Hi.

My name is Bashir Mohamed.
I am a university student and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

At the Expense of International Students

At the Expense of International Students

 
 Students  protesting  the international differential fee in 1977 at the Alberta Legislature.

Students protesting the international differential fee in 1977 at the Alberta Legislature.

 

International students make up a large portion of the student population at the University of Alberta, yet issues that they face are often overlooked by the institutions that represent and govern these students. Moving to a new country, navigating immigration policies in a second language and facing unpredictable financial burdens are challenging endeavours faced uniquely by international students.

Over the last few years, I became actively aware of many issues faced by international students, and I realized how unfamiliar I was with the specifics of their plight when I first entered university as a domestic student. International students are burdened with extremely high tuition costs, and are often only able to attend the University of Alberta if they receive a full scholarship. Those who do not complete their programs are usually forced to repay scholarships, leave the country and face an uncertain future. These drastic consequences create immense pressure to succeed academically.

Despite the unique barriers they face, international students should nevertheless have their concerns addressed by the bodies that represent them. They should be assured that their experiences and responsibilities are governed by the rule of law and the basic principles of good governance.

I recently discovered that the university administration, Students’ Union and the Alberta provincial government may have broken this trust by imposing an illegal extra financial burden upon international students.

 
 Going against the grain, then-provincial NDP leader Grant Notley  opposed  the international differential fee when it was first introduced.

Going against the grain, then-provincial NDP leader Grant Notley opposed the international differential fee when it was first introduced.

 

Background

Contrary to what many people seem to believe, ‘international student tuition’ is not one fee. In fact, international and domestic students alike pay the exact same ‘base tuition’, which is regulated by the provincial government under the Post-Secondary Learning Act (Public Post-Secondary Institutions’ Tuition Fees Regulation). International students also pay an additional surcharge called the ‘international differential fee’ (IDF), which is not government-regulated.

The IDF is currently almost three times larger than the base tuition (I encourage you to verify this for yourself using the University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Cost Calculator). However, this was not always the case. Due to the IDF’s discriminatory nature, the University of Alberta expressed opposition to the IDF from the time it was mandated by the provincial government in 1976 until 1991. For fifteen years, the IDF remained at 50 percent of base tuition due to the university’s active resistance to the provincial mandate.

In 1992, however, the IDF was suddenly increased from 50 percent to 100 percent of base tuition. Facing budget shortfalls and an economic recession, the university gave into the province’s mandate with the specific intention of increasing revenue. International students continued to be seen by the university as merely a source of extra cash, and the IDF was steadily increased to the exorbitant amount we know today. The Post-Secondary Learning Act Tuition Fees Regulation was amended in 2015 to introduce a tuition freeze on base tuition for all students (below), but the IDF continues to increase year after year.

 
 

Overcharging

While the Post-Secondary Learning Act mandates that base tuition be increased according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the University of Alberta adheres instead to an institution-specific index known as the Academic Price Index (API) to determine the rate of inflation applied to the IDF. In 2016, the CPI was 1.5% while the API was set at 3.02%.

Even though the API is used to collect increasing amounts of revenue from international students this year, inflation under this index can only be applied to the IDF and not to base tuition. International students should still pay the same base tuition as domestic students.

 
 

In December 2016, the University of Alberta Board of Governors voted to increase "Tuition and International Differential Fees (IDF) to all international students in all programs" (Item 5a).  This violates the provincially mandated tuition freeze and the Post-Secondary Learning Act.

 
 A slide from the University of Alberta Provost's  presentation  to the Board of Governors in December 2016.

A slide from the University of Alberta Provost's presentation to the Board of Governors in December 2016.

 

The API was used to increase the IDF and the base tuition – for international students only. In the case shown above, an undergraduate Arts faculty student would be overcharged by about $160 while a student in the Juris Doctor program would be overcharged by almost $350.

