Features  Paying for McGill in a Pandemic

McGill’s lack of consideration for a student’s budget

My younger brother has been doing a good job of keeping me up to speed on the changes he’s experiencing as an incoming freshman at McGill University, where I am currently entering my third year. The most recent development had been relayed to me by text message: Upper Residence, the group of residence buildings he had been assigned a room in three months prior, has been closed due to safety concerns. The housing administration at McGill sent out this warning a mere three weeks prior to move-in day, relocating the hundreds of kids formerly placed in Upper Residence to other existing residence buildings within the school’s vicinity. Buildings such as New Residence, La Citadelle, and Carrefour, the hotel-style residences close to campus, seem like less of a sacrifice, except for when you consider that the leasing fees in these buildings is notably higher than those of Upper Residence. Buildings such as Solin Hall are cheaper, however, its location in Saint-Henri compromises the residence experience many first years expected when paying their deposit for Upper Residence. Furthermore, the news was announced on August 6th, five days after the cutoff day to cancel a residence reservation and forfeit $500 from the initial residence deposit. Now, if the sudden relocation makes you more inclined to pass up residence altogether, your $1500 deposit would be lost. The Upper Residence option was my brother’s first housing choice, but my family didn’t want to pay the penalty, nor have my brother live at home for his first year of school. All we could hope for is that he got a good alternative.

My brother’s text message, one of many detailing his constantly evolving first year experience, undoubtedly resonates with the majority of university students going back to school this year. As we get further into September, the coronavirus pandemic continues to creep its way through the country with little signal of total relief. This long-term lockdown mentality, coupled with a bleak vision of what the future holds, has left universities fumbling for proper alternatives to big lecture halls, libraries open till late at night, and traditional dormitory-style residence buildings. Of course, social distancing is vital in an academic setting; we look to our neighbours in the United States, who prematurely opened public spaces and faced the consequences, reaffirming that distancing protocols are necessary to avoid future COVID-19 spikes. Similarly in Montreal, the premature opening of nightclubs, restaurants and bars has led to more COVID infections than any other city in Canada. It’s difficult to come to terms with a threat that appears invisible, especially when the best damage control we have is effectively pausing normal life. Perhaps this is why new, garbled virus protocols and structures for students have often been met with criticism.

As we get further into September, the coronavirus pandemic continues to creep its way through the country with little signal of total relief. This long-term lockdown mentality, coupled with a bleak vision of what the future holds, has left universities fumbling for proper alternatives to big lecture halls, libraries open till late at night, and traditional dormitory style residence buildings.

Complaints surrounding coronavirus and college blossomed in the early summer, and have been mainly prominent amongst students studying in the US, which has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The death of over 175 000 people in the US has shaken up communities, academic and otherwise, across the nation – understandably so, as returning to school would most definitely result in an unaffordable spike in cases. Notably, many concerns have been raised as to whether paying full tuition is acceptable for a primarily digital education. News of a complete switch to online schooling was announced by the majority of universities earlier this summer, with student-made petitions to cut tuition circulating on its coattails. In response to growing criticism, some American universities have pledged to reduce their prices by a significant amount – Georgetown and Princeton have offered 10% discounts on tuition – however, many have not wavered on the often hefty price tag of a US secondary education. More often than not, the schools offering discounts can afford to, as their endowments are large and their student body is small. Other smaller, less selective schools don’t necessarily have these mobile endowment funds to be utilized for operating budgets, and therefore must keep their tuition costs up in order to function. This rule of thumb clearly doesn’t apply to every school though; unlike its Ivy League peers, Harvard has decided to stick firm to its lofty tuition despite switching to online schooling platforms. As of 2019, the university’s endowment sat at approximately 40.9 billion dollars.

These same sentiments also echo true in Canadian universities. It’s safe to say that most college students entering the 2020 school year will be taking more classes online than usual – if not all of them – following the social distancing guidelines which have been put in place. Yet, critique follows in wake of terms like “remote learning” entering our mainstream vocabularies. Don’t get me wrong, these social distancing protocols are obviously necessary; however, it doesn’t take much inference to understand that these efforts are already putting a damper on the traditional university experience. Commentary has been made amongst my university peers regarding the quality of online schooling; many thought Zoom to be a band-aid solution, not a means to complete their mandatory classes in the fall semester. “Inferior,” “awkward,” “stilted” and “impersonal” are all words I’ve heard being used to describe the virtual learning environment that students adopted after being sent home this past spring. We can complain as much as we like, but it’s one thing to already be attending university and take up online school as a mere blip in your academic journey – starting your college career online is a completely different experience. Students who already attend McGill seem less likely to halt their studies altogether than those who haven’t started their degrees yet. Talking to incoming freshmen has cemented the obvious: As we enter a new school year, students are far more inclined to pay for an in-person university experience, not an online plan B. Frosh has been moved online – the main orientation event where I made a lot of my friends – as well as classes; couple that with the physical moving of students to peripheral residence buildings they did not initially want to be in, and I understand the hesitancy. Though no one’s to blame except the virus itself, I understand why many first years are considering deferring this year, since no one has a a set plan for what’s in store.

