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We're Losing Our (University) Minds

When we elected our current Mike Harris Tory government, we were warned that there would be cuts to public spending. We should have been able to see how our environmental policies would be decimated, how our welfare rates would be slashed, how our hospitals would close... the list goes on and on. We also knew that unless we, the concerned people of Ontario, banded together to try and stop the madness of a fiscally-minded, socially short-sighted government, we would have to band together.

Shamefully, we didn't band together enough. Environmental protection in Northern Ontario was decimated, and welfare was slashed, and hospitals closed, and I didn't lift a finger in protest. I fumed plenty, of course, and I screamed and yelled in despair over the unstoppable jauggernaut of majority rule, but I felt powerless to do anything, fool that I was. Now it is my turn to be slashed. Recently, the government announced that tuition fees for all post-graduate programs would be deregulated, which I have been led to believe means that universities can charge whatever they think is fair market value for these programs. If you are going to med school or law school or grad school, you can expect huge increases in your tuition -- to the tune of $11 000 tuition for a first year medical school student next year. That's per year. And that, in my point of view, is utterly mad. What's worse is that undergraduate tuition fees for "lucrative" disciplines such as computer science and engineering face deregulation as well. And every university discipline at the U of T is facing regular tuition increases ranging from 10 - 20% per year.

To my eyes, this is utter madness. Utter, total, complete madness.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that a university education costs a lot of money. I understand that it is unfair that students in computer science and engineering should be allowed to enjoy their subsidized educations in Ontario, then run off to the States to earn tonnes of money not taxable by the government that allowed them to get those lucrative jobs in the first place. After all, one of the most important reasons that we finance university educations in Ontario is because we want our population to be better educated, because a better educated population can get better jobs and pay more taxes -- although, as I will explain below, there are rumours that not everybody in Canada sees a better educated population as a positive development. I understand that we university students have to be responsible for the costs of our education. I do not think that increasing tuition to unmanageable sums is the solution to our problem.

Why not? Because raising tuition loads has the effect of shutting those who cannot afford a university education out of the system. The University of Toronto has published its motivations for increasing tuition each year. It states that one of its goals is to ensure that every student that wants a university education should have the opportunity to get one. How? Through OSAP -- the Ontario Student Assistance Program, which is essentially a means of offering students low-interest loans to be paid back after graduation. Under this philosophy, the university feels justified in raising tuition to astronomical levels, just so long as enough loans are available to give students so that they can go to university now, and pay back the cost of their educations later, when they have good jobs.

News Flash: That's not going to work, folks. For one thing, not everybody who graduates from university is going to end up with a high paying job. Try telling a Drama or International Relations undergrad that he or she is guaranteed to get a good job directly related to their studies. They won't believe you any more than I would, because jobs in those fields are scarce.

Then why do we have so many graduates in Drama and International Relations coming out of the system in the first place? Because a university's job is not simply to churn out trained worker-bees for society. Universities are meant to advance knowledge and learning -- in all areas, not just the lucrative ones. That's why professors conduct research in addition to giving lectures. That's why rote memorization is not supposed to get one through his or her degree. And, tragically, that is one of the reasons that people find that the things they learn in university often seem to bear little relevance to their daily work in "the real world." You see, universities and university educations are not meant to be short sighted. To many people, that's the same as saying that universities are not meant to be practical. And that's one of the reasons universities are so messed up right now.

So are universities practical, or are they just ivory towers packed with trivia? As usual, the answer is not as simple as it looks. To many people who get their education then head out for a job, a university degree is just a very expensive piece of paper, because the corporate world does not value critical thought and innovation nearly as much as it would like to think it does. Rather, its focus is on making money, not necessarily thinking things out critically -- just look at how we justify chopping down old-growth forests.

In the long run, however, the merits of university educations -- and universities in general -- become clearer. You see, every technological advance we make germinates from an idea. Sometimes, these ideas are obvious, but at other times it takes intense thought to develop the concepts necessary for innovation. And sometimes these ideas come from surprisingly arcane sources. Just look at the study of number theory, which is a lot of fun, but seems to have very little practical application. How can the study of quadratic congruences and prime numbers help us in the real world? In fact, the study of prime numbers is vitally important when dealing with ways of encrypting data -- and without means of encrypting data, there is no way the average consumer is going to feel secure in transmitting his or her credit card number over the Internet, and if credit card numbers aren't transferred, there is no hope that e-commerce is going to happen. And that is seen (by the business world, at least) as a bad thing.

