Fee fight divides student and VIU leaders

The Vancouver Island University Students’ Union is up in arms about a proposed new VIU student service fee

The Vancouver Island University Students’ Union is up in arms about a proposed new VIU student service fee which it says violates government policy, something VIU strongly disputes.

In a Feb. 10 press release, VIUSU spokesperson Patrick Barbosa calls the proposed fee, which amounts to an average increase of $188 in student fees per year for a full-time student, a “flagrant violation of the Ministry of Advanced Education’s (MAE) fee policy”.

He said the ministry is “oblivious” to contraventions to its rules about maximum fee increases, claimed that VIU, which has a campus in Duncan, and MAE respectively say are untrue and mischaracterize the situation.

“Those are services that we haven’t had before and that are completely new so that they fall outside of that regulation,” Klassen said, adding that none of the fees will fund existing programming or costs. “If we don’t get the fee we don’t get the services.”

Klassen says VIUSU’s position overlooks the benefit to the whole academic community which will come from the new fee in covering greater experiential learning and career-oriented services, more digital access and increased health services on campus.

“We consider these fees to be completely compliant with our obligations under the Universities Act and other regulations,” she said.

Though Klassen acknowledges not all students will take part in the new services covered by the fee, she compared it to the mandatory student union fee.

“Not all students use those services,” she pointed out.

In the release VIU says that the new fee would bring the total increase in costs to around 6.5 per cent, breaking the maximum two per cent increase allowed by MAE. Klassen acknowledges there is an anticipated rise of two per cent in tuition costs and, combined with the new fee, that would represent “around six per cent” increase this year for an average full-time student. She nonetheless emphasized that as new services will increase student access to technology, improve healthcare and broaden the ability for students to have internships officially credited to their record it is well worth it for VIU.

B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson said that he has yet to have sufficient input on whether or not the programs that would be made possible by the fee would be a clear benefit to students.

“The institutions know that we have a two per cent cap on the growth of tuition fees. The institutions may introduce mandatory fees for new services where there’s a clear benefit to students,” Wilkinson confirmed, adding that though fee setting is “within the purview of the institutions” his ministry has clearly informed them that “they have to demonstrate a clear benefit to students for any new fees.”

Wilkinson said students are best positioned to decide whether new services benefit them.

VIUSU Director of External Relations Alec Patterson claims that “creating this fee is nothing short of VIU attempting to bypass the limits on fee increases to students.”

According to the VIUSU release “at least five institutions in B.C. have proposed new fees that violate the policy.”

Student fees in B.C. have been regulated since September 2005, with a Tuition Limit Policy that restricts tuition and mandatory fee increases to the rate of inflation.

Inflation is listed at a maximum two per cent.

As stated, the new fee will comprise an average $188 annual fee increase for students in a four year full-time program at VIU. When added to existing fees for mandatory student union membership this amounts to an average $591 in student fees per year for VIU students (compared to fee totals VIU cites at other higher education institutions such as $1,261 at Thompson Rivers University and $766 at the University of Victoria). VIU’s 2015/2016 full-time tuition fees were listed on their site as being $4,177.

“The student fee is a per credit fee. It’s $6.27 per credit and so it will depend on how many courses you take or what program you’re in. And that will be subject to the two per cent [maximum increase regulation] after it’s implemented as well,” Klassen explained.

The proposed fee increase at VIU was tabled in November. VIU’s Board of Governors approved a first reading of the fees which will be billed starting in April.

VIUSU, which represents the more than 8,000 equivalent full-time students at all VIU campuses and centres on the island, says it has unsuccessfully tried to get in touch with MAE about the proposed fee increase since mid-December. VIUSU says they eventually managed to speak with Wilkinson in January of this year, at which time they claim Wilkinson informed the student union he knew nothing of the proposed fee increase.

“If it’s true that he isn’t aware of fee proposals that have been flagged to his staff, we must conclude that he has lost control of the post-secondary sector,” Patterson said in VIUSU’s release.

Barbosa echoed Patterson’s beliefs, saying VIUSU truly believes the ministry is losing the ability to effectively manage the system or enforce its rules.

According to Wilkinson that’s entirely untrue and a mischaracterization.

“It’s a gross overstatement to say this ministry has lost track of the 25 institutions we fund to the tune of $2 billion per year. We have a very close working relationship with all of them and a very close accounting arrangement with all of them,” Wilkinson said, adding “That is a complete misstatement and if anything it’s up to the student association and student bodies to respond to my request for specific descriptions of the fees and the corresponding benefits so that we can be informed of it. They have not done it.”

VIUSU also believes institutions increasingly don’t care about MAE’s rules because of decreased money obtained from government grants.

“They [ministry] don’t have a large enough stake in the system for institutions to care anymore. VIU used to be 80 per cent funded by government grants. Tuition fees now account for more revenue than government funding,” Barbosa said, adding that “The institutions no longer care what the ministry has to say.”

Wilkinson said that when he met with Barbosa he’d encouraged VIUSU to keep him up to date about the proposed new fee, which they have not done.

“We have received very little correspondence from students saying exactly what the fees are and what the corresponding benefit is and their position on it,” Wilkinson said.

Barbosa sees it differently.

“How can a government that’s supposed to be good at managing have no idea what’s going on in the post-secondary system?” Barbosa said.

Going forward Wilkinson said he looks forward to being kept up to date as discussion unfolds.

“There’s no shortage of opportunities to bring their information to light and I’d be quite happy to get correspondence,” Wilkinson said, adding “It’s incumbent on the student body to inform me of their concerns in particular rather than in general.”

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