It’s been nearly a month since the university held its first consultation session with students. Numerous reports have since been released by the administration covering everything from institutional benchmarks to the meaning of excellence, strategic priorities and diversity. Yet the more information that is released regarding the increases and their rationales, the more questions are raised. Although on their own, each individual omission or error seems innocuous enough. In aggregate, they paint a troubling picture.

Surpassing the benchmarks

Until now, the university argued that international students paid higher fees solely to the degree that their attendance was not subsidized by the provincial government and, by extension, domestic taxpayers. The Board of Governors has now asked that international tuition be set “at levels that reflect UBC’s standing as a global university and the value of a UBC degree” — i.e., that it be benchmarked against other theoretically comparable institutions’ rates. While there might be some disagreement as to whether a tuition benchmark is the most appropriate mechanism for establishing increases, the university’s own data reveals a series of separate concerns.

Statistics provided by UBC and the AMS.
Statistics provided by UBC and the AMS. Compiled and formatted by Niloufar Keshmiri

Of the 31 undergraduate programs evaluated for the program-by-program increase, only one is currently more than 40 per cent below comparable institutions. Currently, 20 per cent of programs would require increases of less than 51 per cent to meet benchmarks. Meanwhile, theoretically only some of the 24 programs between the 30-40 per cent bracket would require 51 per cent increases — only programs that fall more than 33 per cent below the benchmark require such action. But despite UBC’s selection and evaluation of these specific universities through a benchmark approach, undergraduate programs will see an average 51 per cent increase in international tuition under the 2016-2017 proposal, placing many of the evaluated programs above their current benchmark. Of the limited information made available online, UBC has presented no substantive argument as to why undergraduate programs would see such increases in excess of comparable institutions.

Real impact on diversity

The Board of Governors has also included a directive for “ensuring that the university maintains healthy enrolment of international students and attracts a diverse range of students.” The administration has been unable to commit to any comprehensive study of the impact. The substance of their presentation on international tuition looks at relative enrolments from 2014 to 2015, noting “results [from] this first year of the strategy are encouraging.”

At any point when benchmark institutions can be changed, a similar argument can be made for further increases and tuition will be raised.

However, one year of applicant/enrolment numbers does not constitute a trend. While it is not unexpected that UBC has continued to see increasing numbers, it would be more helpful to look at the relative changes in growth. The data also does not include enrolment numbers of China, Japan and South Korea, which make up 42 per cent of international enrolment. Given the relatively small numbers of the other identified regions and this major gap in the data presented, it would be difficult to conclude anything substantive about the real impact of the 10 per cent increase in 2015/2016. The administration also points to increasing enrolment as evidence of a lack of negative effects from increased tuition. However, enrolment numbers are ultimately determined by the university — they can admit as many or as few people as they desire. What also reflects the actual desire of students to attend UBC is the number of applicants. Currently, the increase in enrolled students is not proportional to the increases in applicants to UBC.

Statistics provided by UBC.
Statistics provided by UBC. Compiled and formatted by Niloufar Keshmiri

The exclusion of China, Japan and South Korea also creates challenges in comparability, which ultimately obscures whether there have been any adverse effects on the applicant pool. While some might be comforted by the fact that “the impact of the increases will be reviewed at the end of each academic year,” the university has also failed to define how they will conduct such a review and what assessment criteria will be used. By how much will the growth rate of applicants have to fall before the university considers the tuition increases to have negative effects? UBC has yet to determine how they will fulfill this aspect of their proposal and to what extent that evaluation will be made public.

Unknown impact on campus culture

Revenue from international tuition is on track to surpass revenue from domestic tuition by approximately 2020. This means that a small portion of the student body — currently around 20 per cent, but that could change — will be providing more revenue than the other 80 per cent combined. Although there has been some discussion regarding diversity, there has been little to no information on how this disproportionate increase could impact campus culture. What is not apparent in the university’s evaluation of comparable institutions is the relative disparity between domestic and international tuition at these other universities.

A comparison of the cost of an Applied Science and Engineering degree from the University of Toronto versus UBC.
A comparison of the cost of an Applied Science and Engineering degree from the University of Toronto versus UBC. Compiled and formatted by Niloufar Keshmiri.