Seeking Clarification

When I first noticed this in January, nearly a month had passed since the tuition increase. As someone who keeps up to date with student issues, I was sure I must have overlooked something since I hadn’t heard about this issue yet. There must have been an exception documented somewhere – if what I found was accurate, then this issue would have surely been brought to light much sooner.

Initially, I looked at the Finance and Property committee meeting minutes, since this was one of the first committees where the tuition increase would have been presented. These records confirmed that the API was applied to the both the IDF and base tuition.

Confused, I mentioned the issue to the speaker of the Students’ Council, asking for direction on how to follow-up on this issue further. He suggested that I bring it up at that evening’s Students’ Council meeting, where an Open Forum period would be provided for ordinary students to ask questions to Council and the Students’ Union (SU) executive team.

I arrived at Council, hoping to clarify if the base tuition was actually increased along with the IDF. Was the tuition freeze not meant to apply to international students in the first place? If not, was there any documented proof of a decision to exclude international students from the tuition freeze? If there was no written proof, had the SU ever sought clarification on the matter?

Nearly two and a half hours into the meeting, I was finally given the opportunity to ask my questions. The SU President explained that, from his understanding, the tuition freeze only applied to the base tuition paid by domestic students. Since I was unable to find any provincial documentation confirming the exclusion of international students from the tuition freeze, I asked the President if he had documentation to back up his statement. He replied that the Minister confirmed the exclusion at a press event and phone call. He ensured me that the corresponding press release would state that the tuition freeze only applied to domestic students.

 
 
 
 Budget 2016  background document .

Budget 2016 background document.

 

In fact, the press release did not differentiate domestic and international students with regards to the tuition freeze. The Budget 2016 background document also failed to specify. I had more questions to ask the SU executive, but Students’ Council voted to end Open Forum period after only 15 minutes. I was effectively silenced, but I was determined to follow the issue further.  Since the President seemed so sure that the tuition freeze only applied to domestic students, I asked the Chair of the Board of Governors for clarification.

 
 Tuition Review  background document .

Tuition Review background document.

 

The Chair responded with a background document of the Tuition Review. This document does allege that the tuition freeze only applies to domestic students, yet the policy regulation that it references is the Post-Secondary Learning Act Tuition Fee Regulation itself. As I mentioned previously, this legislation only specifies the conditions for the tuition freeze. It does not exclude international students.

Alarmed by the discrepancy in the public government communications, I brought the issue to the Gateway student newspaper. The Gateway has direct access to the Press Secretary of the Ministry of Advanced Education, and my hope was that the Press Secretary could clarify where provincial legislation excludes international students from the tuition freeze. The Gateway is still investigating this issue, and I hope to receive an update to clear the air soon.

Conclusions

The Students’ Council, Students’ Union and University of Alberta Board of Governors all followed up on the issue by referencing press releases, verbal communication and background documents with no legal implications rather than specific legislation. Unsure responses and contradictory statements demonstrate a lack of understanding of the basic structure of international tuition, while a failure to cite legally-binding documents represents a nonchalant attitude towards the issue. This highlights a pervasive attitude within our post-secondary education system in which issues faced by international students are overlooked. These students already face so many unique challenges that domestic students do not, and the institutions that govern and represent them should address their needs and concerns the same way they do for domestic students.

Apparent discrepancies as large as the incorrect tuition increase of December 2016 should be immediately identified and resolved. A lack of general understanding of international student matters, and widespread sloppiness and ignorance prevent progress towards truly representing international students. While those who govern must always ask themselves “Is what we’re doing legal?”, those who represent must bear the responsibility of asking “Is what they’re doing right legally and morally?” When one ceases to consider the moral implications of an issue, one can easily become complacent towards the issue and forget to question its legal basis.

 
 University of Alberta students opposing the international differential fee increase at the Board of Governor's meeting in December 2013. Credit: Joshua Le.

University of Alberta students opposing the international differential fee increase at the Board of Governor's meeting in December 2013. Credit: Joshua Le.

 
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