*Tuition Increases & News About University Funding At Athabasca University [Pt. 2]

April 9, 2003

*Tuition Increases & News About University Funding At Athabasca University [Pt. 2]

[In last week’s issue [April 2, 2003; v11 i14], Debbie talked about the recent Athabasca University Governing Council meeting, the upcoming AU tuition increases, and AUSU’s position on the increases. She also mentioned Sandra Moore [AUSU VP Finance/Admin]’s proposal to reduce tuition for students who take several courses at a time, or over the course of a year.

This week Debbie continues her coverage of the AU decision making process on tuition and fee issues.]

Once the initial stages of the budget development and advisory process are complete, the next step is for the budget to be formally approved by Academic Council. By the time the budget reached Academic Council on March 5, no concrete implementation plan for the multiple-course taker (MCT) idea had yet been found, although $150,000 had been allotted in the budget for the MCT. This was done by increasing the proposed transcript fee from $15 to $20 (from the current $10), and by increasing the course withdrawal fee from $75 to $100 (no increase had been originally proposed for this fee). Since there are only about 1300 students at AU who are currently multiple course takers, this amount would have allowed about $100 per student in tuition rebates and, as Academic Council AU President Dominique Abrioux explained, they were still working on how to do this. One possibility was to give rebates to students after they reached the five-course mark, which would effectively cancel out the 7.3% tuition increase for these students.

At Academic Council Dominique also announced that AU had unexpectedly received $350,000 from the government in un-funded enrolment money. Since the government allots funds based on projected growth, and since AU had a much higher growth than expected in the previous year, the university was entitled to these extra enrolment-based funds. My ears perked up at this, hoping the funds would go towards a reduction in tuition, but Dominique indicated that because the university was still in wage negotiations with the AU Faculty Association (AUFA), this amount was not going to be allocated anywhere until these negotiations were complete.

On March 7, the budget arrived at the second-last stage for approval, the AUGC Finance Committee. By this meeting I had already seen the budget presentation several times and was beginning to be able to quote the numbers in my sleep! Dominique was teleconferencing in to this meeting, due to being away on business. He explained that the MCT proposal was still not formalized, but that upon his return the following week it would be finalized for the AUGC March 21 meeting, at which time the budget would reach its final approval stage. He expressed how much the university liked the idea, partly since administrative costs were almost as high to enrol a single course as multiple courses, but also because they want to encourage more full-time enrolments. A great deal of effort was apparently going in to trying to find ways to make this proposal work, with the main focus being a process that provided rebates for students once they reached the 5-course per year mark.

At the Finance Committee meeting he again mentioned the $350,000 un-funded enrolment grant that AU would be receiving due to our unexpected growth. This time I asked him if he had considered using this amount to reduce tuition. He said he had not, due to the ongoing AUFA negotiations and the potential for higher than expected wage increases. I asked what the university would have done about these negotiations if they had not received the $350,000 in un-funded enrolment. He said they would have had no choice but find the money elsewhere. I then asked what they were going to do with the $350,000 if the negotiations went well and wage increases were not higher than expected. Dominique responded that these funds would then go back into better staffing and services overall at AU.

It was also pointed out at this committee that about 50% of tuition goes directly to tutor fees. However, this is directly linked to enrolment, and therefore is already built in to the budget. As student enrolment rises, more tutors are hired. Therefore no extra money is ever allotted in the budget to hire more tutors, since this amount is already accounted for in the projected 10% growth.

The week of March 16 approached, and it was a busy one. We had an AUSU retreat planned for that weekend, March 20-22, and I had several events and meetings in both Edmonton and Calgary during the week. On March 18 I attended the Edmonton Alumni dinner, then headed to Calgary to attend the Calgary Alumni dinner on March 19. At both events, Dominique introduced me in his welcoming address, and thanked me for being there to represent AUSU. He commented how AUSU works very hard behind the scenes on behalf of students, doing a sometimes very difficult job, and doing it very well. Since this AUSU Council has worked to re-build productive working relationships with AU (relationships that had been damaged by conflicts within previous Council groups), it was encouraging to hear the positive regard and respect AU administration now holds for us – it certainly gives more strength and validity to our voice!

