From My Perspective – Post-Secondary Tuition (Part Four)

November 6, 2002

From My Perspective – Post-Secondary Tuition (Part Four)

This week I bring my discussion on post secondary education and tuition in Alberta to a conclusion. I hope that I’ve succeeded in raising some awareness about issues hindering accessibility to post secondary education. These issues and problems are complex and may not have an easy solution, but unless we are willing to speak up in defence of our right to post-secondary education, nothing will change.

In addition to pushing for differential tuition, enrolment caps, and higher minimum entrance requirements, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary are also strongly supporting allowing degree-granting status to certain colleges. According to most people I’ve spoken to, this proposal is pretty much a “done deal”.

The universities argue that these colleges are quality institutions that are currently offering partial undergrad degrees, therefore allowing full degree-granting status is just an extension of what they are already doing. They see this as an obvious solution to the growth problems at the universities, an option that allows students prevented from attending U of A or U of C due to enrolment caps to access an undergraduate degree elsewhere. Many students see this as a sign that these universities want to eventually exclude undergraduate studies completely in order to focus on research and the “cream of the crop” graduate/PhD students.

In Alberta the two institutions being currently considered for degree-granting status are Grant McEwan Community College in Edmonton and Mount Royal College in Calgary. Both are excellent educational facilities, dedicated to academic excellence and student achievement. Both have impressive track records and arguably may offer a superior student experience to that achieved at the overcrowded U of A and U of C – where students are being forced to sit on the stairways in full lecture halls and professors teach fewer than half the first-year classes (9).

As an alternative choice, these facilities provide excellent return for student money. One of my daughters is a Grant McEwan graduate, and another is completing a degree at Concordia University College (which already has degree-granting status as a private non-profit university). They made conscious choices to attend these schools because they wanted a more personal connection with their education, and they have not been disappointed. In many ways, our Alberta colleges are superior to universities when it comes to the teaching and educational quality of the classroom.

Yet if community colleges are allowed to grant bachelor degrees, will this diminish the quality of these degrees? I know if I am given the choice between putting “BA Psychology Athabasca University” or “BA Psychology Grant McEwan Community College” on my resume, my choice will be obvious. Whether or not we agree with it, many grad schools and potential employers will not perceive a diploma from a College as holding the same weight as one from a University. I want the endorsement and the prestige of a university behind the degree I’ve worked so hard for.

Is there much of a difference between a university and a college? Perhaps not. In many countries the terms are interchangeable. Some facilities, such as Harvard, have both – Harvard College offers undergraduate studies in the liberal arts, and is a subdivision of Harvard University, which refers to the whole university and includes graduate studies and research (10). In Canada, however, there are certain expectations of research, tenure and reputation that accompany the word “university,” and the perception is generally that a university offers a level of excellence that is superior to that of colleges. In addition, students who complete their undergraduate degrees at a university are already in an environment where they can more easily make the transition into graduate studies. The U of A MD admissions officer insisted that students transferring from other colleges and universities are considered on an equal basis with those already attending the U of A. This may be true on the surface, but there are subtle biases. A student already familiar with the research environment of the U of A at undergrad level has advantages over the outsider when it comes to being accepted by a research professor into a Masters’ program. It is also common knowledge that the U of A downgrades marks from many other institutions. With the U of A raising the academic bar for entrance into undergrad programs, their “elite” students may already be well ahead academically of those with undergraduate degrees from Colleges who wish to enter Grad studies. Even if college degrees are considered at par with university degrees for entrance to grad studies at Alberta universities, this may not be the case outside Alberta or in the U.S. Perception is everything – when a registrar goes to choose between a student with a degree earned at a community college or a degree earned at a prestigious university – guess which one will carry more weight?

The Council of Alberta University Students will be coming out strongly in opposition to allowing colleges degree-granting status. According to CAUS, the university experience is a unique one based on certain standards of tenure and research. University degrees should be seen as higher quality, not to be confused with the technical or practical skills type education that colleges are generally known for. There are concerns that this move will provide further support to a two-tiered post-secondary system, a system that has elite, publicly funded universities with entrance limited to a select few.

