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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2002

Choosing the Right Path

Tom Booth
Our universities and colleges are facing enormous challenges threatening their ability to serve the public interest.

Years of underfunding and rising tuition fees are seriously compromising accessibility.

Decline in tenured faculty numbers and crumbling, health-threatening facilities have come at the same time as student numbers are increasing and students are paying considerably more for a university or college education.

The current situation of Canada's universities and colleges, left unchanged, translates to an unsustainable future for post-secondary education across the country.

There is disagreement over what should be done. There are some who argue the solution is to give up the fight with goverments, to give up trying to rebuild a commitment to public funding of colleges and universities. Such individuals tell us we have no choice but to further privatize our sources of funding by calling upon students and their families to dig deeper and to bear even more of the costs of their education.

Deregulation of tuition fees, it is claimed, will allow institutions to enhance quality and better meet the needs of students. I couldn't disagree more.

Without entering into lost opportunity and classroom quality arguments and to state the case bluntly, higher tuition fees erode access and will not improve the overall quality of our public education system.

Recently I was in Vancouver and had the opportunity to listen to some students share their concerns about the B.C. government's decision to deregulate tuition - a decision that has unleashed obscene fee increases of 30 per cent in undergraduate programs and up to 400 per cent in professional faculties.

This is what one articulate and passionate high school student said: "The recent decision in B.C. to deregulate tuition fees is adding to the cost and adding to the hurt … the hurt and disappointment thousands of high school students are feeling when their mom or dad has to tell them they cannot be that doctor, scientist, lawyer or teacher they have always dreamed about becoming. So I say please do not limit the options to me and my friends due to cost. We are the future of this province and this country and we are worth it."

Sadly, these words are being echoed in practically every region of the country. Students are raising our consciousness of the erosion of our proven societal values and the dangerous plight for our universities in a fashion unseen since the 1960s and 1970s. The protest is strong and the waste of human potential will be immense and gut-wrenching if we do not heed the words of our young people.

In the post Second World War era, Canadians began building a high quality and accessible post-secondary education system. Education was recognized as a public good, to be publicly supported, and the need to graduate Canadian scientists, historians, lawyers, philosophers, biologists, doctors and artists was vigorously promoted.

Today, we are a far richer nation, both economically and culturally, for that commitment to accessible public post-secondary education "for all." Continuance of this enriched condition requires the same kind of commitment to high quality and accessible public education as undertaken by past farsighted political leaders and academics.

With deregulation we are moving perilously close to the privatized and exclusive system of the distant past, a quality education only for those who can afford it. What's alarming to me is that the drift toward deregulation and increased privatization is well underway. Our university and college systems have been purposely eroded and they are now in need of rebuilding.

If we are to reverse these destructive trends and maintain a vital, engaged society for the "knowledge economy" we must provide high quality post-secondary education to the widest possible spectrum of our young people.

Commitment means that those of us who have remained quiet while the foundations of our post-secondary education system crumbled must now speak out against a return to the archaic, two-tier and elitist model of education in the past. Academics must join with students and the public in the struggle for accessible, quality education.

Administrators, in their turn, should join with students, academics and the public to more forcefully call upon governments to recognize the seriousness of the crisis in public post-secondary education and to commit to providing for universal, accessible, affordable, comprehensive, publicly-administered colleges and universities for the future of the country.

Make no mistake, this is a tall order. But the price we pay for inaction and divisive activity will be a heavy one - the emergence of a full-blown privatized, deregulated and elitist post-secondary system that will not be pre-adapted to meet all the economic, social and cultural needs of our nation.

In my travels I have seen such a future. Post-secondary education is at a crossroads. For that student and her hurt, let's make sure we choose to move ahead in the right direction.