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Op-ed: Under COVID-19, the university needs to be honest about its use of international fees

A global recession may push international students past their tolerance of rising tuition
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The Centre for International Experience is a central space of support for international students. WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY
The Centre for International Experience is a central space of support for international students. WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY

For decades university tuition around the globe has been increasing far faster than the rate of inflation. This is especially true for international tuition, which has been increasing at a much faster rate than its domestic counterparts.

Despite this, international students did not receive the same 10 per cent tuition decrease that domestic students at Ontario universities did last year to combat high costs of education.

U of T’s base arts and science tuition fees for domestic students, when adjusted for inflation, saw an increase of about $1,000 from 2008–2019. During that same period, international student tuition rose by 127.5 per cent, or $25,000.

Since then, international tuition has risen by about 11 per cent on average, with increases of 5.4 per cent and 5.3 per cent for the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 academic years, respectively — while domestic tuition rates have been frozen, per the provincial government’s mandate.

While students may have begrudgingly accepted these exorbitant fees during in-person instruction, questions surrounding what tuition fees are truly used for and how reductions in operating costs may affect them have become more critical for international students, as experts predict that international travel will be restricted well into the fall term, preventing any return to campus.

So, what makes providing education to international students so expensive?

In an interview with The Varsity in February 2019, U of T President Meric Gertler said that international student tuition is priced to cover the “full costs associated with educating those students,” despite the university not openly outlining what those ‘full costs’ are. 

Gertler also identified another factor leading to high tuition costs as “various services that ensure that [international students] are prepared for a successful experience… [including] special counselling, [the] Centre for International Experience (CIE), and things like that that are relevant.”

There are a couple of issues with this assessment. Not only is it vague, but all of these services fall under incidental fees, not tuition costs. The student fee invoice structure provides the opportunity to outline these incidental costs under categories like student life funding. In addition, the CIE is not  purely an international student organization, as it also provides support for domestic students seeking international exposure.

It is time for full disclosure of how international tuition fees are being spent, and the costs associated with educating international students, as well as transparency about how upcoming changes in operating costs may affect those rates. If international tuition is being used to offset other costs, students deserve to know what those are. 

There seems to be a common misconception that provincial operating grants — which represent indirect payment to the university from Ontario residents through taxation — plus tuition fees paid directly by domestic students, are equal to that of international tuition. While originally true, this is no longer the case. 

After the provincial deregulation of international student tuition in 1996, U of T adopted a new approach in 2004 “whereby tuition fees from international students were expected to provide the same revenue as that provided by a combination of tuition fees and government operating grants for domestic students.” However, this seems to have been an unsustainable benchmark for the university. 

In various periods from 1994–2002, not only was per-student funding provided by the Government of Ontario lower than the average for the other nine provinces, but Ontario’s funding actually declined while other provinces saw increases. This led to an even larger funding gap. The issue of consistent underfunding became more important when domestic tuition fee increases in the province were frozen between 2004–2006, compounding an already worsening problem. 

As a result, in an attempt to reduce a deficit brought on by the province, the university’s Business Board proposed that international tuition would be calculated by adding domestic tuition to the national average for operating grants. This essentially transferred the responsibility for funding shortfalls from domestic students and their provincial representatives to international students. 

This trend of tuition increases beyond the combination of domestic tuition and per-student contributions from the Ontario government has continued and been exacerbated by the strange status-driven nature of the education market. As Gertler said in an interview with BBC, as a result of a market where affordability is mistaken for low quality, when the university increased international tuition prices “[it] found demand went up — as did the quality of applications.” 

In the same interview, Gertler noted that universities are “increasingly [becoming] bastions for the privileged rather than portals of opportunity for the many.” A problem that, if left unsolved, will lead to “an increasingly rough ride” for universities. 

U of T is not seeking to solve this problem for its international student population, but is instead a part of the problem. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic take hold and we are swept into yet another global recession, it is time for the university to make a concerted effort to change the ways it is facilitating the elitism and inaccessibility that is now accompanying university education. 

For many international students, paying exorbitant fees is not an easy choice. Among other factors, it is one made based on the availability of a comparable education in their home countries, employment opportunities in new regions, and a yearning for new experiences and broader perspectives. 

It is unfair then that this attempt to pursue an internationally recognized education is being taken advantage of for financial gain. This is especially true now, when the university is facing lower operating costs, as facilities are used less and students will be finding it more challenging to return in the fall due to the economic downturn.

The assumption when paying any tuition fee is that students are receiving the value of their money. However, this is not something that U of T has proven to its international students. 

Fundamentally, a reliance on overpricing international tuition fees, and increasing international enrollment to fund university operations while not providing extra services comparable to that price point is a huge risk and an unsustainable model.

While it is impossible to tell when the university will surpass the tolerance of international students and experience a downturn in international enrollment, the onset of another global recession may be an indication that this threshold is now closer than many would have anticipated. 

The university has burdened international students with shortfalls that exist solely due to provincial governments not prioritizing funding for postsecondary education. Instead, as a publicly funded institution, the university should continue to lobby for the government to provide operating grants at a level necessary to sustain its desired performance and growth — or manage its expectations.

David Allens is a third-year political science, Caribbean studies, and criminology and socio-legal Studies student. David has also served as a student member on the University Tribunal and as co-president of the Caribbean Studies Students’ Union.