The elegant boardroom on the fifth floor of VIU’s library is where the school’s board of governors usually meets. It’s empty these days, but on February 27, 2020, the room was packed. The board members sat in their usual places at the long table, ready to begin. At the back of the room stood concerned international and domestic VIU students and VIU Students’ Union representatives, some forced to line the walls due to the lack of space.
The board of governors had to decide whether to pass a proposed restructuring to VIU’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, which it ultimately voted through. The change saw an increase of anywhere from 9–45 percent in MBA student tuition, due to a merging of different MBA streams. This means students who have enrolled in the program since the 2020 fall semester pay 9–45 percent more than their 2019 peers because they don’t have the same options.
Many of the students seeing this increase are international. More VIU international students enrolled in the MBA program than any other in 2019/20, with the Bachelor of Business Administration program the third most popular.
At the board meeting, the VIU Students’ Union (VIUSU) gave a presentation that highlighted the risk of unregulated hikes to international student tuition, stating the ever-increasing reliance on these fees was unsustainable, and unfair to international students. What if they decide not to come to VIU because the price is too steep, they asked.
What if something prevents them from coming?
VIU’s Provost and Vice-President Academic Dr. Carol Stuart said VIU’s international student headcount is down about 34 percent compared to last January, before the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Domestic student headcount is down 13 percent. VIU, along with most post-secondary institutions across BC and Canada, will run a deficit this year because of slashed school tuition revenue, Stuart added. The size of VIU’s deficit is yet to be released.
Yashraj Detha came to VIU in 2019 to study business, excited and nervous for life in a new country. Now, just two years later, he’s back home in India after deciding against continuing to pay $9200 per semester for his online courses. Detha was already having trouble deciding the direction of his education and finding the funds to pay for it—throw in a pandemic, and the choice to put his learning on hold was made for him.
“International fees [are] already way too high,” he said over a Zoom call. There are also added stresses on international students, he said, that domestic students don’t have to face. Getting nearly $10k ready for the next school term is hard to do for most, even in the best of times.
International students can be forced to pay multiple times the tuition of domestic students for their education, said a 2018 research document from the BC Federation of Students (BCFS). Across BC post-secondary institutions, international students make up just shy of one fifth of enrollment, while their share of tuition fees generates almost half of tuition-related revenue.
Raising the funds needed for these high tuition costs was and is especially difficult in light of the pandemic. Since student visas restrict international students from working more than 20 hours a week, international students usually rely heavily on financial help from home. As the global economy crashed, many international students’ family members lost their jobs, putting students’ main sources for funding their tuition in question. All they could do was watch as domestic students received government emergency funds, which international students are not eligible for.
Detha said that during the summer months, he had to work hard to get back on his feet financially. He also acknowledges the sacrifices families of many international students make to afford sending their children away for an education in a different country.
“My father lost his job for a while,” Detha said. “How am I going to pay for my fees for the next semester when there’s an uncertainty for my parents to have a job? It’s all those things you are continuously trying to fight in order to complete your education.”
With institutions like VIU desperate for funds, international students are in even more financial jeopardy, VIUSU Chairperson McKenzie Hutchison said.
“International students [are] at a high risk of being the people to pay the cost for the institutions’ deficits,” she said.
Unlike domestic students, there is no cap on tuition increases for international students. Domestic student tuition was regulated in BC in 2005 and is currently limited to a two percent annual increase, according to the BCFS document. As it stands, institutions can increase international tuition at any time by any amount, though VIU has maintained a fairly regular two-year schedule for increases. The 2021-2022 year falls in line for an increase, meaning the MBA increase in 2020 was a decision made out of sync with the schedule.
Unscheduled and unregulated increases can make financial planning nearly impossible for international students trying to complete their education. Students can make sure they have enough to meet current tuition prices, and even plan for substantial increases every couple years, but changes like the MBA program update can leave students scrambling.
The BCFS document stated that “tuition fee levels are based on whatever the institution deems required to balance its budget … often result[ing] in students struggling to stay in BC to finish their studies.”
“Now that the pandemic has hit,” Hutchison said, “people see the direct consequence of exactly what we were talking about. People see what it is like to have students just drop out of classes because they don’t want to be online; institutions are seeing what it means to have international students just go home and not be in school.”
Financial aid and mental health support are still needed for the students that remain. For VIUSU, this means creating a virtual community through online events and the new VIUSU App. The union’s goal is to foster a new sense of connection, especially for those whose family and friends may be thousands of kilometres away.
