Higher education is not immune to the consequences of economic instability in Canada and around the world. Staff, faculty, and students at Queen’s University are all too aware of this, following The Queen’s Journal’s reporting on leaked documents that reveal a drastic budget deficit and the school’s plan to cut classes with less than 10 students enrolled.
Queen’s, after suffering a $48 million deficit in the 2023-24 fiscal year, attributes this “acute problem” to the Ontario government’s 10 per cent tuition cut for in-province students in 2019 and the ongoing tuition freeze. Though Queen’s faces a particularly dire situation, it is not the only university suffering from a financial crisis, heightened by the recent announcement of a federal cap on international students. As tuition prices rise and budget deficits increase, higher education must reckon with accessibility, inclusion, and transformation. In Montreal, this week’s upcoming strikes from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 offer domestic and international students across disciplines a movement to gather together and demand change for a better university for all.
Many universities will inevitably choose to implement cuts similar to Queen’s, eliminating classes with low enrollment. This will have particularly harmful effects on fine arts, humanities, and language programs that tend to have lower enrollment rates than sciences, engineering, and social sciences. The smallest classes, which are often those that are culturally specific, such as Indigenous Studies, attract students who have historically been excluded from higher education. Erasing smaller classes abruptly stops the momentum of these disciplines in bigger institutions, affecting programs such as African Studies and South Asian Studies. As these programs fight to solidify their place in universities, administrations must support and invest in them—not discard them. Eliminating these classes continues to perpetuate institutional oppression by making universities less inclusive.
Small classes crucially provide students with the opportunity to forge social bonds. Unlike conventional, large classes, these classes allow students to connect with their peers and professors in a personal setting—this is the kind of networking that can provide critical opportunities later on in life. Additionally, these small classes afford students the space to discuss, grow, and exchange ideas with students from different backgrounds, yielding vital and nuanced perspectives.
McGill among other universities has implemented hiring freezes to address these budget deficits. Hiring freezes may require post-doctoral students to take up the mantle of teaching classes when there are not enough faculty members. This raises alarming concerns regarding the exploitation of precarious educators. The institution already overworks and underpays graduate and post-doctoral students, who must do this additional work for their tuition and livelihood, without ensured prospects for future employment in academia.
Canadian universities will face further budget constraints following Immigration Minister Marc Miller’s announcement of a two-year international student cap. This cap—which will be applied differentially by province according to population and level of “unsustainable growth”—is expected to reduce the country’s intake of international students by 35 per cent, and accompanies other changes including adjustments to the process for receiving post-study work permits. Announced among growing xenophobia across Canada, the cap not only significantly reduces an integral source of income for universities, but also pins the blame for much broader issues in Canadian society—such as the housing and cost of living crisis—on an already vulnerable population. While the relationship between Canadian post-secondary institutions and international students is rife with exploitation, a cap is not the correct form of redress. International students must be better supported through adequate housing and better protection against predatory practices.
Universities and their students must acknowledge the essential role that international students play by paying significantly higher tuition than Canadians. International students are a core part of our country and our universities, contributing a diversity of culture and opinion that enhances the educational experience for everyone involved. Universities must hold themselves accountable for their financial troubles by being transparent with their students, staff, and faculty. Higher education must look inward, and students must stand together and demand action by supporting Montreal’s upcoming strikes.