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Meric Gertler on mental health, international tuition, and more

U of T President reflects on his sixth year in the job

Meric Gertler on mental health, international tuition, and more

After an eventful 2018–2019 academic year that was filled with student protests and provincial government changes, U of T President Meric Gertler sat down with The Varsity to reflect on the past 12 months. Gertler spoke on a number of issues, including mental health, international tuition, and truth and reconciliation. 

The Varsity: One of the biggest stories this past year was students’ mental health, with some students viewing U of T’s action on the topic as lacklustre. What do you say to people who believe U of T should be doing more?

Meric Gertler: We were certainly very concerned by the issues that arose during the past year and felt very strongly a responsibility to act. So I took the unusual step of writing to every member of our community. I don’t do that very often, but I just thought that for an issue like student mental health and its relationship to their well-being, it was really important to be able to communicate directly to all of our students as well as our faculty and staff to say, “We’ve heard you, we acknowledge how big an issue this is and how huge a challenge this is, and we’re committing to actually doing something concrete about it.” 

TV: In the letter that you sent out to all students, faculty, and staff, you mentioned that two of your priorities would be engaging with Toronto resources as well as the province. Would you say that the onus would be more on the province and the city to provide mental health services rather than the university? 

MG: So, we are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization, even though we deliver a lot of health care services to our students. This has been the subject of a lot of conversations with our provincial government partners. They recognize the challenge that we have. They have allocated additional funds in their last provincial budget towards mental health, in particular with a focus on student mental health. 

So we continue to expect to see some financial assistance from them. But, also, as your question quite rightly implies, this is a shared responsibility. Obviously, we have primary responsibility for the well-being of our students, but it is something that we expect to address jointly with health care institutions that are primarily funded by the provincial government. 

TV: Speaking of the provincial government, there have been a lot of changes this past year under the Ford administration to both university operations and university life for students. How do you view U of T’s relationship with the province?

MG: I’ll be quite honest here. We were really disappointed that the province did not communicate more openly with us before they made these many changes. That to me was the most disappointing part of the approach of the new government, and we were not quiet in communicating our unhappiness with the whole style with which they interact with us. 

The Strategic Mandate Agreement changes — which are putting a focus on performance-based funding — in theory, at least, we think this can work very well for U of T. It’s designed to enable each university to come forward and articulate what it thinks its distinctive strengths are, and then to base funding on those strengths. This is actually something we’ve been arguing for for 25 years in many ways and advocating for, so at least on paper, that seems to be very nicely aligned with the approach that we’ve been taking.

Other changes, like the 10 per cent cut to tuition we, frankly, think were unhelpful. I know that that particular move has been quite damaging to our budget… Now what are the consequences of that? Well, the consequences are that we have less money available to finance our own financial aid system within the university. 

TV: On the topic of affordability, international students pay much more in tuition than domestic students. How do you see this issue of increasingly unaffordable international tuition?

MG: International students have always paid more than domestic students. That gap has grown over time but this has been true for a long, long time, and it reflects a couple of things. It reflects the fact that we receive no government grants for international students, so there’s no subsidy at all from the province of Ontario for those students… The families of those international students have not been paying taxes in Ontario either, and I suppose that the provincial government may feel that that’s some justification for the fact that there is no grant support for those students. 

We are, though, mindful of the fact that we want to encourage a diverse community of international students to come to this university. It should not just be international students from wealthy families, but we want to enable all international students if they are academically qualified to potentially come here. So there too we’ve been active in creating scholarships for international students and fundraising for them.

TV: U of T has committed to the goals of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there was a Steering Committee report released in 2017 with recommendations for the university. Since that report came out, do you see any major gaps that U of T should be filling when it comes to truth and reconciliation? 

MG: This is another topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and also near and dear to the provost’s heart. We were greatly influenced by the work of our Steering Committee and enthusiastically adopted all of their recommendations. We’ve done some amazing things since then.

This past year we have hired 18 new Indigenous scholars, which is a remarkable achievement if you think about it, because every university in Canada is trying to do the same thing so it’s a very competitive labour market right now. We’re thrilled to have this incoming talent. So I would say that’s one area where we have really succeeded dramatically in. 

In the longer term, of course, we’re looking at the future of First Nations House and how best to accommodate all of the important activities that go on there. There have been discussions underway about whether the current location is the right location or not, and we’re looking at alternatives for that as well. I think we’ve got some impressive momentum underway, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

TV: Do you think that U of T has any institutional problems with addressing barriers of access for people?

