Initially published as a column in the AM News on February 6, 2015.
I grew up in a country where I had access to free university education. It seemed logical. I had to pay to live in the dorms and I had to pay for food, of course, and I also had to pay for some of the textbooks that were not available to borrow from school (department or library) but most were reference textbooks that I have to this day and have served me for more than one particular course with a final exam.
My graduate studies here opened my eyes about paid education. I could pay my tuition from scholarships and by teaching in my particular field, but the undergrads I was teaching often complained about having to work and study at the same time. Some could barely made ends meet, coming from underprivileged families but they were very keen on learning; their debt grew with every year of studying.
I also had many students that arrived to school in expensive sports cars and could not care less about the way cells uptake glucose. There were arguments about marks, haggling over fractions of a mark and an attitude that was that I had to deliver something that will push one’s social status to a higher tier. I guess the perception was that if one pays, the goods should be delivered and they’d better be worth the price.
That was when I started having the distinct feeling that such a conflict of interest might breed trouble. The story repeated itself during my years of teaching at a private post-secondary school. Some students believed that though they were paying (and more so, because they were paying money that did not come easy to them) they had to work hard and make it worthwhile. Others believed education to be some sort of merchandise that was being bought with money. A certain sense of entitlement was often looming over their heads and it was affecting the learning process.
Many a conversation with people who have to pay for their own education bear a bitter taste. Tuition is high and increasing, quality of education often low because, many feel, every paying student has to be caught in the safety net that will not allow very many to fall behind, whether they truly have something to show for it or not, and then, there are the exorbitant prices for textbooks that, on being resold after merely a semester, bring but a fraction of the money back (percentages may vary depending on the discipline and institution.)
Tuition, I was told by a second year student, includes a bus pass which she uses occasionally, but some do not use at all, it also includes daycare costs (she has yet to have a child in need of a daycare), and union fees; thus, fee by fee, tuition meant to open the avenue to higher education becomes an avenue towards frustration.
Should education cost so much? Getting a loan these days becomes increasingly difficult. Between not having well-to-do parents and/or acceptable co-signors, many a student willing to learn are pushed out of line because they cannot afford it.
The cost of living even in a city like Kamloops is increasing, rent and food, and many have trouble paying for textbooks that rake bills in the hundreds just for one semester, which makes one wonder about it all. Should education be free and standards higher, wouldn’t the whole society benefit after all?
By higher standards of learning I do not mean forcing kindergarteners to read before their time or promoting competitiveness at the expense of true knowledge and common sense, but rather allowing them to learn at their own pace while providing them with enough time to play and express their creativity and encouraging them to develop critical thinking as they see the significant adults in their lives use theirs.
As soon as we put a price on education, everyone suffers. The learners in the first place, the instructors, and the society. By promoting values and true knowledge, with no price tag, students feel like they have truly achieved something when they graduate from school, be it elementary, high school, university or post graduate) and moving forward. I have heard from high school students and university students as well that they do not feel challenged enough so when they finish school they almost feel like frauds. That is a sinking feeling.
On the other hand, no one benefits from anyone entering society with superficial knowledge or barely any knowledge, just like we do not benefit from people doing jobs without much passion and just for the monetary gain. We see critical thinking and common sense missing; in politics, at a family level, in all types of learning institutions and workplaces, we see it everywhere and at all levels.
Education should not be about money but about learning and acquiring knowledge not just for personal benefit but in order to bring a contribution to the society that has enabled us to get an education to begin with. When financial issues get entangled with education, a certain bias is bound to overshadow the noble and worthy endeavor of acquiring true knowledge.
A first discussion topic on many an education board should perhaps be disentangling the learning and finances for everyone’s gain… for the greater good, you could say, and that is a lofty goal for any society where critical thinking and knowledge are valued.