Post-secondary system needs fixing

<!– PUBLISH DATE TimeSincePublished(“2008-04-23-04:30:00″,”2008-04-25″,”Apr. 23, 2008”);–> The Hamilton Spectator, (Apr 23, 2008)

You can’t get into the elective course you want. There are no seats left in your lecture theatre, so you sit at the back of the classroom. You can’t see or hear your professor, and by looking at the e-mail address on the syllabus, you know she’s a sessional who doesn’t even work at McMaster.

You go through your class syllabuses only to realize all your mid-terms and essays are at the same time. Just another semester at one of Ontario’s top universities.

The time comes to think about your future. You start to look for jobs only to find out that an undergraduate degree is just the basic requirement. You start to have panic attacks and realize a master’s is the new bachelor’s.

You apply to graduate schools by filling out pages and pages with “why you are the best candidate for this program.” You are required to have references and you think back to the professors with whom you forged relationships.

Wait, most of them are gone because they were never permanent employees anyway. Or out of the 200 people in the class, they could only talk to 10 students after class and, honestly, you gave up.

The hunt begins and you finally find a professor who may have answered a couple questions about your essay mark. She is hesitant, but gives in to the desperation in your voice.

In the current discussion concerning enrolment numbers in Ontario and the consequent budget cutbacks in universities across the province, the victims of university deficits are not highlighted. Students across the province are fed up with courses not being offered, part-time faculty being cut and many front-line services reducing hours.

Today’s undergraduate classes are astronomically larger, and at the undergraduate level, faculty-student ratios are soaring.

There are a few reasons why all this is happening and why students aren’t getting their money’s worth.

Let’s begin with high schools and the ever-changing curriculum. New research tells Canadians that we won’t be able to compete in the global economy; that more than 70 per cent of the “careers” left in Canada will require some form of post-secondary and, most likely, postgraduate degrees.

Parents become scared, and by scared I mean they call and harass high school guidance departments. Guidance councillors then fill students with fear and angst about their futures. Sixteen-year olds must pick if they want to enter university, college or apprenticeship programs and if they want to pursue science, math, humanities or social sciences. Education turns into a commodity.

Enter university. With the demand for post-secondary education in this province, Ontario universities have no space left for students. They don’t have enough funds in the budget to keep tenured and associate professors teaching undergraduates, while trying to offer more graduate spots to fill the demand.

Because of their budget deficits, they are cutting sessionals and part-time instructors, the ones who actually teach at the undergraduate level.

How can professors be prepared for younger students coming out of high school who are maybe not as prepared as they should be? How can they “train” professors to teach, especially new instructors and teaching assistants?

Where is the balance between research and teaching and learning? How do they find that balance with continued pressure to be Canada’s leading research institution, so they can get enough donors to keep the campus running?

Where can they get more funding to provide students with a holistic learning experience?

Enter the provincial government. Funding for post- secondary education in Ontario has been a priority of the Liberals and has been greatly appreciated. But targeted funding for infrastructure isn’t going to balance the books at our institutions.

Ontario’s numbers are clear: Compared with our peers in other provinces and jurisdictions, we have the highest student-faculty ratio at 27:1 and we’re significantly underfunded in per-student operating grants. Ontario universities are bursting at their seams and the quality of the student experience is being compromised at every level.

Education’s major competitors for funding are health care and anti-poverty efforts. But where are these trained medical professionals coming from if they can’t get through high school or university? Where are Canadian business leaders coming from if they can’t get the funds from OSAP or the Canada Student Loans Program? How can Canada compete with innovative technology if we aren’t funding education?

The government wants to tackle poverty in Ontario. How can those high school students who come from low-income homes think about any form of post-secondary education when they have to drop out and start working to pay rent or put food on the table to help out their parents?

The system is broken.

I know I’m being negative, so I’m going to give students some hope before they all drop out and start working for call centres in India.

There are groups within our institutions and in the province that recognize these challenges. There are student groups out there providing educated solutions to the government. They write submissions day and night pleading for them to fix the system.

Faculty members do what they do best: provide us with research and data to face the challenges of today’s post-secondary education sector.

But the time has come to find a solution to our post-secondary education system.

The provincial and federal governments need to come together with institutions, student groups and faculty associations and find a pan- Canadian solution to education to ensure the quality, accessibility, affordability and accountability of the entire sector.

The system is broken. Fix it.

Arati Sharma is vice-president of education of McMaster Students Union and vice-president of Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

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