Editorial – Post-Secondary Blues

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the media’s pecking party against AU is probably making you question your choice of alma mater right now. There seems to be no end to the negative press about our university.

Yet most students should be familiar enough with the machinations of the press to know that it doesn’t just report what is ?new? and ?newsworthy?: the media loves themes. If a story catches public interest, then the plan is simple: get more on the topic?find something, anything. It doesn’t much matter how old it is, or if It’s relevant. Just keep the momentum going until interest dries up.

I remember a decade ago there seemed to be a massive increase in the number of attacks on children by rottweilers and pit bulls. It was as though someone had spiked the kibble: one year, we heard nothing about these events; then suddenly, there was a new report every day. But were people really so naïve as to believe that dogs across the country had suddenly gone mad? Statistics certainly showed that the actual number of dog attacks hadn’t changed much, and that other dogs continued to be the most prolific biters (cocker spaniels seem to always top the list). Something had changed, though: attacks by rotties and pitts had become newsworthy, and the newsrooms began monitoring sources for any and all similar stories and urging the public to report their tales as well.

I find it interesting that people are so media savvy these days?to the extent that many of us are blogging and tweeting our own personalized newsfeeds?yet people still get caught up in the frenzy, unwilling to step back and critically assess what they are fed. I suppose in a world where people are shocked to learn that reality shows are often contrived, this should not be a surprise.

AU is falling victim to this effect right now. That’s not to say that there aren’t things going on that are of concern (I work for the SU, so I’m not going to use this article space to discuss the implications of those stories: suffice it to say that our work hours have increased radically in the last few weeks and we are meeting with university and government officials to make sure student concerns are heard). What I’m discussing here is the additional strain created by the media and conflicting demands/perceptions of the public and students.

Take yesterday: it was reported that five years ago, AU hired lobbying experts to approach the government for additional funding. Wildrose education critic Bruce McAllister’s seemingly sage response: why would a university feel the need to hire lobbyists when there are so few post-secondary schools in the province? Yet yesterday’s announcement of the Alberta budget demonstrates that McAllister is badly out of touch. Despite assurances from the Premier that Alberta would not cut costs on the backs of students, universities will have to absorb a nearly seven per cent cut (closer to eleven per cent when adjusted for inflation) next year, while being limited to tuition increases of just over two per cent. You don’t need a math degree to figure out that such a crushing shortfall must come from somewhere. Redford kept her promise that tuition will not soar, but she is certainly not unaware of the reality that ?fees? are not regulated and can increase by any amount.

How long will the government be able to take advantage of the public misperception that ?tuition? encompasses the entire amount students pay to schools? Redford certainly seems confident in this semantic subterfuge. At AU, only $472 of the $652 course fee is tuition. U of A course tuition is $2634 per semester, but the total payable by the student is $3408. There is no limit to the fees a university can add: last year both U of A and U of C discussed adding an across the board ?academic? fee that could amount to more than an additional $1000 a year. Who wants to lay odds that this fee will become reality in 2013? Educational cost will soar, but ?tuition? won’t. Touché, Madame Redford.

Perhaps this helps explain why a university would need to lobby for funding. But why was this a story in the first place? The information is five years old. Also, each of the other universities in the province do the same thing, but the media didn’t feel that was important. After all, they are reporting on pit bulls this month, not cocker spaniels. Other universities in the province have multiple full-time staff just devoted to lobbying the government. No one reports on the sum of their annual wages and budgets: AU was called out because the staff were outside contractors, though the total amount spent was miniscule compared to the cost of funding a full-time internal department (today AU does have a staff member devoted to lobbying; just one). By tucking those costs into the overall salaries and administration budget, no one really knows how much is spent on lobbying at most schools.

There are good reasons lobbying is necessary (McAllister is naïve here too: getting access to the minister is not an issue. Getting the province to allocate funds in the budget, is). AU has over 40,000 students as of this year; a third more than U of C. Universities in Alberta receive government funding based on the number of FLE’s (full-time equivalent students), but this formula applies differently to AU. Only 35 per cent of AU’s students reside in Alberta, and the Government of Alberta provides funding for only this portion. The 65 per cent of out-of-province students are completely non-funded. The other Alberta universities have plenty of out-of-province students too, but because they reside in Alberta during their period of study, the Alberta government funds them as equivalent to Albertans. People in this province seem opposed to our tax money funding AU students who reside outside the province, yet Albertans are happy to pay even more to fund out-of-province students who live in Alberta and use services here while completing their studies. Is it any wonder that AU must work extra hard to convince the government to review this structure?

And therein lies the rub. If AU fails to obtain funding for the unfunded majority of its students, students say it has failed to provide for its students. If it lobbies the government for money, it is taking inappropriate measures. Out-of-province students cry foul if the differential fee is increased, though It’s currently vastly below cost recovery, yet oppose any monies going to the province when the main purpose of those funds is to lobby for funding for those same students. Albertans oppose money going to people outside of the province. Yet everyone wants Canadians to have affordable access to education, right? Thirty-six per cent of AU students are in Ontario, but that province won’t even discuss providing funding for its own citizens? education, unless they are going to Ontario schools (who are you supporting: your citizens, or your businesses?), and they actively block any attempt for AU to set up testing centres that would exist solely to benefit Ontario students.

I’m not saying that our school should never be scrutinized: it is a publicly funded institution and people have the right to know what is going on. What worries me is that readers seem primed to react strongly to every new story, without considering that some, at least, lack validity. University students surely have the tools to read critically and ask questions like ?Is this normal for a university?? or ?Are others schools doing this too?? This is no more than we’re asked to do when submitting papers for our courses. There may be reason to ask hard questions of your school, but there are also opportunities here to say, ?Wait a minute! That’s not fair.? Ultimately, the lack of funding hurts students more than anyone else. Why is it not our job, as students, to also talk to the government and ask for our needs to be considered?

If nothing else, consider that the barrage of pointless, outdated stories detracts from issues that students are clearly very concerned about.

If there is anything good coming of all of this, It’s that the media is starting to look closely at post-secondary education. At this time, the Edmonton Journal doesn’t have a reporter dedicated to education issues; perhaps that will change. I’m probably naïve to hope that the papers will begin reporting on broader issues, such as disparities in funding methodology and the long-term impact of underfunded education. Does anyone remember how much money Alberta spent a few years ago to recruit educated people from outside the province during our skilled labour shortage? Get ready for more of the same down the line after these budget cuts, and to see bright young Albertans losing out on jobs to imported labour, because they could not afford to go to school.

You never really save money when you fail to pay for education. You see, education is truly an investment, and That’s not just semantics. The province needs skilled people to flourish. Study after study has shown that people with university degrees create more jobs, pay more in taxes (far offsetting the cost of their tuition), cost less to the health care system, and are much less likely to engage in crime. Yet there are those who still see post-secondary education as a privilege for the student, at a time when some countries are offering free university education for their people because they know that the return on investment will always be higher. Look to the Nordic countries for examples.

If there is one message we can most certainly take from all of this, It’s that we should be looking very closely at our universities. Public boards are in place to ensure our publicly-funded institutions are accountable to stakeholders (though there is no rule that board members must be from Alberta, and I find that curious), but this is not enough. We need to be informed about the pressures faced by our institutions. We should understand terminology that governments toss around to obscure the facts. And as students, we need to ask what role we can play in supporting the system to ensure a better education for ourselves.