If COVID-19 forces classes to remain online, should universities cut tuition?

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Many students at Canadian universities say they shouldn’t have to pay full tuition if COVID-19 forces their classes online.

Among those students is Catherine Litinsky. Her first year as a law student at the University of Manitoba was almost complete when the virus abruptly forced all of her classes to move online.

READ MORE: Applying for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit? Here’s what you need to know

While as of this writing her university has not released its plans for the fall, she said if online delivery continues, there should “absolutely” be some kind of cut to tuition.

“Especially if we’re losing [access] to resources in the law faculty to something like our library, I know that would be a huge one to us especially,” she said.
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What have universities said?

A handful of Canadian universities including McGill University, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia (UBC) have released plans for the fall semester.

At UBC, larger classes will be held online, with a select number of small classes conducted in person with physical distancing guidelines in place, the school announced.

Matthew Ramsey, UBC’s director of university affairs, said student tuition will not be refunded “because UBC is ensuring that students still have the ability to conclude their coursework, take exams and receive grades for the courses in which they enrolled.”

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“Tuition is vital to maintaining the academic continuity and operations of UBC and providing the supports students require now and when the university returns to normal operations,” he wrote in an emailed statement to Global News.

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Ramsey said the university is “following direction from the provincial government on matters such as tuition and student housing costs and is working to address the financial pressures faced by students at this time.”

Similarly, the University of Ottawa announced all of its classes — with a few exceptions — will be delivered online in September.

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In a statement emailed to Global News, a university spokesperson said it “appreciates the current situation may have resulted in unexpected financial pressures on students” and is “looking at options to ease their financial burden.”

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McGill too has said it will deliver classes largely through remote platforms. 

Global News also reached out to McGill University to determine if students can expect to pay the full tuition amount for the fall semester, but did not hear back by time of publication.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced students and recent graduates who have lost income or summer jobs as a result of COVID-19 can apply to receive funding from an emergency aid program beginning on Friday.

Trudeau initially announced the Canada Emergency Student Benefit as part of a $9-billion aid package for struggling students back in April.

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Should tuition be cut?

James Skidmore, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and director at Waterloo Centre for German Studies, said he’s “reluctant” to say if all students should pay less tuition if universities shift to online learning.

Skidmore said he teaches a number of online courses and that he is confident the education that his students are receiving is as good as it would be in a classroom setting.

“I really want to stress that students can go to university in September, even if it’s completely online and they could still get a really good education,” he said.

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But, Skidmore said there may be some programs that are more hands-on or that require lab work where some fees could be waived or adjusted.

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Universities will have to work something out then with students about that,” he said. “How do they make up for that? How do they accommodate that?”

He said some instructors may find they need to adjust their courses more than others as things move online.

Access issues

But Skidmore said there are some issues that arise when trying to completely shift things online. One of the largest, he explained, is ensuring students can access the learning materials.

READ MORE: University of Regina students won’t be seeing tuition increase next year

“Often this is like technical access,” he said. “So do they have the right kind of bandwidth where they’re living, to download or to make use of whatever is being provided?

Skidmore said online learning can be particularly difficult for international students where time zones, or censorship issues in their home country impede their ability to access class materials.

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Skidmore said another issue with online-only learning is lack of space.

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He said many students rely on their campus libraries or other studying spaces, which have now been shuttered due to the virus.

Looking ahead

Litinsky said when her program abruptly shifted to online delivery in mid-March it felt as though the “rug had been pulled” from under her.

“It became a little bit of a shock to have to do all your classwork on your own time and organize when you’re going to do these modules that these professors have posted online,she explained.

She said if online learning continues this fall, she would like to see a more structured schedule, with clearly designated class time where professors are available to answer questions.

But, Litinsky said ultimately she would like to return to the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

“I’m someone that just excels better in a classroom setting in terms of learning,” she said. “So I would very much be willing to go back in.

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But as Canada continues to work to stem the spread of the virus, it appears as though most learning will remain online — at least for now.

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Skidmore said coming fall, students and instructors will both need to practise patience as new education techniques are introduced.

Let’s all just be very patient when we’re dealing with the issues of shifting from one mode of education to another mode of education,” he said.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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