No relief for students as tuition continues to rise

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Students begin to ask who the campus serves

For the eleventh year in a row – enough time for someone to have completed their Bachelor’s, Master’s, and post-graduate degrees – the University of Regina has implemented a tuition hike. The 2.8% increase, projected to bring an additional 2.5 million dollars into the University’s coffers, shifts the burden of the province’s failure to fund higher education onto the backs of students who are already stumbling under tuition rates that a 2018/2019 Statistics Canada report shows are higher than the national average, trailing only Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick when it comes to domestic tuition rates.

With studies showing nearly 40 per cent of Saskatchewan post-secondary students facing some level of food insecurity and the high cost of rent in Regina remaining static, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand how the administration can justify increasing the financial burden on students. The University’s motto is “As One Who Serves,” but as students are increasingly seen as sources of revenue, rather than valued contributors to the campus community, one can be forgiven for wondering if the institution serves its students, or if they are servants to it.

As tuition fees soar in Regina and across Canada – the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) reports that revenue from tuition has tripled since 2001 – University of Regina Provost Thomas Chase pointed to the U of R’s scholarships as a place where students can make up the difference in tuition costs. Chase said that the U of R is “second among all Canadian comprehensives in total scholarships,” returning almost one third of tuition money back to students in the form of scholarships

This disparity between real costs and accessible aid is only growing as the Government of Saskatchewan continues chipping away at direct support for students, reducing scholarship funding by 42 per cent in the last budget while increasing student loan funding, which will have to be paid back, with interest.

The need for some students to access loans and lines of credit that pile interest onto tuition fees means that students who enter university at a financial disadvantage tend to leave it at an even greater one. According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), those who take out a loan to finance their education will pay over $10,000 more for their degree than a student who is able to pay tuition fees upfront.

The province’s “Saskatchewan Advantage” scholarship – touted by the Ministry of Advanced Education in communications with the Carillon – provides Saskatchewan high school graduates who “need it most” with up to $500 per year up to a maximum $2000, less than the cost of a single semester. Or perhaps a better price comparison, given that the scholarship is only available to students who qualify for student loans, roughly one fifth of the interest they will have to pay back to the province on a $28,000 loan.

RPIRG’s Executive Director Krystal Lewis said that the prospect of accumulating a debt load makes people less likely to commit to being a student, stopping them from taking the risks – and gaining the rewards – that lead to a more fulfilling life. “You know down the road, you’ll be in debt.” In lieu of a truly public, free post-secondary experience, she said the province at the very least should be “providing grants, not loans.”

After acknowledging that many students are working “two and even three jobs” to make ends meet, dramatically reducing their ability to achieve at the best of their ability (and to maintain a GPA that will allow them to qualify for scholarship money), Chase pointed out that “more than 50% of University of Regina graduates leave school with no student debt at all.”

Graduating without student debt doesn’t mean that students haven’t accumulated sizeable amounts of other debt while pursuing their degrees. One student, who spoke under condition of anonymity because she did not want her financial status to be public, said that although an RESP covered her tuition, meaning that though she technically left “debt free,” she didn’t come out of university financially unscathed. “I quickly found after starting grad school that I couldn’t work and keep my grades up or my sanity intact,” she said. “Tuition isn’t the only expense a student has. Living is very expensive.”

And although the university touts rising enrolments – a 1.9% increase between 2017 and 2018, a time period when the City of Regina saw an overall population increase of 2.3% – as proof that rising tuition isn’t affecting enrolment, some students and alumni say they won’t recommend the U of R to anyone.

Andrew Ruffell, a 2019 English department grad who worked full-time throughout most of his program, said that money – and the University’s reputation – is one of the reasons why he is not looking to pursue an MA at the U of R. “The university is using students as a cash grab while not realistically looking into student wellbeing and financial stability. Why should students pay top dollar for a campus that isn’t even top ten?” (Maclean’s ranked U of R 14th out of 15 among Canadian comprehensives for reputation and student satisfaction, down one spot from 2017, and 41 out of 49 overall). Ruffell doesn’t think he’s alone. “I think most students you talk to would hesitate to recommend the U of R because tuition is too damn high.”

The anonymous student agrees that the rising costs don’t seem to reflect an increase in the quality of the institution.

“I don’t feel like the amount of services has increased in relation to the tuition increases,” she said.

 “[Removing] books [from] the library doesn’t add any value to my education… Defunding research doesn’t add any value to my education, or my degree, or the institution in general…. Paying administration more doesn’t bring new professors.”

Services at the University of Regina are actually being lost as tuition continues to creep upwards. In 2018 the university cut both wrestling teams as well as men’s volleyball, and this year the university chose not to renew its lease with the medical centre and pharmacy, leaving the campus alone among similar sized Canadian comprehensives in not providing medical care onsite.

But the University administration does not bear sole responsibility for the economic burden tuition puts on students, we must also look to the province. There are real and rising costs that come with running a university, from utilities to salaries to building maintenance, and if they are to be truly public and truly accessible institutions, the government must take responsibility for funding them, a responsibility that the Saskatchewan Party has been eager to shirk.

In 2018, after funding remained static following a significant cut the previous year, Minister for Advanced Education Tina Beaudry-Mellor told CBC that she hoped the University would, “get more aggressive on the revenue generation side of their business,” revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that the Government of Saskatchewan views institutions of higher education the way they viewed the STC – not as enterprises for the public good that enrich the lives of users and the province as a whole, but as run-of-the-mill businesses that must turn a profit or shut their doors.

This attitude – which is not unique to the Saskatchewan Party or the University of Regina –is why targeting tuition alone will not solve the problems that plague students in post-secondary institution, points out Lewis. “It’s systemic,” Lewis said, referring to the ways in which overall austerity in a province affects students.

Lewis went on to speak about the cuts to other public services such as STC and the lack of affordable housing.

“Every single public service that exists that is underfunded affects students. So housing supports, childcare, affordable food, raising the minimum wage to a living wage,” Lewis said. “There are social barriers, there’s questions about the university’s policies on discrimination and whether they’re effective, there’s the hiring practices.”

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