On Campus

Is a $500 ‘student fee’ increase a tuition hike?

That’s the question the provincial government will have to answer after UBC Commerce students approve hefty annual fee for building upgrades

On Friday, students in the Faculty of Commerce at the University of British Columbia (UBC) passed a referendum that will see an annual $500 fee (tied to inflation) hoisted on all commerce students for decades to come, money which will go towards extensive renovations to their building. The Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS) approved the referendum question the week before last, students debated, and 63 per cent voted in favour of the fee. Simple, right?

Not really. In fact, not by a long shot—it isn’t often that one faculty’s internal politics become a giant issue, but it happened in his case, with every blog on campus talking about it, the vast majority of which were fairly critical of the fee. There are two very different, but fundamental issues, which captivated people.

The first issue is more provocative, but less important long-term: Was this referendum a farce? See, in 2006, Commerce students passed a referendum question that looked pretty much exactly the same . . . but the provincial government deemed it an illegal tuition increase (since 2005 BC has had a two per cent inflationary cap on tuition), and it was axed.

This led to a whole bunch of financing/organizational issues, but most of the funding for the major renovations was eventually secured, except for the pesky little problem of how to fund a $20 million mortgage taken out on the project. Which is where students came in. Again. Only this time, the Dean of Commerce, Dan Muzyka, made very very sure that this would technically be a “student fee” and not a “tuition increase.” It also made him an easy target when he had a closed-door meeting with the CUS to talk to them about initiating the referendum. And when he went from class-to-class to talk up the project. And when an Associate Professor berated a student online who criticized the proposed fee for his economic argument. And when supporters of the project said that the school could lose its accreditation if they didn’t get a new building, without ever showing proof that it was a possibility. And when . . . you get the picture. The degree to which students were pressured to vote a certain way is, at best, against the spirit of a “student fee,” and that’s without even looking at the various issues on how the project has been handled, and whether students are getting a good deal or not .

But that’s inside baseball. The bigger issue is whether, fundamentally, students should pay for academic buildings. Students generally pay for static operating costs through tuition—faculty and such. It certainly sets a precedent. Then again, given the strains on our post-secondary system, this type of issue is going to become more and more prevalent.

Canadian schools that want to compete internationally and aspire to “world-class” status are always in a quandary—they don’t have the endowment or the culture of alumni support of U.S. schools, and support from government is rarely significant. So rapid improvements of programs can be a bit tricky—especially when governments have tuition caps in place, as most provinces do for undergraduate programs.

Given that, the argument goes, if students themselves want to make sacrifices to fund a better education, why shouldn’t they have that choice?

Of course, this all may be moot. The provincial government struck down the Commerce fee three years ago, struck down a mandatory $55 fee at UVic for better athletic facilities last year, and just may do the same with this. Regardless, with the economic climate being what it is, expect more of these outside the box proposals to come down the pipeline, putting more and more pressure on governments to be more flexible.

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