MG: We’re one of the most open and accessible institutions in the world. If you think of our 90,000 students, the incredible diversity that we have, measured along any dimension you can think of, whether it’s the language that you spoke at home, the country you were born in, the ethnicity of your parents, your sexual orientation, your political views, you name it. 

I think it’s one of the things that is most defining of the University of Toronto is not just our academic excellence and the great rankings and we have every year, it’s our ability to combine that academic excellence with an incredible degree of openness and access which very few other universities around the world can match.

TV: And then once these students do get here, what accommodations do you think are necessary to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the school? 

MG: Making sure that everyone understands what our codes of student conduct entail, and what our policies entail with regard to freedom of expression and these kinds of important principles of academic freedom on which a university is based. That does require a little bit of effort to make sure that people understand those principles but I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Who runs this place?

The hierarchical structure of the University of Toronto

Who runs this place?

When you walk on St. George street in the morning, seeing students and faculty rushing to their lectures or offices, you may wonder how this place keeps running. 

As a university with over 90,000 students and over 20,000 faculty members, U of T has developed a unique and complicated structure of governance over the past 192 years. 

The administrative system

The first thing you need to know is that the executive power in this university is shared by the Chancellor, the President, and the Governing Council. They play different roles for the same purpose — making U of T a better academic community, making essential decisions to guide its future, and ensuring that, above all else, we are ranked at least 25th worldwide, or God help us all.

The Chancellor: Dr. Rose M. Patten is an Executive in Residence, an adjunct professor in executive leadership programs at the Rotman School of Management, and a member of Massey College. She has served as the Chancellor of the university since July 1, 2018 for a three-year term. She also had a 30-year career as a senior leader in the Canadian financial services industry.

Apart from shaking thousands of hands at convocations, the Chancellor is responsible for serving as the university’s advocate in relations with government partners and others in the wider community.

The President: Professor Meric Gertler is the other person at the top of the governance structure and is Chief Executive Officer and President of the university. He joined the Department of Geography and Planning as a lecturer in 1983, served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, began his first term as president on November 1, 2013, and is currently on his second.

He generally supervises over and directs the academic work of the university and the teaching and administrative staff under the University of Toronto Act.

The University of Toronto Governing Council (GC): The core of governance at the university is the GC and its Boards and Committees. The GC is formed by 50 governors, of which two are the Chancellor and the President, 18 are appointed, and 30 are elected. Some elected members include undergraduate, graduate, and part-time students. 

This council makes some of the essential decisions for the academics and livelihood of the student body, while also overseeing the academic, business, and student affairs of the university. Both the UTM and UTSC campuses also have Campus Councils which address campus-specific issues on behalf of the GC.

The college system

All students from Faculty of Art & Science (FAS) are registered in a college on campus. The colleges help students with academics, enrollment, and some even house students. 

The colleges owned entirely by the university are Innis College, New College, University College, and Woodsworth College. Federated colleges with their own board and buildings include St. Michael’s College, Trinity College, and Victoria College. 

Independent theological colleges form the Toronto School of Theology, including Knox, St. Augustine’s, Wycliffe, Regis, Emmanuel, Trinity and St. Michael’s. 

Faculties and Schools

There are in total 13 professional faculties and schools. They have independent academic systems and offer different programs for students. The largest faculty is the FAS with a 2017–2018 population of over 27,000 undergraduate students and over 4,300 graduate students.
The diverse range of professional faculties specialize in certain fields — for example, the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management specializes in business, and the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design specializes in architecture. Aside from its main St. George campus, U of T also has two satellite campuses: UTM and UTSC. 

Other organizations and groups on campus

U of T has no shortage of organizations and clubs on campus. Some of the most significant for student life include the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which is the largest student organization on the St. George campus, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, and Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students. UTM and UTSC have their own student unions, known respectively as UTM Students’ Union (UTMSU) and Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU). Student unions play a pivotal role in helping with rescheduling exams, student services, and advocating for students’ rights.

U of T proposed budget increases financial aid spending, capital projects on all three campuses

$2.676 billion in budgeted operating revenue is expected, an 8.2 per cent increase from last year

U of T proposed budget increases financial aid spending, capital projects on all three campuses

The University of Toronto released their proposed budget for the upcoming 2018–2019 fiscal year, which featured increased funding in financial aid, research opportunities, and graduate programs. The budget reports a total budgeted operating revenue of $2.676 billion, 8.2 per cent higher than the 2017–2018 budget.

