‘More like a company than a public establishment’: Grad students speak out on rising tuition costs

UBC has increased tuition over the past several years, despite persistent opposition and vocal protests from students.

In recent years, annual tuition increases have been two per cent for continuing undergraduate and graduate domestic students and between two and five per cent for continuing international students.

As the cost of higher education increases, so too do feelings of concern, anxiety and frustration — especially for UBC’s international graduate student community. For students who have already invested thousands in their education and work in high-intensity positions that can make additional employment difficult to balance, the pressure of rising costs becomes an all too real burden to carry.

International students “don’t have any way of advocating for themselves.”

Samuel Wee, PhD student, department of English

Samuel Wee is a graduate student from Singapore. He is registered as a student at Nanyang Technological University, which pays for Wee’s tuition fees. While recognizing that he is “insulated” from tuition increases, Wee said rising rates are affecting his peers.

“When I first got here in 2018, the cost of living was pretty high, but people were still managing,” he said. “And over the last year and a half, I’ve just really seen my fellow classmates… start to struggle.”

Domestic students are shielded by a provincial tuition increase cap of two per cent annually, but international students have no such protection.

International student fees made up 25 per cent of UBC’s revenue in the 2020/21 year.

“Most international students aren’t ungrateful for being here. It’s a beautiful city. It’s a beautiful country,” Wee said. “We love being part of Canadian society.”

However, Wee said international students are in a situation where “they have no political agency.”

International students cannot vote in Canadian elections, which Wee cited as a reason political representatives don’t seem to hear their concerns. He describes this paradox of residing in Canada yet having no political voice as “strange and tricky.”

In addition, decisions made on campus do not always reflect student opinion. Wee referred to the Tuition Engagement Survey conducted by UBC, which found that 92 percent of respondents selected that they “strongly disagree,” “disagree” or “somewhat disagree” with the proposed tuition increase.

Despite the results from the tuition survey, the Board of Governors — UBC’s financial governing body — passed the proposed tuition increase for 2023/24 with a 12–6 majority on December 5, 2022.

VP Academic Gage Averill justified the rising costs by citing inflation, noting the “extraordinary pressures” of university budgets to finance the cost of buildings, personnel, and supplies, in addition to other factors.

“If the university says we’re going to raise tuition on students to provide welfare for students, that’s a really interesting, very telling statement that reveals how they think of themselves,” Wee said. He reflected that tuition functions as a tax students pay to enjoy the benefits of the UBC community. Unlike taxation, there is nothing democratic about it.

“[Students] don’t have agency and they don’t get to be part of a decision-making process [in] the same way that a citizen gets to be part of the decision-making process,” said Wee.

“When you rely on student loans … it may still be hard for somebody who has responsibilities to afford everything.”

Karol Pasciano, MA, English literature

Karol Pasciano is a UBC alum and the graduate program assistant for UBC in the department of economics.

A first-generation immigrant, Pasciano moved from São Paulo, Brazil to Vancouver with her mother in 2000.

“When we first got here, [we] shared a studio apartment,” Pasciano said. “In 2010, we finally got our [permanent residency], and that’s when I started helping with the bills.”

Pasciano and her mother eventually moved to a one-bedroom apartment for more privacy. Pasciano paid half the rent and contributed to grocery costs by working at a pizza shop.

“I was working mainly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but I would do over 12 hours a night,” said Pasciano. “Sometimes… I remember doing 16 hours.”

“All the money that I made would pretty much go towards the house,” she said.

Pasicano started post-secondary in 2010 at Langara College. Her mother had some money saved up which covered her first year’s tuition and associated books and technology costs. Still, Pasciano worked over 30 hours a week to contribute to living costs and her second year’s tuition.

She also applied for student loans in her second year, recognizing she needed to have more time to complete her degree.

In 2012, Pasciano transferred to UBC. After one year, the toll of working and studying led to her dropping out. The stress of studying and overworking was further aggravated as she developed an autoimmune disorder.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing,” she said. “I also was having trouble studying, feeling very overwhelmed.”

Eventually, Pasciano was able to return to UBC after changing her major to English and completing two additional years at Langara College. Upon returning to UBC, Pasciano opted to take out full-time student loans. She was also awarded scholarships.

Still, student loans and scholarships did not cover everything. During her degrees, Pasciano worked multiple part-time jobs. These jobs included working at two different pizza parlours, tutoring, TA-ing and working at the UBC Writing Centre.

“When you rely on student loans … it may still be hard for somebody who has responsibilities to afford everything,” she said.

Pasciano graduated from UBC 2020 with $56,000 of debt.

“I’m not in favour of fees to go to the university.”

— Gabrielle Tournaire, first-year PhD student, department of physics and astronomy

Gabrielle Tournaire, from France, came to UBC to obtain her PhD while exploring a new country.

“I’m not in favour of fees to go to the university, because in France, basically it’s free,” Tournaire said.

According to the 2019/20 report on education from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, French students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in their home country pay an average of $230 per year of education.

Canadian students pursuing the same type of degree pay nearly $5,000.

Tournaire works as a TA in the department of physics and astronomy and also receives a graduate research assistantship (GRA). However, she said the GRA is not well-paid.

“I consider myself a worker, not really a student, because I already have a master’s [degree] and I am actually working on research,” she said.

When asked what she would like to see change about UBC’s tuition system, Tournaire suggested the government could be more involved in regulating the university. “It would be nice if UBC gets more help from the state to become more public,” Tournaire said.

“It seems it’s more like a company than a public establishment,” she said.