On Nov. 22, third-year faculty of arts student Simranjeet Kaur — under the name “Advocating for Students” — launched a Change.org petition calling on the U of M administration to reduce tuition for the coming winter semester, citing decreased quality of education and lack of access to services on campus. At press time, the petition has been signed by more than 4,000 people.
Kaur’s petition is the second petition demanding a better deal for students facing difficulties amid the COVID-19 crisis to gain traction in the last month.
The last petition — which called for similar action by both the U of W and U of M — has garnered over 8,100 signatures at press time.
According to the student who started that petition — U of W student Umar Awan — the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) has taken action. The UWSA passed a motion at its Nov. 12 meeting to raise the issues in Awan’s petition to the University of Winnipeg senate as well as to “engage in a proactive campaign to approach faculties/departments directly with the outlined issues of online coursework” and “engage in additional lobbying and campaigning work with regards to tuition fees during the [COVID-19] pandemic.”
UMSU vice-president advocacy Kristin Smith said UMSU has also reached out to Awan, to no avail.
The most recent petition comes at a time where students have reported dramatic increases in terms of mental health issues.
Additionally, UMSU has seen an increase in hardship fund applications this year, indicating that the COVID-19 crisis has financially impacted a significant number of students.
Kaur said her friend “was suicidal for a couple days” after the university threatened to de-register them for next term because they could not pay late fees on time.
“It’s like the university is treating this as a business but, honestly, if they want to treat this as a business, their customer approval ratings are very low right now.”
“I mean, it’s an educational institution — you should be a little more compassionate with students who are out of jobs,” she said, adding that students are a particularly vulnerable population whose employment is often precarious.
According to Kaur, the petition was first spread by word of mouth — friends telling other friends — but also through the use of class email lists accessible through the U of M’s online learning management system, UM Learn.
The petition asks that the university “remove charges for services that are no longer accessible to students” and urges the administration to “open up more room for discussion about student affairs, letting everyone have a say so that there is more understanding about concerns of different demographics in the student population.”
Not only does the petition call on U of M president Michael Benarroch, members of the university administration and a number of deans for action on their part, it also warns of efforts toward organizing students to withhold their tuition fees in the winter semester as part of a “tuition strike.”
The petition reads: “If the University of Manitoba fails to meet these demands or fails to open up a dialogue, we will push for a tuition strike for winter term 2021.”
The last time students successfully went on a large-scale strike against tuition increases in Canada was the 2012 Quebec student protest movement dubbed the “Maple Spring.”
The 2012 strike saw months of mass protests leading to a special election resulting in the provincial Liberal government being deposed and the tuition hikes which the students were protesting repealed shortly thereafter by the new government.
The strike came after a history of direct action by students traceable to the student movement of the 1990s, which took place mainly in Quebec and involved massive rallies against tuition increase and cuts to post-secondary education and financial aid.
“After the petition hit 1,000 [signatures] and over, I had emailed UMSU asking them to back it up,” said Kaur.
“If there are already 1,000 signatures in a day, it seems to be a pretty prominent issue.”
At the time of her conversation with the Manitoban on Nov. 27, Kaur had not yet heard back from UMSU regarding her petition.