Memorial University is facing questions about graduate programs targeted mostly at international students, including concerns about an expensive "special fee" and fears that graduates get little in return for their money.

About 50 students have signed a petition or voiced their concerns about four programs offered by MUN’s engineering department.

Students told CBC News of their issues with the special fee, class conflicts, being pushed to do advanced courses before taking the pre-requisites, and a lack of work terms that makes it difficult for them to find jobs when they graduate.

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Memorial University offers a number of graduate courses targeted towards international students. Some of those students are now questioning the programs. (CBC)

But the university is defending the programs, saying the additional academic fees charged for them are warranted.

"These programs required additional resources," said Dr. Leonard Lye, the associate dean of graduate studies with MUN’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

Those resources include additional faculty, infrastructure, and language training.

"In addition to that, we need to pay commission to recruiters, and also, we need additional administrative costs to run this program," Lye said.

One student's story

Howie Chan, 25, is leading the efforts to rally his fellow students on the issue.

He first heard about Memorial University in China, through a recruiting agency, Can-Zhong International Education Consulting.

Unlike other international students, Chinese students are told they must go through this agency to apply to Memorial.

That contrasts with the findings of a 2005 university senate report, which cited legal advice that "Memorial is able to recruit directly or accept students into the program from China who apply on their own."

Chan paid a fee of $3,000 to the agency.

A few weeks after completing some exams with an official from MUN, Chan received an admission letter to the master of applied science program in computer engineering. He was told his program fees would cost $26,000.

Pricey programs

The MASc in computer engineering is the most expensive graduate degree offered at Memorial.

In fact, the four engineering programs targeted at international students are the priciest of the 10 degrees at Memorial that have an attached special fee.

Those charges range from $16,282 to $20,282 for international students. All other tuition fees for international students in master's programs cost less than $6,000.

Enrolment in the MASc program for computer engineering was low in 2010, but spiked the following year, from 10 students to 30. Six people failed out of the program that year, while five graduated.

According to Memorial University, 368 students have enrolled in the four programs since 2004.

About 60 per cent have graduated, while just over 12 per cent have been terminated from their program, or have dropped out of their own accord. The rest are still enrolled.

Chan said it was an incredible amount of money for his family.

"It means my family's savings through 20 years, at least," he said.

"We don't go to fancy restaurants, we don't have a car, and we lived in a humble apartment, and we tried to save money by all means in order to get me... a better education."

Problems with the program

Chan moved to St. John's and started English-as-a-second-language training in July 2011, before entering the graduate engineering program in September of that year.

He soon found that there were other programs at the university that would be a better fit for his academic background, which includes a bachelor's degree in computational science, and a bachelor of business administration.

But Chan was faced with roadblocks when he thought about switching programs — a charge of $20,000 to do so, he says.

Chan says he was stuck.

"It left me no choice but to continue the program," he said. "I couldn't afford another amount of tuition fee."

Chan continued with his courses, but faced some issues that he says caused him to fail two classes and flunk out of the program after his first year.

He says he has been speaking with university administration on the issues, but doesn't know what his next step will be.

"For some students like us, we encounter so many [injustices] here, and it's impossible for us to apply for other universities and because the academic failures and also the financial burdens," he said.

"Probably my parents couldn't afford me for further education, so I might need to get back to China."

University responds

Lye said these four graduate engineering programs are course-based programs, and therefore cost more for students to complete.

He says they take more courses than regular research programs, requiring more resources.

Lye says the programs are covering their costs, plus generating additional cash that's used to support research, student travel, and faculty infrastructure for graduate programs.

As for the recruiter, Lye says Can-Zhong is the exclusive agent, which is only allowed to promote those four engineering programs.

"These are the ones they have [a] contract with," he said.

While Chan says he was only aware of the four programs that Can-Zhong showed him at Memorial, Lye brushed aside those comments.

"I can't believe that someone would not even check what we offer," he said.

"Everything is transparent; it's all on the internet. When they check the MUN website, everything is there."

Lye says once students have gone through the process, they are locked into paying the tuition rates.

"After they arrive and they change their mind, that's the regulation, they have to pay the fees," he said.

A university senate report written seven years ago concluded that premium tuition programs should be reviewed every three years. Lye acknowledges that hasn't happened.

"It probably fell through the cracks somewhere," he said.

But the university is planning a review this fall.

'High risk education'

Joey Donnelly, the president of Memorial's Graduate Students' Union, says he learned of this issue from students a few months ago.

"When you're looking at how much these students are paying compared to the average Memorial student, it's pretty staggering," he said.

Donnelly says these international students are putting a lot of money into their education, without many guarantees of return on their investment.

"A lot of these students had fully anticipated great success after coming to Memorial, but have found instead that they owe tens of thousands of dollars, and don't have a degree to show for it," he said.

Donnelly says he sees an issue with Chinese students having to go through Can-Zhong International.

"It's certainly problematic when you have these third-party agencies, recruiting on behalf of Memorial, when their whole incentive is profit," he said.

Donnelly is calling for the special fees to be abolished.

"This is an attempt to find creative ways to download costs to students, so instead of the province or in fact the university finding ways to fund these programs, they're putting it all on the backs of graduate students," he said.

"We should be ensuring that all of our programs are at a base tuition fee that's fair and affordable to students."

With files from Peter Cowan