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My first reaction to seeing the words “shopping cart” on Mosaic was to post a joke about it on Twitter. After my tweet got three likes and my sense of humour was externally affirmed for the day, I glanced over the words again and felt nauseous.

The words “shopping cart” might seem small and meaningless and the intent behind it was probably harmless, meant to turn an administrative process into something familiar. Unfortunately, it speaks to a larger reality of university education: the normalization of seeing universities as businesses and our degrees as products.

These words now serve as a reality check. It makes me ask over and over again: what’s university? Is it a place where knowledge is advanced, where society is challenged? Is it a hub of innovation? The answer is obviously yes, but there’s more to it than that. Being in our undergraduate degrees, many of us will not get to participate in that culture. Many students leave undergrad, either find a job or go to a professional degree, without having ever interacted with the culture of knowledge-advancement that is the essence of the university as a concept.

To undergrads, university is sold as an experience, as the best four years of your life — a fact that I sincerely hope is not true. Degrees are framed as skill-giving products, and those that don’t offer hard professional skills feel the need to justify their existence by teaching “soft” skills, or by shaping their products into something innovative and cool that can then be sold as “elite”. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with university programs just trying to survive as funding decreases for any non-STEM field that involves even a bit of critical thinking.

It makes me ask over and over again: what’s university? Is it a place where knowledge is advanced, where society is challenged? Is it a hub of innovation?

“Shopping” equates a process as significant to our life and career trajectories as academics with trivial everyday undertakings. Things you put in your “shopping cart” usually include: groceries, clothes from online stores, highly acclaimed books from Amazon you’ve been pretending to want to read for a few months. This language positions the university as the seller of knowledge, and you, the buyer.

Universities already use ads to sell their undergraduate programs — a tactic I’ve found ethically questionable for some time. While advertising is understandable, ads playing in movie theatres for our Engineering program directly following that guy from The Source explaining some cool new tech product makes it a lot harder to think of my education as a genuinely enlightening experience.

The student-as-consumer narrative creates a feeling of disconnect between me and my education that cheapens the whole experience, which is unfortunate, because it’s anything but cheap.

But the problems faced by our public education system won’t disappear if McMaster decides to change a few words on Mosaic, or stop playing ads in movie theatres. In a way, I am thankful for the language used on Mosaic. The idealized view of a university education as the creator and disseminator of knowledge in the public interest is seriously endangered by rising tuition fees, degree inflation, and a rocky job market that leaves many graduates unemployed for frightening periods of time.

While we must continue to think of the university as the place for groundbreaking and socially challenging research, reminders of the state that our education system currently finds itself in might not be such a bad thing. Language like “shopping cart,” as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, serves as a much-needed wake up call.

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By: Diane Doran

Imagine this. You decide to go to grad school. You save up so you can afford tuition, or maybe take out another loan. You juggle courses, TA work, and your own research. You work hard to meet everyone’s expectations. Sometimes you sacrifice your sleep, or your health, or your relationships. You live on a sub-standard wage. You lock yourself away for weeks to write your thesis; if you don’t submit it by the deadline, you’ll be charged for another semester of tuition. You break down at least twice, but you keep going, and one day, against all odds, that sucker looks just about finished. You prepare for your defense and spend the whole night before thinking about the questions you might be asked rather than sleeping. You pass! Only minor revisions. Almost there. You sign all the paperwork. You go back, you make the edits. You make sure you’ve formatted it just the way the university requires. So close. Now all you need to do is submit it to the School of Graduate Studies, but McMaster University has one last nasty surprise left for you: it’s going to cost you.

In order to graduate, you must submit an electronic copy of your thesis to SGS, and in order to do so you must pay exactly $40. Apparently, the thousands of dollars that I paid in tuition and student fees only cover my education — graduation not included.

No, unfortunately, this is not a Monty Python sketch, this is the perennial farce that is McMaster University administration. The mysterious “library and archiving fee,” of which no description can be found, is the final frontier between you and your degree, and it comes as a shock to most graduate students. It’s like buying an airline ticket, getting on the plane, and then being asked to pay a “descent and landing fee” while you’re cruising at 39,000 feet.

Now just to be clear, I am not kicking up such a gigantic fuss just because I now have 40 fewer dollars in my bank account. On vacation, I once spent $20 on a paper puppet in the shape of Spongebob Squarepants that the vendor convinced me would dance on its own when placed next to a stereo. It did not. And yet I’m not nearly as angry about that.

It’s the principle. If publishing your thesis on MacSphere were optional, you’d hear no complaints from this girl. I chose to pay tuition, because I decided I wanted an education. But I had no choice but to pay this fee, if I wanted anything to show for it.

The ransom on your diploma is set at $40, which most of us could probably begrudgingly afford; but not unlike the profits of criminal extortion, the use to which these funds will be put is not at all transparent. McMaster’s policy is for all theses to be uploaded to MacSphere on their library website, where they are searchable and can be accessed by a wider audience. Which is great, but I am profoundly confused as to what part of that is costing us each $40.

Am I paying for an administrative assistant to open my PDF file and drag and drop it onto the website? Am I paying for a tiny amount of space on a server until the end of time, which has been calculated to amount to exactly $40? Until SGS decides to respond to my recent tweet, we’ll never know. More likely, I’m helping to repay the overhead costs of McMaster deciding to invest in new software or platforms, and so are you, because they know, of course, that you’re not leaving without that diploma.

Now, I’m not a totally unreasonable person. If a gym invests in new equipment and a sauna, they have the right to start charging a bit more for membership. That’s how business works, and McMaster University is a business like any other. I understand that. But even if SGS manages to convince me that the “library and archiving fee” is legitimate, why on earth is the fee not included with tuition and student fees at the beginning of the year? Nobody starts a degree thinking “who knows, I might even graduate!” Why is that not part of the deal?

SGS, I believe I speak for disgruntled grads across this campus when I ask you please, don’t wait to trip us right before the finish line.

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