These last few weeks have been extremely busy with various events and activities requiring my participation. One of the most important was attending the Athabasca University Governing Council (AUGC) meeting on March 21, because the final budget decision for 2003-2004 was being voted on. The preparation of the budget and any proposals for fee & tuition increases began many months ago. The first formal stage of the budget is the Budget Advisory Committee, and the AUSU rep on that committee this year was Sandra Moore. From there the budget goes to Academic Council (where I sit as student representative), then to AU Governing Council Finance committee, and finally full AU Governing Council for final approval. As AUSU President I am the appointed student representative on both AUGC committees.
Due to drastically reduced government funding, all of Alberta’s universities have been put in very difficult financial straits this year. Funding from the Alberta government for all universities in Alberta increased only 2% (well below inflation and wage settlement percentages), and the formula that allots funds according to physical infrastructure and full-time enrollment equivalents continues to disadvantage AU (see previous tuition articles on October 16, 23, 30 and November 6, 2002). Although there have been some indications that the government is willing to adjust the funding formula to take AU’s technological infrastructure into account, they have no intention of increasing funds to universities overall. Giving AU more money would mean taking it away from the other three Alberta universities, and this is unlikely to happen.
One of the major ways that AU copes with this funding shortfall is through growth. This year’s budget is premised on a minimum 10% growth, and it is this growth that will be the major sustaining factor for the university, since student tuition currently accounts for some 70% of university income (as opposed to the other Alberta universities where student tuition only accounts for about 30% total revenue). Fortunately growth at AU has been very healthy during this past year, closer to 12% most months and even reaching as high as 14% some months. Much of this growth is occurring outside of Alberta. A few years ago Alberta undergrad students represented around 50% of the total, but this has been steadily dropping, so that Alberta undergrad students are now at only 40%, with out-of-province comprising some 60%. Growth in undergrad registrations in Ontario alone has been phenomenal, with numbers more than tripling in the last five years! Among graduate students Alberta has an even greater minority – less than 1/3 graduate students overall are from Alberta, with Ontario representing the largest segment of graduate students (see AU Institutional Studies Historical Student Profile for more information: http://www.ausu.org/members/profile/profile2002_files/frame.htm.
Because growth is so important to AU, and because they see such significant growth occurring outside of Alberta, there has been much consideration given to how to facilitate this out-of-province growth. When university President Dominique Abrioux and Acting VP Finance Andy Woudstra met with AUSU executives on January 28 to discuss this year’s budget and tuition increase proposals, Dominique explained that a major concern for the university was reducing the out-of-province fee (currently $70). As already noted, AU’s second largest student base is in Ontario, and this year the double-cohort graduates (combining grades 12 and 13 due to the elimination of grade 13), means that universities in Ontario are expected to accommodate double the numbers of potential students. As a result, Ontario entrance standards are being raised, and some universities are placing strict entrance limits. AU is in a good strategic position to attract a good number of students from Ontario. Unfortunately the proposed 7.3% tuition increase in Alberta tuition, when combined with the $70 out-of-province fee, places AU in the position of being one of the higher-priced universities in Ontario. At the February meeting we discussed this issue, and Dominique indicated that AU would be looking at ways to address this.
One of the long term goals of the 2002-2006 Strategic Planning Committee (SUP) is to eventually reduce the differential so that all students in Canada pay the same amount. SUP Committee members felt that this was an appropriate move for “Canada’s Open University” and supported the notion of treating all Canadian students equally. For some time now, AUSU Council has been concerned that one of the options for reducing the out-of-province fee might be a selective tuition increase for Alberta students, and we’ve tried to explore other alternatives with AU administration.
AU has also been seeking exclusion from the Alberta Government’s tuition policy on the basis of being a distance delivery provider, therefore not needing to be restricted by the current government limits on tuition hikes (30% of operational costs). This has been a concern for AUSU Council, and we’ve spoken to both Dominique and Alberta Learning in protest. Dominique has assured us that they could not raise tuition beyond what the market would bear, or in disproportion to what Alberta’s other universities charge. However, exclusion of AU from any government controls on tuition is something we feel is a very risky proposition, and we’ve been actively raising our concerns to Alberta Learning. At Academic Council on March 5, Dominique announced that he had been “summoned” by Alberta Learning and questioned at length regarding his intentions in this regard. He stated that this had come about as a consequence of AUSU Council members having gone to Alberta Learning, and had reassured the government that there was no intention to move tuition outside an acceptable range if AU is removed from the tuition policy. It was encouraging to hear that Alberta Learning had listened to us and taken action on our concerns, and we will continue to monitor the activity on this front.
When the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) began their work last fall, and when it became apparent that a significant tuition hike was likely going to be proposed, Council member and BAC rep Sandra Moore brought forth a suggestion that would reduce the impact on AU students who take multiple courses, since they would be most directly affected by the 7.3% increase. She suggested that the university consider some sort of a break in tuition for multiple-course-takers, and the rest of the committee agreed that it was a great idea. By encouraging students to take more courses at AU, this would build up a more loyal alumni (and greater university pride) and encourage more full-time registrations. Since the bulk of AU’s students are currently part-time, and since it costs almost the same administratively to process a single student taking one course as it does to process several courses for a single student, this was seen as a cost saving option by the university as well. The BAC voted in favour of the proposal, and the implementation of such a tuition break began to be investigated.
Next week: Budget deliberations move to Governing Council