Commentary | Raising tuition, really?

Why principal Heather Munroe-Blum needs to look beyond higher fees

I’m sure that somehow my academic career will mysteriously begin to suffer because of this article, but here goes nevertheless. There is an obvious and well-documented policy of transforming our post-secondary education (PSE) system into a system of private businesses that sell “education” and all the trappings of student life. In particular, I’d like to focus on what has happened at McGill since the installation of Heather Munroe-Blum as principal.

Perhaps to my discredit, I’ve been a student and employee at McGill almost continuously since the year 2000. At that time, principal Bernard Shapiro was the boss. Although no principal goes without criticism – it is the nature of the position – times were certainly different. The drive toward saleable research did not dominate academic pursuit; building doors were open all night; and security guards, knitting in their laps, slept at their posts. The occasional high school kid from could be found guzzling a beer at the OAP before being turfed; the lower field was mostly brown, muddy, and constantly in use; and faculty were more quirky and boisterous, and far less fearful of the administration.

Was it perfect? No, but it was more open, more fun, more academic, and more educational. What has changed?
There have been some decided improvements at McGill since Shapiro: health services and infrastructure have been improved; efforts at greening and streamlining bureaucracy introduced; et cetera. However, McGill is paying a very dear price for this facelift: its academic traditions, community, and very purpose are being transformed. The commercial potential of academic enquiry has become a dominant factor in prioritizing research. Undergraduates are explicitly viewed as cash-cows to support research. Public and community-run spaces have been handed over to businesses. The recommendations generated by risk audits now trump community interests in guiding administrative decisions. Security has been severely tightened. Faculty, staff, and employee and student unions fear draconian reprisal should they butt heads with administrators.

This transformation has gone without significant protest. The benefit of the doubt is often given to those who turn out not to have deserved it. Munroe-Blum is one of those people. Our faculty’s widespread uneasiness, coupled with their silence, is testament to the current climate. I hope that the concerned among McGill’s illustrious faculty, emboldened by our student and employee unions’ impending activism, will emerge with vocal criticism. What worries me, however, is the accrued damage incurred by the public statement of McGill’s so-called “positions” regarding our social system and public financing, as pronounced by our fearless leader. The public at large does not know that Munroe-Blum speaks for herself and perhaps a few backroom operators – not the McGill community.

No democratically elected body – or one that generates policies and positions democratically – representing students, staff, or faculty within the McGill community, supports “McGill’s” positions regarding public financing and our social systems as pronounced by Munroe-Blum. In particular, there is no popular support at McGill for her tuition model. Worse, the principal’s rhetoric regarding the financing of our public PSE system is based on absolutely faulty logic and analyses that make any academically-minded person cringe.

Essentially, HMB argues that the statistics provided by Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport indicate that our province’s policy of tuition regulation, which has maintained Quebec’s tuition rates at levels significantly lower than the national average, has not yielded its promised benefits (increased number of degrees granted), while it has caused a chronic underfunding of the PSE system. In contrast, she argues that where tuition is higher, there is a higher rate of degree completion, and, in some cases, in a more timely, and thus economical fashion. The benefits to PSE financing, according to Munroe-Blum and her cronies, are obvious. On the surface, this seems reasonable. In fact, it is just plain wrong.

If we were to limit PSE access to people who can afford to pay “user fees,” we would necessarily be limiting admission into the system to people who have the wealth and family and community histories of education that make them more motivated to begin and complete their schooling. In contrast, when admitting those who don’t have this impetus of lineage or the culture of PSE – most often people with low incomes – a number of socioeconomic factors contribute to lower success rates. Cost alone cannot capture those cultural factors.

Tuition fees are indeed a piece of the puzzle, but to suggest that raising tuition will provide the liquidity to change all of those other pieces of the puzzle is ridiculous. Raising tuition, as evidenced by its utter lack of support by all representative bodies in our community, is the last and most unimaginative thing you could suggest for improving the PSE system and its financing.

Adrian Kaats is a PhD II engineering student, and he sits on the external affairs committee and the judicial advisory board of PGSS, but the views expressed here are his own. Write him at adrian.kaats@mail.mcgill.ca.


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