Much of campus is closed due to COVID-19. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum
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Petition led by CUPE 2626, GSAÉD, and APTPUO now supported by around 5,000 signatures

Campus unions at the University of Ottawa are calling on the administration to waive tuition fees for the upcoming spring and summer semesters after the global COVID-19 pandemic closed many of the school’s services indefinitely and shifted both semesters online, while also posing major financial challenges for students. 

CUPE 2626, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSAÉD), and the Association of Part-Time Professors of the U of O (APTPUO) have launched an online petition urging the university to make tuition free for both semesters, which run from May 1-Aug. 24. As of publication time, the petition was supported by around 5,000 signatures.

The idea for the petition came from CUPE 4600, the union that represents teaching and assistant contract instructors at Carleton University, which has launched a similar petition across the canal from the U of O, the Charlatan reports.

Patricia Magazoni Gonçalves is a PhD student in the English department and president of CUPE 2626, the union representing student workers at the U of O. 

Magazoni Gonçalves said that many of CUPE 2626’s members are concerned they will not be able to secure a job contract throughout the summer and will, in turn, have trouble paying tuition and other expenses, such as rent or groceries.

“The extra pressure of not knowing where your income is going to be coming from … not knowing whether you can afford your classes really has an impact on students’ mental health,” added Natalie Leduc, CUPE 2626’s communications coordinator and a U of O alumna.

“For us, free tuition (for the spring/summer semesters) is a way to alleviate some of the stressors students might be facing, and it might help them address mental health issues,” Leduc added.  

In response to critics of the petition who worry how the U of O would make up for a funding loss if tuition fees were not collected for the spring/summer semesters, Magazoni Gonçalves pointed to the $91.8-million surplus the school recorded in 2018-19, as well as funding from the provincial government that would not be impacted. 

Leduc added that since many campus services are closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the library, food services, and athletics/recreation facilities, money could be saved there as well. 

In a written statement, the U of O’s media relations manager Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn said that the administration is aware of the petition but did not comment on whether there are specific plans to reduce or waive spring/summer tuition fees.

“The university appreciates the current situation may have resulted in unexpected financial pressures on students,” wrote Mailloux-Pulkinghorn. “We are looking at options to ease their financial burden.”

Mailloux-Pulkinghorn highlighted the U of O’s COVID-19 emergency fund that students can access for grants to assist with unexpected housing, transportation and moving costs due to the pandemic. 

Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

Maïté Girard English, the external commissioner of the GSAÉD who recently completed her masters in political sciences, said graduate students face “a different challenge” than undergraduates when it comes to the issues posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Girard English said many graduate students rely on jobs as teaching or research assistants, jobs she worries may be in limbo due to the transition to online classes for the coming semesters. 

Girard English is also concerned that graduate students might not have access to the resources they need to carry out their research, such as libraries, labs, or even meetings with supervisors. On the other hand, Girard English said graduate students won’t be able to attend the conferences they rely on to share their work due to the pandemic.

“An increasing number of doctoral students are teaching classes every semester at the U of O,” Émilie Pigeon, the APTPUO’s vice-president of external affairs, wrote in a statement to the Fulcrum. “We support our student/worker members who have to pay tuition every semester until they complete their studies.”

“Many institutions are giving people a financial break right now,” added Pigeon. “We believe the university can assist and support its students/workers in this unprecedented context.”

Magazoni Gonçalves said the unions are working on strategies to approach the university with the petition. 

“We expect the university to recognize that this is a time of struggle for everyone, and particularly for students,” said Magazoni Gonçalves. “We expect them to recognize that students need their support now, and one way to support students is to cut tuition fees.”

As an alumna, “I would be proud of having gone to a university that was at the forefront of dropping tuition fees,” said Leduc. “That would tell me this is a university that actually cares for their students and doesn’t just care about making money.” 

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