Expenses in the proposed budget include large-scale building projects on all three campuses, including an increase in spending toward the total deferred maintenance liability, an increase in student aid, and grants and diversity initiatives.

$224 million is budgeted toward student aid for the 2018–2019 fiscal year. This figure is expected to grow to $260 million over five years. The increase in spending on financial aid can be attributed to the university’s policy on student financial support. The statement principle outlines that, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means”.

The proposed budget also aims to fund diversity and equity initiatives. A total of $3 million over a course of three years will be allocated to coordinate access programs for students from underrepresented groups on campus. Similarly, $3 million over a course of three years will be set aside to fund postdoctoral fellowships for individuals from underrepresented groups. In turn, this will diversify the amount of minority scholars across the country.

Deferred maintenance has been a critical issue, costing the university $549 million in liabilities this year. Of that $549 million cost, UTSG accounts for $478 million with an increase of $4 million compared to last year. UTSC and UTM campuses saw decreases of $2 million and $4 million, respectively. $18 million has been allotted for deferred maintenance repairs, specifically at the St. George campus, while $2.5 million are set aside for the UTM and UTSC campus in their respective budgets.

OSAP                                                                                                          

Changes in the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) were also included in the report. The program was changed to include free tuition for students from low and middle-income families, 30 per cent off tuition grants, and opportunity-based grants for students to reduce loan debt. 55 per cent of U of T students receive OSAP payments.

Funding for the University of Toronto Advanced Planning for Students program (UTAPS) is also projected to increase by an additional $13 million over the planning period. UTAPS gives grants to OSAP eligible students based on financial need.

Revenues

Much of the university’s operating revenue is obtained through provincial operating grants, tuition, and various student fees. Tuition and grant revenue for 2018–2019 is projected to be $2.336 billion, a 2.5 per cent increase compared to the $2.279 billion projected last year. Similarly, large endowments from the university’s greater community have also contributed over $2.38 billion to the operating revenue.

This year, a maximum three per cent increase will be added to tuition for Arts & Science students. Tuition fees for graduate and professional program students may also be increased by a maximum of five per cent. The university has also proposed to align tuition fees for international PhD students with the domestic rate.

The university recently signed a new Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA2) with the province of Ontario. The agreement aims to re-establish the university’s leadership role in research and innovation in Ontario. SMA2 aims to include funding for 631 new master’s student spaces and 198 new doctoral student spaces by fall 2019.

Governing Council will vote on the $2.68 billion proposed operating budget for the 2018–2019 fiscal year on April 5

U of T’s five-year strategic research plan expands research themes, goals

Revisions based on extensive community feedback

U of T’s five-year strategic research plan expands research themes, goals

The 2018–2023 Institutional Strategic Research Plan (ISRP), which will define the direction of U of T’s research for the next five years, will include more provisions for intersectional research.

External funding agencies, including the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, require the university to revisit the plan every five years. Modifications to the ISRP are made to keep up with changes in the diverse fields of research at the university.

It was presented to Governing Council’s Planning and Budget Committee for review on January 10. After being reviewed by the committee, Vivek Goel, Vice-President Research and Innovation, will present it to the Academic Board. Its final release will be on January 25, 2018.

Goel’s office organized town halls to solicit feedback from the U of T community throughout 2017. In March and April, Goel held around 30 sessions where faculty, students, and staff across all three campuses provided feedback about research at the university; an online survey was also circulated. Principals, deans, the Council of Aboriginal Initiatives, and the Connaught Committee were among those who responded.

Based on the community response, the university released a first draft of the ISRP in the fall of 2017 for a final round of feedback.

According to Goel, the plan has two parts: research themes and strategic objectives.

The updated objectives include broader themes to allow for intersectional areas of research that do not fall into typical domains like history, chemistry, and philosophy.

Research themes are now more aligned with current and potential future research areas. As per the recommendations from the community feedback, the ISRP has increased its focus on equity and diversity, Indigenous research, knowledge mobilization, and the link between research and teaching.

Goel added that, as the most research-intensive university in Canada, research is at the core of the admissions process and student life at U of T. “The character of the student experience is really meant to be influenced by the research enterprise.”

University criticized for alleged mismanagement of pension funds

Total accrued liability in the university’s pension plan estimated at nearly $2 billion

University criticized for alleged mismanagement of pension funds

The University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) is voicing concern with the University of Toronto’s management of pension funds. The UTFA estimated that, in 2011, the total accrued liability in the university’s pension plan was nearly $2 billion. Sixty-two per cent of the total accrued liability in the pension plan is for the 6,000 faculty and librarians who are members of the pension plan.

