A voice in the darkness

As many readers will have guessed by now, I am among the 13 per cent of undergraduates who do not oppose differential tuition.

This is difficult to proclaim on a campus where the message from student leaders is decidedly against this particular perspective. Even at our open-minded university, we are continuously bombarded by official Students’ Union rhetoric exposing the great evils of differential tuition as the start of a slippery slope toward an elitist university. They cite differential tuition as the cause of many problems at Ontario universities, ignoring increased demand for post-secondary education, shifting government and corporate funding, research priorities, and other contributors to university operations. Posters, one-sided “discussions” and “forums,” and countless man-hours have been employed by the SU to “educate” students about their anti-tuition arguments. The pen with which I draft this document was in fact a “prize” I “won” for erroneously signing the petition against their presentation of differential tuition.

When I want to talk about the subject, my conversational partner is often uninformed, or more simply recites some line from an SU poster or other promotional material in order to remain conversant. I no longer count the times I’ve explained that as a consequence of things costing money, quality of education should not increase simply because funding is kept stable when prices for professors and materials increase. I don’t like getting blank stares when asking people how they will be personally affected by differential or increased tuition. “The SU says it will,” is not an acceptable answer. I shouldn’t have to explain that we as Albertans lack (and have not sought) the legal and financial provisions to give everyone a mostly free ride as we do with secondary education.

Were I a twentieth century dictator, I would commend the SU for successfully converting the masses to their position. Students certainly profess much about the SU’s position on differential tuition these days.

Unfortunately, they don’t often discuss the subject itself.

Rare are students who show sufficient understanding of differential tuition to give, let alone understand, arguments supporting differential fees. Even some I know to be of sound mind have difficulty articulating their position beyond simple opposition. The odd student who understands the issue will not support either side of the argument. They say university administrators don’t always embrace student concerns, and the SU has already established their position on differential tuition.

So what am I to do in the face of the SU, who claims to represent me by simply not suppressing my views, or the views of 13 per cent of 24,000 students? If the SU’s polling is reflective, 3,101 undergraduates don’t mind embarking on this supposed road to sin. But unorganized pockets of resistance have no voice and no official way to petition for mind share, or any means to stop the SU from using $11,000 of their fees to oppose what they want. Indeed, exactly zero per cent of our democratically elected or acclaimed SU officials speak for these students who almost outnumber those who voted this year.

Speaking for myself, and not for any of the pro-differential tuition groups on campus, the most compelling argument for differentiation is not U of C President Harvey Weingarten’s well-articulated and mostly reasonable figures but the lack of any credible opposition from the SU.

I take, for example, the main focus of the SU during this year’s soon-to-fail tuition campaign as being “differential tuition is new, and needs to be stopped.”

Differential fees have existed in Alberta’s public education system for at least ten years.

Comparing the $60 total cost of texts for one first-year logic or fiction half-course with $120 for a first-year science text, $40 for the study guide and $20 for a lab manual would suggest that cost differentials based on students’ program choice already exist at this university. Students, educators, and parents do not object to paying $120 for a 500-page chemistry text or $7 for A Christmas Carol but would correctly object to paying $70 each for Carey’s Organic Chemistry and a paperback Dickens.

The argument is that education, as a public good, exists outside of the capitalist economy and should be viewed as an investment both by and in the community. In a perfect world, financial considerations would not determine the scholastic opportunities for our youth and compliant patnotic citizens would willingly fund every public good through taxes. But it’s reality, not idealism, that has dictated education in Alberta since I was an idealistic lad.

In the K-12 system (primarily the latter half), there are band instrument and art supply fees, fees for computer-related classes, fees for athletics and other fees for optional and mandatory courses. I was blessed with the opportunity to take Honours English where the fee for texts went directly to random Coles and Smithbooks locations throughout Calgary; and AP Biology with its requisite trip to the U of C bookstore for a copy of Campbell’s Biology. Some of my friends paid for shop materials; texts for other AP, IB, Honours or 31-level courses; and all kinds of fun electives, while others who were fiscally-constrained chose electives less expensive to them. Even in this perfect world, the objections from parents are to the high cost of everything, not to paying more for classes that cost more to deliver.

And at the end of that journey, employers see the same high-school diploma from a school with a name they neither recognize nor care about, even though mine cost twice as much as some others did. The important part of the diploma for most people is that you have one, not that it came from Western, or Sir Winston Churchill, or anywhere in particular.

There are those who argue that university degrees should be cost-accessible to anyone with sufficient academic merit because degrees are now necessary commodities in the job market. But they should realize that any commodification of university degrees renders specialization less important for the employer. When Hostess Frito-Lay or the Ford dealership hires university graduates to join sales teams, the specifics of the degree do not matter as much as its existence. Only in medicine or law is a bachelor’s more than just a bachelor’s.

Unfortunately, the views of those who seek genuine commodification of education via free tuition, like those of pro-differential students, will never be widely accepted, nor will the curious views of provincial and national student leaders who form a small minority of all lobbyists. Unless the system-wide effort is made to avail the post-secondary education system of the benefits of an economy of scale and mandatory public funding–where everyone can have a low-cost degree–education will remain a scarce commodity with a price tag the market will bear.

Differential tuition does not change the nature of this playing field (whether the field is morally correct is another question). As a society, we have decided that education should be funded, but only to a point. Basic BA and BSC degrees will remain largely accessible, professional programs will retain their high academic requirements, and student aid for those with merit will not suddenly disappear only because tuition increased. If anything, competition for student aid will become more fierce and only those with exceptional academic records will get a free or subsidised ride.

Certainly, our group of “critically thinking elites” would not be so easily convinced of the evils of differential tuition as some within our current crop of “future leaders.” Consider and question both sides of this particular debate, or all sides will succeed in their perpetuations of ignorance.

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