As the end of the first academic term draws near, university students across the country are struggling to meet deadlines and complete assignments. Meanwhile, students at Queen's University are engaged in another struggle — the struggle to defend their right to accessible and affordable post-secondary education.
Queen's University Principal William Leggett announced in early October that the school's administration was considering the deregulation of arts and science tuition. Under this scheme, the university would ignore government caps on tuition increases, and instead set fees at a level it alone deems appropriate. Tuition fees, which students believe are already too high, could increase up to threefold under this plan.
In an article in the Queen's University Alumni Review, Leggett justified the plan by stating that "decades of government underfunding have led to increased class sizes, have reduced student/faculty interaction, and have affected the quality of our libraries, laboratories, and other vital campus facilities."
In order to make up for cuts in government support for post-secondary education and to achieve his vision of making Queen's the Princeton or Stanford of Canada, Leggett says the university has no choice but to increase tuition fees above the rate of two per cent per year, the maximum established by the Ontario government.
Since this proposal was first floated, the topic of deregulation has generated a great deal of debate among students. Reactions have been mixed, but a vast majority of Queen's students say Leggett's vision distresses them on a number of levels.
First, the principal has not set a maximum limit on tuition under deregulation. Queen's tuition levels are already among the highest in Canada, and the annual guessing game that takes place before students are told just how much their fees will go up makes it difficult to work out financial plans. Currently, students are responsible for paying for 35 per cent of the cost of their education. Under a deregulated system, that percentage could increase dramatically.
Even more troubling is the potential impact of deregulation on the accessibility and diversity of this school. Principal Leggett insists that "the makeup of our student body is uniquely pan-Canadian, and ... increasingly international" and that he is committed to maintaining this diversity.
However, he makes no mention of the university's responsibility to provide opportunities for people from a broad range of social backgrounds. In fact, contrary to his claims about diversity, a recent study has shown the percentage of students with a family income of less than $70,000 attending Queen's dropped approximately five per cent from 1991 1998.
Deregulation would make matters worse. It would shut the door to numerous qualified students, including many of those in the local community of Kingston, who simply do not have the resources to attend. It would transform Queen's into a less accessible and ultimately less diverse institution that would fundamentally alter the range and depth of educational experiences students receive.
As a recent letter to the Queen's Journal from a parent of an undergraduate student put it: "I prefer to equate quality in higher education with its capacity to nurture in students their ability to enter fully into community life rather than to stand apart from it, and with its capacity to instill in students a passion for social democratic practices."
Open appeals to the principal and members of the Queen's student government to answer students questions and concerns regarding deregulation have been ignored. Students have been left out of the real decision-making process. What response there has been from the administration has amounted to token gestures that disdainfully dismiss students' concerns.
As a result, students have taken the initiative of organizing and mobilizing around deregulation. A group of undergraduate and graduate students have formed a Coalition Against Deregulation and have been meeting regularly to consider the best way to raise awareness about the issue.
Late last month, after only a couple of weeks of preparation and rigorous campaigning, the coalition held a referendum on the issue. There was a 45 per cent student voter turnout — a record number for Queen's referendums and elections -- and 92 per cent of voters opposed deregulation. These are numbers the principal and other decision makers can't take lightly when pressed to back off on deregulation.
However, students recognize the struggle against deregulation will not come to an end even with the referendum results. Leggett has already said he would not be bound by a referendum vote. Control over the decision lies in the hands of the administration and the board of governors, two groups not easily swayed by student lobbying.
The long-term aim of the Coalition Against Deregulation is to build links with as many members of the Queen's community as possible. With the support of staff, faculty, administrators, and members of the broader Kingston community, students will play a role in ensuring that Queen's remains committed to the principles of quality universal public education.
Sarah Miller is a second year arts student at Queen's University and a member of the Coalition Against Deregulation.