Referendum: Tuition Policy

Posted by: | January 21, 2010 | 16 Comments

The Current Policy

The AMS’s current policy on tuition was passed on November 21, 2007, in preparation for a federal by-election in Vancouver Quadra. (Stephen Owen had resigned his seat to work for UBC.)

The way the policy is structured is as a set of 17 principles, divided into 4 categories: Tuition and Fees, Core Funding, Student Financial Assistance, and Research. It’s a modest document calling for, among other things:

* working with UBC, student societies and governments towards a long-term funding strategy
* opposing tuition increases greater than the British Columbia Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), whichever is lesser
* controlling tuition at the provincial, rather than institutional level
* no differential tuition for out-of-province students
* working both with UBC and independently to lobby the province for more funding

Deconstructing the question until there’s nothing left, behind the jump.

Whenever there are tuition increases, usually only one of these 17 principles gets cited:

Tuition and Fees, Principle 3: The Alma Mater Society acknowledges the financial pressures of inflation on the cost of education and tuition levels. The Alma Mater Society shall therefore oppose any tuition increase that is in excess of the British Columbia Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), whichever is lesser.

This is the specific clause that has been at the centre of much of the debate around the AMS’s tuition policy, and which has been creatively interpreted to mean the AMS does not object to tuition increases. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, the allowed increases under this principle actually represent a tuition freeze in real dollars.

The format of the document, as a set of principles rather than commandments, was deliberate. It was meant to be a framework, vague enough that anyone can work within it and executives could push it in different directions depending on their priorities. Unfortunately, this very broad policy was misrepresented in a very narrow way during the fallout from the UN complaint in order to muddle the debate and mobilize students. The lack of an up-to-date policy manual where people can be directed to certainly did not help matters.

The Question

“Should the AMS actively lobby for reduced tuition fees and increased government funding?”

First note that reduced tuition fees and increased government funding are two related, but ultimately separate concepts that have been lumped together for the purposes of this referendum. The first half of the question aims to get the AMS to lobby for reduced tuition fees, which is something that is not addressed in the current policy. Fair enough.

The second half of the question, on increased government funding, is completely unnecessary. Lobbying for increased government spending is already something supported by the AMS in the current policy:

Core Funding, Principle 1: The Alma Mater Society shall work in collaboration with the University to actively lobby the Provincial Government to obtain budgetary increases for the post-secondary education system of British Columbia.


Core Funding, Principle 3: The Alma Mater Society shall also work independently to secure higher core funding for post secondary education from the province.

Whoever wrote the referendum question either did not bother to read the AMS’s current tuition policy in its entirety, or strategically chose to ignore these clauses to make the question look better and the AMS look worse. The fact that half of the question is redundant makes an excellent case for the parts of the student court referendum surrounding setting up a system for proactive referendum question validation.

Practical considerations

Nobody is entirely sure what happens if the referendum passes. Presumably it would be interpreted as an external policy and would co-exist alongside the current policy. The two policies don’t conflict, and there is nothing that would suggest that the current policy would be repealed or replaced. If anything, it would make the already-broad tuition policy framework a little bit broader, giving execs another possible direction to go in.

What needs much more careful consideration is how the existence of such a policy would actually be acted upon. A policy cannot exist in a vacuum without some sort of feasible strategy to act on it. Effective lobbying of government is not an area where the AMS has shown strength in the past little while. All of the candidates in this year’s VPX race have said they’ll lobby (except for Aaron Palm of course, who will just buy a bunch of guns), but have not said anything about how to do it, and to do it well. Without a real strategy for effective lobbying, obsessing over the policy side of things is pointless.

The current policy is moderate, and avoids taking any extreme positions. However, a policy calling for reduced tuition actually makes it difficult for someone to take a moderate approach to the problem. Reduce tuition by 10%? 20%? 50%? Reduce tuition in real dollars? CPI minus a cent? Tie it to some factor like mean income in BC? Defining the basis for the proposed reduction would be difficult and communicating it would be even more difficult. Instead, the easy way out is to take the most extreme stance, namely, that all tuition should be free.

Bringing the AMS’s tuition policy to referendum was spearheaded by Blake Frederick, Tim Chu, and the AMS resource groups. (Regardless of what you may think about them personally, an objective review of Tim’s job performance this year would show it is poor, but unfortunately outside the scope of this article.) This extreme position that all tuition should be free is one Blake and Tim have already shown to be perfectly happy having the AMS adopt. In fact, it forms part of the basis of Tim’s re-election campaign this year. The point they’re completely missing is that while there are few people that would object to free tuition, even fewer people would think this is a realistic proposal to put forth.

Taking extreme positions carries a very high risk of alienating others (see: Greenpeace) and can make it less likely that any sort of compromise will ever be possible. Engaging in negotiations will be futile if the bridge that must be built to connect both sides must span an entire ocean.

