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A safe and healthy post-secondary education sector in a COVID-19 world

July 7, 2020

4-minute read

As universities and colleges begin to re-open and develop plans for the fall semester, we need to think carefully about what health and safety looks like for students, staff, and faculty.

Universities and colleges are not just institutions of higher learning, they are communities. Their campuses are places of work, research, and education—in addition to being residences and community spaces. Each of these elements has implications for what measures will be necessary to keep community members safe.

There are many things that post-secondary institutions need to do to ensure health and safety: remote work and remote learning, physical distancing and physical barriers when on campus, access to appropriate PPE when physical distances can’t be maintained, rethinking how campus space is used to reduce proximity, thorough cleaning and disinfection plans.

But post-secondary institutions also need to think more deeply about how their employment and enrollment practices—in addition to systemic sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination—may contribute to the risk of exposure.

Compounding systemic inequities The pandemic has quickly exposed the extent of deep social inequalities in Canada, including poverty, racism, and xenophobia. People living in lower income neighbourhoods, workers in low-wage jobs, Indigenous people, racialized people, and newcomers to Canada are more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure. They face a higher risk of developing a serious illness because of how we have structured work, our neighbourhoods, and our health care system.

The same is true within post-secondary communities.

Post-secondary institutions have been built on systemic inequalities. These inequalities now place some community members at greater risk of contracting COVID, of being thrown into unemployment or economic insecurity by the pandemic, and of experiencing the mental and emotional challenges of unpaid labour. These inequalities in turn contribute to the risk faced by the whole campus community. Therefore, post-secondary institutions cannot address health and safety without also addressing systemic inequality.

Contract faculty and staff More than half of faculty appointments in Canada are now contract appointments. Compared to permanent faculty, contract faculty usually receive much lower pay and have fewer benefits. Contract faculty are also much more likely than permanent faculty to have either no paid sick leave or very minimal leave.

But how can institutions reasonably demand that contract faculty stop teaching and self-isolate if they are exposed to COVID-19 or develop symptoms if doing so means losing their meagre income?

Because contract appointments are often part-time, many contract faculty have to cobble together careers with appointments at more than one post-secondary institution or supplement their income with a part-time service job. This increases their risk of COVID-19 exposure, which in turn elevates the risk for each campus community they work in.

Contract faculty are also more vulnerable to unemployment or reductions in hours than permanent faculty, since they don’t even need to be laid off. Contract instructors across the country are already seeing their contracts cancelled for the coming year.

Besides the personal career and financial implications for contract faculty, this has a long-term impact on post-secondary education: teaching experience is lost and students lose access to faculty with whom they have developed a relationship.

Universities and colleges have also increasingly relied on temporary and casual contracts to fill staff positions such as food services, custodial services, and maintenance. These workers are the most likely to be laid off or have their hours cut. Their remaining colleagues face higher risk exposure on the front lines of providing essential services, but they are among the lowest paid members of the campus community.

Layoffs may help the institution’s financial bottom line, but they increase the workload for these essential workers who are being expected to keep the community safe.

International students International students have been treated as an easy source of revenue for post-secondary institutions, although these same institutions are not always eager to provide the resources that students need to succeed in Canada.

Due to COVID-19, international students will now be paying much higher international tuition fees for exclusively online courses.

Those who returned home when the pandemic broke out or who are enrolling for the first time won’t get the experience of being in Canada for their tuition dollars. Depending on their home country, they may not even be able to fully participate in online courses, as there are concerns that some countries will block content.

International students who stayed in Canada are not eligible for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, even though it is as difficult for them to find employment as it is for Canadian students.

In fact, international students face a limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work off-campus in Canada. The federal government has waived the limit for international students who are working in essential services. But this means students are put in the position of making a choice between higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and lower income.

Women The current pandemic has serious implications for gender equality in post-secondary institutions.

Women are more likely to be dealing with the burden of unpaid child care or elder care, in addition to home schooling children while simultaneously trying to work from home, prepare their courses, or complete their studies.

The impact of this unpaid work can already be seen in scholarship: while men have increased their submissions to journals, submissions from women have dropped off. Even though many institutions have put a pause on tenure processes because of the pandemic, the difference in output will inevitably have an impact on women’s access to tenure and promotion.

We also know that women are more likely to take on more student debt to complete their studies and to take more time to repay their loans. The fact that the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) is too low to cover costs of living and tuition, combined with the decreased prospect of employment at the moment, means that some women will need to go deeper into debt. This will have a lifelong impact for these students.

Rethinking health and safety These are only a few examples of the structural inequalities within post-secondary institutions. To address these structural inequalities and the risks they generate, post-secondary institutions and governments need to think beyond physical distancing and PPE.

Providing secure, full-time jobs also reduces risk. Making education more affordable reduces risk. Addressing systemic racism and sexism reduce risk. Adequately funding our post-secondary education sector reduces risk.

This will also contribute to a healthy, vibrant post-secondary sector that is ready to assist in Canada’s economic recovery. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Chandra Pasma is a Senior Research Officer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Find her on Twitter at @ChandraPasma.

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