Administrations idle while pandemic lays waste to student’s futures

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Radical action needed as stop-gaps fail

As COVID-19 alters – perhaps permanently – the landscape of academia, students across the country have found their institutions unable, or unwilling, to meet the challenges in a way that addresses their needs, challenges that are particularly acute when it comes to the daunting financial realities brought about by the pandemic. Diana Barrero, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, said that when it comes to addressing the financial hardships facing students at that institution, the administration’s response has been beyond disheartening. “We did a departmental letter the last week of April. So week six or seven since the buildings closed and we were told ‘please be patient and check out the mental health resources’” she said. “And we were like, ‘we’re asking for money.’”

The University of Regina has also touted their mental health resources, seemingly in lieu of any real, concrete financial aid for students (while the U of R has an emergency bursary, and while they loosened some restrictions on it due to the pandemic, the bursary is heavily means-tested and completely inadequate in terms of providing any kind of stability). It’s a frustrating stance, given that the university is well aware of the financial hardships that face students, not only in pandemic times, but in ordinary times as well. In April, former President Vianne Timmons told the Carillon that the university knows “we have students in Regina who depend on summer employment to help pay their tuition and they’re not going to be able to do that.” And in a June 11 meeting with students, the administration admitted they were seeing students in crisis all the time.

Support from the federal government has also been inadequate. While the CESB is already drastically inferior to the CERB – it’s only $1,250 to the CERB’s $2000 and is payable for only four months, compared to the CERB’s eight – a recent study by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations found that fewer than half (47 per cent) of a students were certain they even qualified. Of the students who do qualify for either CESB or CERB, most said they don’t think it will be enough to get them through fall 2020, let alone beyond. Three quarters of students surveyed said they anticipate the financial and occupational repercussions of the pandemic will affect them past 2021 and 85 per cent called on the federal government to do more to support students. The study’s findings are nothing short of devastating, revealing a generation of young people facing lives already threatened by a catastrophic climate crisis, now preparing for a bleak future in which the only financial certainty is financial instability.

In the face of indifferent administrations and inadequate government support, students have turned to organizing. There are at least 15 active or submitted petitions that have been signed by thousands of students – and in some cases, supported by faculty – across the country, from UBC to UQAM calling on administrations to waive, or at the very least drastically reduce tuition. “We’re advocating for ourselves,” said Barrero.

They’ve also been drawing attention to the challenges faced by international students in particular. Students attending university on study permits, who account for roughly one in five post-secondary students in Canada, pay drastically higher tuition than domestic students (at the U of R, three credit hours in the faculty of arts costs international students $2013.75 to a domestic student’s $671.25) and they don’t qualify for the CESB. In the wake of the pandemic, some have found their employment suspended, leaving them without work – and without the legal right to remain in Canada. One international student from Simon Frasier University told SFU’s COVID-19 Coalition, “despite being promised in my acceptance letter TAships for four years, I was not given one for the summer term 2020. I was also given no explanation or financial aid. Because of the removal of financial support and no communication from the department, I’m having to withdraw from my program and move back to my home country at significant financial loss.” This is nothing short of a betrayal.

Although capitalism has trained us to believe that talking about, and asking for, money is crass, what students – and Canadians at large, who are facing down a recession that economists warn will eclipse the Great Recession of 2008 – need now is nothing short of a financial revolution. That means no-strings-attached cash from the government, jobs programs and a federal minimum wage of at least $18 an hour, and tuition waivers from university administrations. Says Barrero: “We don’t need mindfulness moments.”

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