University unions, students and faculty summon Ottawa for more education funding

MONTREAL — Ottawa needs to address the funding and access problems regarding post-secondary education that have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a coalition of university faculty, student and labour groups.

Rising tuition coupled with pandemic-induced unemployment is reducing access to education and training, the coalition says in its report, called "Education for All," released Tuesday. Many people who have lost their jobs in the past year are unable to afford the training that could help them get back to work, it says.

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"The pandemic has just brought everything into focus. It's magnified and it's concentrated the inequities that we've been jumping up and down for a while," Brenda Austin-Smith, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said in a recent interview.

The coalition, which also includes the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the National Union of Public and General Employees, is asking Ottawa to increase transfers for post-secondary education by at least $3 billion a year.

That permanent increase would bring the federal contribution per student back to 1992 levels, it says.

"Canada is 27 out of 33 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries when it comes to the proportion of public funding that goes into post-secondary," Austin-Smith said. "We're behind Greece, we're behind Turkey."

Currently, 47 per cent of funding for post-secondary education in Canada comes from government sources, she said, down from 70 per cent in late 1970s.

"Average domestic undergraduate tuition has increased by 215 per cent since 1980, after accounting for inflation," the report says. Over that same period, average graduate tuition has increased by 247 per cent.

The federal government said it's already providing significant support to universities and students.

"Our government is supporting post-secondary students who are feeling the economic impacts of COVID-19," John Power, spokesman for Innovation, Science and Industry minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, said in an email.

"This includes action to directly support students, as well as the important research work being done in universities and health institutes."

Power said that in May, the government announced $450 million in funding "to help Canada’s academic community sustain Canada’s research excellence and protect our research talent."

Nicole Brayiannis, deputy national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said the pandemic was the "last straw." Many students, she explained in a recent interview, were already taking on significant debt before the pandemic and as of 2015 — the most recent data her organization has — average student debt at graduation in Canada was $28,000.

Many students have been unable to find work during the pandemic and many don’t qualify for government assistance programs, Brayiannis said. The federal government, she added, has not yet enacted a one-year interest freeze on the federal portion of student loans it promised in the fall economic update.

Students have also struggled with the shift to remote learning, which has left many feeling isolated, Brayiannis said.

"There's so much that gets left out of online learning," she said. "You don't have access to libraries, there's no access to lab work for many students right now and that's such a critical and essential part of learning."

The coalition says it's also worried about universities' reliance on part-time teaching staff who work on contract. Austin-Smith said those employees account for around 50 per cent of Canada's university teachers, who she said often have "lousy contracts" that don’t include benefits.

The pandemic has also exposed problems with Canadian universities’ strategies of recruiting international students, who pay more than four-and-a-half times the tuition paid by Canadians, something the report describes as "unfair and unsustainable."

Austin-Smith said that while she appreciates that the federal government has taken on massive debt during the pandemic, "it's the worst time to talk about austerity" when it comes to education.

"It's not the time to pull back and say we can't afford this," she said. "We're talking about justice, we're talking about safety, we're talking about the right of the populace to the education they need."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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