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A HOLE IN THE HEART: Sara Kinninmont visits Ground Zero, and finds the site of the disaster strangely detached:

CORK: Shannon Maguire reports on the Canadian Olympic-Regatta, Kingston:

THE $3.50 PENCIL CHALLENGE: Stacey Steele’s version of the Body For Life Challenge. Anyone need to lose a few?

WAYNE BENEDICT: THE HARRIED STUDENT: Think you’re too busy? Try telling that to Wayne! Congratulation, Wayne, on finding the path to your dream!

AUSU NEEDS NEW COUNCIL MEMBERS, AND AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR!: Read the AUSU This Month column in this issue for information on how to join council, or see the posting for the Executive Director job, also in this issue.

What is the value of an AU degree?

A rather startling item on the AU website front page this week reports that – are you ready for this? – tuition fees across Canada are rising!

According to the report (http://www.athabascau.ca/frontpage/articles/tuition_costs.htm), which takes information from Statistics Canada, Canadian tuition fees have almost doubled. It is not stated in what time frame this doubling was to have occurred, but since the accompanying chart shows rises in Alberta tuitions since 1994-95, I assume that we’re looking at about a 10 year time frame.

The report also notes that “Canadian students face an average increase of 7.4%.” The time frame for this number is also absent, but a glance at the August 12, 2003 Stats Can document titled “University tuition fees, 2003/04” (http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/030812/d030812a.htm) shows that this 7.4% increase, as you might suspect, is in comparison to last year’s rates.

You may wonder, though, why AU would post a report on such a seemingly obvious topic, which highlights the hardships of being a post-secondary student. A glance at the accompanying chart, however, solves the mystery. There is a silver lining for Alberta students, in that tuition increases at the four Alberta Universities are below the national average, although AU is only below by 0.1% with an overall 7.3% increase. The increases at the other three Alberta universities are: U of A, 6.87%; U of C, 6.3%, and U of L, 7.0%.

AU, however, has often stressed that the actual tuition increase is much lower for a majority of AU students, due to the lowering of the out of province differential fee affecting all Canadian students outside Alberta. This, in effect, made the out of province tuition increase only 2.6% for this year.

In his recent address to AU students, AU President Dominique Abrioux mentioned the 2.6% figure several times, noting that the increase is lower than the Canadian Price Index (CPI) by 0.3%. However, it must be remembered that out of province students will in fact be subject to the exact same 7.3% increase as Alberta students, and that it is the out of province fee that has been reduced, not tuition.

So out of province students might ask, what’s the difference? In terms of your pocketbook, there is none. Whether you assume your tuition only rose 2.6%, or you assume it rose 7.3% with a reduction in the differential fee, the end cost is the same. There is a subtle difference, however, that may become significant in coming years. Let me quote a few lines from Dr. Abrioux’s speech:

“: in 03/04 that more than half of Athabasca University’s undergraduate students only saw their total tuition fee increase by 2.6%. It’s true, that Alberta students saw their total tuition fee increase by 7.32%, but Alberta students represent less than 50% of our undergrads. The other 50% saw their fee increase by 2.6%. Why would you as AUSU, which is an organization that supports all students, why would you support or try to get the Government not to support, not put in place an exception for Athabasca’s distance education courses, when more than half of your members are going to be way better off than otherwise.”

When Dr. Abrioux refers to the government placing “an exception for Athabasca’s distance education courses,” he is referring to the proposal that distance ed courses be exempt from the Alberta tuition cap which regulates how much tuition may be raised in a year. You can see the AU website or any recent Voice issue for more information on this topic, but I’ll assume that most readers are quite aware of the tuition deregulation issue by now.

Dr. Abrioux’s argument seems to be that if AU is exempt from the new tuition policy, it will be able to continue to offer these very low tuition increases to out-of-province students. And in fact, there is still room to do this. Out of province students will still be paying a $55 per 3-credit course differential fee. If AU is to reduce this fee in coming years, then the effective out-of-province tuition hikes will be lower than they are in Alberta. The danger in confusing reductions in the tuition fee with reductions in the out-of-province fee, is that the out-of-province fee can only be reduced to zero, and after that point it will no longer be able to be used to reduce effective increases for non-Alberta students.

