When I declared my major in English at the end of my first year at U of T, my friends, family, and former teachers were not surprised. I collect Penguin Classics, love to write, and have parents who met while completing their own English literature Master of Arts at U of T. I imagine that I would have enjoyed studying any area within the humanities, but if I had been turned away from the English department, I would have been devastated.
Open enrolment programs — such as the English program — should be a standard at U of T. In my first year, I could afford to take a break from my studies for one evening. However, students whose academic goal was to pursue competitive programs, such as a Computer Science Specialist or a Psychology Major, studied knowing that despite their passion, devotion, and acceptance into U of T, they could be denied from the program they wished to study.
For students that have just completed their first year, open enrolment programs admit any applicant who has completed four full-course equivalents, while limited enrolment programs only accept students who achieve competitive grades for specific prerequisites or write a formal application.
Many limited programs should indeed require course prerequisites, since foundational course content is necessary for students to prepare themselves for the upper-year courses in these programs. However, mandating target grades — without even guaranteeing acceptance — places incredible stress on students.
The competition that results from limited enrolment programs encourages first-year students to prioritize academic success over their physical and mental well-being. The Psychology Specialist program, for instance, asks that first-year students achieve a minimum of 80 per cent in their first-year psychology course, but even this grade does not guarantee admission into the program.
When you consider the life changes a first-year university student experiences, meeting minimum grade requirements is hard enough to attain, but the added stress of competing for a spot in a competitive program is unimaginable. Due to the worry of whether they will get into their program of choice, many first-year students study so assiduously that they often sacrifice developing relationships and having other first-year experiences that are crucial to one’s mental health.
Minimum grades restricting program admission are not unreasonable, as they motivate first-year students to perform better. However, it is discouraging for students that meet these grade requirements and still face rejection. The fear of this rejection not only encourages the toxic productivity culture at U of T, but it also fosters poor mental health among students.
An academic program should have a reasonable threshold that guarantees acceptance when met, and these thresholds should be used to prepare students, not demotivate them.
U of T is recognized as one of the foremost universities in the world, but one of the most cited critiques of U of T surrounds the mental health crisis among students. In 2019, U of T students advocated for barriers on top of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology after a third student died by suicide in the building within two years. Later that year, the Computer Science Department reevaluated the admission criteria for its program due to mental health concerns for its students.
Over-restrictions on education
Higher education is inaccessible to many students for financial, physical, or mental reasons. Restricting programs contributes to the inaccessibility of education and suggests that only the highest achievers deserve to pursue their fields of interest. It is discouraging that the program of study (POSt) system at U of T can deny dedicated students who have been admitted into U of T and who are prepared to spend thousands of dollars on a degree.
I imagine most departments would argue that rejection is normal, and that students rejected from their first choice of programs are underqualified, but these beliefs don’t belong at an academic institution. It goes without saying that every student at U of T is working hard to stay here; after all, one couldn’t be at U of T without passion, dedication, and intelligence. If an admitted student at U of T is prepared to learn, I believe U of T is doing a disservice in denying them that opportunity.
Sarah Stern is a third-year student majoring in English and European affairs at Victoria College.