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“In the context of COVID-19, for a lot of students it’s the last straw” – Dalhousie and Kings students demand tuition freeze

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Students at Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College are demanding a tuition freeze after university administration announced a three per cent rise in fees.

This is the second rise in tuition fee at Dalhousie during the pandemic and comes with a further $1473 increase to international student fees. Student groups say that after an extremely difficult year, they cannot accept any increase.

The tuition increase works out to an extra $243 for arts students and $276 for science students.

Dalhousie Student Union president Madeleine Stinson said the university needs to make equitable action for students a priority.

When asked about why the tuition freeze is important to her, she said: “It is ensuring that no one is priced out of attending [university] … because education is a fundamental right, and everyone should be able to afford it,” said Stinson. “Everyone should have the ability to learn and grow, that’s an experience that I don’t believe should only belong to the rich.”

Demands from student groups

The Canadian Federation of Students — Nova Scotia is demanding a drastic decrease of 10 per cent in tuition fees and a moratorium on  any additional fees for international students. Joanna Clark, chairperson of CFS-NS said students are fed up with tuition increases.

“This is a broken system, and we need even bolder solutions,” said Clark. 

The provincial government signed a memorandum of understanding with the universities in the province in 2019, capping increases on in-province tuition to three per cent. 

Since this MOU was signed, Dalhousie has increased tuition by the maximum amount annually. Clark said, “as long as that’s the case, that’s what institutions are going to do—no matter what the world looks like.”

“If we go back three years, that’s about what a 10 percent decrease looks like.”

Students at the two schools started a Facebook group called “Dal/King’s Tuition Hike Strike 2021” to organize around a tuition freeze. The group now has  just over two hundred members, and they have held two meetings to set demands and organize. 

Although discussions are ongoing, the Facebook group is looking for a freeze, the end of the differential international fee and support during the pandemic.

George Philp is a first-year student in Dalhousie’s Schulich Law School and was previously the president of Acadia’s student union. “Many of the upper year [law] students lost their … summer employment because the firms here in Atlantic Canada all cancelled their summer law programs.” 

Stinson agreed: “That difference in three per cent, for a lot of students, means feeding themselves for a month, paying their rent, being able to buy textbooks, commuting to campus, supporting their mental health, these all require finances.”

“You shouldn’t have to pick between paying tuition and having a safe place to live,” Stinson said.

Philp emphasizes that the problem doesn’t end with a tuition increase, it is the compounding of multiple problems. 

“With less income, a tuition increase—for law students that represents about $600 at a three per cent increase—online learning, and mental health as a fourth element,” said Philp.

“In the context of COVID-19, for a lot of students it’s the last straw,” said Stinson. “It’s the end of the year, and a lot of students aren’t happy with how Dalhousie has been supporting them this year. It feels like everything students have been communicating to Dal this entire year has gone unheard and unrecognized.” 

“Dal has said ‘the health and well-being of students is a priority in the budget,’ but that isn’t reflected in the numbers.

International students bear the brunt

International students are slated to pay nearly two thousand dollars extra next year. Clark said that although this is gutting, it isn’t surprising to her.

“We know that international students are being placed with this burden of having to balance the budget,” said Clark. “Anything that is left over they have to bear the brunt of.”

Leisl Harmon is a second-year neuroscience student at Dalhousie who is originally from Pennsylvania. She recently went through her university-mandated quarantine stay at Westin Nova Scotian hotel at a cost of $1,400, which students have been forced to pay for this stay regardless of living on or off campus.

“I lived here over the summer and I scrambled to get jobs … I was working two jobs on top of classes and had to drop out of some.” Harmon said that because of this stress she had to move back to Pennsylvania for a while.

She said that many students had to make the decision to drop out or take time off. “I worried about, if I do that, it is going to be that much harder to finish my degree.”

For Harmon, a lot of these decisions come down to stress and finances. If tuition was lowered, she would not have to work two jobs while in classes, and her stress might be more manageable.

Some international students decided to stay in their home country for the year. Mazen Brisha is a third-year kinesiology student at Dal, and he said that he decided to stay in the United Arab Emirates because of the forced Westin quarantine.

“The pattern we see from Dalhousie is that they are completely apathetic to international student’s needs,” Brisha said. “It is becoming increasingly clear that we are only there to provide a substantial amount of the money.”

“I think part of why Dalhousie is so apathetic about this is because they know if the current international population can’t pay their tuition fees, they will just find others that can.”

Brisha said that the increase wasn’t surprising — the trend over the last decade is a yearly increase, and since Dalhousie already did so in the pandemic, there was no reason they would stop. 

“it’s tough for me — someone who has been involved with international student activism since my first day at Dalhousie — it’s tough for me to imagine it changing,” Brisha said. “We should strive for better for international students.”

Comparing Dalhousie to other Atlantic Universities, it ranks number one in tuition cost for international students — by a lot,” Harmon said.

See also: Raising tuition fees will cause NSCAD students to drop out, student union fears

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