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Tuition freeze loopholes hurt international students’ wallets

The Alberta government implemented a two-year tuition freeze last September, meaning post-secondary institutions are not allowed to raise tuition fees until the fall of 2017.

However, the freeze only applies to Canadian students. Tuition for international students can still increase by however much a university or college in Alberta deems fit.

Last week the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology announced they were increasing their tuition fees for international students, effective this year.

To put it bluntly, SAIT’s cost increases are staggering. Many of the institution’s programs will cost double what they did last year for international students, with some increasing by as much as $500 per course.

SAIT’s actions demonstrate a growing trend. In recent years, several Canadian universities have hiked their international student tuition rates, including the University of Manitoba, University of Toronto and University of British Columbia.

If you’re not from Canada, a post-secondary education here is becoming increasingly difficult to pay for. International students already shell out more than twice as much as domestic students for tuition, as they are not subsidized by the provincial government. Some international students at SAIT will have to pay around $22,000 this year. The ability to arbitrarily raise international student tuition is a loophole the government needs to address.

SAIT justified their fee increases by claiming the extra revenue will help them “recover the costs of delivering those programs to international students.” The college argued that as a publicly-funded institution, they shouldn’t burden Alberta taxpayers with helping them deliver an education to students who aren’t from Canada.

It’s a weak argument. SAIT’s two-year professional cooking program will increase by 39 per cent, from $26,600 over two years to $37,010. SAIT claimed rising costs of protein and produce contributed to the need to increase the program’s fees. But just how much could the price of protein and produce go up to justify that sort of increase? And why should students from other countries be the ones to pony up for it while local students continue to pay the same?

To give SAIT credit, they did inform incoming international students in July that their tuition was going to increase. And their website does point out that tuition rates are subject to change. The college also claims they have programs and support systems for international students, such as payment plans, financial aid and non-repayable bursaries and awards.

But knowing two months in advance doesn’t help at all. Informing them in July does not give students time to find backup plans or save — especially if they are travelling in from outside of Canada. Imagine what incoming international students thought when they opened those letters from SAIT and read their program was going to cost double what they were expecting.

Outside the current two-year freeze, domestic tuition in Canada is capped by the Consumer Price Index. That means tuition cannot rise by more than the annual inflation rate, which is generally a few per cent. But there’s no regulation or rule for differential tuition pricing, which international tuition falls under. That means increases like what happened at SAIT could happen at the U of C too.

Luckily, they haven’t yet. The U of C Board of Governors hasn’t increased international student tuition since 2014.  Even then, the increase in 2014 was only by one per cent, which is less than the national average.

Other universities could learn from the U of C in terms of differential tuition pricing. Historically, our fee increases in this area have gone up in proportion to our domestic tuition increases. That’s the way it should be. International students shouldn’t be punished because they moved here from another country and the province doesn’t subsidize their education. International students bring diversity to our universities and colleges. It’s not fair for them to be taken advantage of.

Past and current student leaders at the U of C say they see no indication that the university is going to go back on its word and increase international student tuition. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Scott Strasser, Gauntlet editorial board

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