Universities rebuff calls to waive summer tuition for graduate students

Graduate students are calling on Canadian universities to cancel summer tuition, given many do not have access to the materials and offices they need to pursue their research.

Students demand tuition relief due to reduced availability of services during pandemic

Some graduate students at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., are calling for a break on summer tuition. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC)

The third year of Doug Yearwood's PhD at Queen's University isn't going as planned.

Yearwood said he intended to do research and fieldwork for his dissertation on gentrification in Ottawa throughout the spring and summer.

Instead, physical distancing measures meant to slow the spread of the COVID-19 prompted the Kingston, Ont., university to virtually shutdown its campus to students.

"There's all this uncertainty hanging over my head," said Yearwood. "It could push things back four months, it could push things back another year."

Despite the partial shutdown, Yearwood is facing a summer tuition bill of just under $2,000 — due on May 1 — even though many university services are now only accessible online and the possibility of completing fieldwork seems remote.

"The university is not, sort of, living up to our understanding of what we're paying tuition for," said Yearwood. "We're not able to do fieldwork, we're not able to access the university and at the same time, we're not able to work."

Yearwood is one of many graduate students calling on Canadian universities to waive summer tuition fees.

They argue students no longer have physical access to many university services — from libraries to offices — and that missing months of fieldwork threatens to push back their master's and PhD program completion dates.

Doug Yearwood, a third year PhD student at Queen's University, said fieldwork for his dissertation has been disrupted by physical distancing measures. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC News)

Over 1,000 graduate students participated in an online letter writing campaign calling on Queen's University to suspend tuition payments.

At Carleton University, fourth year PhD legal studies student Meg Lonergan is leading a similar campaign for tuition relief.

Lonergan is president of the union that represents teaching and research assistants — many of whom are graduate students. Lonergan said many graduate students completing research projects aren't able to benefit from moving services online because there are no digital copies of the books they need to read.

On top of that, many rely on in-person interviews or other research methods that would be difficult to complete while practising physical distancing. 

"I know a lot of my colleagues are having to really re-think their entire dissertations due to the restrictions," Lonergan said in an interview on CBC Radio's All In A Day

Universities offer financial assistance

University administrations have so far resisted cancelling tuition payments.

"Even though we appreciate the difficult circumstances you are facing, Queen's, like many Canadian universities, is not in a position to waive graduate tuition for the summer term at this time," Provost Mark Green wrote in a letter responding to student petitions. 

"While Queen's has moved to remote delivery for all courses, most supports and resources remain available to students to ensure the essential academic requirements of each degree program are maintained."

Instead of tuition relief, Queen's has introduced COVID-19 bursaries for international and domestic students. The university did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

A statement from Carleton University said the university has made emergency funding available to graduate students based on their unique financial and academic circumstances, including an additional $7 million on top of $25 million normally allocated to student aid annually.

"Although Carleton has moved to online course delivery for the summer term, most supports and resources remain available," the statement said.

Additionally, Carleton said if a student's research has been disrupted, requests for leaves of absence will be reasonably accommodated.

The federal government announced $9 billion in support measures for students last week, including increased funding for research and job training, as well as a financial benefit payment targeted toward students — the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).

CESB recipients would receive $1,250 per month, which is lower than the $2,000 paid out by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for individuals who have lost income due to COVID-19.

Lonergan said despite these new measures, governments and universities remain too focused on undergraduate students when designing relief measures. 

"Graduate students are falling through the cracks," said Lonergan. 

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