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U of T switches to controversial flat-fee tuition


The University of Toronto says it is on solid financial and moral ground adopting flat tuition fees for its faculty of arts and science, a move that is projected to generate up to $14 million a year in funding.

At a May meeting of its governing council, Canada’s largest university endorsed a plan to switch from per-course fees to program fees for its largest faculty. Under the new tuition fee schedule, to be phased in over three years, students taking three or four courses will be charged the same rate as those taking five. The decision had won earlier approval by the faculty of arts and science council and the university’s business board.

Scott Mabury, chair of the chemistry department and a member of the faculty of arts and science budget committee, explained the reasons for the change.

“I have heard it argued by senior administrators that it’s morally repugnant to set up a system that in essence doesn’t discourage students from sitting on the fence, being somewhere between part-time and full-time and taking six or seven years to get through.” He added that “the net amount of money a student is going to have to spend to get their degree is far higher under that scenario.”

Even though U of T isn’t the first university in Ontario to introduce flat fees, the move is controversial. Student protests of the decision have culminated in the U of T Students’ Union launching a lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, challenging the integrity of the decision-making process. A judicial review has been scheduled for late September.

Adam Awad, vice-president, university affairs, for U of T’s students’ union and a signatory to the lawsuit, said he’s sympathetic to the current financial plight of the university but that the flat-fee approach “totally disregards” why students take fewer than five courses. A large percentage of students work, he said, and many students have family issues. Those students taking fewer than five classes “may be a single parent who has to take care of kids or a mature student who works and can’t afford to pay for five classes.”

The student furor and media attention over the introduction of program fees is misguided, said U of T vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak.

“This is being portrayed as something new and unusual, whereas half the universities in Ontario have program fees and many programs at the University of Toronto already have program fees. It’s very common and it may become more common as the years go by. This is not a radical or unusual way of collecting tuition.”

According to a U of T report, 10 of Ontario’s 20 universities apply a program fee across all undergraduate programs; four apply a per-course fee across all undergraduate programs; and six apply a combination of fee structures.

The University of Western Ontario charges a flat full-time rate for students who register for 3.5 courses or more. The University of Guelph charges a program fee to all arts and science students taking four or more courses.

The move to program fees in U of T’s arts and science faculty has been debated for close to a decade and raised for discussion annually, said Dr. Mabury of the arts and science budget committee. He said the university explored both the academic and financial implications of the new fee structure, including assessing overhead costs and determining how much of the new revenues would go towards financial assistance. It decided on $1.5 million a year for financial assistance, or about 10 percent of the anticipated revenues. The administrative savings are also significant, given the record-keeping costs associated with charging on a per course basis, added Dr. Mabury.

Part-time students, taking fewer than three courses, will continue to pay per-course fees. Students with disabilities who are registered with the university’s office of accessibility services will also continue to pay by the course. Also, students who choose to take more than five courses won’t be charged additional fees for an extra half- or full course.

The university anticipates net revenue of $9 million to $10 million after accounting for student financial assistance and the cost of hiring new faculty and staff and to meet increased demand.

That money will go towards the undergraduate learning experience, said Dr. Misak, creating more research opportunities for undergraduates, more small-group learning and international experiences and more tutorial groups.

Is it a win-win?

The University of Toronto maintains that the new system will provide a strong incentive for students to finish their programs more quickly. “Although you can’t predict student behaviour, we anticipate that many people will bump up,” said provost Dr. Misak.

Arts and science dean Meric Gertler rejected the charge that the flat fee will prove to be more expensive for students.

“We can show quite clearly that it is cheaper to get through faster. You save on housing costs and the ancillary incidental fees that are often quite substantial. We know that it is less expensive in the grand scheme of things to do this in four years and move on to earn an income or go to graduate school or professional school.”

Christine Neill, an economist at Wilfrid Laurier University whose research focuses on the economics of Canadian higher educational policies, noted that many more undergraduate students work part-time today than did 20 years ago (when about a third of students worked).

According to Dr. Neill, about 39 percent of male and 49 per cent of female full-time students in Ontario work during the academic year. Just over 15 percent of full-time university students work 20 or more hours a week; six to seven percent work more than 30 hours.

U of T’s rationale, “that these students who are just taking three courses don’t really understand how much they are losing by not being in the workforce [sooner], assumes that students are pretty naïve and don’t know what’s in their own best interests,” said Dr. Neill. “I really doubt that is the case.”

She said that some students, to get their money’s worth, might feel pressured to take a higher course load when that would not be in their best interests: “Compared to the cost of failing and having to repeat that year, the financial penalty of taking three courses instead of five isn’t great enough to outweigh those other costs.”

Mr. Awad of the U of T students’ council said the new approach also fails to take into account the impact on students who are involved in extracurricular activities on campus. “Many of the editors at campus newspapers take less than five courses and anyone who is president of a club takes less than five courses.”

Gavin Nowlan, the newly elected president of U of T’s Arts and Science Students’ Union, said the new approach wasn’t investigated thoroughly enough, and that by going with a threshold of three courses, U of T has set the level lower than that at any other university in the province

At nearby York University, President Mamdouh Shoukri has said York isn’t considering introducing flat fees given the high proportion of students on its campus who need to work part-time.

But Mr. Awad fears that the direction being taken by U of T won’t go unnoticed by other universities. “A lot of universities look to U of T as a sort of benchmark and feel that if the largest school in the country is doing this it should be fine for us to do it too. And the more schools that do this, the easier the process gets and then all of a sudden you’ve got this flat fee system across the board.”

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  1. Michael / July 9, 2009 at 14:30

    As the university professors and senior administrators are looking to their own, no doubt, stellar performance in the regular system, why would they not rate this as the preferred method. Shame on them for their narcissistic and solipsistic approach. [They may be able to teach me to spell their way, they could never teach me to think their way.] Let there be a variety of methods for a variety of people, without selectively in your own image imposing punative fee structures. In this case, let the constiuents, clients, customers – i.e. students – decide.

  2. an ontario prof / July 24, 2009 at 20:57

    “According to Dr. Neill, about 39 percent of male and 49 per cent of female full-time students in Ontario work during the academic year.”

    I think this is the more interesting story here. Why are so many more women forced to work to get through school?