It’s too early to determine whether tuition needs to be adjusted

Remote learning has not reduced the cost of teaching, labour, or services still available to students

Paying the full cost of tuition right now is frustrating, but it’s funding valuable services. Photo: Andres Chavarriaga/The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

In late April, before summer classes had even begun, many students across Canada began to express their frustration that universities would be charging them the same tuition fees, despite classes moving to an online format. While I understand the financial frustration that comes from being a student, and I can most certainly empathise with the sentiment that online classes are a much bigger pain than in-person classes, it’s too early to be demanding that tuition be reduced for the duration of enforced remote learning — at least, not until students have a better idea of what, exactly, they are getting (or not getting) out of this semester.

I will be the first champion of the idea that online classes, as a rule, suck. Without a physical lecture, and with limited access to a professor or a tutor marker (TM), students mostly have to rely on their ability to teach themselves the material that is, at best, guided in a series of modules and textbook chapters. But we should be clear that what SFU students are experiencing now is not traditional online or distance education that has been offered in the past by the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE). CODE classes are premade and packaged to be run by TMs, rather than faculty, and are meant to be completed within a pre-set time on the student’s own schedule.

The remote learning that students of the summer (and now fall) semesters are going to be participating in is different. Remote classes are still taught and directed by faculty in a fixed class time, just as if they were in person. The difference is that they are delivered in an online format. While this may seem like a relatively small difference for students who are stuck at home trying to listen to a lecture while younger siblings scream in the background, it makes a big difference in the reason why students shouldn’t jump the gun on demanding reduced tuition.

To start, there’s no real way to predict which classes are going to be better or worse off in this situation until they’ve had a chance to run. This also applies to the technological capabilities of individual instructors and students. A blanket tuition decrease where it might not even be needed is going to severely restrict the kinds of resources and technological investments that might prove necessary or incredibly useful in future remote learning environments. 

The reality is that we need some way to objectively assess whether or not students have been negatively affected by remote learning, and that is unfortunately going to require classes to run their course, and to weigh the outcomes of this semester against previous ones. 

To that end, a far more effective branch of advocacy would be to demand that universities are both actively collecting objective and subjective data, and are transparent in how they intend to assess the success or failure of this new remote system. As an example, will students have access to course and instructor evaluations this semester? And how will these evaluations be used in the decision-making for future semesters or, if necessary, retroactive tuition readjustments?

It’s really important that student activism in this matter is proactively focused in the right direction. It is not only the financial well-being of students that is affected by this pandemic, but also that of faculty, teaching staff, administrative staff, and all of the other ongoing services that are still available to students, albeit at a distance. Students have to keep in mind that these vital roles have not disappeared just because learning is remote, nor have they been intentionally reduced as in CODE classes.

There has been some good work done already that reduces the overall costs to students by addressing actual services that are no longer in use. The suspension of the U-pass fee is one such victory. Whether or not other services and fees are deemed to be redundant in a remote learning environment remains to be seen. Until then, concerned students ought to be diligent and mindful as they always are, and be prepared with a list of evidence and proposals at the end of the semester, if the collective learning experience does in fact go belly-up.