Students at NSCAD University in Halifax are filling out forms to drop classes in a protest against a proposed tuition increase of 37 per cent over three years.

"They really can't afford to continue an education here if this passes," said Grace Stratton, a 21-year-old art history student.

"So students are committing right now to not return — and that will be devastating for the institution."

The university's board of governors has proposed a 37 per cent tuition increase over three years for undergraduate students in what it's calling a "tuition reset."

On Thursday, the school locked out members of the public, media and any students without ID as a result of the pushback against the proposed hike.

The university has not responded to multiple requests for an interview.

NSCAD is Canada's oldest independent arts university and currently faces a $13-million debt after years of struggling financially. Merging with other universities has been discussed as a solution.

Increase 'completely unrealistic'

This fall, the school announced it would vacate several historic buildings in downtown Halifax that need renovations. Last spring the union said the school had laid off 16 staff members.

A few years ago, the school cut 55 classes it said were under-enrolled.

Several students attended the university's board meeting last week and protested silently, stalling a vote to approve the increase. This week, they've changed tactics to filling out forms to drop classes.

Stratton, who is about to graduate, said a higher tuition would have stopped her from attending the school. 

"It's a completely unrealistic number for less facilities, less programs and the loss of staff that we've experienced in the past year. Students are paying more for less," Stratton said.

Students at NSCAD

NSCAD students Yalitsa Riden and Grace Stratton say the proposed tuition hikes will make students drop out and prevent others from attending. (CBC)

The average undergraduate student at NSCAD University currently pays between $6,000 and $7,000 annually. In comparison, students at Emily Carr University — an art school in Vancouver — pay around $4,500 to $5,500 per year.

"We're trying to have a conversation with our president," said Yalitsa Riden, a 26-year-old film student. 

"We don't want it to happen. We don't think it's in the best interest of not only students, but our school."

Professors 'extremely concerned'

NSCAD professor Karin Cope said she and other professors believe enrolment is already dropping due to affordability. She said she knows students who must take time off school in order to pay for tuition.

"We're extremely concerned about this tuition reset. We know that our students aren't exceedingly well off, most of them," said Cope, who teaches art history and critical studies.

"We really would like the administration to explore better recruiting strategies and better fundraising strategies before they take more money out of the students' hides. We think that has to be the future of NSCAD."

The students protesting want to be consulted about changes to tuition.