The new school year is fast approaching, and, for many students, this means planning out their finances for the new year. However, the 2020–2021 school year will be unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned all of our lives upside down, and the University of Toronto has opted for a hybrid delivery method of instruction, with in-person and online classes taking place in conjunction. 

Considering the quality of online learning

Students have argued that since online classes present a number of barriers to the experience that comes with a high-quality education, tuition fees for those classes should be reduced. On May 21, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) issued a statement calling on the university to “[consider] the reduction of tuition fees for classes operating remotely.”

However, despite repeated calls from students, the university has indicated that it will not be reducing tuition for the 2020–2021 school year, arguing that “academic programs [will] continue to be delivered through alternative means.”

This justification seems to ignore the reality of online learning: it simply isn’t the same quality as in-person classes. It doesn’t take into account the international students who are 12 hours ahead and will have to sit through synchronous classes and exams. It doesn’t factor in the accessibility challenges posed by online lectures. And it doesn’t consider that many students may not have access to adequate technology or a reliable internet connection.

Administering courses remotely through online learning is crucial to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but the university can’t ignore the very real challenges presented by online learning and argue that the quality of education will be the same as in-person classes.

Unique challenges for international students

Additionally, international tuition fees are set to rise by an average of 5.3 per cent in the University of Toronto’s 2020–2021 budget. This is especially concerning because international students have been particularly affected by COVID-19. Many have had to abruptly navigate international travel and border closures, and the upcoming fall semester has been marred with uncertainty for international students attempting to plan their education. 

International students newly admitted to U of T may not be allowed to enter Canada at all this school year, since only international students outside of the US with study permits on or before March 18 are permitted to enter Canada under current travel restrictions. They may also be asked to prove “non-discretionary” or “non-optional” travel at the border. This will undoubtedly have a severe impact on these students’ academic careers at U of T.

It’s important to recognize that the university is not entirely at fault for raising international tuition fees. The Varsity reported that the “decision to increase international fees was made in consideration of the province’s choice to reduce operational grants by $750 for every international student enrolled in an undergraduate or master’s program.” The provincial government needs to properly invest in postsecondary education in order to ensure financial accessibility.

However, this does not excuse U of T from choosing to raise international tuition fees during a pandemic instead of re-evaluating the 2020–2021 budget to better accommodate students who are already struggling.

Students are struggling 

The impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students cannot be understated. According to a Labour Force Survey, the employment rate for postsecondary students in April 2020 was only 29.8 per cent, down from 52.5 per cent in February. Employment opportunities and jobs that students had lined up for the summer disappeared, while many of those who continued to work faced reduced hours. 

The federal government did announce the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) in late April, in an attempt to fill the gaps in the existing Canada Emergency Response Benefit. However, international students were left out of this benefit, and the $1,250 per month CESB payments do not even cover the average market rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, which according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, stood at $1,374 in the fall of 2019.

This doesn’t even touch on the savings needed to pay tuition fees this fall. Many students rely on summer jobs to save up for the school year, but this year, that opportunity has been dashed for many. As a low-income domestic student, I plan my finances on a year-to-year basis, and I rely on summer jobs to save for tuition, rent, and groceries for the upcoming school year. 

While I’m privileged to be employed at the UTSU this year and am taking part-time classes as a result, I would likely not otherwise have been able to afford to pay for rent or full-time tuition this school year. This is the reality for many of my peers, as students struggle to make ends meet amidst the crisis that COVID-19 has created.

What U of T needs to do

The first line of U of T’s Policy on Student Financial Support reads, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.”

There’s a number of actions that U of T needs to take in order to fully realize this principle. Financial aid for students should be increased, particularly for needs-based bursaries. In recent months, the COVID-19 Emergency Undergraduate Grant has been a great support for students in urgent need. However, students need support in paying tuition — which is not an eligible expense under this grant.

The international tuition fee hike also needs to be cancelled. Raising tuition during a global pandemic risks putting international students in an even more precarious financial situation; tuition should be maintained at the 2019–2020 fee levels.

Finally, the tuition fee framework should be reassessed for classes operating remotely. The quality of education will inevitably suffer as a result of online learning; this should result in a reduction of cost, particularly now when students are facing uncertain circumstances. We need financial support now more than ever, and it’s time that U of T steps up to provide that support.

Tyler Riches is a third-year human geography, urban studies, and women & gender studies student at University College. They are the vice-president public & university affairs of the UTSU.