Mt. A students seek tuition rebate from university

Screen shot 2014-03-19 at 5.52.47 PMA sentiment of disappointment and frustration over the three-week faculty strike has manifested into a demand for a tuition rebate from Mount Allison students, with student demonstrations and over 540 letters sent to MASU and the administration.

The strike removed twelve instructional days from the term after a Senate restructuring of the calendar. This created monetary savings for the university because faculty members were not paid during the strike.

A week after the strike ended, the Mount Allison Students’ Union (MASU) released a tuition rebate proposal aimed at compensating students for their lost time in class. Soon after, The Argosy‘s Editorial Board tentatively endorsed MASU’s proposal.

The university saved $856,948 over the three-week period, occurring to MASU, which used the average tenure and tenure-track faculty average salary to calculate the figure.

Since helping draft MASU’s proposal, Ryan Harley, MASU vice-president, academic affairs, has met with students and administrators to discuss the rebate.

“A tuition rebate speaks volumes about an institution’s commitment to its students,” Harley wrote in an email. “While we understand that the university may feel as though the money otherwise spent on academic salaries should fund the university’s normal operations of services, we feel as though the undue pressure students are currently working through begs the kind of financial compensation for which we have asked.”

In a CBC interview, MASU president Melissa O’Rourke and Mt. A vice-president, international and student affairs Ron Byrne discussed the reasons for and against a tuition rebate.

Mt. A has cited the enrolment shortage of 180 students as a financial concern during the strike and now regarding a tuition rebate. While Mt. A claims on its negotiations page that the shortage caused a budget shortfall of $850,000, it expects to have the same revenue in the upcoming fiscal year as this year.

Byrne used key words in Mt. A’s strategic plan – quality and sustainability – as reasons why the administration is proceeding with caution.

“Fiscally, Mt. A is very, very, very prudent,” Byrne said to The Argosy. “We don’t pay any interest on loans; we don’t carry debt. So every dollar that gets earned can be reinvested in the community, not in paying some bank.”

In an attempt to ease the transition back to class, the administration has extended library and student centre hours, enhanced bursary and wellness services, and increased the number workshops.

The administration’s stance on fiscal sustainability revealed a hesitancy toward the tuition rebate. This received a negative backlash from Mt. A students.

Alex Thomas,  a fourth-year sociology student and one of the founders of the Student Strike Headquarters, called in during the CBC interview to advocate for a rebate.

“The biggest glimpse we’ve gotten into the administration’s position was through the CBC interview a week ago,” Thomas said to The Argosy. “And I think through that interview there are lots of indication that no tuition rebate would be granted.”

Ruthie Payzant, a fourth-year fine arts student, said that if the administration does not offer a rebate, graduating students will bear the largest burden.

“We have lost hundreds of dollars to this strike and will possibly never get any of it back,” Payzant said. “And yet the university will have the nerve to contact us in a few years’ time asking us to donate to them.”

Students have also challenged the university’s ranking as the best primarily undergraduate university in Canada. Laura Sponagle, a second-year psychology student, said that if Mt. A does not reimburse its students, it is not living up to its reputation.

“If we were the number one university, they would put student needs first,” Sponagle said. “That’s what universities are for, that’s who keeps them running: the students.”

Jillian Ellis, a second-year fine arts and environmental science student, received late fees for her tuition during the strike.

“I definitely want some money back; I can’t believe they charged me late fees for my tuition when I didn’t pay during the strike,” Ellis said. “Why would I pay thousands of dollars for an education that I wasn’t getting?”

Another concern raised by students is the status of international students, who make up around ten per cent of the student body and pay $15,215 for tuition, more than twice that of Canadian students.

Hamza Adlew, a first-year student from Libya, said that because staying home during the three-week strike was such a bad experience, he is in favour of a rebate.

“It would really unfair if the university pays the full-time students the same amount of money as international students,” Adlew said.

MASU addressed this concern in its rebate proposal, but it did not specify how much money it would like allotted to individual students.

The University of New Brunswick, like Mount Allison, faced strike time due to labour disputes. Although the strike lasted three weeks, students only miss four days of class time, as the administration cancelled reading week and prolonged the semester. The students were still compensated for the four instructional days lost.

MASU has pointed to the situation at the University of New Brunswick as a strong case for a tuition rebate. UNB’s strike, which also lasted three weeks, caused less academic disruption to the term than at Mt. A after the calendar revision.

At UNB, full-time students received a refund of $235, while part-time students were given $117 for the disruption. International students, who pay more than canadian students at UNB as well, received the same amount of money as full-time students.

UNB Students’ Union President Ben Whitney said that securing a rebate for the students was essential.

“Students were heavily impacted by this labour disruption, in terms of missed class times, changed schedules, and a number of other issues,” Whitney said. “A payment to students as a result of the strike was a clear indicator of the fact that students were hugely inconvenienced and this was a small way to make amends.”

Efforts by UNBSU to acquire a rebate included online petitions, much like that of MASU.

“We did a fair bit of work coordinating a media push around the idea and tried to build some consensus in the public eye,” Whitney said. “Our student board of governors worked incredibly hard on a proposal that was taken through the board’s finance committee and ultimately accepted by the board of governors.”

The process of securing a rebate at UNB was not as contentious as that at Mt. A. Peter McDougall, UNB vice-president, human resources said that while UNBSU was vocal during the strike negotiations, and that the administration heard and answered its demands.

“Our students union has been very active over the course of negotiations. It was certainly important, and I think it resulted in us doing the right thing.”

McDougall said that there was little reservation about the rebate. UNB acquired over three million dollars in gross savings over the course of the strike. Factoring out the one million dollars in expected expenditures, the residual was just over two million dollars, which went toward the rebate.

“The background on it was that the university didn’t have an interest in having a financial gain from the fact that there had been a work stoppage,” McDougall said.

UNB students were pleased with the rebate for many reasons, including the gesture by the administration.

“I’m pleased that we got a tuition rebate. When you ask someone for a certain service, and they don’t accomplish what was asked of them, it’s only natural that you receive reimbursement,” third-year science student Monique Boucher said. “In our case, it’s the exact same principle. The exact dollar amount could have been either higher or lower, but all that matters is that we got one.”

In its return conditions, the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) requested that $100,000 of the money saved during the strike be used in a bursary fund to help students with financial need. This proposal, which was based of off Brandon University’s back-to-work protocol, was denied by the university and will be addressed in binding arbitration.

MAFA president Loralea Michaelis said that faculty members are divided on the issue of whether a tuition rebate is appropriate.

“I know a lot of members are in favour of a rebate, others are more skeptical,” she said.

While there is overwhelming student support for a tuition rebate, students, administrators, and faculty members have criticized the monetary value assigned to education in the rebate.

“When we think of reparations, we think of money,” Michaelis said. “Even if they did give a rebate, it still probably wouldn’t repair the damage. It wouldn’t be meaningful enough to give the community an idea that what happened ought not to have happened.”

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