The UTFA is currently in the midst of re-examining the Memorandum of Agreement prescribing the UTFA’s role. The memorandum was developed in the late 1970s to deal with the determination of minimum compensation for faculty and librarians.

The university established the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) in May 2000 as a not-for-profit corporation. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the university, managing its pension funds, its endowment, and other short and long-term investments. UTAM’s assets under management increased 14.3 per cent in 2013 to $6.6 billion, of which the assets of the University of Toronto Pension Plan makes up $3.2 billion.

ANN SHENG/THE VARSITY

ANN SHENG/THE VARSITY

UTAM will present its portfolio performance review to the Business Board on Monday.

Prior to 2000, a volunteer in-house investment committee managed the university’s various investment pools. At that time, university administration looked at the investment fund structures of top universities in the United States, many of whom had professionally managed investment offices.

UTAM’s endowment model is similar to that of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Harvard University, and Yale University.

Over the past decade, American endowment funds delivered better results than Canadian endowment funds. This is largely due to the undervalued Canadian dollar versus the American dollar, and the technology bubble that drove up the value of American stock markets relative to Canadian stock markets.

Yale’s endowment portfolio, which is valued at $20.8 billion, delivered annual investment returns of 10.8 per cent over the past ten years, exceeding its benchmark performance and outpacing institutional fund indices.

In contrast, UBC’s investment portfolios, which have about $2.6 billion in assets under management, had an actual annual return of 6.1 per cent  over the past 10 years. Over the last 10 years, UTAM’s actual annual return was about 4.5 per cent in its endowment fund, and 4.4 per cent in its pension fund.

Over the 10-year period, UTAM’s endowment fund and pension fund underperformed versus their benchmark portfolios, and were unable to meet the university target.

Since UTAM was established, the UTFA, which represents faculty, librarians, and research associates at U of T, has sparred regularly with UTAM over the university’s management of pension funds.

In December 2009, the President’s Committee on Investment Policies, Structures, Strategies and Execution, established to review U of T investments and UTAM, presented a number of conclusions to university administration. Among these, the committee suggested that the CEO of UTAM should become the Chief Investment Officer of the university with a direct reporting line to the president, that the pension and endowment funds should be invested primarily in publicly traded stocks and bonds, and that the governance and investment oversight functions should be separated.

UTAM “proved to be a disaster for our pension plan,” said Paul Downes, vice-president, salary, benefits, and pensions at the UTFA and associate professor of English.

“Despite the higher fees that UTAM charged, our pension plan performed dismally under UTAM’s management when compared to other pension funds… For over a decade, UTFA has repeatedly tried to direct the university’s attention to the looming crisis in the pension plan and the implications of this crisis for everyone at U of T,” he added. Downes also objected to continued demands for higher pension contributions from its members.

According to a 2011 UTFA information report, which was presented to the pension committee of the Governing Council in June 2011 by George Luste, past-president of UTFA, UTAM is underperforming other pension plans. In the report, the UTFA objected to UTAM’s investment outcomes. The UTFA also said that transparency was necessary, as well as an understanding of the complexity of its investments.

According to the report, the annualized return of the pension plan investments from 1985 to 1999 was 11.7 per cent. From 2000 to 2010, the average return for U of T’s pension plan was just 2.7 per cent per year, 1.3 per cent below the university’s stated goal of 4 per cent per year. Over the same time period, the report said, the RBC DEXIA pension plan universe — a pension plan benchmark published in the Canadian Institute of Actuaries Annual Report— had a median annual return of 5.6 per cent.

The report further claimed that, had UTAM been able to realize the median returns of other pension plans during that time period, there would be an additional $1 billion in the U of T pension plan today.

William Moriarty, president and CEO of UTAM,  took issue with the report. “That’s a misleading, biased comparison,” he said, adding, “The market environment was completely different.” Moriarty said that UTAM has added value to the university’s investment funds. Last year, the return on the university’s main portfolios exceeded the target return of 5.2 per cent by about 10 per cent. UTAM estimated that three per cent of the extra return was contributed by active management decisions.

The university aims for a four per cent rate of return in its funds, after inflation and with all costs added in, over a ten year period.

“That’s what we measure ourselves against. If I can’t outperform that, after all costs, then we shouldn’t be doing active management, or we have the wrong people,” said Moriarty, adding: “My objective every year is to outperform the policy portfolio by [0.5 per cent], after all costs.”

