Left to right: Ingle, Nadeau-Dubois, Prudham, Law, Hui and moderator Brad Evoy

Photo Credit/Zach Morgenstern

This Thursday the Arts and Science Student Union hosted a screening of Andrew Rossi’s 2014 Sundance Festival entry documentary The Ivory Tower. The film looks at the challenges the institution of the university faces in America including declining public support, rising tuition, and the development of anti-education sentiments.

The film features several schools as case studies, portraying them in relatively positive lights. Harvard is featured because of its extensive financial aid program for the very poor. Deep Springs college, an isolated, all male, free university where students play a role in designing their curriculum and work in the school’s farm community, is featured as a more of an eccentric case study.  Spelman, an all women’s college in Atlanta is featured because of its large black population, which is presented as making its students feel more empowered in society.

Other case studies in the film are depicted more negatively. Arizona State is presented as party school that focuses on recruiting rich but academically-weak students from out of state, by investing in luxury accommodations rather than quality of education. The film argues that the increased reliance of state schools on tuition leads school administrators to view entrants as customers rather than students, and thus to invest in perks like pools and rock-climbing walls rather than lowering tuition or re-thinking their schools’ academic approaches.

Online educational programs such as Udacity, are presented in the film as non-transparent entities that take money away from university educators, while failing to teach students properly. Another case study, the Thiel fellowship, is a fund that encourages students to drop out of school and be enterpreneurs a la Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. The film presents such fellowships as scams that present exceptional individuals as the rule. Furthermore, while the film acknowledges that the value of undergraduate degrees is declining, the claim that college is a bad investment is complicated by the fact that students with a degree still earn substantially more over a lifetime than students without one.

The film also features a social movement known as “Free Cooper Union.” New York City’s Cooper Union was a university was founded by philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, based on the principle that education should be free. In 2011, debt incurred by the school (in part due to the school’s decision to invest substantially in hedge funds), led new President Jamshed Barucha to call for the school to begin to charge tuition. The Free Cooper Union movement subsequently launched a two-month occupation of his office. While the movement has failed to stop the introduction of tuition, they remain active to this day.

The film was followed by a panel of speakers including UofT Faculty Association President Scott Prudham, Free Cooper Union Representatives Owen Law and Vincent Hui, Former Graduate Student Union executive and UofT General Assembly activist Ashleigh Ingle and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a leading spokesperson for CLASSE-a left wing coalition within the 2012 Quebec student strike.

Despite coming from different contexts, the speakers all recognized the themes in the documentary. On the topic of tuition, Prudham noted that it serves a “disciplinary function.” He claims to have seen a notable behavioral change in students since he began working at UofT in 2000, with students spending less time on campus. Nadeau-Dubois and Ingle echoed this point, with Nadeau-Dubois citing the example of debt stricken law students being pressured to become corporate lawyers, and Ingle arguing that debt serves as an incentive against taking the risk of trying to unionize one’s workplace.

Prudham also noted that student debt has limited the standard of education professors are allowed to aspire to, noting that instructors are sometimes encouraged to opt for textbooks over journal articles, as comprehending journal articles is seen as too much of a burden for overworked students.

The speakers also took on a few challenges to the notion that education should be free and public. One common talking point on student debt is that if the students study more “practical” subjects (ie not the humanities), they would not have to worry about the cost of their education. Ingle dismissed this claim however by arguing that she took one of the so called “good majors”, physics, and her job options still remain limited to choices like being a physics tutor.

Vicent Hui from Cooper Union challenged the notion that free education constitutes some sort of a radical experiment. He countered arguing that charging fees is in fact an experiment, noting that a number of prestigious American schools such as Stanford and Carnegie Mellon were once free.He further suggested that since student loan debt in America has now passed the trillion mark that the charging of fees should in fact be viewed as a radical experiment.

Despite being generally supportive about free education, the participants were cautious to note obstacles on that path. Prudham warned about silver bullet solutions to the educational crisis, noting that magic bullet solutions, such as the online educational presented in the documentary often turn out to be too good to be true. Nadeau-Dubois emphasized that free education has to be systematically protected through the state, and cannot just come in the form of small philanthropy-funded projects and exclusive, utopian-farm communities. Ingle added that as they stand now, universities waste money on overpaid, unnecessary administrators, taking away money that should go into funding free education.

Near the end of the panel Ingle also announced she was working towards the formation of a new national student organization in April. While not much was mentioned about the organization, it was hinted that it would vaguely resemble the structural foundations of ASSE, an organization which Nadeau-Dubois described as striking the right balance between being hierarchical and participatory.

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