U of T tosses around “excellence” with enough gusto to put Bill and Ted to shame. The vocabulary of excellence appears so often in press statements and development plans, you have to wonder if it has permeated to every aspect of life at Simcoe Hall.

“Robert, man, this letter opener is totally excellent.”

“If you aspire to have one of the best letter openers, you have to pay for it.”

“Well, it was worth it. This is one world-class letter opener.”

Hopefully not.

Whatever the case, it’s more than the vocabulary of Bill and Ted that has been adopted by U of T. The two hapless heroes’ penchant for glossing over contradictions and inaccuracies seems to also be in vogue during U of T’s most excellent adventure.

Take the law school and its recent cheating scandal, with a good number of students falsifying marks to try and secure a well-paying Bay Street articling gig.

It would be nice to think they were just greedy SOBs. But with tuition at rising 380 per cent to $10,000 in just a few years—all in the name of excellence—you have some very real debts to deal with, and some students who desperately need to land the most lucrative jobs they can after university. It’s not that they were right, but it’s not unexpected either, and we can only imagine this incentive to cheat will rise along with tuition—slated to hit $25,000 in a few more years.

Of course, no one has been hurt more by the contradictions of excellence than the teaching assistants—who have a strike vote set for January 21. The university has promised a guaranteed income of $1,200 plus tuition to these TAs, yet, when it comes time to fulfill the guarantee—as you would naturally expect during contract negotiations—there are only piecemeal offers which don’t even come close to matching what York TAs get, let alone the $12,000 promise.

It seems that it’s just fine to ask students for money in pursuit of excellence—in the case of law students, perhaps $25,000 per year—but when it comes to paying students for excellence, well, sorry dude.

To understand the contradiction, you only have to put yourself in a prospective grad student’s shoes. With York TAs getting a good 30 per cent more than U of T TAs, and with many grad students already carrying debt into their masters degree, that bit of money can become a big part of the decision—especially considering the lower tuition at many other universities.

What’s more, the issue goes beyond simple equality for grad students, but quality of education for undergraduates. With more than a third of courses taught by TAs, and with the double cohort only going to increase this number, having packages for grad students that are at least as attractive as our cross-town rivals has to be a priority. Especially when you consider the relatively low cost of doing so given the miniscule—we’re talking less than five percent—portion of the budget TAs eat up.

The argument, of course, will be made that we will still attract those talented TAs because of the quality of programs here, which is certainly valid. But that realization must be balanced with many TAs’ equally legitimate concerns with debt-load which—like it or not—are going to be a factor.

If U of T is committed to excellence as more than a catchphrase, it’s going to have to realize that its narrow, increase-revenue/decrease-costs, version of the concept simply doesn’t lead to excellence.

In fact, our current pursuit of excellence can easily end up harming us in the long run.

It’s a simple question of balance. Prestigious research centres and professors are wonderful, but research centres and a few big-name professor don’t teach tens of thousands of students—TAs do. And while undergrads may not be attracted to U of T because of who’s teaching their tutorial or introductory course or lab, those courses are the foundation of their education—a foundation that will be formed in good part by the quality of TAs we can attract.

Regardless of whether you are considering grad studies, or whether you think tuition equity issues are important, the fact remains that the excellence of education will be compromised by unattractive packages for our TAs. Students need them to get a good deal.

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