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High fees a step in the wrong direction

Posted by on January 25, 2001

Editorial published in Martlet (Victoria), 25 January 2001

Deregulation of tuition fees used to be a distant issue, a phenomenon safely restricted to the other side of the Rockies. More than a few UVic students are here because they couldn’t afford to go to school back home.

In Ontario, deep government cuts forced universities to jack up fees for undergraduate students and establish cost-recovery graduate programs. Annual fees surpassing $10,000 are not uncommon for a master’s degree in Ontario.

Oil revenue couldn’t spare students at the University of Alberta from a 2.5 per cent fee hike that was announced last week. Post-secondary education doesn’t seem to be a priority of Premier Ralph Klein. At over $4000 a year, Albertan students will shell out nearly double the fees paid by their counterparts at UVic. In BC, tuition fees have been frozen at $2280 for the past six years.

But change is in the air, and the mass media keeps telling us that Gordon Campbell will form the next government. If the records of his pals in Ontario and Alberta are any indication, BC schools can expect cuts to their annual operating grants that will soar into the millions. The tuition freeze is not expected to survive for long.

In preparation for this changing of the guard, it appears that UVic’s senior brass are laying the groundwork for a massive reduction in public funding for the institution. As much as we may not like to hear it, deregulated tuition fees are being considered. “Cost-recovery” is academic newspeak for “zero government subsidy.”

Selling an e-commerce degree to a corporate exec for $20,000 must be tempting to faculties and administrators desperate to maintain UVic’s high standards in the dawn of a very different political climate. Auctioning off UVic land for a privately-owned high-tech park could translate into some serious revenue. Just think of the possibilities…

Books and journals for the library. New equipment for labs. More profs. Smaller classes. Shorter wait lists.

All of these things are desperately needed. And all cost money.

But the model implemented in Ontario and Alberta does not make for a better institution. The Rotman School of Business – paid for with private dollars – may be housed in a gorgeous building at the University of Toronto, but ask a philosophy or English student about the quality of their program.

A corporate model produces a corporate bias. Programs that produce obedient workers for the New Economy will be favoured over broader, but no less important, studies in the liberal arts. And yet these core subjects based on learning for learning’s sake are at the heart of the modern university.

This place is where knowledge is produced. We all hope to end up with good, decent-paying jobs, but job-training has to come second to educating and thinking critically. As individual students, faculty members and administrators, and collectively as an institution, we have this obligation to our community.

New ways of looking at the world and new solutions for global problems need to be generated at UVic. This is one of the main reasons why we’re here and why this institution exists. But it’s hard to envision the IBM Chair of E-commerce breaking such ground.

Public institutions are distinct from – and some could argue better than – private institutions because they are free from the constraints, biases and preferences of the profit motive. Universities need public dollars and public ownership so they can pursue their own independent objectives, at an arms length from the research and employment needs of private capital.

Is the Monsanto Chair of Microbiology going to approve a study into the possible ill-effects of genetic engineering? It seems unlikely. Would the same chair care if a working-class kid couldn’t afford to enroll in the program? Probably not. Would tuition fees be allowed to rise? Most likely.

Whoever emerges as Premier of this province, there is a vision that cannot be allowed to die: that every citizen has a right to earn an education. Regardless of their ability to pay. In 1996 Ireland abolished what they call “tertiary” user fees. The economy is now the envy of Europe. Students in Austria, Germany and many Scandinavian countries are actually paid a monthly bursary to support them through school.

They are viewed as participants in education rather than consumers of education. We need to emulate this progressive model for our universities rather than the dog-eat-dog system that is being entrenched in Ontario and Alberta.

And if there is a sea-change in BC politics and our university is threatened with bankruptcy, we want our President at our side as we storm the provincial legislature.

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