Tuition Increases And Funding At Athabasca University [Pt.3]


[In last week’s issue [http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=530], Debbie discussed the multiple course taker [MCT] tuition reduction policy, and AU’s counter proposal of a reduction in tuition for students outside of Alberta. After a lengthy discussion, AUSU came to a decision regarding this proposal – a decision Debbie took to the AU Governing Council meeting:

Upon arrival at the AU Governing Council [AUGC] meeting, I immediately spoke directly with Athabasca University President Dominique Abrioux to advise him of what the majority of Council had decided regarding his proposal – that AUSU did not wish to support a tuition model that was discriminatory against Alberta students, and that as students and Alberta taxpayers, there were concerns that money coming from the Alberta Government should not selectively benefit students outside of Alberta. I advised that we would prefer that the money in question go to reduce tuition overall, rather than to reduce fees for out-of-province students only. Regarding the multiple-course-taker proposal, I advised that if at this time it appeared too costly administratively, we would be in agreement to abandon the proposal for this budget period – on the condition that it would be worked on and implemented in the next budget. I also told him that the majority of Council felt that if the funds were not going to be used to reduce tuition for all AU students, they would prefer that the money go towards improved staffing or better student services (such as needs-based scholarships).

Dominique reminded me that the $350,000 came from growth in enrollment – the majority of which occurred outside of Alberta, so he could not understand our objection to using it to benefit these students. He also reminded me that AUSU Council was well aware of the intent to reduce the out-of-province differential, and that as student representative on the Strategic Planning Committee (SUP), I knew that AU’s business plan required that they focus on growth outside of Alberta. I agreed that I was aware of these things, but that my mandate was to present the decision made by the majority of AUSU Council – and the majority felt that these funds should benefit all AU students, not just the out-of-province ones.

Dominique left to consult with the VP Finance, and shortly after, full AUGC was called to order. At this particular meeting, there was almost double the number in attendance, since quite a few AUGC representatives have had their terms expire, and this was a change-over meeting with some 24 persons in attendance.

When the budget proposal came on the table, it was announced that they had decided to cancel out the two proposed fee increases that were intended to fund the benefit for the multiple-course-takers. It was explained that after trying many ways to make the idea work, they had concluded that it would be very costly administratively, since giving rebates to students after they had reached the 5-course mark would generate all kinds of paperwork. Since the proposal only benefits some 1300 students, the administrative cost could not be justified. At this point AUGC discussion became somewhat heated, with one long-time member commenting that he had not seen such a lively debate before! Most of what arrives at AUGC has already been through so many levels of approval that generally the committee does not question decisions at length. In this case, however, the majority really supported the multiple course taker idea and the notion of encouraging and building loyalty with students who take more courses at AU. No one could understand why it would be so costly to implement.

It was explained that trying to register students with different registration amounts is currently not supported by the Banner registration system, so I asked for specifics. I pointed out that we already have different registration amounts for 6 credit courses and international students, so why would it be so difficult to add a new amount for multiple-course takers? My question prompted a detailed explanation of the difficulty of tracking those taking 5 courses or more, and that this would need to be done by a rebate once the courses were completed. It was very apparent to many AUGC members that they were approaching this backwards, and many of us asked why it was not possible to implement the idea from the top-down rather than after the fact. Allow students to self-identify upon enrollment that they qualified for the special rate, rather than giving rebates. It appeared that such an approach had not been even considered.

The discussion went on for some time, and finally a consensus was reached that AUGC wanted this proposal implemented, but realized that it could not be done in time for this current budget. A motion of intent was agreed upon – not voted upon but noted in the minutes – that the idea will be actively studied with the goal of implementation in next year’s budget.

Then came the presentation of Dominique’s out-of-province proposal. He began by stating that AU could no longer justify the $70 differential fee. At one point service to out-of-province students was more costly, but with technological improvements in communication, this was no longer the case. He explained that 60% of our students are now non-Alberta based, and reminded AUGC that the Strategic University Plan [SUP] and the Business Plan were predicated upon growth. He reminded AUGC that the $350,000 extra funds received from the Alberta government were a result of the significant out-of-province growth at AU, and that we now have 30% of our students from Ontario. This high growth trend is expected to continue in Ontario (due to the double cohort graduates), and with the 7.3% increase, AU will be among the highest-priced universities in that province. Comments were made that we are already competitively priced in Alberta, and lowering fees in this province would be harmful to our positioning – underpricing distance education would damage our credibility.

Dominique reiterated that AU and AUGC had a long-term goal of completely removing the out-of-province fee, adding the comment that our out-of-province student base provides significant funding towards the university and allows a greater breadth of programming. He therefore proposed that AUGC support the use of these funds for a reduction in out-of-province fees to $55. He commented that it would have been reduced to $50 had AUSU agreed to using the amount designated by the Budget Advisory Committee [BAC] for the multiple-course taker proposal to further reduce the out of province fee, but that this would not be in the spirit of what was agreed at BAC, since it was a student representative from AUSU who had initially suggested the multiple course taker plan.

It was clear from the sentiment in the room that all of AUGC considered this an excellent proposal. When I finally had an opportunity to speak, I advised AUGC that AUSU Council had been approached with this proposal and that the majority had decided that it was unfair and discriminatory towards Alberta students. I explained that AUSU Council would support a reduction in tuition overall, but not a proposal that selectively benefited only out-of-province students. I stated that AUSU Council had concerns that Alberta students and taxpayers would have the perception that these funds were coming from the Alberta government but being used to benefit non-Alberta students.

The first comment from an AUGC member was a question. “We have 60% of our students outside of Alberta. Is this reflected in the composition of AUSU?” I had to acknowledge that it was not, that we all happened to live in Alberta. But I emphasized that because we represented all students, AUSU Council could not support a proposal that did not benefit all. A few AUGC members understood that viewpoint, and one suggested a compromise – reduce tuition overall by a few points, and provide a smaller reduction of the out-of-province fee. However, the majority disagreed, since using the complete amount towards the out-of-province fee would have more of a long-term impact on AU’s Canadian positioning, and since the proposal fit closely with the goals of the SUP and the Business Plan.

When the final vote for the budget came around, all of AUGC voted in approval, and I was the single vote against. The new fee structure will be implemented in September, 2003.

Next week: The outcome of the proposed change to the Course Extension Policy

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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