On Feb. 27, the Selkirk College Board of Governors will vote on whether to once again increase tuition fee rates for the coming academic year. Students are reasonably agitated – the College has increased fees every year for over a decade. From 2008/09 to 2017/18, arts program tuition fees, on which average tuition fees are estimated, increased 19 percent at Selkirk College.
Tuition fees are a tax on students and their families. Post-secondary education means better jobs, lifting people in our community out of poverty, and cultural and scientific development. It is strange that, while the anti-tax thunder roars when corporate bottom lines are threatened, little seems to be made of the fact that students and their families face a tax hike every year.
To be clear, taxes are important. Taxes pay for the valuable public services that we depend on. From hospitals to roads to schools and more, we rely on the money we all pitch in off our paycheques to pay for public enterprises. However, our tax system leaves a lot to be desired. For much of BC’s recent history, the burden of paying for public enterprise has shifted toward the working class and away from the wealthy. From 1990 to 2015, tuition fees in British Columbia increased 300 percent. At Selkirk College, government funding accounted for only 59 percent of the institution’s revenue in 2017. Students and their families pay millions of dollars in tuition fees each year to Selkirk College, often by making hard sacrifices and by putting young people into debts amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
For many years, Selkirk College’s Board of Governors has pled poverty. The limited and insufficient stream of government funding, along with the expectation from government that tuition fees be increased, set the stage for the Board to act as if it had no alternative but to implement fee hikes. Although the Board of Governors is meant to represent the Kootenays and make decisions in the best interest of Selkirk College and our community, the majority of the Board of Governors are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor on advice of Executive Council – the BC government cabinet.
That the College would claim poverty as a reason to hike tuition fees is especially a sham this year, for two reasons. The first is that last year Selkirk College tacked on an additional fee that all students pay for mental health services. Mental health services would be a positive addition to campus, were they not bankrolled entirely by already over taxed students and the fact that the services never materialized. The second reason that the poverty argument is a sham is that Selkirk College ran more than $1 million over budget between research initiatives, administrative costs, and ancillary services last year. It seems to be a matter of priorities rather than ability to pay, as funds are made available for other expenses.
Tuition fees represent a significant financial barrier to attaining a post-secondary education, furthering employment prospects, and expanding social and scientific knowledge. The Bank of Montreal estimated that after an average 4-year degree program, a BC student could expect to walk away with $35,000 in debt. Over 10 years of repayment, former students will pay thousands of dollars more in interest – thousands of dollars in additional taxes – that only have to be paid by those who couldn’t afford a post-secondary education in the first place. The current funding arrangement for BC’s post-secondary system levies a hefty fine for being too poor to pay tuition fees outright.
One way Selkirk College has tried to keep its budget together, like almost every post-secondary institution in British Columbia, is to aggressively recruit international students. International students pay anywhere from three to five times the fees of domestic students. However, there are many reasons this funding model is a failure. Market changes in far off countries can rapidly impact the bottom line of the College, as students may not be able to pay. Further, the cost is simply more than the programs and services are worth in many regards, and that can damage the institution’s reputation. At a more principled level, it is frankly unneighbourly and selfish for Canadians to ask people from other, usually poorer, countries to pay for our education system. Last year, international students amounted to more than 20 percent of all students at the College.
The impact of high tuition fees and student debt is felt every day in the Kootenays. It can be felt as young people from the Kootenays leave the region to find work in the Lower Mainland or Alberta. It is every young family who is focused on paying down their student debt to Victoria and Ottawa, rather than taking out their first mortgage. It is a delay on graduate’s ability to invest in anything from buying a car to having children. For those who can’t afford to get in the door, it is working additional jobs and for lower pay.
Selkirk College is a foundational part of the Kootenays. As a source of knowledge, job training, employment, and community, the College provides an immeasurable benefit. It is time that tuition fees stop becoming an increasing barrier to the College’s profound positive impact.
Zachary Crispin is the Executive Director of the Selkirk College Students’ Union and formerly served as a member of the Selkirk College Board of Governors.
BC Post-Secondary Tuition Fees by EDR and Institution. DataBC. https://catalogue.data.gov.bc.ca/dataset/tuition-fees-for-arts-programs-at-b-c-public-post-secondary-institutions/resource/88ae3ce5-7283-42be-bb6d-06a8232abc9e
Financial Statements. Selkirk College. 31 March 2017. http://www.selkirk.ca/sites/default/files/Finance%20Reports/Selkirk%20College%20March%202017%20Financial%20Statements.pdf
2013 Bank of Montreal Student Survey. Bank of Montreal. https://newsroom.bmo.com/2013-08-13-2013-BMO-Student-Survey-Canadian-Students-Relying-Less-on-Family-to-Finance-Higher-Education