Paying a Premium

Graduate students at a Canadian university question the use of commissioned agents and whether prospective international students are being steered into “premium tuition” programs that are not the best academic fit.

June 27, 2013

A group of former students who failed out of a graduate computer engineering program in Canada that predominantly enrolls Chinese students have complained that the program was exploitative. The program is one of four graduate engineering programs at Newfoundland’s Memorial University that requires the bulk of the cost to be paid in an upfront, nonrefundable “premium tuition fee” rather than on a semesterly basis.

The four programs -- in computer engineering, engineering management, environmental systems engineering, and oil and gas engineering -- are course-based (meaning they do not require a thesis) and are pricey by Memorial's standards (if not American ones), varying in total cost between CDN $16,000 and CDN $20,000 for domestic students and CDN $22,000 and CDN $26,000 for international students. The computer engineering program is the most expensive: international students pay a nonrefundable "premium" fee of just over CDN $20,000 with the remainder of their CDN $26,000 total tuition to be paid in semesterly installments.

By contrast most other graduate programs at Memorial cost less than CDN $6,000.

The students' allegations of inequity speak to the possibility of a backlash against institutions that are perceived -- fairly or not -- as recruiting overseas students for primarily pecuniary purposes. Their cause has been taken up by the university's Graduate Students’ Union, which has raised concerns about the preparedness of some students in the program and Memorial's use of commissioned agents.

"This is a systemic problem from what we perceive as poor instructional planning but also a disregard for the well-being of some of these students,” said Joey Donnelly, a master’s student in folklore and president of Memorial's Graduate Students’ Union. Donnelly raised the question of whether the university’s contract with an agency to recruit in China for just these four, more expensive programs has resulted in students being steered toward programs that are not the best academic fit. The use of commissioned agents has been controversial in the U.S., at least, where there are concerns about how to protect the interests of students when they are being guided by agents who represent a limited menu of programs or institutions and have a financial stake in which university a student chooses to attend.

“It keeps you up at night, to wonder would these students have been able to succeed had they known about other programs [at Memorial]," Donnelly said. "Sure, they could have applied to these other programs, but when they were in contact with the agent they were led to believe that these were the signature, premium programs at the university and they were really only sold these four particular programs. I just think that’s the wrong model for our university to take.” 

"It's a concern that in China in particular, where we're focusing some of these efforts, that students are seen as an easy way to make money," Donnelly said.

Inside Higher Ed spoke with half a dozen international students who have failed out of the master of applied science in computer engineering program. Three said they approached administrators about withdrawing or transferring to another program at Memorial in their first semester but were dissuaded by a more than CDN $20,000 sunk cost. 

Memorial stresses that its total CDN $26,000 tuition rate is a bargain for a graduate computer engineering program and maintains that the complaints are coming from a small group of disaffected students who failed to meet the program's high standards. “The vast majority of our students are success stories,” said Greg Naterer, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial.

Since the program’s inception in 2004, administrators said, 94 students, or 80 percent, have graduated; 20 students, or 17 percent, have been terminated from the program; and another 3 percent have transferred or withdrawn. Thirty-three students are currently enrolled.

About 95 percent of the students come from China, with the remainder coming from other foreign countries. There is not a single Canadian student enrolled in the master of applied science in computer engineering program.

“There is a market in China for this particular program in computer engineering,” said Naterer. The university contracts with Can-Zhong International Education Consulting Services, which, according to its president, Frank Wang, works with more than 200 agencies in China to recruit for more than 30 professional master’s programs at 10 Canadian universities. Chinese parents and students are “overwhelmed by the information” available on university websites, Wang said via e-mail, explaining that they tend to use recruiting agencies to find “a best fit program for their study. Therefore a recruiting adviser is also assisting students to select a proper academic program for them based on their qualification, interest, financial budget, career plan, countries they [are] interested in etc.”  

The only graduate programs at Memorial that Can-Zhong and its partners recruit for are the engineering programs charging premium fees, including the computer engineering program. Memorial officials declined to disclose the commission the university pays the agent per student enrolled.

“With a population of 1.3 billion in China, and hundreds of universities there, it’s really difficult and impractical for us to do all of the recruitment ourselves, so this is one of the reasons that we use an agent,” Naterer said, noting that agents merely pre-screen and refer applicants and do not make admissions decisions on the university’s behalf.

Naterer also defends the fee structure, saying that the CDN $20,000 premium fee is necessary in order to pay for the additional faculty needed to deliver the course-based program, which has a heavier course load than a thesis-based master's program. Furthermore, he said that the premium fee is nonrefundable because the university has to commit resources to the program based on student enrollment. “Once they register and they are in the program, there is a nonrefundable component, because we need to make an investment in the delivery of the programs,” he said.

“Universities don’t refund tuition for students who have failed,” said Noreen Golfman, Memorial’s dean of graduate studies. “It’s not the way it works. I understand this is a higher-than-usual premium fee, but that’s the risk the students take. Fortunately we have an astonishingly high success rate in the program. I think you’ve been hearing from students who failed, which is unfortunate. But our success story is a much cheerier one. All of our students understand the risk involved, but they and their families are obviously committed to them receiving a first-class Canadian education.”

Memorial has posted an article on its engineering department website touting the success of the four course-based engineering programs and quoting two contented graduates. 

Of those students who were not successful, several told Inside Higher Ed they were surprised to be placed into undergraduate courses upon arriving at Memorial, courses in which they struggled. (For their part, Memorial administrators said the decision to place students with gaps in their academic records into undergraduate courses -- at no additional cost to them -- reflects a commitment to student success, not the opposite.) Some  students who started in the spring semester said they were unable to take the prerequisites they needed before starting advanced classes. All are frustrated that though they failed out of the program after one or two semesters, they were required to pay nearly the whole cost of the three- to four-semester program upfront.

“It’s like they just want to make money on us,” said Meng Zhao, who was terminated from the program and is now getting a second bachelor’s degree in computer science from Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia. Although Zhao holds a bachelor’s in engineering from a Chinese university, he said he focused on photo-electronics as an undergraduate and entered the computer engineering program at Memorial without any knowledge of computer programming language. He was among the students who wished to transfer to another course of study after one semester but was told he would have to pay the balance of his premium tuition fee – all CDN $20,000 -- first. Feeling stuck, Zhao stayed in the program, and failed out.

Shuwen Pan successfully completed the computer engineering program in 2012 and is now working as a developer at a software company in Halifax. But even though she counts as a success story she said that if she could do it again she would more thoroughly research programs on her own rather than relying on an agent’s advice. The program at Memorial, she said, was not what she expected.  She wishes she’d known about the possibility of thesis-based master's programs, which at Memorial don’t come with the premium fee tacked on.

“Next time,” she said, “I will do more research about the school and about the program before I attend it.”


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