To do with less, or not

SGPS executive call for academic excellence, not financial considerations

Do we want a strategic plan for Queen’s University that privileges capital creation before quality education, reduces students to revenue units, excludes students from the decision-making process, and attracts global wealth instead of international students from diverse economic backgrounds?

On Jan. 15, Principal Daniel Woolf unveiled his vision of an academic plan to improve the quality and excellence of teaching while concomitantly balancing the budget, avoiding cost increases and finding new ways to generate revenue.

Can these two disparate aims be mutually advantageous?

Participating in what Principal Woolf hopes will be a “vigorous debate,” the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) executive would like to address some concerns over Queen’s direction.

The impetus behind Principal Woolf’s strategic plan is to curb an $8.3 million operating deficit for 2009-10.

This isn’t a fictitious problem, but the numbers do require reflection.

The leading cause of Queen’s financial deficit can be attributed to debt financing related to operational costs associated with capital projects, especially the Queen’s Centre, not to mention diminishing resources from the provincial government.

It’s disingenuous to suggest this burden is a result of investing more resources into providing and maintaining a quality education for students.

To reform academic procedures, to offset capital boondoggles is like overhauling the car engine because the tires are flat.

In 2008, Queen’s was below the provincial average of long-term debt per enrolled student—$4,319—and our long-term debt-to-revenue ratio was among the lowest in Ontario. Bond rating agencies continue to applaud Queen’s financial health.

The deficit is a mere fraction of the total operations budget and pales in comparison to the University’s total assets.

Do we really need our financial woes to guide major adjustments to our academic agenda?

Arguing undergraduate education is Queen’s “brand,” Principal Woolf would like to bring “our structures in line with the Bologna Process” of European education reform.

Chris Lorenz of the Free University of Amsterdam insists that the move to “McUniversities” under the Bologna Process has economized knowledge production.

Lorenz states that “Higher education instead of being a right of citizens of nation states, laid down by law may be redefined as and transformed into a commodity—into an international service that must be sold and bought from any international provider.” Is this a trend we want to follow? Do students want “to do less with less” or do they wish to enhance public education while making it more accessible and affordable?

Principal Woolf acknowledges the many stakeholders at Queen’s, including undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and postdoctoral fellows.

But his plan fails to make sufficient room for students and staff to participate in the re-visioning of Queen’s.

This spring, after faculties, schools and departments provide their input, a committee of academics will be struck to synthesize submissions.

Students should also be solicited for submissions and consulted at the departmental level to ensure broad representation.

Any overhaul of academic affairs needs to take students’ formidable concerns into account.

Principal Woolf said he wishes to “reaffirm the fundamental place of graduate students . . . in their roles as teaching assistants and fellows, and research assistants.” Such reaffirmation ought to include improving the working conditions of graduate instructors by enforcing and revising the Senate TA policy, developing a policy for teaching fellows, providing employer-funded health benefits, maternity and parental leave and more equitable TA allocations within departments.

It also provides an enforceable and effective non-discrimination and harassment policy, overtime protection and mandatory paid pedagogical training for the benefit of instructors and undergraduate students.

If Queen’s wishes to remain a top employer in Canada, it needs to provide greater protection and resources to graduate instructors.

University administrators have argued the solution to their financial troubles is to attract international students whom, according to a recent study, contribute over $6.5 billion to the Canadian economy through tuition, consumer spending, accommodations and other expenses.

Unlike domestic students, there’s no ceiling to the amount of tuition universities can charge to international students.

Programs like the China Scholarship Council provide international students with financial support, but what about international students not tied to external government funding?

The recent dropping of mandatory International Tuition Awards (ITAs) for international Master’s students enables departments to accept more international students without providing a minimal level of guaranteed financial support.

Are we actually meeting the needs of existing international students?

They pay enormous premiums to UHIP, are overwhelmed by tuition rates more than double the domestic rate and are provided with minimal specialized resources for themselves and their families.

As such, they hardly deserve to pay for the University’s failure to secure capital before constructing the Queen’s Centre.

Should we accept only the wealthiest of international students instead of inviting the best and brightest, regardless of their financial situation?

The last strategic plan, 2006’s Engaging the World by then-Principal Karen Hitchcock was the result of considerable collaboration and compromise to ensure broad representation.

Engaging the World addressed principles and values the University ostensibly represents.

This included equity, accessibility and collaboration between staff, students, and faculty in providing a healthy educational environment.

Equity and diversity aren’t mentioned once in Where Next?

We need to ensure whatever orientation Queen’s takes is driven primarily by academic excellence, not financial considerations, and includes a serious engagement with economic privilege as well as racial, ethnic and gender diversity.

David Thompson is the Vice-President (Graduate) of the Society of Graduate and Professional Students.

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