Post-secondary education is becoming more inaccessible at the same time as the value of a university degree or a college diploma is greater than ever, according to the national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
Speaking in Windsor at public hearings organized by CAUT and the University of Windsor Faculty Association last month, Ian Boyko said it's time the federal and provincial governments make accessibility a reality.
"There has never been a truly accessible system of post-secondary education in Canada," Boyko argued. "And today, equality of access is not driving the student financial assistance agenda. What's driving the agenda is privatization."
Boyko said most governments in Canada are offloading the costs of post-secondary education onto students by allowing tuition fees to soar and student debt levels to climb even higher.
"Accessibility is far from being addressed," agreed Enver Villamizer of the University of Windsor Students' Association. "It's actually being hindered. Students from lower-income families are being hindered from attending university."
Howard McCurdy, a former professor and federal member of parliament, called for a national debate on whether tuition fees should be charged for post-secondary education.
"When universal elementary and secondary education were adopted, the reasons for it were clear," McCurdy said. "Industry needed educated people. Today, the same need applies when it comes to post-secondary education. But then why have we not seen the logic of the past applied to what we need to do in the present?"
David Noble, a professor of social science at York University, claimed tuition fees are rising and accessibility is being compromised because of the "billions of dollars" universities and colleges have spent on on-line education technology.
"Without any evidence of any pedagogical value, without any evidence of any economic viability, without any evidence of any demand on the part of students or faculty, billions of dollars were spent and are still being spent," Noble said. "And the money that has gone into it is money that has not gone into education. It has become a driver of fee increases. "
"In terms of introducing new technology into universities, I think the government and the administration have got it completely wrong," added Richard Frost, head of the computer science department at the University of Windsor. "On-line education is a really poor substitute for real university education. A computer cannot conduct research, technology can't create new courses, and it can't provide peer support and motivation. We should only use technology to improve the infrastructure so that we can do what we're already doing but do it a little bit better."
Concerns about academic freedom were also raised at the hearings. CAUT past president Tom Booth argued it is in the public interest that researchers and teachers have the right to "challenge the received wisdom or established order of the day."
"The exercise of academic freedom has been important in the past, and I would argue is just as important today," Booth said. "As we look around us, both at home and globally, we see that power and wealth is becoming ever more concentrated and voices of dissent are harder and harder to hear. In a world of this kind, I believe we have not just the right but a duty to exercise our academic freedom."
Alan Sears, a professor of sociology at the University of Windsor, argued academic freedom needs to be understood within the context of "freedom in society at a moment when freedom in society is under attack in a number of ways."
He noted the crackdown on dissent and protest, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11, has serious consequences for academic freedom.
"I think there are some very worrying signs recently in terms of attacks on student rights to protest," Sears warned. "This is important for academic freedom because the struggle for freedom of speech on campus has been fought in large part by the student movement."
Faculty association president Brian Brown said he was pleased with the event and was encouraged by the active participation of faculty members.
"The hearings were very successful," Brown said. "I was impressed by the level of discussion and debate that took place and the response of our members. There's a strong desire to have us hold forums like this on a regular basis so that we can keep the discussion going."