Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The time for a student strike is before you enrol.

I submitted this editorial to the Moncton Times and Transcript last month, who may or may not have published it. I don't know. Now that the provincial media monopoly charges money to access their content online, New Brunswick has effectively gone dark (unless for some odd reason someone living outside of the province wants to pay to read the local papers.) Since I never actually give up any rights to the stuff I send them, though, help yourself.

The time for a student strike is before you enrol.

The student protests in Montreal were triggered by the plan to raise the long-capped Quebec university tuition rates.

The province's students have seen the consequences of rising tuition in other provinces, notably the crushing debt loads that last for years or decades. Being students and all, they're generally not stupid. They've figured out that a university degree isn't the ticket to middle-class prosperity it once was, and so they object to being asked to pay more for something that is worth less and less.

I can already hear some of you protesting. "We mustn't view university as just a way to get a good-paying job! It's about exploration, about becoming a better person and citizen, about learning for its own sake!"

This argument is usually voiced either by (older) people who got their degrees back in the 1970's, or whose livelihoods are closely linked to the selling end of the university product--professors, admissions officers, guidance counsellors.

It is also one of the great, cruel bait-and-switches of modern young adulthood. Education-for- education's-sake goes out the window about five minutes after graduation. Rest assured, when you have twenty, thirty or forty thousand dollars in student debt and the collection agencies start calling, it quickly becomes all about the money.

But the degree doesn't get you the money. Indeed it's barely even a job qualification in any meaningful sense. You hardly need four years of history or sociology to be an office clerk, or for much of that shrinking pool of jobs that pay enough to service the debt incurred by four years of history or sociology.

Rather, an undergraduate degree has become a convenient filtering tool for hiring managers, in an economy that has almost stopped producing jobs with living wages. When one does come up, the pool of potential applicants is overwhelming. State that the position requires a degree, and you can pare that list of "qualified" applicants down to a manageable hundred or so.

Indeed, look closely enough at the university system and you find that it is increasingly designed to serve everyone but the student.

Take for instance the four-month summer break. In principle, this is so students can work full-time to help finance their studies. In other words, an annual flood of job seekers will surge into the economy and find gigs that pay enough to cover a year's worth of living expenses in four months.

This strikes me as unrealistic. For starters, if there were that many good-paying jobs there for the taking without a degree, I imagine we would have a lot fewer students.

What the four-month break really does is force the student to tread financial water for one-third of each year. From May through August she is not earning course credit, but she still has to pay for rent, food and other living expenses.

Visit any college town or student ghetto in the spring. You'll see the bulletin boards papered over with notices offering to sublet housing at a loss, posted by students who still have to pay rent while they go elsewhere for (usually subsistence-level) work.

The summer break seems much more aimed at getting the pesky students out of the professors' thinning hair so they can concentrate on their "real" work: writing and publishing articles for peer-reviewed journals, where they will only ever be read by other academics.

The university industry is good for government statistics as well. Full-time students don't count as unemployed. Encouraging millions of eighteen-to-24-year-olds to live on credit for four years lets us pretend we don't have a chronic lack of useful work for them to do. Keep them in school and the unemployment rate is merely embarrassing, instead of scandalous.

For years, students have gotten the short end of so many sticks I can barely begin to list them here. Quebec students are merely reacting to being asked to pay much more for the privilege. This is why they're going on strike, demonstrating and (in some cases) behaving like hockey fans after a playoff game.

Unfortunately, student action has its limits. Once you're in the system, once you've begun to incur those costs, you can only strike for so long. The meter is running even if you're not in class. Somewhere in the back of your mind you know that the longer this goes on, the more you'll have to pay back when you finally do graduate.

The real time for a student strike is before you enrol.

Imagine if this year's crop of high school grads decided to defer their admission for a year. (Call it "Don't Occupy Academia.") Imagine if millions of eighteen-year-olds said, "If I'm going to end up working at Starbuck's anyway, I might as well do it without the debt."

Or go travelling, or do volunteer work, or any of the myriad other things you can't afford to do once you have student loans to pay.

Imagine if the class of 2012 simply refused to walk blindly into a system that's designed to exploit them, and left the university system scrambling to fill their budget holes without all that tuition money.

Imagine if their parents and guidance counsellors understood that the economics and the rules of higher education have changed, and backed them up.

Then you might see some real action.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hire learning

Some weeks ago I wrote an editorial for the Moncton Times and Transcript, about the ongoing student protests in Montreal and some of the reasons for same. I actually have no idea if they ran it. New Brunswick's media monopoly, owned and operated by the clan of beloved patroons that owns everything worth owning in the province, now has a fee-for-access model for all their newspapers. So I can't access their site to see if my free labour has been duly exploited or not.

Anyway, I'll re-post it here in the next day or so.

In the meantime, on a related note, I recently attended a gathering of alumni from the more illustrious of my alma maters. It was one of these donation-soliciting events disguised as a celebration of our storied school, steeped in tradition, from whose hallowed halls sprang so many people who, I dunno, did important stuff or something.

The real hook, though (aside from the free drinks at the Chateau Laurier) was the promise of a discussion on the future of The University. Given the goings-on in Montreal, I was looking forward to a lively discussion.

In the event, the discussion actually took the form of a panel of August Personages from the institution--the principal, one of the better-known professors, and a retired Member of Parliament and alumna.

The audience's participation was to take the form of an electronic voting device, with which we could answer a multiple-choice poll after each round of discussion by the August Personages. The results would show up on the screen after each round, echoing the time-honored academic traditions of Family Feud.

The first question had to do with the role of higher education, and whether universities should be training people for the workplace or teaching them to think and be enlightened citizens.

In the ensuing discussion it was agreed that the needs of the economy are changing so quickly, why, we can hardly imagine what it will need even a few years from now. This led inevitably to the conclusion that the citizen thing is more important.

Leave aside the central assumption, the either/or discussion of whether it's possible or necessary to do both. Presented with the question of training people for employment that is gainful enough to pay off the debts incurred in getting a degree, the answer was basically, "Well, that's hard to do, so it shouldn't be our job."

Imagine if you had cancer, and you went to an oncologist who said something like, "Well, curing cancer is really hard and we're not sure we can do it successfully. So I'm going to read you some poetry I wrote instead."

What I wanted to ask them was, "If a university degree isn't about training for the workplace, then why does essentially every middle-class or better job require one or more degrees as a minimum qualification?" Either university education is relevant to the job market or it isn't. If it isn't, someone should tell every human-resources department in Christendom. If it is, well, someone should tell these August Personages that if you're getting paid a lot of money to do something, you should expect that that thing will not exactly be easy.

Unfortunately this response was not one of the four options offered by the electronic voting device.

No matter. The audience, full of well-to-do alumni of this prestigious institution of critical thought and inquiry, were content to e-gurgitate the answer they were just fed. They didn't get where they are by asking awkward questions.

In fairness I should have probably stuck around to see if things got better. But I spend half my workday sitting around politely listening to bullshit. I left after the first round of questioning.