Commentary has been made amongst my university peers regarding the quality of online schooling; many thought Zoom to be a band-aid solution, not a means to complete their mandatory classes in the fall semester. “Inferior,” “awkward,” “stilted” and “impersonal” are all words I’ve heard being used to describe the virtual learning environment that students adopted after being sent home this past spring.

Although Canadian university fees pale in comparison to those of American schools, my inner cynic couldn’t help but become increasingly incredulous as further postings from McGill came out. A true punch to the gut was checking this year’s upcoming tuition fees, which had been raised for me as an out of province Arts student. McGill had posted earlier in 2020 estimating a 3.1% increase relative to 2019-2020 per credit for Quebecois, with an out of province supplement for other Canadian students. How was it possible to shift classes online, cut student access to the majority of buildings on campus, in tandem with raising our tuition? Circling back to considering endowments, a quick google search told me that McGill sat on around 1.73 billion dollars in assets as of 2019, the third largest sum out of the Canadian universities. It’s not exactly the $40 billion Harvard’s sitting on, but it’s certainly not miniscule. When reading about how online education can supposedly be expensive for schools to put in place, I questioned the expenses my own university had put in place this upcoming school year. Was the McGill tuition increased due to expensive online learning systems? American schools such as Michigan State have cited investing in technology and faculty training in order to improve the remote learning experience as reasoning why they decided to keep tuition as is, reported by CTV. Could this be the case for McGill as well? After emailing both the coronavirus Media Relations Office (MRO) at McGill and an Arts Advisor, few specifics were clarified. I was told Tuition and Fee increases are based on the rate used by the Quebec government. There’s no way to argue with provincial increases to approximately $87.43 per credit (an approximation for Quebec basic tuition – as of September 10th, The Quebec Government has not yet announced the rates for the academic year 2020-21. The exact out of province supplement was not listed either, rather it was said to be approximately that of Fall 2019’s, at $179.87 per credit). And yet, I couldn’t help but join in with the cries from students, wondering how raising tuition makes any sense in this precarious time. Structural costs, legacy costs, infrastructural costs, and administrative costs are all covered by tuition. Still, it’s frustrating; many McGill buildings or spaces will remain closed in the Fall 2020 semester. If I can’t utilize the campus like I did last year, why should I be expected to pay full prices?

A true punch to the gut was checking this year’s upcoming tuition fees, which had been raised for me as an out of province Arts student.

When inquiring about the learning technology that McGill will use in the upcoming months, the Arts Advisor that I was in communication with via email informed me that “The Fall 2020 term will begin as scheduled, with courses being offered primarily through remote delivery via Microsoft teams, Zoom or other platforms, depending on the instructors.” Both Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow users to create a free account and access their platform – the Teams software has more advanced options available as well, ranging in price from $6.40 to $26.00 per month – but McGill hasn’t given any specifics as to whether they have bought the more tech-savvy models for student benefit. In fact, when you check out the Microsoft Teams website under the “education” section, the first bold headline that jumps out of you reads “Students and teachers get Teams for free.” I remain skeptical as to whether the increase in tuition is to increase buoyancy for the online schooling platforms as well. Other than online work, a recent email from the administration acquainted students with Teaching Hubs, or small spaces reserved in some McGill buildings, which are designed to accommodate small groups of students and faculty for any in-person teaching activities. Teaching Hubs will only be accessible to students in classes that require them, and will follow social distancing protocols within the spaces. Self-isolation rooms will be stationed near all Teaching Hubs, in case of an onset of COVID-19 symptoms during class. Whereas teaching hubs are exclusively for in-person class work, the newly introduced study hubs are indicatively meant for students’ safe, individual studying. Located in the Redpath Library and the Law Library, the Study Hubs will not act as regular study spaces where people can circulate freely. Rather, students will have to book time in advance to reserve spots in study hubs via the Library’s homepage, which states that up to 2 weeks in advance, McGillians may book “study rooms for up to 2 hours at a time and may book up to 4 hours per week.”

McGill assures students in the post that the quality of education will not be sacrificed in these coming semesters, and that specifically, “the value of a McGill degree remains despite this temporary interruption.” The tangible steps the university proclaims will be taken in order to fulfill these claims are an increase in remote learning support for students and instructors, as well as the creation of “multiple virtual communities,” according to an email from the Provost. It remains unclear what this specifically entails. Many remote and on campus services for students such as the Career Planning Services and Campus Life & Engagement have elected to operate exclusively online, while others such as the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) offer limited in-person appointments. Health services have been merged into the Student Wellness Hub, which, like the OSD, is offering limited in-person appointments on Mondays and Thursdays of the fall semester, which must be booked in advance. Many wellness workshops, which run either as a few sessions, or throughout the semester, can be signed up for online, and the athletics program is providing free workout videos on their website. Similar to the Study Hubs, students will have to book 90-minute blocks of time online if they want to use the McGill fitness centre (though fees appear not to have changed). In lieu of easily accessible clubs and an on-campus community, a “Remote Student Life” page has been set up, where students can access a comprehensive list of services available.

