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Whither the U of A: The Market Modifier

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Mustafa Farooq (3L)

As the summer of 2014 wound down, the debate around the U of A market modifier began to pick up. Students took brave and impassioned positions on both sides of the debate; petitions were organized, and the LSA was asked and eventually acquiesced to organize a town hall meeting. Students’ Union executives soon became involved in the issue, prompting senior administration to obtain legal counsel.

All of the above and, more importantly, some of the ramifications might seem confusing and rather alienating to those who haven’t spent some time looking at these issues. It was clear, indeed, that such was the case when only a handful of 1L students attended the LSA town hall meeting, when arguably the 1L students are the ones who will be most dramatically affected. This piece, then, is designed to explain the debate, the positions on both sides, and what some of the implications might be.

A market modifier, simply put, is a degree-specific tuition increase that attempts to tie the value of the tuition to the value of the degree. That still sounds complicated. Let’s try that again.

I transferred to the U of A from Osgoode Hall Law School. There, tuition was $22,672. (Here at the U of A, tuition is set at $11,484 for the 2014/2015 year.) However, and I do not mean to disparage the U of A in any particular way, Osgoode Hall operated in a way that encouraged undergraduate growth—in a way that the U of A does not. Osgoode Hall, McGill, and U of T, constantly trading places for the highest-ranked law schools in Canada, give their students consistent research opportunities, extracurricular experiences with government agencies and NGOs, and significant opportunities to network, article, and/or clerk with the firms of their choice.

This is not to say that the U of A is a poor school. Quite the opposite. I am enjoying myself here at the U of A, surrounded by a supportive peer group, my family, and certain exceptional faculty members. (Not to mention Alberta’s booming economy, in contrast to Ontario’s depressed one.)

However, the facts are the facts. Osgoode Hall’s Ignatt Kaneff Building is a shiny new glass and metal affair with the largest law library in the Commonwealth. I have seen the mice (I’m sure they’re friendly, though) scurry around in the U of A law library myself.

The argument, then, for a market modifier is simple. You get what you pay for. We can’t expect to produce a world-class institution when we charge the students half of what schools like Osgoode are charging. The market is such that we could argue, as the U of A Law administration has argued, for a 58% tuition increase to bring it “up to market.” At the same time, as students tend to get great jobs here in Alberta, the degree is “worth” that much more.

As early as 2010, the Law Students’ Association supported a market modifier proposal that was not deemed qualified by the Ministry. In April 2013, the LSA held a town hall meeting to discuss the tuition issue; it was clear that a large number, likely the majority in the room, were open to the notion of a tuition raise. Fast-forward to the collapse of the Redford administration. As the provincial Conservatives sat down to pick a new leader after the Redford fiasco in the summer of 2014, senior administrators told the law school that it would have to file for a market modifier by the end of August (although no date was formally disclosed). The LSA was given a deadline of September 6, 2014 to decide whether they would support the market modifier proposal.

The LSA decided to support the market modifier proposal, alongside Dean Paton, after securing support for things like increased career services and experiential learning opportunities, and a four-year moratorium on first-year enrollment. Because of the time line (few are on campus in the summer), however, the LSA was unable to conduct a town hall meeting. This prompted legitimate criticism, as some students argued they should have been consulted before the LSA signed on to a tuition increase of 58%. They demanded that a town hall meeting be held.

On September 4, 2014, the Alberta Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education set a revised deadline for the market modifier proposal. The Ministry invited Alberta universities to submit up to three proposals per institution for possible market modifier adjustments to tuition by October 15, 2014. After the new deadline was announced, Dean Paton and the LSA held their own separate town hall meetings to discuss the market modifier proposal.

Simultaneously, the LSA’s support for the market modifier created an issue with the Students’ Union (SU). The LSA, representing law students, operates as a faculty association (FA) under the broader SU. Under an SU bylaw, no FA can breach the SU’s political policy (of never advocating for a tuition increase) without first receiving approval from SU Council. The LSA executive, arguably, never received a clear mandate from the SU Council to push forward with the market modifier policy. In other words, the SU argued that the LSA had violated an SU policy; they have, since, pushed forward with a formal investigation of the LSA’s activities (which could, potentially at least, result in the derecognition of the LSA). Among other things, however, the SU announced its intent to investigate a potential breach of fiduciary responsibility by the LSA executive, prompting the Dean to retain legal counsel in the matter.

The irony, of course, is that much has been missed in the uproar of the debate. Is a market modifier (argued by some economists to be a clumsy way of addressing the issue) the best solution? Is the 58% increase the number we should go with? Can freezing enrollment at the U of A still help U of A students in light of firms increasingly taking graduates from other provinces? Will increasing tuition result in an improvement of our school, or are we simply funding a poor governance structure? Are there innovative solutions to address the students who cannot pay the new tuition levels: Osgoode, for example, has promised that JD students who meet a certain threshold, “will not pay tuition while at Osgoode, but will agree to repay the tuition when their income affords them the ability to do so. If their income never reaches that point, the loan will be completely forgiven.”

Simultaneously, the debate makes us ask serious and important questions about student governance. What does a model of adequate consultation look like? What should the scope of the student executive be? Should the SU change its policy on restricting FA’s to only advocate along SU lines? Should law students take a page out of Quebec’s book and consider more organized measures to disrupt tuition increases in general?

In the next two articles, you’ll read positions from both sides. These opinions are important, and will help you shape where you stand—but it is just as important to look critically and see what the likely ramifications might be for the future beyond the market modifier debate.

Editors’ Note: After this article was written, the LSA announced the results of an online survey on the market modifier proposal. A total of 192 students completed the survey. 58% of the participating students supported the market modifier proposal; 26% opposed, and 16% abstained. The survey also asked students to rank the importance of funding to various areas, including the hiring of additional professors and career services staff. The LSA has promised to communicate these results to the Faculty; this will ensure the market modifier proposal accommodates the priority areas that students have identified before the revised deadline of October 15, 2014. Canons will endeavour to keep you informed as this issue progresses.