Student fees: why we’re stuck with the bill
Are user fees
fair or are they a cash grab?
By Anton Vidgen
Need a copy of your transcript? $10. Applying to medical school?
$75. Paying your tuition late because you had no cash at the
beginning of the year? Get ready to pay up to $100.
Even though tuition fees are at their highest level in decades,
students are paying more and more in additional fees to pay
for services the government has traditionally refused to cover.
University administrators across the province have been left
with little option but resorting to ancillary and user fees
to provide students with basic services, from psychological
counselling to processing applications
In most cases, students have almost no choice but to empty
“We believe there is a limit to what students can pay
for,” said Mark Sellars, general manager of the University
Students’ Council, which receives some of its funding
from student fees. “Trying to determine that limit is
by very nature, very arbitrary,” he said, adding the
USC attempts to gauge what the average student can afford and
allocate funds accordingly.
All of the fees that students pay at Western are approved
by the Board of Governors, the university’s top decision-making
body. Over 200 fees — ranging from $6 for a fax fee to
$5,963 for a dental kit — were listed on Western’s
website as of Jan. 21, 2003. Once approved, the fees are likely
to stay, as no individual review of the prices takes place,
said Roma Harris, Western’s vice-provost and registrar.
Though the university re-evaluates its costs every budget
season, Harris said user fees typically fund supplemental services
not covered by the base operating budget. She also acknowledged
that the costing process can get quite complicated.
“Trying to cost a service in a precise manner is challenging,” Harris
said, explaining that providing a transcript involves more
than just the ink and paper it is printed on.
Besides the basic cost breakdown, she said the Office of the
Registrar takes into account student expectations of the service,
how much other universities charge (in part because students
would complain if, say, Queen’s charged less for a transcript),
and what it takes to “get the job done properly.”
But USC science councillor Arzie Chant said the university “surreptitiously” comes
up with its costs, adding there are probably fees that should
not be there. “A lot of the policies are unjustifiable
except in terms of getting them more money,” he said. “They’re
nickel-and-diming for sure.”
Chant also explained that he was able to get a fee dropped
after much lobbying and help from the USC. Students eligible
to receive orphan benefits from the Government of Canada previously
paid $5 for their application to be certified by the registrar’s
office. “What they’re in effect doing is making
a profit from death.”
However, Harris defended the user fees, saying they were required
to deliver the service in the first place. “If we charge
less, we’ll have to deliver a lower level of service,” she
said, adding everyone is treated equally with the system — you
cannot pay more to get better service.
“We have a universal system: everybody pays the same
fees,” said Susan Grindrod, associate vice-president
of housing and ancillary services. “I think it’s
a fair system.”
The current system does not necessarily allow for students
who are in difficult financial circumstances to get their fees
waived or lowered, Grindrod said. Even if this were to be considered,
every student would have to be financially assessed by a “means
test,” which Grindrod argues is too expensive. “It
would cost more money than the result would justify.”
Will fees continue to increase and multiply in the future?
The answer is probably yes, unless other funding sources can
be found. “I don’t think the government will come
up with money to fund ancillary units any time soon,” Grindrod
But Dave Ross, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Training,
Colleges and Universities, said upcoming provincial budget
consultations would provide an ideal forum for students to
demand the funding of ancillary fees. “The students really
are the ones who have the power to change things,” he