Hearings on the future of post-secondary education

By Вen Li

Faculty, students and administrators from Calgary discussed post-secondary education issues on Fri., May 10. The CAUT hearing was the latest in a nation-wide series held to solicit input from Canadians about post-secondary education issues.

"The public hearings are being held to identify and propose solutions to the key issues confronting Canada’s universities and colleges," said Canadian Association of University Teachers Associate Executive Director David Robinson.

Funding, research and accessibility were the main concerns at the Calgary hearing. Former U of C Students’ Union President Barb Wright was among those who voiced concerns about cost, affordability and accessibility of education.

"In the past ten years, we’ve seen tuition triple in this province," she said. "To participate, many students are working part-time, spending up to five hours a night on employment as opposed to their studies."

For some graduates, student debt competes with work and family concerns.

"The student debt load for several clients is in the $10,000–$20,000 range," said Calgary Women’s Centre Director and U of C Professor Emerita Mary Valentich. "Some clients have declared personal bankruptcy."

Valentich suggests that staffing senior positions with more women would help the financial position of women and noted a decline in women’s movements on campus.

"Feminism and gender issues have much less prominence on campus," said Valentich. "Diversity has become the umbrella equity issue."

The Calgary Women’s Centre currently provides Social Work students with field placements but Valentich wants to extend that partnership into more personal interaction between faculty and agencies and more quantitative research.

Faculty were also concerned with research.

"The U of C faces the same kind of difficulties as other universities in Canada in responding to fiscal conservatism," said U of C Faculty Association President John Baker. "Pressure from the private sector for more applied research works against the background of increases in undergraduate enrollment."

Baker noted that increased teaching loads for faculty limit research time. He was also concerned about the increasing use of sessionals while tenured faculty’s resources and access to both technical and library resources diminish.

"We need to keep the faculty we already have universities are competing with each other and with business for the same bodies," said Baker. "Among research universities in Canada, we’re at the bottom of every rank. We’re not competitive within Canada at all, and even less competitive within the United States."

U of C Vice-President Academic and Provost Dr. Ronald Bond agreed, framing the issue in terms of quality.

"While the numbers leaving for the U.S. are quite small, the key thing is quality. As we lose out best people, we lose the magnets that we use to attract other good people."

Bond noted a reluctance on the part of the Alberta government to fund education while trying to retain the "Alberta Advantage."

"We can’t remain competitive unless we keep up with what other universities provide," said Bond. "I think it’s inevitable that Alberta will follow Ontario and go to differential fees."

The participants of the hearing were also concerned with getting students into post-secondary education.

Participation in Academics and Career Exploration Coordinator from the Developmental Disabilities Resource Centre Shannon Martel spoke on accessibility issues.

"It would be great if there was support in college for people with learning or physical disabilities," she said. "Support from other students in the classroom helps, but it’s hard to get funding for tutors as a part-time student. People with disabilities have a lot of disappointments in their journey; funding issues compound that."

Martel noted that while disabled students may not earn a degree, they do gain job skills and social experiences in college.

Social accessibility was a concern for Community Liaison Advisor at Mount Royal College Doug Dokis. Dokis helps ease the transition for First Nations students into the post-secondary environment and cited the lack of program space or support for students within the post-secondary education system as challenges facing Native students.

"In the next ten years, we expect a large increase in enrollment at the program and institutional levels," said Dokis. "We have a large proportion of the native population [who want to] come back to post-secondary but they just don’t have access to a main entry point where they feel comfortable."

Input from the sessions will be combined into a report to be released later this year.

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