For many students, this past fall was the first time they came back to a physical classroom since 2020. If financial barriers were an issue pre-pandemic, the burden has now only grown exponentially. We’re talking about tuition hikes, which have gone up as pandemic freezes have decidedly thawed, but also, everything is more expensive right now. This is the result of record inflation rates (a forty year high!), which have led to higher prices for almost everything across the country. With in-person classes come additional expenses—having to relocate, pay rent, buy groceries, access transportation, to name a few—and students are bearing the brunt. So, what’s going on? And how do we address the issue?
Inflation is the general rise in prices of goods and services over time. When prices go up, especially when it happens quickly like it has in 2022, each dollar we spend gets us less than it did before. Our cost of living increases, while our incomes stay the same, putting many students in a precarious financial position. "Students in general are paying much more than they did, not only for their tuition but also living expenses such as rent and food costs, compared to pre-pandemic back in 2019," says Nicole Schmidt, yet, “income and other sources of financial assistance for students, such as grants and bursaries, have not increased proportionately.”
Why is this happening now? The short answer—the pandemic. Basically over the past three years we’ve seen a decrease in production due to COVID-19, worker shortages (AKA folks no longer willing to work in unsafe conditions for low pay), and supply chain issues. But while supply was relatively low, demand did not falter. In turn, this has allowed corporations to charge more for their products (including some good old-fashioned price gouging), and people have no choice but to pay them to access necessities. Other factors have also played a significant role, including surging oil prices and the increasing housing bubble.
In Canada we’ve seen prices climb for pretty much everything, from groceries to childcare to gas. In the past year food prices have increased by 9.7 percent and housing by 7.4 percent. Students have been forced to take extreme measures to make up the difference. A study from Dalhousie University shows that folks are being forced to cut down on groceries, change their diets, or skip meals entirely. Post-secondary institutions across the country have seen a marked increase in the number of students experiencing food insecurity, accessing campus food banks and emergency funds. “We're giving out as many hampers per week as we were giving out per month in the 2019-2010 school year,” said Erin O’Neil, executive director of the campus food bank at the University of Alberta. They have now resorted to creating care cupboards filled with free snacks, hygiene and sanitation items. While this may help to tide students over for the time being, it is not a long term solution to this systemic issue. For many, it will mean that they have to abandon their studies entirely. In a recent study, forty percent of students interviewed said they were considering dropping out.
Ultimately, like any economic crisis, those who are already facing barriers are being hit the hardest. “It's those who are in the bottom of the food chain that eventually feel it the most," said Olufunke Adeleye, president of the Brandon University Students' Union in Manitoba. Racialized students and those from low income backgrounds are being disproportionately impacted. According to Rachel Samson, vice-president of research at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, about 60 to 70 percent of low income renters in large urban centres spent more than half of their income on rent, with little wiggle room to pay for food and additional expenses. This is exacerbated by the different intersections of oppression that folks are facing, “The poverty rate amongst visible minorities is almost double that of non-visible minorities. For some ethnicities, it is triple that of non-visible minorities.”
International students in particular, are struggling. Already facing much higher tuition costs (up to five times what Canadian students pay and up 8 percent this year alone), and unable to work more than 20 hours a week at off-campus jobs, many are running out of options. "You don't have that many job opportunities," said Ahmed Hassan, an international student at the University of Windsor. "As students, when we came here as soon as we did, we had our own finances planned out, but inflation and high prices are shaking us so much right now."
As inflation rises, food centres across the country are also noticing a growing demographic of visitors amongst international students, who rely on food banks to be an essential part of sourcing nutritious and affordable meals. "This is the best thing for students because we struggle for money in the beginning," said University of Windsor student Dipan Sharma. "It's life-saving."
While services like food banks are important and now proving to be essential to our communities, individual solutions will not fix a systemic issue. We must call on our institutions to take cost of living into account when setting tuition fees, and to provide adequate support for those who are experiencing hardship. This includes increased access to financial assistance, without increased interest rates. Post-secondary education should be accessible to everyone, regardless of background, income, or nationality.