Les Leyne: Tuition revenue slump could crimp budgets

Les Leyne mugshot genericPicture a typical international post-secondary student enrolled at a B.C. institution. There are — or were — more than 150,000 of them, and their lives have been uprooted even more than most people’s due to COVID-19.

Thousands of them fled for home as the crisis worsened and are now in limbo, waiting to see how subsequent terms shape up.

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Many carried on studies through the online processes that were slammed into place in response to the pandemic.

But as student leaders made clear to the legislature finance committee at a meeting last week, it’s not the same.

They acknowledged the huge effort institutions made to adapt, but as Grace Dupasquier of the Alliance of B.C. Students said: “It’s been bumpy.

“They [faculty and staff] have been working ridiculous hours to try and roll things out in a way that will make things easy. …

“They understand that when we are in a remote learning situation, many students feel that they aren’t receiving the same value for their tuition. …

“Universities are doing their best to try to mitigate that. However, it is still coming up short.”

Major efforts have been made to reach out to the international students.

But online lectures are tougher for English as a second language students, Dupasquier said. All the visual cues in face-to-face talks are gone, and it takes a bit longer to comprehend meanings.

Samad Raza of the SFU Student Society said attending B.C. lectures online from home can also mean huge time changes, so some are listening in the middle of the night.

Raza said a big part of studying abroad is experiencing the culture of Canada and that’s missing now as well.

“Let’s say a student is in their home country accessing classes — not the same — but paying, like, $3,000 for one class. It’s not really fair for them to do it online on the computer. Instead, they are in their home country. The whole experience of going abroad and getting a degree from abroad is going abroad itself.”

The two and several others advocated some changes to the tuition model, under which international students pay a big premium compared to domestic students. They’ve become a lucrative revenue source over the years.

Sean Derochers, of the Vancouver Island University Students Union, said international students make up 20 per cent of the VIU student body, but about half the institution’s tuition revenue comes from them.

Fees vary widely across B.C. because there’s no provincial standard. Tuition hikes of between nine and 20 per cent have been imposed or are slated, while tuition hikes for domestic students are limited.

“COVID-19 pandemic highlights the vulnerability of our institutions in regard to depending on international tuition fees to make up for funding shortfalls,” said Desrochers.

Extending the two per cent limit on tuition hikes to international students was recommended by several.

Chris Ayles, of Camosun College Faculty Association, said Camosun is facing a loss of tuition revenue which is forcing consideration of cuts and staff reductions.

“Nobody knows what winter is going to bring, but I wouldn’t put money on it being normal.”

Chris Jaeger of the VIU Faculty Association told MLAs: “Our international students need to feel that they’re on an equal footing with Canadian classmates.”

Depasquier said it’s widely recognized that international students are not citizens and have to pay more. But if they had the tuition predictability domestic students enjoy, “that really gives the element of fairness, the element of assurance and just makes things easier for everybody.”

Some also urged MLAs to allow institutions to run deficits in response to the crisis. Surveying reserve funds at the various institutions for emergency use was also pitched as an idea.

The committee is starting work on hearing views about what next year’s budget should look like, even while the current year’s plan gets distorted beyond recognition.

If the impression that the B.C. post-secondary experience at present isn’t worth the premium price gains ground internationally, there’s going to be a gaping hole where hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tuition revenue used to be.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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