university if her tuition fees went up by 4% every year.
“Don’t make education a privilege for those who can’t afford it.” – Ong, SFU third-year communications student
“I will have no future at all if the tuition keeps going up.” said Ong. “My scholarships don’t cover a fraction of my tuition, and I still have a few years in school.”
The tuition increase is currently only being proposed for the 2019/20 academic year. It is unclear whether tuition will continue to increase at the same rate in subsequent years.
Students push for alternative budget solutions
In response to this explanation from the SFU administration, student members of the audience asked the administration to look for alternative sources of funding.
Matt McDonald, a PhD student in SFU’s economic department, cited figures from the university’s previous fiscal year, questioning the administration’s reasoning for the fee increase.
“Last year, SFU had a budget surplus of $65.3 million. Of that, $19 million went to the endowment, $35.3 million to ‘tangible capital assets,’ and $11 million toward increased ‘operating commitments,’ said McDonald. “Even if we assume that purchase of capital assets (buildings, vehicles, etc) was a good idea, that leaves $30 million.
“The administration claims that in 2019-20 the tuition increases along with related fees will bring in $11.8 million, which is around a third of the non-capital asset portion of the surplus.”
McDonald asked if SFU could use this surplus to make up for the provincial funding lag, rather than impose a new fee hike on students.
In response, Keller commented that the surplus was meant to go into the endowment grant for future hires.
“What’s the goal here? Educate students as cheaply as possible or pump money into endowment?” – Matt McDonald, SFU PhD student in economics
“Education is being talked about as a commodity here,” expressed Jade Hu, a PhD candidate in the education department, as she asked the administration to rethink the effect of the proposed hike on students.
Students also expressed the feeling that the consultation demonstrated the university’s poor communication with its students. Students pointed out that the chosen consultation time was inconvenient, being during midterm season, and asked for better communication from the administration on issues concerning the community.
Students stated their willingness to work with the administration towards a mutual solution. “How do we move from here? What do we do next?” asked Andrea Jones, a fourth-year health sciences student. She directed the question to Keller as she requested the administration work collaboratively with students.
Keller and Pochurko expressed that they understood and sympathized with students’ concerns, and that they would consider them during future consultations with other stakeholders of the university.
Acknowledging that the administration understood the students’ plight, Buckshon asked Keller whether the top administration of SFU, “would take a fee cut to help the situation?”
Following the Consultation
At the end of the consultation, Pochurko stated that the “detailed budget will be approved in March 2019.”
Following the consultation, Kayla Phillips, a MA student in political science, said that while it is clear there are other options available to the university which could be used to address the projected costs rather than hiking tuitions, the university administration seemed “simply unwilling to explore those.”
Referring to SFU’s financial information from over the last three years, McDonald stated in an email interview with The Peak that, “the SFU administration has been very consistent for years in claiming that tuition and fee hikes are necessary to maintain a balanced budget, rarely deviating from this theme.”
McDonald explained that, during annual fall semester consultations, SFU budget projections show tuition hikes as the most viable way to avoid financial loss. However, annual financial reports from the last three years show that SFU has made annual surpluses between $31.9 million to $65.3 million, large portions of which go to the endowment fund. Over $18 million was contributed to the fund last year while the tuition hike is supposed to bring in $11.8 million.
Acknowledging that in the long run, either tuition will have to go up or the provincial government will have to step in to bring tuition relief to all students, McDonald concluded, “The SFU administration can choose to minimize financial stresses on students and cut us a break instead of cutting a cheque to the endowment fund.”
Sanjana Ramesh, MA political science student said, “We want to be able to trust their intentions, but based on the ‘consultation’ it seems clear they are unwilling to address our concerns.”
After the consultation, the students in the audience proceeded to Freedom Square to protest the proposed fee hike.