Faculty Affairs: Tuition update and discussion

Brett Hughes (2L) and Michael Robichaud (1L)

At the October 22 Faculty Council meeting, Interim Dean Jutta Brunnée said she will recommend to the University administration that tuition fees be increased by 5% next year, the maximum legally allowable amount. This amounts to a $1,500 increase, making for total first-year tuition and other fees of at least $33,000.

Brunnée said it is not in her mandate, as Interim Dean, to deviate from the tuition framework set out by former Dean Moran, which calls for 5% increases until at least 2017. Because the Faculty continues to increase spending across the board, in areas such as salary and program support, with near zero growth in public funding, it has required that students directly shoulder an increasing share of costs.

While the annual tuition update has generally been a perfunctory affair, Brunnée followed through on a motion passed last year that “Faculty Council will discuss the proposed tuition rate changes on an annual basis in advance of the Dean’s recommendation about the following year’s tuition rate changes.” Although Faculty Council is described as the “governing body of the law school,” it plays no formal role in tuition decisions. The motion ensures that Faculty Council members—professors and Students’ Law Society (SLS) representatives—have an opportunity to engage in dialogue on the issue.

Interim Dean Brunnée facilitated a frank and open discussion. She emphasized the limited nature of her mandate, but pointed to the decision to stop giving first-year students more financial aid than upper-years as an example of the short-term changes that were possible. Perhaps with knowledge of the next day’s announcement, Brunnée said she was “confident” the new dean would “continue the discussion.”

Padraigin Murphy—Vice President, Student Affairs and Governance—opened the SLS presentation by focusing on the growing gap between tuition and financial aid. In the three-year period ending 2013-14, tuition increased 16.5%. Over the same time period, according to the April 2014 “Financial Aid Report to Faculty Council,” the total pool of financial aid funds increased by only 5.5%. As a result, the percentage of deemed unmet financial need covered by bursaries has been falling.

Students with unmet financial need are expected to rely instead on credit obtained from private financial institutions. Although the Faculty will pay interest on some portion of private loans, it does nothing to ensure that students can access sufficient private credit in the first instance. Students may face challenges due to a lack of established credit, a lack of qualified co-signers, and credit ratings that don’t allow for a sufficiently large line of credit. The Faculty has turned away students in this situation.

Murphy illustrated the numbers with a personal story. Her credit rating suffered due to difficulties with undergraduate student debt. After deferring acceptance to U of T Law by one year, she increased her credit rating from “Poor” to “Good.” The Faculty’s preferred lender, Scotiabank, declined her Scotia Professional Student Plan application three times—prior to deferring, as well as before first-year and second-year. Asked afterwards how she paid for first-year, Murphy said her parents, with their house as collateral, helped her obtain just enough to cover first-year costs with a credit union line of credit. Less than a month before the payment deadline, with that credit exhausted, Murphy was unsure how she would afford second-year.

Incoming dean, Professor Edward Iacobucci, said later in the session that it is “not acceptable” to turn away prospective students with credit issues, and that doing so is “not consistent” with the Faculty’s mission. More generally, Iacobucci said there are two separate issues: the “size of the pot” and “allocation of the pot.” The administration needs to look into both increasing the total funds, as well as evaluating the “trade-offs” in the distribution of available funds. For example, one might ask whether the 90/10 split between up-front financial aid and back-end debt relief makes sense.

SLS President Natalie Lum-Tai delivered the second half of the student presentation. She focused on the links between rising debt levels and students’ mental health. As a possible short-term goal, Lum-Tai advocated for moving up the Financial Aid assessment, or allowing upper-years to also receive preliminary assessments. This would facilitate better financial planning for students, and alleviate the stress of not knowing how much financial aid one will receive until the school year has started.

Lum-Tai also discussed the effect of rising tuition on students’ career choices. Structural pressures from tuition debt, coupled with the Faculty’s underfunded back-end debt relief program, mean that students are not well positioned to pursue public interest work, she said. Lum-Tai stated that some employers report being less likely to consider U of T Law candidates, as the salaries they offer cannot service the debt load.

During open discussion, Professor Martha Shaffer suggested that it might be helpful to have a future Faculty Council meeting focus on the financial aid system, with a view to exploring and addressing some of these issues.

Future dean Iacobucci will have quite the mountain to climb if he hopes to make up for lost time, with so many years of the compounding gap seemingly locked in. Professor Ben Alarie highlighted this issue when he acknowledged, in response to a question, that the financial aid budget would often need to increase at a greater rate than tuition if the Faculty were to maintain accessibility levels.

The reason is two-fold. First, any changes to the socioeconomic composition of the class will affect aggregate unmet financial need. For example, admitting more low-income students in a given year requires a proportionally greater increase in the financial aid pot. Second, even if the class profile is identical year-over-year, students’ ability to pay will often not increase at the same rate as tuition. This may be due to stagnant parental income and increases in living expenses, for example. This would also call for a proportionally greater increase in the financial aid pot.