#ReasonsToResist at UBC: Tuition and Housing

This is Part One of a Three-Part series from The Talon on Reasons to Resist at UBC.

The focus of this series is to reflect and extend the current state of activism on campus, by evidencing yet more potential issues related to financial and negotiating power at the University. It is by no means intended to cover all legitimate grievances, and even in the areas on which it focuses, it should be taken as nothing more than what it is: the angry research of a debt-encrusted grad student.

This series wishes to provide some more of that ‘history’ that was allegedly made at last month’s AGM. While the quorum and votes achieved were impressive feats that should be recognized and lauded, I fear they may not mean what many think they should, when compared to other significant events in UBC’s history of political action. My aim is not to critique any specific student or activist’s rhetoric or actions, but to place UBC student activism and negotiations with institutions related to campus life in historical context.

Everyone working to stop implementation of the current tuition and housing proposals should be both angered and inspired by a fuller understanding of the institutional profiteering that has occurred throughout recent BC education history. As students, these things have often happened in our name, or allegedly for our good, and wherever they haven’t been for students, we should demand to know why.

While we should never overlook the struggles of faculty, staff, and policy-makers involved in campus life or the general project of public education, we should nonetheless keep in mind that these concerns involve students, that students are apparently why these changes are being made in the first place. Regardless of how profitable drug trademarks, or materials research, or industry studies, or business consultation may be for a campus or their corporate partners, education begins and ends with students. We should be unafraid to speak up loudly when it is failing us, when we are being forced out of it, or when it threatens to keep us in debt  for decades.


Bo0xxvPCUAA289-Image by @MediatedReality, 2014

Reason #1. Let’s get this first point out of the way: Education is a right, explicitly affirmed by the federal government when Canada ratified the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (proposed in 1966; ratified by Canada in May 1976), which states under Article 13c: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (emphasis added). We need to assert this right, and remind the University and the government that our education is not a privilege or a commodity, but something they should be actively working to make free and accessible for all. Every time education costs increase, regardless of how many can afford it, there is always someone who can’t.

Reason #2. While domestic students regularly face increasing costs at UBC, international students get screwed way more by comparison. For all programs UBC currently offers to both domestic and international students, domestic tuition averages $6,003.09 per year, and international averages $27,331.57 per year. This is over 365% more expensive, and still doesn’t cover student fees, supplies, housing, or food.  UBC has a decades-long history of financially bleeding international students dry to subsidize their budgets as education funding is cut, regardless of their profits or budget surpluses. More recently, domestic students have gradually been drawn further into this same mess.

Reason #3. In the 2001-02 school year, with a 5% tuition rollback, domestic tuition averaged $2,181 per year. And, as the administration often contends, UBC has had one of the lowest tuition rates in Canada. This was because of a government-mandated tuition freeze since 1996. When the tuition freeze was lifted by the incoming BC Liberal government in 2002, tuition rates were raised by 22% for the 2002-03 school year. Second-year-entry programs had their tuition raised by 40-50%.

Reason #4. The same year the tuition freeze was removed, UBC raised the expected tuition of incoming MBA students by 300%, from $7,000 to $28,000. This led twelve former MBA students to sue UBC for breach of contract. The University’s lawyer admitted students were sent admission emails with a $7,000 tuition quote, but they also contained a disclaimer saying the University held the right to change fees at any time without notice. The lawsuit was dismissed by a BC Supreme Court judge in 2004. Six plaintiffs appealed the case in 2005, but the BC Court of Appeal dismissed that too.

Reason #5. For the 2003-04 school year, tuition was raised yet another 20-30% or more, depending on the program. Students were notified of the increase and were asked for their input and consultation just a few days before the end of the prior term.

Reason #6. For the 2004-05 school year, tuition was raised another 16% or more. From 1990 to 2005, domestic tuition had risen 169%, averaging an increase of over 11% a year.

Reason #7. In 2005, at the behest of a campaign by the Canadian Federation of Students, a Speech from the Throne stated tuition would be capped to the rate of inflation, rising about 2% every year. But this wouldn’t stop the old, rehashed tactic of raising student fees to pay for debts incurred by the University.

