Mobilization Heats Up as Board of Governors Meeting Looms

Students Continue to Oppose Possible Cohort Pricing and International Tuition Hikes

Graphic Kelsey Litwin

Next week, Concordia’s Board of Governors will vote on whether to introduce cohort pricing, a new pay system for international students in deregulated programs, which detractors say will lead to tuition hikes and turn students into “cash cows.”

For student leaders, the main goal right now is to organize a protest on Dec. 14 when the governors will meet in the GM building downtown, according to Aloyse Muller, the Concordia Student Union’s External Affairs and Mobilization Coordinator. “We want to make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed,” he said.

As the highest decision-making body at the university, the Board has the final say on tuition costs for these international students. It has had this power since 2008 when the Quebec government announced it would stop funding—meaning it would deregulate—the programs of business, law, pure sciences, mathematics, and engineering and computer science, specifically for foreign undergraduates.

With no provincial funding for these programs, Concordia administration has been exploring how to fund them. At their meeting next week, the Board of Governors, comprised of university admin, faculty, students, and external community members, will discuss the implementation of cohort pricing.

This system guarantees a flat rate for international students in deregulated programs for the duration of their studies. If approved, it will begin in the 2017-2018 academic year.

“It’s trying to make a fair and level playing field,” said Concordia President Alan Shepard in an interview on Nov. 9. “It’s trying to make sure that when the [government grants] go, we still have the funds to offer a high quality of education.”

The administration is framing cohort pricing as a strictly procedural matter, said Lucinda Marshall-Kiparissis, the CSU General Coordinator and an undergraduate representative on Board.

She continued that they are not addressing the concern students have regarding the possible tuition hikes that may come as part of new system. In preparation for the meeting, she will send a CSU statement denouncing cohort pricing, drafted earlier, this month to her fellow governors.

“We’re going to try and talk to our peers,” she said. “You don’t necessarily see what’s happening within the student body if you just go to these meetings.” On Dec. 14, Marshall-Kiparissis said she plans to have questions and testimonials from students ready to be presented.

Many universities in Canada and the United States already practice cohort pricing. McGill offers this guarantee for international students in deregulated undergraduate programs, but they might have to spend upwards of $42,000 per year for 30 full-time credits.

At Concordia, the rates are lower, as international undergraduates in the same programs will pay around $24,000 each year for the same course load.

“I don’t propose to go to McGill’s levels,” Shepard said. As president, Shepard also serves on the Board. He added that through research and surveys of prospective students, they’ve discovered that international students value stability even at the costs of higher rates.

Enrollment of international students in deregulated programs has increased more compared to international students in regulated programs, according to university spokesperson Chris Mota. “The students are still coming and coming faster,” she said.

“It’s tough to say to someone that has to resort to using a food bank that their tuition is going up when the university president is almost making half a million dollars.” —Aloyse Muller, CSU External Affairs and Mobilization Coordinator

About a month ago, students began mobilizing against cohort pricing, arguing that the administration wasn’t being transparent about the process. The CSU hired two campaigners and started postering around campus, spreading the message that Shepard has a higher annual income than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

For the 2014-15 academic year, Shepard made $369,620 in salary, $69,765 in taxable benefits, and $40,231 in reimbursements. Trudeau, by comparison, makes $340,800 per year.

“It’s tough to say to someone that has to resort to using a food bank that their tuition is going up when the university president is almost making half a million dollars,” said Muller. “[The administrators] aren’t bad people but they’re obviously disconnected from the people who are struggling each month.”

On Nov. 24, two students from the John Molson School of Business organized a “Red Day,” encouraging peers to wear red as a demonstration against possible tuition hikes.

A day before this, Sebastien Paul, an undergraduate history major, wrote an open letter to the Board of Governors, which he also shared with various media and student groups, including The Link. Paul said he’s an active member in the LGBTQ community and has just started his studies in Montreal.

In the letter, which the group Queer Concordia helped draft, he said he feared the tuition hikes would have a “devastating” effect on future international students, in particular those from the LGBTQ community.

He detailed the adversity his Indian partner faced during his Concordia application process and during his efforts to take out student loans.

“We know that many students come to Canada knowing their tuition will be higher than in their home country because often safety is an issue,” said Zuzanna Smetana, a coordinator from Queer Concordia. “This is especially true for queer students—this is an opportunity to meet people like yourself without the threat of persecution.”

Montreal isn’t a utopia, Smetana added, but the access to queer media and communities is a reason why international students study here, even at higher costs.

Six days after sending the letter, Norman Hébert Jr., the chair of the Board of Governors, responded to Paul, saying the Board “will carefully consider all arguments, including the ones you have outlined, in making its final decision about the proposal.”

Shepard wrote a response, as well, which Paul said “mystified” him. In the email, the Concordia President wrote: “Should the cohort pricing proposal be approved by the Board, the university plans to dedicate a portion of the tuition fees to support international students,” a statement no administrator has yet to make.

Mota confirmed that the president sent Paul the email, but couldn’t elaborate on the statement. “What does that mean?” Paul asked in an interview on Friday. “If this was his plan all along, why are they being so quiet about it?”

The inspiration for the letter came from visiting friends of his partner, who are also international students, Paul said. He described poor conditions of five to six students living in a small space with no beds or furniture. These friends, he added, would rationalize their living situation as typical student life.

“I’m a student too,” said Paul, “this is not how we live in Canada.”

The next Board of Governors meeting will take place on Dec. 14 at 4 p.m. Non-governors, including students and press, are barred from attending the meeting, so an observer room will be set up in the Hall building, room H-633-1.