Flat fees policy to be changed

Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities promises changes

Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, has recently said that he will implement changes to the current policy of flat fees at the Faculty of Arts and Science at the St. George campus. Duguid, who assumed the post in February 2013, was vague on specifics but said that the changes would occur later this academic year.

In 2009, U of T approved a plan for students taking anywhere between three to six courses to pay a single fee, with implementation starting in 2011.  Under this policy, a student taking 3.0 credits pays the same fee as a student taking 6.0 credits in the same program.

Alastair Woods, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students- Ontario, a representational group to which we pay dues through our student unions, said that CFS-O has been working to bring attention to the “inherent unfairness of flat fees”. CFS-O put forward a recommendation that the government should prohibit the charging of flat fees at colleges or universities for anything below the threshold of a 100 per cent course load in their most recent lobby document this past March, called “Changing Priorities”.

“In meetings, Federation representatives spoke strongly about how flat fees exacerbate the problems created by high tuition fees in Ontario and unfairly penalize students who cannot take a full course load for various academic and personal reasons,” said Woods in an interview.

The main argument against flat fees presented by the CFS-O is that the fees force students just barely over the threshold to pay fixed fees.

Agnes So, the VP university affairs of the U of T Students’ Union, said that these tend to be the more vulnerable students, who could be taking fewer courses because of “stressful personal circumstances”.

“While we’ve always argued against the structure from a fairness perspective, when we met with Minister Duguid at the CFS-O General Meeting and in our letters to him since, we presented a case that also discussed the potential mental health effects of a flat tuition fee structure,” said So in an interview. So says she proposes that the university switch back to a per-course fee system that is collected on a per-semester basis. “Students would pay according to the courses they take, and OSAP students would not be charged interest while they wait for their second instalment of fees,” added So.

So also revealed that the UTSU will be launching a campaign where students can tell Duguid how a change to the policy will benefit them.

“The campaign will also focus on educating our members about the real cost of the flat fee system, so they understand how a change could benefit them. The UTSU will compile our members’ comments and concerns and present these cases to the minister and show him how important this issue is for students,” said So. As for next steps, she said, “We will also be addressing some issues that students in faculties who have been paying flat fees for some time experience. Right now, if you are an engineer and take an arts & science elective, you will pay the engineering flat fee for that arts & science course, even though the arts & science flat fee amounts to less. Essentially, there are students sitting in the same classrooms who are paying different rates for the same instruction.”

At UTM, the following programs charge flat fees to full-time students: bioinformatics, commerce and finance, CCIT, computer science, and management. The threshold for full-time status is 3.0 credits during the fall/winter year or 1.5 during the summer.

Raymond Noronha, president of the UTMSU, said that UTMSU and many other student unions in the Province of Ontario are “cautiously optimistic.”

“We hope Minister Duguid’s promise for change leads to the actual elimination of the unfair flat fees system that has made post-secondary education more unaffordable and inaccessible,” he said in an interview. “The flat fees system has also forced students to take more courses while they balance a full course load, their part-time jobs and other obligations.”

The flat fees system represented a 66% tuition fee increase for many students, according to Noronha.

Noronha revealed that UTMSU is currently preparing for a month of outreach activities to educate students on the flat fees system through class speaks and tabling. They also plan to write to the minister by forwarding correspondence from UTM students throughout the month of October. “Our actions will also be directed to the President of the University of Toronto, Professor David Naylor, who has been lobbying the minister and other cabinet ministers to reject the call by students and faculty to eliminate the flat fees system. […] Our goal is to remind the minister of how unpopular the flat system regime is and also that President Naylor’s assumption that students are comfortable with the system is not accurate.”

The nature of the changes Duguid mentioned and the timeline for their implementation remains unclear. In the meantime, student unions are looking to hold follow-up discussions with the ministry. UTSU is currently soliciting student feedback to submit to Duguid.

“There are students sitting in the same classrooms who are paying different rates for the same instruction. We intend to address this issue with the university next,” said So. “We see negative effects to the quality of education when students are pressured to take a higher course load than they can manage or afford. We are negatively affected by the province underfunding post-secondary education. A solution that ensures equity in access and quality is more funding from the government, which has slowly been eroded since the mid-1990s. Students in Ontario are paying the highest tuition fees and facing the highest student-professor ratio. We will continue to lobby the government to increase funding, and hope that the university joins us in our support of public funding.”

So said she believes the responsibility to make up for the financial loss incurred by the policy change belongs to the provincial government.

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