Shedding Light on the Increase of Tuition Fees!

Background & Perspectives

17 april 2019
Auteur(s): Nicholas Johnston
Almost overnight, school fees increased for some programmes from 922€ to 6,000€. The measures have been taken arbitrarily, varied between faculties, and given unique justifications for their measures.

by Nick Johnston & Seyhan Kâyha

As of the 2018-2019 academic year, the tuition situation at the KU Leuven changed dramatically. In previous years, with a few exceptions, the majority of faculties had tuition fees which were equivalent between citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) and those from outside the EEA. However, beginning in the fall of 2018, for many faculties this changed significantly. The change which was instituted this year came as a surprise to many, and the details surrounding the reasoning behind it, and the future of the policy remain a matter for discussion and inquiry. Information about the policy, developments in different faculties, and student response has yet to be collected and organized in writing yet, and so some investigation has been necessary to do so. This is of major importance, as the increase fees increase for some programmes from 922 euro to 6,000 euro per year. The measures which have been taken appear arbitrary, varying significantly between faculties, giving unique justifications to their measures. With the significance of the international student population at the KU Leuven, it is a wonder that so little has been done or said, by students and administration alike.

The case of tuition increases for non-EEA students should be put into a broader context before the details of the policies and other developments are presented. Thus we will give some historical background, and numbers about the international at the university. A little over a century after the university’s establishment in 1425, at a time when the university had only 2,000 students, 200 were international. French was the primary language of instruction and administration for centuries. In 1911 Dutch began to slowly be introduced until the tumultuous year of 1968 when Flemish popular unrest led to the Francophone establishment splitting and moving to Louvain-La-Neuve. Since then Leuven has been a primarily Dutch speaking university.

Given its history, a notable focus among leadership and locals has been to view the university as a steward and bulwark for the survival and relevance of the Dutch language professionally and academically. The tumultuous intersection between politics, academics, and linguistic concerns continues to echo from 1968. Conservative student groups like KVHV have held events hinting at fears of anglicization such as one recently titled “Colloquium: 50 Jaar Leuven Vlaams, Leuven Engels?” hinting at an anticipated anglicization. Comments from rectors mirror this concern. Luc Sels as well as the former rector Rik Torfs each regarded anglicization as a result of over internationalization as undesirable. At even higher levels, the linguistic policies which affect internationalization have origins in decisions made by the government.

The Belgian government limits the share of subjects available in languages other than Dutch to just 18.33% of all bachelor subjects. Moreover, all courses offered in a foreign language at the bachelor level need to be matched by a full Dutch language equivalent. The negotiations between university and the state play a decisive role in the internationalisation at the level of students as well as faculty seeking permanent employment, who have to demonstrate Dutch proficiency at a B2 level. Specifically relating to the case of tuition fees, it is not within the university’s power to increase tuition differentially for other EEA citizens. When it comes to students outside the EEA, decisions about tuition fees since 2014 have been decided on a faculty by faculty basis - including the most recent changes. This means that different international populations were or will be affected differently, based on faculty prerogative. Some faculties such as economics for example, have had continual debates over the matter. Though the KU Leuven has final decision to approve these choices. However, the overall international numbers are predominantly affected by policy determined at the university level, in the context of limitations decided in the political arena.

Internationals make up a considerable portion of both students and faculty these days, and the vision of the future that the current rector holds portends increasing internationalisation. In 2017, 2,440 of 12,014 KU Leuven staff did not have Belgian nationality. In the same year, international students made up 17.9% of the student body, at 10,288 out of 57,457 in total. Of international students over 1,800 are Dutch. After this, in descending order, some of the highest represented nationalities are Chinese, Italian, Indian, Spanish, German, US American, and then Turkish, and so on. To compare with universities in Flanders and Brussels, 10% of UGent’s 41,879 students are not Belgian, with 58% originating from EU-countries. University of Antwerp is the third largest university in Flanders with 21,100 students, 13% of which internationals. Having a look at the two universities in Brussels, 20.5% of VUB’s 15,865 students are internationals with 52% coming from EU-countries. Whereas the 26,000 students studying at ULB, 33% are foreigners.

Leadership in the university has explicitly commit itself to diversity and internationalization in recent statements since the campaign by Luc Sels for position of rector. His programme featured a declaration that under his rectorship, the university would sharpen their international ambitions. In his programme he criticized the university for holding itself back. Sels argued that the foreign language offerings were too limited. As a successful case example he pointed to the KU Leuven Brussels campus which has a “Bachelor of Business Administration which is popular among the international community of expatriates, EU and NATO officials, and diplomats.

