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Op-ed: The SCSU calls for accessible and equitable education now

Vice-President of Academic and University Affairs on advocating for #EducationforAll
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CARISSA CHEN/THE VARSITY
CARISSA CHEN/THE VARSITY

The return to school has been drastically different this year. Whether the pandemic racks your brain daily, you’re confused about making concrete plans for the future, or the weight of the world’s inequities are sinking in, the fact is, we are all hurting. 

Accessible education is essential to a just recovery, and ongoing support for students should be a priority. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) has brought forward the Education For All campaign, which highlights the challenges that students often face. We hope to create a reality where, regardless of whether they pay international or domestic tuition, students have affordable and accessible education that is specific to the COVID-19 climate. 

Students have continuously advocated for tuition relief since their learning is simply not reflective of the exorbitant prices they are being charged. Moreover, one of U of T’s own epidemiologists gave the university’s reopening plans less than satisfactory remarks. This is why we are currently calling for a cancellation of all proposed increases to international tuition fees and the implementation of a two-year freeze on all interest on public student loans for current students and recent graduates. 

We are asking for real, tangible change. This is why we are also advocating for changes such as the prioritization of non-repayable grants instead of loans when it comes to funding. This would ensure less students are leaving school with exorbitant loans to pay back or working full or part time to get ahead of loan repayments. 

We know and appreciate that remote learning has increased access immensely, but it should not have taken a pandemic for the university administration to consider those who are disabled and what their needs are. Now, what administrators fail to recognize are the discrepancies between the quality of in-person teaching and online learning.

Because students are suddenly expected to utilize all 24 hours in a day, the quality of online learning has become especially rigorous, with the university seeming to negate the precarity of home situations and dismiss that students are still learning to cope with the stress of the pandemic. 

For many Black, Indigenous, racialized, low-income, working, and chronically ill folks, as well as those who are disabled, the news is broadcasting the realities of our lives and the direct impact oppressive systems have on us and our communities. Many of us cannot afford the luxury of tuning out or distancing ourselves. 

This is why we are also advocating for the university to provide public access to the internet and the creation of bursary programs that can allow students to purchase necessary technology and equipment. We want to ensure students are supported if they need to continue their education remotely. Now is not the time to be short of empathy. 

Movements often start with low-level changes — representation, diversity committees, and task forces — to create strategies to understand issues that students are already familiar with and continue to live through daily. 

These committees and task forces provide opportunities for students to confirm what they already know: institutions are rooted in ideologies that stifle our imagination and critical thinking, and stand to uphold the existing structures and systems in place that have been designed to serve a select few at the detriment of others. Students are asking for more than representation. 

In a time when our academic and political leaders are advocating for systemic and institutional change, students are taking barriers to education into their own hands at speeds unlike before. With numerous student unions bringing forward campaigns like Education For All and #AllOutS30, we continue to fight for access to education in a way that is inclusive for everyone, especially those left in vulnerable and precarious situations. 

We want access that does not tokenize the voices of a few to represent many, but one that fights for accessible education and creates a platform for all. 

This change starts with leveraging opportunities for students who are disproportionately affected by social inequities and institutional racism. It starts by turning loans into grants. It starts by acting on the discrepancies in the quality of education that students have been calling out for many years now. It starts by reevaluating how we adopt online learning. It starts by listening to what students really need: education for all.

Lubaba Gemma is a fifth-year health policy and psychology student at UTSC.