In the past, the UTFA has also raised concerns over UTAM’s management fees. “Annual investing cost is an extreme long-term killer,” said Luste. At present, Luste estimated, UTAM pays out more that $40 million every year for management of the pension plan and the endowment plan. Globally, higher costs raise the bar on required returns.

In 2013, Moriarty had the highest salary at an Ontario university, at $772,547, and the fourth-highest salary of any public sector employee in Ontario.

However, Moriarty emphasized that a higher level of cost can be justified if it leads to an improvement in value-added. “It all depends on how much value-add you provide… If [we] didn’t spend the money, [we] wouldn’t have earned an extra $130 million last year or $50 million the year before. People focus on costs, but [should] focus on what is your after-cost, incremental return,” he said.

Moriarty joined UTAM in April 2008. Since 2008, UTAM’s valued added from active management has steadily improved each year. 2013 also represented UTAM’s fifth straight year of improved performance of the pension and endowment portfolios compared to their respective benchmark portfolios.

Moriarty further claimed that he has reduced UTAM’s all-in costs since joining. In 2008, UTAM’s all-in costs were over one per cent. Today, he said, UTAM’s all-in costs are about 0.8 per cent.

Downes also questioned the university’s decision to pool pension funds with endowment funds. According to the university, the return objective and risk tolerance are the same for the endowment and pension funds.

Moriarty contended that the funds are not pooled. Instead, he said, the funds just have the same asset mix. “If I have a good manager for the endowment, why wouldn’t you add the pension fund,” he said, adding: “What we did do is we created a structure to reduce cost.”

However, Moriarty conceded that the risk tolerance is not the same for both pension funds and endowment funds. He said that UTAM plans to analyze whether current risk levels in the funds are appropriate.

On top of that work, Moriarty said, UTAM has implemented a number of other major changes over the past few years, including changes to the governance structure, improved analytics tools, and a better risk analysis system.

Moriarty also emphasized his work to better align investment performance with UTAM’s incentive compensation. “If we don’t provide the value-add, [we] don’t get the incentive [compensation],” he said.

“It’s very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to say ‘you should have done this. You should have done that.’ It’s very different to be forward-looking and choose the right path,” he said.

Despite these assurances, Luste is still not convinced that UTAM provides a net benefit to the university. “[T]he university probably should not be messing around with managing money. They ought to be focused on education and research,” Luste said.

International students a “source of profit”

More than 50 per cent tuition increase for incoming international students draws sharp backlash from students

International students a “source of profit”

Incoming Arts & Science international students are being charged $35,280 next year — an increase of 9.2 per cent. U of T is proposing an increase of more than 50 per cent over the next five years. In the past, university administration has claimed that the differential tuition fees for international and domestic students reflect the higher cost of education for international students. This increase, however, is bringing back persistent student concerns that the university sees international students as a profit source.

“International students are absolutely seen as a source of profit by the university,” said Yolen Bollo-Kamara, current vice-president, equity, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and president-elect. “I have participated in many meetings at which senior members of the university administration identify targets for increased international student enrolment as a way to generate revenue and compensate for gaps in government funding. The discussion always revolves around the money international students bring to the university, as opposed to their academic and social contributions,” she added.

The UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have both lobbied for a cap on international tuition fee increases for a number of years.

At present, there are no per-student operating grants for international students. In any given year, the federal and provincial governments subsidize approximately half of the fees incurred by a domestic student, while international students receive no subsidy. Still, the difference between domestic and international tuition fees is expected to expand in the coming years. Afirst-year domestic undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $5,865. A first-year international undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $32,075.

Tuition fees for new incoming international students are set to increase by 9.2 per cent next year. Fee increases for existing international students are set to increase by five per cent. On average, tuition fee increases are assumed to be three per cent for domestic students and 6.5% for international students each year of the five-year budget cycle 2014–2015 to 2018–2019. The increases come against the backdrop of U of T budget increases — U of T’s total budget is set to cross the two billion dollar mark for the first time in 2014–2015.

Domestic and international tuition fee schedules are regulated under the new Ontario Tuition Framework, introduced in 2013. Under the new framework, domestic tuition fees are capped at three per cent per year for most programs. Under the previous framework, domestic tuition fees were capped at five per cent per year for most programs. University administration estimated the impact of lowering the regulated rate of increases at $15 million in 2014–2015, growing to $56 million by the end of 2019. On the other hand, international tuition fee increases are unregulated. To that end, some allege that the university continues to increase international tuition fees to make up for funding shortfalls.

The increases in international tuition fees come against the backdrop of a rapidly increasing international student population. In 2002–2003, international students represented 6.5 per cent of the total student population. Today, that number stands at 15.2 per cent.

