The University of Alberta has generally excluded students’ voices from decisions regarding tuition increases, budget constraints, austerity measures, cuts to bursaries, and graduate student labour, we are writing to remind you of our education and expertise.
Since the central administration at the University of Alberta has generally excluded students’ voices from decisions regarding tuition increases, budget constraints, austerity measures, cuts to bursaries, and graduate student labour, we are writing to remind you of our education and expertise. Who are we? We are part of a growing contingent of disappointed members of the University community committed to inserting our voices into decision-making processes that will affect not only our academic futures, but the academic futures of all potential students who may come after us. This letter, then, is the opening of a dialogue that is long overdue.
We are students of economics, political theory, society, applied science, the fine arts, physical science, culture, literature, and philosophy. We believe our training, though diverse and specialized, amounts to a collective body of knowledge that holds vital insights for the university as it faces difficult financial circumstances. We have been thinking of the issues that confront our university for a long time now—in seminars, at roundtables, in our residences, and at pubs and cafes—and we have been waiting for you to ask us for our assistance.
Since you have not asked, we are insisting that from this point forward we be considered integral stakeholders of the university and its putative culture of fostering sustainable and equal access to higher education.
We feel our measure of participation in the university’s administrative practices should be proportionate to the measure of the increasing debt load we carry—a burden we have been bearing more and more to ensure this public institution keeps its doors open. Shouldn’t we be considered major stakeholders, even investors, by virtue of our collective investment in the university? According to the Canadian Federation of Students, “the share of university operating budgets funded by tuition fees more than doubled between 1985 and 2005, rising from 14% to 30%”. This is not an easy burden to bear—many of us have already invested so much of our futures into this university that the weight of our debt will likely outlive us. Student debt is an issue that we experience at a visceral level, and it regularly haunts our thoughts of the future. Yet, in order to meet the shortfall of Canadian universities’ operating budgets, we students have amassed a staggering $14 billion dollars of collective debt from the federal government. Upon completion of an undergraduate degree in Alberta specifically, the average student will carry approximately $24,000 in student debt. This issue needs to be addressed seriously because these numbers are inflating at an unacceptable rate, and this trend will not resolve itself. What type of future are we, as current administrators, faculty, and students of the university, offering to future students who will increasingly immiserate themselves in the short term in order to buy hope for a debt-free future that may never arrive? Why do we as a university continue to perpetuate the abstract promise of the fruits of a university education for all people when it is in fact more and more for the very few? Of course, we already recognize the cynical answer to these questions: by displacing the real value of an education through debt, the university can continue to increase returns on financial investments and perpetuate the abstract, and increasingly misleading, idea that the university serves the entire community. But we are no longer content with cynical answers.
Furthermore, since many of us have taken on increasing amounts of student debt, supposedly in order to learn and to invest in our futures, we are alarmed to discover that while tuition continues to rise at an onerous rate, the quality of our education is being diminished—all this occurring as the university’s true financial crisis continues to be displaced into the future in the atomized form of student debt.
Specifically, we are offended by the nearly 10% decrease in budget to the Faculty of Arts in the most recent several years:
First, we are offended that our knowledge was not consulted in this process. Aren’t the recipients of an education from the University of Alberta worthy of confronting the challenges of this university? Indeed, don’t we students have an intimate understanding of the vital services that allow for the successful completion of a post-secondary education? We would have liked to have aided you in the critical questions facing the Arts, which you have mishandled so gravely with the AdPReP external review process. Instead, once again we have simply been handed the consequences of these funding cuts to which you habitually acquiesce, and we are left paying more for an Arts education that you have clawed back significantly for at least the past three years running. You should no longer expect well-trained, critically-minded students to pay more for an Arts education that has been diminished by 10%.
Second, we are offended that in this year’s round of Arts cuts, to the tune of 1.4 million, you are simply targeting our most vulnerable colleagues: non-academic support staff. We have come to know these individuals in our departments as indispensable sources of academic support in times when we require departmentally specific and time-sensitive information and guidance. Given the massive cuts that are taking place at certain levels of the university’s administrative structure and not others, we demand a serious answer to the following question: Why has there been no external review process to assess the potential for sweeping cuts to central university administration or central faculty administration? As you can probably intuit, we would redirect some of the austere attention at our university; we can speak more to this issue as our conversation unfolds.
Please don’t mistake our energies—we are not looking for empty attention, and we care deeply about our university and the community it is meant to serve. That is why we are beginning this conversation. We truly believe that Henry Marshall Tory’s words still hold true today: the university should be about uplifting the people as a whole. Not just the select few. Not just those able to afford access to university. Not just those in central administrative positions able to effect significant cuts to the university without scrutiny. We are stakeholders of the university and we insist that—due to our collective and specialized knowledge, our shared experience as students, and our visceral connection to the burden of a debt load that increasingly keeps the university in operation—we are in a unique position to articulate what is best for the university and its future. We will not be silent recipients of your deep and damaging cuts any longer.