Students question UW’s pandemic compensation strategy

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On Feb. 4, undergraduate students from the University of Waterloo received a memo stating that students would be partially compensated for pandemic-induced costs.

The message from the president and vice-president informed undergraduates that full-time students would see $125 of credit added to their accounts, $37.50 for part-time students. Students will be eligible for the credit if their registered status is “Fees Arranged” on Quest by Feb. 7, or if they are on a co-op term for winter 2022.

The amount is expected to appear in Quest on March 3.

Due to the additional stress the pandemic has caused students, several students expressed concerns that the university was not doing all that they could to alleviate the strain. 

“What could help is reducing our tuition instead of making us pay full price because at the end of the day we’re teaching ourselves when we’re online. We’re not in the university buildings, it’s not the same experience. They just post something, we read it or watch it and do whatever assignment or quiz we have that week,” first-year honours arts student Leyla Koc said. 

Tuition for many Canadian universities has increased in recent years even before the impacts of the pandemic. According to a research paper by Statistics Canada, universities have increasingly relied on tuition as a source of revenue as provincial grants to postsecondary institutions have steadily declined — the 2009/2010 academic year was the last year that grants were UW’s primary source of income, making up 45.1 per cent of operating revenue. In the 2020/2021 academic year, academic fees made up 63.6 per cent of the university’s operating revenue, whereas grants amounted to only 29 per cent of its income. 

As a result, tuition fees have been steadily increasing, with Canadian students’ tuition rising by an average of 1.6 per cent and international students’ tuition rising by an average of 4.3 per cent from the 2020/2021 academic year to the 2021/2022 academic year. The increased financial strain is aggravated by the overall increase in the cost of living in Canada, which in 2021 experienced its fastest growth since 1991.  

The long-term benefits of postsecondary education, particularly higher earnings and increased financial stability, have often been used to justify the financial stress of acquiring one. However, with the additional financial and mental strain placed on students by the pandemic, some have begun to ask whether or not universities could be doing more to help students now.

First-year AFM student Xander Chong initially appreciated the thought behind the $125 credit gesture. “Especially cause of the pandemic, for a lot of students money has been kinda tight, so it’s nice even though it can only cover the cost of one textbook,” he said. However, Chong pointed out that due to the relatively small amount, “they could give compensation as often as they could to show their support for students in these times cause especially for students only just returning to campus after a few months or years, knowing that the school cares even a little bit is nice.”

With the number of undergraduates at UW in the fall 2021 term totalling 34,609, a credit compensation of $125 to each full-time student and $37.50 to every part-time student would amount to over $4M CAD. UW’s total operating revenue for the 2020/2021 academic year amounted to approximately $595M CAD.

Lukas Salib, a first-year honours arts student, was similarly hesitant to give the move his full approval. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t compensate for the entirety of the two terms because a lot of students have taken a hit from their grades since they had to basically teach [the content] to themselves, so it doesn’t feel like a lot… there’s still such a really big number we gotta pay.”

These frustrations are compounded by the fact that this is not the first time UW has given students small amounts of credit in order to resolve underlying issues. Koc explained to Imprint a previous situation where she received credit from UW in response to a mistake the university had made regarding her residence contract.

In August 2021, Koc received an email from Campus Housing stating her contract had been cancelled due to missing signatures, despite her having evidence to the contrary. When she contacted campus housing, she was told that she had to fill out a vacancy form and wait for a confirmation email — information that she later learned was inaccurate. 

“I waited a couple of days and I heard nothing, so I emailed them back because obviously I’m anxious, and a completely different person got back to me and told me something completely different on top of that. They told me I had to resign the contract again, repay the $500 deposit, and then I’d be good,” Koc said. “The deadline was literally the day after I emailed them, so if I hadn’t gone out of my way to email them I wouldn’t have had a place to sleep. I paid another $500 deposit, but there was just so much misinformation.” 

Koc received a $50 credit compensation for her troubles. “What is that gonna do for all the anxiety and stress they put me through? I was in a different country at the time too, so getting that email that I didn’t sign something even though I did was terrifying.”

Regarding situations like Koc’s, as well as increasing concerns about the ever-rising cost of tuition, the question of whether or not compensation has been “enough” weighs on many Canadian students’ minds. 

“We’re already paying so much to be here, but they make you feel good by giving you money when really, it’s nothing,” said first-year chemical engineering student Melissa Ramdial.