The AMS’s UN complaint was based on the principle of free tuition; even if it fell within the AMS’s tuition policy, and even if council had approved it, a human rights complaint to the UN over tuition is still not an effective lobbying strategy. While on the surface it may seem that there is no possible downside to passing this policy, it does hold the potential to hinder, rather than help, the AMS’s ability to lobby realistically on tuition issues.

Discussion on tuition policy and the scads of research available about it could go on for pages. But trying to analyze tuition policy issues any further is fairly useless since it’s unlikely something voters will be thinking about critically. (If someone would like to explain why international student enrolment has a direct relationship with international student tuition, that would be extremely enlightening.) Blogs and media can write for pages (as we have) but ultimately this question will be decided on much simpler terms. Everyone already knows how they personally feel about tuition. Everyone already knows how they’ll vote. But is this empathetic approach to drafting policy really what’s in the best interests of everyone?


16 Comments so far

  1. Bowinn Ma on January 21, 2010 2:59 pm

    “Should the AMS actively lobby for reduced tuition fees and increased government funding?”

    I presume that we should interpret a ‘yes’ vote from a student to mean that they believe that -resources-, including time, money, and a fair chunk from our limited Focus Reserves, should be allocated towards the -active- lobbying of lowered tuition and increased government funding.

    The obvious lack of “SMART” goal setting and conflicts in determining an appropriate datum and by what scale success should be judged aside, this seems like a relatively simple question for each individual based on their pre-existing opinions on tuition… except for the redundancy that you bring up.

    If the referendum fails, would this mean that the AMS tuition policy would be changed to REMOVE Core Funding Principles 1 and 3 so that the AMS no longer supports lobbying to secure additional government resources, or would the entire question simply be ignored and no changes made?

  2. David Foster on January 21, 2010 3:09 pm

    And UVSS Finance Director Edward Pullman would have the AMS ditch their current policy, which is sensible, well-researched and multifaceted, and adopt the substandard policy of the UVSS (ripped off from the CFS in the first place?)

    UBC students, take the UVSS as a negative example.

  3. Charles Menzies on January 21, 2010 3:18 pm

    I am curious to learn how lobbying for tuition reduction is an ‘extreme’ position as has been suggested in this blog entry.

    There are many countries in which tuition is in fact free.

    A very reasonable argument can be made that the investment in post secondary grows the economy. One former UBC economist has also shown that students already pay for the full cost of their tuition.

    Take a look at:

  4. Aaron Palm on January 21, 2010 3:34 pm

    It’s an “extreme position” because free tuition is not possible unless Canada significantly raises taxes. That will not happen. No amount of student lobbying (unless it is done with bombs and frankly I don’t care enough about the issue to blow up Parliament) would be able to persuade Victoria to tax BC an additional 450 million a year or whatever the current tuition revenue is. If you make up the difference by funding schools less, quality of education will decrease.

    Tuition fees are not the only barrier to education, effective lobbying can target battles we can actually win (such as housing) without expending political capital on useless PR stunts [*cough*UN*cough*]

  5. Mike Kenyon on January 21, 2010 4:35 pm

    Aaron, the fact that what you say makes sense scares me.

    Anyone hoping to decrease tuition fees while keeping any measure of quality, please answer this question: Where will you succeed where Manitoba has failed? In 1999, eleven years ago, tuition was cut 10% and frozen. Since then, class sizes have skyrocketed while equipment and facilities remain broken.

    Look at this article from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy if you want to learn more:

  6. Charles Menzies on January 21, 2010 5:33 pm

    Just wondering if the above two commentators read Dr. Allen’s reports? They can be found in the UBC Econ Archive. He is currently at Oxford.

    The point that Dr. Allen made is that through current taxes university graduates more than pay for the cost of their education through their higher life time income than people without a university education. His point was that society as a whole benefits from educating students who stay in the country.

    There are all kinds of models that are fairly conservative that can replace tuition as the basis of funding post-secondary that don’t require complaints to the UN nor do they require increasing taxes.

  7. Andrew Carne on January 21, 2010 6:55 pm

    Charles, whether or not they repay their education through taxes is a moot point. Without raising taxes or cutting other existing services, the provincial government *does not* have enough money to pay for tuition for everyone.

    Unless you are advocating for a sharp reduction in student enrolment, or have no problem with degrading the quality of our education, then it is simply not possible to have free education for all.

    Please note that the AMS is fully in support of increasing provincial funding for education. If that were to happen (to a large degree) then maybe some time in the future it would be possible to ask for free education.

