Several U of T student unions, led by the Computer Science Students’ Union (CSSU), have started the Same Degree Same Fee Campaign in order to advocate for lowering the tuition of the computer science, bioinformatics and computational biology, and data science programs.
While these programs are part of the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), their former deregulation means that students in these programs pay higher fees than students in other FAS programs. The petition demands that since every program in the FAS receives the same degree, the formerly deregulated programs should pay the same lower fees as the other FAS programs.
Organizers cite accessibility, fairness, and mental health as reasons for why the tuition should be lowered. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson noted that many factors were considered when setting tuition and that fee differentiation was “integral” to tuition fee policies.
In Ontario, tuition fees are regulated by the provincial government, which usually caps the amount by which a university can annually increase tuition. For most regulated programs at U of T, that increase is capped at around five per cent per year.
In 1998, the government decided to deregulate some programs. “High demand” programs, such as computer science, were among the deregulated programs. For that reason, tuition in deregulated programs rose at higher levels than that of regulated programs until the 2003–2004 academic year, when a tuition freeze was introduced and the universities could no longer increase the fees as much as they wanted.
Domestic tuition for computer science, bioinformatics, and data science students was $11,420 in 2020–2021, 87 per cent higher than the tuition for other programs in the FAS. Tuition can also vary based on year of study and when the student entered the program.
For an international student who entered the program in 2019, tuition was $58,970 this year, an increase of approximately 5.4 per cent from the regular FAS international tuition. However, the international tuition increases every year, so that same student who entered the program in 2019 would be paying $61,330 in 2021–2022.
Multiple student groups — including the CSSU, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and the Arts and Science Students’ Union — have published a petition to lower the fees, calling them “a systemic barrier that prevents marginalized students from entering [the computer science] field.”
In an interview with The Varsity, Evan Kanter, the CSSU’s director of external relations, argued that while the provincial government could impose restrictions on tuition, the university had the power to lower them. “The short answer is that tuition is higher in these programs because the university decides to charge higher tuition in these programs,” Kanter said.
Kanter added that the higher tuition made the programs less accessible, especially for students who fell through the cracks in financial aid, and that higher tuition fees contributed to the mental health crisis at U of T.
The CSSU also noted that there is little evidence of a connection between tuition and the quality of student services, and that the university has consistently tried to both dismiss student concerns and oversell the impact of financial aid. “Our students earn the same degree as all other science students in the Faculty of Arts and Science. We should pay the same fees,” the CSSU concluded in an email to The Varsity.
In addition, the CSSU conducted a survey and found that students felt that the existing financial aid system did not help them reduce stress and that the higher tuition was their primary concern. In the survey, one student wrote that they must remain a part-time student because they cannot afford to pay the full-time tuition fees for computer science. “The unfortunate reality is that financial aid programs are not sufficient,” added Kanter.
Setting fees and student consultation
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson noted that program costs, growth, and students’ prospects after completing a program were among the factors that were considered when setting tuition. They also wrote that much of tuition goes directly toward paying program staff and funding student services.
The spokesperson added that the university had a “productive” meeting with student unions in December about this issue and that the “dialogue remains open.” According to them, student leaders will have an opportunity to comment on the budget during the governance process. They also argued that students struggling with finances or mental health could turn to the university’s financial aid and mental health services.
However, in an email to The Varsity, the CSSU pointed out that it had recently received an email from Assistant Provost Archana Sridhar which suggested that no further meetings would take place. Moreover, the union wrote that the university’s statement that students could comment through the governing process was “meaningless” because changes to the tuition schedule rarely occur at that stage.
UTSU Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches added that the university made tuition advocacy more difficult by concealing budgetary information.
“It makes it difficult for students to critically evaluate where their money is going,” Riches wrote. “We’re exploring our options… but it seems the University’s ‘bottom-up’ budget process prevents any meaningful student input.”
Riches concluded that while it is important to lower students’ tuition, it is equally important for the provincial government to increase universities’ operating grants, which have made up a smaller share of funding in recent years.