The flat fees policy of the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto has been hotly contested by various student unions since it was implemented in the fall of 2009, with student leaders demanding reform. In an exclusive interview with The Varsity, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Brad Duguid confirmed that he plans to introduce changes, although he is vague on specifics, later this school year. Duguid, who assumed the post in February 2013, is the first minister in years to even discuss potential changes, let alone confirm they will be implemented.

Under the flat fees system, there is a single fee — rather than a fee-per-course rate — for students taking anywhere between three to six courses. The U of T administration deems the system necessary to bail out the Arts & Science faculty deficit and allow for advance budgeting. Student leaders find the system unfair as, among other concerns, they claim it makes it difficult for part-time students or students with financial difficulties to afford their schooling.

Duguid held several round table discussions with student leaders this summer to talk about various issues, including the flat-fee system.  In March, prior to these discussions, Duguid reduced the cap on annual tuition fee increases over the next four years — meaning that tuition over the next four years will only be allowed to increase by three per cent instead of the originally-planned five.

When speaking with The Varsity, Duguid said he feels it is his responsibility to “see the system through the eyes of students,” with a particular emphasis on flat fees and deferral fees. Duguid said that while he understands the challenges facing the university administration from a fiscal perspective, he feels the student leaders he has spoken with from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have “made a very compelling case that there needs to be change.” When asked about what these specific changes might entail, Duguid was unable to give concrete answers, but he agreed that the system is unfair to students who wish to take a smaller course load for work and family related reasons. Duguid said that in his mind, “at the end of the day it comes down to fairness.” Duguid had stated in discussions earlier in the year that he wanted to implement a change to the flat fee system, but when asked when students could expect such a change, he would only say: “We will be making some changes in the near future…we’ve been very clear that we will be making a change soon.”

While students wait to see these changes, various student leaders have already made clear what they hope the minister will alter. The official UTSU stance on flat fees has been the same for years: that they are extremely unfair to the student population and should be eliminated. Agnes So, vice-president, university affairs of the UTSU echoed those sentiments: “The best case scenario would be the elimination of the flat fee policy. A revision to the per-course fees system would make more sense…instead of using a flat fees system as a means to exploit students.” The UTSU would like the new system to allow students to choose how many courses they would like to take, and for students who only choose to take three courses to not have to pay the additional money for courses they will not receive. The UTSU has invested significant resources in fighting flat fees, including creating a dedicated website to educate students on what they say are the inherent problems of the system, and a lobbying document for the university. The UTSU’s representatives at the CFS shared this document with provincial policy makers, who announced a moratorium on the implementation of flat fee policies at other institutions in the future. So feels that this last step means that the Ontario government will soon be ready to revise the flat fee systems that are already in place.

Susan Froom, president of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), has also spoken out against the flat fee policy, but is confident that Duguid will come through with the changes her association wants to see. Froom mentioned the meeting held with the minister this August, during which he agreed on the unfairness of the flat fee policy for students. Froom also shared statistics from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which released a report last week indicating that the average cost of tuition fees will increase by 13 per cent by the 2016–2017 academic year. Froom referenced this statistic to illustrate how students in Ontario pay the highest tuition fees in the country, something that is particularly difficult for those who are effectively part-time students, even if they’re taking more than three courses and are paying full-time fees. Ideally, APUS would prefer an elimination of the flat fee policy, but barring that, they are hoping for particular revisions that will account for students who take less courses for family obligations, disabilities and work responsibilities.

Despite protests and disquiet from student leaders over the years, the U of T administration still stands by the flat fee system. The Arts & Science faculty at U of T implemented the policy to pay for the rising faculty deficit, which can be more easily addressed with the funding that flat fees provide. In a statement to The Varsity, the office of the president stated that it believed the flat fee policy allowed students to take more courses than they normally would on a pay-by-course basis, as students can now take six courses for the same price as five.  The statement continued: “From the Faculty of Arts and Science’s perspective, revenues from the Program fee were re-invested in the programs, allowing the Faculty to meet student demand, and to assist with the delivery of curriculum.” When asked about possible revisions to the policy, the office cited the findings of the Program Fee Monitoring Committee at the end of the 2011–2012 school year, which stated that the implementation of the fee did not limit accessibility to courses and did not have a negative impact on grade point averages. The office also stated that the flat fees system does not apply to students with disabilities or part-time students who still pay per course.

Part of the disconnect between students’ unions and the administration comes down to how each defines part-time students. All students who take 2.5 courses or less are officially considered part-time, and pay per course. While the students’ unions acknowledge this, they have consistenly pointed out that, while some students may technically be full-time, they are practically part-time students, in that, due to other obligations, they can not take more than three or four courses.