University students frustrated by fees ahead of online semester amid COVID-19

·4 min read

In about a month, Nina Jeffery will begin her fourth year studying media production at Ryerson University, and like many post-secondary students in Canada, most of her courses will be online.

But even though her education now looks radically different, she says her tuition breakdown doesn't.

"The fact of the matter is that I am not paying for the same type of education I signed up for when I started my program," she told CBC Toronto in an email. "Fees should reflect that."

Maeve McNaughton, a fellow Ryerson student, explains it this way: "We are paying a good amount towards campus maintenance, campus building access, athletics access, recreation... and we can't access any of them."

That frustration isn't limited to students at Ryerson.

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

Nate Denaro, a student at York University, has calculated that even with a reduced fee, he'll spend about $270 this coming school year on athletics and recreation, saying the school's decision to not drop the fee altogether is "outrageous."

Fifi Wei, set to start her first year at Sheridan College, was also surprised by what she saw when she looked at the fine print of her tuition.

"I realized, 'Oh my god, they charge a lot of fees that actually aren't applicable for students who study at home,' she said, citing an on-campus health centre charge as an example.

Wei wrote Sheridan, asking them to reconsider, but was told the fees are not optional.

Petitions call for reduced tuition

Almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began and university classes began migrating online, students began lobbying for refunds and tuition and fee reductions.

At Ryerson and other schools, online petitions have sprung up to ask university administrations to reconsider how much they charge.

Julia Pereira, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), says the frustration around fees and tuition in general reflect the deep economic uncertainty students are facing.

"We know that students have really struggled to find a job over the summer," she said.

Pereira says student unions at the eight universities her organization represents have been trying to bring down fees to reflect that.

For example, at her own school, Laurier University, Pereira says the student union has reduced clubs fees, while other universities have negotiated to remove the fee for bus passes.

Pereira also says that OUSA has been trying to address the larger affordability problem by calling on the province to "enhance OSAP and give students more financial aid" as well as asking it to better fund universities so they don't need to rely on ancillary fees paid by students.

Some schools reduce, cut fees

For their part, the post-secondary institutions contacted by CBC Toronto say they are sensitive to the economic difficulties their students are facing, and some are adjusting fees to reflect that.

At Sheridan, for example, fees that support athletic facilities have been cut altogether.

York and Ryerson stress that many services, like career and library services, are being moved online, so the fees must remain in place.

Ryerson also says it's still exploring a mix of online and on-campus learning for students and that it's hopeful it will open its athletic facilities soon, given that Toronto has now entered Stage 3 of its reopening plan.

The two universities told CBC Toronto that overall tuition can't be changed, saying virtual instruction costs the same amount and has the same outcome as in-person classes.

Meanwhile, the burst of student lobbying to lower costs that began with the pandemic began appears to be winding down, says Jeffery.

Submitted by Maeve McNaughton
Submitted by Maeve McNaughton

People feel "burnt out" after months of pushing, she said.

Between paying for housing, finding jobs and trying to stay safe during a pandemic, young adults "have so much else to worry about," she said.

For her part, McNaughton isn't hopeful that anything will change in the final weeks before school begins, but says she'll continue to advocate all the same.

"I do think it's the university's responsibility to prepare for events like this. And they shouldn't be asking students individually to pay for their maintenance when we can't use the campus."