International tuition still a sore point One semester after fee hikes, university reports increased financial aid, new social and academic supports

The University of Manitoba is looking to uphold their promise of funnelling a significant portion of the extra money generated from international student fee hikes into academic and university community supports for international students.

The U of M increased tuition differentials by 10 to 18 per cent for international undergraduate students and raised international graduate tuition by 10 per cent at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year. The hike was part of a budget that included three- to four-per cent cuts to operating expenditures for most faculties and units.

At the time, the university promised that much of the increase would go into programs for international students such as orientation services, English language workshops, and scholarships and bursaries for graduate students, the Manitoban reported.

Recent documents the university provided to the Gradzette indicate a plan for $1.08 million to be set aside for scholarships and bursaries for international students, and $736,000 channelled into international student social and academic supports.

Funding strategies

University spokesman John Danakas released details to the Gradzette about the funding allocations related to scholarships and bursaries.

The document showed an increase of $100,000 to entrance scholarships for international students, which would top up the current funding tiers to $2,000, $4,000, and $6,000.

Another portion of the added revenue has been designated for retention scholarships. Danakas said the university currently uses money from a fund capped at $70,000 and divides it evenly among eligible students, which results in awards of approximately $400 per student.

“The value of the fund will be increased by $250,000, which we predict will result in an award of approximately $2,500 per student,” he said.

Additional $730,000 will be put into need-based bursaries, which will increase that fund from $350,000 to $1.08 million. Danakas said the move would allow the university to significantly increase the per-student cap on international bursaries, which is currently $1,200.

In addition to the increased financial aid, the university is working on social and academic supports for international students. The latest bout of funding requests for international student supports amounted to $736,000, according to a document the university provided to the Gradzette.

The detailed proposal, dated Nov. 18, is in line with the university’s working plans to enhance support for international students. It breaks down specific funding allotments for various international student support initiatives at the university and the International Centre for Students, in key areas identified by the university such as English language skills, academic integrity, mental health and wellness, orientation, transition, and advising for international students.

Alongside various initiatives for academic and community supports, one major proposed project involves $150,000 slated for the renovation of the existing fitness room at Mary Speechly Hall into a large community kitchen space within the student residence. The university has cited a shortage of food preparation facilities present on campus, and international students account for about 52 per cent of the students living in university residences.

The university’s board of governors has already approved $720,000 for international student supports, with the remaining $16,000 cost to be covered by Student Affairs, according to Susan Gottheil, vice-provost (students) at the university.

Demo to the board

A rally held outside of the board of governors meeting on Nov. 24 was the most recent event in a series of demonstrations beginning in 2014 that were in response to university budget processes condemned by some members of the U of M community.

Protesters have demanded better treatment of international students by the university since the university approved differential fee hikes in their 2015-16 budget.

In a situation which has escalated since the university announced scaling back faculty and departmental budgets by up to four per cent in November 2014, students, staff, faculty members, and other university stakeholders are among those who have criticized the university for what they called lack of consultation and notification prior to modifying financial and academic requirements for international students.

International students pushing back against the administration’s policies – namely, differential minimum entrance requirements for specific degree programs and the fee hikes – joined forces with the Stop the Cuts coalition at the U of M, heavily supported by the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba (CFS-Manitoba) and the University of Manitoba Student Action Network.

CFS-Manitoba chairperson Michael Barkman told the Gradzette that the purpose of the latest rally was to keep budgetary issues on the public’s radar and in the minds of university administration and board members.

Although the university is working to meet the needs of international students, Barkman said that upfront affordability and predictability of tuition costs remain central to their demands on the administration.

Some students feared that speaking out against university policy could lead to expulsion.

“There are a lot of people who are unsure about what their educational future is going to be when they raise their voices,” said Barkman. He cited this as the chief reason CFS-Manitoba is working with international students, domestic students, and non-students at the U of M to “create solidarity and strength in numbers.”

Inflated issues

The University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association (UMGSA) backs the collective interests of graduate students, regularly dealing with specific issues faced by individual international graduate students. UMGSA president Kristjan Mann said the graduate student organization has worked with the Stop the Cuts coalition on a case-by-case basis, but, “in every case, fully supports a student’s right to positive social and political activism.”

His biggest concern with regards to the issue at hand was the sudden cost jumps handled by international students, coupled with the worry that further increases could hit at any time.

“One’s academic goals can be hard enough to achieve without increased financial pressure from within academia itself – in particular, when the costs associated with your program increase unexpectedly, part-way through.”

On a positive note, Mann said, the university is pouring a large portion of the fee revenue into resources specifically geared towards international students, while adding that this move does not justify the sudden nature of the hikes.

Mann said that the administration’s predicament is made worse because universities continue to be squeezed out of public investment at the provincial and federal levels. He argued that increased governmental support is required – particularly in order for universities to meet the diverse needs of international students without putting the added financial burden onto students.

“While there has been some noteworthy provincial support for specific capital campaigns of late, what is needed is an annual increase in the university’s operating grant, over and above inflation, and more long-term,” Mann said, offering a backhanded criticism of the province’s $150-million commitment to the U of M’s Front and Centre campaign at the expense of restoring more conventional yearly allowances.

In 2009, the Manitoba NDP government lifted their province-wide tuition freeze, and in 2012 they capped tuition increases at the rate of inflation for domestic students under the Protecting Affordability for University Students Act.

International students and students in college and professional programs are exempt from financial regulations outlined in the provincial act, meaning that universities can raise their fees at will.

Rising costs do not appear to have hindered international enrolment numbers at the university. As part of targeted strategies, international student enrolment at the U of M has seen a staggering 80 per cent rise since 2009. In 2014, the university hosted an undergraduate student population of 3,399 (13.4 per cent of the total student population) and 1,007 graduate students (27.1 per cent) from over 100 countries.

The university claims that raised fees and higher enrolment mean that the institution could rack up an overall $7.6 million in revenue.

International graduate students speak out

Although various university stakeholders are working in their own capacities to ensure academic and university services are available to international students, some graduate students feared that undergraduates might be prioritized at the expense of graduate students.

Mohsen Broumand, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, echoed this point, citing his own particular concerns as a graduate student from Iran.

Broumand said that he understood financial pressures on the university, naming inflation and increased operating expenses as some likely reasons for tuition hikes, but did not agree with the sudden surcharge imposed on international students.

“Maybe they can find other sources of money to compensate other than getting it from the students in tuition fees,” Broumand said.

Broumand said his academic endeavors at the U of M are financially backed by his adviser, meaning tuition is covered, and the remaining money pays for rent and other expenses.

“So [rising tuition is] not a big deal for me […] but for other students who maybe don’t have financial support, it would be a bigger matter for them.”

Broumand is among peers who are supported by funding from their advisers and the University of Manitoba Graduate Fellowship, which awards funds to eligible PhD and master’s students (valued at $18,000 and $14,000, respectively) with a GPA of 3.75 or higher, regardless of citizenship.

“I can survive on this money,” Broumand said. “I can’t say that I can save much money, but I can survive.”

His biggest concern was related to job prospects after completing his PhD. Broumand said he is looking for specific opportunities, such as workshops or courses that he can take to connect with prospective employers and line up work for after graduation.

In terms of changes to international graduate student supports, Broumand said that, for him, so far nothing has changed since the fee hikes were implemented.

Feature photo: Bystanders look on as members of the university community protest budget cuts and fee hikes for international students. Photo by Dana Hatherly.

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