“As the number of international students has increased over the years, the need to provide additional and specialized services for international students has also grown,” said Laurie Stephens, U of T’s director of media relations.

Stephens cited a number of specialized services provided for international students, including immigration and transition advice, intercultural and learning strategies support, orientation programs, peer mentorship, English communication classes, and social and networking events. The university also offers special bridging programs for some international students.

University administration also maintains that increasing the diversity of the student population leads to a better academic and social experience for all students. “The University of Toronto welcomes the variety of perspectives, viewpoints, and diversity that international students bring to our already diverse campuses. These students contribute to the international character of the university, and their presence provides opportunities in our academic and co-curricular programs for the enhanced exchange of knowledge,” said Stephens.

Zakary Paget, special assistant, communications, at the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities did not directly address the issue of government funding for international students. However, according to Paget, per-student funding for Ontario universities increased from $6,719 in 2002 to $8,605 by the end of 2013, an increase of 28 per cent. “The government provides funding in a consistent and predictable manner and as autonomous institutions, we expect that schools will manage their financial health in an efficient manner,” he said.

Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer, argued that funding for international students should be increased. “The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities needs to take a hard look at whether there is adequate funding for international student aid at post-secondary institutions in Ontario,” he said. Langille said that increasing funding would be a good retention strategy to keep international students in Ontario after graduation.

Bollo-Kamara recommended that the university reduce international tuition fees, and not allow them to increase at a higher rate than fees for domestic students. She also recommended that the university increase financial aid for international students. In 2012–2013, the university provided just $4.95 million in merit and need-based grants — exclusive of U of T fellowships — to about 1,600 international students.  The university provides more than $150 million in total merit and need-based grants.

Like Bollo-Kamara, Langille also said that the provincial government should look at placing a cap on international tuition fee increases. “Much like tuition fees for domestic students, the tuition fees charged to international students are extreme, unsustainable, and predatory,” he said.

Paget brushed off these concerns: “Tuition fees help to cover the costs of education and help ensure that institutions continue to have the resources needed to maintain high quality and accessible postsecondary education in Ontario,” he added: “The tuition fees for international students are determined by the institutions. Institutions have the flexibility to increase tuition fees for international students by the same amount as domestic students.”

Stephens said that U of T is doing the most that it can with the financial resources provided by the provincial government. The provincial government does not provide grants to universities to support research-stream international graduate students, leaving Ontario universities at a disadvantage when competing with universities in other provinces.

Stephens also said that the university administration is lobbying the provincial government to extend the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) to international students. In 1994, the Ontario government disqualified international students from coverage under OHIP.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), said that, for some students, international tuition fees might still be cheaper than studying at a domestic institution. He also noted that some countries fully subsidize tuition fees for their citizens to study abroad, so not all international students bear the full financial burden of increased tuition fees.

On the other hand, Tian said that there is no guarantee that revenue from increased tuition fees ends up benefitting students, a reference to the $40 million in within-university subsidies that will be transferred from undergraduate-heavy divisions of the university to graduate-heavy and revenue-poor divisions next year.

U of T contemplates participation in Ontario Online

U of T already promotes online learning, observing new initiative closely

U of T contemplates participation in Ontario Online

U of T remains hesitant about joining the Centre of Excellence for Online Learning (Ontario Online). The new course hub was announced in January.

KAREN ZHOU/THE VARSITY

KAREN ZHOU/THE VARSITY

Ontario Online is a system planned by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that will serve as a repository of online courses and a database that details to students which of their credits are transferable between institutions.

U of T already has structures that facilitate online learning, including Blackboard, a content management system, and is watching to see how Ontario Online unfolds before committing. “As this is a three-year project for the ministry that has just begun, we’re looking to see what happens,” said Sioban Nelson, U of T’s  vice-provost, academic programs, adding: “We are involved in online courses, we just have a concern about quality of education.”

In September 2012, U of T was also the first Canadian institution to affiliate with Coursera, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) platform created by Stanford University. Unlike Ontario Online, Coursera is designed to accommodate unlimited enrolment worldwide.

Paul Gries, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, faced the challenge of adapting lecture material into a video format.
“One minute of video required at least one hour of work as we had to figure out how to condense three hours of lecture material into a 15-minute video and still present the material in a precise and clear manner that made it easy for students to follow,” he said. Although 70,000 students enrolled at the start of the course, only 8,300 actually completed it.

