As a recent graduate, I am forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences that university brought to me. I am even more grateful for the opportunity to even pursue post-secondary, since education in North America is regarded as a luxury. However, there were many moments and periods of time where I doubted the value of my academic career, and to be honest, still do. It’s hard not to feel jaded when an individual’s love for learning and intellectual challenges are shrouded in bureaucracy, politics, and outdated elitist structures — all things I will touch on later in this article.
I doubt I will be able to touch on everything I hate, merely because I’m only human and will most likely forget something, but I think it’s important to be critical and reflective about our positions whether that be in a professional, personal or academic setting.
Cost of Tuition and Financial Barriers
You ever just look at your tuition price and think “what the hell am I paying for?” You see a bunch of fees for amenities and facilities you’ve never even heard of, but more importantly, you realize the price of a full-time course load is insanely high. That’s because it is.
According to Statistics Canada, undergraduate tuition for a standard full-time course load was $4,400 in 2006/2007. The preliminary numbers for the 2020/2021 price is $6,580. This is just an average among all fields of study, however, if we take a look at law, for example, the tuition price jumped from $7,155 to $12,813 between 2006–2020.
I’m rubbish at math but that’s a significant increase from tuition prices 15 years ago. And it’s expected to rise even more. Furthermore, this is a Canadian example, in the States, I’m sure that the increase is even greater since the average tuition price for the year at a 4-year program at a public institution in 2006/2007 was $13,433 vs. in 2017/2018 is $20,050.
The cost of tuition breeds a more dangerous issue. Financial barriers to higher education are so prevalent. We encourage our younger generations to pursue post-secondary to better their financial situations but we are also asking them to make significant sacrifices to their own financial security in order to do so, such as taking out student loans. Student loans that will take our whole lives paying off. For some, the cost of higher education is too high and individuals who have great potential to succeed in this environment are shut out because of monetary reasons. Our education systems leave many talented and bright individuals behind.
So let’s say you are a privileged individual who comes from a family who can afford higher education, a student that received scholarships to attend university or someone who took the risk and used student loans to finance your education. Whichever category you fall under, or maybe even none of the above, you have in some capacity struggled with mental health.
This manifests differently based on your socioeconomic, racial, and personal backgrounds, but the pressure to perform to a certain standard is increasing in academia due to competition, access to job opportunities, and purely for the sheer amount of work it takes to keep up.
For me personally, I struggled with mental health throughout all of my undergrad and it almost cost me my life. As a first-generation university student, I also struggled with imposter syndrome constantly because I felt like I didn’t belong and I wasn’t good enough for academia. I put so much pressure on myself to achieve good grades while also juggling extracurriculars and work that I would burn out multiple times a year.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for the majority of students. Combined with other barriers, such as finances, there is sometimes very little resources to address the mental health of students. The majority of individuals who are able to access services such as counseling or therapy, it is often only for those who have the finances to pay for it. Not always, but the majority of the time that tends to be the case.
Lack of Diversity
My alma mater is considered to be the most international university in Canada, a country that is known for its multiculturalism. Even though my peers came from all diverse backgrounds (which I am thankful for), I often questioned whether that was the case for faculty.
I studied at UBC for five years in international relations and business management. Throughout all my five years I did not have a single Black professor or Indigenous professor. To be honest, I had very few professors who were People of Colour in general. All of my professors in my business courses were caucasian men with the exception of one white woman. This is not surprising though.
According to a study done by Universities Canada, only 1% of full-time faculty held positions are Indigenous. Only 22% of full-time faculty are racialized individuals or visible minorities. The data doesn’t break it down further than that, but you can imagine. Women also only comprise 41% of faculty positions and 22% of faculty are persons with disabilities. As a woman of colour, it was disheartening to see the lack of representation and diversity in my field. It often made me think if I was in the right field of study and made me question my sense of belonging in a classroom.
Accessibility was also an issue I witnessed during university. In my second year, I was a notetaker for one of my politics courses which required me to send my notes to our Access and Diversity services for students who weren’t able to attend lectures. I remember after the first week of notetaking, I received a note from my supervisor asking if I could make my lettering larger since this individual had a difficult time reading my notes. I apologized profusely, or as much as you can over email, and asked follow-up questions such as is the font colour okay, did they need me to print out my notes instead? They assured me it was fine, however, the next week not only did I re-print the notes I had messed up but also sent several different copies with different font sizes, colours, and formattitng a note at the end asking which one matched their needs the best.
Well turns out none of them did. Or at least weren’t the most optimal option, because at the end of the term I received an email from my supervisor on behalf of the classmate I was writing notes for. It turned out that they had a lot of difficulties distinguishing colours such as red. My notes had a lot of red in them. However, they appreciated the effort I put into the notetaking and thanked me sincerely for caring. The email frustrated me because it could have been such a simple fix for me, however, our liaison, at least in my eyes, did a poor job of communicating the needs of my classmate to me and as a result, did a poor job of addressing their learning needs. I hope the process has improved since then, however, I know that persons with disabilities lack face increased barriers in order to succeed in university.
I would argue that this criticism is up there with the money critique. Primarily because academia is known for its elitist structures and way of thinking, which is a factor as to why there are so many barriers to higher education such as the ones I have already mentioned. There’s a reason why university rankings exist and aim to produce the most research. More research = more money. Research and the individuals who conduct it are placed in “ivory towers,” who are essentially untouchable. Also known as tenure positions.
However, academic elitism means more than that. It is a systemic culture that forces you to either join the status-quo or lose out on professional growth, funding, and academic opportunities that may cross your path. Academic elitism doesn’t look kindly on research that doesn’t fit the standards of Western knowledge and science. As an example, Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge are just as valuable, if not more, however, these methods of thinking are often shunned by the academic community. Academics are also guilty of gatekeeping information that could benefit people outside academic circles, by using language that is inaccessible to the average person or failing to communicate their work outside of academic conferences or a classroom setting. Although it would be a difficult up-hill battle, it’s important that we stop perpetuating elitist values and work towards equitability instead.
Everything I hate about academia is precisely why I want to continue in academia. I’ve been heavily inspired by the small shifts and changes in thinking that I have seen in my own circles as well as younger academics who, like me, have an urge to change the systems that have persisted for so long.
I hope that one day no university student will sit in a lecture hall thinking that they’ve never had a Black, Asian, Indigenous, or Queer professor. I hope that one day no university student be denied an education because of financial reasons. I hope that one day academics will recognize the importance of communication and accessibility when conducting research. Once we begin to de-construct these practices that have caused significant barriers to a myriad of groups, I believe that academia can be a true space for learning, growth, and innovation.
It’s idealistic and honestly out of reach for my generation, but we have to keep trying.