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The University of Guelph campus is seen empty on May 20, 2020. During spring and summer the campus is normally quieter than the fall or winter, but this year it's essentially empty as the summer semester takes place online only during the COVID-19 pandemic.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Some Canadian universities are raising tuition for the fall term despite shifting most classes online during the pandemic. The fee increases have upset student leaders who question whether online education at a higher price provides value for money.

Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia said tuition will rise by 3 per cent this year for domestic students. A science student with Canadian citizenship at Dalhousie would be charged $10,424 in tuition and other fees, according to the university’s online calculator.

The University of Calgary said it is raising tuition by 5 per cent for returning domestic students and by 7 per cent for new students, to a little more than $7,000 in tuition and fees for a Canadian studying science. The University of Manitoba is increasing tuition by an average of 3.75 per cent, to roughly $5,400 for a domestic science student. The University of Alberta is raising fees by an average of 7 per cent.

“Students have been very clear that they don’t think remote learning is worth paying as much for as in-person instruction,” said Erica Seelemann, a vice-president at the Dalhousie Student Union. “Students are mad. They don’t understand why the university won’t make more financial compromises when they’ve heard how students are struggling. They’re not listening and students are frustrated.”

Many universities are facing revenue shortfalls because of an expected drop in the number of international students, who typically pay significantly higher fees than Canadians. In some provinces, government cuts have also hit university operating budgets.

“Annual tuition increases are necessary to maintain the high quality of our academic programming,” Dalhousie said in a statement, adding that it is also increasing aid to students. The university said 90 per cent of its operating funds come from tuition fees (41 per cent) and the provincial government (49 per cent).

Tuition fees at Ontario universities were frozen by the provincial government after a 10-per-cent cut to tuition a year ago. The province also significantly reduced its student-aid budget. The federal government announced last month that as part of its COVID-19 response its portion of student aid will increase to a weekly maximum loan of $350, up from $210.

Universities say another factor in their tuition calculation is that it often costs more, not less, to deliver courses online. The time, technology and expertise to produce online courses are all additional costs, according to the universities.

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Harvey Weingarten, a consultant and the former president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, said universities need revenue and raising tuition fees is one of the few tools at their disposal.

“International enrolment is likely to plummet, so they need money,” Mr. Weingarten said. “This is a precarious business model to follow, because things like this happen. When that money dries up, you have a serious financial hole to fill.”

Mr. Weingarten said students around the world, not just in Canada, are raising questions about tuition fees because they’re unconvinced by promises from the institutions that online learning will be as good as the in-person experience.

“Students are asking where is the value for money," he said. "There was the on-campus experience, the interaction with the professors, and they’re saying we aren’t getting that any more. If we perceive we’re getting less, we should be paying less.”

Tuition hikes are also being applied to international students. At Dalhousie, international students will pay $1,473 more in tuition next year. Guelph University has increased international fees by between 3 per cent and 15 per cent, depending on the program, as have many other universities.

Ms. Seelemann said she meets regularly with international students at Dalhousie who are seeking bursaries to keep them afloat during the pandemic, as many part-time jobs have disappeared with businesses shutting down.

“They’re having a hard time. They can’t afford groceries, they can’t afford where they’re living,” Ms. Seelemann said.

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