Increased tuition fees: a saga of underwhelming arguments


29 mei 2019
Auteur(s): Nicholas Johnston
The demographic of students attending KU Leuven from nationalities subjected to the increased price shall skew towards the wealthier.

by Nick Johnston

Soon in Leuven Editor

As readers likely know, beginning this academic year, the tuition fees for numerous programs were increased, in some cases up to 550%. Primarily international students from outside the European Economic Area were subject to the hikes. Those wanting details can refer to an article published recently in The Voice detailing policy specifics or may consult information organized by STuRa. A poll is being conducted soliciting the perspectives of students, and if previous polls are any indication, students will likely be opposed, and for good reason. The increased fees for non-EEA students contradicts the KU Leuven Association’s explicit commitment to diversity and internationalization and is buttressed by weak arguments. 

Announced last year, there was minimal discussion of the new policy among students. Only after the increases took effect did LOKO, StuRa, and various faculties begin holding info sessions and conducting polls. What has come to light regarding the administration’s reasoning is deeply worrying. Three arguments in favor of the new policy predominate. Each is unsatisfactory. So much so that we have to wonder if the problem is bad reasoning or bad faith.

The first of the arguments given is that international students have trouble adjusting here. From this they conclude that additional funds are needed to better accommodate our ‘psychosocial’ needs. This is a striking slap to common sense. Financial demands are often first among stresses managed by students. I think it’s safe to assume the increase shall leave more students sweating than ever. Moreover, should the university truly have concern about providing for psychosocial wellbeing they would have shown the Student Health Service to be struggling under a high student demand for psychological services, and proposing to expand this. However, they have not and they do not. What’s even worse is, there’s no way to know whether the money is being spent as planned. The StuRa report states clearly “The flow of money is more or less untraceable” since faculties manage their resources independently. So on the subject of psychosocial wellbeing we face a dual problem of inadequate justification and lack of transparency.

The second argument runs as follows: Belgian families pay taxes which go towards funding KU Leuven and students’ educations - thus internationals should pay more ‘in solidarity’ with the locals. Firstly, that’s a confusing perversion of the concept of solidarity. Secondly, it relies on a rhetoric which poses international students as freeloaders. However, the KU Leuven Association and Luc Sels have advanced a rhetoric of diversity and internationalization as a step to increase the profile and competitiveness of the university. Yet, on page 6 of the university’s Strategic Plan for 2017-2021, published prior to the price increases, international students are cited as a source of “value for the economy.” So which is it? Are internationals an asset or a drain? Who owes whom solidarity and how?

Though the lack of taxes paid by non-EEA students is cited as the legal reason for the change in policy allowing tuition increases, the Strategic Plan devised by the university cites primarily the need to attract ‘better’ international students by increasing the perception of quality through increased fees. So the explicit reasoning given by the university is this: concerned that KU Leuven may be perceived as ‘cheap’ - and thus underestimated and undervalued - they want to reassure outsiders of the quality of the institution with increased prices. They don’t claim that increased prices will guarantee quality, or that there is even a relation. Instead, the focus is on ‘perception.’ Increased fees, within this argument, are a tool for improving optics. They claim that potential students are irrational consumers and that the correct response is to indulge the prejudice that ‘expensive means quality.’ If we take the argument seriously this is a disappointing betrayal of academic values. They’d rather indulge and profit from misunderstanding than correct it.

To claim that the increased perception of quality that follows increased prices shall attract ‘better’ students means that the students they value are those that make the mistaken conflation between expense and quality. The practical consequence is that the demographic of students attending KU Leuven from nationalities subjected to the increased price shall skew towards the wealthier. If the ambition to increase diversity of the student population is genuine, the increase in prices appears contradictory. Perhaps a response to this critique would be that exemptions for students from a number of lower income countries is a buttress against economic favoritism. However, it remains the case that some of the most highly represented nations among foreign students are not exempt. We can expect, if anything, that we shall attract students from higher income populations, skewing the student population to be less diverse. Though many nations may still be represented in the student body, the students that come from these nations shall themselves be less representative. If KU Leuven’s idea of ‘better students’ is richer students, and if class is not a concern for diversity, then this would make sense.

What the KU Leuven Association, and the faculties and programmes that have instituted changes truly believe is hard to tell. Whether one argument was decisive in the decision making process that led us here can’t be demonstrated, so we are stuck with a few to parse. As this article has hoped to show, the arguments we are left with leave us troubled and questioning. A worst case scenario is that unsavory ambitions are being masked by half-baked arguments. The best case scenario is that those articulating reasons for the increases have not adequately or finally expressed themselves in a systematic way. Either way, students should rebuke what has been given and demand more.