While at the Edmonton Alumni dinner, Dominique approached me to ask if AUSU Council would consider agreeing to an adjustment to the budget proposal. He explained that after spending a great deal of time trying to find a way to implement the MCT proposal, it appeared that the administration of the proposal would be very labour-intensive, requiring almost a half-time staff position in man-hours. These costs would significantly reduce the amount in the budget that was allotted to the MCT proposal, and since this proposal would only benefit around 1300 students, it was difficult to justify. He indicated that they still liked the idea and wanted to find a way to implement it, but that it did not seem realistic at this point in time. Instead he had an alternate proposal he wished AUSU Council to provide feedback on.

He advised me that when I had brought up the question at Finance Committee about using the $350,000 un-funded enrolment grant to reduce tuition, it had started him thinking about better ways to allocate this money. He noted that I was aware of AU’s long-term goal to reduce the out-of-province fee, and that I was also aware that the proposed 7.3% budget increase would place AU among the higher-priced universities in Ontario, where our second-largest student base resides (and where the most rapid growth has occurred). He also mentioned that since this grant money was a result of higher than expected growth, he felt it would be appropriate to use it to support growth outside of Alberta, which comprises 60% of AU’s clientele. He proposed that the $150,000 that was allotted in the budget for the multiple-course takers be added to the $350,000 grant, and the total amount be used to reduce the out-of-province fee from the current $70 to $50. I asked if the university would still be willing to work to find ways to implement the MCT proposal. He pointed out that reducing the out-of-province fee would benefit multiple course takers from outside of Alberta, and added that if AUSU was willing to support this new proposal, he would commit to spending some time well in advance of next year’s budget to an active consideration of finding a cost-effective way to implement the MCT proposal. I asked about the possibility of instead using the whole amount to reduce tuition across the board for all students. He acknowledged that this was an option, but stated that the long-term benefits to the university of slightly lowering tuition overall would be less than the benefits of making the university more attractive financially to out-of-province students. The reality is that AU needs growth to survive, therefore from a business perspective the focus needs to be on the markets where growth can be achieved, such as Ontario.

I advised him that I would need to discuss it with the rest of Council, and would give him a response prior to Friday’s AUGC meeting.

At the Council meeting on Thursday evening, March 20, we discussed this proposal at length. I noted that AU intends to eventually eliminate the $70 out-of-province fee, and that this proposal would be a step towards that goal – one that would not result in Alberta students paying a “selective tuition increase” (see last week’s article). I also pointed out that although Alberta students would not see a direct benefit from this proposal, it would reduce tuition for 60% of AUSU members.

There was considerable opposition to Dominique’s proposal, with most on Council feeling that they could not support a proposal that did not provide equal benefit to all students. Some even felt that this discriminated against Alberta students, and raised concerns that the un-funded enrolment money came from the Alberta government and therefore should not be spent to only benefit students “outside the province”. Others pointed out that this money had come from growth that occurred mainly outside of Alberta, and that tuition revenue remains in Alberta regardless of where it comes from, something that benefits Albertans. It was also noted that since the majority of our members are not in Alberta, we need to be representing their concerns and supporting them as well. The argument was then made by some that Alberta students already subsidize out-of-province students since other provincial governments do not contribute anything to the university. However, it was argued by others that the Alberta government contributes very little to AU, and government support is diminishing rapidly, with only a 2% increase proposed this year. The reality is that tuition represents 70% of AU’s overall budget – so it is students across Canada who subsidize this university, not the Alberta government.

It appeared obvious that we would be unable to completely agree on the issue, so finally a decision was made to go with the majority opinion. The majority of AUSU Council, therefore, decided that they would not support a tuition model that did not treat all AU students equally. AUSU Council would be in agreement to a general tuition reduction for everyone, but the majority felt that only reducing the out-of-province fee would be discriminatory against Alberta students. They also felt that if the multiple-course-taker proposal would be too costly to administer, it would be preferable to abandon the idea for this budget period and spend some time working on another alternative for next year. Finally, the majority felt that if the funds in question were not used to reduce tuition for everyone, then they would prefer to see them go into improved staffing and student services rather than towards a selective tuition decrease that only benefited out-of-province students.

I was directed by AUSU Council to take this message back to AUGC the next morning.

Next week: Governing Council budget decision

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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