Dal pursues predictable tuition hikes

Policy to address uncertainty faced by professional, international students

Students walk past the Weldon Law Building at Dalhousie
Students in law and other professional programs are among those not covered by the provincial tuition cap. Photo credit: Chris Putnam

A new policy in development by the Dalhousie University administration aims to make the process of scheduling tuition increases for professional and international students more fair.

The proposal would require the university to map out tuition increases for medicine, law, dentistry and international students several years in advance rather than year to year.

If approved, the change won’t necessarily mean lower fees for students of those programs, but it will stabilize tuition hikes and clarify the long-term cost of a degree.

International and professional program students, like other Dalhousie students, learn in April what their tuition will be in September. But while other students know their tuition increase will not exceed the provincially mandated three per cent cap, international students and students in law, dentistry and medicine are not covered by the cap. Since the provincial tuition freeze expired in 2010, they’ve contended with increases as high as 14 per cent – nearly $2,000 – in a single year.

“The amount that I thought I would be paying over the four years, it’s changed so much,” says Teresa Morrison, president of the Dalhousie Dental Students’ Society. In two years, the annual tuition for students in the doctor of dental surgery program has gone from $14,074 to $17,013.

On top of coping with the added debt burden from those increases, Morrison’s peers have to adjust their financial plans every summer, sometimes changing living arrangements or seeking additional loans.

“It would help for sure to know off the bat when you start school how much money you need to plan for,” Morrison says.

Complaints like these over the last two years made Dalhousie’s administration realize its process for determining fee increases “needed to be rethought,” says Carolyn Watters, the university’s vice-president academic and provost. “If we’re going to make extraordinary charges like that, then we have to have a clear rationale and a multi-year process.”

As the new policy is still in development, Watters wouldn’t speak to its specifics, including the number of years the university will determine tuition fees in advance. The policy is expected to go before Dalhousie’s board of governors on Feb. 19.

An extra burden

The high cost of delivering professional and international programs is one of the reasons the province chose not to cap tuition increases in these programs, wrote Minister of Advanced Education Marilyn More in a statement to UNews.

“Higher expected earnings for those with professional degrees helps to somewhat offset higher tuitions,” she added.

But some are questioning the fairness of this arrangement.

“Just picking three groups out and saying ‘Oh, we don’t care what you charge those’ is not really helpful. Nor is it fair. Nor is it easy to justify,” says Watters.

During times of deficit, tuition hikes are one of the simplest ways for a university to increase revenue. As shown in last month’s Budget Advisory Committee paper, once the three per cent limit on general tuition is reached, uncapped programs are one of the few places Dalhousie can turn to balance its budget.

It’s a heavy burden. The same budget paper shows that a one per cent tuition increase spread across all students generates $1.23 million in revenue for the university. To bring in the same revenue, tuition in one of the professional programs or the international student fee must be raised by about 10 per cent.

The argument that students on a professional degree path can easily afford such increases isn’t necessarily valid, students say.

“I don’t think people understand that when (med students) go into residency, we don’t make a ton of money,” says Luke Richardson, Dalhousie Medicine Students’ Society president. “You start out around $50,000, and then you’re working 120 hours a week, and if you’re going to be a neurosurgeon, you’re going to get paid that for six or seven years.”

Six-figure debt loads are now common for graduates of both medicine and dentistry programs in Canada. Morrison says that makes it much harder for today’s dentists to open their own practices.

“Nowadays, it almost seems as though dentistry is for the elite,” she says. “I’ve known of people who want to go into dentistry or medicine, but they just don’t have the funds.”

Law students, too, who find employment outside the major centres can’t necessarily expect to walk into high-paying jobs.

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education set the tuition cap in its three-year memorandum of understanding in 2012. The department hasn’t yet responded to a request for details on the criteria it used to determine which programs it would exclude from the cap. Morrison thinks the province should reconsider its decision using up-to-date debt and income statistics.

“Things have changed a lot compared to even 10 years ago,” she says.

Professional and international students will likely have a reprieve for at least one year. Watters has said Dalhousie is not anticipating any tuition hikes above three per cent this year.

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