University Education: Individualism at its finest

Annually, student unions and University board of directors come to blows (figuratively) over the cost associated with a university education. The student boards believe that a tuition freeze is necessary to protect the ability of students to get an education. Board of directors believe that tuition increases are necessary to protect the financial flexibility of the institution, expand and provide more services. In this case, both sides have a valuable argument; students needs to be able to attend university with limited debt and universities need to be able to fund their programs at an effective means. I see the problem in Ontario specifically as one of individualism. Individualism in the form of micro level demands, micro planning and more. This is my student union and these are my problems or this is my university and this is my problem. In reality, these problems are facing both groups across Ontario and across the post-industrial world. There are better methods of dealing with the costs of university while being able to protect the institutions into the future.

Universities all offer different programs with different focuses and different teachers. Some teachers use one publisher for a course while other teachers use a different publisher for the same course at a different institution. While tuition costs are the #1 concern of student unions and students there are a number of other costs that also combine together to raise the price for students. University textbooks are an expensive proposition for students and can be a major detractor from students ability to learn. In the first year of school I paid roughly $900 for textbooks and in second year I have paid roughly $600. $1,500 over 2 year for textbooks of which I will use for one 3 month semester. This is a result of publishers dividing and conquering techniques to win over different institutions. Textbooks are limited publishing which means that their end cost is higher to recoop the cost and make a profit. If universities were to collectively purchase books they would be able to lower the price of a book for their students and make it more accessible. We all know that university stores are there to make a profit for the university. With larger purchases there would still be the opportunity to make that profit and then benefit the students with a smaller price tag. This could result in more students purchasing textbooks from the book store and increase university profits. The problem with this is that Universities don’t seem to work together on this topic and their micro level decisions are negatively affecting our students. Universities aren’t the only ones making micro level decisions though.

Student unions also provide in raising the cost of university for students in their own ways. Many student unions hold votes to pose a question to university students on if they would approve of a facility’s operation or to construct a facility. Often times this may be done without doing an accurate report as to if the facility is needed anymore and if it continues to be beneficial to both the university itself and the students who pay for it. Lakehead University in Thunder Bay recently posed the question on if they students would approve of a $50 fee to keep their pool open. While the students said yes, one has to wonder if it wouldn’t have made more sense for the students to close the facility and strike a deal with the City of Thunder Bay. The Canada Games Complex is a underused city run facility that easily could have met the demand of Lakehead University students and is only a 10 minute walk from campus. The City of Thunder Bay and Lakehead University have worked together to provide city services at below market rate for a number of items. Closing the pool and bringing the members over to the Canada Games Complex would have provided the city with extra funding, the students would save $50 annual or $200 over the course of an undergraduate degree and saved Lakehead University money as well. One has to wonder why Lakehead University Student Union didn’t look beyond their borders to meet the demand by students. There are bright students who lead the student unions and create a positive environment for others but sometimes these decisions can be extremely negatively financially for future students. With student unions and board of directors at odds the individualism negatively affects both as a collective voice in larger matters is more important then thousands of smaller voices.

Universities and Student unions need to come together on a number of other topics with regards to the provincial government. The province provides the majority of funding for universities but this funding has been stagnating in the last 20 years. The provinces way of making sure that universities are well funded has resulted in excessive tuition increases of 8% from 2003-2008. Each university has their own plans for future development and their own desires to fill their spaces. There is only so much provincial funding to spread around; in modern Ontario, universities shouldn’t be planning their future on their own. Universities should be working together to present a plan on how to grow their universities while not infringing on another’s major of study. Lakehead University – Orillia has a large investment into biology and forestry and it wouldn’t make sense for York or Laurientian to do the same. Imagine if Ontario universities came together and presented a plan on how they would grow and build off of each other. For example: Lakehead University and Laurientian University coming together to form the Northern Ontario School of Medicine but on a grander scale. Money would be better spent because each university would know what the other plans. A plan like this would improve the way money in spent and increase the notoriety of Ontario as a education powerhouse. Institutions could also benefit from this information sharing in terms of mass tendering of construction projects. If in 2015, 20 new residence buildings were to be built at university campuses across the province they could tender as a single one and get the price down significantly for each unit. They could also allow schools to foster a couple topics in which they are provincially renowned. Improving the quality of education within Ontario and making the existing space better used by students and the Ontario government.

