Thank you, Babacar.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for having us today and for hearing the student perspective. It's very much appreciated.
As somebody who's had the opportunity to work on the Hill in the past year, I have a great appreciation for the work all of you do, and the role this chamber and committees play in Canadian democracy.
I want to echo the perspective raised by my colleague and would like also to bring to the attention of members of the committee some of the challenges students have been raising with us.
First, the transition to a fully online learning model has not necessarily been a smooth road. Though we appreciate the hard work our university and others have put in to make this work, it cannot ignore the class, racial and rural/urban disparities within the undergraduate student population, which has had a direct impact on the ability of some to access the tools required to learn online. Examples of these tools include laptops, microphones, webcams, a stable Wi-Fi connection and a quiet place to study and learn at home. Moreover, some programs may require students to purchase additional software or learning tools out of pocket, increasing the financial burden that students already face.
In short, being able to thrive in an online learning setting is a privilege; it is not the reality for all. In our survey, we found that students with disabilities and racialized students were more critical of their online learning experience this spring. This must be addressed. When all students are on campus, many of these challenges are reduced, and there is a more equal opportunity for all students to succeed. However, these unprecedented times and the reality of online learning have shed light on the disparities that exist within our community. We are hopeful the federal government may consider a policy measure like a one-time bursary to help students who could use some extra money to buy the learning tools they need to succeed in an online learning setting.
Second, we remain keenly aware of and concerned by the impact of this pandemic on students' mental health. As many of you may be aware, the University of Ottawa is among many post-secondary institutions facing a mental health crisis. Tragically we have lost six students to suicide on campus since April 2019. We recognize this is a systemic problem that has no easy solution, but our concern is that this pandemic is exacerbating this crisis. In our survey, we found that 63% of students reported that their mental health had worsened or significantly worsened. This is consistent with a survey conducted last month by StatsCan which found, “Almost two-thirds (64%) of those aged 15 to 24 reported a negative impact on their mental health...since physical distancing began.” Students are feeling less productive and less motivated and are struggling due to the lack of social connection. A second wave of COVID-19 would certainly exacerbate these struggles.
Last, I would like to make an appeal, if I may, to all members of this committee. A 2018 report by RBC noted, “Since 1990, the government’s share of university funding has fallen by nearly half and the cost of tuition at universities has risen 2.7 times in real terms”.
I took the liberty of calculating the average age of members of this committee. I found that, on average, members would have been in university 30 years ago, in 1990. I would submit it is more expensive to go to university today than it was 30 years ago. In 1990, according to the RBC, it took around 300 hours of minimum wage work to pay tuition. Today it requires over 500. In 1990, in real terms, the average tuition was around $2,400. Today, it is closer to $6,500. In 1990, average full-time loan borrowing was under $3,000 a year. Today, it is around $6,000 a year. According to the RBC, "Over 20% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree start out with more than $25,000 in debt”, a phenomenon that is exponentially worse for our colleagues in law and medicine.
In our view, it is essential that the federal government work to ensure this trend does not continue, and if not, the challenges already associated with being a post-secondary student in Canada will only worsen due to the current economic climate.
In conclusion, in the short term, our priorities as student leaders are: (a) calling for the inclusion of international students in the government's pandemic response; (b) supporting students who are disadvantaged by online learning; and (c) advocating for a holistic, nationwide mental health response.
In the long term, as we look forward to what a post-COVID Canada will look like, we firmly believe there must be change. We must build a post-COVID society where education is at least as affordable as it was 30 years ago and where every student can afford to help rebuild the Canadian economy, rather than remain saddled by student debt for years to come.
Once again, Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank members of the committee for their time today. We hope this is the beginning of continued consultation with student unions during these trying times.
We're happy to take any questions at the appropriate time. Thank you.