'I hope you won’t put me out of school' – SFU Burnaby students protest proposed tuition hikes

SFU students protesting proposed tuition hikes of up to 20 per cent for some international students next year took aim at administrators’ salaries and past budget surpluses at a consultation for students at the university’s Burnaby Mountain campus Tuesday.

About 20 students carrying banners and chanting “No student, a cash cow!” marched into the meeting and peppered vice president academic Peter Keller and vice president finance Martin Pochurko with questions, criticizing the proposed increases.

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For fall 2019, the university is proposing increases of two per cent for domestic undergrads and four per cent for international undergrads already studying at the university.

Incoming international students, though, could see a 12 per cent increase in tuition – or more.

SFU tuition, Martin Pochurko
SFU vice president finance Martin Pochurko speaks to students at a budget consultation in Burnaby Tuesday. - Cornelia Naylor

If they’re studying computer science, engineering or mechatronics the cost could go up 16 per cent, and, if they’re planning to study business, their tuition could be 20 per cent higher than what students are paying now.

Pochurko said the tuition hikes are needed to cover a projected $15 million shortfall in next year’s operating budget.

Even with the increases, he said the university will be left with a $3.1 million shortfall it intends to cover with university-wide “efficiencies.”

Provincial regulations prevent universities from increasing domestic students’ tuition by more than two per cent each year, but there are no caps on tuition increases for international students.

The administrators justified the fee hikes by comparing SFU’s tuition in different faculties (arts, science, business and engineering) to 25 other Canadian universities and saying SFU students are paying significantly less in some faculties, especially given the university’s performance rankings in those areas.

“So when our rankings drop, you’ll make the fees cheaper?” quipped PhD student George Temple.

Temple also took aim at the administrators leaving Quebec universities with their low tuition rates out of the comparisons.

SFU tuition
Source: Cornelia Naylor

Undergraduate student Andrea Jones said she was concerned the tuition hikes would disproportionately impact students from certain countries “already marginalized” by Canada, while other international students – like Americans – would be left “laughing all the way to the bank.”

Keller pointed out some money from international tuition fees is set aside for scholarships and bursaries for students from countries with unfavourable exchange rates, but international student Chrysther Ong said it’s not nearly enough.

“I’m an undergraduate; I have four years more left, and I won’t be able to finish my degree if tuition keeps going up every year," she told Keller and Pochurko. "I just won’t have a future at all because I won’t have a degree that I’ve invested in. About the scholarships, they’re not enough. I strive for straight As so I can get the scholarships and bursaries, but they don’t even cover half of one semester. … I’m really passionate about what I’m studying, so I hope you won’t put me out of school.”

Football player Paul Ursu, meanwhile, raised concerns SFU’s student athletes, more than half of which are international students, would also be negatively impacted.

While Keller and Pochurko said the fee increases were needed to meet the shortfall, student Matt McDonald pointed to operating surpluses in the university’s last few year-end financial statements, despite yearly warnings that “the budget’s in trouble.”

Pochurko admitted to being “horrified” at the surpluses but explained they are mostly restricted funds earmarked for things like faculty salaries for professor positions that went unfilled during the year.

Students also took aim at Keller’s and Pochurko’s salaries and benefits, which totalled $329,164 and $318, 918 respectively in the 2017/18.

Jones invited the pair to commit to taking a pay cut equivalent to any necessary fee increases to show they were committed to exploring all possible ways to avoid the tuition hikes.

“Then we’ll just know that we can all work together because nobody wants that to happen,” she said.

The appeal was met with cheers from the audience and smiles from the Keller and Pochurko.

Keller reiterated executive compensation at SFU was among the lowest in the country.

Students were unsympathetic.

“We’re not going to cry for you,” said one.

Students also criticized the university’s method of consulting with students over the budget, pointing out Tuesday’s event had been scheduled mid-morning in the middle of midterm exam time.

“I’m an international student,” said Melvin Sedeora. “Being at school is my priority, but if I also have to put my priority aside to tell you that you shouldn’t be raising my tuition fees, something is not right here.”

The budget will be finalized over the coming months and go before the board for approval at the end of March.

 

 

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