As in other parts of the world, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly and radically upended universities and colleges in Canada. Across the country, campuses are deserted, teaching has migrated to virtual platforms, and important research has been put on hold.
The situation remains extremely fluid, but one thing is clear: the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the long forming fault lines and fissures within our universities and colleges. During the past 30 years, Canadian governments of various political stripes have steadily shifted the costs of post-secondary education from collective public funding to individual private tuition fees. The scale of this change has been nothing short of staggering. In 1990, just over 80 per cent of university operating funding came from government grants. As of 2018, that figure had plummeted to about 47 per cent.
The result is that our institutions have become financially addicted to private tuition fees, including the extortionately high fees charged to international students. Institutions that have come to rely upon the latter to feed their revenue streams face a potentially catastrophic decline in those revenues if the pandemic persists into the next academic year. This is a familiar situation playing out in other jurisdictions where dependency upon international student fees is even more acute, including Australia and the United Kingdom.
But domestic enrolments may not be immune to the coronavirus either. As we slip into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, family incomes are suffering. Low- and middle-income households, already struggling with high debt loads and years of stagnant wage growth, will be hit the hardest. Paying for a university or college education may be more out of reach.
Students may also be considering whether the cost is even worth it. If universities and colleges are forced to continue with some form of remote instruction, either in whole or in part, it may be a challenge for even the most sophisticated marketing department to convince students to dig ever deeper into their pockets just for the privilege of joining a Zoom class from their kitchen.
To explore this further, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students recently teamed up to survey incoming and current students about their plans for the next academic year. The results are sobering:
- 30 per cent of students are considering postponing their enrollment plans;
- Half of those responding says the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to afford tuition and living costs;
- Over two thirds of students say their personal finances and those of their parents or family have been negatively affected by the pandemic; and
- Nearly 7 in 10 say remote or virtual instruction is a poor substitute for in-class teaching.
Clearly, universities and colleges are facing a significant financial challenge. Emergency measures will be needed to replace revenues lost during this public health crisis, but we need also to ensure that we do not replicate the errors of the past. The current situation should prod us to begin thinking not so much about how we can get back to “normal” -- because the pre-pandemic university and college was no ideal to replicate -- but rather to reflect upon the kind of higher education system we need post-pandemic. We should urgently and seriously look at replacing a broken system of private financing of higher education that condemns young people to a generation of debt, willfully exploits international students, and leaves universities and colleges vulnerable to the vagaries of the marketplace and far too susceptible to external shocks.