EDUCATION

A cry of protest

Rising tuition fees stir campus discontent

D'ARCY JENISH March 1 1993
EDUCATION

A cry of protest

Rising tuition fees stir campus discontent

D'ARCY JENISH March 1 1993

A cry of protest

EDUCATION

Rising tuition fees stir campus discontent

In Halifax, the protest began in mid-January when nearly three dozen students braved temperatures that plunged to -20° C and spent two nights camped outside the administration building at Dalhousie University. After two days, their demonstration reached a noisy climax when about 40 members of the Dalhousie board of governors met inside the building to debate a 10-per-cent increase in tuition fees for the 1993-1994 school year. Close to 150 students packed the lobby outside the meeting room, chanting slogans and pounding on the doors. In the confusion, someone pulled a fire alarm, sending the protesters running for the exits. Behind the closed doors, the board members seized the moment to approve the fee increase—then joined the rush outside. “It was a stormy meeting,” said Dalhousie president Howard Clark, “but a strong majority of the board favored the increase.” In that way,

Dalhousie joined the legions of Canadian universities that are increasing their fees this year against a backdrop of furious student protest.

More than halfway through the current academic year, university administrators across the country are drafting their 1993-1994 operating budgets—and many have concluded that tuition fees must go up. The principal reason: government operating grants, accounting for about 75 per cent of the funding for most Canadian universities, are frozen or, at best, will increase only at the rate of inflation. And as government support dries up, some university administrators anticipate that more of the cost of a postsecondary education will soon fall on the students’ shoulders. But as they edge up their fees, universities are already encountering stiff resistance from students, who have absorbed sharp annual increases in most provinces for the past several years. Since early December, university students in Ottawa, Toronto, Guelph, Ont, Thunder Bay, Ont., Vancouver and Victoria have demonstrated against proposed or approved fee increases. Said Jennifer Rowell, a 20-year-old marine biology student who participated in the Dalhousie protest: “This latest

if university tuition fees and debts keep rising, high-sthool students may be distouraged from staying on in sthool

increase will mean that our tuition has climbed 50 per cent in three years.”

In fact, the discontent has built up steadily on campuses across the country as tuition fees have increased annually since the mid1980s. Research compiled by the Ottawabased Canadian Federation of Students shows that since the 1985-1986 academic year, fee increases for full-time arts students have ranged from 43 per cent at the University of Ottawa, among the lowest in the country, to 160 per cent at Montreal’s McGill University. A general arts undergraduate’s tuition this year is $1,894 at the University of Ottawa and $1,481 at McGill. Two Nova Scotia universities, Acadia and Mount Allison, have the highest undergraduate fees this year at $2,625.

But as fees rose, the financial assistance available through the federal government’s Canada Student Loans Program remained frozen at the 1984 maximum of $105 per academic week, an average of about $3,500 a year. Most provincial governments also offer additional assistance, but in many cases those programs, too, are capped or scaled back.

For their part, many student leaders contend that governments should strongly support higher education to provide Canada with the educated workforce needed to maintain its standard of living. Kelly Lamrock, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students, said that graduating high-school students may be discouraged from pursuing postsecondary education if tuition fees, and the accumulated debt loads of university graduates, keep rising. Said Lamrock: “These debt loads are going to become unmanageable, and the default rates are going to go way up.”

In one of many demonstrations against tuition increases, about 100 students marched from the University of Victoria campus to the provincial legislature in Victoria early last month. They were protesting plans by British Columbia’s New Democratic Party government to lift a one-year fee freeze and allow universities and colleges to raise fees by up to 10 per cent in 1993 and 1994. The province’s four universities will be able to

charge full-time undergraduate students about $2,000 a year, up from the current average of $1,830. In Vancouver, about 2,000 University of British Columbia (UBC) students marched from the student union to the university’s faculty club and disrupted a board of governors’ luncheon in January.

