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Coronavirus hits campus

Coronavirus hits campus

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Like most streets in our cities, large and small, university and college campuses have been near empty for weeks. Staff and students had to quickly adapt to emergency remote teaching, leaving many frustrated and anxious. With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, government, administrators, staff and students are wondering what the future holds.

Many institutions are forecasting a significant drop in enrolments, particularly from international students. Last year, Canada welcomed close to 300,000 international students. This represents about 20 per cent of the student body at 25 institutions and between 10 to 20 per cent at another 90 colleges and universities across the country. According to Statistics Canada, international students paid $15.5 billion in tuition in 2016.

“If the borders remain closed, international enrolments will be limited to those students already in the country, or those who could not leave during the pandemic,” notes sector analyst Ken Steele. “If social distancing stays in place, international student enrolment will be limited to online programs.”

The question of what will happen with domestic enrolment levels is also critical, but the answer unknown.

“This is a big question since more than 50 per cent of revenue in most institutions comes from student tuition. Any contraction will have consequences on the budget,” indicates Stephanie Ross, Director of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.

“Who will pay? Our sessional colleagues are on the frontline and could lose large amounts of work. And for the first time in a long time for many academic staff associations, we may have to dust off and re-read the sections in our collective agreements on lay-offs.”

Talk about reducing casual, part-time and limited term contracts is already taking place at Sudbury’s Laurentian University, where administrators are predicting a $15 million shortfall for the 2020-21 fiscal year, adding to an already existing $9 million budgetary shortfall. University president Robert Haché characterizes the situation as a “tipping point that threatens the financial viability of the university,” but the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) is seeking more clarity about the institution’s true financial state.

LUFA president Fabrice Colin says staff are naturally concerned about the impact on programs and students, and have requested hard data — meaning “current, reliable numbers and information” — not projections or assumptions. “We're asking them to be transparent about the finances and the predicted impact of COVID,” he said. “Decisions must be made with the full consultation of those affected, including faculty members.”

Stephanie Bangarth, chief negotiator for the King’s University College Faculty Association, says her institution is also predicting “a very dire situation” with respect to finances and enrolment. “They are asking all departments to model cuts of 15 per cent and 25 per cent. This certainly affects program and academic integrity, as well as new hires, many of which have been cancelled,” she reports.

Many universities and colleges across the country are developing scenarios with similar reductions, but in Manitoba, the demand for modeling of 10 to 30% cuts has come from the conservative government of Premier Brian Pallister. On top of the pressures created by the pandemic, the government’s insistence on rolling back salaries and cutting jobs across the public sector, including the province’s post-secondary institutions, is driving uncertainty and fear.

“It’s been very hard,” says University of Manitoba Faculty Association President Janet Morrill. “Academic staff have been working extremely hard to transition to emergency online teaching, to help their students complete courses. We’re seeing strong enrolment demand which will be impossible to meet given any cuts. It’s causing so much fear and upheaval.”

CAUT Executive Director David Robinson says the impact of COVID-19 has exposed some long-standing problems facing universities and colleges.

“The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the unsustainability of the current financing of post-secondary education in Canada,” he says. “Decades of public under-funding and an increasing reliance on private fees has left our institutions acutely vulnerable.”

Robinson notes that CAUT has been lobbying governments for years for improved funding for the sector, and the elimination of tuition for students. Now, the pandemic is shining a far brighter spotlight on the cracks in Canada’s PSE system created by inadequate support, than ever possible before.

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Robinson and CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith call on the federal government to work with the provinces, universities and colleges to ensure that any qualified Canadian will be able to get the education and training they need without taking on additional debt; and to increase the federal transfer to the provinces for post-secondary education with agreements on shared priorities to improve affordability, accessibility and quality.

“An educational assistance program like that used for veterans returning from the Second World War is an example of providing support to Canadians to get the education and training they need without taking on debt. Like after the war, this federal support could include both direct supports to students in the form of grants, as well as grants to universities and colleges to cover the costs of tuition waivers. Direct grants to institutions may also be necessary to offset expected losses in international student fees,” they wrote.

More than a million Canadians served in the Armed Forces during World War II. According to Veterans Affairs Canada historical archives, the law prohibited soldiers from losing a job as the result of service in the war. But many had no jobs, due to high unemployment levels lingering since the Great Depression. Many other soldiers came back to jobs that were not suitable for them anymore, requiring the government to create programs for them.

One such program allowed about 33,000 veterans to buy land for farming. The Veteran Rehabilitation Act gave the means for another 54,000 veterans to attend university, and institutions offered accelerated academic programs to help them graduate faster. Those who didn’t want training or to farm received re-establishment credits to renovate their homes, buy furniture or start a business. The government also provided financial assistance through the War Veterans Allowance Program for those who had difficulty finding work.

Similar assistance programs will be necessary to help those who have lost work due to COVID-19. “To minimize the damage of the pandemic, Canada needs to boost its research capacity,” says Julia Wright, president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association. She believes the federal government could do so by implementing the full recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review (Naylor Report) and that the federal government should invest in the Canada Research Chair Program so universities and colleges can hire contract academics.

The Naylor report was published in 2017; since then the federal government reinvested in fundamental science and is devoting $300 million a year in investigator-led projects. To close the gap, David Naylor and his panel of experts said that this reinvestment should reach $485 million a year.

Stephanie Ross urges academic staff associations to become politically active, and align with allies outside campus walls. “Now more than ever, we have an obligation to engage politically around the fight for better services. There has been a lack of investment in PSE and a lack of investment in the healthcare system as well, which is a big part of the problem we have fighting the pandemic right now,” she notes. “We must join together in the fight for public sector jobs and services.”

That lesson is beginning to take hold. In Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, academic staff associations are joining with broader coalitions to make their positions known and demands heard at the highest political levels.

“We write on behalf of a new alliance of higher-education unions in Nova Scotia, formed after the declaration of a COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we represent college and university employees across the province, both academics and staff, as well as students—all essential to the work of higher education in the province,” begins an open letter signed by Wright and over a dozen other union representatives, and sent to provincial leaders in April. “The COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to the urgent need to strengthen public services and infrastructure to support good health outcomes now and, later, effective social and economic recovery. Universities and colleges will play an important role across Canada.”

Going forward, Robinson warns that Canada’s economy will need to rely on government investment in public services and institutions as its main engines of growth to stimulate recovery and to deliver on Canadian priorities — health and education, good jobs and a decent quality of life.

“We need federal leadership to ensure stable funding for post-secondary education,” he says. “Universities and colleges are integral to the solving of Canada’s current and future challenges. It is important for the government to commit now to improve the affordability and sustainability of post-secondary education as part of a recovery plan that ensures a stronger and more just post-Covid-19 Canada.”

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