Reason #8. At the start of the 2009-10 school year, presumably after consultation with the newly formed SDS1, the University lobbied the provincial government to try to “selectively relax” the 2% tuition increase cap “for certain professional programs.”

Reason #9. The creation of the new Bachelor of International Economics (BIE) degree program is a good example of just how egregious these professional program proposals can become when UBC isn’t allowed to “selectively relax” tuition caps. Instead, they simply make new programs where they can set the tuition rate from scratch. The BIE program was first priced in the summer of 2012 (p. 7) at 7% above Sauder’s Bachelor of Commerce program, which would have made it around $7,600 a year for domestic students. Then the SDS got involved, and quite quickly, the proposed price became $10,000 a year for domestic and $29,000 for international students.

Reason #10. That September, AMS requested that the Board of Governors (BoG) consult students over the high price of the BIE program, but the BoG decided to keep the $10,000 price tag anyways, making that decision just two months later. Consider also that the University also told The Ubyssey that they “responded to students’ concerns in the consultation by allowing domestic BIE students to apply for the general pool of university financial aid — something that usually isn’t allowed for higher-priced degree programs. ‘The university made an exception for this program,’ said Angela Redish, UBC’s Vice Provost,” who “played a major role in designing the program.” After further meetings and urging by the AMS, the BoG finally decided to cut the BIE tuition to $7,670 a year for domestic and $26,939 for international students, still slightly above the first proposed “Sauder + 7%.” But in case you’re wondering, they were not compromising on revenues. They just added more seats in the program to make up the lost money. Oh, and they made sure loan programs will be made available to international students pursuing a BIE too.

Reason #11. UBC has a principle to cover 25-30% of institutional costs by tuition, but this load certainly isn’t carried equally across all programs. It’s probably necessary for more profitable programs to subsidize less profitable ones, but is it reasonable for the BIE program to cover 130% of its costs with tuition, as was attempted? Even the original “Sauder + 7%” price expected to bring in upwards of $5.4 million a year in revenue over the program’s costs, almost exclusively from international students’ tuition (p. 25). Vice Provost Redish also defended the BIE program’s high cost by suggesting it was needed in order to pay for the expensive Sauder professors, who will help out with teaching in the new program. But somehow, Sauder professors already teach their own classes with considerably lower tuition. President Toope defended the original 30% profit-over-cost BIE proposal, regardless of existing, cheaper economics or commerce programs offered on campus, by characterizing it as an attempt at a “balanced proposal that was cost-defensible.”

Reason #12. Of course, it’s not like the Sauder Business School runs perfectly either (aside from their student culture, I mean). In 2010, not only were Commerce students forced into a $500 fee increase to whittle down the $20 million mortgage used to pay for the Sauder building project, but the BoG also suddenly added a whole additional phase of Sauder renovations that was not part of the original plan. Where did the funds for this additional phase come from? The $24 million Sauder already had in reserves when they raised student fees to pay their mortgage.

Reason #13. UBC is making a tradition out of creating exclusive, cash-grab programs offering premium-tier education and resources in a field in which UBC already offers a degree. It happened with the BIE, and it’s happening again with the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs (MPPGA) program, a proposed replacement for the Master of Arts (Asia Pacific Policy). If approved with the current quoted tuition, it would easily be one of the most expensive programs on campus. While still a new proposal, the MPPGA has already secured their flickr account.

Reason #14. These new “professionally” priced programs, including the Master of Urban Design and Master of Law in Taxation programs, are often priced without student consultation. This happens in spite of existing policy requiring all new program proposals where “tuition is different from standard tuition” to seek student consultation. Additionally, the highest level of the fee and tuition change approval process leaves much to be desired.