Do so-called "ordinary people," who have jobs and mortgages to worry about and movies and television to keep them entertained think about prime numbers very often? Do they play around with number theory enough to make public-key cryptosystems possible? Not very often. There are exceptions, of course -- one of the more notable being Pierre de Fermat, a lawyer who became one of the world's most renouned mathematicians in his spare time. But the exceptions are just that -- exceptions. Where can we expect the bulk of our ideas to come from?

I can think of three good sources of ideas. People who need to get around some problem can be very innovative, which inspired the cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. Tragically, the military is another excellent source of ideas. When engaged in war, people need ever-more ingenious ways to kill each other. Remember: the computer would never have become a reality if it hadn't been for WWII. Similarly, the Internet started out as a military network. Perhaps that is a good argument to keep funding military complexes and to keep starting wars, but I would rather foster ingenuity in a more benign way, which is where universities come into the picture. University professors are paid to think, and they are paid to teach their students to think (although whether many of them are very successful at this is still a matter up for debate). Thinking students are supposedly able to come up with innovations easier. Thinking professors are expected to come up with innovations, even if those new and original thoughts are related to far-flung research that may never see any practical application. We never know from what field the next innovation will come, which is why saying that Computer Science is more important than the study of Drama or English or Philosophy is foolishly short-sighted. But try telling that to somebody who is trying to optimize short-term profits at university, or to a government that is trying to cut costs. You can't, which is why Drama and Industrial Relations departments will find that their funding is cut further and further until they are barely departments at all, while trendier disciplines will continue to be funded by computer and pharmacutical companies.

So how does any of this relate to the plight of a would-be university student facing the choice of huge OSAP payments or no university education? It all relates, because all of these issues are connected. Already, people see a university education more as a job ticket than an opportunity to improve one's mind. I know that I do. That already has an impact as to what kinds of degrees people choose to pursue. If a person has the option of going into engineering -- where one is likely to get a cushy job -- or drama -- where one is likely to starve -- more people are going to decide to become engineers. Already, the perceived benefits of certain degrees are depriving disciplines of students, but I don't see very much that can be done about that.

However, now consider the plight of Mr. Joe Wannabe Undergrad. Joe has the option of taking on a huge $40 000 or $50 000 OSAP debt for the privilege of living at home and getting a university degree. Now let's give Joe the choice of becoming an engineer or a drama student. Joe might love Drama more than anything else in the world, but is he willing to be in debt for the rest of his life in order to get a Drama degree? Probably not, and the drama world loses a potential talent. What's more is that the engineering world doesn't necessarily gain anything, especially if Joe's heart is not in becoming an engineer.

And why should Joe go to university at all? Yes, a degree might get him a chance of getting a better job. But how much does a 19 year old high school senior want to take on that huge debt load. To be certain, the situation might be more manageable if Joe's parents have the money to help out their son, or if Joe is expected to go to university, which is one reason that the rich and upper middle class are still going to be sending their children off to universities for higher learning. And that's why the rich and upper middle class are going to propagate their wealth, because if Joe is poor, he won't be able to afford school. And I can almost guarantee that there will be a lot of capable, willing Joes who really want a university education, who would really benefit from a university education, and who are really going to be denied a university education because of the expense, OSAP or no OSAP. And that, friends, is tragic. The rich do not have a monopoly on brains. In making university inaccessible to those that cannot or will not face the debt burden, we're robbing ourselves of some of our best minds. All of society is losing out because the minds and points of view that might have been the most useful to us are going to be lost.

You don't think it's going to happen? You don't want to talk about Joes? Let's talk about Pauls, then. According to many people, I might make fairly good grad school material. I have enough integers in my GPA, and it's fairly obvious that I cannot handle the rigours of the real world. And indeed, grad school is one of the many options I am considering for myself -- part of me could see myself as a professor, which is one of the reasons I am trying to get experience as a Teaching Assistant now.

In addition to my academic qualifications, I should probably make a note of my finances. My family certainly is not rich, but it isn't poor, either. I do not depend upon OSAP to pay my tuition -- at least not as of this writing. Unlike many of my peers, who are already $20 000-$30 000 in debt to the government of Ontario, I am only in debt to my parents. It would seem that I am a prime candidate for grad school, even under U of T's new upper-middle-class favouring philosophy.

