ISSUES

The first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly and radically upended our universities and colleges. Across the country, campuses are facing an uncertain future with financial strain, uncertain enrollment, staff layoffs, and postponed research. As we move beyond the immediate impact of the pandemic, attention is now turning to what the next phase might look like for Canada’s post-secondary education system.

The fallout at universities and colleges as a result of the pandemic has highlighted longstanding issues with post-secondary education in Canada. The long decline in public funding has shifted the costs of post-secondary education onto students and families and resulted in more and more scholars working in teaching-only contracts with low pay, limited benefits and no job security.

We need to urgently look at replacing a broken system of private financing that condemns young people to a generation of debt, that is simply unaffordable to many Canadians, and that relies on exploitative international student fees and precarious labour. We need to reimagine post-secondary education and demand a ‘new normal’ at universities and colleges. Post-secondary education is key to recovery and resilience.

Affordability

  • Students who need financial assistance graduate with an average of $28,000 of debt.
  • 2/3 of students and their families have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and over half of students say they are finding it more difficult to pay for school.
  • Only 10% of students will access the top-up to the Canadian Student Grants announced as a result of COVID-19.

As we slip into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, it is clear that students and families will have even great challenges affording post-secondary education. This financial hardship comes at a time when unemployment is high and more Canadians than ever will consider education and retraining.

To ensure that upfront costs aren’t a barrier, the federal government needs to work with the provinces to ensure that any qualified Canadian will be able to get the education and training they need without taking on additional debt. The federal government invested is educational assistance programs after the Second World War to ensure a large portion of Canadians were trained as part of the post-war recovery plan, and we need the same big thinking now. We’re calling on the federal government to ensure that any interested Canadian is able to get the training and education they need without taking on debt.

Precarity

Inadequate government funding of our colleges and universities has meant that many academics are working contract to contract, some earning less than a living wage.

  • One-in-three academic staff in Canada work on precarious, short-term contracts.
  • The number of university teachers working part-time, part-year expanded by 79% from 2005 to 2015.
  • Two-thirds of contract academic staff surveyed by CAUT said their mental health has been negatively impacted by the contingent nature of their employment.

As a result of precarious employment, contract academic staff were left incredible vulnerable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With no job protection, many contract academic staff were the first to face financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic. Now, in a stagnant labour market where universities and colleges are looking to cut expenses, opportunities for contract academics will be extremely limited.

Our need to reduce the sector’s reliance on precarious employment through increased funding for post-secondary education is more important than ever. We’re calling upon the federal government to increase transfers to provinces for post-secondary education. The last federal government top-up was in 2007, and provincial governments do not have the same fiscal maneuvering room as the federal government. Now is the time for federal leadership to ensure stable funding for post-secondary education.