Reason #15. Now with Vantage College getting underway, what could have been a great educational program to help students with academic skill but lacking in English fluency, looks to some like more of the expensive, professional clubs for wealthy kids to increase UBC revenue that we’ve seen before. The $30,000 price tag for an 11-month program pegs it as about tied with the Medical Laboratory Science program ($30,398) for the 3rd most expensive first-year program on campus for international students, behind the 12-Month Education program ($47,998) and the Nursing program ($38,398). And only 7% of tuition will go to financial aid. I haven’t been able to dig too much into this yet, but I’m sure there’s something more to be found, considering the fact that it started at least 2 years ago as the “Bridge to UBC” program (then known a year ago as the “International College”), with the involvement of the same Vice Provost Angela Redish at least partly responsible for the BIE program and its tuition debacle.

It’s very enriching to open up a provincial university to international students, and to create  programs that enable cross-pollination of people, ideas, and cultures around the world. When you are a public university that systematically fails to consult with or engage the needs of your students (whether domestic or international) however, it can be very detrimental to instead implement a new, exclusionary program that channels students, who wouldn’t otherwise be enrolled, into the University at “professional” pricing levels, while at the same time raising student housing prices, and standard international tuition. Not only is this poor economic policy, especially if previous provincial or federal funding levels ever return, but it also plays into the existing xenophobic and racist narratives on campus that conflate class with race. Sensationalist articles certainly don’t help with that.

Reason #16. In the 2014-15 central budget for UBC’s Vancouver campus, $20 million of the $21 million in revenue growth set to be generated comes from domestic and international tuition (Slide 14). In the 2013-14 budget, it was $7 million of the $8 million revenue growth (Slide 17). The high cost and stress at UBC have led some current students to look elsewhere for wage-increasing skills, until they happen to be saved by the University kindly acting as a sort of angel investor. “‘UBC recognizes that we want to provide access to education as much as possible for this [youth in government care] community,’ said Darran Fernandez, associate director of enrolment services for UBC.”


HousingPriceMapImage by UBC Insiders/UBC Student Housing Demand Survey, 2014

Reason #17. Much of the housing on the land which UBC occupies became exempt from the Residential Tenancy Act of BC starting in 2004, stripping students of many of the renter’s rights and protections typically associated with housing contracts in the province.

Reason #18. Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS) is technically a financially separate, cost-neutral program, causing many to believe that 100% of students’ payments go to providing a proportionate return in housing services. It’s true that all costs are covered by student rent, but those costs include internal loans SHHS must legally take from UBC (they are prohibited from using external lenders), and the 5.75% interest on these loans (p. 14). This means student rent doesn’t all go to student housing, but instead a portion is siphoned off by monopolistic funding policies to other University projects. “In the 2011/2012 financial year, SHHS interest and debt repayments to the University were projected to be in excess of $26 million, out of total SHHS costs of $77 million. While $8 million was to pay back money that was borrowed, just under $18 million, or approximately 23%, was for interest payments alone” (emphasis added).

Reason #19. This internal debt obligation is in addition to the financial dividend SHHS is required to contribute to UBC’s central budget: a minimum of $4 million a year, though this is by no means a maximum. The AMS calculates that student rent could be lowered by $600 a year if this profit requirement were removed (p. 13).

Reason #20. The currently proposed 20% housing cost increase, allegedly to pay for housing, comes in spite of former President Toope’s long-term plan to lower SHHS’s dividend by millions to pay for Ponderosa (Slide 5), and UBC raising housing costs by 7.5% in 2010 to help pay for the new rooms in Totem, and the Ponderosa and Law housing.

Reason #21. This 20% increase will generate $6.5 million a year in new revenue for the University.

Reason #22. Regarding this increase, VP Academic and University Affairs Anne Kessler stated, “I have had a couple of meetings this year already with Andrew Parr, the head of Student Housing and Hospitality Services about the contract and the answer has been absolutely no to any changes that we suggested at all” (p. 5).

Reason #23. From the start, UBC’s recent Housing Action Plan (HAP) has been ridiculed for providing lip service and some over-priced, market or near-market housing. Preliminary surveys failed to consider full-time staff making under $40,000 annually. Consultations came and went, with campus residents urged to choose which pre-set plan they desired, without any budgets or schedules for any of the plans. Editors at The Ubyssey, your official student media, were unaware at the time that UBC’s housing operates for-profit.

