Rising tuition fees and government cuts have compromised the accessibility and quality of post-secondary education, according to participants at a public hearing held in Calgary last month.
Peggy Churchward, past president of the Canadian Federation of University Women said high tuition fees promote exclusivity.
"In a period when the gap between the highest and lowest income levels in Canada is rising, universities are in danger of excluding qualified students from lower income brackets. This represents a waste of human potential that Canada can ill afford. Our aim should be university education for all who desire it, and who are able to meet the entrance requirements."
The event in Calgary, part of a series of cross-country hearings organized by CAUT and its member associations, was held to identify the concerns and challenges facing post-secondary institutions.
Student representatives who appeared at the forum said higher fees put education out of financial reach for many. And forced many students who do participate to seek part-time work.
"With rising tuition, not only is a university education not an option for many but also a full experience is being lost," said Melissa Craig of the University of Calgary's Feminist Initiative Recognizing Equality.
"Our university years should be focussed on our education and challenging our knowledge with new experiences. Instead, students are tired, stressed and working at low-paying and unchallenging jobs just to get by."
Student union leader Barb Wright said the rapid rate of increase in tuition fees has forced many students to take on part-time and full-time work. "Sixty per cent of the students at the University of Calgary, according to a 1999 study, were working part-time. On average, these students were working 18 or more hours per week. And 70 per cent of the students who were working indicated it was having a negative impact on their studies."
Dr. Mary Valentich, professor emerita from the University of Calgary, said she has noticed more students struggling to cover their tuition expenses.
"During my last few years of teaching, I became aware of the greater number of students who were holding not only one, but sometimes two part-time jobs in order to cover the increases in tuition, book and living costs. Their investment in learning, understandably, diminished as they struggled to cover their expenses. Many students are overwhelmed by the burden of keeping up with their commitments to education, employment and family."
Shea Ellingham, communications officer with the University of Calgary Graduate Students' Association, said the province's post-secondary education system is in turmoil.
"Post-secondary education has reached a crisis point. Cuts in government funding have forced institutions to look for alternative sources of funding and tuition has skyrocketed. In the last 10 years, tuition has increased by more than 200 per cent. Student debt loads are becoming unmanageable."
Ellingham also said students are worried Calgary may introduce differential tuition fees for programs like medicine, law and engineering. "Once differential tuition is in place, students from low-income families will simply not have the option of a degree from a professional faculty. Already, 44 per cent of Alberta high school students who are not going on to college or university say that tuition is the number one reason why they have chosen not to attend a post-secondary institution."
Graduate student representatives also expressed concern about the impact of private funding on academic freedom and research integrity.
"Concerns are being raised about how private funding will affect the academic freedom of graduate students, their intellectual property rights and the balance of funding between departments," said Michelle McCann, student association president.
"Corporate and private funding providers continue to increase their presence at universities. For some graduate students, this means the research they are doing that is funded by private providers cannot be included in their thesis work. As this type of funding increases, some students are signing away their intellectual property."
John Baker, president of the University of Calgary Faculty Association, said funding cutbacks have meant academic staff are finding it increasingly difficult to provide a high quality education to their students.
"Faculty for many years now have been asked to do much more with much less. Faculty are asked to teach larger classes with less support. For example, according to the University Fact Book, the average class size for a junior level course has increased by 37 per cent in the last 10 years."
He said funding problems have also compromised theability of faculty to conduct research.
"The university and its faculty are rightly committed to the importance of research, but the tools for us to do our research - library holdings, lab space and equipment, funding for graduate students - and time for us to do it, are in inadequate, and in some areas seriously inadequate."
The library was identified as one area in which extra resources are desperately needed.
"Over the past decade, the University of Calgary library has suffered like other university libraries due to rising costs and currency issues relating to the need to acquire materials from other countries," said Ada-Marie Atkins Nechka, assistant director of collections and technical services with the University of Calgary library. "However, these normal funding problems were further complicated in Alberta by devastating cutbacks to education. These cuts occurred in the early 1990s and we are still trying to recover."
Ronald Bond, vice-president academic and provost of the University of Calgary, conceded there is a need to find ways to boost the quality of teaching and research at the university.
"We are struggling with multiple challenges," Bond said. "Our common interest with faculty is in promoting quality. But we can't do that unless we have adequate funding from government."