Nickels and dimes

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As tuition goes up, the reasons for it become blurry

by John Cameron, Editor-In-Chief

For students at the University of Regina, the costs just keep rising.

After the provincial tuition freeze lapsed in 2009, students saw an average increase of approximately three per cent on their fees; this year, the increase is closer to five. As well, fees for international students will actually go from 2.6 times the domestic tuition rate to three times the rate. Students at the Faculty of Business Administration will find that their fees have gone up by an additional ten dollars per credit hour.

At first look, these increases might seem like a surprise – after all, the provincial government boosted the operating grant for the university this year by 3.3 per cent, as well as a separate $980,000 earmarked exclusively for the U of R’s distance learning program.

But, according to Barb Pollock, the vice-president of external affairs at the U of R, this increase wasn’t enough to match the university’s rising costs. Factors over which the U of R administration “has no control,” she said, put the school in a tight spot financially, and the board of governors had to figure out a way to meet the university’s budgetary needs.

The way Pollock explains it, devising the budget for the U of R is something of a gamble. The board of governors estimates the university’s place in the provincial budget and then submits their request for an operating grant. If their request is only partially approved, they’re forced to turn to other options. This year, the operating grant fell short of the requested nine percent. As a result, the Board of Directors looked over several possible ways to address the shortfall, eventually settling on a plan that included a tuition increase to cover the money not received from the government.

Pollock cautioned, however, that this was not a lightly-made choice.

“We know that nobody wants to have students bear the brunt of us not having enough money for operating. There’s no question.”

The only student member of the board of governors, Students’ Union president Kyle Addison, agreed. He voted against the measures that would result in a five per cent increase because, as URSU vice-president of external affairs Kaitlyn Barber explained, “the five per cent should not be on the shoulders of the students.”

But the URSU president is only one vote on the board. When the board of governors made their decision this year, Addison’s vote was in the minority, leaving the Students’ Union without many options.

“Once the budget is passed [by] the board of governors, the budget’s passed,” Barber said. “It’s decided. We can voice our opinion that we think a five per cent tuition increase is unreasonable for students, which we’ve done. But in terms of recourse, we can work harder this year to hopefully … make sure that students aren’t facing these similar situations over and over and over again, which is not something anybody wants to see, particularly the Students’ Union."

 

While the Students’ Union is putting some of that increased effort toward lobbying the federal government for things like a more grant-based policy, the bulk of its provincial lobbying is in tandem with the Saskatchewan Students’ Coalition (SSC), a five-school coalition of post-secondary institutions from across the province. The SSC aims to have Saskatchewan students’ unions work together rather than independently lobby for the same issues at cross-purposes to one another.

One of the issues on their agenda is tuition. They plan to address it with the Tuition Management Strategy (TMS), a program intended to help students manage their finances in the face of fluctuating tuition costs. From year to year, Barber explained, the challenges that students face when planning their finances are mounting, making it difficult not only to predict how much they’re going to wind up spending, but also how they’re going to prepare for those expenses. The formal framework of the TMS is yet to be completed, but Barber stated that the first draft would be prepared sometime in the next few weeks.

 

The students’ unions themselves face similar challenges when it comes to tuition fees, and have to confront the same details – or lack thereof – when determining how to help their students cope with increased costs. Part of what makes it such a tough issue to deal with is the complexity of funding process for universities.

Financing for post-secondary institutions goes through several stages: first, the federal government assigns transfer payments earmarked for post-secondary education to the provinces. Then, the universities submit requests for operating grant increases. Finally, the government reviews that request and determines what the operating grant increase is, if there is one at all. With a process this long, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the reasoning behind the funds, making an abstract issue even harder to follow.

For example, the only traceable reason for turning down the U of R’s request for a nine per cent budget increase may be rooted in Saskatchewan Party policy. In 2005, Sask. Party MLA Ken Chevelaydoff told students lobbying for a tuition freeze that, if his government was elected, they would seek to grant universities in the province five per cent annual operating grant increases and to tie tuition increases to the rate of inflation plus two per cent.

However, Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris was unavailable for comment as of press time, and neither Barb Pollock nor Kaitlyn Barber knew of any correlation between Cheveldayoff’s numbers and this year’s budget. The questions raised by Cheveldayoff’s words and the government’s subsequent short-term actions remain unanswered.

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