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Something rotten in the state of education

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With school bells set to call Canadian youth back to campus, the wise words of celluloid hero Will Hunting are still ringing in my ears.

"You dropped a 150 grand on a f... education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."

That movie line was fiction, spoken and written by Harvard grad Matt Damon, but sadly that's the financial picture facing students today.

This I know as a university educator, as the mother of a high-school grad wondering where to learn, and as a researcher of "knowledge production" in the post-secondary millennial marketplace.

What's the price of knowledge today? When I started university years ago, my $540 tuition and $150 for books was easy to pay for with a summer job, which then allowed me to devote the academic year to full-time study.

That is not the case now. Faced with rising tuition and lifetime debt, students today squeeze class and study between shifts flipping burgers and serving drinks.

Statistics Canada reports between 1991 and 2005, undergrad arts tuition increased by 135 per cent from $1,714 a year to $5,366 a year. For 2011/12, undergrad tuition fees went up 4.3 per cent while inflation was up only 2.7 per cent in the same period. Costs of professional and graduate programs increased substantially more. Student debt hovers around $15 billion nationally.

The Canadian Federation of Students reports 55 per cent of students graduate with debt and 20 per cent owe between $10,000 and $30,000.

Today, upwards of 52 per cent of university operating budgets are made up of student tuition, where as in 1990, it was a mere 14 per cent.

It's not professors who have eaten the budget. The median salary of a tenured university professor in Manitoba is $98,900 and national salary increases are 2.8 per cent, a mere 0.1 per cent above the rate of inflation, yet workload has increased substantially as enrolments have increased 49 per cent in the past decade.

Universities, meanwhile, have come to rely on tuition as income, with institutions competing to attract what were once students and are now called "basic income units."

Is this the price of knowledge? There appears to be something wrong with the state of education.

Operating under financial constraints, universities have become focused on interests outside academic ones. They build buildings, they engage in massive marketing campaigns, they woo the elite for private donations and increasingly rely on third-party funding. Universities have become corporate. They look like marketing machines in competition with others creating and trying to sell programs at the best rate of return.

Governments seem to act solely as regulatory agents creating performance indicators and ensuring accountability.

It appears knowledge has become a commodity that is sold and exchanged, regulated and accounted for.

Under this arrangement, universities are often referred to as credential marts and increasingly mirror commercialized entities.

Noted scholar, fellow and tutor John Newman in his book The Idea of A University in 1854 suggested the idea of the university was intellectual formation. We have not come a long way on this front. It seems today this is defined as marketized, corporatized, demand-driven knowledge transfer instead of the intellectual, analytical and practical knowledge Newman suggested.

The optimism that education was to help society progress, be a key component of social change, social growth and social transformation as well as assisting people to develop their human potential is supplanted by a reality of unstable work, spending years paying off debt, and constant struggle and stress.

It is not a question of who is to blame for this but a question of what we should consider an appropriate way to acquire knowledge and what the institutions that provide that service should look like. I'll ponder this as I go to the library to return an overdue book.


Kelly Gorkoff is on sabbatical from the University of Winnipeg where she teaches in the criminal justice department.

k.gorkoff@uwinnipeg.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 2, 2014 A13

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