Twelve programs at the University of Alberta could see tuition fee increases of between 17 and 104 per cent, starting in the fall of 2022.
The proposed increases would affect students entering law, pharmacy, dentistry, engineering, business, radiation therapy, medical laboratory science and counselling psychology programs.
The University of Alberta Students' Union and the University of Alberta Graduate Students' Association called the hikes "egregious" and "extreme" in a news release on Monday.
In a Zoom conference with reporters on Wednesday, U of A provost and vice-president academic Steven Dew said the increases apply to a small number of professional programs — ones with "significantly lower" tuition fees than those at peer institutions.
Higher education experts say the hikes may be fair, targeting students pursuing lucrative career paths, but they could also disproportionately affect people with low incomes looking to enter those fields.
Hikes not supposed to be cash grabs
Tuition increases are capped at seven per cent, but the Alberta Tuition Framework allows schools to apply to the Minister of Advanced Education for exceptional hikes "if the increased tuition would result in improvements in program quality."
Dew said the increases are designed to improve programs, possibly by hiring more faculty members, increasing bursaries and expanding experiential learning.
He said the provincial government's policies and the MacKinnon Panel — tasked with examining its finances — support shifting post-secondary education costs from taxpayers to students.
"That does cause us to look at all of our programs to make sure our tuition does reflect the cost of delivery," he said.
Students speak up
Anthony Kapelke, president of the Alberta Pharmacy Students' Association, said he does not support the increases but appreciates that his faculty is consulting students.
"We've been quite pleased with how the faculty has approached our discussions," he said Wednesday in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
Gavin Wilkes, first-year representative for the Indigenous Law Students' Association, said higher tuition could prevent people with low incomes from entering law school and becoming lawyers.
If the proposed increases are approved, law tuition would rise from $11,701 to $16,967 per year, a hike of 45 per cent.
"If I saw that tuition was close to $17,000, I wouldn't have applied," Wilkes said.
Three post-secondary funding experts told CBC News concerns over the equity of access are valid.
"Poorer students are more likely to have their behaviour affected by increases in tuition," said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.
Clayton Smith, a strategic enrolment management consultant and professor at the University of Windsor, said the increases could be justified if tied to program improvements and adequate financial supports for disadvantaged students.
Ken Coates, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said schools raising tuition need to make a concerted effort to funnel some of those funds toward financial aid.
Though the increases will mean more debt for students, Usher said, that doesn't mean the programs are a bad deal in the long run.
Professional programs may come with a higher price tag, but they can also lead grads to high salaries after graduation.
Dew said students and other stakeholders will be consulted in the coming weeks.
Taylor Hides, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Advanced Education, said the ministry is committed to keeping post-secondary education accessible and thoroughly evaluates the potential implications of any tuition increase proposal.