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Accessible education threatened

by Archives February 6, 2002

This is not a good time for social services, particularly public education.
Teachers in British Columbia and the B.C. government are staring each other down in a dispute over cost cutting measures. Alberta teachers have just begun the largest strike ever to hit that province. Ontario’s teachers have fought with Mike Harris’ Tories over re-certification and teacher testing. Former Quebec education minister Fran_ois Legault didn’t believe that teachers are full-time employees. Neither might his successor, Sylvain Simard, who previously headed the treasury board.
The problems aren’t just on the teaching end of things: low tuition is at risk of vanishing into the ether. Some universities in Ontario are pondering whether to raise tuition rates to Ivy League school levels. Earlier in January, Legault hinted at a hike in university tuition rates in Quebec.
These issues only represent a fraction of the challenges that face the education system in Canada. It’s arguable that these threats undermine one of its most basic foundations: accessibility.
Having fewer teachers means larger classes and less individual attention. Some students will find it more difficult to get through school. Others may simply fall through the cracks and drop out, but it’s more efficient, we’re told.
This is an incredible scenario as we hear stories about how some companies are lacking skilled labour and are forced to recruit workers from abroad, even though they would like to hire workers from within the country.
Increasing tuition fees can be as great a barrier to accessible education – if not greater – as the lack of teachers is. Many students – including me – would not be in school if tuition fees were any higher. I would not want to leave university tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
But it is more than just an obstruction for students to choose the field of study or career of their dreams: it also creates a class division that hasn’t really existed here. Almost universal education in Quebec means almost anybody can attend if they want. Education is a unifying factor in society. Now, people are free to choose to go to university or not. There is no discrimination based on the fact you can’t afford to attend school. Jacking up fees, however, will introduce a notion of educational prestige that separates students into haves and have-nots. This creates a social and economic rift that can destabilize society, making life even more miserable for those who are already dispossessed.
Governments across Canada must realize they have a role in ensuring that all Canadians have equal access to the education – and the career – of their choice. Today’s perceived economies for governments can eventually mean lost education and job opportunities for all young people, leading to increased spending by governments on other social measures like employment insurance, job re-training or even welfare.
All social services are coming under intense fire from all governments. It’s time students lead the way to keep all our governments accountable to the real needs of the people.

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