January 23, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 63  

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NEWS

Student fees: why we’re stuck with the bill
Are user fees fair or are they a cash grab?

By Anton Vidgen
Gazette Staff

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 their wallets.

“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 said.

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 said.

 

 

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