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People are seen on the front steps of Ryerson University on campus in Toronto on Sept. 8, 2020.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Will Baldwin is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University.

As my Monday lab comes to an end at 6 p.m., concluding my seventh-straight hour of staring at my computer screen alone in my room on Zoom, I can’t help but wonder if this is worth it.

The pandemic has forced universities and their students into a new normal. In September, according to CourseCompare, 53 per cent of Canadian postsecondary schools planned to deliver programs mainly online, with 40 per cent prepared to operate in a hybrid model in the fall semester. Gone are the defining experiences of making friends on campus or learning to live away from home. And while there’s no doubt that professors are trying their best – they too did not sign up for this, and for the most part students recognize the difficulties of teaching online – the education we’re receiving this school year just isn’t what we expected when we enrolled.

And yet, students in this country are lucky if this new form of education costs them what they would have paid before the pandemic. Universities in Canada have, as a whole, managed to increase tuition fees. According to Statistics Canada, average tuition fees for a Canadian student for 2020-21 are $6,580, up from $6,468 last year. They can include things such as recreation, campus safety and athletic fees, even though sports have been cancelled and many schools’ facilities have been closed.

With the first semester now coming to an end, and with many institutions announcing that they’re planning for more of the same next semester, students such as myself are feeling trapped – expected to pay the same (or more) for this inferior experience, with fewer and fewer ways to make the dollars work.

Some schools have justified keeping their fees high by pointing to the costs of keeping buildings up to standards and the added expense of online technologies. Just why it costs the same to maintain a building that is essentially empty is a question administrators have studiously avoided answering.

With online classes, one of the advantages should be that we no longer need expensive learning spaces. Yet here we are, with schools hiding behind the idea that offering courses via Zoom somehow requires such a massive uptick in the technology bill that tuition fees should be essentially identical.

Tuition rising or being high isn’t a new issue. As provinces such as Ontario have trimmed their budgets for university funding, students have had to work even harder to pay the rising costs of education. We understand that professors have to be paid fairly and that school infrastructure must be kept up.

But the suggestion that building repairs, room rentals and campus-specific needs such as security cost the same with so few students on campus is just mockery.

When students say the cost of school is too high in 2020-21, we’re not asking for a handout. We rely on every dollar in the best of times, and now, facing a recession and bearing the additional costs of living through a pandemic, each dollar is that much more important.

We’ve also lost traditional revenue streams. Many students rely on part-time work to fund their educations, but this July, the unemployment rate of returning students was 27.6 per cent, compared with 13.3 per cent in the same month last year, according to Statscan. By October, with the school year under way, the unemployment rate for youth was still 18.8 per cent, compared with 10 per cent as recently as January. These jobs, often in industries such as food services and retail, are not likely to return as lockdowns wear on.

Still, our institutions refuse to listen. That’s left us stuck in purgatory, being squeezed for more money while struggling to find ways to make it and getting less for what we’re paying. Given that these are supposed to be places of higher education, you’d think they’d engage with students’ opinions on their current situation. And yet, we’re hanging in there, forced by seemingly uncaring schools to continue to learn the hard way.

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