Canadian university baulks on huge tuition hike for rejects

Massive fee for those narrowly missing acceptance seen as warning of abandoned principles

August 17, 2019
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A Canadian veterinary college has backed away from a plan to charge vastly higher tuition fees to students narrowly rejected in its regular admissions process, an idea seen as emblematic of mounting cost pressures nationwide.

The University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine outlined the idea earlier this year, suggesting that it would offer seats to five candidates rejected in its regular application process if they agreed to pay five times the standard tuition fee.

The college developed the idea, said its dean, Douglas Freeman, after neighbouring Alberta announced plans to withdraw from an arrangement in which it pays some C$8 million (£5 million) a year to subsidise the enrolment of 20 students from the province.

Western College has since decided to refrain – for now, at least – from implementing the tuition escalation plan, Professor Freeman told Times Higher Education, given that Alberta’s departure from the decades-old partnership does not take effect until next year.

“We have been exploring different alternatives” for handling the loss of Alberta, Professor Freeman said. The idea of charging students not originally admitted to the veterinary college an annual tuition fee of C$60,737 – a sum that is C$50,000 over the regular price – “would provide an opportunity” for such students to pursue their degree in Canada rather than having to go abroad, he said.

Opportunity or not, one expert said, the case was a jarring example of the future facing Canada after it grew increasingly comfortable with using full-fare foreign students to subsidise a higher education system that its provinces had long funded as a public good.

It’s a “hell of a way to use the deeply regressive treatment of international students as a sort of model”, said Erika Shaker, director of the education project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Although Canada’s wide province-by-province variations in higher education policy might make it hard to see, the financial burden of higher study has steadily been shifting from the provinces to the students, Ms Shaker and her research institute have warned.

More common than the extreme example of Saskatchewan’s veterinary college, Ms Shaker said, were tiered tuition structures in which Canadians were charged higher rates to study at a university outside their home province.

The centre also has documented Canadian colleges increasingly relying on lower-paid and often temporary teaching staff.

Both practices are similar, if smaller in scale, to long-standing norms in the US, where states have for some time been cutting public support for higher education and student debt burdens have been mounting.

“What we’re really seeing is a pulling-apart of the tuition fee structure, which is completely undermining concepts of universality” in Canadian higher education, Ms Shaker said. “It’s seen as more of a private benefit as opposed to a collective public benefit.”

Others are less alarmed, given that tuition costs and debt levels nationwide appear to be declining on average. And with the political uncertainties in the UK surrounding Brexit, said Glen Jones, a professor of higher education at the University of Toronto, Canada should continue to enjoy a strong flow of foreign tuition dollars.

Professor Freeman was also generally satisfied with conditions in Canada, while recognising that they could change.

“As a veterinarian, I feel extremely fortunate that post-secondary education is so well supported in Canada,” he said. “Student debt load has become a major issue for the veterinary profession in the US, as public support for education has decreased. We want to avoid going down that road.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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