Kitchener-Waterloo

Tuition, online learning and mental health big concerns for this fall, post-secondary students say

Post-secondary students in Kitchener and Waterloo say they're concerned about paying for tuition and food, whether online learning is giving them the best education and the mental health of themselves and their peers when learning in isolation.

Concerns of BIPOC students must be part of any plan to help universities and colleges, MPP says

Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo held an online rally where students and educators spoke about the need for the province to develop a plan to help post-secondary students. Concerns about financial help, mental health and the needs of Black, Indigenous and people of colour students were raised during the Facebook event. (CBC)

When it comes to returning to class this fall, post-secondary students aren't just worried about how to log on to online learning, says Mehar Hundal.

They're concerned about how they'll pay for fees, tuition, rent and groceries especially after possibly not having a summer job to make money or they don't have a part-time job while learning, she says.

Hundal, a third year international student at Conestoga College, says concerns about finances are also heightened for students coming to Canada to study.

"It's just a lot for students to take in," she said Monday during a panel discussion hosted by Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo on Facebook. 

Hundal says students feel like no one is really discussing helping post-secondary students even though the fall semester is set to begin in just a few weeks.

"I feel like the institutions, the government, [do] need to come up front and discuss how they're going to help students pay those fees," she said.

Are students getting a quality education?

Lindo's panel discussion brought together students and educators to talk about the return to post-secondary learning this fall. Most campuses in the province will be providing online learning with some in-class work for certain students.

Julia Pereira, vice president of student affairs for the student union at Wilfrid Laurier University, said students should not have to lower their expectations for a quality education because of the pandemic. 

She said while most faculty members have adapted, there's more than can be done to curate a better learning experience. That includes providing training for full-time faculty and more funding for precariously employed instructors who may struggle with both teaching and other jobs.

"Online learning can go way beyond a Zoom lecture and let's try to use these digital tools and innovations to ensure that students have equal and equitable access and ensure no student is left behind," she said.

Ayesha Masud is a health studies student at the University of Waterloo and co-ordinator of RAISE (Racial Advocacy for Inclusion Solidarity and Equity), a student-based service that promotes equality and unity.

She said before the pandemic the university, as well as other post-secondary institutions, failed to listen to the complex realities for Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) students and those students didn't feel supported.

The pandemic has made it worse for BIPOC students.

"Universities are a microcosm of what happens in larger society," she said. "So under [COVID-19], the racism of our system that was already present was exacerbated."

Masud says her question to the province is, "How are we centring Black and Indigenous voices as we navigate those issues, recognizing that they are already disadvantaged?"

"How are we validating Black and Indigenous students' existence when additional financial barriers do pop up because of the pandemic," she added.

She said for BIPOC students to succeed, they need to feel supported and heard.

"We are looking to the government to provide that direction," she said.

Mental health concerns

Lori Campbell, director of Shatitsirótha', the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre, and an Indigenous adjunct faculty member at the University of Waterloo, says the province needs to consider the unique needs of Indigenous students.

Campbell says not all students have access to computers and proper internet at home. For people living on First Nations and not on campus, there can be cramped housing situations. It means students may not have a space to call their own to do their work and take part in online classes.

"I'm kind of in tune to those things but I suspect that my peers, other faculty members in other programs, are not going to be so in tune to that and so I fear that we're going to lose a lot of students very quickly," Campbell said.

She said there are also concerns that if Indigenous students have to leave school because of the problems created by the pandemic, that it could be difficult to access funding to return to school at a later date.

Campbell also echoed concerns about mental health raised by others. She says when students are on campus, she can ask people how they are and gauge their response — even if the person says they're fine, their tone may tell her otherwise.

"'I'm good' just sounds like 'I'm good' on text," Campbell said.

There won't be any crowded classrooms on college or university campuses in Ontario this fall. But as post-secondary students plan to return to class, they say they have a number of concerns, including finances, technology and mental health. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Pandemic no time to pause equity work

Lindo says the province needs to develop a pandemic plan to help post-secondary students access their classes and thrive this fall. She says the most vulnerable and marginalized people need to be at the centre of a plan.

"When we have a pandemic, or any kind of crisis … we tend to think we should pause equity work," Lindo said. "That is the moment when you cannot pause equity work, you should ramp it up because there will be groups of people that are not actually able to access the supports that you assume that everybody is accessing."

Without a master plan from the government, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how education is delivered is left up to the individual institutions, Lindo said.

"We have to make sure that all of the groups and the spaces that were made available to hold people while they were navigating their post-secondary careers are still available to them even if they are having to do the work from their home, from student housing. Somehow, we have to make sure that everybody is OK," Lindo said.

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