Student experience

SFU takes holistic approach to tackle student affordability

February 22, 2021
Food security is one of the ways SFU is working with the Simon Fraser Student Society and the Graduate Student Society to address the ever-increasing cost of a university education. The three partners are working together to look at holistic ways of making university more affordable. Photo: Simon Tse, SFU Food

University education is a pricey undertaking for students. Some are taking leave for financial reasons, others are working multiple jobs and amassing staggering debt to pay for their studies.

In what may be a first in Canada, SFU has partnered with its student associations to address affordability holistically, working to mitigate non-tuition-related costs and make the university experience more affordable and accessible to all students.

“Post-secondary education is becoming more and more unaffordable,” says Osob Mohamed, outgoing president of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS). “More of our students are having to take out life-altering amounts in student loans and work multiple jobs. They struggle to get through their time at SFU.”

The student affordability working group was launched in 2020, with representatives from SFU, SFSS and the Graduate Student Society (GSS). The working group was tasked with creating a plan that will include proposals for reducing costs to students and for improving financial assistance for those in need.

“If we want to make sure that people have equitable access to education, we need to look at affordability holistically,” says Tracey Mason-Innes, executive director of student affairs. “We know there are certain groups of students that are unable to take-in the full university experience because of affordability.”

Students face numerous costs—many of which cannot be avoided—that have a direct impact on their bank accounts. Examples include: tuition and fees; textbooks; locker rental; photocopying and printing charges; housing; and food. There are also indirect costs, like commuting time and the need to find off-campus employment, that result in students losing opportunities to earn money or that require them to spend more time completing their programs.

The working group selects specific projects from within the student affordability plan and investigates their feasibility. They then work with relevant units to implement projects, and report on results. Since the fall, the working group looked at three broad areas—open educational resources, financial predictability and food security.

Matt McDonald, outgoing GSS director of external relations, says the student affordability working group is the first of its kind in Canada. It uses an innovative and student-inclusive approach to solving an increasingly urgent problem.

“It represents a clear acknowledgement by administrators and student groups alike that affordability has become a priority issue, and that the best way to make progress is to work together,” McDonald says. “Students learn best when they aren't constantly worried about money, and so through this committee's work we'd like to see a future where more time can be spent on academic success and less on financial stress.”

In the future, Mason-Innes says, the working group will continue to look at other broad areas, including at financial aid and awards; removing some of the structural barriers for equity deserving groups; and the costs of student housing and health plans.