Bust the Myth: the Logic of Inflation and Tuition Increases
By Jorji Temple, English PhD Student at Simon Fraser University
When we talk about freezing tuition, the question we get asked most often is “What about inflation?” This question, I think, explains a lot about our attitude toward education. Often, increasing tuition in line with inflation is presented as neutral, as “only fair,” or as the natural thing to do. Here’s why it’s not:
Student incomes are not tied to inflation. Neither in any SFU contracts with workers, nor across the economy, do raises equal or exceed inflation. This means that an increase in tuition that *is* tied to inflation is an ongoing *economic redistribution* from the students to the institution. Costs are handed down to students instead of being absorbed by the institution. If your income isn’t increasing at the rate of inflation, you’re losing purchasing power. Students, as a group, have *less* money each year, and tuition increases in line with inflation make that worse.
SOURCE: Global News and Statistics Canada
Also, student fees are not the primary source of funding for public universities like SFU. Check out any of SFU’s budgets, including the proposed one for next year, and you’ll see that tuition is only a small portion of the university’s funding.
I mention this because “inflation” arguments for tuition increases are premised on the idea that students are the university’s revenue source, and imply (or state) that without our financial contribution to the institution steadily increasing, the institution couldn’t function. This is simply untrue, as an examination of the last five years of budgets shows. This leaves aside how we got into the situation where universities weren’t funded properly (shoutout to Christy Clark and years of increasing Senior Admin salaries).
For only two quick examples, this year’s projected “budget deficit” could be recuperated by contributing a smaller amount to the endowment or altering building expansion plans. (If we had access to more of the proposed budget, we could offer other options for making up this deficit, but the Administration doesn’t share that information until later in the year). It also matters because each tuition increase shifts the university’s economic interests: do you want an educational institution whose decisions are based on advertising and student recruitment? One where the buildings are investments with student fees as the payoff?
The University has a choice here, whether to be an agent of dispossession or equality; whether to stand up for the students for whom it exists or to exploit them as customers because it can – restricting access to education in the process.
Tuition Freeze Now is a student initiative to challenge SFU’s proposed tuition increases for the upcoming years, which are set to range anywhere from 2% to an outrageous 20%, depending on where students come from and what they study. As students at SFU, tuition hikes at our university have long-lasting impacts on our university careers, mental health, lives outside of school, and futures.
Our group represents a wide range of student voices and backgrounds. We have been formally endorsed by the Simon Fraser Student Society board of directors and council, the Graduate Student Society, the Teaching Support Staff Union, SFU Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry, and SFU Left Alternative.
We spoke to the BoG (Board of Governors) to explain the student opposition to tuition increases. In the midst of a housing crisis that students are trying to survive on their stagneting wages, a tuition increase is uncessesary, cruel, and unjust. In its place, we ask for an alternative budget that does not feature a tuition hike.
When SFU announced the tuition increases for the upcoming year, the announcement came with very little information about where that money would be headed, and there it was nearly impossible for students to get additional information. With the support of both the graduate and undergraduate Student Societies, that students have clearly and decisively said ‘no’ to the hikes after agreeing that we have not been consulted effectively about these increases.
The only public consultation open to all SFU students was held on October 30th, 2018. We were notified of this consultation in only one email. The meeting was held in the morning in the middle of midterm exams, on the Burnaby campus. To make things more inaccessible, little record of this meeting was made available to students after the fact – only the slides, which make little sense out of context.
While this event may meet the definition of consultation as laid out in SFU’s policies, as evident from the small turnout, it was supremely inaccessible to the vast majority of students. We want to be clear that this is not due to a lack of interest, but because of how inconvenient the meeting was to students. We also recognize that private consultations were held with student societies, though both have expressed that they left these consultations with many concerns about the necessity of the increases.
Another issue is with the amount of information available to students regarding this budget. This picture shown here – one of eight that were shown at the consultation – represents the entirety of the budgetary data we have been given to this point.
As you can see, it is very hard to get a good idea of what the budget will look like and what items are being prioritized with lines broken down no further than “other expenses.”
We have tried to do a more thorough analysis of the budget over the past three months. Even looking at past budgets and financial reports, many budget lines are too vague and general to fully understand. The student body has a right to know where our tuition money is being spent. This must happen during the consultation process. By the time the budgets and financial plans are made public, they have been set in stone and we are unable to give meaningful and effective feedback.
This picture compares the desired tuition and fee hike revenue for the upcoming university year, with the last three years of SFU’s budget surpluses.
There are a few things to note about this projection:
Both revenue and spending can change from one year to the next, which means that the last three years of surpluses don’t prove that future surpluses will continue to exist.
As well, the rules around the university endowment puts aside at least a small surplus as a contribution to keep up the endowment’s real value.
However, for years these surpluses have been much larger than the new tuition and fee revenue that each fall the administration tells us is desperately needed to keep SFU’s finances in order.
We’ve heard during the consultation that much of these surpluses have come from apparently long-running faculty vacancies, but without more detailed information, we can’t make an informed judgement about these vacancies. When it comes to SFU’s finances, the rules, assumptions and expectations of the status quo far outweigh the well-being of the students.
Since last fall, we have spent a lot of time talking to students through events, canvassing, tabling, and our petition – which is now at almost 2000signatures.
In all of these conversations we started to see a trend: Anxieties about keeping up with the increasing tuition demands paired up with skyrocketing rent in a housing crisis and stagnant wages is a concern for all students.
We are tired of the burden of education falling on our shoulders. We are tired of the unfair system of payment between international and domestic students. And we are tired of being squeezed from all angles – school, work, and rent-wise. A recent survey done by health and counseling shows that 90% of students feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities a student has to deal with in their daily life.
Last November, we hosted “My Tuition Story”, an event which brought together nearly 200 students. Many were shocked about the enormous hike for incoming international students, while a large number had no idea about the increases or consultation process whatsoever.
Moving forward, our demands are simple:
We want a full tuition freeze for the next two academic years – meaning a 0% increase for all students, regardless of status or program. We see this as an urgent matter – students need relief now.
During this two-year tuition freeze, we will partner with SFU administration, students, and the Student Societies to lobby the provincial and federal governments for more post-secondary funding.
Finally, you may have seen or noticed that we attempted to put forth a motion requiring that administration draft an alternative budget for the tuition proposal – one that does not include any tuition increases.
It is worth pointing out two things about this alternate budget:
It is a symbol of just how hard it is for students to be involved in Board of Governors or SFU administrative matters. We have faced a lot of difficulty with crafting an alternative budget. We are disappointed that this governing body, responsible for overseeing our institution, is so out of reach to us.
Even though our motion cannot be moved, we want to emphasize the importance of an alternative budget anyway. We fear that without another possibility, the process of consultation will result in the current budget being the only one available during the final vote in March.
SFU needs a budget, but it does not have to be this one. It could be one that supports our mental health and lets us pursue our studies without undue financial burden. Tuition freezes are not a radical idea – they have been in place many places throughout the world and Canada.
Ultimately, this budget is about priorities. If it wanted to, SFU could make affordability its priority and use its influence to find funding from the provincial government. We strongly urge you to stand with students who have overwhelmingly expressed their support for this initiative.
We need a more transparent consulting process.
We need an immediate tuition freeze.
And we need to work together to ensure that universities in BC never need to rely on tuition hikes again.