Reason #24. The HAP was re-announced in 2012 with a series of platitudes, but little of substance for students. UBC Insiders called it a “Plan to do nothing on student housing affordability.” The plan consists largely of trying to lobby the provincial government to increase student loan borrowing limits and shelter allowances, not to lower student housing costs on campus, nor to address the current for-profit student housing financial structure.

Reason #25. The HAP sets aside only up to 30% of all new housing being built as rental units (p. 14). Of those new rental units, 67% are to be reserved for faculty and staff, leaving only about 10% of total new housing to be rentable by students. The only new student housing made explicit in the plan are the 1,116 beds approved for the Ponderosa Housing Hub (p. 6), the development permit for which was already filed before formulation of the HAP, and for the northern section of the mixed use Gage South area to be developed for 12-month, graduate student and post-doctoral fellow housing (p. 19). (Which was originally another disastrous plan for market housing that students had to resist.) They painted the HAP as a “huge boost” to student housing.

Reason #26. This mere 10% of new housing for students comes about while UBC aimed to house at least 45% of full-time students (p. 8), but as of the end of 2011, only housed 27% of them (p. 6). Currently, over 45% of students commute 40+ minutes to campus, and 43% of students living off-campus say they would live on-campus if they could (p. 8). Coincidentally, 10% is the same amount of students on the housing waitlist. There is obviously massive demand for student housing, which is why it’s even more important for us to pay even closer attention to how they address this need: Price gouging is only viable when demand is kept very high.

Reason #27. The new student housing at the Ponderosa Housing Hub was projected to cost $745-$900 a month, but currently runs $816-$1,071, putting it out of reach of many of UBC’s students. Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS) has defended their pricing with the same old market rate arguments they’ve always used.

Reason #28. It might require so much to pay for the Ponderosa housing because the roughly $150 million in internal loans for it (p. 6) makes for about $7-8 million a year in interest payments alone, at the previously quoted 5.75% rate. Payments on this debt will be made with student rent, with some help from cafe sales and fitness gym charges. Meanwhile, UBC is concerned about deferred maintenance costs to infrastructure equaling 16% of the total cost of university buildings (Slides 6-7).

Reason #29. While faculty and staff get considerable affordability, access, and rental protections (p. 15-16), [equity shares masquerading as] interest free loans and mortgage assistance (p. 15), as well as early access priority for new housing sales (p. 17), the only explicit policy to be implemented for student housing supply is lip service: “to increase on-campus dedicated student housing supply.” This isn’t to claim staff or faculty shouldn’t get these benefits (and UBC even clawed back some of them later), but instead to highlight how UBC differentially provides and backs its rhetoric to different campus demographics. Of course, they have a solid history of wavering in the follow-up to their rhetoric with students: “…to provide the capacity to build enough student housing for 50% of the 2010 full-time student population, provided there is student demand and financial capacity” (emphasis added).

Reason #30. UBC has handed out at least $11.8 million in interest-free mortgages to administrators and faculty. While this “standard practice” itself shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the HAP, the individual mortgage amounts are much smaller in that plan (p. 15), and these larger figures took a Freedom of Information request to get.

Reason #31. It is possible that Vice Provost Redish is overstating her projected figure of 1,500 new student beds expected by 2017 by including (and failing to mention) the approximately 1,000 beds already planned for Orchard Commons, largely housing for Vantage College.

Reason #32. Mischa Frances Milne, member of the Residence Hall Association (RHA), says, “Although the university’s policy on tuition increases includes a 30-day consultation period, there is no similar opportunity in regard to residence fee increases from Student Housing. When Andrew Parr met with RHA on October 6th, it was to present the proposed increases as a decision that had already been made.”

Reason #33. Despite students’ vocal needs, there is a well-established history of UBC proposing housing and redevelopment plans that students must loudly protest in order to even have a say in the process, never mind to stop the plan. Just from recent history: University Town/UTown@UBC, University Blvd/U-Blvd, their condos, and the underground bus loop fit this bill. To add insult to injury, Campus + Community Planning has repeatedly left many thousands of students off of their Regional Context Statements, leading me to wonder how much of the province is actually aware of the number of students living on campus.

