Fees Are Up; Is Quality?

Webster’s Annual Tuition Hike Frustrates Many Students

News | Lucas Jakobsson | April 2007

As every other spring, a message appeared in the Webster University bulletin from the Director, Dr. Arthur Hirsh: The price of attending Webster is up, and by a considerable amount, nearly 6% for an undergraduate student and 6.5% for a graduate student. This increase compares to 5% for both programs last year, putting the new rates at €1,335 and €1,680 respectively.

And while the director explained the reasons for the increase as the expansion of the universities research staff, many Webster students report that they do not understand.

Of course it is true that nobody wants to pay more when they can pay less for the same thing, but at times, quality justifies the price. And yes, people who choose to attend a private university are committed to paying for it.

Anca Lucian, a fourth year Webster student, says that she understands that costs are increasing and that a tuition increase is necessary. However "in all the years since I have been here, the tuition has gone up by €60 (per course). Why is it suddenly increasing by €75?" she wondered. "Where are these extra €15 going?"

Some students feel trapped by the limits of financial plans made at the start of their studies, when parents or employers budgeted a certain amount to pay for the education. To finish the 43 courses required for an undergraduate degree (BA or BS program), at 10 courses a year, each year will cost a minimum of €600 more, adding up to a total increase of at least €3,600.

In order to find out exactly what the student body at Webster thought about the tuition increase, the Vienna Review conducted a survey of 241 students out of the approximately 430 students attending the university this term. We asked whether, in their opinion, the increase in tuition rates is justified and, second, whether the reasons for the increase were fully understood.

The overwhelming majority – 232 students, or 96% of those asked– did not see a justification for the increase, while 215 students (or 89%) did not understand the reasons for it. Many students added comments to the questionnaire even though none were asked for. One student wrote that he/she "can’t see any improvements from last year’s increase," another that "the increase is only justified, if it equals the inflation rate," and yet another added that "there has been no raise in the quality and services."

But are the students just ignorant? Or are they just bewildered by the fact that the inflation rate is always approximately half of the tuition rate increase?

Where is the rest of the money going?

The reasons are all there in the bulletin, says Dr. Hirsh. But it is with the bulletin that students find fault: The recent letter is largely identical to the one sent out a year ago with only the numbers changed.

The main justification remains the same: The expansion of Webster research faculty. Last year Dr. Hirsh wrote in the bulletin, "In the past two years we have hired seven full-time research faculty" while in this year’s letter it said "In the past three years we have hired six full-time research faculty." (italics added).  Even though students paid over €240,000 more in tuition – based on an estimate of 4,000 annual course enrolments cited by Dr. Hirsh – the university actually decreased its research staff, as indicated.

One faculty member left, Dr. Hirsh acknowledged. However he and Academic Director Dr. William Fulton promised that the additional 12 part-time research faculty needed to fulfill the new requirements for accreditation for private universities in Austria will be hired no later than December 2007. More teaching staff on campus, both assured, should provide students extra access for personal attention and support outside of class hours.

But the reason that they have not been hired up to this point, according to Dr. Fulton, is that, "we received a suggestion from St. Louis to wait with the hiring (of the 12 part time professors) until next year, in order to save money."

There was however no suggestion that the money that students were asked to pay was to be correspondingly reduced.

Added to this, Dr. Hirsh informs that the Austrian Accreditation system did not fully accept the research professors that the university had already hired, and has demanded that external experts be called upon to supervise the further hiring.

On top of this, due to new tax laws, the university has to pay 22% of all faculty members’ salary for social insurance, in addition to the faculty themselves having to pay 18% of their salaries. This compares to the 18% paid by the university last year for approximately a third of all the staff.

The heart of a university education is the quality of the faculty, and good faculty and staff cost the university quite a bit – in the case of Webster Vienna, 30% of the university’s income generated by tuition goes to pay the faculty, according to Dr. Hirsh, a total budget estimated conservatively at €5 million. The administration receives a further 20%, which leaves approximately 30%, or €1.5 million to cover the expenses of operating the university.

And what is left?

