Editorial: What’s it going to take?

Sam Colbert
September 13, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Ask. Then ask again – this time through a months-long and thousands-strong public protest. And, eventually, you will receive.

Student activist groups in Quebec are tentatively celebrating victory. The newly elected Parti Québécois minority government has promised to cancel the tuition hikes initially proposed by the previous Liberal government.

What have we learned here in Ontario? Apparently, not much.

Here’s the state of post-secondary education in our province. Our schools have the highest tuition in Canada. They also have the lowest level of provincial support. And in my time here, I’ve never seen a McMaster University budget that wasn’t prefaced by a desperate call for more funding.

So schools take on more and more students, both because provincial funding depends on it and to boost tuition revenues.

But there’s nowhere to put the extra students. It’s no secret that McMaster, like other universities in the area, is well over capacity. Its class sizes are too large, its residences are stuffed and its common spaces are crowded.

And for that less valuable education, students are paying more every year.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s anything natural about the gradual fee hikes. They aren’t about inflation. A report released on Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says tuition across the country has increased at three times the rate of inflation since 1990. In Ontario, where it’s highest, the report says that undergraduate tuition will increase from its current level of $7,513 to $9,231 four years from now.

It’s a vicious cycle. More students means more need for funds. More need for funds means more spaces for new students, all paying higher fees than the students before them.

University administrators will tell you this is a problem. They know campus is crowded. They know that young people don’t get much value from sitting through lectures with hundreds of others. They know high fees mean more difficult or more burdensome access to education.

But the province – and its universities along with it – has committed to the recommendations of the Drummond Report, which was released in February. The Report supported continued enrolment growth. It recommended tuition increases – not ones low enough to match inflation, but not ones high enough to match the growth of the student population, either.

It also continued the push for more differentiation of Ontario universities, which would make some universities teaching-focused schools and others research-oriented in order to enhance the student experience. But, for good or bad, McMaster’s president Patrick Deane wants nothing to do with it. He believes that teaching and research should go hand-in-hand.

In other words, the University isn’t going to solve this problem. The province isn’t going to solve this problem.

Students need to solve it. Can we get together and make it happen? Can we make change like they did in Quebec?

Well, how about our record of direct democracy here at Mac? At last year’s students union General Assembly, we just barely got the three per cent needed to reach quorum. We ran to one side of the room of the other, and, ultimately, every first year ended up paying for a Welcome Week they probably could have gotten through the old, opt-in MacPass system. That’s our direct democracy.

But people didn’t even show up because they cared about Welcome Week. It was participation for the sake of participation. The 601 campaign to get people out was a great marketing strategy. But imagine if Quebec students’ primary objective was to gather in huge numbers first – only to collectively decide later that their reason for being there was to be angry about tuition.

Understand, too, that student groups in Quebec were holding meetings similar to our general assembly every week.

It’s not that we’re incapable of getting together for a good cause. We raised $116,000 for Shinerama this year. At least for a week, hundreds of students gladly made a concern for cystic fibrosis part of their identity. And how many of them felt personally affected by the disorder?

So what’s it going to take for us to care about the state of post-secondary schooling?

The official charity of Welcome Week 2013: our education?

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