Yet another facet of the online university experience is that of international students, who are unsure as to whether they should return to Montreal for remote learning or stay home. Tuition is significantly more expensive for students outside of Canada; this cost in addition to that of living in Montreal instead of staying home makes moving to Montreal for an exclusively online experience a hard decision. It goes without saying that time zones pose a large barrier to international students trying to attend school; Zoom lectures or quizzes may be scheduled in the dead of night if you live on the other side of the globe. Fabrice Labeau, the Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning, in a recent email, assures international student attending McGill that they’ll still be able to have what he calls “the full McGill experience” at home. Specifically in regards to classes themselves, the use of words such as “replicated” in reference to online schooling mirroring that of an in-person lecture sets a high bar for what remote learning will bring. In the email, he indicates that “some classes this fall will have the opportunity for students to attend in-person teaching activities.” However, these activities are rather complimentary, not mandatory for the optimal learning experience. Of course, international students will not have access to the aforementioned teaching and study hubs if they decide to stay home. Other than that, it seems that if McGill’s remote teaching lives up to what faculty insists it will be, the only thing international students would be sacrificing is the off-campus student life aspect (which is, of course, a large sacrifice for some). Many of Montreal’s bars and clubs have instilled strict capacity limits and no-standing policies. Private gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited, whereas public indoor areas are allowed to hold 250 people. A general sentiment I have heard from first years upholding their decision to defer is that the social scene that Montreal is known for has been flattened – they might as well wait to start school when the nightlife scene is alive and well again.

It goes without saying that time zones pose a large barrier to international students trying to attend school; Zoom lectures or quizzes may be scheduled in the dead of night if you live on the other side of the globe.

The main concerns I’ve seen amongst my peers in third or fourth year is the lack of rigidity that could pose a threat to their academic schedule. The majority of classes are conducted online, and exams will not be held in person, which leaves students like myself grasping for some sort of routine that will set a good pace for the year. McGill’s remote student life page under academics includes a link to numerous learning strategies provided by Tutorial Services, which are mainly composed of webinars and remote learning resources to help students focus better. The thought is appreciated, but the sentiment my friends are expressing extends beyond simply focus. Rather, without buildings such as the library or classrooms open, it’s difficult to create an academic atmosphere that keeps students on track. The physical movement between classes and the act of studying in a certain spot in the library makes school feel like an activity to be completed, whereas learning exclusively on your laptop feels like your classes are something you can do at any time, in any place. Maybe this sounds more convenient, but I personally believe that splitting up your workload as such will most likely lead to becoming overwhelmed in the long run. We hope that online school is a challenge that we can tackle, but many fear that we may go stir-crazy without the university structures we’re used to.

It’s difficult to create an academic atmosphere that keeps students on track. The physical movement between classes and the act of studying in a certain spot in the library makes school feel like an activity to be completed, whereas learning exclusively on your laptop feels like your classes are something you can do at any time, in any place.

As we applaud and criticize McGill’s actions, the optimist within us must hope that the university has its students’ best interests at heart. Some incidents are more than unfortunate – namely, I feel like cancelling Upper Residence probably felt more like pulling a rug out from under the first years’ feet than a swift relocation. However, the benefit of the doubt is important in order to keep up morale. It goes without saying that making timely decisions is difficult in the middle of a pandemic, and McGill may have to make difficult ones that sacrifice convenience. It’s also difficult to compare McGill’s Coronavirus protocols to other schools’, as classes are just beginning; furthermore, we have to take into account the large class sizes, campus infrastructure, and the amount of international students that the university houses when thinking about how McGill is going to contain the virus to the best of its ability. I think that in comparison with other universities, McGill seems to be proactive: we were one of the first ones to announce an online Fall 2020 semester, with other universities following suit in the later months. Hopefully, McGill’s measures leading into September will prove to be proactive still, and previous criticisms of the strict measures won’t be as warranted. The switches in daily life brought forth by the pandemic are ones that we couldn’t fathom less than 6 months ago: obligatory masks indoors, hospitals transformed into testing centers, halted international travel, just to name a few. Ushering in these changes makes some people nostalgic for “Before,” and others skeptical of what’s to come. While the blame for an entire pandemic cannot be put onto one university, it’s difficult to comprehend that budgets cannot be cut in order to accommodate students who have worked so hard to attend this elite institution in order to have full access to what a traditional educational experience supposedly embodies. That being said, our determination to remain optimistic in the face of a global health crisis is the only thing that will suffice in getting us through the school year. I believe that McGill is experimenting with what higher education could look like in the near future – the process may ebb and flow, but with patience, we can hopefully make the most out of the coming year.