Gries cited the time-consuming nature of an online course and personal circumstances as reasons why students did not finish the course. “The lower completion numbers don’t necessarily mean that there aren’t people watching the videos. If 10 per cent of those enrolled complete the online course, then the course is a success,” he added.

In addition to involvement with MOOCs, U of T has its own internal program, the Online Undergraduate Course Initiative (OUCI) for developing undergraduate courses online. This initiative pre-dates the announcement from the ministry by three years. The goal of this program is to develop 10 online courses each year at the initiative of willing faculty members who have the support of their department and the dean. The OUCI then funds the course plan, with $12,000 allocated to each redesigned course. Educational technology professionals, librarians, and the instructor are all involved in the course-planning process. The OUCI reports that 15 new undergraduate online courses have either come online in the past two years or will come online in the next few months.

Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at UTSC, is one U of T professor who uses online learning as a core component of the course. Joordens’ introductory psychology course has a web option, which allows students in the course to decide between attending lectures, watching them online, or both. In addition to this flexibility, the course includes a series of online tests, designed as an alternative to multiple-choice midterms.

Although Joordens said the program was largely successful, he has experienced issues with academic integrity. “I had the challenge of deterring people who cheat; I noticed that there was a group of students who did the tests sitting in the same room. They were getting marks of 90 or more on the online tests, but were failing the final, getting around a 30. That averages to about 60 per cent, so they passed the course, but didn’t learn anything,” Joordens recalled. To avoid this trend, Joordens ruled that in order to pass the course, students must also pass the final examination.

Monika Havelka, senior lecturer of geography at UTM, has taught a 100-level environmental studies course online for the past four years. “I’m really fond of the format because it provides an enhanced learning experience,” Havelka said. Like Joordens’s course, Havelka’s lectures are recorded and posted online.

Havelka believes that the format allows for more interaction between herself and her students, as well as between the students themselves; she interacts with more students online over web chats and discussion threads than in office hours. Havelka praised the format. “I really am a convert. I was skeptical at first, but then I had students who said to me, ‘I had to watch this three times before I got it,’ but the point is that they got it in the end. The opportunity to rewind and review material leads to a greater depth of understanding,” she said.

Although U of T takes pride in its provision of learning opportunities online, the current lack of participation in Ontario Online could affect course transfers. “There is [a] core of courses that are transferred automatically; others we do on a case-by-case basis,” said Nelson. She added: “We are very supportive of course transfers, and we’re watching to see how [the course transfer hub] unfolds.”

 

With files from Devika Desai

International tuition could rise another 50 per cent over next five years

Current international students would pay five per cent more, new students would pay 9.2 per cent in proposed budget

International tuition could rise another 50 per cent over next five years

Tuition fees for new incoming international students are set to increase by 9.2 per cent next year. Fees for existing international students are set to increase by 5 per cent. Scott Mabury, vice-president, university operations, unveiled the plan at a meeting of the Governing Council’s Business Board on March 3. On average, tuition fee increases are assumed to be three per cent for domestic students and 6.5 per cent for existing international students each year of the five-year budget cycle: 2014–2015 to 2018–2019.

At the meeting, Mabury characterized international student enrolment as a “14-year experiment,” adding that, “when we increase international tuition fees, applications go up, and the take-up rate goes up.” A recent provincial government plan established a target to increase the number of international students by 50 per cent — to a total of 57,000 students — by 2015. Compounded, international tuition fees have risen over 50 per cent over the last five years.

Domestic and international tuition fee schedules are regulated under Ontario’s Tuition Framework. Under the framework, domestic tuition fees are capped at three per cent per year for most programs and five per cent for graduate and professional programs. International tuition fee increases, however, are unregulated — individual post-secondary institutions can increase these fees as much as they like.

As per the university’s tuition fee policy, no student entering a program from 2012–2013 onwards will be subjected to a fee increase of more than 5.69 per cent per year for the normal length of the full-time program of study.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) have both called on the provincial government to regulate international fee increases.

“There is a real double standard here,” said Cameron Wathey, who is running for re-election to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) as vice-president, internal, with Team U of T Voice. “International students deserve the same rights as domestic students, not simply because we contribute to the tax base and the growth of the economy, not simply because many international students decide to stay in Canada after graduation and work within Canada, but simply because we all deserve access to affordable post-secondary education,” he added.

Wathey outlined the platform for U of T Voice, which includes lobbying the provincial government for the regulation of international student fees, pressuring the government for the removal of the recently introduced $750 international student fee, and advocating for international student seats on Governing Council. Under the University of Toronto Act, international students are currently unable to serve on Governing Council because they are not Canadian citizens.

