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College faculty walk the picket line outside Algonquin College, in Ottawa on Oct. 16, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

College students could lose their entire academic year and not get back into the programs in which they are currently enrolled if they drop courses as a result of the five-week strike in Ontario this fall, students across the province are being told by their colleges.

The Ontario government ended the longest college strike in the province's history a week ago when it introduced back-to-work legislation. Shortly after, Deb Matthews, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD), announced that students who felt the strike had too severe a personal or academic impact would be able to receive tuition fee refunds if they applied by Dec. 5.

But now, students who want to take that route are discovering that in order to receive their money back, they have to withdraw from their program entirely and may have to reapply to gain admission. There is no guarantee that they would be admitted to the same school or program again.

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"They worked so hard to get a spot in a program and the chance of being forced to give the spot away, it's a frustrating situation to say the least," said Emmaline Scharbach, the communications manager for the College Student Alliance. Ms. Scharbach has fielded dozens of phone calls since classes resumed on Tuesday. "We've been in contact with the [government] daily, shooting questions almost non-stop because there is so much left unanswered," she said.

Seneca, Humber, Sheridan and George Brown colleges have all sent students e-mails or posted messages on their websites stating that make-up courses may not be available in the winter term. Colleges have also warned students that they risk losing a place in the programs in which they enrolled if they choose to apply for a tuition-fee refund.

There "is no guarantee that you will be readmitted to your program," said an e-mail from Humber, where academic counsellors are personally contacting every student who submits a withdrawal form.

Algonquin College has said first-year students will have to apply again for admission, but upper-year students can return.

None of these colleges' registrars were available for comment on Tuesday.

Students are also finding it difficult to access the relief fund that the government told the colleges they have to set up, using savings from the labour dispute. To make a claim to receive up to $500 toward the cost of rebooked holiday travel, extra child care or rent, students have to apply and show receipts.

Students "feel they are being thrown around to different offices," Ms. Scharbach said. "We need colleges to work harder to get info out … Students want to understand their options and move forward in a clear and concise way."

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Colleges have autonomy to decide how to manage applications to withdraw from classes because of the strike, the higher-education ministry said.

Admission "in the next semester would be a decision made by colleges," said Tanya Blazina, a spokeswoman for MAESD. "Colleges have the full discretion to prioritize students who withdraw in admission decisions for either the January or September semesters."

The academic year has been extended by two to four weeks at all colleges. Classes are on until Dec. 18 and resume Jan. 2, 2018. Spring classes at some colleges are also being extended.

But students are only discovering that they have to withdraw from their program in order to get a tuition fee refund when they apply to drop courses in which they fear the strike has made it impossible to succeed.

Jasper French, for example, found his curriculum in three computer-science courses at Seneca College was too compressed to make up for the lost time. But he was told that if he dropped those courses and kept two electives in English and Writing, the computer-science classes would show up on his transcript as withdrawn and he would receive no refund.

"How can it be all or nothing?" he said.

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He thinks he will have to drop all five classes.

"I think I can pass the computer-science classes, but I won't keep the standards I want and it will lower my GPA. And it won't look as good on my transcript when I eventually apply for a job," he said.

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