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Disillusioned and in debt

A customer of higher education

As someone who has attended four post-secondary institutions, I can attest that it feels more like a corporate entity than a publicly-funded institution.

You pay exorbitant amounts of tuition and fees, and, on top of that, you pay for printing, parking and expensive food on campus. You then feel like you are a machine that pumps out, produces and regurgitates information, with much of it being out of touch with the job market. 

In a 2019 report, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) explores the shift to a corporatized post-secondary sector in both funding and in the way universities operate.

Since the 1990s, federal and provincial governments have continuously slashed funding to post-secondary institutions. In 1985, governments contributed 81 per cent of funding to post-secondary institutions. As of 2015, this has dropped to 50 per cent. Despite this decrease in funding and the economic impacts of the pandemic, Canadian universities reported a record-high surplus of $7.3 billion in revenues in 2020/2021.

The reduction in government funding to post-secondary institutions pushes schools to seek funding elsewhere. Tuition increases are one way that institutions fund operations, leaving students to bear the burden. 

Breaking down the numbers

According to an RBC report, tuition fees have continued to increase for the 28th year in a row in 2018. Such increases include increases to the cost of the average undergraduate degree (44 per cent), law degree (85 per cent), dentistry degree (78 per cent), pharmacy degree (144 per cent), and MBA (101 per cent), adjusted for inflation. 

Approximately half of graduates in 2015 reported they had student debt when they completed their program, according to Statistics Canada. Between 2000 and 2015, the median amount of student debt was $11,500 for college graduates and $60,300 for professional graduates. In 2015, 64 per cent of graduates still had outstanding debt three years after graduation.

Let’s not forget that domestic students are not the only sources of tuition. For the last several years, we have seen a massive increase in international students who pay as much as four times the amount of tuition as domestic students. Post-secondary institutions are exploiting these students for their disproportionately large tuition. Institutions have even changed their recruitment strategies to attract international students as a means of propping up their budget. 

Between 2017 and 2021, international students in Ontario went from making up 13 per cent of enrolment to 17. These same international students went from paying 29 per cent of all tuition paid to universities to 45 per cent. 

Beyond the shift away from government funding towards tuition and private and corporate money, there are other ways that post-secondary institutions are becoming more corporatized.

The corporate mindset of universities

The CUPE report further explores how post-secondary institutions are increasingly adopting a corporate management style. Administrative staff and university boards ae increasingly filled by external corporate resources, rather than from within the university environment. Press Progress found that, on average, for 18 universities as many as 33.5 per cent of board member positions were from the private sector compared to students, staff, and faculty (30.3 per cent), external members (28.1per cent), and previous presidents and chancellors (6.9 per cent).

In another CUPE report, it explores how services are contracted out to corporations including food, custodial and parking services. Workers are often paid low wages and have little or no benefits. As many as 83.7 per cent of post-secondary institutions have contracted out some or all food services, while 61 per cent have contracted out some or all custodial services. 

Many of us require part-time jobs to get through. It is hard to watch your incredibly intelligent and talented peers barely crawl to class after working an overnight shift that pays just over minimum wage. To top it off, we pay fees for mental health services. Many institutions have as long as a three month wait to see anyone for just one or two sessions. On top of this, students struggle to pay for rent, food and the rest of our bills both as a student and beyond as we bear the burden of our debt.

As someone who comes from a family of many teachers, I believe in the value and importance of publicly funded education and higher learning. I do not want to consider myself a customer of my education, but these realities send a different message about our learning, and I find myself disillusioned by the system. 

If I had a dollar for the number of times I heard “knowledge is power” and “all education is good education,” I would certainly not be in as much debt. I try not to think of myself as a customer of a university. Instead, I value the experience of learning which will supposedly enrich my career, build skills and expand my mind. 

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