Students' Union cries foul after U of C announces 2nd tuition hike in 2 years

The U of C's board of governors voted to increase tuition for the 2020-2021 school year in January, and students braced for increases up to a 15 per cent — depending on what program they were in. Last week, the board approved a proposal to hike fees and raise tuition again in May 2021.

Rising fees will exacerbate stress of suppressed job market, union VP says

The university has cut more than 600 positions and many planned initiatives, and flat-lined the majority of leaders' salaries, while students contribute through increases in fees and tuition, the U of C said in an announcement Monday. (David Bell/CBC)

The University of Calgary has announced it is readying to hike tuition for the second time in two years, prompting an outcry from the Students' Union, which says the pandemic is causing enough financial stress for students.

The U of C's board of governors voted in January to increase tuition for the 2020-2021 school year, and students braced for anything from no increase to a 15 per cent increase — depending on what program they were in. 

Last week, the board approved a proposal to hike fees and raise tuition again in May 2021.

"We are very concerned that the university chose to raise tuition at a time like this," said Marley Gillies, vice-president external for the Students' Union.

"We have a very unique situation in where we face all of the challenges that are hitting us from multiple fronts — the cost of living, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of employment and now the rising cost of education. 

"It's a lot for students to face."

Pushed to the margins 

Similarly to the increase in January, some programs will see no changes in tuition, while others will spike by about 15 per cent.

Overall, the projected increase averages around $200 to $300 per student next semester, Gillies said. Fees that include meal plans, parking rates and residence services are also set to swell.

Marley Gillies, vice-president external for the Students' Union, says she is concerned about the impact of increased tuition during a pandemic and suppressed job market. (Submitted by Marley Gillies)

It comes after an advocacy survey conducted by the Students' Union found that 60 per cent of students reported they had struggled to find summer employment in an unprecedented year, she said.

"Students were unable to find the work they wanted this summer, [and] whether that was full time or part time, students rely on this employment to cover their costs for the year," Gillies said.

"Many just can't manage working and studying at the same time … it pushes a lot of students to the margins, and that's kind of where everyone is concerned."

UCP cut through university budget, provost says

The university says that the back-to-back tuition hikes are to offset budget cuts.

After a five-year tuition freeze implemented under the NDP government came to an end, the university initially looked at increasing tuition in November 2019 to make up for a mid-year funding cut by the UCP government.

That cut came after the Mackinnon Report suggested rebalancing funding for the post-secondary system in September 2019, Dru Marshall, the U of C's provost and vice-president, told CBC News.

"The UCP government has definitely cut though the budget of the university as a result of that report," Marshall said.

The report suggested that institutions should lean more heavily on user-pay instead of governmental support, and called for a reduction in provincial grant money, Marshall said.

The upshot is that the university has to make up for the loss of funding, she said — and has a philosophy of shared responsibility between administration, staff and students to do so.

Shared responsibility

For its part, the U of C has taken measures to reduce costs. That includes cutting over 600 positions and many planned initiatives, and flat-lining the majority of leaders' salaries.

Meanwhile, students will contribute through increases in fees and tuition, the announcement read.

"The pandemic is not always going to be here; we're planning for the future, and I think it's the responsibility of the board to do that," Marshall said.

"In terms of jobs, we are working closely with industry … to create work and learning opportunities both outside the university and inside the university."

The U of C also said in its announcement that despite the increase, tuition costs at the University of Calgary are still lower than those at many other post-secondary institutions across Canada.

But Gillies said that because much of the province's financial assistance program is disproportionately loan-based, with almost 81 per cent of it being repayable, more debt is sure to follow the decision.

"At this point, all students are affected," Gillies said.

"This is the second year in a row where we've seen massive increases to both tuition and fees, and although they happen to various programs at various different rates, students in their entirety are facing these difficult times that lead them to take out student aid."

With files from Lucie Edwardson and Helen Pike.