In response to an initial investigation by U of T student unions, senior university administrators released a report last Tuesday that found at least seven ancillary fees charged to students were in violation of guidelines set out by the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU), as well the University of Toronto’s Policy on Ancillary Fees.

The report downplayed the number of fees in violation, saying that while “a few instances of fees may be interpreted as non-compliant,” the “vast majority” were in line with university policy. MTCU guidelines state that if a university levies a fee later found to be illegal, and no resolution can be achieved, “the university’s operating grant will be reduced by an amount which corresponds to the revenue raised by the fee increase,” meaning that the university would receive less funding from the province.

U of T’s vice-president, university operations Scott Mabury said there would be no refunds of the fees that had been found in violation of Ministry policy. Instead, they will cease to be charged to students in the future.

Upon finding that “embedded in the university’s list of ancillary fees are many user-fee items that should be covered under tuition fees,” the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), and Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) began a lengthy process: scrutinizing thousands of fees, levied upon students in dozens of faculties and departments across U of T’s three campuses. The results of those investigations, which began last year, were shared with The Varsity by representatives of the student unions.

“It is obvious that the university needs to seriously reconsider the MTCU’s policy on compulsory fees,” finds the UTSU’s report. “Many of the fees currently being charged to students do not fall within the guidelines, and many more of these fees are simply unjustified or illegal.” The UTSU’s submission condemns the university, claiming that it should be “ashamed” for “exploiting what it considers to be loopholes in the policy as a means of generating revenue.”

The unions and the administration remain divided over the question of at least eight other fees, ranging from copyright access to co-op fees, to system access fees for ROSI.  “It is becoming more of a trend for universities to go to student councils to raise fees,” said Munib Sajjad, vice-president, university affairs for the UTSU. “We have to look into things like infrastructure fees and computer fees, and why we should be paying this.”

The administration’s fee review was conducted by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students, and the Planning and Budget Office. Its findings were presented to the Business Board in late-January 2013, several months later than the university had promised.

At the Business Board meeting, Mabury stated that the crux of the university’s findings were that “most fees in Category 5/6 were found to be [in] compliance” with a limited number of fees that were not compliant.

The administration’s report commits to discontinuing the fees found in violation by 2013–2014. The university has also ruled that iClickers and other additional online materials for courses are no longer required to be purchased by students in order to complete a mandatory credit course — instead, the university is to provide other methods of evaluation to its students that do not require these materials.

The report also commits to updating departmental websites, and revising the next ancillary fee schedule to “unbundle” certain fees that are currently a black box, levied under vaguely-worded descriptions, such as the laboratory supply fee that charges for multiple items, such as course manuals, lab coats, and equipment. The university will also clear up another vague fee that is charged to students in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) for unspecified course materials by elaborating on what it covers on the IBBME website and in the 2013–2014 fees schedule. “It is important to the university to ensure that students have full information on the fees that they pay,” said Mabury. The report contains a host of other measures intended to address the obscure nature of some fees, including a new “best practices” website and more extensive consultations with students, staff, and faculty.

 

NARROW SCOPE

The university and ministry divide compulsory ancillary fees into eight distinct categories. The university’s investigation was limited to just two of these, Categories 5 and 6. Category 5 fees cover the cost of select learning materials and services, and Category 6 is for administrative fees charged only to students who use the services covered by the fee.

According to the university’s Policy on Ancillary Fees, the sole approval required for such fees rests with Mabury. For all other fees, which fall under Categories 2 through 4 and include student services, organizations, levies for specific projects, and “extraordinary” academic surcharges, students must be consulted or otherwise engaged through such means as a referendum.

Although changes to ancillary fees must be reported annually to the Business Board of Governing Council, neither university protocol nor ministry policy limit how much they can be increased. In some cases, U of T faculties have increased these fees astronomically: a 43 per cent increase for medical student registration, a 67 per cent increase for applicants to the commerce program, and between 400 and 2,000 per cent for nursing clinical placement fees.

“Many fees outlined in the ancillary fee schedule … increased at rates of above 10 per cent to over 4,000 per cent,” finds the UTSU’s report. “It is highly unlikely that increases at this rate are for the purpose of cost recovery.”

The investigation began when students at IBBME complained to the GSU about certain ancillary fees they were charged, totaling over $1,500.

“IBBME students were shocked. The university seemed to be ignoring ministry policy, which says you have to provide students with information on what the fees are for and submit proposals to Governing Council before making changes,” said Jason Dumelie, GSU academic and funding commissioner.

Concerns over those specific fees were raised with both the administration and the ministry, and were partially resolved in March 2012. The episode prompted the university to undertake its review beginning in July 2012, giving other student unions the opportunity to file reports in the process.

The UTSU submitted their own review of contentious fees applicable to undergraduate students, including building access fees, laboratory supply fees and work placement fees. Union concerns range from clear violations of policy, to vague descriptions given for fees that made it difficult to ascertain whether the fee was legal or not. Sajjad, who led the UTSU investigation, said that some fees “are very unclear” and that there have been “misinterpretations of MTCU policy.”

In their filing, the SCSU raised concerns about “unfairly high” co-op term fees that can run as high as $583 per academic session for international development studies, economic policy, physical sciences, and computer science. Guled Arale, vice-president, external, at SCSU believes some of these fees should be covered by the university’s central operating budget, and states that U of T’s ancillary fees are among the highest collected by any institution in the country — an issue that the university’s report declined to investigate.  Many of Scarborough’s co-op programs in the humanities, social sciences, management, teaching, and science programs have work placement requirements in order to graduate.

Both the GSU and UTSU contested the Access Copyright fee (also called the CANCOPY fee), which charges students for the photocopying and distribution of published copyrighted works. The UTSU alleges that this is “an illegal fee that serves to benefit the university” as many non-students (including faculty) also use the service. The university’s response is that its agreement with Access Copyright is a short-term contract that can be reconsidered in December 2013.

Some fees that existed before ministry guidelines were issued continue to fall outside of its jurisdiction, and will not be repealed. These fees include the $45 student system access fee, charged to access ROSI.

In general, union leaders have expressed concern over slow response times from both the university and the ministry. Dumelie stated, “The ministry has been slow in responding to us… We have received a little guidance from them, but over the course of a year, it’s not a ton.” Many of those involved with the union’s investigation had hoped to procure refunds for the repealed fees in the new year, a prospect that now appears unlikely.

At the Governing Council’s Business Board meeting in January 2013, many administrators said they were glad the fee review was conducted, calling it a much-needed clarification. Sally Garner, of the Planning and Budget Office, said that the university’s biggest step moving forward will be its best practices website, which will be launched over the next six to eight months, and will ensure faculties and departments have the resources needed to set appropriate fees for their students.

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