At several Ontarian post-secondary institutions, including Western, many students may not be aware they're paying for education they don’t always receive.
Western University considers undergraduate students taking 3.5 credits or more to be full-time students. Western's current tuition model charges all full-time undergraduate students taking 4.0 credits or more a flat per-program fee. The flat fee is calculated according to the normal course load: 5.0 credits for most undergraduate programs. Accordingly, full-time students who choose to take 4.0 credits pay for a credit they don’t take, while students who choose to overload with 6.0 credits take a free credit.
The current provincial tuition fee framework mandated by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities requires that universities charge all part-time students a per-credit tuition fee. Released in 2013-14 and kept in place since, the framework set a threshold at which universities can charge full-time undergraduate students a flat fee.
The threshold was set at 80 per cent — 4.0 of 5.0 credits at Western — effective during the 2016-17 school year. Therefore, Western full-time students taking 3.5 to 3.75 credits per academic year have been able to request a per-credit tuition fee starting in 2016-17. Certain cohort-based programs are excepted from this rule, such as Western’s engineering program, and continue to charge a flat fee starting at a 3.5-credit course load.
Other universities, such as Queen’s University and McMaster University, use the same tuition framework for both full-time and part-time students. They charge full-time undergraduate students a per-credit tuition fee that is calculated according to the number of credits a student chooses to take.
A few universities use a hybrid of both models to calculate full-time tuition. These universities charge tuition based on one framework, but for certain programs, they use the other framework. For example, the University of Waterloo charges tuition on a per-credit basis for all undergraduate programs except for engineering, for which they charge a flat rate.
While certain universities, such as McMaster, charge a per-credit fee for every overloaded credit, other universities, such as Waterloo, cap the number of credits students can be charged for, so any credits above the normal course load are free.
In addition, universities determine per-credit fees depending either on students' programs of study, as Western does, or on the courses themselves. Calculating course costs based on students’ programs means students are charged a set fee for any course they choose to take based on their programs. On the other hand, charging course costs based on the courses themselves means each course has a set fee and all students are charged the same price for a certain course, regardless of their program of study.
What does this mean for students?
A flat tuition fee for full-time students provides an advantage for students who choose to take more than 5.0 credits while disadvantaging students who choose to take 4.0 to 4.75 credits per academic year. A per-credit model requires that all students pay for exactly the education they receive, not extending such a financial advantage or disadvantage to any students.
Specifically, Western domestic students in first-entry degree programs who choose to take 4.0 or 4.5 credits pay $672 or $1,345, respectively, in extra tuition for unreceived education, while those who choose to take 5.5 or 6.0 credits take courses worth those same amounts for free. First-entry cohort-based degree programs are charged a flat fee starting at a 3.5 course load, resulting in higher tuition differences. For example, domestic engineering students who take less than 5.0 courses can be charged anywhere from $1,366 to $4,098 in extra tuition.
These numbers are much higher for international students. First-year international students in most first-entry degree programs taking 4.0 or 4.5 credits are charged $2,874 or $5,748, respectively, in extra tuition. More significantly, a first-year international management and organizational studies student taking 4.0 or 4.5 credits are charged $3,447 or $6,895, respectively, while a fourth-year international engineering student taking 3.5 or 4.0 credits pays $6,587 or $9,881, respectively, in extra tuition.
As mentioned previously, students who choose to overload are able to take credits worth these same amounts for free. Further, these numbers don’t include differences in ancillary fees, which are also charged as a set fee for full-time students taking more than 4.0 credits and at a per-credit rate for all students taking less than that.
Western's undergraduate domestic tuition for 2018/19 academic year
Western vice-provost university registrar Glen Tigert explained that using flat program fees is a simpler process that allows students some flexibility in the number of credits taken without requiring tuition fee adjustments. He added it motivates students to maintain an increased course load.
“It encourages them to progress with their degree completion in a more timely fashion,” said Tigert.
Mikaela Harrison, communications officer for the University Students’ Council, explained the council’s stance on tuition models reflects that of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance Tuition policy paper published in fall 2018. USC vice-president Danny Chang and USC associate vice-president co-authored the paper.
“The provincial government should mandate that all post-secondary institutions use a per-credit billing structure assessed at the rate of a course’s department rather than program of study,” the paper stated. “The per-credit model provides equal opportunity and allows students to reduce their per-year tuition. Some students will opt to spread their degree over more years to reduce yearly costs by taking a reduced course load. The per-credit model allows for such flexibility, while the flat fee model imposes a significant financial load on students who may be unable or unwilling to take a full course load.”
The paper adds the provincial government should provide financial grants to help universities adjust for potential losses that result from changing from a flat fee to a per-credit model. While universities could also adjust by increasing students’ tuition fees, Western domestic fees have been increasing at the maximum allowed annual rate of three per cent for the past few years. This rate is higher than the inflation rate, which results in increasing the universities’ dependence on tuition revenue over time.
Further, the paper explains that calculating course costs based on students’ programs rather than the courses themselves may deter students from taking elective or breadth courses, adding that all students should pay the same amount for the same course. Specifically, a Western engineering student and a health sciences student taking less than 4.0 credits pay $1,366 or $672 for the same 0.5 English elective course, respectively.
“I think accurately reflecting the cost of education is fair, particularly given that students may be taking less courses to be able to alleviate [financial pressures],” said Chang. Of the OUSA schools, only Western, Brock University and Laurentian University use a flat fee tuition model.
Chang added that although the USC has not had conversations with Western administration specifically about their tuition model, it has been brought up within larger conversations related to tuition and fees.
“They are always concerned about affordability for students, [but] I’m sure the 10 per cent reduction to tuition is a big thought on their mind right now,” said Chang.