British Columbia

University students demand lower tuition, fees as classes move online

University students across Canada are calling on their schools to reduce tuition and other fees in light of classes moving online and offering what they say is an inferior education. 

Students at UBC, U of T and SFU among many that say online education isn't what they paid for

A student at the University of British Columbia has started an online petition asking for reduced tuition and fees for the summer term to make up for all classes being moved online. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

University students across Canada are calling on their schools to reduce tuition and other fees in light of classes moving online and offering what they say is an inferior education. 

Katja Nell, the youngest student at the University of British Columbia, launched an online petition last week asking UBC to decrease tuition for the summer term and refund some fees for the winter term. 

"We feel it's unfair that they are charging the same tuition and still going through with their annual tuition increase," Nell said over the phone from her home in Delta, B.C. "The education is now online, which we feel is sub-par."

Like many universities, UBC moved all of its classes online in mid-March as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the country and around the world. UBC says professors and the administration are doing the best they can to offer a quality education in unprecedented times. 

"It's not ideal but it is the reality of the situation that we're facing," said Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs for UBC media relations. "We are working as hard as possible to make sure that the learning experience is as best as it can be.

'Hard to keep focused'

But some students say that's not enough, especially given the ever-rising costs. 

Nell says she understands that these are exceptional times, but when her classes went online they were riddled with awkward technical difficulties, inappropriate online class chats and less access to professors. 

"It was just really hard to keep focused," she said.

UBC student Katja Nell says online learning from home isn't as effective as classroom learning on campus, and tuition fees should reflect that. (Waldo Nell)

Then there are the challenges of learning from home. Nell says not all students have adequate space to do so, while others may have challenges with equipment or internet connectivity.

For international students who have returned home, time zone differences may require them to watch online lectures in the middle of the night. 

Lawsuits, demands

Other university students across Canada are also calling for compensation.

Last week, the University of Toronto Students' Union released a media statement demanding reduced tuition for the summer and the elimination of fees for services like athletics, which are no longer available.  

At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., the student society has also fought to give students more options to finish the semester, especially as they dealt with the pandemic and the stress and uncertainty that came with it. That included a pass/fail option for some classes or the opportunity for a grade freeze for the rest of the term. 

"We have told departments to make sure that they are erring on the side of compassion," said Giovanni HoSang, president of the Simon Fraser Student Society.

In the U.S., students at the University of Michigan, the University of Miami and Purdue University have sued their universities for compensation for COVID-19 closures. 

HoSang says COVID-19 has "magnified underlying issues of students not being treated fairly." 

"We have to make sure that the rights of students are being upheld," he said. 

'Online learning isn't going anywhere'

Clare Brett, an online education expert at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says she understands students' frustrations about online learning, especially amidst such troubling times. 

"It's scary for faculty and it's scary for students because it's new, and it's new at a time when everything has changed," Brett said. 

Online classes may be different from courses delivered in person, Brett says, but they can be just as effective. And just like teaching in person, some professors will be better at it than others.

Many post-secondary institutions like the University of Toronto are pouring resources into helping faculty make the transition to online classes, Brett says, in case they have to continue with them in the fall. 

She says the reality is that online learning has increased over the last few years, and students and professors alike should learn to adapt to it.

"Online learning isn't going anywhere — it's going to get more prevalent," she said.



Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at