BC Federation of Students report calls for cap on international tuition hikes

A report endorsed by 14 post-secondary student unions is calling on the BC government to adopt an annual two per cent cap on international tuition fees across the province, which is home to roughly one third of all international students in Canada.

Published by the British Columbia Federation of Students (BCFS) — which does not count UBC Vancouver’s AMS as a member — the report called public post-secondary institutions’ growing reliance on international student tuition “predatory,” noting that tuition hikes were contributing to unsustainable financial pressures on foreign students.

The report predicts that rising tuition may cause students to flee as the cost of schooling, especially with the addition of other costs — like visas and health insurance — make BC an unsustainable destination. Forty-six per cent of international students found it difficult to adjust to the cost of living in BC, according to one 2014 survey.

“The old government’s goal was a 50 per cent increase [in international student enrolment], and the rapid increase in international students under their watch has created a complex situation,” said Advanced Education, Skills and Training Minister Melanie Mark in a statement.

In 2005, the BC government introduced an annual domestic tuition cap of two per cent, but international students at UBC endure tuition increases of up to five per cent per year.

Foreign fees

While international tuition varies across schools, tuition for the 2018/19 school year at UBC is between $37,000 to $50,000 depending on the program. Domestic undergraduates pay around $5,000 to $10,000 for the majority of programs.

In 2015, UBC announced increases of nearly 50 per cent to most programs over three years. This sparked strong backlash and an AMS campaign dubbed ‘Afford UBC,’ which ultimately failed to convince the university’s Board of Governors to reconsider their position.

In its 2017/18 budget, UBC recognized international student tuition as an “important and growing source of revenue.” Undergraduate international tuition accounted for $277 million out of $579 million in tuition revenue.

According to UBC’s 2017/18 Enrolment Report, international students make up 25 per cent of the the university’s undergraduate population — a two per cent increase from the previous year.

Vice-Provost Dr. Pamela Ratner said in an email that UBC is aware of the issue and has increased financial support for international students by offering bursaries, short-term emergency loans and bigger awards.

She added that UBC, recognizing the high cost of living in the Lower Mainland, is pursuing its own affordability efforts by investing over half a billion dollars in the construction of student housing through 2020.

But students across the province are feeling the impact of tuition hikes, and those at UBC are no different. The 2018 AMS Academic Experience Survey found that a just under half of students reported financial hardship due to tuition.

‘Holistic approach’

The AMS does not support tuition increases for domestic or international students. But unlike the BCFS and other BC student unions, they’re focusing their external lobbying on specific expenses outside of tuition.

The University of Victoria Student Society recently protested against an international tuition hike of three to five per cent each year. The Thompson Rivers University Student Union’s Drop Fees campaign calls for a “comprehensive strategy to reduce fees across the province.” For several years they held an annual concert, “Tunes Against Tuition Fees.”

The AMS’s “holistic” approach towards advocacy likely won’t result in such measures.

“We recognize that the situation that’s been created is that institutions kind of have to find more funding sources,” said AMS VP External Cristina Ilnitchi. “That’s why we’re focusing so much this year on looking at that conversation around post-secondary funding and what that should look like.”

Ilnitchi said she plans to continue lobbying efforts to reduce tuition in the same vein as her predecessor Sally Lin, who practiced a well-rounded approach towards affordability issues.

“If we have a holistic conversation the government can respond with a multitude of options,” said Ilnitchi.

Ilnitchi emphasized that tuition is just one part of affordability, and her office plans to also focus lobbying efforts around textbooks, transit and student loan reform. Regardless, Ilnitchi hopes to develop a “broad conversation” with the government about long-term funding opportunities.

“Tuition is just one part of a student’s expenses,” said Ilnitchi. “When we speak to the government we bring them an overall look at what this issue looks like ... one part of it is tuition. We do speak on that, but we also speak on all the other aspects that come with affordability.”

Ilnitchi believes that partnering with student unions across the province will also strengthen the impact of their advocacy. She said these efforts are in the works at the provincial and federal level.

“I think our advocacy will be that much stronger when we partner with other institutions and come together to show that this is a conversation that we’ve had together, and that this is coming to them from hundreds of thousands of students from across BC.”