There is a stark divide of financial privilege at Queen’s.
It’s no secret that Queen’s has a reputation for being a “rich, white” school. As a student from a relatively small city in southern Alberta, even I heard tales of the university’s supposedly affluent character. The Romanesque limestone edifices and cobbled streets certainly lend to an aristocratic atmosphere well beyond the average tax bracket.
Many incoming students are not strangers to working upwards of forty hours a week to make just enough money to eat. For these students, it can be a culture shock to be surrounded by people for whom thrifting is a hobby rather than a necessity, and where the food bank is a place to volunteer rather than your family’s grocer.
On the other hand, there’s also a large portion of Queen’s students who subsist on their parents’ money. There’s nothing wrong with being a non-working student; if you can devote all your time and energy to your studies, you probably should.
However, Queen’s administration and faculty need to be more cognizant of these different financial backgrounds among the student body.
Issues arise when the non-working student is assumed to be the norm. Universities operate on the assumption that students have money to pay tuition for an education—an idea that already excludes great swathes of the population. On top of that, tuition doesn’t account for the implicit and explicit financial demands like rent, groceries, and extra-curricular fees.
Besides the physical and mental strain of wage labour, the working student is laden with systemic disadvantages when compared to their non-working peers.
For one, working can be a hefty time commitment and leaves considerably less time for academics, extra-curriculars, and volunteering. Working thirty hours a week serving burgers may mean the difference between a B+ and an A- or may preclude you from an unpaid internship that streams right into your dream career. Either way, the working student has much less free time to cultivate their skills and improve their academics.
Overworking may also stunt students’ social life; the nightlife of Aberdeen is inaccessible to those obligated to work on St. Patty’s weekend. Additionally, being overloaded with work and school can be incredibly isolating, especially if it feels like you’re the only student going through it.
Queen’s is not blind to these issues. The University is actively pursuing initiatives to make financial assistance more accessible, especially to students belonging to lower-income households. Several Senate committees and sub-councils are likewise dedicated to encouraging financial equity at Queen’s. Still, food security and other financial strains remain significant problems for a large portion of the student body.
It would be impossible to outline a fully-fledged plan to address an issue as complex as financial discrimination in the post-secondary environment in this short article. Nonetheless, there are immediate steps that can be taken.
For one, the university may begin by introducing academic considerations for financial causes. Many students can feel frustrated that they have had to sacrifice quality academic work because they needed to work an extra eight hours. While such a revision of academic consideration policy might raise concern for the more conservative elements of the university’s administrative body, it’s a minor concession in the interest of accessibility.
Secondly, it may be worthwhile to actively expand university inclusivity of students from lower income backgrounds, particularly in the undergraduate recruiting level. This increased inclusivity may be achieved by expanding recruitment locations beyond the historically popular middle-class secondary schools, for instance.
While this can be difficult in practice—in part due to Queen’s reputation for attracting the affluent—it is necessary the Registrar and Admissions invest more time and money into encouraging a wider diversity of economic backgrounds among incoming students. At the very least, doing so would help alleviate some of the feelings of isolation among financially underprivileged students.
Above all else, the Queen’s community must be more conscious about the student body’s varied circumstances. It’s not a question of making the financially privileged feel guilty, but instead acknowledging how many of our classmates are under the physical, mental, and emotional strain of working full-time on top of full course loads.
The university can be a citadel of privilege with ramparts of student debt and food insecurity, insurmountable to those born into underprivileged households. With concerted efforts, the Queen’s of tomorrow can—and should—provide advanced education for people of all backgrounds.
Kai is a third-year Global Development and History student.
Financial accessibility, privilege, working students
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