Volume 29 - Number 9 - Thursday, January 30, 1997

New fee structure presents challenges

by Eric Smith

The numbers are in, and although the provincial government's tuition fee structure eases some of the worst-case fears about levels for international students, it presents some very real challenges for McGill next year.

While the tuition levels for Quebec residents and all doctoral students will remain frozen, Canadian students enrolled in Bachelor's or Master's programs who don't meet the criteria for Quebec residency can expect an increase of $1,200, assuming a full course load of 30 credits.

For international students in medical, nursing, or paramedical programs, as well as those following courses in pure and applied science, the new structure calls for a tuition increase of $1,710 per year. International students in other programs will see an increase of $810 per 30-credit year.

McGill has yet to announce its own fee structure, and although the University may theoretically adopt different fees than those instituted by the government, provincial policy with respect to grant allocation severely restricts its margin of manoeuvre.

Were the University not to charge out-of-province students the differential amount, its provincial operating grant would be cut by that amount. Conversely, if McGill chose to charge Quebec residents the Canadian fee average of approximately $3,000, which it has been lobbying the government to institute, the University would again see its provincial grant cut by the same amount.

Since the provincial grant is disbursed to universities on a per-student basis, irrespective of their origin, McGill does not benefit from its higher ratio of out-of province students relative to other Quebec universities.

The fee increase does have an impact on the overall cut to the provincial system which is now anticipated to be $132 million instead of the earlier forecast of $150 million.

But whatever McGill's final announcement on its fee structure, the administration has already stated its commitment to increasing the resources allocated to student aid. And without additonal revenue from tuition, that money will have to come from other parts of the University.

Two trends explain the increased need for financial assistance for students. Across the country, interprovincial mobility of students has been declining, down nationally to 10 per cent of the student population from 25 per cent 10 years ago. Several provinces have new limits on financial aid to interprovincial students, and it is anticipated that Quebec's differential fee policy will contribute to the trend.

Student indebtedness is also reaching new levels throughout Canada. And although the problem has been less pronounced in Quebec where fees are lower, the newly imposed differential will have an impact on out-of-province and international students.

Currently 40 per cent of McGill students receive some form of government financial assistance. It is estimated that another 20 per cent receive other kinds of aid.

Chantal Da Silva, vice-president (external) of the Students' Society (SSMU), organized a Financial Awareness Week last week at McGill, to look at strategies for students to manage their money and increase their revenue to alleviate debt difficulties.

It's not uncommon, according to Da Silva, for students to graduate with "debt loads of $15,000, $20,000, even more than $30,000."

Among the reasons for the increase, she lists increased expenses related to education including the cost of books, and government cutbacks to financial aid. "The burden is getting put on students' shoulders," she said. And students' debt problems are compounded by the difficulty of finding well-paying jobs after graduation in the current economic climate.

Da Silva's concerns were echoed by Murray Baker, one of the speakers at the Financial Awareness Week and author of The Debt-Free Graduate. "Debt isn't something new," Baker said, "but it has increased so rapidly it's been getting out of hand over the last four or five years."

According to Baker, the rising debt load of Canadian students has an impact on the country's economy as a whole. Debt affects graduates' ability to "buy consumer goods, to travel, to start a family, to start a business, to start an RRSP." Baker added, "One of the biggest tragedies is that it affects students' ability to pursue the careers they want. More students are pursuing something they may not want to do but that will earn them more money after graduation.

"How is all of society going to be affected if we're raising a generation of students who are unable to drive the economy?" Baker asked. "Who will drive this economy?"

He went on to offer tips for minimizing debt. Among his chief concerns is many students' dependence on credit cards. Baker faulted credit institutions for targeting students in their marketing. "They move in during frosh week," he said. Baker called on students to stay as much as possible on the other side of the credit equation, investing summer earnings in short-term plans that earn interest and can be cashed in as lump sums at pre-determined times in the school year.

Judy Stymest, director of student aid at McGill, is familiar with some of the trouble students can get into with credit, but she added, "financial problems are as varied as people."

Her office will need to draw on additional resources next year, she said, "because the lack of a grandfathering clause [in the province's new fee structure] means there's a significant increase in the burden for out-of-province students. Some students on the government student aid program are now at the ceiling."

Stymest is particularly concerned about international students. "While they are going to be paying more, their ability to work in Canada is somewhat restricted."

She encourages students to keep in touch with her office. Although details of any new McGill initiatives have yet to be announced, the office can provide students with advice on how to go about getting the best deal for a bank student loan.

Stymest congratulated Da Silva and the SSMU on their work with students on financial questions. "This is the first time in my experience that the students have gone to the trouble to set up a financial awareness program."

And Da Silva returned the compliment. "The financial aid office is providing excellent service for students," she said. "They're fantastic, those people."

Although students and the administration have their differences on some questions related to tuition, most notably on the maintenance of the Quebec freeze, there is, according to Da Silva, real cooperation on how to address the government's most recent announcement.

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