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Looking at the effects of international tuition deregulation

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On Feb. 2, an article published in La Presse claimed that the Quebec government planned to significantly cut funding to universities in the 2016-2017 school year. To compensate, the province suggested that universities raise tuition for international students by up to 25 per cent. Though it is too early to know if McGill will act on this announcement, it comes in the wake of a long history of support for tuition deregulation from the McGill administration. 

“McGill is currently, and has historically, lobbied the provincial government to deregulate the supplementary fee that international students pay on top of their tuition,” said Emily Boytinck, vice-president (VP) External of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). “So international students are charged the base Quebec fee but they’re also charged the supplementary [fee], as are out-of-province [students].” 

In 2008, the Quebec government deregulated international tuition for six programs, leading to a rise in tuition for the faculties of Science, Engineering, Management, and Law. Currently, according to the McGill Student Accounts website, an international undergraduate student in the Faculty of Arts pays $18,258.61 a year, while a student in the Faculty of Engineering pays $37,054.55 in tuition and fees. The differences comes from fees charged to international students that, when tuition is regulated, go towards equalization payments for the Quebec government. According to McGill VP Communications and External Relations Olivier Marcil when tutition is deregulated, McGill keeps the money from these fees. 

“The problem we have currently is we feel that it’s unfair that Quebec is the only jurisdiction in North America to have a system of equalisation,” Marcil said. “What it means is that when an international student and [an] out-of-province student pay tuition at McGill, that money doesn’t stay at McGill, it goes back to the government to distribute […] as part of the [provincial student] grant […] system. And so what [we’ve been] advocating for for many years is that the money should follow the student [….] It’s just fair for the student that that money will be reinvested for services that that student will receive in exchange, and not being distributed in other institutions or [taken] back by the government.”

Marcil stated that deregulation would allow the university to put the money students already pay through fees into programs that international students can access instead of paying it back to the province.

 “The other problem with the current Quebec system of equalization is that the international students, [and out-of-province students] pay […] for the Quebec student aid program [in their tuition fees],” Marcil said. “But students from out of the province do not have access to that program [….] Fifty per cent roughly of our student body do not come from Quebec […. Whereas] there are some institutions in Quebec where 95 per cent of their student body [come] from Quebec. With a new model of funding where the money follows the student, the money stays with the institution [and] it’s fairer for those students because we’re going to strengthen our student aid program [and students won’t have to pay] for a program that’s not available for them.”

The McGill Scholarships and Student Aid Office has seen an increase in contributions from the university in recent years.

“[The university has] a commitment that 30 per cent of net new revenue derived from tuition increases was going to be set aside for student financial support,” explained Cara Piperni, director of the Scholarship and Student Aid office. “So it started in 2007-2008, I believe, where we had about $1.7 million given to us from this source and in the last [school] year [2015-2016] that’s grown to $8.3 million [….] We try to be equitable [in distributing aid], we try to meet a certain portion of tuition costs. If you’re an international student in Arts program versus an international student in the Engineering program, [and] if you have equivalent demonstrated [financial] need, then you will get a similar proportion of your fees given to you in the form of bursaries.”

However, according to SSMU VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke, the truth behind the university’s proposed increase in student aid from tuition deregulation is uncertain.

“The University has responded by saying that they intend to uphold their commitment to set aside one-third of every tuition dollar for financial aid,” Rourke wrote in an email to the Tribune. “They also emphasize that unlike many other universities in Canada, McGill provides financial aid to international students [….] However, in our recent Senate question we saw that the percentage of the cost of attendance covered by McGill financial aid is lower for international students in deregulated programs than in regulated programs. This suggests that the increase in financial aid is not enough to compensate for dramatic increases in tuition. As well, covering 30 per cent of the cost of attendance for a student who is paying $40,000 to attend each year is not the same as covering 30 per cent of the cost of attendance for a student who is paying $18,000 per year to attend.”

In addition, Rourke is concerned about how deregulation will affect the cost of attendance for international students. 

“The university has also stated multiple times that tuition deregulation does not necessarily mean a tuition increase,” said Rourke. “Due to Quebec’s complicated funding formulas, the deregulation of tuition would lead to millions of dollars more for McGill even if tuition rates remained constant; however, our concern is that these statements are misleading. Every time tuition has been deregulated we have seen an immediate increase in tuition for international students.”

SSMU has vocally opposed tuition deregulation due to concerns about its impact on the diversity of the student body.

“My primary concern with tuition deregulation is its impact on the socioeconomic diversity of our student population,” Rourke wrote. “McGill has an unusually high percentage of international students (approx 25 per cent of our population). We pride ourselves on our ‘diverse, international’ learning community, however socioeconomic diversity is an important aspect of a diverse campus that cannot be ignored. We know that students from middle-income families, particularly from the US, often choose to study a B.A. because the Faculty of Arts is still regulated, unlike Science, Engineering, or Management. If tuition is deregulated in all faculties, it would seriously threaten the ability of many students to study at McGill.”

Additionally, deregulating tuition will leave McGill free to set tuition fees at any price.

“McGill [administration] will try and argue that it’s economics [… and] they can’t raise it above the Canadian market average, because then […] they would be pushed out of the market, […] but they are forgetting that a lot of our international students are American, so a lot of their [economic] competition […] is often not other Canadian universities but other American universities,” Boytinck said. “So there’s absolutely nothing stopping McGill from raising those fees to American levels which is totally financially inaccessible and against everything that SSMU stands for.”

The Quebec government has yet to officially deregulate tuition. 

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