VIUSU also donated an emergency aid fund of $75k to the VIU Foundation, which was distributed quickly to help students before student aid from the government became available. The money is part of the nearly $500k that has been sent out to students to date through the VIU Foundation’s emergency bursary program.
Dr. Carol Stuart recognizes the financial bind many international students are in, and commends VIUSU and other donors on their swift contributions. She said over $56k has been distributed to international students through emergency bursaries. Care packages have also been delivered to all students living in VIU residences and in homestay, many of whom are international, and student support service hours are extended so students in different time zones can have better access to counsellors.
Stuart confirms the main reason for VIU’s deficit is the reduction of revenue, with student tuition the major factor. While the institution has reduced its expenses during the pandemic, the savings don’t make up for the lost revenue.
She said the decision to redesign the MBA program was a necessary one to streamline the options students had. Previously, the program was separated into a pre-MBA, an MBA, and an optional internship. The restructure combined them, requiring “a very careful look at the tuition fees,” she said.
Simplifying the program, Stuart added, will remove unneeded stress from international students unsure of which component they want or need to complete their MBA.
VIU is also implementing a shift from a per program model to a per credit model for its international students, effective September 2021. The change will bring the international model in line with the existing model for domestic students, so international students will no longer pay a set program fee.
VIU believes the model change will benefit students, giving them more flexibility in how they structure their education.
“Previously, if international students were taking three courses—nine credits—they would be paying the same amount as if they were taking five [courses], which … creates a certain amount of pressure to take five [courses],” Stuart said.
In an email to international students regarding the upcoming year, VIU said an increase in tuition for most international students will accompany the model change.
The increase for those still taking a full five-course load is about $30 per credit, or $450 for a full 15-credit semester, but Stuart said for international students who want to extend their program past the customary four years, there may be a decreased cost overall because they’re not paying the full program fee plus additional semesters.
Institutions such as VIU have had little financial help from the BC government in recent years, which has led to a reliance on international student tuition fees, Tanysha Klassen, Chairperson of the BCFS, said.
“In the last 20 or so years, the amount of funding for institutions has gone down dramatically,” she said.
Today, government funding makes up around 50 percent of BC post-secondary institutions’ revenue, with the other half coming from charged fees, including tuition. In the 1970s, that ratio was more like 90 percent government funding, 10 percent fees. There was around an 80/20 split in the ’80s and ’90s.
Klassen and the BCFS are pushing the BC government to include $200 million in new funding in an upcoming financial review the government has promised. Klassen wants to see the education system return to a public one rather than its present reliance on student fees. Province-wide post-secondary deficits are a sign that the system we have now isn’t working.
Currently, however, institutions’ revenue options are limited.
“The only other way these … public institutions can get funding is through tuition fees,” Klassen said. “There was a period of time where domestic tuition fees were unregulated, so institutions could jack up the prices … which they did. They increased around 200 percent in a matter of years in the early 2000s.”
She said that once the two percent cap was introduced on domestic tuition fees, institutions had to look elsewhere to make up that loss—and international students took the hit.
“Institutions often operate thinking about their bottom line and often forget why they exist in the first place, which is to serve students and be a place where students can get a quality education,” Klassen said. “This pandemic shouldn’t be making them double down on their reliance on international student tuition fees.”
Stuart agrees that the slashes in government funding have been substantial. VIU’s revenue is about 40 percent government funding and 40 percent student fees, with the remainder coming from contracts and donations.
“Government funding has not really kept up with the costs for the institution,” Stuart said. “And they’ve also capped [domestic] tuition for us, so we’ve had to find alternative ways—through donations and contracts and so on to fund the work that we do.”
She doesn’t believe, however, that VIU is taking advantage of unregulated international tuition fees to help in the financial recovery plan.
“Definitely not. VIU has never really tried to make international students the solution to our financial woes. I don’t know that we have financial woes, but our deficit this year is very problematic,” Stuart said.
“Do we want our international students back? Absolutely, because they bring a real richness to our campus—it’s not just about the money that they bring. … They bring multicultural learning to the work that we do, to the experience that our domestic students have,” she said. “They are much more than their tuition.”
Detha wants to return to VIU to finish his degree, but doesn’t know what the future holds for him. People need to realize, he said, that international students don’t always have everything figured out.
“They have to go through a lot of things to just survive there,” he said. “So … just give them a fair shot. For me, I need that fair shot.”