Members of the University of Alberta Students’ Union walked out of a meeting Friday disappointed after a decision was made to increase tuition for international students by 3.14 per cent. The U of A board of governors also voted to increase the rent at a number of residences by about four per cent.
Another decision by the board will see changes to meal plans for students at those residences. The students’ union said the changes could lead to increases of up to 15 per cent for students, depending how they use the meal plans.
Several members of the students’ union were very upset with the decision, with some students leaving the meeting in tears. Some students said the decisions make education unaffordable.
Akram Hammami is the president of the International Students’ Association. Originally from Tunisia, Hammami is studying secondary education.
He said he regularly accesses the campus food bank, due to the high cost of his education. Now in his final year, he said his tuition has increased from $5,000 per semester to $9,000 per semester. At one point last year, he was homeless for a week and he worries he will not be able to afford to finish his last year of education.
“It shows how much the university doesn’t care about international students, that we’re not part of this university,” Hammami said, holding back tears.
“We give so much to this community and in the end we get this back. This is not understandable, this is not acceptable and we are not second-class students.”
The decisions come as a provincial tuition freeze is in place, so the university is not able to increase general tuition.
The university said it’s in a difficult financial position and this is necessary. President David Turpin said the decisions are “the beginning of getting our financial house in order.”
“It’s always difficult raising any fees. I think the thing we have to bear in mind is what we’re talking about here is the long-term sustainability of the University of Alberta,” Turpin explained.
“We have an ongoing structural deficit, we’ve accumulated $157 million central debt as a result of this and we have to start dealing with that.”
Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt was “very disheartened” to hear about the decision Friday.
“Our government froze tuition, provided institutions with backfill funding to cover all the costs, as well as increased funding to the university every year since we’ve been elected, which has meant an additional $56.6 million to their budget,” Schmidt said.
“We are also closely monitoring the fees that are passed on to international students, because costs should never be a barrier to getting a good education. We expect that all universities will make responsible financial decisions that are in the best interests of their students.”
The university said it has also instructed all departments to cut back on spending.
In a story published by the Edmonton Journal on Monday, Schmidt again blasted the board’s actions and specifically singled out the university’s president.
“It’s concerning to me to see the president lining his own pockets while he’s cutting money being spent on classrooms and students,” Schmidt said of the president, who according to university documents, has a base salary of $500,000 before additional compensation based on performance.
“We’re not quite sure what information they’re working from to make these decisions,” Schmidt told the Edmonton Journal.
Michael Phair, the chair of the University of Alberta’s board of governors, provided Global News with a statement on Tuesday in which he defended the university’s decisions. You can read Phair’s statement in its entirety below:
“The university is facing significant financial challenges — a growing structural deficit as well as overdependence on short-term investment income to fund operating costs. We are always concerned about affordability and accessibility for our students, and the university provides significant financial supports including scholarships, bursaries and short-term loans. But the university cannot use either domestic tuition or the government grant to subsidize international fees, or residences and meal plans. Residences and meal plans are ancillary operations that must be self-funding. Our international students are required to pay the full cost of their education so that domestic students are not disadvantaged. We have made every effort to ensure the minister and ministry have been fully informed and understand the reasons behind the budget cut, and I’m surprised by the minister’s comments in the Edmonton Journal earlier today.
“I, together with all the members of our board, care deeply about all of our students, and we are committed to the present-day and long-term financial health and viability of the University of Alberta. We have worked closely with the president and the administrative team to come up with viable solutions to the financial challenges. We also recognize their high level of skill and compensate them competitively. The board’s vote to approve the fee increase and the budget occurred after thorough analysis and lengthy discussion of the facts and alternatives. It was not an easy decision because we understand the short-term impacts on students, faculty and staff alike. But we also understand the dangers of not taking action.”
-With files from Phil Heidenreich