COVID-19 likely isn’t enough to stop UBC’s annual tuition increases

UBC’s proposed annual tuition increases have drawn criticism from students, who cited the pandemic and its repercussions as reasons to oppose the fee hikes.

The Board of Governors (BoG) reviews tuition fees yearly. In previous years, increases have been capped at two per cent for domestic undergraduate students and five per cent for international students.

Despite past opposition against annual tuition increases, the practice has largely become accepted as fact, and it’s unclear whether the unique circumstances this year will be enough to overturn the norm.

For 2021/22, UBC has proposed raising domestic tuition by two per cent and international tuition by four per cent. As part of its consultation process, UBC sent emails to students on January 25 seeking feedback on the proposal.

Max Holmes, one of three student representatives on the BoG, said that he believes the consultation process is crucial to influencing individual governors’ votes.

“It’s an influential process during any year, and it’s been increasing every year. But this year in particular I think it will influence a lot of people,” he said.

“Right now, we don’t have money to spare.”

— Gillian Sticks, first-year arts student

Holmes also indicated that the student body is overwhelmingly opposed to the increases, with over 90 per cent of students being against them in past years.

Many students took to social media to voice their opposition to the proposal. Some argued that the decrease in the quality of education due to a switch to online learning doesn’t warrant more expensive tuition, while others noted heightened financial pressures due to COVID-19.

Gillian Sticks, a first-year arts student, said that she was displeased with the proposed increases.

“It’s just scary to think about losing another grand when I’m looking for an apartment next year,” Sticks said. “It also makes me angry because we’re not getting the fullest education we can get if we weren’t in a pandemic.

“I definitely think that choosing to do this potential raise during a pandemic is tasteless. Right now, we don’t have money to spare.”

Student politicians ask for change

In the AMS’s annual submission to the BoG, VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee focused on recommendations for navigating COVID-19 costs. However, Yee said that the AMS is against any tuition raises.

“There does need to be more emphasis in mitigating the costs,” Yee said. “Especially because the university is still in quite a precarious financial state.”

Among the things the AMS recommended in its submission were policies to discontinue funding for exam invigilation programs like Proctorio, reducing long-term travel expenses and slowing administrative hiring to keep salary costs low.

In the report, the AMS advocated a “cohort tuition model” which would keep tuition fees consistent for students during the length of their degree. This recommendation was coupled with calls to secure larger operational grants from the provincial government.

“Don’t claim that you care about your students when you just see us as walking chequebooks.”

— Gillian Sticks, first-year arts student

“We need to seriously consider if [these increases] are truly justified,” Yee said. “We can no longer just rubber-stamp tuition increases.”

Yee added that the pandemic has entailed heavier spending on faculty training and online learning infrastructure that wasn’t previously budgeted, making it more expensive for the university.

In addition to saying that he has not seen enough justification for the increases this year, Holmes emphasized the need for a long-term affordability plan for students, which he and other student reps have been demanding for years.

“Everything is there to create this plan, and it still hasn’t been created,” Holmes said. “Ultimately, you can’t just be out here increasing tuition every single year ... without putting together a group of experts to write an affordability plan.”

‘A silver platter of financial anxieties’

UBC Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey said that tuition fees subsidize several of the university’s core expenses.

“If tuition increases are approved as proposed for 2021-22, UBC proposes to allocate all of this year’s incremental credit tuition revenue resulting from the rate increase towards COVID-19-impacted key priorities,” Ramsey said in a statement.

The webpage outlining the tuition increases indicates that tuition increases will “support students” by helping fund COVID-19 response and recovery as well as student financial support.

At a February 3 BoG committee meeting, VP Students Ainsley Carry said that the tuition revenue generated from the increases would go to priorities students outline in the survey, such as housing, hybrid teaching and others.

“If the tuition increase does not happen, then we’ll have to make some difficult decisions about what does and what does not get funded this year. But this increase would go to student-facing priorities directly related to COVID,” Carry said.

The consultation period for tuition increases ends February 26. The results will then be presented at the BoG meeting in April.

“We can no longer just rubber-stamp tuition increases.”

— Georgia Yee, AMS VP academic and university affairs

Yee said she was “optimistic” that administrators will seriously consider the AMS’s recommendations.

Jeanie Malone, who has been a student representative on the BoG since 2017, said that she believes there has been a difference made by vocal student opposition.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where the change that’s seen is no increases ... but we are seeing lower numbers this year and targeted funding towards student financial support that wasn’t there before,” said Malone.

But students like Sticks say that UBC proposing these changes at all shows the university doesn’t care about them.

“It’s a huge slap in the face to students because UBC claims to care about well-being when they’re handing us a silver platter of financial anxieties,” Sticks said.

“Don’t claim that you care about your students when you just see us as walking chequebooks.”

This article was updated to clarify that the 90 per cent student opposition figure was based on consultations from past years.