Four years ago, students voted overwhelmingly to direct the AMS, “guided by the principle that education is a right, [to] advocate for reduced tuition for both national and international students.”
They haven’t been doing that.
Instead, VP Academic Max Holmes, who is responsible for lobbying UBC on behalf of students, said the AMS is carrying out the spirit of the referendum advanced by the Social Justice Centre (SJC) in 2014 by advocating for specific affordability measures like less expensive campus housing, cheaper alternatives to textbooks in the form of open educational resources (OERs) and more transparency when UBC hikes fees.
In AMS minutes from 2017, Holmes said he wanted to “revisit” the referendum, as it “hurt [the AMS’s] image.”
Holmes told The Ubyssey that he didn’t want the AMS to look “obstructionist” in negotiations with the UBC Board of Governors over “realistic” yearly tuition increases.
“I don’t think that the university is in a realistic spot to lower tuition,” he said. “The only way they’d be able to do that is if you wanted to cut services from students.”
UBC Board of Governors member Charles Menzies, who was one of two members who voted against this year’s tuition increases, doesn’t buy that the only way to cut tuition is by axing student services. For instance, he said, UBC could use some of its land development earnings to subsidize domestic tuition.
Holmes said he doesn’t think that lowering tuition is “something that [UBC] would be against if it wasn’t possible.”
Holmes told The Ubyssey that he wanted to run another referendum to make the 2014 referendum “a little more clear,” as it “left much to the imagination” regarding how the AMS was to go about advocating for lower tuition, but backed off after realizing that current other AMS policies clarify that.
“Plus,” he said, “it’s always good not to have six or seven referendums on the ballot.”
SJC Treasurer Will Sullivan said he didn’t think the referendum was unclear.
“I didn’t see how it was limiting, frankly. ... Its intent is really clear — someone could build a set of actual steps to work towards that, and then dream up some really cool tasks to achieve it,” he said.
Gabriel D’Astous, the SJC president at the time of the referendum, said it was aimed more at the province than at the university, but the group’s intent was mostly to “start a conversation” about education as a human right.
“The spirit of the referendum was never really aimed at UBC itself, but rather at seeing the AMS advocate on a province-wide [level] for increased funding to higher education, which would lead to reduced tuition,” he said.
In the end, he said, “I think it achieved more than doing nothing,” though he doesn’t think the AMS is “particularly amazing when it comes to advocating for increased accessibility for higher education.”
AMS VP External Sally Lin, who is responsible for lobbying governments on behalf of students, said she hasn’t brought up tuition in her meetings with the federal or provincial governments.
She echoed Holmes’s comments about the university’s tight budget, and said she was taking a “holistic” approach to affordability. This year, she has spoken to government officials about issues like student loans and grants, funding for sexual violence prevention and affordable campus housing, among other things.
Lin said her advocacy is focused on things the provincial government is already working on to raise her chances of success.
“It’s really based on making sure we’re asking for what students need,” she said, “but also being strategic.”
D’Astous said it was a “lost opportunity” to skip over general funding in favour of targeted initiatives.
“All the things they did talk about are amazing and great, but if you have the minister in the room, you may as well also talk about other means of affordability like up-front cost of tuition,” he said.
“I always thought that our student governing bodies should work to ... create greater student solidarity across provinces to increase power when they go and talk to the minister and negotiate at various tables,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that that’s one of the strongest ways we can move forward and increase what students get.”
Holmes is less optimistic.
“We can try to reduce tuition,” he said, but “I think the likelihood of that happening, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, is not very likely.”
He noted that student feedback toward yearly tuition increases has been overwhelmingly negative, and said that the AMS has been “trying to hold the university accountable” by asking the university to respond to problems students bring up in that feedback.
After UBC VP Students Louise Cowin outlined student concerns at the December 2017 Board meeting, the increases passed with no modifications.
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SJC member Arpun Jopal said it was important for the AMS to lobby for free tuition because “they represent the students. It was very clear that students disagree with the increases, and I feel like the AMS is a really good channel to voice that disagreement and communicate that to the university.”
Regardless, Holmes said the AMS has seen results with their affordability strategy. For instance, the estimated number of students affected by OERs has risen from around 2,000 in 2011 to almost 15,000 last year, according to the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
And while the AMS hasn’t affected campus housing prices, Holmes said the society is “working on recommendations” for UBC’s housing plan, including calling on the university to open up more spots in on-campus housing, make older housing units more affordable and put a cap on annual housing price increases.
According to him, the AMS has also been involved with the development of UBC’s new Strategic Plan and pushed for affordability measures, “including funding for the development of open educational resources.” The draft plan doesn’t contain a funding plan for OERs.
Sullivan said the choice between tuition advocacy and targeted advocacy doesn’t have to be black and white — the AMS should continue pushing for areas in which they’ve had success, while insisting that education is a human right.
“I don’t think you can say that you’re concerned about the student experience without thinking of everyone,” he said. “If you’re thinking about student experience, you’ve got to be as inclusive as possible — especially at a public institution, for god’s sake.”