    Personally, I don’t see why our secondary education *should* be free. Our education is *not* unreasonably priced. UBC is a well ranked institution and we pay very little, as far as tuition goes for comparable schools. UBC also has a large offering of scholarships and bursaries, as well as a policy that states “No Eligible Student (as defined by Policy #72) will be prevented from commencing or continuing his or her studies at the University for financial reasons alone.” (UBC Policy #72: “Access to the University of British Columbia”)

    This means the argument that some students cannot afford to attend UBC is completely invalid.

    With respect to the particular referendum question that brought up this issue, it suffers from a giant, gaping flaw. Specifically, it doesn’t actually *do* anything. A referendum on an opinion means exactly nothing. Sure it’d be neat to know what the average student thinks on this issue, and maybe that will guide Council decisions in the future but there is nothing binding in this question. Had it proposed a new external policy, or some sort of changes to the Code or Bylaws (which would be rather odd in this situation) then it would be a different matter.

  8. Aaron Palm on January 21, 2010 7:25 pm

    I haven’t been able to read the article (beyond the abstract) because I can’t get VPN configured on my ancient machine.

    Based on the abstract that I can read, I see the main flaw in Allen’s argument is that the government does not tax us by education level but on income. University grads aren’t taxed more because they went to UBC but they are making more money with their degree.

    Now I will agree that free education based on a taxation model where people pay for their educations retroactively is a fascinating idea. It just isn’t feasible in our political system.

  9. Charles Menzies on January 21, 2010 7:31 pm

    Dear Mr. Carne,

    I have no opinion on the student referendum -that’s for students to decide. However, in terms of the issue of tuition fees and the implied causal link between quality and fees paid I would suggest that there is a problem with that logic.

    Tuition is not the only barrier to post-secondary education -it is, though one barrier.

    I would respectfully suggest that you take a close look at the work that Professor Allen produced in the mid 1990s. It may seem years ago and part of an ancient past, however, as one who has read the work of the internationally acclaimed former UBC economics professor, I would commend Professor Allen’s work to you to consider.

    As you and other students go on to professional practice outside of the university and start paying significant amounts of taxes I would ask that you consider the value of public education and the benefits of contributing, through your taxes, to the public good.

  10. Blake Frederick on January 21, 2010 7:41 pm


    You have misrepresented both the referendum and my views on tuition, which should be no surprise as you failed to seek my comment on either issue.

    I will raise a couple of quick points:

    – I wrote the referendum question. The question deliberately mentions both tuition and government funding because any decrease in tuition fees without government funding to make up for that loss would be detrimental.

    – If passed, the principle to lobby for lower tuition and increased government funding would become an AMS external policy only modifiable through referendum.

    – The proposed policy is only in direct conflict with the AMS’ current policy to allow tuition increases up to CPI and as such, would replace only that policy.

    – The proposed policy deliberately gives the AMS the flexibility to decide the level of tuition decreases they want to lobby for and the methods used to achieve that goal.

    – I support the incremental decrease of tuition. The UN complaint was used to argue for greater financial accessibility to education, not free tuition.

    – It is fair to disagree with the merits of the proposed policy, but unfair to disregard the intelligence of the voters. The AMS must follow the will of the students, whatever they decide, and it is not up to you (or any others) to assess their level of competence or decree the reasons for why they made their decision. This is an important point that you and many others have missed throughout this entire process.


    Blake Frederick

  11. Aaron Palm on January 21, 2010 8:23 pm

    “The AMS must follow the will of the students”

    Which of course explains the complete lack of student consultation before the UN complaint.

    While lowering tuition is a grand goal, does it not make more sense to spend what limited political capital the AMS has left on achievable goals?

  12. Andrew Carne on January 21, 2010 8:30 pm


    “If passed, the principle to lobby for lower tuition and increased government funding would become an AMS external policy only modifiable through referendum.”

    I don’t see any particular policy wording attached to this referendum question. If there is some, I would be interested to take a look through it, and it should really be attached to the question on the election’s website.

  13. Neal Yonson on January 21, 2010 9:06 pm


    Thank you for undoubtedly spurring a rash of comments on this article. We love comments. To address each of your points, briefly.

    – It doesn’t change the fact that the question is redundant and therefore flawed.

    – Code says: (Section II, Article 11(5)) “Policies, whether external, internal, or combined, may only be adopted, amended,
    renewed, suspended, or rescinded by a Two-thirds (2/3) Resolution of Council.”

    Code 1, Blake 0

    – One is pro-active, the other one is reactive. Lobbying for reduced tuition doesn’t prevent the AMS from opposing increases greater than CPI/HEPI. Opposing tuition increases greater than CPI/HEPI does not prevent the AMS from lobbying for reduced tuition. Where’s the conflict?

    – I never said it didn’t give that flexibility, just that it made it difficult to adopt a more moderate strategy.

    – Re-reading the text of the UN complaint, I concede this point may have been exaggerated.

    – I never said voters were unintelligent, nor did I say they were incapable of critical thinking. What I said is this is probably not an instance where they will think critically before voting.

