Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer 

A panel of SFU Administrators gathered over Zoom to discuss the university’s proposed budget and heard feedback from the student body on November 23, 2020. The university proposed an across-the-board tuition increase of 2% for domestic students and 4% for international students, provided an overview of their budget, and answered student questions. 

The panelists included President Joy Johnson, Vice-President Academic and Provost Catherine Dauvergne, Vice-President Finance and Administration Martin Pochurko, Vice Provost and Associate Vice-President Academic Wade Parkhouse, and Vice Provost and Associate Vice-President Students and International Rummana Khan Hemani. The webcast was facilitated by Executive Director of SFU’s Public Square Janet Webber. 

Webber began by stating: “The purpose for today is to hear from university leadership on the proposed budget for the year ahead and then to open up the conversation to all of you and have our panel provide answers to your questions.” President Johnson clarified that the budget for the upcoming years “must be a COVID-19 recovery plan. We need to ensure the long-term financial health of the university. So, we’re looking at this year but we’re also looking into the future.” President Johnson also acknowledged that the university and student body is “facing a lot of uncertainty and a lot of stress.”

Pochurko spoke about the effects that COVID-19 has had on their operating budget, which is around $600 million a year. According to Pochurko, 43% of that budget comes from operation grants from the provincial government and 50% from student fees and tuition. He noted that “if you look back 10 years ago, about 70% of the fees coming into the operating fund would have been from the provincial government and about 30% would have been tuition — over the past decade it has shifted.” 

COVID-19 halted revenue that the university would normally receive through ancillary funds such as parking and the bookstore. SFU has seen a decrease in ancillary funds by almost $26 million dollars this year, according to Pochurko. 

Students were able to ask the panelists questions by emailing questions in beforehand, submitting them through Zoom’s anonymous Q&A feature, or asking the question live via their cameras and microphones. The anonymous Q&A bar was made available for all meeting attendees to view about a quarter into the meeting so all student questions were viewable. 

Some of the key questions addressed the administration’s response to the demands made by the SFSS after their recent Annual General Meeting. At this meeting, the SFSS voted to condemn the university for the tuition increases. 

Dauvergne noted that their model of increasing revenue is “a more nuanced way to support students in financial difficulty [by targeting] more funding to bursaries which are assessed on the basis of their financial need.” Essentially, the university is hoping to increase revenue so that they can redistribute it through bursaries. Should their budget be approved, Parkhouse noted that they will “be looking at putting a significant amount — probably in the neighbourhood of $400,000–$500,000 — of additional revenue into bursary support.” SFSS President Osob Mohamed addressed this in a live question to the panel, noting that “depending on the term up to half of students are ineligible for bursaries because of GPA requirements or credit requirements [ . . . ] the most equitable solution to tuition increases is to make tuition affordable in the first place.” 

Hemani acknowledged that the bursary requirements need to be reconsidered in light of that information. She addressed this by assuring students that she has already “asked [their] financial aid and awards office to take a look at [the requirements of bursaries] and work with the senate policy committee on that issue.”

Mohamed noted that the SFSS would like to see a five-year freeze or rollback on tuition. However, Mohamed said, “If the university is not willing to commit to a five-year freeze on tuition, we’d like to start with a one-year freeze on tuition. We’d like it to at least be noted that this is a pandemic, this is an emergency situation, [and] that the university needs to reevaluate financial priorities to address this.” President Johnson concluded that this is “an ongoing conversation” and the university would not commit to this at the meeting, as she plans to prioritize the university’s well-being as a whole.

A similar question was posed anonymously to Parkhouse about lowering the cost of tuition instead of funding bursaries. Parkhouse replied: “This fundamentally is against [ . . . ] the principles of SFU. We believe that there are students and their caregivers who can afford to pay for the increases in tuition and we certainly have an access problem for those students who cannot afford it and the bursaries escalate the support of those students.” 

Other questions from students centered around lobbying the provincial government for more funding. President Johnson noted that they are “going to be talking about the stresses and strains in the system, [they’re] certainly going to be talking about the challenges that [SFU] students are facing as well.” President Johnson also commented that she doesn’t “want to be naive about this though [ . . . ] We have a government that is facing a huge deficit as well.”

Pochurko noted that SFU has up to $50 million of emergency funding which is one of the reasons SFU has been able to sustain these losses and absorb them. However, according to Pochurko, “Going forward, we certainly don’t want to fully deplete them given the level of uncertainty in front of us.” 

Another student anonymously raised a concern about the moral implications of increasing tuition for the decreased quality of delivering education virtually. Parkhouse responded that he “would not argue that it’s necessarily less quality.” He explained by noting that “at the end of the day, fundamentally, we continue to provide the same courses. We continue to provide the same delivery to meet the outcomes we are looking for in those courses and we continue to ensure that our students are progressing towards their degree.”

The webcast concluded with many of the student questions going unanswered due to time constraints. Webber assured students that the team of panelists will collect all of the questions and post personal answers on the website to their concerns. Pochurko noted that the consultation and student feedback that comes from the Budget Information Session is always valued. He said, “I can tell you that we do a lot of things now that we never used to do because of some of the feedback we received in our Information Sessions.”