In terms of expansion, there needs to be a moratorium on new campus development around the province until seats are taken up in the existing buildings. Universities in northern communities like Thunder Bay are seeing major declines in their enrollment and are having seats open up and stay open. “For the first time in 15 years, there are fewer new high school grads starting at Ontario campuses this fall: 2.9 per cent per cent fewer at universities and 3.5 per cent fewer at community colleges, according to mid September figures from central application centres in Guelph. Schools with a focus on the arts were among the hardest hit, from the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) in Toronto to humanities-heavy Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo and the University of Windsor, plus schools far from the GTA hub like Lakehead in Thunder Bay and Nipissing in North Bay”. (Brown, L., 2014) In a proper environment this wouldn’t be the case, seats would need to be fought for and only then would expansion be allowed into these areas. If we continue to underutilize our current facilities we will see money being wasted while the government already tries to stretch the dollar. Student unions should be protesting this fact as it will end up resulting in higher tuition costs, higher education costs for less service. Universities should be advocating for a reduction in new campuses until there is a legitimate case for expansion by means of private investment, enrollment and sustainability. We cannot continue to see expansion on the outskirts while we are hallowing out the core. Coming from the north it is hard to see people from the South/Central/East say things are spread apart when there are multiple options for them only a couple hours away. My trek to school was 15 hours and while far away I don’t regret it. This is a great opportunity to prop up the communities in which we currently have existing facilities and see surrounding communities that also benefit provide some financial incentive.

OSAP has provided students with the ability to attend school with the promise of paying back the loan provided. As of right now there is a 6 month grace period where an individual doesn’t have to pay back their loan which is interest free. As it stands there is a 3.5% interest rate on the loan provided by the Ontario government (1% ON and 2.5% CAN). If I was a student with $40,000 in debt and wanted to pay it off in 4 years I would be paying $951 a month to achieve this. There are a couple options here that student unions should be banding together to help students. University leadership should also be playing a role in making this beneficial to their own campuses and their students. Collectively, there should be a push to extend the grace period from 6 months to 2 years. Many students will be working in lower income jobs and looking for careers by the time their current grace period ends. The added time will allow students to get their feet under them in terms of housing, career and future planning. The added time will also reduce financial stress for students, financial stress can increase the chances of dealing with a mental health issue. Universities should also be looking at the interest associated with the loans as a potential means of income. First, the government should be asked to reduce this to a more manageable number or eliminated like in Nova Scotia. If this is unable to be achieved; universities should look to gain a % of the interest in order to fund programs. These programs could consist of mental health services, sexual assault help, campus security and protection along with other student needs (gym, pools etc). This could be a way to maintain or reduce costs associated with university students moving into the future.

These are just some of the ideas that I have had to reduce the cost associated with a post-secondary education. It is expensive and it is a long process but it is doubly so because our facilities are completing when they should be collaborating. This individualism by student unions and by universities has created a system where its one versus the other. While organizations like the Canadian federation of students are valuable they need the university leadership to come together as well. Our system in the end is about lifting up the average Ontarian and improving the community. Who gets research funding or who has the biggest facility matters not in the end game. Working together will promote Ontario as a better place to come and be educated. It will help the Ontario economy and will help lift individuals out of poverty. Education in today’s world is beyond important it is a necessary tool for survival.

Imagine if instead of $1,500 I paid $750 for textbooks; that extra money would be extremely valuable when it comes to food, rent, financial flexibility and more. We can do more but we need to be a collective rather then individuals going forward.

References:

Brown, L., (2014), Ontario university enrolment down for first time in 15 years. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2014/09/22/ontario_university_enrolment_down_for_first_time_in_15_years.html

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