But you know what? If going to grad school means $10 000 tuition per year, I probably won't attempt my Master's, at least not in Canada. One option might be to run off to the States, where they might give me scholarships. Another option would be to forget about post-graduate education altogether. Why should I bother? With my Computer Science degree, I could easily be making 30K in salary to start, not paying 10K to the University of Toronto. Other than academic freedom and a chance to keep my mind sharp, what does further schooling have to offer me?

And I'm not on OSAP.

And I'm one of the lucky people who could afford his undergraduate university education.

What madness has afflicted our governments and university policy-setters? If a person in my position is just about ready to abandon grad school because of the expense -- a person like me, who doesn't even have to worry about having a family/car/home in later life when my grad school debts would have to be repaid -- then how could I expect those less fortunate than me to make that financial sacrifice? Granted, I would be a middle-of-the-road professor at best. Those super-geniuses that pop up so often would probably have their scholarships to get them through university. Those super-rich university students will probably be able to pay the costs. The rest of us will give up. And that will be our collective loss, because then we are losing good minds. Make no mistake about that.

Forget, for a moment, about those people who might make university professor material. Think again about those Joe Wannabe Undergrads of the world. Think about the fact that many of those Joes will not be able to get to university. There's a name for that. It's called elitism. And we at the University of Toronto are guilty of it, despite our every protest to the contrary. University is no longer accessible to everybody that might benefit from a university education. Don't forget that. If you are into laying blame, then you can blame everybody -- the governments for reducing transfer payments, the universities for raising tuition, the students for voting down endowment funds that might have relieved some of the pressure -- this mess is everybody's fault.

There is another possibility. Perhaps this mess is not a mess at all, but rather exactly how certain people want things to be. I confess that I had not thought of this until reading the May 17, 1998 Toronto Star, where I happened to stumble across an article entitled "The battle to save us from higher training." In addition to many of the points I have parroted in my little diatribe, it raises an interesting, frightening possibility:

"I don't like the word "conspiracy," he [Bill Graham, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers] says, pausing to pick his words carefully. "But I think there's been a determined effort by powerful forces in this society to push an agenda that is very narrowly focussed and is not concerned with the future of Canada."

What powerful forces? Corporate Canada, he says. Not to mention the Business Council on National Issues, conservative think tanks such as the Fraser Institute, the National Citizens Coalition, et al. Groups that argue the country is now over-stocked with universities, that too many young people are availing themselves of them, that the country has too high a living standard.

But how can a society have 'too many' educated people? Aren't they the core of civility and civilization, the instrument of social progress?

Of course. "But when people are better educated, they expected [sic] better jobs, better salaries, better living standards. And that isn't in the interest of some corporate moguls."

Whether you take this conspiracy theory seriously or not is up to you. Of course, you can tell that I like it, but I am a suspect witness, because this article is telling me exactly what I want to hear, which is always a good basis for suspicion. Still, it is something to think about when you hear that tuition is rising another 10%, yet will still somehow be affordable. (For whom?)

But again I am laying blame, and spreading the blame like so much manure does not inspire solutions to grow. We`ve got a problem here. People who would like to pursue a university education will no longer try because of the expense. What's the solution?

Don't look at me. I don't have many answers. The best thing I have heard so far is the concept of a two-tiered system. This is based upon the assumptions that the idea behind subsidizing one's education is to enrich the country and earn more tax dollars when subsidized students get better jobs. It is also based upon the concept that people are responsible for paying for their educations -- but not necessarily through money. I figure that people should be able to pay through time as well -- by signing away their freedom of movement for a few years, and agreeing to live in Canada (or Ontario) for a certain length of time after they graduate.

What's the big idea behind that? Well, I theorize that young graduates are among the most mobile people of society. They often don't have the bonds of family and jobs and houses that bind other people to their homes. Thus, they find it much easier to leave for greener pastures -- namely, the United States. Then the States gets the benefit of well-educated workers, and Canada gets nailed with the expense of sending those workers to university. If recent graduates were compelled to remain at their place of education, however, they would probably set up businesses or join Canadian firms to work. They might very well decide that Canada is not that bad a place to live, and they might settle down here for life. Then Canada gets to reap the crop it sowed, because students educated here stay here, contributing their ideas and wealth to their country.

