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Student–administration cooperation paralyzed in the face of austerity

A call for increased student participation in post-secondary funding discussions
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“An institution that is open and accessible to all” is what Peter Cooper, the founder of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art intended when he founded the school in 1859. Since its inception, the prestigious New York City college has not charged students tuition. Following an April 23 administration announcement that some students would be charged tuition beginning in 2014, students and faculty at the Cooper Union occupied President Jamshed Barucha’s office. In mid July, the occupants and the administration announced that they had reached an agreement. One of the key points of that agreement was the creation of a working group comprised of students and administration that would analyze revenue streams and find alternative sources of income, rather than charging tuition.  This type of student-administration cooperation should be the standard at universities across North America; unfortunately this is far from the case.

It is no secret that universities, especially publicly funded institutions like U of T find themselves in a financial bind. Funding from the provincial government is going down and at the same time, the costs of operating such an institution are increasing. Thus far, the remedy to this problem has been to offset the rising costs by making up some of the lost revenue in increased student fees. When such increases are proposed, like when the Faculty of Arts and Science introduced a flat fees payment structure, the argument put forward by university administrations is that they have no choice but to raise fees. It is not the administration pushing these increases, but rather it is just the reality of austerity.  Students are told to be understanding and cooperative, and accept the fees. Students, however, have also been adversely affected by the financial crisis ­— the cost of school, food, and housing as well as the lack of available employment opportunities put a huge strain on them. Raising fees increase a burden on a group of people who are already stretched beyond their means.

This method of dealing with budget shortfalls is unproductive and creates a divide between students and the administration. This is more a top down dictation than a genuine attempt at cooperation.

Students and the administration butt heads throughout the year on a variety of issues, one of them being the issue of student fees. Both agree that the university is in dire need of funds. The current method of dealing with revenue not only leaves students and administration polarized but also distracts attention away from the provincial government, lobbying efforts, and alumni — all sources of revenue that need to be further tapped.

As students at a world-class institution, our futures are staked upon U of T being able to provide us with a quality education, something that can only happen if the university is financially secure.  As we are concerned stakeholders, we should be involved in discussions that concern the university’s revenue stream. Students should be given an opportunity to work with the administration in attempts to lobby the provincial government, court alumni and examine alternative revenue streams. The lack of a united front on this issue weakens the push for more funding and allows the provincial government to quietly bypass their obligation to fund post secondary institutions.

In order to remedy this situation, structures need to be created that bring the student voice to the table when it comes to revenue streams. This process should be open, transparent, and, ideally, accessible to all students, not just to a handful of representatives.  Students also need to come to the table with an open mind and be willing to analyze the different arguments and proposals. This will set the stage for further cooperation between the students and the administration. This is a complex situation and it requires creative solutions. It is my hope that all members of our university community, students, staff, faculty, and the administration can come together to mutually agree on a solution to our financial woes.

 

Abdullah Shihipar is a third year student studying Cell and Molecular Biology, Psychology and American Studies. He is currently an executive member of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.