Provincial survey shows decline in university education quality during pandemic: OCUFA

The survey of students, faculty and academic librarians showed majority indicate move to online learning has had negative impact

Releasing the results of their recent provincial survey, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations said university students, faculty and academic librarians are struggling with social isolation, stress and a lack of institutional supports – with an emergency shift to online learning negatively affecting the quality of post-secondary education. In a release, the OCUFA has called for immediate action from both universities and the Ontario government to prevent a further degradation of quality – asking the Ford government to reduce cuts to post secondary education made prior to the pandemic.

That survey included 2,700 respondents, with most students, faculty and academic librarians raising issues with the move to online teaching as a result of the pandemic. When looking at student responses, the majority said they’re concerned with education quality and academic performance, financial security as a result of higher tuition and fewer opportunities to earn income, as well as their mental health and ability to manage non-academic responsibilities while studying.

Kayla Weiler is the national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. On the findings of the survey, Weiler said the students and faculty feel as though their working more hours with less supports – navigating through an environment that does not offer the same level of quality as an in-person learning setting.

“There are definitely some things the provincial government could assist with…” said Weiler. “… lowering tuition during the pandemic, increasing funding to institutions so they can have smaller sizes. Institutions could hire more teaching assistants to help with the work-load – providing employment to students who are struggling right now…”

Weiler also mentioned that many contract-faculty – representing over half of university faculty in the province – have little job security while learning multiple online systems to facilitate different classes. Weiler said many faculty are now living on ’24 hour time’, constantly updating course content to remain relevant to student experience throughout the pandemic.

While the OCUFA survey does call for further measures from Ontario’s universities, those measures are unlikely to come without further funding, and Weiler said she’s not optimistic when it comes to the Ford government’s actions on education. She said the Canadian Federation of Students has been running a petition to the federal government regarding a lack of funding over pandemic supports for students as well.

“Provincially, we’re always calling for the government to put more funding into this system…” said Weiler. “We’ve seen that (the provincial) government has made decisions on short notice and have put funding toward things that they think are priorities – we’ve been taking the message (…) that they don’t think education is a priority during this pandemic.”

“They do have the funding – it’s just not a priority at this time… and I think that speaks volumes of how they see post-secondary in the province”.

Also speaking to the findings of the OCUFA survey is Kimberly Ellis-Hale, contract faculty in the Department of Sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Ellis-Hale has been teaching as contract faculty for over 20 years and said that educators in her position find themselves reapplying for their jobs every four months, with little job security. She said both faculty and students have seen a blanket of worry thrown over everything that both groups do.

“You’ve got students who are under stress, you’ve got at least half their faculty who are under stress – we don’t know if we’re going to have jobs next term and we’re paid very little for what we do…” said Ellis-Hale. “All the extra work that’s going into pivoting to online or remote teaching, as well as supporting students – they need and deserve our support…”

On the difficulties of operating the online classroom, Ellis-Hale said that teaching remotely makes it difficult to connect with her students, as well as for students looking to connect with each other. She said those difficulties likely stem from a provincial cut in tuition fees – hitting universities at their bottom line and ultimately leading to larger class sizes.

“When you teach in class there is more excitement, more engagement, more of a sense that we’re in this together (…) a lot of this has to do with the way we share the educational experience…” said Ellis-Hale. “All of that is very important – and being there in person allows a student (…) to come up to me as their heading out the classroom door and say ‘hey, do you have a moment can I talk with you now’. That’s so much more difficult online.”

“I think it diminishes… I know that’s very strong… but I think it diminishes the educational experience…”

Ellis-Hale said she looks forward to the eventual return to the classroom, adding that the experience of teaching during a pandemic has shown that remote teaching is very much a “lesser form” in terms of education, adding that the sense of community and being able to interact in person is vital to the learning experience.

In detailing the response to their provincial survey, the OCUFA has called for several measures to address student and faculty concerns – including a reduction of class sized by hiring securely employed faculty, lowering tuition to help students struggling to make ends meet and investments in better resources for students, faculty and academic librarians. The OCUFA said all these measures would build the foundation for the return to in-person learning, improving educational outcomes and addressing emotional and mental burnout.

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