Why I am voting against the tuition increases for domestic students

During my previous two terms on the UBC Board of Governors from 2008 to 2014, I always voted in support of the administration’s maximum government-allowable 2% increases in tuition fees for domestic students. But things are different this time.

The substantial hikes in international tuition fees implemented in 2015, and the ensuing dramatic increases in the number of international students, have led to a remarkable 44% increase in tuition and student fees revenue for UBC. It is time to use this windfall of resources to alleviate the financial burden on the people of British Columbia, who have been investing for decades directly and indirectly in their flagship institution.

These increased tuition revenues led to unprecedented budget surpluses for both the central UBC administration and that of individual Faculties. Of course, surpluses can quickly be turned into deficits since there are always ways to do better, bigger, greener, and prettier. Instead, let us consider what has been done with the additional revenues to date. Comparing the 2015 and 2018 financial statements, administration expenses are up by 21.9%, community engagement by 26%, while teaching and learning are up by only 15.7%.

To put a human face on this, here are the last year figures on head counts: Staff headcount increased by 436 people over 2016. International student headcount increased by about 1600 in the same period. At the same time, faculty headcount decreased by 74 in 2017 compared to 2016. These numbers do not mesh well with our views and priorities for the academic mission.

What about research? Since 2015, growth in research expenses has been -0.25%, -0.3%, and +5%. This looks like a step in the right direction, but the recent crisis at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies points to an administration that is scraping to fulfill its obligations towards the research mission. Neither the encroachment on an endowed research institute disrupting in the process its academic governance, nor the reliance on tuition fees from domestic students is the right way to do so.

But what has strengthened my resolve to oppose further domestic tuition increases was the following recent Ubyssey article by Alex Nguyen: The hunger gap: Rising food bank usage is just the tip of the food insecurity iceberg. In a nutshell: The 2018 AMS Academic Experience Survey found that “in the past year, 17 per cent of undergraduate and graduate students expressed monthly concerns about running out of money to buy food. These figures jump to 37 per cent of undergraduate students and 42 per cent of graduate students for those who expressed this concern at least once in the 12 months.” Enough said.

The administration’s counter-argument is that some of the proceeds from tuition increases are given back as bursaries and other need-based awards. But the data shows that only 16% of domestic full time students have benefitted from such a program, significantly below the percentage of those living with food insecurity. This is not acceptable in 21st century British Columbia.

There are others who share my views. All faculty and student representatives on the Board are equally committed to vote against the proposed increases. The vote in committee was an unprecedented 10-6 against our motion to freeze domestic tuition.  We are not content that our stand be considered as the usual symbolic gesture to be drowned out by the majority of government appointed governors. Next week, we have another opportunity to convince the rest of the Board that it is time to take a pause and give the people of BC a break. We shall use it.

My colleagues and I on the UBC Board of Governors have an obligation toward the people of British Columbia, as set out in Section 8 of the Board Manual.  We have a duty of communication, of knowledge, a fiduciary duty, and a duty of care.  So does the Government of British Columbia.

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