[PHOTO PROVIDED BY CUP: TWO-TIER FEARS (Photo Illustration: Jon Yu)]
EDMONTON (CUP) — Faced with concerns of booming undergraduate enrolment and limited space at the University of Alberta, the province is looking into granting degree completion status to two of Alberta’s largest colleges. But students are worried this is the first step towards a two-tiered education system.
Learning Minister Lyle Oberg and the provincial government will be facilitating talks over the next few months between the University of Alberta, Grant MacEwan College and Mount Royal College in Calgary. If an agreement is reached, the two colleges will be given the ability to offer full bachelor’s degrees for undergraduate programs, which, coupled with raising tuition rates and minimum entry averages expected at the University, should disperse the prospective undergrad population more evenly among the three schools.
University Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Doug Owram feels the collaboration will ease the pressure increasing enrolment puts on its faculty and facilities.
“We’ve had an enrolment surge over the last two years, and capacity is becoming an real issue,” said Owram. “So the natural question is where do you go next?”
“Basically, the University is faced with three options: keep building into a larger institution, shut people out, or create new institutions to handle the extra capacity.”
The University hopes that with more undergraduates going elsewhere for their bachelor’s degree, more resources at the school could be allocated to the post-graduate studies and research, which in turn will work towards establishing the University of Alberta as an “elite institution,” as Owram calls it.
Although all three schools are optimistic that they stand to benefit from the arrangement, student unions from the three institutions are expressing concerns that the move is just the first step towards the creation of a two-tiered education system in Alberta.
Mike Hudema, University of Alberta Students’ Union President, described the University’s use of the word “elite” as fitting.
“It’s the most apt word for the University’s policies that I can think of,” said Hudema. “This university has long sought to be not only academically elite, but also financially elite as well.”
Hudema worries that increasing fees and entry averages will deter all but those students interested in the professional faculties from coming to the University, and fears Mount Royal and Grant MacEwan will become viewed as little more than liberal arts colleges under this new structure.
“With a two-tiered education system, it’s dangerous to create a system in which one degree is better than the other just because it’s more expensive,” he said.
“If the U of A is considered more prestigious because a degree here costs more than Grant MacEwan, you’re basically buying quality,” he said. “If you can pay for it, you can get a more prestigious degree.”
Hudema’s concern with establishing an elite status at schools is echoed by other student associations.
Jennifer Wietzel, an executive member of the Mount Royal Students’ Association, wrote an article in the Mount Royal monthly newsletter that expressed many of the same concerns. “The U of A wants to grant elite degrees, thereby making a Mount Royal degree second-class,” she wrote.
“That plan includes raising admissions standards at the University to create a U.S.-style Ivy League school. The Students’ Association would not like to see a system where opportunities for students are compromised by an elite system,” she continued.
But Owram doesn’t see it that way; he sees the system as offering students more opportunity in education.
“As Alberta gets bigger, we need to provide people with more education options,” he said. “It’s not a question of quality”?some students like big classes, some like small”?we’re just offering different models for different people.”
Currently, Grant MacEwan College offers up to two years of a bachelor’s degree in their university transfer program. Mount Royal College already offers bachelor’s degrees in Arts and Nursing with Athabasca University.