Hitchcock-hosted tuition town halls draw small crowds

In her first public meeting since the provincial government’s unveiling of a new tuition framework, Principal Karen Hitchcock stressed the need for a partnership between the government and students.

Hitchcock hosted forums on Tuesday and Thursday to discuss the potential tuition increases Queen’s students could face next year and the effect they will have on the University.

In addition to approving capped tuition increases, the Ontario government has promised post-secondary institutions $6.2 billion dollars over the next five years provided they meet two conditions: any grants must go towards the improvement of education and the institution must participate in the Student Access Guarantee (SAG).

The guarantee is meant to ensure that no student will be prevented from attending a given school due to a lack of financial support programs, but the promise is still undefined in concrete terms.

When only 13 faculty and students turned out for the Tuesday meeting, the planned open forum and presentation were quickly modified to a much more informal round table discussion.

Hitchcock assured attendees that the tuition plan, which will run through 2010, will work on a predictable framework.

“No institution can go over a five per cent [average] increase,” Hitchcock said. “I want to hasten to add there have been no decisions made here.”

The official rise in tuition for Queen’s has not been set yet, but will be proposed to the Board of Trustees in May.

Among the major concerns voiced by students at the meeting were problems related to the rise of living expenses.

“Rent is going up, and the University is not doing anything about that,” said Seth Chitayat, PhD candidate in biochemistry.

Hitchcock said the rising cost of living is something the administration is taking into account.

“[We are] putting together a task force to look at housing,” she said. “We can’t ignore that cost.”

AMS President Ethan Rabidoux brought forward the concern that the effects of the tuition increase can’t easily be predicted.

But Hitchcock said it’s impossible to find out the consequences of tuition increases without raising tuition first.

“You raise the argument for being circumspect about this whole thing,” she said. “There’s no leisure to take two years and watch what happens in some other place.”

Patrick Deane, vice-principal (academic), spoke about a detrimental effect on the quality of education that can result from not raising tuition.

“[We could be] back to the dark years of Mike Harris very quickly,” he said, referring to budget cuts in the mid-1990s under Mike Harris’ Conservative government.

Regarding the need to ensure that accessibility is maintained, Jo-Anne Brady, University Registrar, said the socio-economic status of current students has been tracked through surveys since 2004.

“All applicants are asked to complete a voluntary survey [upon admission],” she said. “In the fall we’ll be able to give a report … it will give us a baseline, a benchmark.” Twenty-seven people attended yesterday’s forum, where the discussion centered on student representation on the Board of Trustees.

When Hitchcock and Deane were asked to sign a petition for greater representation on the Board—where students represent 4.5 per cent of the voting body—they both refused, saying the petition was too broad.

“I do support powerful student representation,” Hitchcock said, despite her decision not to sign.

Hitchcock also found herself the recipient of an unusual award.

Several students representing the Coalition for Accessible Education--Kingston presented Hitchcock with a “Golden Waffle Award” in the form of a poster and a 24-pack of waffles, for “her ability to waffle on any given issue.”

Hitchcock smiled upon receiving the award, but didn’t comment.

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