Where are your tuition fees going?

The Douglas College budget consultation is on March 26

By Julia Siedlanowska, Staff Writer

The Douglas Students’ Union (DSU) is hosting a budget consultation with key decision makers at Douglas College to provide students with an opportunity to voice their concerns. Some concerns that the DSU has outlined are rising tuition fees, the over half-a-million dollars spent each year on advertising, course waitlisting, and the $60-million budget surplus stored in the college’s reserve fund.

Every year the Douglas College board creates a yearly budget and presents the draft to the community. The board gives copies to the staff and students, seeks feedback in the ensuing month, and at the main college board meeting they vote on the budget for the coming year.

“For the 2014/15 budget, what we have heard and what we do know is that they are proposing tuition fee increases again,” says Tracy Ho, the DSU’s college relations and membership outreach coordinator.

The tuition fees for domestic students are capped at a two per cent maximum increase per year as per provincial government policy, which would mean about a $50-60 increase for full-time students.

“For the decision makers, they might think $50 [or] $100 isn’t a big deal, but it is for a student who has $0 and nothing in their bank account,” says Ho.

The squeeze is being felt by students and their families, adds Ho: “We have seen an increase in the use of our food bank in both campuses. In the last year we have increased our monthly budget to make sure that we have enough food for students, so we know on a day-to-day level students are struggling.”

Ho also pointed to the fact that wages were not increasing at the same rate as tuition, and that as living costs rise, the debt is being transferred more and more to families.

While tuition increases, Douglas College has been experiencing a surplus in their budget over the last 11 years. This year the expected surplus is about $2.7 million, making the total over the last 11 years about $60 million. The surplus is from a number of different sources, including increased tuition and higher enrolment, and is stored into a restricted capital fund.

“The problem with the surpluses is that at the year end, this money goes into a reserve fund that cannot be touched,” says Ho.

What this means, according to Ho, is that the college cannot use the money to fund ESL programs that have been cut back, for example. “The fund is sitting there for future use… right now there are talks and future plans about building a new building,” she says.

Internal relations coordinator, Jesse Stamberg, pointed out that “[the reserve fund] is essentially… a government fund. And what the government does is they consider it their savings.” The provincial government is able to count all the reserve money as part of their budget.

“So… they count [the reserve fund] on the books, as their money, so that they can have a balanced budget at the end of the year,” adds Ho.

Douglas College is unable to access the funds without the permission of the provincial government. Both Ho and Stamberg stated that part of the problem students have with this major surplus is that they are not seeing the results of the tuition increases now. The money is not being spent on issues such as large class waitlists, lack of and poor quality academic advising, and outdated computers; instead, the money is being used to save for a future that current students may not directly benefit from.

“Why are tuition fees being increased when we know in the last 11 years we’ve been seeing millions of dollars in surpluses every year? And it’s a struggle. [Students are asking] ‘How can you justify that?’” says Ho.

Stamberg points out that while other institutions are using increased tuition fees just to break even from a deficit, Douglas College “is in such a stable financial position it just doesn’t make sense for them to continuously essentially gouge students for the additional two per cent every year.”

Another issue is the half-a-million dollars the college spends on advertising each year. “They did the ads at the Sochi Olympics and they also do the ads at Canucks games, Giants games, Lions, and White Caps games,” says Ho.

Stamberg pointed out that the advertising wasn’t targeting the right demographic of prospective students. “I mean most students can’t afford to go to Canucks games—and that’s really not the demographic that is going to Douglas.”

The push for advertising creates a conundrum as well, as many courses at Douglas continuously reach maximum capacity and are unable to accommodate a growing student population.

These issues affect domestic and international students; however, there is a whole set of specific concerns for international students. While domestic student fee increases are regulated at a maximum two per cent increase per year, international fees are unregulated.

“For internationals the first year it was about a 7.4 per cent increase, and then 4.1, and now a two per cent, so there are significant increases when they have the capacity to be able to use the funding that they currently have,” says Stamberg.

Ho also states that the college often uses a “myth” that international students have more money, and that they and their families equate higher price with higher value, to justify an increase in student fees.

“We did the survey of 161 students and asked ‘Could you accept the increase in tuition fees?’ and 79.4 per cent of the respondents answered ‘No,’” says Keiko Nariya, member-at-large at the DSU.

The budget consultation will occur on March 26 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6 p.m., in room 4920 at the New Westminster campus and in room B3011 at the David Lam campus.

“It’s really important for students to come. This is a huge opportunity to have students say ‘These are our needs, this is my everyday experience as a student,’” says Ho. “Students should know that they are supported by their students’ union. We understand that it’s scary to go up there and talk, but know that students are backing each other up.”