From September to April, a U of T student’s schedule revolves around the demands of their academic calendar. Therefore, discounting summer enrolments, the last exam of the winter term typically marks an undergraduate’s return to their hobbies or extracurricular ambitions.
However, while some students head to familiar childhood homes or unfamiliar vacation spots, many must stay in the city to meet other ends.
Students who live on their own and foot their own bills — academic and otherwise — do not get to follow the same pattern of vocation and then vacation as some of their peers. These students often resort to minimum wage jobs in food services or retail to survive the four months without the financial support offered by OSAP. Though the anticipated increase of the provincial minimum wage has garnered attention in the press and around dinner tables, the lives of the students who survive on it have not.
The idea that every student at an illustrious college enjoys the same liberties is as damaging as it is false. Young, financially insecure adults pursuing higher education are swallowed whole by unfeasible agendas and exhausting realities. The difficulties they face with their finances in the present actively reduce their prospects for the future.
In February of 2017, Vanmala Subramaniam wrote a piece for Vice on the cost of living in Toronto. Subramaniam highlights how outrageous it is to consider saving money in Toronto on an income of less than $45,000 a year, drawing attention to the approximate 13 per cent rise in the cost of rent and 36 per cent rise in the cost of public transportation since 2008. Moreover, Subramaniam mentions that saving money is even more ridiculous for young people living in a metropolitan city who rightfully intend to experience as much of it as they can.
Not every student has the means to experience the city in the same way. Students generally select homes to rent based on location and cost. Apartments close to schools like U of T and Ryerson — and thus closer to the iconic aspects of the metropolis of Toronto — tend to have higher rental rates. Yet cheaper places tend to cost roughly the same amount when accounting for TTC fees and the time lost on commutes.
Generating a liveable income, even for a single-person household, relies on equal parts pragmatism and luck. In 2012, Jacob Serebrin wrote an article for Maclean’s about full-time university students with jobs. Serebrin states that 18 per cent of Canadian undergraduates work over 30 hours per week.
When working minimum wage jobs, one also has to realistically account for the ways corporations cut financial corners. In 2014, Tavia Grant of The Globe and Mail reported that more and more part-time shifts have been cut down to the 15-hour work week to help employers cut costs. Other tactics include scheduling shifts that come with unpaid breaks, or sending employees home early.
Seeing as the cost of living has not decreased, it is reasonable to suggest that a number of students with part-time jobs struggle to get enough hours, and thus must take on second jobs. The first job covers living expenses, like rent and phone bills, while the second covers things like transportation, groceries, and entertainment. Working four-hour mornings at Job One, taking a four-hour afternoon break, and then working four-hour evenings at Job Two is just the reality of my summer in Toronto.
And this work, though it pays the bills, can prevent students from applying to unpaid internships or even other paid positions that could be beneficial to their careers. Independent students simply don’t have the ability to put the future before the present.
Students living in these conditions likely have less time to revise and submit resumes, CVs, and applications for the academic positions that their peers can more easily complete. Since the workforce expects students to have exchanged precarious academic labour for experience, in the form of internships, students without that experience are less likely to be hired.
This is not to mention that a truly ambitious student will want to participate in as many networking and academia-related events as they can. This can pose a problem if the events are not free, require a certain standard of dress, or cut into hours where the student could be making money.
Even when they are able to attend these events, busy students may not be as prepared as peers who have had time to brush up on the topics being discussed. And when someone shows up to an event after dragging themselves from the TTC and various places of work, a groggy brain and a wrinkled outfit don’t leave strong impressions on potential employers.
Post-secondary education is geared toward the success of those who can devote every waking second to being a student, not those who must also work at providing for themselves. The things that working undergraduates have to do to survive inhibit their ability to utilize all that an academic institution can offer, setting them back in terms of skill and experience. Though higher learning is sometimes depicted as a haven of equality and equity, the living conditions of working students challenge the truth of this ideology — it is still extremely difficult to be a working student.
Jenisse Minott is an incoming third-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology.