Post-secondary students paying for inaccessible services as they study online

OTTAWA — Brandon Rheal Amyot is taking on debt to pay about $3,000 in tuition this semester, including fees for services and facilities that cannot be used.

With classes having moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students aren't on campuses to visit libraries and athletic centres, if they're even open.

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On Thursday, Western University in London, Ont., announced an outbreak of COVID-19 that prompted it to shut down many non-academic activities, including athletics and recreation, as well as in-person events and club meetings.

Amyot, a second-year student at Lakehead University's campus in Orillia, Ont., was charged fees for recreation and wellness, computer maintenance and supplies for the media studies lab.

The 23-year-old said it's frustrating that students are paying the same fees for their education while they're studying online.

"I don't know what the quality of my education is going to be like," Amyot said.

The university is doing its best to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Amyot said, who argued it wasn’t provided with the proper resources by the government.

Lakehead University did not respond to a request for comment.

Brenna Baggs, a spokeswoman for Universities Canada, said post-secondary institutions need to be able to serve and educate students over the long term.

She said the hope is that facilities and services are going to be up and running again in the next semester or the year after that.

"In the meantime, the building doesn't disappear," she said.

"The cost of running and renting that building doesn't disappear. The costs of paying staff to do their work remotely don't disappear."

Universities Canada is an umbrella organization that advocates for universities at the federal level.

The University of Toronto didn’t make changes to tuition fees for the fall semester, but it has reduced some student services and student societies’ fees by 10 to 40 per cent.

The Ontario government decreased tuition for domestic students by 10 per cent last year, then froze levels for 2020-21.

However, some international students are experiencing tuition increases of up to 15 per cent, said Nicole Brayiannis, the national deputy chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Some universities outside Ontario are raising their tuition for the fall term despite moving online.

Dalhousie University in Halifax has upped its tuition by three per cent for domestic students. The University of Calgary has increased tuition this year by five per cent for continuing students, seven per cent for new domestic students, and 10 per cent for new international students.

The issues that students are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic are not new, Brayiannis said, but they are worse than before.

"It's simply been exasperated now, and it's going to be a struggling reality moving forward," she said.

She said decades of governments underfunding post-secondary institutions has led to a precarious situation where students are the ones now footing the bill.

She said students shouldn’t be forced to pay fees for services they don’t have access to.

"Students have been left behind throughout this pandemic and they're really feeling the restraints of that," she said.

Brayiannis said that holding classes remotely is costly but that shouldn't be downloaded onto students, especially since that has drawbacks for students too.

Amyot said that studying online is an emotional experience.

"It's a constant reminder that everything has changed."

The federation is calling on the federal government to double the federal grant that students can apply for, which is up to a maximum of $6,000 for full-time students.

"That doesn't even cover the full amount of tuition," Brayiannis said.

The federation is also urging the federal government to reallocate the up to $912 million originally budgeted for the since-abandoned student-volunteer program and use it to extend the Canada Emergency Student Benefit that ended last month instead.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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