  14. Peter on January 21, 2010 9:31 pm


    While I agree with all your points on the benefits of education on society, I still agree with Andrew’s conclusions since:

    1. While society gains from university educatedly individual, the individuals themselves gain the most. That is to say, my university degree helps me more than it helps the state/community. Consequently, it seems most fair for me to be paying most of the cost of my education. Granted, not all of it, but the lion’s share.

    2. While university degree-holders are predominantly the biggest tax-payers (if you control for some multi-billionaire outliers), this money doesn’t go exclusively to education. While it is almost certain that, as you said, the increased taxes paid over a lifetime by a university grad more than offset the cost of their education, we can’t forget that this money is also needed to fund other social programs. Remember, its not the taxes of the lower quartiles that pay for all the achievements of the welfare state. It’s the taxes of the upper quartiles (the educated elite) that does so. This is particularly programs that are not able to finance themselves, as it were, by charging (tuition) fees (ie. uninsured health care, research funding, etc).

    3. Having tuition fees in no way precludes taking out government loans to cover said fees. Such loans are actually tax-deductible and help former students avoid paying taxes equal to their loan amounts. While this sort of scheme is, from a student point of view, less nice than having everything for free, it creates a lot more responsibility and incentive for students to try to be successful.

    4. Free education should be reserved for the best and brightest. People should not think of themselves as somehow entitled to be pampered well into their mid 20s without an expectation that they too will one day contribute to society. Free education, as demonstrated through scholarships, should be awarded to those who show commitment, dedication, and ability in their respective fields.

    Even with socialism, the motto was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Not “from each according to what he felt like, to each according to what he wants”. There was a clearly laid out expectation that capable individuals would contribute to society in return for their share of the communal pie.(Perhaps, I’m going off-point here, but if you followed the recent UN-complaint fiasco, you should be able to understand what I’m alluding to.)

    Anyway, I’ll leave it at that.

  15. Blake Frederick on January 21, 2010 10:57 pm


    – A referendum passed by students is not subject to the AMS Code. Any other interpretation has serious implications that would extend just beyond this referendum.

    – There could be a conflict in having both a policy that opposes tuition increases beyond CPI and a policy that the AMS must lobby for lower tuition. For example, if an AMS representative were to lobby for a 1% increase (assuming that CPI = 2%), they would be breaking one of the policies, but not the other.

    – You did not explicitly say that voters are unintelligent, but I think the basis of your argument makes this assumption.


    Blake Frederick

  16. F. Hydrant on January 22, 2010 9:00 pm

    Thoughts on three issues:

    1) What would the AMS need to do to satisfy this policy?

    Well, the question asks, “should the AMS actively lobby for reduced tuition fees and increased government funding?” To the extent that this is interpreted as actionable rather than merely soliciting an opinion, it proposes an action, not a policy. It does not say when or for how long the action should occur, or by what means. The action can’t be trivial, though: “actively” implies something more than writing a letter. And “forthwith” should be read into it.

    My interpretation is that, if the representatives of the AMS visited Victoria a few times over the course of a month or two, asking for lower tuition, and particularly if they threw in a public campaign or event, this would be satisfied and the referendum would be of no further force or effect.

    2) How or to what extent could this create binding policy?

    The Referendum bylaw states: “A [successful] referendum of the Society shall, subject to these Bylaws, be acted upon by the Society…” There are no further bylaws dealing with how such a question would be interpreted, and it’s likely not an Ordinary Resolution as defined in the Society Act, although for practical purposes it might as well be.

    So, the action requested would need to be carried out. However, there is nothing that suggests to me that this question would continue to have force or effect once this action is taken. Nothing in the Society Act, Bylaws, or Constitution mentions how AMS policy should be created or modified — that’s left to Code and Council. (It does say how Code is modified — by 2/3 vote of Council.) If this were interpreted to imply creation of an external policy, the fact that the referendum is binding on the AMS means that Council would be compelled to pass such a policy. External policies have a lifespan of 3 years and can be overturned at any time by a 2/3 vote of Council.

    If there were a timeline in the question that required the AMS to continue the action, this would be different.

    3) Moral obligation:

    Independent of whether the referendum meets quorum or passes (if it doesn’t get well over 50%, it may embolden certain organizations outside the AMS to increase tuition), there will be a moral obligation of some form on the AMS to heed the results. At least until such time as they get new data indicating the situation has changed or clarifying it. One complaint raised earlier is that this question looks for a knee-jerk response. Suppose the AMS were to run a follow-up survey of its members with more and better-thought-through questions, e.g. whether CPI would be OK, whether education should be free, what the biggest barriers are, what level would be “affordable”, under what conditions student loans should be repayable, etc. Assuming a similar response rate, I’d consider that to overrule the moral obligation aspect of the referendum.

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