by Seyhan Kâhya
The increase of tuition fees is the change in KUL’s policy that is affecting prospective international students the most. With minimal logic, the KUL administration increased the tuition fees for non-EEA students from €922 per year to either €1750, €3500, or €6000 per year, depending on the faculty. Caring less and less about price-egalitarian admission policies, the length of KU Leuven’s list of programmes with ‘special registration fees’ leaped from 14 programmes to a total of 51 programmes for this academic year, not counting special degrees such as Erasmus mundus programmes.
Stijn Carpentier, the responsible body for internationals (‘mandataris internationaal’) in KU Leuven’s student council (‘StuRa’) stated to Veto in September 2018 the intention to organize a forum for gathering opinions. In fact, this has occurred three times: first in October 2018 with the AFIS meeting, then in December 2018, with the debate on tuition fees, and most recently in March 2019 with the survey.
This survey could be used to capture and evaluate the perspectives of students. It could represent students, in their plurality. The answers could be used to prepare for negotiations or a campaign. Could - if only there had been a will. Hence, the questionnaire begins by testing the respondent’s knowledge of how many non-EEA students are not being affected. StuRa’s information page states that currently 5,000 non-EEA students are enrolled at KU Leuven and 1,291 of them paid the increased fees. However, the 5,000 is slightly misleading since our inquiries have shown that currently 4,873 non-EEA students are enrolled, including exchange students. Furthermore, these numbers include students who were grandfathered because they started their degree prior to the increase. At this point, it would be relevant to know the numbers of freshly admitted non-EEA students for a full degree compared to students who paid the increased fees.
The survey continues with a series of questions asking whether one agrees and accepts KU Leuven’s line of thought to attract ‘more and better students’ by increasing the tuition fees. The survey misses an opportunity to take a socio-economic snapshot of the student population and to assess and value the opinion of less fortunate students. This would be important, since firstly, less fortunate individuals are struck the hardest by this increase and increasing the tuition fee is a socio-economic selection procedure. These socio-economic factors have, for instance, been taken into account in the debates on tuition fees for internationals at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. The results of their survey were later used as arguments in negotiations with the ETH Zurich’s administration. This could also be a useful case for us. After all, should not those most affected have a substantial voice? Stijn Carpentier, as the responsible body for internationals, has responded: “We can not - and do not want to - value someone's responses based upon whether or not they fall in a specific financial category to form an opinion on this matter.” Overall, the questionnaire has the character of evaluating the participant’s alignment with the KU Leuven’s line of argument more than as a tool for student representation and to prepare for future negotiations.
Concurrently with the survey, the student unions devoted one hour of their open education meetings to provide information. As a student of bioscience engineering, I have attended the discussion of LBK. From the beginning we were told that we were going to talk about ideas rather than facts and reasons for the increase, since these ideas were not communicated by the KU Leuven administration. Mandate holders of LBK expressed opinions favouring the increase by expressing their belief that increased fees would actually lead to more students, as has been shown in the faculty of engineering.
We have contacted KU Leuven’s Education Data Management Unit on the subject and received the response: “There is no solid basis to say that any faculty suddenly attracted more EEA or non-EEA students in master programs in the last five years.” Furthermore, it has been argued that international students would require more psychological help, and that would justify the increase of up to €6000. The Education Data Management Unit of KU Leuven has also inquired whether non-EEA students make more use of the psychological services of the KU Leuven. We received the reply that “there is no indication that non-Belgian EEA-students or non-EEA-students make more use of KU Leuven psychiatrists and psychologists than Belgian students.” It is worrying that student representatives did not care about fact checking, data, and did not value evidence-based politics. Was the administration of KU Leuven even doing so? We are still waiting for their evidence-based justifications for the increase.
An academic year has almost passed without any action against the increased tuition fees. Info sessions have been organized repeatedly, and opinions gathered, but without a stance being taken. There has been no student representative standing up and raising their voice to say that the whole discourse is neither evidence based nor worthy of the reputation of an institution such as ours. I would have expected that student representatives would see internationals as students too, and show solidarity with us from the beginning. We, however, remain nothing but a number whose purpose is to polish rankings and statistics rather than to be peers to our Flemish friends. As long as this remains the case, the motto of KU Leuven to be ‘truly international’ seems the same as the whole discourse: nothing but lip service. It is time that internationals get real representation by KU Leuven’s student bodies. A representation that does not let a whole year pass until actions are taken.