What are “market modifiers” and what does this process mean for students?

Navneet Khinda - Mon Aug 25, 2014

A Quick Summary
Market modifiers are tuition increases applied differentially to a respective faculty. The attempt to justify their use is based on perceived market anomalies. They go around the legislated tuition cap, thereby highlighting loopholes in Alberta’s legislation.

The Students’ Union believes that students know what is best for them, but we also believe in good process. A referendum or a plebiscite is the best, if not only, way of gauging student opinion on such an important issue, in the clearest manner. This is an important part of process that ensures our tuition and fees are not increased without appropriate consultation and sound reasoning.

However, University administrations (currently the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary) and the Government of Alberta (Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education) are changing the deadlines for the submission of a market modifier proposal, making it impossible for students to be consulted. This ultimately disregards process that ensures fairness and trust between all stakeholders.

There are many questions about what’s going on at the University of Alberta regarding a proposed market modifier for the Faculty of Law. In order to have a better understanding of what’s going on at the U of A, it’s important to look at the larger provincial context. I’ll begin with some background and then explain what’s happening locally.

Context – Provincial Legislation and SU Bylaws
In Alberta, an official group representing students must exist according to law (The Post Secondary Learning Act). Therefore, we have a Students’ Union (SU) acting as the official representative of students at a given institution. So, when someone asks the question, “what do students think?” or when negotiations must be held on behalf of students, the SU is the official voice.

Faculty Associations (FAs), such as the Law Students’ Association or the Interdepartmental Science Student Association (ISSS), also represent students in their respective faculties, but in a more narrow scope. They are extremely important since they are the closest representatives to their constituency. Their representative authority is delegated from the Students’ Union due to a combination of Provincial legislation and SU bylaw.

The power of an FA is delegated from us and not directly from legislation, so FAs “shall not advocate on issues in contradiction to Students’ Union political policy, unless they have first presented to and received approval from Students’ Council”. This means that FAs and the SU must work together. However, the SU sincerely understands that different faculties have different needs and can’t always have a uniform stance. Thus, we are open to differing points of view when it comes to issues such as tuition. Nevertheless, this means that at the bare minimum, students must be consulted properly and thoroughly. That is the minimum standard that must be met if an FA is going to differ from SU policy. It is simply good process.

(Un)Regulated Tuition in Alberta
In the media, we have explained that the introduction of market modifiers is surprising, worrisome, and has blindsided us. I’ll explain why this is so:

In 2006, the government tied tuition increases to the rate of inflation. This policy has provided a good measure of predictability for students and families throughout the last decade.

Market modifiers were then introduced in 2010 as a way to correct any perceived anomalies as a result of tuition caps and freezes. Thus, institutions were allowed to apply for a one-time increase.

Note the phrase “one-time”.

These modifiers are essentially differential tuition increases. They effectively go around the regulations set in place to cap tuition. Similarly, loopholes exist in the PSLA Tuition & Fees Regulation, which allow for additional fees, known as mandatory non-instructional fees (MNIFs), to be put in place. Combining the cost of fees and tuition, Alberta has some of the highest costs of education in the country.

The current Provincial Context
Premier Hancock, also the Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education (IAE), said he is in favour of accepting new proposals for market modifiers. Over the summer, I’ve been working with the Department of IAE discussing items related to tuition and fees and providing feedback. “Market modifiers” were never on the table until mid-July when the Premier decided he would start accepting proposals. This is “blindsiding” us since the decision came out of the blue -- it is unacceptable that a consultative route established for this very purpose was being sidestepped.

Second, The deadlines now appear to be different. We were initially informed that proposals would only be accepted in mid-October. Even though market modifiers are not acceptable, at the very least this would give us time to consult students. Now, the U of A Faculty of Law is being pressured to have their proposal completed by the end of August.

University of Alberta – the Law Students’ Association
We have been in close contact with the LSA over the last week or so, since we are all trying to navigate what is happening.

In order to understand why the timeline was shortened, the SU executives had a meeting with the Dean of Law and the LSA Executive where we learned about the planned process. We also had one meeting with the Provost at the Tuition and Budget Advisory Committee (TBAC). Here, we were notified that the market modifier proposals were being written; the actual proposal was not available at either meeting, including the meeting of Students’ Council where the Dean made a presentation.

It is not enough to say that the LSA executives saw the proposal and agreed to it (a letter of support was sent from the LSA to the Provost). We need to make sure that students who are affected by the tuition increase actually have a say. Since school doesn’t start until September, that is very difficult to do.

There has been some confusion about why the SU wants to slow this process down if the respective FA truly “knows what’s best”. For the most part, elected student representatives do know what students need. Yet, when it comes to massive changes, especially those including tuition increases of upwards of thousands of dollars, it’s disingenuous to say we know all students’ opinions.

Consider this: the SU knows that students generally approve paying for a U-Pass. However, if the service providers said we had to start charging students $1000 for a U-Pass, we cannot just assume that all students would still want the service. This is why we run a referendum. Process is important.

Good consultation means there must be substantial evidence, not of the anecdotal version, that students agree or disagree with a given proposal. The most effective way to do this is to have a plebiscite or a referendum.

As the Vice President External, it is my job to ensure that students’ voices are heard and respected. If law students believe a tuition hike is the right thing for them, then they should follow sound process. After all, this issue is not limited to the LSA and its faculty; what happens in this situation will affect others.

Potential Ramifications
This isn’t just about the U of A. The University of Calgary is facing something very similar. If the administrations of our institutions and the Ministry of IAE accept this standard of consultation as appropriate, we run the risk of it becoming the norm.

Despite prior conversations about increasing law tuition, the fact of the matter remains that this current proposal for a 58% increase was written this week. The general student body in the Faculty of Law has not had a chance to adequately reflect on the proposal or debate its conditions. It is a new proposal and that demands there be renewed consultation.

Furthermore, in 2010, a number of U of A faculties were hit with a market modifier: Bachelor of Commerce, Engineering, Graduate Studies, and Pharmacy. Students at that time were also promised a number of conditions that would improve their experience, yet there was little follow-through on the part of the institution to demonstrate this. We’re worried the same thing will happen again.

At the end of the day, the Students’ Union believes the Government of Alberta should not go around legislation and increase tuition beyond the rate of inflation. We believe that loopholes which allow for this to happen should be closed.

In the interim, I think a reasonable solution is to ensure good process is followed – that the time is taken to actively and adequately consult any students who will be affected by a tuition increase. We stand by the principles of predictability, accountability, affordability, and accessibility. We expect our institutions and the Provincial government to do the same.


Navneet Khinda Vice President External, University of Alberta Students’ Union
Chair, Council of Alberta University Students

For more information, take a look at some of the following media stories:

The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald
The Gateway
Metro Edmonton