September 13, 2007

Controlling the University

Controlling the university homefront:
New paradigms for New Brunswick's student movement.

Chris Arsenault
Published Thursday September 6th, 2007

In the last 15 years, Canadian university students have been taking it on the chin; average university tuition levels doubled across the country between 1991-92 and 2001-02, according to figures from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). Recent years in New Brunswick, unlike Newfoundland which has a freeze on tuition, haven't been much better.

This year, when romping back to school for that first glorious month of higher education where bar stools take precedent over lab tools, basic tuition for full-time undergraduates at UNB will increase by 4.5 per cent or $236. At STU, tuition increases for the bachelor of arts programme were "held to $215," according to a university press release. Mount Allison students face a tuition increase of 4.9 per cent or $315 for Canadian students; full-time domestic fees will be $6,720.

Why are students accepting this gouging? Why have those who once demanded the impossible been so meek in opposing exponential hikes?

Student activism since the 1991 recession - and the 100 per cent tuition increases which followed - has focused on trying to improve access through pushing federal and provincial governments to increase transfers to universities and improve scholarships for students.

But, as Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuiag notes (albeit when referring to an unrelated matter) "it's about control not access." Canada's two main student groups, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), have both essentially followed a political program based on attempting to increase access: through government lobbying and activism focused on tuition fees.

As the statistics on rapid tuition increases indicate, the tactics of both groups have been relatively unsuccessful; university students have "largely ineffectually" tried to gain political power to "marshal against tuition fee hikes and reforms to loan and bursary programs," according to Brian Lee Crowley, former AIMS director. And, unfortunately, Mr. Crowley is correct.

Thus, it's time for students to overhaul the fundamental parametres of their lobbying and activism to become effective in changing the political landscape of the university.

The current situation, where student tuition accounts for more than one third of most university operating budgets, has unlocked new possibilities.

At the University of New Brunswick, for example, students will pay $56.3 million in tuition for the 2007-08 school year, accounting for 35.1 per cent of the university's total operating budget. Meanwhile, UNB students only control three out of 44 (14.6 per cent) of seats on the board of governors, the university's most important decision making body.

If students were getting what they paid for, they'd control 15 seats on the board, rather than the measly three they currently hold.
An editorial in the Dal Gazette with the opening line, "No taxation without representation" perfectly explains the current disconnect.

Ironically, groups like the Atlantic Institute for Market studies, who are pushing for universities to operate more like businesses, aren't speaking out about this
discrepancy. According to free-market logic (and democratic principles), the shareholders or financiers of any endeavour should maintain a controlling stake.

Giving students more representation on boards of governors won't solve the fundamental financial issues facing Canadian Universities. It's entirely possible that new student BOG members would pick up where business leaders and government bureaucrats left off; without public money to invest in universities, students could essentially become their own 'grave diggers', raising tuition because they have no other realistic short-term policy options when it's time to tabulate annual budgets.

While this situation of students being forced to act against their own material interests would be likely and unfortunate, it shouldn't derail the process of empowering students with decision making authority concurrent with their level of financial contributions.

In 1999, students in at Mexico's National Autonomous University went on strike for nine months, protesting the introduction of tuition fees under the banner: "the University Should Belong to Those Who Study in it". Rather than simply lobbying government for lower tuition, perhaps it's time students in New Brunswick start demanding that the university should belong to those who pay for it.

Chris Arsenault is author of the report "A New Paradigm for Paying the Piper: Access, Control and Commercialization at Maritime Universities." For more information check out

Design and hosting by Fair Trade Media