The upcoming school year is fast approaching and students across the country have more questions than answers.
Most post-secondary classes will be shifting from in-class learning to online. As a result, many students are reconsidering whether to return, as a result of fears the quality of learning will suffer, along with the loss of income as a result of the work shortage due to the pandemic.
In a survey published in May by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), one in two students said COVID-19 has made it more difficult to afford tuition and living costs. With a huge decline in job opportunities, students haven’t had the opportunity to work and save over the summer months. Statistics Canada found that 58 per cent of students surveyed in April were concerned about job security, while 67 per cent were worried about dwindling job prospects.
Despite all of this, there’s been no signals from post-secondary institutions about a decrease to tuition for the upcoming semester.
How universities are responding
In a post on the University of British Columbia’s website, the school’s provost Andrew Szeri addresses why they won’t be reducing tuition. He write that the university is projecting a financial deficit, and a reducing tuition would significantly impact the school’s ability to continue to meet its academic goals for years to come. It would also constrain UBC’s ability to support its students with financial aid and other student services and programs, like emergency bursaries and other financial supports total in excess of $100 million.
“UBC is fortunate that the provincial operating grant is a firm foundation for enabling UBC to deliver high-quality education and to provide a wide array of supports for students. However, this operating grant alone is not sufficient to meet all our financial needs and obligations. Tuition is a necessary source of revenue, now more than ever,” he wrote.
Kevin Rosen, executive director of marketing and communications at the University of Winnipeg confirmed that classes will be held remotely in the fall and the school will be waiving the online course fee for the term.
“We recognize that this is a very difficult time for everyone, and are doing this to support our students as they pursue their studies,” he says. “The fitness centre fee will be waived for the fall and fall/winter terms. This fee provides a membership to the fitness centre, which is currently closed.”
Cynthia Lee, with media relations at McGill, confirms that tuition rates for the upcoming semester will remain as planned, even though classes will look somewhat different than usual. However, the university has launched an emergency support fund to help students who've been experiencing financial difficulty as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
"Money raised through the fund goes to Emergency Support Bursaries to help McGill students who otherwise can't afford the unforeseen expenses they are facing right now, whether for food or rent, travel funds to get home or return from research or internship locations, study needs related to online learning or other necessities," Lee wrote in an email. "All emergency funding will be put immediately to use for any undergraduate or graduate student with demonstrated financial need due to this unprecedented pandemic."
The school's scholarships and student aid office have also extended a significant “line of credit” for immediate use for critical student cases to which members of the global McGill community have contributed nearly $150,000 in the short time since the fund was initiated.
Students say it isn’t enough
A petition on Change.org is asking for more financial support from the federal government for students in the coming months. It’s inspired the hashtag #DontForgetStudents.
Have you signed? #DontForgetStudents: "Students and recent grads are tired of waiting for Canada's political leaders to take action while our ongoing financial insecurity leaves our education, livelihoods, and futures in question."— APUS97 (@APUS97) August 4, 2020
Read more here: https://t.co/MxoBV09X50 pic.twitter.com/KTnYR2WFwz
Apropos of nothing, there will only be three weeks to the start of the Fall semester when parliament returns next Wednesday.— Greg Sibley (@GtSibley) August 4, 2020
Students need immediate action from our government. #DontForgetStudents
Not all students live at home, & they can't get by on $10/hr. (Heck, even with full-time hours that wouldn't cover rent/utilities/food, let alone saving for tuition.)— Freya Keddie 🍊 (@keddieff) July 31, 2020
The government needs to directly support students #dontforgetstudents #WEscandal https://t.co/149m7r9fQt
Joel Westheimer is the university research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa. He says universities are stuck in a tricky position because they depend largely on tuition to stay afloat.
“In the past 25 years, there’s been a huge shift of the burden on education in almost every province in Canada from publicly funded or heavily subsidized tuition to moving more of that burden onto students,” he tells Yahoo Canada.
And that was even before the pandemic hit. Since March, universities and colleges have been scrambling to figure out how to cover enormous budget shortfalls, which, according to Westheimer, are sometimes of their own making. Post-secondary institutions have seen their funding slashed over the last few decades and haven’t pushed back enough on the cuts on government subsidies. In turn, they now rely heavily on tuition.
Westheimer notes that the U.S., Canada and the UK put a lot of the financial burden on students, compared to Nordic countries where education is considered a right and something for the public good.
“It’s not something that benefits the individual,” he says. “It’s something that benefits society as a whole.”
Quebec is one province that has enabled more access to public funding for post-secondary education. In 2012, when students staged a strike over planned increase tuition, many people from other parts of Canada shook their heads as they saw Quebec students as getting a better deal already. However, Westheimer notes Quebec students were fighting to get the message across that education is something that benefits everyone.
“When we stop seeing education as a public good and start seeing it as an individual benefit only...that’s when you start seeing a survival of the fittest mentality.”
In order for there to be change, Westheimer says tuition has to be lowered. If a high percentage of the current generation’s students graduate with a huge debt, it will have adverse effects on society.
“There will be a growing number of working poor and a diminished working class,” he says. “That’s going to be a threat to the economy and democratic institutions.”
In order for anything to change, Westheimer says there needs to be a culture and political change in the form of massive pushback from students and the public.
“Education should be fully funded or mostly funded,” he says. “That’s the only way to get an educated society.”