The late levying of the SEVIS fee because of a computer glitch triggered protests from some international students and caused cash flow problems for International Student and Scholar Services.
The $50 fee was introduced in fall 2003 to pay for the implementation and maintenance of the Internet-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which is mandated by the federal government to monitor international students in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. International students were informed by e-mail on Feb. 7 that they had an additional charge on their OASIS accounts and that a hold had been placed on students’ registration pending payment of the fee.
The imposition of the fee so late into the semester came as a surprise to some international students. Antonio Peramo, a physics graduate student and Teacher’s Assistant, said he had been under the impression that the fee was a one-time deal to cover the implementation of SEVIS, a misconception he believes many international students shared.
Peramo said the same day he received the e-mail from ISSS, he produced a letter headed “Stop the Fee” and distributed copies by hand to international students in the engineering, biology and physics buildings.
In the letter, Peramo described the fee as discriminatory against international students. Other claims in the letter included that the fee would raise half a million dollars for ISSS, that it was the first to be levied against a subset of students and that the University of Florida was the only other Florida institution to apply the fee. The letter also called on international students to meet in front of the student ID card office in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center on Feb 16.
Peramo said he acted because there is no organization representing all international students and the students’ reluctance to protest since Sept. 11, he said, makes them a vulnerable group.
“It is obvious that many international students are afraid to complain. They are fearful. I think its clear that we are a very weak group,” Peramo said.
After receiving a copy of Peramo’s letter from an international student, David Austell, director for ISSS, said inaccuracies in the letter prompted him to send a response to the international student community on Feb 16. In his four-page letter, Austell listed what he termed “misleading information” in Peramo’s letter. Austell said revenue from the SEVIS fee only amounted to $200,000 at most, that many student subsets are assessed fees such as those who participate in Study Abroad programs and that other Florida universities were considering implementing the fee.
Additionally, Austell contacted Peramo and persuaded him to hold the meeting in room 270 of the Marshall Center, requesting that the MC study area not be disturbed.
Peramo conceded that the half a million dollars he said the SEVIS fee would accrue was based on figures of 3,000 international students. According to ISSS figures for the fall, the fee was levied against 1,714 students.
“I did it too fast,” Peramo said. “I don’t think the inaccuracies can be considered misleading as Dr. Austell said because misleading means that you are trying to mislead people, that you have an intention. I just did the letter in a few hours. I was, of course, angry with the situation.”
Other than Peramo, only four international students turned up for the 6 p.m. meeting. The Spanish graduate student attributed the low turnout to the fact that he does not have access to the international student listserv. Peramo said he was more perturbed by the presence of Austell, University Police operations captain Bob Staehle and Jason Spratt, a student affairs coordinator who oversees judicial affairs. The three waited outside the room during the meeting.
“It was not really nice,” Peramo said. “He decided to come along without being invited and it’s an intrusion on those people meeting. I don’t go to any of the personal or official Dr. Austell meetings, so I consider it very unfriendly and intrusive.”
Austell said his attendance was merely to be available if needed.
“It was not my meeting, but (I wanted) just to be there as a resource person,” Austell said. “I took hard copies of the student’s letter and my response to that letter to the meeting just to make sure that everyone had everything they could have.”
Despite the small number of people attending his meeting, Peramo said he feels there is strong opposition to the fee in the international community. Since the meeting, Peramo said, he has received support from approximately 25 students via e-mails or telephone.
“I haven’t heard from any international student saying that they agree (with the fee). I have some e-mails from students that are really, really angry.”
Bisman Nababan, an Indonesian graduate student studying marine science at the St. Petersburg campus, said he was always aware that the fee was ongoing. Nevertheless, he feels the assessment of the fee harshly penalizes international students who pay out-of-state tuition rates.
“As it stands we pay a very high tuition. (ISSS) should be able to take out of (the tuition) money to pay for SEVIS.”
Nababan also said by levying the fee separate from tuition costs, many international students are forced to pay the fee from their own pockets as their sponsor, usually their government or employer, will only pay tuition costs.
Nivedita Candade, vice president of the Students of India Association, said having to pay the fee this semester had come as a surprise to her and other international students she knows.
“The SEVIS fee has come as a burden to international students, and in my opinion, hasn’t been well accounted for,” Candade said in an e-mail. “As students who have been affected by this move, we have the right to know what we are spending for. The question is: Does merely maintaining a database entail $50 per student every semester?”
Austell said ISSS will schedule town meetings to provide a forum for students to discuss the fee. Since his e-mail informing students that the fee had been levied late, Austell said he has received correspondence both critical and supportive of the charge.
“This is not fun for anyone, but at least students have understood why we ran into this difficulty with cash flow at the beginning and had to charge the fee, (and) what we’re doing with their money, how it’s being spent,” Austell said. “There tends to be a good understanding about it and we’re experiencing a lot of good will about this. Nobody’s tap dancing over the fee but at least (they are) understanding that we are spending the money wisely.”
ISSS was not aware that the fee had not been assessed until its ledger accounts hit zero in late January, Austell said.
“We’d gone 4 or 5 weeks into the spring semester and our ledgers were dead,” Austell said. “We were reading zeros on our ledgers. Because the (FAST) system is so new, we couldn’t tell if it was just sluggishness in the system or if we had a problem. That was when ISSS found out the SEVIS fee revenue was missing.”
The accounting problem was the result of faulty scheduling of a computer job on the Banner system, according to Carolyn Mourey, a project manager for Information Technologies. Austell said he realized the late assessment of the fee would come as a shock but that ISSS would not be able to function without the revenue.
“The students had already paid their tuition fees and here we come back and bonk them with a $50 dollar charge,” Austell said. “It was unpleasant. I had to weigh that against the fact that if I didn’t put the fee in place this spring, (ISSS) would be out $85,000.”