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Three for the price of five: flat fees make the rounds at U of T

Saturday, May 23, 2009

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Written by Greg Beneteau

The University of Toronto approved a controversial flat fee structure that would make incoming arts and science students pay for five courses, even if they only take three.

The university’s Governing Council passed a motion Wednesday night to phase in the plan, which would charge students the equivalent of five course credits if they take four or more courses starting this fall.

After September 2011, the flat fee would apply to students taking three or more courses, up to a maximum of six. The change would affect students taking arts and science courses at U of T’s St. George campus.

Sandy Hudson, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, decried flat fees as a “backdoor tuition increase” that would force students to pay up to 66 per cent more for courses they may not want to take.

"It is a barrier to accessing education; we are only allowing the richest minds to access certain programs," she said.

Hudson argued students from low-income backgrounds would be worst affected by flat fees, since they must take a minimum of three courses to be eligible for OSAP loans.

“Your choice is to either to pay for a five course load…. or drop down to part-time and not be able to receive loans at all,” she pointed out.

Hudson also accused the university of rushing the proposal through various levels of government, hosting meetings at the end of semester when student representatives were too busy with exams to attend.

The final vote on the flat fees proposal was held at U of T’s Mississauga campus, despite that fact the proposal doesn’t affect students there. When students organized a bus trip to the meeting, they found the stairwell blocked by police, Hudson said.

Responding to media inquiries, the University of Toronto said the meeting’s location was planned several months in advance was not designed to limit student protests.

Other universities in Ontario, including the University of Guelph, have a flat fee structure for students taking the equivalent of four or more courses. U of T has such a fee structure in programs like music, physical education, computer science and commerce, but the Faculty of Arts and Science (FASC) would be the first to lower the flat fee threshold to three courses.

Since the province funds post-secondary institutions per course taken rather than per student, U of T expects to generate an additional $9 and $14 million in annual revenue by encouraging full-time students to take a full course load.

The Toronto Star reported that Meric Gertler, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science (FASC) said the new flat fees were needed to address the faculty’s structural deficit, which stands between $5 and $7 million annually.

But when asked by thecannon why the flat fee was introduced, Gertler at first failed to mention FASC’s deficit. Instead, he said the flat fees were intended to save students money by getting them out of school faster.

“We’re doing them a service if we can get them through their program of study in four years… Not only does this get them into the working world and earning an income sooner or get them into graduate studies sooner, but it also does reduce their costs. It’s actually cheaper to do this in four years than it is to drag it out over five or six years.”

He also said students would benefit from a “more intensive learning experience” and that additional revenue generated by the fees used to improve the quality of education.

It was only after further questioning that Gertler admitted roughly half the money would be used to help FASC break even.

“We are indeed losing money on an annual basis,” he conceded. “Our revenue base is not adequate to cover the full cost of providing a quality education for our students, so yes, this is a way of correcting our structural budget problem.”

However, he added that FASC would spend $3 to $4 million of the revenue to hire an additional 17 faculty members and teaching aides, to deal with the anticipated increase in the number of students per course.

Gertler denied that flat fees would create a financial barrier, noting a minimum of $1.5 million would be put toward financial aid for students who can’t afford the new rates.

“It will be higher if there is a need, because the University of Toronto has a policy of ensuring access to all deserving student, despite financial resources,” he explained. Students with disabilities will also be exempt from paying the flat fees.

On Friday, U of T sent emails to 5000 prospective arts and science students to inform them of the new fee structure. The deadline for accepting university offers is May 28.

The University of Toronto Students’ union has filed a lawsuit against the university in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, alleging irregularities in the voting process. A judge is expected to hear arguments on July 10.

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