Increase in fees criticized by students

Ancillary fee increases are breaking the spirit of the province's three per cent camp on tuition, students say

Tuition increases at Dal are causing concern for students. Photo: Jennifer Gosnell


Daniel Bergman is a master’s student at Dalhousie University and he’s noticed a worrisome trend during the years he has attended: the cost of education is steadily increasing.

He says over the past few years he “got the sense that things were getting progressively worse” even though the provincial government placed a three per cent annual cap on tuition in 2011.

Nova Scotia sports the third highest tuition rates in the country for domestic undergraduate students (at $5,554) and the second highest rates for domestic graduate students (at $5,966).

Revenue from tuition and student fees alone has increased over 40 per cent ($41.7 million) since the 2009-10 academic year.

A Memorandum of Understanding between the Province of Nova Scotia and its 10 universities places a yearly cap of three per cent on tuition increases. Relative to the inflation rate of education costs (at two per cent annually), three per is still a substantial increase.

The cap, however, excludes increases in ancillary fees for services such as athletics, student union dues, technology and facilities, as well as course specific auxiliary fees for lab work, field trips and course materials.

In the 2014-15 year, Dalhousie University undergraduate students paid more than a three per cent increase on their overall education costs. Arts students paid 3.16 per cent more, while science students paid 3.25 per cent more.

In an email exchange, Tracy Jarvis, a manager of Student Accounts at Dalhousie University, acknowledged that the fee increase did exceed the three per cent cap. She attributes the additional increase to auxiliary and ancillary fees. Both of which are not restricted by the tuition fee cap.

Jessica Gravel, a third-year political science and sociology student says, “Tuition keeps going up anyways, and then when other things are allowed to just jump even more then whatever our cap is, that sucks… basically.”

Students Nova Scotia, an alliance of post-secondary student associations that includes the Dalhousie Student Union, says these fee increases aren’t properly regulated. 

“The language of the MOU serves only as a guideline for university behaviour: it leaves final authority for [auxiliary and ancillary] fee increases with universities and fails to define consequences for institutions that do not respect the spirit of the MOU agreement,” they write.

A clause in the current memorandum states that:

The universities agree that they will not increase auxiliary fees or ancillary fees within their control to compensate for an inability to raise tuition fees beyond the tuition caps in this agreement.

The letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law 

Zahraa Cherri, a fourth-year neuroscience student, says the clause is basically a loophole.

“Honestly I think they’re taking advantage of the fact that students just want to get an education and a career,” Cherri says.

Bergman says he’s not surprised universities are exceeding the cap on fees but “there does seem to be something that’s clearly wrong with that.”

“I would want to know the reasons behind that… what’s the motivation there?” he asks.

As it happens, motivation is not lacking.

On Oct. 8 the government of Nova Scotia announced that it would review the long-term sustainability of the province’s universities for failing to properly manage operating costs.

By 2018, there will be a $50-million funding gap between what the universities require to operate and what the government is able to pay,  Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan said.

The question is: where will the money come from?

If long-term trends are anything to go by, the options don’t look good for students.

In the past 30 years universities have come to rely more and more on students – rather than the province – to pick up the tab. Between 1981 and 2011 tuition fees went from representing 15 per cent to 39 per cent of university revenue.

The current memorandum between the province and the universities is due to end in March 2015.

Under the current memorandum, the province and the universities are committed to “ongoing, meaningful consultation with students”. The memorandum further guarantees that:

In circumstances where students are to be faced with compulsory fee increases relating to ancillary operations, recognized student organizations on each campus will be consulted at least four weeks in advance of the approval by the university of the proposed increase. This timing is to allow for effective student input into the proposal prior to the decision.

In 2013, however, Students Nova Scotia said universities were failing to properly consult students prior to introducing new ancillary fees during the period covered by the current MOU. They said they will oppose all increases to ancillary and auxiliary fees until the universities agree to “clear and binding terms of consultation.”

Dalhousie runs surpluses

“I have no idea what their actual state of finances is, but it’s definitely been made to seem like it’s dire,” says Bergman.

The reality is that during the four years he was in his undergrad, Dalhousie University’s operating budget never had less than a $17-million surplus each year. One year, the surplus was $31.2 million.

Presented with the numbers, Bergman said he would not have expected such a significant surplus. On the other hand, he acknowledges that “$17 million probably sounds like a lot and when you actually look at all the different things that they have to fund, that starts to seem like a much smaller number,” he says. “But I am surprised at the size.”

Dalhousie isn’t alone. When compared to other major research-based universities such as the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie’s procedure of operating on a surplus appears to be the norm for educational budgeting.

These three institutions operated either with a surplus or broke even during the last five years. Budget increases were well into the millions between the 2012 and 2013 academic year. Increases to their operating budget were in part thanks to an increase in tuition.

UBC hiked its tuition fees for domestic students  by two per cent, while Dal and U of T increased theirs by three per cent, suggesting an overall Canadian trend.

Between the tuition hikes and the multi-million dollar surpluses, the role of universities is being called into question. Are they becoming corporations? Bergman thinks they are. He lays the blame with the government for putting them into that role.

“They’re having to function with less and less government [funding] and really it’s not just a public service anymore, so it has to be run like a corporate entity to keep it and sustain it from year to year,” he says.

Representatives from Dalhousie’s Financial Services and Budget Advisory Committee did not make themselves available for interview.