Martin Ertl, a 22-year-old physics major and then-president of the university’s student union, said that a group of demonstrators barged into the dining room while the governors were having dessert. Ertl presented the board with a petition against increases signed by about 10,000 students, or roughly 40 per cent of the university’s enrolment. “We were amazed at the turnout,” added Ertl, “because UBC is infamous for student apathy.”

Many students say that they are being forced to find jobs during the academic year simply to cover their expenses. Cynthia Reeves, a 23-year-old psychology major at Toronto’s York University, said that she dropped one of five courses she was taking as a full-time student to enable her to hold a receptionist’s job with the York student union. “I have to work part time,’’said Reeves, “and I can’t take a full course load and work at the same time.” Other students complain that, as fees increase, universities are providing lower-quality education and delivering fewer services. Paul Kemp, for one, president of the University of Manitoba student union, said that at the university’s two Winnipeg campuses, class sizes are increasing and the number of teaching assistants is dropping. Kemp said that the decline in the number of teaching assistants has forced professors to take on a heavier workload, and that many have responded by assigning fewer essays and by relying on multiple choice exams, which are less time consuming to mark. Far from welcoming less demanding work, Kemp said that many students “feel they are paying more and getting less.”

Still, many university administrators say that they will be forced to continue increasing fees because they are faced with what they describe as a serious financial crisis. George Pedersen, president of the University of Western Ontario in London, said that enrolment at Ontario universities is expected to

climb by 35 per cent during the next decade. But, said Pedersen, heavily indebted federal and provincial governments will probably not be able to provide the increased operating grants needed to deal with higher enrolment. The only solution, added Pedersen, may be for governments to stop regulating the amount that universities can charge students and “allow us to charge what the market will bear.” He said that student financial aid should also be increased.

Similarly, Robert Prichard, president of the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest university, said that students will have to begin paying a larger share of the total cost of their postsecondary education. In Ontario, it costs about $11,200 a year to educate an undergraduate student. Prichard said that tuition fees now cover about 18 per cent of the cost of a student’s education. He added that students should be paying about 25 per cent of the cost of their schooling, because a university education is usually a personally and professionally enriching experience. Such a change, he said, would raise tuition fees for undergradu-

ate arts and science students in Ontario to about $2,800 from the current average of about $2,000. “Canadian universities are grossly underfunded,” he said. “Students should pick up a fair share of the cost of a university education as part of a plan of recovery for Canada’s universities.” Increasingly, the financial squeeze on universities results in students being turned away by the universities of their choice. In British Columbia, a rapidly growing population and a decline in funding for higher education have imposed new demands on the province’s postsecondary institutes. University of Victoria president David Strong said that the number of first-year applicants for the current academic year increased by 20 per cent over the past two years. He said that the university had to turn away about 1,800 students who met the entrance requirements because the university simply could not accommodate that many.

Many student leaders argue that fees have become a barrier that prevent less privileged students from attending university. In fact, some institutions have adopted innovative programs to ensure that they can provide financial assistance to poor or disadvantaged students. Clark said that since the 1990-1991 school year, Dalhousie put 25 per cent of all revenue collected through fee increases into a financial assistance fund. As a result, during the past three academic years the university has collected and distributed $4.1 million

to needy students, Clark said.

Tuition fees are likely to remain a controversial issue. Last spring, the British Columbia government set up a 15-member committee to examine the province’s student assistance program and potential barriers to postsecondary education. Committee chairman Jennifer Orum, a financial aid administrator at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, said that tuition fees proved more divisive than any issue that the committee studied. Indeed, a bare majority of eight members recommended that the government deregulate fees, while a student-led minority of seven submitted a dissenting opinion. “Access to university should be based on ability,” said Jacqueline Best, a Canadian Federation of Students representative on the committee, “not affluence or the ability to pay.” But, even though students are raising their voices in protest, the growing squeeze on government spending may mean that tuition fees will continue their inexorable rise.

D'ARCY JENISH

JOHN DeMONT