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The Scandal of Canadian University Education: We can do so much better

By Adam Ashby Gibbard

Going to university is like drinking too much one night, blacking out and then waking up in the morning with A+ written on your face, a crumpled receipt shoved in your pocket for more money than you’ve ever seen and a vague recollection that you had a really interesting conversation with someone last night, but couldn’t remember what it was about. Time to get a job.

With ever-growing tuition rates, students who want to go to university are forced to gamble with their future at the very beginning of adulthood.

It’s no surprise that people want a good life and with university enrolment at an all-time high, it’s clear that lots of people see it as their best shot at that life. With 70 per cent of jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education, you can’t blame people for wanting access to most of the labour market. What you can do is question the government’s role in restricting people’s access to higher education and the role of post-secondary institutions in inflating the cost with pomp and circumstance.

If education is a vital part of a growing economy, why then does the government perpetuate a system that unfairly targets those that want a better life by saddling them with the cost? How responsible is it to build a society on the backs of the new generation who are becoming less and less able to access the benefits of that growth? Student debt mixed with high underemployment mixed with an ever-precarious labour market means a large part of the population will be left to drift in insecurity – something that will eventually have ramifications for everyone.

The state of young people in Canada today points at a dark future. A Prime Minister’s Office report in 2015 found that 40 per cent of university graduates aged 25-34 were overqualified for their job. With part-time and contract work on the rise youth under-employment is at 26 per cent. This generation will be the first since the industrial revolution to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Most students graduate with debt and the longer it takes to pay that off the longer they have to wait to start a family, buy a house and retire.

With government funding for universities at an all time low, it might shock you to find out that Germany, with free tuition, spends drastically less per student. Institutions of higher learning in numerous European countries have similarly low or free tuition, even for international students. Some countries even pay students to study. In Denmark students who are not living at home receive $1200 a month to help cover their expenses, an allowance which gives them the time they need to focus on learning.

As of 2014 Germany charges no tuition fees for university. A 2017 OECD report on education showed that it spends $12,555 per student per year on tertiary education (not including research and development). In stark comparison, Canada spends $18,748 per student per year. This figure doesn’t include tuition, which in 2017-18 averaged $6,571. So once you do the math (government spending + studen tuition = $25,319), you may well wonder “how it is that Germany can provide free education for half the cost of Canada?”

Looking at numbers like that, you have to sit and wonder what Canadian universities are doing with all that money. Part of it can be explained in how universities compete against each other – a rare form of competition in Canada between publicly funded institutions. Universities spend millions on advertising trying to woo students and otherwise look more attractive than other institutions that provide essentially the same education and services.

Universities have also spent billions on construction, upping non-academic student resources and fostering city-state-like campuses as part of this educational arms race. Do we really need 100-foot vegetable walls, Gandhi statues, Olympic swimming pools, all-you-can-eat buffets and hotel-esque dorms?

In the end, it’s becoming clear that students and society are the ones paying for this. Not only are they paying for it with money, but with their future as well. If the purpose of a university education is to learn, then the value added to the “university experience” is pointless as most universities simply double-down on services and facilities that already exist in the area.

All of these services and facilities also require much larger administrations. Students don’t usually even know about half of these services, much less use them.

Yet student desires are also fueling this fire as they feel that if they’re paying for it – or becoming indebted for it – that they should be catered to. Because of tuition, students have become customers.

Don’t get me wrong, universities are places where people can enrich their minds through scholarly pursuits, where professors are free to think and discuss, where knowledge is king and its creation a pillar of progress. You can go there to learn for the sake of learning, you can improve yourself for yourself, but universities have also become pandering playgrounds.

In Europe, most universities are just places of learning, plain and simple. They provide what students need and anything else, students find in town.

To add insult to injury, German parents receive an allowance until the child reaches 27 years of age, if said child is enrolled in education. And students from low-income families are able to access funds to cover living expenses. Similar programs exist throughout Europe, pointing to a societal difference in how postsecondary education is understood.

For many countries in Europe, postsecondary education is seen as a right – not that different from primary education and secondary school.

Also, most young people opt for Germany’s dual education system, which has students in class part of the week and in an co-op or apprenticeship for the rest. This connects theory with practice and leaves graduates with knowledge and experience. Students are also paid for their work, a far cry from Canada’s growing number of unpaid interns.

In Canada, you get to spend three to four years gaining knowledge with no concept of how it connects to employment. This leaves students with a significant skill deficit upon graduating.

Meanwhile, with mass classes taught increasingly by precarious contract instructors awarding inflated grades, students are receiving less for their education while spending more every year.

It might be time to reconsider pursuing a higher education at all or to consider alternatives – Germany anyone? At the very least we, as a society, should take a step back and reevaluate our values when we have an education system that costs so much and we demand people pay to go to school. As much as the government and universities are responsible, our collective interests are clearly not being served and we risk a generation being lost to the abyss.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).


“We need to discuss the grey areas”: Making sense of all the assault allegations

By K. Williams

If you have access to technology and even the slightest fondness for social media, you’ve probably seen that Aziz Ansari is under fire for sexual misconduct. In case you aren’t aware of the details, the 34-year-old, multi-millionaire comedian went on a date with 22-year-old Grace (a pseudonym). The two went for dinner and then back to Ansari’s apartment, where Ansari proceeded to persistently push Grace for sex, failing to heed statements like “I want to slow down,” “I’m not comfortable” and even “I don’t want to hate you.” (For an intricate play-by-play of the encounter, see Babe.net’s exclusive article).

The story is currently a trending topic because people have all sorts of opinions about what Grace should have done differently. Some say she shouldn’t have gone to his apartment at all if she wanted to avoid his advances. Others accuse her of crying wolf, believing that Ansari did nothing wrong. Others still spout off that all these sexual assault allegations in the media are simply a sign of a society that’s “gone too far.”