But isn't restricting freedom of movement against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Yes, it is. That is where the second tier would come in. Students attending university could choose to pay for it in one of two ways: through their time or their money. If they so wished, students could pay the full price of their education, then go off for greener pastures. If they decided to pay for their education through time, they would still be liable for the cost of their educations, but they would have the option of paying back their debt simply by living in Canada. These people would also be free to leave the country if they so wished -- but they would still be liable for the cost of their educations. How? Through money. If a graduate wished to leave the country prematurely, they would have to pay for the remaining balance of their education in cold, hard cash.

Would such a system be fair? Not really. People wishing to go to university would just be trading in one type of slavery for another. Would it be enforcable? I think that it would be; money does not respect political barriers any more, and neither do outstanding debts. Would such a system keep university accessible? I think so. It certainly would not be any more unfair than the system that's being pushed into place now. I don't think that restriction of freedom is nearly as much of a barrier as restriction of finances. Many people don't even think of leaving the country anyway. Those that do are the ones that the high-technology sector in Canada wants to keep the most anyways -- the engineers and computer scientists who are fleeing en masse for the States right now. It might not make the right-wing conspiring elitists happy, but isn't that what we want?

Don't forget that the system that we've got now is also based upon two tiers -- those that can afford a university education, and those that can`t. Rising tuitions means that the number of people in the former category is shrinking. My eyes see that as a tragedy, because the wealth of diversity we have in Canada might be our greatest asset. I repeat: Leaving university as the domain of the rich folk would be a real shame.

Of course, I am missing one very important point here. There are alternatives to universities as post-secondary educations. Unlike the title of that Toronto Star article might suggest, there is nothing wrong with "higher training." It is probably very true that many of us go to university more as a method of (attempting to) procure good jobs. And there is nothing wrong with that -- but that doesn't define a universities' role very well at all. In all this brouhaha over rising tuition costs, the role of vocational schools and community colleges are forgotten, which is a mistake. There is still some degree of inferiority associated with college educations; a university education seems more prestigious. That is a mistake, too. There are some university graduates -- possibly many university graduates -- that complement their university degree with a community college diploma.

I guess I can see where some of the stigma of a community college education lies. A university education is all about theory and thought -- high concept concepts that make a person seem really philosophical and smart. That is not necessarily the case. One isn't supposed to, but people do get through university through rote memorization, not really picking up any of the knowledge from their courses. A lot of my Computer Science peers do see their degree as an expensive piece of paper, drifting through their courses only because they have to fill compulsory credits in order to earn their degree. Perhaps a university education really isn't what everybody is interested in -- and that's where community colleges should be picking up the slack. A community college diploma is seen as a lesser education, but I don't think that should necessarily be the case. Sheridon College, for example, produces some of the best computer animation artists and technicians in the world. What's wrong with that? It's just that we have somewhat arbitrarily decided that colleges and vocational schools are lesser educations. Indeed, Ontario's education system reinforces this philosophy by setting up education "streams" in high school. We've got the "Advanced" stream, which is expected to go off to university, the "General" stream which is supposed to be for those bound for community college, and the "Basic" stream for everybody else. Because the Advanced level courses are more difficult than their counterparts, the unwritten rule is that smart people take Advanced courses and head off to university. Is that fair? I don't think so. Is that reality? You bet it is.

But am I not suggesting exactly what the right-wing think tanks want? They seem to favour a system of elite universities for the richest and smartest, and a system of training schools -- either community colleges or "lesser" universities -- for everybody else. Maybe I am heading in that same direction, but I would be dividing the categories up differently. Instead of having to be super-rich or super-smart in order to go to university, which is exactly the way our system is heading now, why not base the system on personal desire? Those that truly want to go to university for the learning experience should have an opportunity to do so, whether they have the funds and academic averages or not. A university education would still offer a mix of practical and theoretical education, and the main goal of university would still be to foster thought, but we would lose the idea that you need a Bachelor's degree in order to get a job. Those people who want training for a job -- even jobs as "prestigious" as those in computer science and engineering -- would be able to get more practical educations at community colleges and/or vocational schools. One's post-secondary education would be based upon one's desires, not one's ability to pay.

No, this idea would never work. I understand that, even as I type it out. It could very well be that I am suggesting an impossible, discriminatory system just as bad as the one we have now -- but we've got to make some changes. The system that we have is just not going to work. Period. Too many bright, capable people are going to be turned away from a university education and its benefits, while too many people who really don't want to be at university will enroll because they can afford the prestige. The system we have does not work. But what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it?

What do you think?