September 15, 2011
Feedback - Tuition Fees and University Participation for Youth from Low-Income Families
I'd like to thank you for your clear piece on university tuition which recently appeared in the Calgary Herald - not least because of welcome traces of Mill's Methods. I don't know whether this was intended, but while the Herald's headline spoke of university 'access', your text consistently mentioned 'participation'. There's a big difference in meaning, though behind it all there must be some who argue that coming from a lower income family actually discourages if not prevents some from trying out for post-secondary education from the start.
On this theme alone, it might have been helpful to remind readers that most provinces have a cluster of so-called post-secondary teaching institutions; e.g., community colleges like Langara and OK College in BC, which typically offer the first two years of many post-secondary programs and which are noticeably cheaper and easier to gain entry to than so-called research institutions (identified usually by having post-graduate programs, professional schools of law and medicine, and a putative requirement that their faculty dedicate at least a 1/3 of their time to non-teaching related research).
The same is true of the new wave of teaching universities like Mount Royal and Grant McEwan in Alberta or Kwantlen in BC which have only recently been 'upgraded' from College status to allow their offering full four-year programs. Most such places do not have post-graduate programs, nor do they require much by way of independent research from their staff. As a consequence, their operating budgets are a fraction of those at research institutions, and hence they can offer extremely reasonable fee rates - as well as offering first-chance opportunities for students whose grades would not qualify them for admission to the research institutions in their vicinity (or indeed for students who dropped out of school early and have gone back as 'mature' students without official university entrance qualifications).
So, the fact is that there are many types of post-secondary institutions in most provinces, some of which are much less costly than others. It's been this way for decades. I speak as one who joined the then Mount Royal College some years back.
There's a problem, of course, largely created by the mood surrounding the research universities. It's the problem of academic and social status - indeed, there have been and likely still are great stigmas attaching to the college rank, even though they arguably provide a better learning environment with smaller classes than the counterpart research schools and vastly less fobbing off introductory teaching to Teaching Assistants and Sessional instructors. But that's another axe needing grinding.
So your question might be: taking these 'lesser' institutions into account, how is the post-secondary participation rate affected? Do these teaching schools typically have economically (if not academically) poorer students than research school undergraduates? If so, then there may be some life left in the notion that available money affects the choice of post-secondary participation - in this case by streaming off the economically poorer ones into the supposedly lower league universities and colleges. That's cause for some concern, for all sorts of reasons - not least because of the economic caste system regarding education that's however unwilfully maintained.
Otherwise, suppose you find that, no matter how much cheaper these available options actually are than the counterpart research schools, this seems to leave the participation rate unaffected. What might this suggest? Apart from detaching the putative hard link between economic means and the satisfaction of educational ambitions, it may suggest a cluster of other issues, some cultural and some not. (So, e.g., the main argument for the general low participation rate in Alberta seems inextricably connected with the very high availability of well-paying work right from scratch. Obviously, quite the temptation for a certain kind of teenager.)
Of course, all of this concern rests upon a belief that, the greater the participation at university, the better. As one who's been in the trade for too long now, I've seen - as have my long-standing colleagues - the reality of grade inflation and the subsequent devaluation of the Bachelors degree. It's not obvious, then, what's been gained given the manifest increase in university participation in the last 50 years. Then, no one's otherwise suggested a return to something like the overtly elitist system in the UK some years ago where, if you scored well on your A levels, university was just free!
Thanks again for your observations. There are many more issues needing such exploration in the current system.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
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