Another school year, another sub-variant, and another wave of COVID-19.
Each fall we think about what it means to return to the classroom—new books, new clothes, new people, new assignments, new pressures! But how much time and attention do our educational institutions dedicate to preparing students for a new year outside of these material necessities?
As we’ve seen with most elements in our society, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the effects of existing inequalities across the spectrum. This is especially true for students within the post-secondary education system, many of whom are returning to classrooms for the first time in over two years.
As the virus took hold of society early in 2020, universities across the country were forced to respond to the moment to ensure that students could continue their education in a safe and responsible way. So, two years later, with no clear end in sight, it’s time to evaluate how the response addressed—or accentuated—barriers to accessible and quality education for all.
This is your 2022 Back to School Report Card.
Did they make the grade? Spoiler alert—nope, they did not.
Pre-pandemic, financial concerns were one of the greatest barriers for access to a quality post-secondary education. With constantly rising tuition costs, increasingly expensive books and supplies, and overwhelming student debt—being able to afford university is simply not a reality for many.
Despite decreased access to on-campus resources and amenities due to the pandemic, universities across the country continue to raise tuition (i.e. tuition fees increased in eight provinces and one territory in 2021, with Alberta undergraduate tuition up by 7.5%), with international students experiencing the brunt of these changes. For example, Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador raised tuition for international students by $20,000 in 2022, while in Alberta international students are paying $28,000 a year on average! In addition to increased travel costs and limited transportation, these conditions continue to be insurmountable for so many. In some provinces, even student loans have become more difficult to access.
All of this at a time when many students have lost their source of income (and were only eligible for the CESB in 2020, which paid less than CERB and is no longer available), and greater technological expenses with the demands of an adapting remote learning system. Pre-pandemic, many students went to campus to use wi-fi, access computers, or photo-copy pages from library textbooks they could not afford to buy. While many campuses have reopened their facilities over the past year, these resources are not accessible for folks who are immunocompromised. In addition to record inflation and price gouging, students across the country are struggling to meet even basic living costs, such as rent and groceries.
A few brighter spots—remote learning meant that some students could attend their post-secondary institution without relocating to a larger, more expensive, city (though many programs have forced students back into in-person classes). In addition, this reduced travel and transportation costs (more on that in a minute). A couple of new grants were also introduced to support low income students—which is nice!—but this process continues to put the onus on those facing barriers rather than reforming a system which excludes them due to their socioeconomic status.
Overall grade: D
Aside from universities historically being inaccessible to folks with disabilities, as schools across the country reopen their doors we are in line to see increased physical barriers to education as a result of the pandemic.
A (largely circumstantial) positive side-effect of remote learning is making education more accessible to students who are immunocompromised or have physical disabilities. However, as students return to class, COVID-19 remains a very real threat to the physical health and safety of folks on campus, with by-products like intensified security measures leaving many BIPOC, Queer, or other marginalized students feeling increasingly vulnerable.
With varying protocols across the country, many students will be forced to choose between possible exposure to illness and having to pause their studies. With the COVID-19 situation changing so quickly—and demand for a return to in-person studies so high—it is hard to assess how best to respond.
As discussed above, limited transportation has also had a huge impact on students’ ability to physically commute to campus. 2021 saw the shuttering of Greyhound Bus services, a more affordable mode of travel for students attending educational institutions outside of their hometowns. And, once again, this will have the largest impact on international students and those traveling from remote parts of Canada.
Overall grade: C (for now...)
This is a big one. COVID-19 has amplified the devastating anxieties that students were already facing in a pre-pandemic world (exacerbated by racial injustice, climate change, and gross economic disparity—to name a few), and added additional stressors to their already overwhelming workloads. While Canada does have a universal healthcare system, this does not cover mental health services, and the supplementary mental health resources offered by most campuses are often difficult to navigate, or simply insufficient to meet the needs of students in 2022.
The past two years of the pandemic have led to increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. Those from marginalized communities were once again disproportionately impacted, with racialized students twice as likely to report poor health as white students, and international students at severe risk of depression and anxiety disorders. A lack of community and opportunity for collaboration has had a huge impact on students, and unfortunately, institutions have failed to make this a priority. Most provinces do not include mental health resources in their pandemic responses, and course work has largely remained business as usual despite the incredibly distressing circumstances. Mental health experts and educators are advocating for a more holistic, and substantial, approach—which has yet to be implemented.
Once again, the onus has fallen on students and teachers to dedicate more time and emotional labour into advocating for post-secondary institutions to do better. After years of student organizing, the University of British Columbia finally implemented a 2021-2022 fall reading week to address rising concerns around students’ psychological well-being. Recognizing the connection between racism and mental health, a group of universities and colleges in Canada also signed a charter to fight anti-Black racism in post-secondary institutions for the first time. These actions have resulted in some progress from schools across the country, with increased access to virtual or telehealth options, but it is far from enough.
Overall grade: F
The pandemic forced us to rigorously reconsider our approach to education in an effort to keep students and teachers safe. But, as we’ve seen, instead of addressing existing barriers, these issues have been amplified—making university education increasingly inaccessible, especially for folks who are already facing different intersections of oppression. A 2020 survey commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students found that a significant number of students are rethinking their post-secondary education as a result.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way! As we are forced to reimagine what school can look like in the face of global catastrophes (like, say, a pandemic), there is also the opportunity to break down barriers and create more inclusive and accessible learning environments. Fall 2022 might not be the fresh start we’re hoping for just yet, but publicly funded, accessible higher education is definitely on the horizon.
Take Action: Call on federal leadership to boost funding and improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of post-secondary education.