As a feminist and someone that supports women that have experienced sexual violence professionally, I’ve thought long and hard about the recent slough of allegations. I’ve stewed over what the allegations against Ansari mean in particular, as his behaviour was quickly dismissed by many as unproblematic.

For all of you currently overwhelmed by the sheer number of assault cases, for those of you who just aren’t sure what to make of the whole thing and those of you saying “Yes but things have gone too far!” I say this: We need to discuss the grey areas in order to have a handle on the more definite, obvious violations. We have to talk about the entitlement, the selfishness, the male gaze, the lack of empathy that leads to a situation where someone can be turned on while completely ignoring the person they’re with. Rather than ask ourselves why things have gone so far, perhaps we should ask how we got this far without having these conversations already. We have to talk about the less obvious things because they’re even more common and more commonly committed by “good guys” – and because they are often signs of bigger problems and things to come. We need to pay attention, to listen.

Have you ever felt vulnerable? Violated, even? I’ll let you in on a secret: it all feels the same. Whether a guy pushes you too far, ignores your “no” or you wake up to someone thrusting inside of you, the gut feeling, that initial response, is exactly the same: Fear. Hot, burning shame.

Your brain does not initially differentiate between types or severity of violations. And we shouldn’t either, especially when talking with or supporting people that have experienced violations. We need to listen to eradicate sexual violations, big and small.

And finally, these conversations are healing some people. When I first started understanding power dynamics, I was 21 and in a really shitty relationship. I would google “emotional manipulation” as solace. Every story I read echoed mine in some way. I revelled in the vastness of the problem – because it made me feel so much less alone. I don’t know where my life would’ve gone without those stories. It helped so much. It helped me make sense of what was happening to me; it led directly to my work as a sexual assault support counsellor.

What’s scarier than the fact that we have to define what sexual assault looks like over and over, is the very fact that we keep having to fight to have these conversations themselves – especially  when they are necessary for healing and understanding. Remember that each conversation is an attempt to understand power dynamics and neutralize them, by calling attention to unbalanced positions of power like Ansari’s. Remember, next time you feel angry or upset about these conversations, their purpose is so much bigger than you.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).


New semester, new collective agreement: College faculty pleased with arbitration award

By Andy Crosby

When Ontario college students returned to classes for the winter semester in January, more than 12,000 faculty and other workers had a new collective agreement. After a bitter five-week strike that began on Oct. 16 ended with back-to-work legislation, arbitrator William Kaplan awarded the terms of a new four-year collective agreement.

Annette Carla Bouzi, shop steward with Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) local 415 and Legal Studies professor at Algonquin College, viewed the terms of Kaplan’s decision as positive steps forward.

“In my view, the Kaplan Award brought good closure to the strike and settled some of the dust that remained after we were legislated back,” Bouzi told the Leveller. “It provided a clear return to work protocol, strengthened partial load job security and referred some important questions around academic freedom and precarious work to a provincial task force.”

Although OPSEU and the College Employer Council (CEC) both claimed victory following the announcement, Kaplan’s decision clearly favoured the union’s demands.

“The Kaplan Award was very much a vindication for college faculty,” Jack Wilson, Vice-President of OPSEU local 415 and Algonquin College faculty member in the Police and Public Safety Institute, told the Leveller.

In particular, accepting OPSEU’s terms on academic freedom almost word for word was claimed as a “watershed moment for the colleges that will be truly transformational in the years ahead,” in the words of a bargaining team update published on OPSEU’s website.

“Academic freedom is no longer a whim of college policy; it is now enshrined in the collective agreement,” said Wilson.

The union claims that the new academic-freedom language will allow faculty to speak freely about academic issues without fear of reprisal.

Other terms include improved job security and a new province-wide task force that will make recommendations on a variety of issues including college funding, precarious work, accessibility, mental health and academic governance structures.

The CEC emphasized that Kaplan’s decision was in line with its original salary position of a 7.75 per cent wage increase over four years.

Compensation was also awarded — $900 each to full-time faculty and $450 each to partial-load faculty for extra work completed after the strike.

OPSEU argues that the terms coming out of the binding mediation-arbitration process could have and should have been achieved at the bargaining table a long time ago.

“With any reasonable amount of cooperation from the colleges, there would never have been a strike, students would not have had to worry about losing their semester and faculty would never have lost five weeks’ pay,” said JP Hornick, chair of the OPSEU college faculty bargaining team in a news release.

When talks broke down last November, OPSEU called for the provincial government to disband the CEC altogether. “Council is a private club that is accountable to no one,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “It is a small group of privileged people that asked for 30 to 40 per cent wage increases this year but are more than happy to make work more and more precarious for the frontline faculty who make education happen.”

The CEC’s actions during the negotiations and strike were disruptive. However, the end result created favourable gains for college faculty and workers.

These gains made the strikers’ efforts all worthwhile. In all, Bouzi spent about 100 hours on the picket line, for example. “I walked the line for my friends and colleagues who didn’t have a voice and for my children whom I hope will inherit a quality education system,” Bouzi said.

For Wilson, the strong stand taken by workers during the strike has even had a “ripple effect,” where “post-secondary bargaining units elsewhere have capitalized on our efforts and have gotten swift contract resolutions when they too showed their willingness to strike, in some cases with strike mandates of over 90 per cent.”

Wilson referenced CUPE 2424 – which represents administrative, technical, and library staff at Carleton University – where members voted 93 per cent in favour of strike action, as well as the Association of Part-Time Professors University of Ottawa, who voted 92 per cent in favour last term.

“Most importantly, for our students we can anticipate that the improvements in our working conditions should result in commensurate improvements in their learning conditions, and that is something we can take the most satisfaction from.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).

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