Monday, 5 September 2016

Post-Secondary Education in Canada Needs to Change!

Have you ever seen the movie, "Accepted".  It's about a guy who gets rejected to every college he applied to, eventually leading him to create his school that becomes a magnet for other young people who were rejected from other colleges. The film is one of countless spoofs on college life in the U.S. and it's quite funny, though it's hardly a blockbuster. Believe it or not, the movie actually got me thinking about things that I think are seriously wrong with university education. And since tomorrow is Back to School day for millions of young people across Canada, including many university and college students, I thought that this would be the opportune time for me to share my thoughts about the subject.

I still vaguely remember the my first year of university.  I recall that before classes started, I attended an orientation session at the University of Toronto.  One of the things they told us about was something called a distribution requirement, which basically meant that every U of T student had to take a humanities course, a social science course and a science course.  The person leading the orientation session said that taking courses in all three streams was supposed to make us well-rounded.  What a load of crap! First of all, when you get to university, shouldn't it be you who decides how "well-rounded" you want to be, rather than some bigwigs at the high echelons of the university hierarchy? After all, you had plenty of time to study all sorts of subjects when you were in elementary and high school.  So if I want to major in biology, for example, why the hell should I have to take an English course?  Didn't I get enough Shakespeare in high school?  I can still remember the class I took to fulfill my science requirement.  Students frequently fell asleep during the lectures. Gee, I wonder why.  Probably because like a lot of the people in the class, they were only there to get their distribution credit, so I can't say I blame them for dozing off.  Now of course, I can't just pick on my alma mater for this ridiculous policy, because plenty of other universities do the same thing. Regardless of what the stiffs in charge of the universities tell you, taking courses in fields that you have no interest in will not make you well-rounded.  All it may do is bring down your grade point average. Besides, there are already other courses that you don't want to take, but have to take, which have nothing to do with distribution or breadth requirements.

Once you've decided what you want to major in, you'd think that you would have a free reign of courses to choose from. Fat chance of that! Because as if having to take courses for distribution and breadth requirements weren't bad enough, you also have to take less desirable courses to complete your major.  Want to major in political science, but don't want to deal with the philosophical exploits of Socrates, Plato and a bunch of other dead white guys?  Tough luck, chump, because if you want your degree, you'll have to sit in a classroom for hours on end learning about ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.  While there's certainly nothing wrong with studying Plato's Republic or John Locke's Treatises of Government, that may not be consistent with what you want to learn about political science.  Personally, I think that once you've made it into university, you should be able to decide what you want to learn, rather than having to choose from programs with distribution requirements, breadth requirements, or whatever else the bigwigs at the top make up to limit your choices.  Besides, it's your money that paying for the education that you're supposed to receive, so shouldn't it be your choice what to learn?  This brings me to what I think is the worst thing about post-secondary education: the insane cost.

Unlike elementary and secondary school, to which everyone in Canada is supposed to have universal access, post-secondary education is not treated as a right, but rather a privilege.  This despite the fact there are virtually no good paying jobs for people without a post-secondary education of some sort. Hell, even people who have a post-secondary education, including those with more than one degree under their belts, find it exceedingly difficult to find work.  This is not good news for young people who have just graduated from university or college, only to find themselves without work and thousands of dollars in debt. The cost of post-secondary education is insane.  Not only do students have to pay sky high tuition fees just for the privilege of attending classes, but they are also faced with other difficult expenses.  Everything from textbooks to housing costs can quickly eat up an average student's budget.  Now of course, there is help for needy students - a patchwork of grants, loans and scholarships offered by various levels of government, post-secondary institutions themselves, non-profits and private interests.  What Canada's aspiring post-secondary students really need is not a cornucopia of financial aid sources and the seemingly endless bureaucracy that comes with them; they need a system of universal access that allows all of them, regardless of their financial circumstances, to pursue higher learning.

I am appalled at the way post-secondary institutions gouge students nowadays.  As if the cost of tuition, textbooks and living expenses aren't enough to drive some students into the poorhouse, post-secondary schools have developed other innovative cash grabs.  When I was a full-time student at U of T, for example, you had to pay to see your own exam after you had written it.  I can also still remember the outrageous fees for overdue library books.  I can't imagine what those fees are like now, nearly fifteen years after I left full-time studies.  Many years later, when I was taking language courses at U of T as a non-degree student, I was told I had to pay $25 to "re-activate" my student account in order to enroll in courses after I had not taken a course in two years. Did I hear someone say highway robbery!?  This is the kind of treatment that I expect from the big banks, not universities that are public institutions funded by the taxpayer.  If you're a current or former student reading this, I would love to hear what other stupid charges your school has made you pay.

Now I'm sure that I'll hear some people tell me that compared to some other countries, students studying at post-secondary institutions in Canada have it pretty good.  But why should we only compare ourselves to other countries where the situation is worse?  Yes, I understand that university and college tuition is several times less than it is in the U.S., where some schools charge more than the average family makes in a year for one semester.  However, I also know about countries in Europe where post-secondary education is free and yet the quality of education is still top notch.  The truth is that a lot of folks in certain levels of government, as well as the bigwigs running the universities and colleges in Canada would like us all to just shut up and be grateful for what we have. But I for one am not going to shut up and I hope those of you reading this won't either.  We need to strive for better, rather than compare ourselves to the lowest common denominator.