The Scoop: Alternative News & Views

It's Time to Make a Better Kind of University

Bree Arbor

01 September 2015 in Education

As a student at the University of Windsor, I think a lot about how we could make our university better. I've been fortunate enough to have a department with great professors, small, intimate classes, and opportunities to study topics rarely covered by other schools.

But despite everything I like about our school, I can't ignore the number of students I know who have dropped out because they couldn't pay the rent, the number of students who were left without a degree a year before graduation because their program was cut, and the number of students who lost their scholarship when they had to choose part­time work over studying.

And so I think a lot about what the university is, what it should be, and how we can make it better.

In any large institution, it is necessary for the participants to ask on a regular basis: "What purpose are we trying to serve?", and "Are we actually serving that purpose?". Lately, I ask myself this question about the university nearly every day.

What is the university for? The easy answer is education ­ but what, exactly, is education? Does education mean training people to participate in society? Does it mean allowing the opportunity to gain labour experiences? Does it mean collectively working to discover more about the world? Does it mean giving students tools to become independent, to form their own opinions and ideas, to be free citizens?

When we talk about education we usually mean more than one of those things. We probably wouldn't all agree on which ones. But it's that second question ­ the question of whether or not we are achieving any of those goals ­ which deserves even closer attention right now.

Before we can answer that question, before we can think about pedagogy or curricula or teaching methods, we have to ask another question: Can universities really achieve any of their educational goals when they require students to accumulate massive amounts of debt?

It is no secret that we live in an indebted society. It is simply expected today that most people will be chained to mortgages, credit card statements, and student loans. With more and more students feeling that university is an obligation, students are increasingly accumulating private debt to fund their university tuition. The Canadian Federation of Students reports that student debt to private sources increased 53% between 2000 and 2010. That's an alarming increase.

Despite the increased demand for a university education, public funding is not improving to meet that demand. In fact, the opposite is happening: not only are government loans and grants failing to meet student needs, public funding to universities across Canada as of 2013 accounted for 57% of operating costs, down from 80% two decades before.

In Ontario, the effects of this change in attitude are abundantly clear. Universities are no longer "publicly­funded", they are "publicly­assisted". Funding to universities no longer covers operating expenses. Instead, the province makes funding available for less essential projects that nonetheless look better on the party platform.

For instance, you may wonder (as most students do) why UWindsor is building a second campus downtown. Why have a split campus at a school with no student bus pass or shuttle service? Why increase capacity when enrolment isn't going up? The answer mostly has to do with provincial funding: the province has told universities that it will give them money to build downtown campuses, and so they are doing it.

Money spent on unnecessary and potentially wasteful expenses means money not spent on something more important. In the absence of funds for operation, universities are increasingly relying on students to fund basic costs. At UWindsor, student tuition fees currently account for nearly 60% of the operating budget.

The worst consequence of this scenario isn't that universities have less money ­ the problem is that money never goes where it needs to. Universities have been given a new framework within which to operate, one in which funding shiny new buildings is more important than funding essential programs, in which education is not a public good but a service to be sold. When the provinces' funding decisions are based solely on PR, so are the university's. And so universities like our own advertise themselves with new facilities, rather than better quality education.

Of course, it doesn't need to be this way. Corporate language which treats education like a commodity runs deep at the university, but that hasn't been working out even from a business standpoint.

In April this year many students picketed a Board of Governors meeting at the University of Windsor in order to protest a proposed tuition hike. The Board ultimately voted in favour of the hike, but students still made their voices heard.

Students spoke about dropping out of school to pay the bills, about their scholarships not increasing with tuition fees, about going to the food bank because they couldn't afford groceries. The response was always some version of the following: "This is simply a business, and we have to treat it like one."

Education, of course, shouldn't be a business, but even if it were that doesn't put the university in the clear. At UWindsor there is a strategy of constant "budget realignments" ­ in other words, cutbacks. Nearly every year the University makes dubious projections about student enrolments, and then seems forced to make cutbacks to compensate.

What is the result of those cutbacks? Programs get sacked ­ like social justice, music therapy, and anthropology. Full­time teaching positions get replaced with underpaid sessional workers. Labour contracts cut benefits and freeze wages while the administration refuses to negotiate with its unions.

To put it another way: in order to save costs the university increases the price of tuition while decreasing the quality of education. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't improved our enrolments.

Even in business terms, this strategy is doomed to fail. If education is a product we're selling, we should remain competitive by lowering the cost and increasing the quality, not the opposite.

There are concrete measures which improve quality of education: smaller class sizes encourage more active involvement in class, more opportunities to speak, and closer relationships with peers and professors; creating and sustaining a diversity of programs gives students more exposure to academia, more freedom to choose, and more opportunities for cutting­edge research; full­time faculty who are happy with their jobs have more time to work and more impetus to do a good job at it.

With the current model, we aren't funding any of these measures ­ instead, these are the exact things we are cutting back on.

There are a lot of things that can be done to improve the university. Schooling is complicated, and traditional teaching models could do with a lot of changes. But right now, before we think about those changes, there are simple measures that could be taken which would clearly make universities a better place for students and workers, and would put universities in a better position to remind provincial and federal politicians what the point of a university is supposed to be.

This is a rare occasion where the interests of business­minded administrators and education­minded students and teachers should actually align. Because whether your goal is balancing the budget or improving students lives, the two things you should do are lower tuition and put money into quality of teaching.

It's time to teach our universities that boosting enrolments means increasing access, and selling the product means improving its quality. It's time we start making a better university for all of us.