Milk-like: SFU’s explanation for the pandemic-era tuition hike hasn’t aged well

Turns out we maybe didn’t need to have our tuition raised

Canadian currency
So, why raise tuition then? PHOTO: Piggybank / Unsplash

By Nercya Kalino, Staff Writer

Two years ago, SFU announced they’d be increasing tuition by 2% and 4% for domestic and international students, respectively. I felt stung. Apparently, so did others. And others still. At that point, in-person learning had been replaced for months by a patchwork of virtual classes. And looking back, the decision hurts even more. Thanks to SFU’s consistent surpluses, attempts by the university to explain away the tuition hike haven’t aged well. 

As The Peak reported in 2020, SFU stated they “expect a decrease in income, resulting in $26 million less income than anticipated.” At the time, the school cited inflation as part of the justification for tuition increases. The SFSS contested this raise, arguing that students were finding personal finances and work a strain on their studies — issues exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Both SFU and the SFSS’ arguments had some validity. Post-secondary institutions have been struggling in BC. While operating costs have been on the rise for years, the amount of money the government provides schools has been in relative decline. In 1997, government funds consisted of 80% of BC schools’ revenue. In 2017, that figure had dropped to 44.5%. The result of our government’s failure to keep pace with the needs of post-secondary institutions resulted, predictably, in overall revenue from tuition increasing from 15% in 1997 to 36.8% in 2017. 

In a 2018 article from The Peak on the tuition freeze movement, Matt McDonald, an SFU PhD student in economics, claimed SFU has always maintained that “tuition and fee hikes are necessary to maintain a balanced budget.” Interestingly enough, however, McDonald also said the school had posted surpluses for the last three years, which a review of SFU’s finances found to be true.  

Now, that 2018 Peak article is before the pandemic forced a shift to virtual learning. 

Maybe COVID-19 precautions wiped out SFU’s annual surplus? Not so. During the 2020/21 fiscal year, the school enjoyed a $41 million annual operating surplus. During 2021/22, the first full pandemic fiscal year, the school recorded a $27 million surplus. The factors behind the 2021 surplus were reportedly more funds than expected from the provincial and federal governments, as well as more revenue from tuition than projected. 

There are ways to reduce the financial burden on SFU students extravagances that can be cut. Take, for instance, the fact that president and vice-chancellor Joy Johnson makes more than the Canadian prime minister $385,000 versus Justin Trudeau’s $379,500. Or the fact that we can’t opt out of things like the SFSS membership; the SFSS, whose annual budgeted expenditures have ballooned from $2.5 million in 2017/18 to $3.5 million in 2021/22

The school can’t keep hiding behind a fall in funding for higher education as the justification for increasing tuition. Announcing, year after year, increases in tuition and chalking them up to systemic factors is dishonest to its students. We have consistent surpluses that number in the tens of millions. We have extravagant salaries and a multi-million dollar student government. What we don’t have is a sensible reason to keep raising tuition on SFU students. 

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