It does seem, however, that much of the wording used by AU and Dr. Abrioux suggests that the two are the same, and this implies that out-of-province students many enjoy lower tuition hikes indefinitely. Students, and AUSU, are being urged to support the tuition deregulation clause on the basis of the very low tuition increase for out of province students this year. The implication is that this trend will continue, but clearly this can only happen for so long. Also, when the out of province fee is reduced, AU cannot give up that extra money. It has to come from somewhere, whether it’s tuitions for local students, fundraising [which has been meagre], or other types of academic fees. One look at the increases in the course extension fee over the last few years gives a clue as to where some of that money is coming from. Given that a very large number of AU students extend courses at least once, it’s a sure source of extra cash with little additional outlay of resources.

The question we in Alberta must ask – though Dr. Abrioux has vehemently denied that out of province students cost Albertans a dime – is was the overall tuition increase raised more than was originally planned in order to accommodate the reduction in the out of province fee? And if so, will this be a continuing trend?

One point that Dr. Abrioux did make very clear throughout his speech, was that comparing AU to other, traditional universities is much like comparing apples to oranges. His actual words were, “it’s like trying to put a round peg into a square hole.” I expect he meant something to the reverse, but you get the picture.

And he’s right. We can’t compare AU to other universities.

At another point, Dr. Abrioux insisted that we must also be consistent in how we judge AU tuition increases. When councillor Shirley Barg asked Dr. Abrioux why he was not including graduate students when he spoke about the percentage of AU students who are visiting students, Dr. Abrioux responded: “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you want to use it [data on graduate students] when you can, when it’s helpful, and you don’t want to use it when it’s not.”

While I do not necessarily agree with Dr. Abrioux that the issues on which AUSU has asked that graduate data be omitted are in any way related to the issue at hand, I do agree that consistency is key when making assessments of university policy, and it is also key when assessing the relative quality of an AU education.

So how do we, as AU students, compare our tuition rates to those at other schools?

Dr. Abrioux says that we cannot compare AU to other schools, yet when he talks about the relative value of AU tuition, comparisons abound. Dr. Abrioux’s first point, in fact, regarding AU tuition fees was that “our tuition fees are currently the lowest of Alberta universities.” But if we are not the same kind of institution, then is this even relevant?

He also said that if the tuition fee policy under bill 43 includes distance ed courses at AU, then ” we will not to be able to increase our tuition fees by as much as the other Alberta universities next year even though our tuition fees are currently the lowest, and the lowest by quite a bit.” Again, I ask the same question.

Not only are comparisons to other universities used quite frequently by AU in order to put AU tuition fees in perspective, but Dr. Abrioux also warns that AU must keep their fees in line with other schools or run the risk that an AU education might be devalued if fees become too low. He says that “if tuition at Athabasca gets significantly lower than that by the other provincial providers, the public will make connections between quality and price, and will consequently not value your Athabasca University education as much as that provided by the other three universities.” I have heard this argument from Dr. Abrioux a number of times, although he does stress that this is not a very significant factor in any decisions regarding tuition increases.

Clearly, comparisons to other universities are paramount in the eyes of AU administration, and, we are told, in the eyes of the public.

But is this true?

Dr. Abrioux insists that the public makes connections between price and quality, and this might be true, but if so I have never seen one shred of evidence to support this. In fact, by this reasoning the public must be convinced that a degree from DeVry is far superior to one from the U of C or the U of A.

I think one way to address this question is to look at tuition across the country. It has always been known that tuition in many provinces is much cheaper than in others, but I have never, ever heard it said that the schools in the provinces where tuition is lower are inferior. In fact, until B.C. removed its tuition freeze a couple of years ago their universities had comparatively low rates, which have risen astronomically since the freeze was lifted. No one seems to feel that their schools are improving as the rates rise.

I’m not sure there is any validity the price=quality argument at all. Tuition rates vary from school to school, from province to province, and, increasingly, from faculty to faculty. I don’t think that people see a school of lower rates and assume that it’s not a very good school. In fact, it is well known that many of the private schools that offer quick, lower quality degrees — especially technical degrees — can be extremely expensive.

