An Edmonton judge has ruled that a tuition hike at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology was reasonable, but that the school breached its duty to consult with its students' association about the increase.
In February 2021, the NAIT Students' Association sought a judicial review of changes to the school's tuition structure for domestic students that took effect for the 2021-2022 school year, arguing that the increased fees some students were being asked to pay exceeded what was allowed under provincial law.
"We had a disagreement on, essentially, how new legislation that was inserted to existing legislation was interpreted, based on what other institutions were doing," said Jody Gylander, the association's vice president external, in an interview Monday.
"I am satisfied that a proper interpretation of the Act and the Regulation requires a conclusion [the additional fee cap] did not constrain the board and as a result, on a program level, tuition increases of more than 10 per cent were permissible in 2021-22," Henderson wrote.
The changes to the tuition fees made by NAIT for the 2021-2022 school year were twofold.
First, the NAIT board of governors approved the removal of a cap that had been in place that effectively provided a discount for full-time students not available to part-time students.
In an example provided to the court, the board explained that the full cost of a year's worth of full-time classes – 30 credits – was $4,830. But full-time students were only paying $4,030 because of the cap.
The board argued this was an unfair benefit for full-time students.
The school intended the change to be "revenue neutral" by decreasing per credit cost of some of its programs.
However, the board also brought in an overall tuition increase of roughly seven per cent.
Between the removal of the cap and the tuition increase, some NAIT programs saw tuition increases of 10 per cent or more.
To mitigate this, the school capped increases at 10 per cent for existing students, but many new, incoming students ended up paying over 10 per cent more for a program than they would have the year before.
Gylander said the association's hope in pursuing the action was to try and help keep school affordable.
"Life is getting more expensive every day and if we can provide a stable, known tuition or stable increases, I think that would be best for everyone," he said.
The other aspect of the student association's application was that NAIT hadn't properly consulted.
Henderson found in the association had the right to be consulted before the decision was made.
"I conclude that the failure to consult denied the students' association the opportunity to be heard in a meaningful way and resulted in a breach of procedural fairness," the judge said.
He left it to the students' association and the school to try to work out an agreement on the issue of procedural fairness.
Both Gylander and a NAIT spokesperson said they're committed to working together going forward.
In an emailed statement, NAIT spokesperson Nicole Graham echoed the sentiment.
"We are still reviewing the court's decision. In the meantime, we're talking with NAITSA and we look forward to resolving this together."
Students weigh in
On NAIT campus Monday, students had mixed feelings about the cost of attending the polytechnic.
"I think it's pretty expensive. It's hard with books and stuff," said second-year animal health technology student Lauren Askin.
Her classmate Tate Allen said the tuition increases have been tough to take.
"I don't remember getting much warning, and I feel like I don't really know where that money is going," Allen said.
But for some of the school's newer students, the cost of classes seems reasonable.
"In our program, we can definitely see where the money is going. We have a good amount of equipment and stuff that's useful for our program," said first-year television and radio student Ayman Hashem.
A few of Hashem's classmates CBC spoke with felt NAIT was more affordable than similar programs at other schools.
"I just moved here from B.C. and the prices are completely different and it's way better here," said Karis Jorgensen.