Tuition up for 2014-15; revenue allocated to colleges, schools for improvements to programs and services

Students at the University of Saskatchewan will see their tuition fees rise by an overall average of 4.5 per cent for the 2014-15 academic year and for the first time, tuition revenue will be allocated directly to the colleges and schools  where they are enrolled for improvements to programs and services.

By Colleen MacPherson

The U of S Board of Governors approved the new tuition rates March 6. While the average increase for all students is 4.5 per cent, undergraduates will see increases between zero and 5.5 per cent next year, depending on the program. Tuition for standard graduate programs will go up an average of four per cent, again depending on the program. Three professional graduate programs will see tuition increases of 10-20 per cent. (Please see chart of typical tuition increases by program and related stories on Page 2.)

With the phase in of the university's new Transparent Activity-Based Budget System (TABBS), tuition revenue will be used by the college or school to support students on a number of fronts, explained Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic. While the change to TABBS "won't create more revenue for the university, it's making transparent how tuition is tied to the activity in the colleges and schools and how it helps support that activity."

In addition to financing program delivery, tuition dollars will go to financial aid for students, advising and career counselling, new faculty positions and new program options, he said. "It's revenue that will enable colleges to do things that are good for students and good for communities. The fees that students pay are associated with the value and the quality of the experience
they get."

The university continues to set its tuition fees based on the principles of comparability, affordability and accessibility, and quality, Fairbairn continued, not on the need to balance the budget.

Tuition revenue is one input into the budgeting process, which involves considering all revenue sources, "projecting those into the future and planning our expenditures. We don't plan the expenditures first and then go back and ask what we need from tuition fees."

He added efforts to tighten expenditures through workforce planning, program prioritization, reducing utility costs and other initiatives rather than increasing revenue through tuition are key to the budget process but "may or may not register with students."

Adhering to the tuition-setting principles means considering myriad factors, not all of which are strictly financial. On the comparability front, information is collected from the other 14 members of the U15, Canada's largest research universities and the U of S comparator group. "And despite Statistics Canada's rather odd way of calculating things, we know that program by program, our fees are below the median in the U15."

In comparing quality of programs, Fairbairn said the first consideration is whether other programs are accredited, "the minimum bar." Student outcomes are also factored in "but there's also the quality of the student experience. Sometimes the differences are about services related to the program rather than the core academic program. There are programs across the country that are offering services to students that we don't and one of the reasons they are able to do so is because of their revenue from fees."

Ensuring tuition is affordable and not a barrier to access involves analysis of a wide range of information and trends across the country, said the provost.

"For example, we know that students in Saskatchewan have comparatively high debt loads when they graduate but they pay off that debt faster than students in other provinces. We're thinking that has something to do with the provincial government's system of grants and loan forgiveness, the Graduate Retention Program."

Another consideration is that U of S graduates move into a healthy local job market "but it cuts both ways. Institutions that have higher fees than we do are also likely in areas that have much higher unemployment and they may have some lower living costs."

Adding to the complexity in setting tuition are "things that aren't directly financial in nature." Fairbairn cited distributed learning as one example. "It's an academically driven initiative but it's about access," about helping students learn where they live and about easing their transition to university. "Similarly, we're very interested in credit transfer (and) in recognizing prior learning. These are all access issues too."

Tuition fees make up about 23 per cent of the university's total annual revenue, a figure Fairbairn does not expect to vary much, but that will depend on the government grant; it will be announced in the provincial budget March 19.

"Whenever the (tuition) fee increase is higher than the grant increase, that percentage shifts slightly but because the grant is so much larger—almost 70 per cent of our operating funds—it has only shifted marginally in the past number of years."

Fairbairn said aside from significant tuition hikes to address particular program circumstances, "I think that universities should increase tuition fees by a moderate amount every year rather than by a large amount in any one year. I would rather we saw increases of three, three and three (per cent) than zero, zero and 10. We think that's easier for students."

And going even further, he said taking a multi-year approach to setting tuition would take the guesswork out of the equation for students. As the university leaders become more comfortable with the current tuition-setting process and principles, "we're also getting more comfortable with having the conversation" about multi-year tuition commitments.

Locking in a key revenue source for several years presents some risks, particularly when public funding is under pressure, he said, "but I can appreciate where it would be nice for students if we went the extra step and just projected tuition forward."