The University of Toronto can serve as an easy case study. A quick evaluation of the tuition levels for applied sciences shows that the gap between these two groups would be substantially smaller at U of T than that at UBC. That does not even account for the added disparity stemming from an additional 3-5 per cent annual inflation-compensating rate of increase for international students versus two per cent due to the provincial government’s tuition cap for domestic students. While a comparison of one program is in no way conclusive, UBC’s lack of information regarding this issue is troublesome. When the burden of services is carried so obviously by one group of students, there is a high possibility for alienation and fragmentation of a student body.

International students won’t see a direct impact on their education

The disproportionate burden of increased tuition could cause segmentation not only between international and domestic students, but also between faculties. A simple breakdown of the numbers shows that the majority of incremental revenue is coming from two faculties — Arts and Commerce. However, where the allocation from Arts more closely resembles their portion of the undergraduate population, Commerce students represent less than 10 per cent of the population and contribute more than 20 per cent of the incremental revenue.

Statistics provided by UBC.
Statistics provided by UBC. Compiled and formatted by Niloufar Keshmiri

This becomes more problematic given the university’s new model of funding allocation. A year ago, when the 10 per cent increase was announced, the revenue sharing model heavily emphasized allocation to faculties — 59 per cent. It was done under the premise that investments would be made in “teaching and learning, faculty-based student services and programming, learning and research infrastructure.” These functions, carried out by faculties, would therefore go on to more directly benefit the students who were paying the price.

The allocation model used in the tuition increases of 2014-15.
The allocation model used in the tuition increases of 2014-15. Provided by Niloufar Keshmiri

The 2016-2017 proposal includes a new model where 61 per cent of the funding will be allocated to the Strategic Investment Fund tasked with supporting “excellence in research, teaching and learning and the educational experience.” This might sound similar to the investments made by faculties under the 2015-2016 proposal. However, the key difference is that the decision regarding allocation will be made by UBC’s central administration. This means that incremental revenue generated by these increases not only disproportionately benefits domestic students, but is also less likely to be realized in the programs in which international students are housed.

Allocation model used in the 2015-16 tuition increases.
Allocation model used in the 2015-16 tuition increases. From UBC's website on the tuition increases

The university has also downplayed the magnitude of this impact. Although their student consultation information page shows additional revenues after three years, this is not representative of the actual incremental revenue once all international students at UBC are subject to the 51 per cent increase. Incoming years will only be required to pay the increases that have come into effect at the time of their admission — i.e. their tuition rates upon admission will be grandfathered in even as tuition continues to increase further. UBC will not reach a point where all international students are paying the 51 per cent increase until 2021. Approximate calculations using enrolment growth numbers for the major programs affected show that incremental revenue could range between $110-120 million by 2021/2022, but the university has failed to highlight this fact given that it would constitute a near doubling of their current international tuition revenue of $160 million.

A band-aid solution

In its 2015-2016 operating budget, the university confirmed that “second entry programs (Medicine, Education, Law, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dentistry) have limited ability to offset inflationary cost increases with international enrolment” and noted that the central funding in 2015 was “allocated to Medicine [and] Law to alleviate growing structural deficits.” The university has yet to clarify how this new funding within the Strategic Investments Fund will be allocated, but given these well-known issues, it is evident that the benefits of increased tuition are not going to be returned to those students who carry the financial burden.

What is even more concerning is the university’s lack of transparency when it comes to how these increases will align with future changes to domestic tuition. The same operating budget notes, “the long-term sustainability of the university requires government flexibility (e.g. on domestic tuition and program fees).” As UBC has moved further away from a needs-based model, the administration has been careful to not limit opportunity for future growth — both in terms of international and domestic tuition increases. At any point when benchmark institutions can be changed, a similar argument can be made for further increases, causing tuition to be raised. While the university’s own proposal calls for accountability and transparency, they have failed to articulate a clear and comprehensive strategy to students. The plan, as it stands, just doesn’t add up.

Niloufar Keshmiri is a fourth-year Sauder student and former Commerce Undergraduate Society president.