Tuition hikes not the answer

When ministers come to talk, student leaders should be there to listen

Ahmed Kayssi
Ahmed Kayssi

a r g u e n d o

Frank Milne, a Queen’s business and economics professor, thinks that Canadians want a “Harvard education with McDonald’s hamburger prices.” Milne spoke at last Sunday’s Great Debate in Grant Hall, organized by the AMS to explore issues surrounding Canadian postsecondary education.

The four-hour affair also featured political studies professor Kim Nossal; Ontario’s education minister, Chris Bentley; and Ontario’s NDP education critic, Rosario Marchese. There’s no denying that Canadian universities are facing a funding crisis and resource shortage. Enrolment has increased from 200,000 in the 1970s to over 700,000 today, while the number of professors has hovered consistently at around 30,000 during the same time period. Departments are offering fewer courses to mitigate the
effects of annual budget cuts, and their students are forced to sit in increasingly overcrowded and under-maintained lecture halls. All of this has resulted in less interaction between students and professors, a degradation in the quality of the student university experience, and a brain drain as many of our best professors migrate to the United States and Europe, in search of better working onditions and higher salaries. So what can be done to reverse this depressing trend?

Milne and Nossal both favoured tuition increases as a means of infusing desperately needed funds into university coffers. They argued that students should shoulder more of the costof their education because they will ultimately earn more than most Canadians, who will never see the inside of a university lecture. I think that this approach is both wrong and dangerous. Although it’s true that most Canadians will not attend university, the basis of our meritocratic society is that everyone has a fighting chance of getting a good education and improving his or her lot. By increasing tuition fees, we inevitably discourage underprivileged students from applying.

The statistics seem to agree. Marchese noted that there has been a 50 per cent decrease in university participation of students from low-income families over the past decade, undoubtedly due to skyrocketing tuition fees.

Predictably, the effect of high tuition fees has not been mitigated by all the fancy promises about increased student aid that proponents of deregulating tuition have made over the years. Although there is no shortage of opinions about solving the university funding crisis, what is desperately missing is a vision for post-secondary education in this country.

What is the role that universities should play within our society? More importantly, what are the
long-term consequences of the mediocrity of our universities on Canada’s future?

We should start discussing who should pay for what only after these fundamental questions have been thoroughly debated. Unfortunately, our politicians prefer feel-good rhetoric to serious analysis. Bentley opened his remarks with a tiresome tirade against the provincial Tories, NDP and the federal government, crediting all of them with everything that is wrong with our universities. He then
explained how his government’s investments in post-secondary education would help solve the problems because they rested on the three important principles of “increased access, quality, and accountability.” Perhaps the minister would consider inspecting the mouldy walls of Watson Hall or attending a first, second, or third-year lecture with 450 other students in Biosciences 1101 to get a sense of how well his government’s policies are working.

Alarmingly, our student leaders are hopelessly stuck in the old paradigm of opposing tuition hikes
at all costs—without attempting to engage Canadians in a holistic dialogue about higher education and its importance. Instead of endlessly whining about tuition hikes, we need to convince Canadians that our country’s prosperity depends on accessible post-secondary education, and that mediocre, second-rate universities will inevitably undermine Canada’s place in the world. The failure to communicate
with the wider community is exacerbated by student apathy. There was a shockingly small attendance of students and their elected representatives at The Great Debate.

Bentley and Marchese, both busy provincial politicians, along with our local MPP and Municipal Affairs Minister, John Gerretsen, all took the day off to speak with the Queen’s community.

They were greeted by an audience of 13 students and ten seniors—including the event organizers, two Journal reporters, and two student constables on-duty. Not a single member of the AMS or SGPS executives was present. There is absolutely no excuse for such an embarrassment. An e-mail about the event was sent out to the entire undergraduate student body and a full-page colour advertisement was placed on the back page of the Journal last Friday. There were also numerous posters publicising the event on campus. Even if many students were busy with midterms, their leaders should have made the effort to engage the minister at this rare opportunity.

With this pathetic showing, we shouldn’t be surprised if our issues aren’t taken seriously by the provincial government or anyone else.

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Ahmed Kayssi is a second-year medical student. His arguendo column appears every four issues.

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