In the Webster bulletin sent out earlier this spring, Dr. Hirsh wrote that, "In addition, you should know that we receive financial support from our main campus in St. Louis."

However Dr. Hirsh has said that Webster Vienna actually pays 19.5% of its income from student tuition to St. Louis, as a sort of franchise fee. (Dr. Hirsh prefers the phrase "indirect costs" as the Vienna campus is not independent of its main base St. Louis and is legally not a franchise. He also acknowledged that other faculty members refer to the system as a "franchise." Webster University, a non-profit organization, does in fact operate under the same principles as a classic franchise business. Boone&Kurtz’s Contemporary Business 11th edition, a text book used in "Introduction to Business" at Webster, defines a franchise as "a contractual agreement in which a wholesaler or retailer gains the right to sell the franchisor’s products under that company’s brand name if it agrees to the related operating requirements. The franchise can also receive marketing, management, and business services from the franchisor." "Products" also include services as in the case of American real estate franchise RE/MAX.

So in what sense does the campus receive financial help?  As is often the case, Dr. Hirsh said, the Vienna campus cannot meet the 19.5% standard, so St. Louis subsidizes this cost by accepting a lesser amount. So the subsidy is that students are not required to pay even more to make sure that St. Louis gets its full transfer. Now that is financial support.

What do we get for this 19.5% (about €1 million a year) of tuition? The name of Webster for one, says Dr. Hirsh. Admissions also go through St. Louis, Dr. Fulton adds, and all student files are kept there. We get the connections internet system, the Passports on-line reference library, suggested learning objectives for each course, and, which is yet to be widely introduced, a set of assessment plans to track learning results are all made and run from there. That does not seem like a lot for a million a year.

Dr. Fulton admitted that many in Webster Vienna are not happy about the franchise like fee, which could otherwise be invested into the campus. And the Vienna Campus did in fact request a reduction of €200,000, a request which was, however, turned down by St. Louis.

Of more immediate concern is the estimated €3 million (the 60%) used to maintain the university facilities and cover the faculty salaries. This ties in to the question of student numbers in class: At present, it is not unusual to see more than 25 students in a class, despite the 25-student limit promised on the official website.

According to students, at least four classes in the current term are above this limit. Dr. Hirsh reasoned that four classes out of the 265 annually scheduled ones, are acceptable. Based on that rate, a conservative estimate would suggest that on average, up to 20 courses might be affected, given the five terms in each academic year.

This raises the question of why the university does not make a practice of offering two sections of the same course instead of a single overbooked class. This is a solution Dr. Fulton uses at times, however, he noted that he is not allowed to schedule more than 265 courses a year. He also assured that the adminsitration does not encourage teachers to let more students enter a class after it is full, although this sometimes happens. It is the teachers who have the final word, he said.

Dr. Hirsh demonstrated that the average class size at Webster, based on the enrolments and the number of classes offered, comes out to 15. As a class with less than 5 students is canceled, a class containing above 25 should be offered in two sections under the same token.

And if the students pay the prices they do, why do they not receive up to date equipment when they need it? While paying an additional lab fee of €30 per class on top of the €1,335 class fee to use the media equipment in a course, the audio visual equipment for example is now nearly four years old and needs replacement. Furthermore, the microphones and lighting equipment planned to be purchased in 2003 have yet to be bought.

All in all, it is hard to justify a further increase in tuition at Webster University Vienna knowing that not all the money stays at this campus and that the money which was to be invested last year for the students’ benefits was saved, and not used as promised.

In Dr. Hirsh’s March 2007 letter in the bulletin, he mentioned "visible improvements." They may be real, even though they are not always "visible" to the students.  And "invisible" improvements seem to be what are bothering students.

And yes, Webster may be worth the money, but for how long? Some universities in the United States are beginning to sense resistance to enormous costs of higher education. This may happen here too.

In response, Dr. Hirsh invites all students to a public event on April 17 at 17.30 pm in the Seminar Room at which all may voice their concerns and ask questions. His concluding remarks remain: "We do not generate profits. We just try to cover costs."

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    the vienna review April 2007