‘We’ve been ... just raising it two per cent every year and not thinking too hard about it.’ Does UBC need annual tuition hikes?

Costs go up. So does tuition.

That’s the rationale that the UBC Board of Governors has been working with as they raise domestic tuition each year by two per cent — the legal limit allowed by the provincial government. This year the board also increased international tuition, which is not subject to the same limits, by 2-9.2 per cent depending on area of study.

A small minority of the board is now pushing back against the trend by suggesting ways to stop funding gaps falling on students’ shoulders. But, except for major hikes, the increases pass each year with little fuss.

“UBC’s costs (such as faculty salaries and preservation of the Library collections) rise annually and revenue sources are constrained,” said interim VP Finance and Operations Peter Smailes in a statement. “The increase this year was required to address those inflationary pressures and maintain the university’s commitment to an excellent teaching and learning environment.”

That sentiment is echoed in the the 186-page report on tuition presented to the board earlier this month. Provincial funding for higher education has faced severe cuts and stagnation in recent years.

As such, the university says in the report that it needs to cover increased costs through “other sources of revenue” — namely, students.


Yearly tuition increases are an accepted fact among the vast majority of UBC’s board — even its student members — which can lead to a sort of malaise surrounding the topic.

“It is what it is,” said Jeanie Malone, one of three elected student board members. “It’s going to go up.”

Malone said the board hasn’t been searching hard for other ways to make up the cost, though she expects “deeper conversations” next year, after the final stage of the steep international tuition hike of 2015.

“Frankly, what we’ve been doing is just raising it two per cent every year and not thinking too hard about it. So we obviously could spend more time thinking about a broader solution,” she said.

Smailes noted that the university has a policy that prevents students from being turned away from UBC for financial reasons — after the student “and his or her family exhaust the financial resources available to them.”

In 2016/17, 14,360 students received $74.1 million in financial support from UBC out of a total funding and financial aid package of $263 million, Smailes said, noting that “additional initiatives are in the planning stages.”

“UBC continually strives to keep the cost of tuition as low as possible for domestic students, while ensuring the university can fund the world-class learning and research opportunities that students expect from UBC,” he said.

When asked what the university would need from the provincial government or other sources in order to avoid raising tuition, UBC Vice Provost and Associate VP of Enrolment Pamela Ratner said she did “not know how to answer the question.”

Where’s the money going?

On the Vancouver campus, about $6.5 million of the approximately $10.3 million generated from the increases will go directly to the faculties for things like teaching and learning initiatives, student advising and facilities upgrades.

The presentation given to the board said the faculties’ inflationary costs are about four per cent per year, implying that the increases aren’t enough on their own.

About $700,000 of the money will also be automatically triggered to fund student financial aid.

That leaves about $2.8 million for “central funding” — the big pile of money that UBC gets to decide what to do with each year. Ratner said the board has discussed using the extra cash to fund the Work Learn program, student well-being initiatives, classroom tech upgrades and the equity and inclusion office, though she can make no guarantees.

“It all gets into a bigger pot, and so it’s very difficult to take out pieces and say, ‘This is what’s paying for this.’ It’s one big envelope,” she said, but “those are the priorities we’d like to support if we can.”

How could UBC avoid tuition hikes?

After Cowin’s presentation, once the floor was opened up for discussion, board chair Stuart Belkin urged his colleagues to pass the increases now, so they wouldn’t have to pass a bigger increase down the line.

“Boiling the lobster slowly is the least painful way to do it,” he said.

Faculty board member Charles Menzies — who is one of the two members who voted against the increases, along with Ayesha Chaudhry — is opposed to the idea of boiling the lobster at all.

“We spent close to four decades in this current iteration of debates about university funding in which every time it’s either increase or don’t increase,” he told The Ubyssey. “And the model that’s presented has invariably not changed over forty-plus years. And I thought maybe it’s time for the university to think a little bit differently about the question.”

Menzies believes UBC should advocate publicly for more lower domestic tuition by lobbying the provincial and federal governments to increase funding.

“There was a time when people thought it was a foolish idea to have free K-12 education,” he said. “It was presented as a ludicrous idea — unreasonable, an excessive burden on the public purse.”

As for ways the university can affect change right now, Menzies said UBC should explore using some of its land development earnings to subsidize tuition.

“UBC has been generating an amazing amount of profits from selling land leases and then private market development on campus. The Vancouver campus site [is] generating revenues that are only going to go up unless there's a major global crisis in real estate,” he said.

Instead of investing in the construction of new buildings, UBC should be investing in “soft capital, i.e. in people and resources,” Menzies said.

Framing the tuition increases as a small increase now to avoid a big increase later “totally misses the picture,” he said. “You live in this environment where everyone's talking about innovation, creativity and finding novel fixes, and they’ve presented the most mundane, boring, old fashioned approach: jack up the price, the market will bear.”

Smailes said money the university generates through investing proceeds from land development go toward many projects that would not otherwise get enough funding — like Irving K. Barber Learning Centre and the Life Sciences building — and is also used to match funding for scholarships, bursaries and research.

“Those types of requirements change annually and the university requires flexibility in terms of how it addresses those needs with the revenue available,” he said.

Does student consultation matter?

Thanks to an internal policy, UBC is obligated to consult with students every time it raises tuition. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming consensus from students is negative — about 92 per cent of the 1,799 written responses UBC received were against the hikes. (Read each one verbatim on page 16 here.)

The concerns were noted in a presentation to the board by VP Students Louise Cowin in the same meeting the tuition increases were approved, but no modifications to the motion were added. UBC’s trend of soliciting student feedback, acknowledging it and then going ahead with their original plans regardless has left many students wondering why they were consulted in the first place.

Ratner pointed to the 2015 international tuition hikes as an example of a time when students affected a board decision. UBC proposed to increase international tuition by 46.8 per cent over three years — 15 per cent, then 15 per cent, then 11 per cent, compounded.

The final year’s 11 per cent increase was eventually whittled down to 7 per cent — meaning the total hike went from 46.8 per cent to 41.5 per cent — after multiple organized protests.

“They were very successful in having the board change the increases in the third year,” said Ratner.

But what if students don’t take to the streets — can feedback submitted through an online form change anything?

“I think the board takes that feedback very, very seriously,” said Ratner. “Board members read every single student’s comments and had to weigh those comments and concerns of students against the needs they see the university having and the pressures that the university faces in a constrained budgetary environment.”

The increases passed this year with no modifications.