Allowing degree-granting status to colleges may have a significant effect on Athabasca University. We have collaborative agreements with many of these colleges, including Grant McEwan and Mount Royal. Transfer arrangements allow students to transfer block credits earned at these institutions towards degrees at AU. If these colleges can grant degrees, will there no longer be a role for AU? We already fight for our status and the validity of the degree we earn at a distance. Will allowing colleges to grant degrees further diminish the status of AU, putting us in the bottom half of a two-tier system? A system that has the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary as elite, publicly funded graduate research schools, while Athabasca University and the University of Lethbridge are relegated to the status of a college, and simply a stepping-stone on the way to a graduate degree?

It’s hard to say. Perhaps allowing these excellent colleges to grant degrees will have no real impact. Perhaps undergrads may find they actually prefer to earn a degree at a college where tuition is less, and where they actually have some contact with their professor. Perhaps the university experience will not be diminished. On the other hand, we may well end up with two publicly funded Alberta universities who channel all their undergrads into other schools so that they can put all their energy and finances into private sector research, while accepting only the most elite and wealthy students amongst us.

There are many more issues surrounding the post-secondary debate. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, and our public universities are climbing on the bandwagon. Research funding from the private sector is beginning to define post-secondary university goals. Some allege that private sector research is “cannibalizing other budgets” and eating up university funding to the detriment of low income and average Canadian students (9).

In Alberta, in all of Canada, post-secondary education is in a crisis and a university degree is being pushed further and further out of the reach of most Canadians. Government, at both the provincial and federal level, is not placing the importance on post-secondary education that it merits. In our economic environment, even the most menial occupation requires a post-secondary degree. The headlines on today’s Edmonton Journal read, “Stuck in the low-wage lane – Two million people trapped in jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family.”(9) The article states that “for the first time since the Depression of the 1930’s, a growing number of Canadians are working in full-time jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family;” that “one in six adult Canadians is stuck in a job that pays less than $10 an hour;” and that policy makers must ensure that, “these one in six workers aren’t so under trained and immobile that we don’t have the human capital needed for the economy.”

Post secondary education is an absolute necessity, not a luxury – and it is a fundamental right every Canadian is entitled to.

So it is time for AU students to speak up. Don’t sit back quietly and think that these issues don’t touch you. They do. As AU students we are in a unique position. We are not just students, but most of us are taxpayers and parents as well. We have a vested interest in post secondary education. We want to have access for ourselves, and we want access for our children. We want to see our tax dollars spent prudently and in a manner that will benefit our society, ourselves, and our children.

As taxpayers, we have a powerful voice. I encourage all of you to use that voice. Speak up. Don’t let post-secondary education become the sole possession of an elite few. Write to your MLA, your MP, your local newspaper. Read every article you see on the status of post-secondary education. If you live in Alberta, attend the CAUS open forums that will be held over the next few weeks. Be informed. Be aware. Fight to make post secondary education accessible to every Canadian!

(1) Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS):

(2) University of Alberta Students’ Union

(3) University of Alberta Tuition:

(4) Students’ Union, University of Calgary:

(5) Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA):

(6) Statistics Canada, University Tuition Fees:

(7) Student Finance Board, Alberta Government:

(8) Athabasca University

(9) Edmonton Journal:
“U of A will slow growth to maintain high quality.” October 5, 2002.
“U of A Vision needs debate” October 8, 2002.
“No apologies for seeking best students, faculty” October 9, 2002
“U of A’s vision is to work hard to be the best” October 11, 2002
“Tread with care on universities” October 22, 2002
“Research push cannibalizes other budgets” October 23, 2002
“Just the cream for the university” October 27, 2002
“Push towards elitism will put degrees farther out of reach” November 3, 2002
“Stuck in the low-wage lane” November 4, 2002

(10) Harvard.

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.