“This discrepancy raises serious concerns to suggest that international students are being used to compensate for funding gaps in other underfunded sectors within the university,” said Anna Yin, who is running for election to the UTSU as vice-president, internal, with Team Unite. “As a team that believes in equal opportunity and a fair education for all, we believe we must address the university administration and raise concerns within the upcoming provincial elections to suggest regulations for international tuition to be based on the real cost of education,” she added.

Yin outlined the platform for Team Unite, which includes pushing university administration to create more needs-based scholarships for international students, lobbying the provincial government to ensure that universities provide more international student support services, and lobbying the provincial government to allow international students to enroll in OHIP without paying an additional premium.

Zakary Paget, special assistant, communications, for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, offered little information on provincial government funding for international students. “Our role is to ensure that the bar is set high for post-secondary education in Ontario through the implementation of a policy framework that protects our shared, earned global reputation for quality programs, student protection, and a positive student experience.” Paget did not offer any information on what that policy framework would include.

“I think we’re very transparent about the fees that international students are charged. They understand this before they decide to apply,” said Richard Levin, university registrar, adding: “We’re clear about any scholarships in the letter of offer, and we determine our international targets based on academic priorities. But we have to reflect the full cost in international fees.” While the federal and provincial governments provide per-student operating grants to post-secondary institutions, there are no per-student operating grants for international students.

“[W]e will only go as far as we feel is academically appropriate in terms of number of students,” said Sally Garner, executive directo of the planning and budget office. “The tuition has to be a reasonable rate when you compare it internationally to the quality institutions compared to U of T.”

Katerina Valle, a fourth-year anthropology student from Peru, contended that the fee increases are unexpected. “Most of us find out about the yearly increase when we are already enrolled. When I applied to U of T, I thought I would be paying [$20,000] every year. Next year, my tuition is going to be [$30,000]. People have budgets — if U of T can’t help from raising tuition, they should at least be clear about it,” she says.

Other international students, like Shah Taha, a second-year international relations and contemporary Asian studies student from Hong Kong, argued that the cost of international undergraduate tuition does not reflect the level of services international students receive: “What is perhaps most important is to give international students their money’s worth. Facilities provided at U of T are below par for the amount charged.”

Levin said that the cost of international undergraduate tuition is not a reflection of additional services for international students: “We set fees to try and recover the full cost of the educational experience. There are certainly services for international students — the Centre for International Experience, various divisions have particular supports in place, programs run specifically for international students — we work hard to try and support them. But the fee is really meant to reflect the cost of education.”

Some international students also expressed concern over the amount of financial aid that international undergraduate students receive. In 2012–2013, $164 million in student aid was given out to undergraduate and graduate students. Just $5 million in aid — merit-based and emergency — was provided to international students.

According to the university’s Policy on Student Financial Support, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.” However, the policy does not fully apply to international students: “International students must demonstrate that they have sufficient resources to meet their financial needs in order to qualify for a student visa. They are not eligible for the university’s guarantee offered to domestic students.”

Valle expressed concern over this: “There are a lot of programs, scholarships, opportunities that are restricted to Canadians and residents only …  [International students] pay more and we are excluded,” she said, adding: “International students pick Canada because it is cheaper.”

Michael Kozakov, a third-year computer science student from Israel, agreed: “Unlike most top universities in the United States, U of T does not offer financial aid packages, and the merit-based scholarships cover at most 4 per cent of tuition fees. Given the amount of emphasis U of T puts on the diversity of the student body, I find these numbers very underwhelming.”

“I do not believe that the government should subsidize all international students (some students already receive government support from their home countries, others have quite high social economic status backgrounds), but I believe that there is a responsibility to provide support for top students with high levels of need,” said Dr. Glen Jones, Ontario research chair in post-secondary education policy and measurement and professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). However, Jones also pointed out that financial support for U of T graduate students is among the highest in the country.

Levin claimed that the low level of financial aid for international undergraduate students arises from the university’s decision to prioritize domestic students. “The only real source of support, if we were to provide additional support for international students, would be tuition and grant revenue from domestic students,” he said.

“Some governments have found the introduction of [international] scholarships politically difficult,” Jones added. “The Ontario government announced new scholarships for international students several years ago and received a great deal of criticism from opposition and some student organizations based on the notion that funds should be devoted to assisting Ontario students rather than international students.”

The university projects a balanced budget for 2014–2015, with $2 billion in revenues matched by $2 billion in expenses.