Thus, Sels argues that the university can allow itself a more ‘economic approach’ to thinking about admitting increased numbers of international students and faculty. The programme on which he campaigned made clear its opposition to the “inefficiency” of government restrictions. Though wary of an anglicization of the university, and remaining expressly committed to cultivating and defending Dutch as an academic discipline, Sels’ platform posed itself as desiring to increase the share of international students, in contrast to the preceding status quo. This commitment intersected with statements about diversity that Sels made, for example, that the KU Leuven was “too white” in a 2016 interview with the Voice.

Recent developments can trace their origins to a change in legislation in Flanders in 2014. It was then that the Flemish government decided that fees for non-EEA students could be increased depending on the individual university’s desires. Here, in the last few years the full time registration fee was at around 900 euro. For the academic year of 2019-2020 the regular registration fee will increase to about 938 euro. There are of course a number of exceptions which can be consulted online at the KU Leuven’s website. However, the most significant increases came in 2018. Students coming from beyond the European Economic Area, especially those enrolled in Master’s programs have and will be among the most affected. 11 of 16 faculties have one or more programs with increased fees. Prior to the 2018 tuition increase, by and large there was parity between student populations and tuition price.

The changes affected dozens of programs. We can’t list them all here, so the curious can look online. In general, the new tuition fees were raised to one of three levels, either 1,750, 3,500, or 6,000 euro. 

Programs affected ranged from those with high populations of international students like numerous engineering programs, to Master programs with few international students. For instance “Agro- and Ecosystems Engineering” had only 4 internationals admitted in the academic year of 2017, no one coming from an affected country. Yet, the fees have been increased from 922 euro to 6,000 euro. There are a number of exceptions and details however that should be mentioned. Some Master’s programs, such as Erasmus Mundus and MaNaMa increased fees to all students, EEA or not. However, other legislation and funding mechanisms determine the cost of these programs. Though the university organizes information about these programs side by side with others online on the ‘Special Registration Fees’ page - they are distinct. Aside from this distinction there are a number of other details that determine who is affected.

One notable factor that determines those affected is the Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) list of recipients of Official Development Assistance (ODA). Different faculties use the categories from the DAC’s list to determine which students would or would not be exempted on financial grounds. The list demarcates 4 categories, Least Developed, Other Low Income, Lower Middle Income, and Upper Middle Income states. 

The per capita Gross National Income of states determines their status with Least and Lower Income under $1,045, Lower Middle above that until $4,125, and Upper Middle Income states with income until $12,745. Some faculties exempt different categories with higher or lower threshold based on faculty prerogative. The students exempt from the increased tuition fees would instead pay the price paid by EEA students.

Which countries the faculties are waiving from the increase can be found on the homepage of the respective program or faculty. For instance, the faculty of engineering writes “A limited number of waivers down to the regular registration fee will be granted to excellent candidates, based on proof of academic excellence, language proficiency and motivation. Every non-EEA student will be automatically considered for a waiver so you do not need to apply for a waiver yourself.” The faculty of philosophy waives the increased fees for the Least Developed and Other Low Income countries in the DAC list and students and reaching good grades. The faculty of bioscience engineering waives the increased fees for all four columns of the DAC list. The faculty of architecture listed three criterias to partially waive the tuition fees, if the student either proves that they are dealing with socio-economic problems (documented and translated by a sworn translator to English or one of Belgium's three official languages), or the student is a recipient of a scholarship which does not already include the payment of the tuition fee. For those wondering about students with refugee status, their status has not been affected and fee waivers remain obligatory by law in Belgium.

Supporters of the increased fees argue, that the increased fees won’t have any effect, as the prospective students from richer countries can afford higher fees and the students from low income countries would might these fees waived. This nurtures a simplistic thought that poor people only live in poor countries. Though research complicates and challenges this view. The World Bank reported that the income inequalities between countries is decreasing, whilst the income inequalities within countries is rising. In other words, a person can come from a country classified as high income (eg. Russia, Japan, USA etc.), but still be poor. An increase of the tuition fees does not take the students qualities into account, but their (parents’) wallet. Hence, an increase of the tuition fees remain above all a socio-economic selection. Or as a speaker during the event ‘The OtherStory’ at Pangaea explained: “I know that in my life, the hardest obstacle has been the lack of money, and my whole enterprise of studying has been always limited by it [...] Had they done this two years ago, I would not have been able to come at all.”

