Dal forum hears scathing critique of higher education

CBC panellists accuse universities of exploiting students and teachers

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Dr. Laura Penny
  • Dr. Laura Penny

The CBC Radio program The Sunday Edition broadcast a free-wheeling forum today in which some participants accused Canadian universities of exploiting both students and faculty in an effort to cope with chronic government underfunding. The two-hour forum was recorded last Tuesday at Dalhousie University three days before provincial advisor Tim O'Neill called on the government to impose higher tuition fees at Nova Scotia universities.

"We seem to have the money for G20s. We seem to have the money for fighter jets," Mount Saint Vincent English professor Laura Penny declared to sustained applause from the audience in Ondaatje Hall. "We seem to have the money to own the podium. We have the money to bail out banks. I could go on until next Tuesday. Why isn’t education a priority?"

Penny was responding to fellow panellist Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. Beale argued that, for financial reasons, universities have to be selective about which courses and programs they offer. She argued earlier that higher tuition fees are justified partly because university graduates can expect to earn more over their working lives than those without degrees.

"I don’t see what is wrong with individuals paying more for their education because the price point is important when you think of the value of any particular good or service. So, for individuals to have to take more responsibility for the value of investing in an education system makes a lot of sense." Beale added that financial support needs to be in place to ensure that students from poor families and what she called "marginalized students" still have access to university.

University degrees essential

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said a university degree is now a necessary credential for jobs that once required only a high school diploma. He added that back in the 1920s when a high school education first became essential, provincial governments responded by making secondary education universal and free.

“Now where arguably a post-secondary degree is as important as a high school diploma was in the 1920s, we’re making it more expensive and less accessible. Something’s wrong with that picture," Turk said adding, "All our focus seems to be on well, those who come through the university should be paying more because they benefit which ignores the principle benefit and that’s the societal benefit because anyone who needs a doctor or a lawyer is grateful that they’ve been able to be educated." He went on to argue that the costs of medical and dental school are so high that graduates have fewer choices about what and where they practise.

"The result of that is that when you come out, you’ve had to pay so much, you have such debts, nobody wants to practise dentistry in Red Deer or in Timmins. They want to practise in a large urban centre or they want to go into a specialty." The same was true, Turk said, for doctors who avoid family medicine because specialists earn more.

Universities rip off students and faculty

Laura Penny accused cash-strapped universities of exploiting both students and faculty with a "bait and switch" sales technique. "Every university says they have great teachers. That their main priority is teaching, that you’re going to have a great undergraduate experience here. But in Canada and the States, more and more undergraduate teaching is done by poorly paid contract workers who make anywhere between a thousand to six thousand dollars per class."

When CBC moderator, Michael Enright asked how common part-time, sessional teachers were at Canadian universities, Penny responded, "I'm one. I made $24,000 last year for teaching six courses." Laughter erupted when she added it was enough to keep her "in Perrier and smokes."

Turk said there are no reliable figures for the number of part-time, contingent and poorly paid faculty in Canada, but in the US, 70 percent of faculty are neither tenured nor in tenure-track positions. He added that Canada is going in the same direction.

Penny, whose latest book is titled, More Money Than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap and Idiots Think They’re Right, defended the need for a solid academic education in the arts and sciences against those who see university as merely a gateway to a high-paying job.

“If all you’re interested in is a job or money, I would say that’s kind of like going to the movies to get a snack," she quipped. "That it’s the most expensive, roundabout way of doing it and that some of us still care about the cinema and do not appreciate your crunching in class.”

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