Laurentian set off a domino effect in mid-March as the first Canadian university to shut down in-person classes.
Laurentian is also the first university to warn that COVID-19 and a potential enrolment drop could be the tipping point that threatens its financial viability. It may not be the last.
In a whirlwind six weeks, Canadian universities redesigned their system of teaching and examination, and they supported their students through the financial shock of the pandemic. Now they’re reckoning with a changed world.
Governments in some provinces are looking to slash the institutions’ budgets. Some students are campaigning for tuition cuts or threatening to take a gap year rather than pay for a reduced university experience. International students, an important source of income, may not be able to get to Canada in September.
Universities are caught in the middle, trying to make up for revenue losses and facing an uncertain future.
Laurentian, based in Sudbury, is projecting a shortfall of approximately $15-million for 2020-21, about 10 per cent of its annual budget. Laurentian president Robert Haché said the university’s deficit has already ballooned to $6-million since the shutdown, the result of closing money-generating services such as its residences, pool, catering and conference centre.
The impact of COVID-19 will be profound and will affect nearly every aspect of campus life. It’s unrealistic to think everything will return to normal by September.
Lectures with hundreds of students simply won’t happen as before, Mr. Haché said. International students won’t return in the same numbers because travel will be difficult and the processing of applications has been disrupted. Domestic students may not want to attend class right away even if it was possible. How will that affect labs or other aspects of teaching that are hands-on?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our domestic students would feel more comfortable continuing their education remotely. Over all, we’re going to have to be flexible, as a sector and at Laurentian, to provide a variety of ways for students to engage and to make them feel comfortable,” Mr. Haché said.
Laurentian, like many other institutions, is trying to mitigate the threat. Hiring has been frozen, jobs have been cut and discussions with the provincial government continue about what help might be required.
It’s still too soon to predict what enrolment will be, Mr. Haché said, but the next few months will be crucial. In Ontario, tuition fees make up between 50 and 60 per cent of revenue for most institutions.
Smaller schools, particularly those in the North where the university-age population is smaller, as well as those with a high percentage of international students, will be at greatest risk.
“The province is really focused on the fall in terms of what our enrolments will be as a system. I think they’re very aware of the challenges that we face,” Mr. Haché said.
In Manitoba, the provincial government has asked universities to plan for an immediate 10-per-cent cut to their budgets. It says it wants to shift savings to the health care system. But it has also asked universities to draw up plans for future cuts of 20 or 30 per cent as it considers an overhaul of public service funding.
A parade of honking cars circled the Manitoba Legislature to protest against Premier Brian Pallister’s proposals last week.
The University of Saskatchewan laid off an unspecified number of employees as campus activities and associated jobs have ground to a halt.
In Alberta, budget pressures were already taking a toll before the pandemic and the crash of oil prices deepened the crisis.
University of Calgary president Ed McCauley said they will let go 125 to 150 people, on top of a similar number a year ago. The University of Lethbridge, which has laid off more than 60 employees over the past two years, has also shut down its varsity hockey teams to save money.
Similar cuts are being considered across the province’s postsecondary sector.
But Mr. McCauley noted that in times of economic hardship, universities often see a jump in enrolment. He said his university is focused on contributing to the province’s economic resurgence.
“Instead of choosing to do a lesser version of what we’ve done before, we’re trying to reimagine our work and emerge even more focused,” Mr. McCauley said.
Last week, the federal government passed a massive $9-billion financial aid bill aimed at students. It will provide at least part of the income students will miss as a result of lost internships or summer jobs.
But no one knows whether students will show up in the fall, when classes may still be online-only.
It seems likely that the need for distancing will mean a reduced campus, with some attractive aspects of student life, such as clubs and athletics, cast in doubt.
Students may be unwilling to pay for that type of experience. Already some universities are not charging some ancillary fees and the pressure to offer more discounts will likely grow. More applicants than usual are inquiring about the possibility of deferring their acceptance for a year.
Meanwhile, graduate students across the country have been demanding tuition cuts to address their financial struggles.
Doug Yearwood, a PhD student at Queen’s University in Kingston, is part of a national campaign to waive summer tuition for grad students, since fewer services are available and in-person classes and labs have been interrupted. Mr. Yearwood can’t use his campus office, for example, but his fees are the same. He has also lost significant work income.
The federal government’s financial support is welcome, but international grad students won’t benefit in the same way.
“This is one way you can universally help everyone,” Mr. Yearwood said of tuition cuts.
None of the petitioned universities has so far waived graduate tuition.
But the graduate fee campaign may be the start of a broader movement. Undergraduates will see a different kind of university in the fall. It’s not clear how they will react.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.