COVID-19 measures, slow bandwidth affecting post-secondary enrolment in Nunavut: MLA

FANS applications down 30 per cent this year

Nunavut Sivuniksavut students sit in a class in 2016. An Iqaluit MLA says the pandemic and a shift to online learning have created a barrier to students applying to post-secondary programs in Nunavut. (File photo)

By Sarah Rogers

Applications to Nunavut’s financial assistance program for students are down about 30 per cent this year, raising concerns that the pandemic is taking a toll on higher education in the territory.

In the past three years, between 680 and 750 Nunavut post-secondary students applied to the Financial Assistance for Nunavut Students (FANS) program, which helps students cover the costs of tuition, school fees, travel and accommodation.

This year, FANS saw 505 applicants, Education Minister David Joanasie told the legislative assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Of that number, 273 were students new to post-secondary programs, compared to 232 applications from returning students.

Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone fears that COVID-19 measures, which have moved many post-secondary classes online, are having a negative impact on post-secondary learning in Nunavut.

“Unfortunately given our connectivity issues, online learning is not an ideal method for students studying in Nunavut,” Lightstone told the legislature during question period on Sept. 22.

“I’m worried that this will negatively affect our recent high school graduates as well as post-secondary students who, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, have had to make a difficult decision of whether or not to pursue further education.”

There were 262 high school graduates across the territory at the end of the 2019 school year.

Joanasie didn’t have numbers for the end of the 2020 school year, but noted that there’s been “positive growth” in the number of high school graduates territory-wide in recent years.

“We are trying to accommodate and support our post-secondary students, whether they’re first-year students or fourth-year students, and this includes whether they are studying outside of the territory or within,” Joanasie said.

“We’re providing them as much options as we can and this was evident when the pandemic hit. We had to support them. For those that wanted to come back to the territory, we allowed for that and some chose to stay in the jurisdiction … [where] … they’re studying.”

Ottawa-based Nunavut Sivuniksavut, for example, opted to keep students in their home communities this year, where they are learning remotely online and, in some cases, in community learning hubs.

During the following question period, on Sept. 23, Lightstone asked Patterk Netser, the minister responsible for Nunavut Arctic College, if that institution was seeing an impact this year too.

But Netser said the college wouldn’t have enrolment numbers to share until its registration cut-off date on Sept. 28.

“The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact globally,” Netser said. “The colleges are affected. We can say that there is a decrease in the number of students attending college this year.

“I can tell you that it will be a different year,” Netser added. “We’ve had to, unfortunately, not do the first-year intake of the very popular Nunavut Teacher Education Program and that was due to operational issues.”

Slow bandwidth in Nunavut continues to pose a challenge to online learning, Netser added.

“We worked hard to make sure our students have the proper equipment for this year’s academic calendar year. However, with the online issues on internet speed, it has been a real challenge,” he told the legislature on Sept. 23.

“Until we have proper, high-speed internet, then this will continue to be an issue.”

On Sept. 24, Lightstone introduced a motion to create a temporary student employment program for Nunavut high school graduates and FANS applicants who are struggling with limited options during the pandemic. The motion will be debated next week.

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