In October 2018, the umbrella organization of the student associations (LOKO), the student council of KU Leuven (StuRa) and Pangaea partnered up for the organization of the Assembly For International Students. AFIS served the purpose to offer a platform for exchanging ‘innovative ideas, dreams, needs, but also concerns and frustrations’. Scheduled from 6 to 8 pm, it finally ended around 10 pm, because the discussion on tuition fees dominated the event by taking about one and a half hours. Later, in December 2018, a dedicated debate was organized by StuRa for discussing the issue on tuition fees separately. The event had two parts: First, StuRa explained some of the particularities of the increase and were available for a question and answer round. In the second part, students could meet their representatives and express their concerns and opinions. This, of course, required the presence of the representatives. StuRa could not provide insights on the reasoning, why multiple faculties had the sudden urge for such a steep increase of the tuition fees, as there was no information available. This lack of explanation trailed throughout the whole debate. The reasoning from the university clarifying the sudden urge for a steep increase of tuition fees, underpinned with facts and expected results from the new admission policy is lacking. Open communication from administration about the challenges the university or its (international) students face would have aided the debate to be based on facts, to get to the root of the problem.  No such official or public statement be found. Yet one would expect this from a publicly funded institution. It seems as if the administration has simply given up the price-egalitarian admission principles and is favoring selection by economic means.  Finally, the debate was an informal gathering, the assembly did not have the right to take a substantive stance. Though there was extensive consideration of organizing a university-wide poll to capture the opinion of the students on this matter.  This would be a necessary step legitimize StuRa’s position by the students themselves.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Philosophy has seen substantial interest in these developments, as both bachelors and masters students are affected by an over 300% price increase. International students comprise about half of the over 900 students at the institute. In a spring 2018 article in Veto, some students from the faculty investigated. In the article, dean of the HIW Gerd Van Riel was quoted, giving insight into motivations of the institute to increase prices. He cited the need to offer “psychosocial support and personal coaching” as an impetus for increasing tuition fees. He stated that compared to other nations like the United States, Canada, and the UK, KU Leuven was still affordable. Riel stated ‘So far, there have been no negative or angry responses.’ Though this may have been true at the time, things have begun to change.

A faculty-wide poll was conducted by the NFK in December 2018 after rising interest from students raising the subject at open education meetings. Of over 120 responses, 70% were opposed to the tuition increase, about 20% were in favor, and about 10% were undecided. Nearly 70% of respondents took issue with the countries exempted, most thinking the list did not exclude enough, though 17% of respondents said that too many nations were exempt. Perhaps most striking were responses regarding the clarity of the HIW in its policies. When asked “Do you think the faculty is clear enough about their policy on spending the extra money gained by increasing tuition fees?” 51.6% of respondents said ‘no’, with 33.6% saying “I don’t know”, and 13.1% undecided. This left only 2 respondents of 122 saying they felt the faculty was clear about their policy and spending, 1.6% of respondents.

Though as we have discussed, there have been a few cases of student engagement, education, and outreach on the subject, ignorance and confusion on the subject is endemic. In tandem with comments at the AFIS meeting, and the debate hosted by StuRa, it is clear that transparency and education of students is a serious issue. Yet if the HIW poll is any indicator, we can expect that once informed, students are largely opposed to the trend of increasing tuition fees, and also opposed to the comprehensiveness of the policies of exemption. Though it remains to be seen, unless polls are conducted either at other faculties or at a university wide level, Student Representation does not seem likely to take a stance on the matter. In the absence of student intervention, we can expect the policy to stand and potentially continue or extend depending on how faculties appraise the success of the changes they instituted. Though even that is hard to say, considering the dearth of resources.

This text was edited to correct some inaccuracies and to clarify some ambiguities. Since the publication of this article the first time, we have since amended it to accomplish the following:

  1. Emphasize that Erasmus Mundus and MaNaMa programs have distinct legislation and funding from other programs.
  2. Emphasize the role of legislation in 2014 in making subsequent increases possible, and that faculties have since then been autonomous in deciding what to increase.
  3. Correct that fee waivers afforded to refugee students are required by law - and not a feature of recent increases.
  4. Remove claim that AFIS was on ‘hiatus.’