Universities and colleges in Canada must do more to encourage participation from disadvantaged groups, according to participants in a set of public hearings organized by CAUT last month in Winnipeg.
Rob Marriott, a Métis student and coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Collective of the University of Winnipeg, described the difficulties faced by Aboriginal students.
"Aboriginal people face many different things in a university setting," he explained. "This includes racism, culture shock, and being considered 'experts' on Aboriginal issues because you are the only Aboriginal in class."
He also added that inadequate funding remains the most serious problem for Aboriginal students.
"Education is a treaty right of First Nations people, but the federal government is not holding up its responsibility. There are long waiting lists for funding."
Barry Hammond of the Grove Street Teachers' Centre in Winnipeg suggested a number of ways universities could better ensure the success of Aboriginal students.
"Tuition should be balanced with the average social income of the communities from which a student comes," Hammond recommended. "As well, smaller campuses must be designed since few Aboriginal students can succeed in a setting with over 20,000 other learners. Of course, staff must also be diversified with better representation from Aboriginal and other minority groups."
Amanda Aziz and Lisa Stepnuk of the University of Manitoba's Womyn's Centre said that while women are attending universities and colleges in ever greater numbers, a number of inequities still exist.
"Manitoba has the highest high school dropout rate among women of any province," Aziz noted. "Many of these young women are mothers and a significant portion is Aboriginal. If these women are dropping out of high school, most of them will never make it to university or college."
"For those women who do get onto campus, they must also face an atmosphere that is systematically sexist and exclusionary," Stepnuk said. "Male professors and deans make up the majority of most departments so that the education we receive is almost entirely from a male perspective. Add to this the fact that the overwhelming majority of all faculty members are white and the problems become even more acute."
Larissa Ashdown, president of the University of Winnipeg Students' Association, warned higher tuition fees are closing the doors to post-secondary education for many qualified students.
"Recent data suggests there is a direct link between funding and accessibility. We also suspect that dropout rates from Canadian post-secondary institutions are disturbingly high, largely due to the excessive financial burden placed on students and their families."
Representatives of the faculty associations of Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg, and Manitoba also participated in the hearings.
Ranjan Roy, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, said universities in Canada, encouraged by governments, are shifting priorities away from traditional liberal arts programs to "more market-oriented programs" like computer science and business administration.
"While over the past couple of years hiring at my university has kept pace with and even exceeded the number of colleagues who've left or retired, the faculty of arts has had a net loss. Departments of en, French, Spanish, Italian, history, psychology and sociology have experienced significant cuts. Recently, $800,000 was transferred from the faculty of arts budget to a Strategic Initiatives Fund, controlled by the administration and used for more lucrative and high profile programs."
Representatives of a number of community organizations attended the hearings and suggested the city's universities and colleges need to develop a better relationship with the local community.
"The universities as institutions have been basically irrelevant to the community I work with," stated Marty Dolin, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. "The perception of the folks out there is that the universities are isolated and not relevant to the Aboriginal community, the ethno-Canadian community and the working class community because universities themselves are not open to them."