When people see a school with a lower tuition, they might assume that the lower rates are due to the location of the school, or in the case of a distance University, that lower rates are simply the result of fewer infrastructure costs. In fact, many students are under the impression that because Athabasca University does not have as many buildings to heat, clean and maintain, that their rates should be lower.

I do realize that one factor many students are not aware of, is that AU actually receives significantly less government funding for infrastructure then do the other universities. This makes it very difficult for AU to reflect its lower infrastructure costs in lower tuition. My point, however, is that of most students as assume that a distance University can function with less money, so it is highly unlikely that people are going to view a lower tuition rate at AU as indicative of a lower quality of education.

What is more important, however, is the actual quality of the AU education, as opposed to the perceived quality. How does an AU degree compare to those from other universities? Is not simple question to answer, and this is yet another reason that AU should not be comparing tuition rates to other universities, but should stick to discussing its own financial needs. It is true that in terms of the training and professionalism of the faculty we are probably on par with any other University in Canada. Most AU students agree that the tutors are top-notch, and in general the course materials are also excellent. We also have benefits that that students in other schools do not, such as flexible hours, the ability to extend courses, and year-round enrolment.

Nevertheless, there are many ways in which AU students are and will remain disadvantaged. As mentioned in a recent editorial, AU students are at a great disadvantage in terms of research opportunities. For anyone considering Masters studies, this can, in fact, devalue an AU degree much more so than any concerns about under-pricing might do. There are other factors that might make a person willing to pay less for AU, including the lack of access to a physical university library, access to a university store which sells software at academic pricing and academic books [yes, at AU books are included, but what if you want more!], the lack of a student health plan, fitness club, and all the other amenities of physical campus.

So how do we gauge all of these factors, and determine if an AU degree should cost the same as any other University? I would suggest that we can’t. While for some the lack of research opportunities may be a very significant factor rendering the AU degree distinctly inferior, for others this isn’t an issue. For many, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

What this all comes down to is what Dr. Abrioux himself has continued to say, and that is that AU is not like other universities.

So why does AU spends so much time comparing its tuition to that of other schools? And why in the hell do we continue to hear that if AU tuition is too low in comparison with other universities, people might not value our degrees. Are we trying to project that AU is different, or are we trying to project that AU is the same? And if we are to continue to compare AU on the same level as other universities, are we running a losers’ race?

When I became the editor of the voice, I was told that I won the position because of my vision for the paper. It was, quite simply, that are paper would never succeed if we continued trying to be like other University newspapers. I felt, and still do, that by embracing our uniqueness we could not only compete with other papers, but perhaps one day we could even become something much better. I believe the same is necessary for Athabasca University. As Dr. Abrioux said, we can’t have it both ways. If AU is to be exempt from the tuition fee policy because it is so different from other universities, then I’d like to stop hearing about how our tuition compares to other universities, and hear instead how our current tuition fees are relevant to the quality of education where receiving today, and the Athabasca University mandate to make University accessible for all.

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief

Finally, for those who could not make it to the AUSU council meeting where AU president Dominique Abrioux addressed the students with AU’s perspective on the new Alberta tuition fee policy, the files are online. You can listen to Dr. Abroiux’s address via some rather rough sounding but decipherable mp3 files, or you can read the transcripts I spent the last week typing up for your illumination!

Better yet, use both and learn more than you ever wanted to know about tuition deregulation for distance education courses. This is without doubt the biggest issue facing AU students today, and probably in the past several years. Don’t be left in the dark – learn more, and gain some insight into what the future might hold for AUSU.

The files, plus some supporting documentation provided by Dr. Abrioux, can be found on the AUSU website, here: http://www.ausu.org/multimedia

Once you listen to or read transcripts of the speech, send your comments to The Voice for inclusion in an upcoming Sounding Off column where I will print students’ responses to Dr. Abrioux’s comments.


See this issue for full details of the first Voice writing contest. Good luck to all entrants. Please ensure that you differentiate between items submitted for the contest, and those submitted for immediate publication!


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