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Alberta university students built 250 snow penguins outside the provincial government's McDougall Centre to protest cuts to post-secondary education in Calgary, Feb. 11, 2021.

Todd Korol/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A winter of discontent is brewing among postsecondary students as patience with online classes wanes and the prospect of rising tuition fees raises questions about value for money.

The anger spilled over at a meeting of the University of Alberta’s academic governing body last month as student complaints about remote learning went on for more than two hours and angered some academic staff. Faculty were called “pathetic” and were blamed for students’ struggles with online learning, according to their union president, who described a sustained attack on the skills and professionalism of staff that he said was out of order.

The students have also taken protests at government funding cuts to the grounds of the legislature in Edmonton and offices in Calgary and Lethbridge where they deployed small armies of penguins made of snow to drive home their message.

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Students arranged hundreds of penguin snow sculptures carrying signs saying “Don’t freeze our future” in front of the legislature in January. The penguin protest was deemed a tripping hazard and quickly crushed by grounds staff, but not before capturing local attention.

The growing student frustration in Alberta represents the leading edge of pressures affecting higher education across the country. The Alberta government of Premier Jason Kenney has cut hundreds of millions in funding for postsecondary education as it wrestles with a large deficit. Hundreds of jobs have already been lost and further cuts loom. Schools here and elsewhere face a financial squeeze.

The revenue from international students is down at some institutions, and nearly all have lost money on catering, residences and other ancillary services. Alberta has cut government transfers, Manitoba has threatened to do so and a two-year domestic tuition fee freeze in Ontario has tied the hands of administrators looking to raise more money.

The shocking insolvency at Laurentian University in Sudbury this month has raised alarm bells about the stability of smaller schools. The government of British Columbia, meanwhile, announced that 20 institutions would be permitted to run deficits of up $178-million this year, and 17 were authorized for deficits up to $75-million next year to cope with the pandemic fallout.

Many students complain of the dreary slog of online lectures that has replaced the vibrancy of campus life. Computer-mediated instruction is a pale imitation of the classrooms, labs and libraries that had to be abandoned because of COVID-19. They’re also facing the prospect, in some cases, of paying higher tuition for what they see as a diminished experience.

“Our tuition is going up almost 23 per cent in three years. At the same time, the quality of education is dropping considerably because support staff have been laid off. Class sizes are getting larger. And this is all happening while classes are online and no one feels that they’re getting their money’s worth,” said Rowan Ley, chair of the Council of Alberta University Students.

Mr. Ley is one of the organizers of the penguin protest. The stunt, executed with the help of a plastic penguin mould obtained for a few dollars at Canadian Tire, had succeeded in drawing public attention to cuts to postsecondary education. Students are frustrated, he added.

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The Alberta ministry responsible for higher education said it “hears and understands the concerns expressed by protesters” but all Albertans must face the province’s financial challenges together.

Students across Canada have consistently objected to practices such as online proctoring, which monitors student behaviour via video as they take tests. The programs have difficulty recognizing the faces of racialized students and raise privacy questions by allowing an all-seeing eye into students’ homes.

Some students are also unhappy about online classes being offered as a live broadcast only at certain times, instead of being available to watch on demand. For international students, that can mean having to be awake through the night to follow their lectures.

A survey of Ontario students and faculty found that 62 per cent of students and 76 per cent of faculty say that online learning has had a negative impact on the quality of university education.

Aside from the isolation and stress that many are experiencing, the principal concern was the lack of direct contact and engagement in online learning. Faculty in particular found the online environment less effective, according to the survey, which was commissioned by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

The most popular policy response among students, the survey found, was to reduce tuition costs. Petitions to that effect have popped up in many places across the country over the past 10 months, including in B.C. The University of British Columbia responded directly to that request from students before the start of the fall semester, explaining, in the words of provost Andrew Szeri, that tuition is “crucial to the ongoing operations of UBC. Without it we cannot continue to meet our academic mission.”

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UBC initially projected a deficit of $225-million this year, but has since lowered that figure to $100-million.

Months of dissatisfaction with online learning came to a boil at the University of Alberta’s general faculties council meeting in late January.

Ricardo Acuna, president of the association of academic staff at the University of Alberta, attended the meeting. Students had been trying in vain to get their concerns on the agenda since before the fall semester began. Given an opportunity, they vented for more than two hours. It became clear how angry they were, he said. At times they blamed faculty for their struggles, while faculty replied that they’re doing their best and are being asked to do more with less.

“It was taking a plug out of a dam and it just flowed over,” Mr. Acuna said.

Mr. Acuna said that there was nothing to be gained from students and instructors attacking each other. Budget cuts affect both sides. There are 200 fewer sessional instructors this year, he said, so that means larger classes. The university has cut 600 jobs and they’ve been told 400 more will soon go.

“The biggest challenge here is not coming from professors, it’ not coming from students, it’s coming from a university that has faced a ridiculous amount of budget cuts,” Mr. Acuna said.

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David Trick, a higher education consultant in Ontario, warned that universities in that province should beware of the lessons of the 1970s, when an era of growth gave way to a period of stagnating enrolment. The university experience became less sought after and governments lost interest in providing serious funding. If students are unsatisfied today and graduate into a weak economy with poor earning prospects, it could fuel a crisis of confidence in the system, he said. That could mean a cascading scenario of enrolment declines, funding shortfalls and labour strife.

“That’s the scenario that I think everyone should consider, and try as hard as they can to avoid,” Mr. Trick said.

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