I am happy to hear that 500 students voted for the AMS to help protest housing and tuition hikes (until they’re passed or the Board of Governors relents). However, when I am told “this is historic,” I am led to question why the thousands of students that have voted for years for the AMS to push for tuition reduction, or the countless other efforts on campus partially highlighted here, have been erased from this history. Besides organizing a few rallies or marches, what assurances have been given that this will be at all different from the AMS’s standing policy to oppose any tuition increase over 2% (which would be illegal anyway), and to lobby the province for additional education funding since at least 2009? Their current resolutions allow for some outreach funds to do just that, and hopefully implement a more effective advocacy system towards the province, but even then, the AMS’s support won’t mean much in the absence of a sustainable movement. Without additional negotiating power, in the form of an active community ready to protest in surprising numbers and unexpected ways, the BoG have no reason to back down.

This is why students in this struggle need a wide range of actions and rhetoric performed by many different individuals and groups. A 500-something person AGM vote and a few protests aren’t going to change what years of 10,000-something student votes and several protest campaigns haven’t.

We need something different from the same beats student protests have hit at UBC for years. This article series, a list of potential rallying points for student action at UBC, should not overwhelm or discourage any organizing activities. Rather, we should find in such daunting and widespread challenges a common bond unifying all students: a need in every student to resist the continual, on-going, organized efforts of the established order to gradually deprive us of the safe, constructive, and accessible education to which we have a right.

There has been a wealth of activism related to campus issues in recent history alone, but if you don’t search it out or spread it yourself, it’s easy to miss. In a university, students’ institutional memory often changes over about once every 4 years with graduating students, so a strong, active effort is required to inform incoming students. So how will these efforts look for the 2014-15 year? Do we need raucous sit-ins again? Teachins? Walkouts? Strikes? Pickets? Petitions? Or yet another Great Trek to “Build the University” that we need? Do we need to fill the ranks of the Social Justice Centre? Or do we need to remember The Knoll publications? Or the knoll protests to stop the underground bus loop? Or Trek Park? Or the Students for a Democratic Society (the other SDS)? Or should we look to those who have a stronger recent track record than us?

I must leave these decisions to the collectives of students and organizers on the frontlines. But there is one incredibly important point that Alex Mierke-Zatwarnicki and Gabriel D’Astous have made in The Ubyssey, rarely spoken on campus, that must be reiterated in as many ways as possible:

Anyone fearful of the AMS taking on a more active role in student protests, worried of losing negotiating power, is forgetting how student governance should work. Your union gains its power, whatever it uses it for, through its members. The AMS is your student union, and in an ideal model of student governance, it would be through the AMS that students would organize protest campaigns and have their say in UBC negotiations and policy. This is how all labour unions work, student or otherwise. Said negotiations mean nothing without students, essential cogs in the knowledge worker industry, prepared to use their knowledge to disrupt and speak out if the University says no to their demands. Use your union to manifest your collective will, as far as it will enable you. But if it fails you, or gets in your way, go around it.

Regardless of whether we have the support of the AMS or not, students need to re-discover the long tradition of resistance continuing on campus, and they should find in that enough reasons to come together with fellow students to loudly and visibly protect their rights from this profit-generating public institution.

Maybe I’ll see you at the AMS protest. I still have a bag of red squares from a couple years ago to hand out.

Video by Ian MacKenzie

Video by Jordan Boschman

If you have something that should be added to this list, spread it on Facebook or Twitter with #ReasonsToResist, or just all over campus with old-school flyers, wheatpaste, or tags. Or, stuff executive and administrator mailboxes with reasons why you don’t condone their actions.

  1.  The Strategic & Decision Support (SDS) unit was formed within the UBC Treasury in April 2009, offering many advisory services on financial, business, and organizational matters. Part of this includes requiring consultation with the SDS on any new program proposals, in order to formulate and review proposed funding.