As the fall 2020 semester approaches, many U of T international students have demanded that the university freeze tuition, citing unique financial hardships some have faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns that online courses will not provide the same learning experience as in-person ones. 

International students, whose tuition rates are significantly higher than domestic students, constitute the greatest source of revenue for the university — higher than provincial grants and domestic tuition. International students will experience a 5.3 per cent average increase in tuition for the 2020–2021 school year. Domestic tuition for Faculty of Arts & Science students is $6,100, while international tuition is $52,890 for students who entered in 2017, up from $50,370 last year. 

Freezing or reducing tuition has gained support as many universities move online. A new poll conducted by Campaign Research for the Toronto Star finding that three quarters of Ontarians agree that if students are taking classes online, universities should reduce their tuition.

Petition to freeze international tuition

In response to the university’s decision to increase international tuition for the upcoming year, a group of international students started a petition to freeze tuition for the upcoming school year. In an email to The Varsity, a spokesperson for the group wrote that the fact that the petition collected 4,100 signatures in just four days is a sign of widespread discontent with the university’s decision to increase international tuition during the pandemic. The petition currently has over 6,000 signatures. 

After launching the petition, the team behind it reached out to the Rotman Commerce Students’ Association. The two groups agreed to collaborate to further mobilize their efforts. Tuition for commerce and business administration students who began their program in 2017 is set at $62,410 for the upcoming year, a five per cent increase from last year.

The petition organizers wrote that since the Canadian government only provides financial aid such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program to domestic students, international students must “rely on their parents for financial support.” For many families, international tuition is financially straining given the economic impact of COVID-19.

The group also said that with fewer summer jobs available due to the pandemic, some students are unable to reduce their family’s financial burden. Additionally, international students are ineligible for government grants such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, which provides between $1,250 and $2,000 to students in need.

Fourth-year international student Andrea Stanley wrote to The Varsity that a “$5,000 financial relief provided by the government could aid some international students to pay off their rent and other expenses.” Stanley added that with families already trying to support their international students financially, a further increase in tuition is “simply an inhumane act.”

Many international students will also be taking courses in different timezones, which may be a obstacle to their ability to have the same experience in online classes as they would in in-person ones.

“It’s really frustrating knowing that students have started many surveys and petitions in hopes that the university understands the struggles faced by their students,” Stanley wrote. “However, it just seems that our voices have not been heard.”

U of T’s response

In response to the discontent among international students, a U of T spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity that “delivering and supporting quality online instruction also requires major investments.” The spokesperson also pointed to the $6 million direct financial aid they have provided to students, including international students.

In addition, the university has increased investment in online learning infrastructures aimed at improving student learning and experiences for the upcoming year, as well as additional services for international students such as immigration advising.

For example, in an interview with U of T News, Susan McCahan, Vice-Provost Academic Programs and Innovations in Undergraduate Education, said that tuition fees are being directed toward additional resources, such as more than 100 “educational technologists” working with the university to ensure a quality online learning experience.

U of T has also decreased non-academic incidental fees, including facility and student services fees, for the 2020–2021 school year.

Concerns about online learning extend to domestic students

In addition to concerns about rising international tuition, some are also advocating for a tuition decrease — for all students — given the move to online courses.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) endorsed a tuition decrease in a July 31 press release. Regarding online courses along with the financial challenges international students may face, the press release states, “We know that the learning experience has not been—and will not be—equal to the high quality education students are accustomed to.” 

Tyler Riches, Vice-President Public and University Affairs, wrote that in their meeting with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students (OVPS) about lowering tuition for online classes, “we were told that this is not something that’s being considered since the University believes that classes operating remotely will still deliver a high-quality learning experience.” Riches noted that they will be following up with the OVPS and that the Office of the President was reviewing their statement, though they have not heard anything further. 

Nikki Putric, a U of T student who wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star endorsing a tuition cut for online courses, told The Varsity that the cost of online courses is an important issue. With most facilities offering online services, Putric thinks there may be a degradation of support services in which the in-person component was a “central aspect.”

Putric also noted that there should also be concern about how “individual and collective learning outcomes will be impacted.” Putric added that the change in delivery mode will result in “significant changes to learning outcomes” that could warrant a tuition decrease.