The University of Manitoba is currently in the middle of a crisis. No, it does not seem particularly like a crisis to most. There are occasional protests by irate students, mostly organized by the Student Action Network, but they go largely unnoticed by the general student population. This is because the day-to-day function of the university and the daily life of the average student is seemingly unaffected by the 4 percent cuts in the University’s operating budget. Students carry on with their existing classes, they visit University Centre, they hang out with friends, they study in the libraries, they go home.
In fact, the University’s current fundraising campaign, Front and Centre, is drawing attention away from the budget cuts to the optimism offered by 9-digit donations from the Government of Manitoba, corporations, independent donors and alumni. Each massive donation is a cause for celebration! Right?
Ignorance is not bliss
What students may not know is that they are already suffering from the cuts, and students in historically underfunded departments are affected in particular.
I don’t blame newer students for not knowing how or why they are affected by the budget cuts. How is a new first year student supposed to know that the Arts department of their choice no longer offers courses which would have been valuable additions to their eventual training as an English or History teacher? How are they to know that several departments and faculties at the university can’t afford to hire professors in vacant positions, which are crucial for the units to function optimally, and provide new perspectives and a wider scope for the education of students at the university? Newer students will not be aware of what they are missing out on because they don’t know any different. Lab equipment, office spaces, varied electives and interesting courses, supplemental instruction, and even entire programs are in jeopardy. These are not hypotheticals, just ask your professors if you want to know the extent of what is being lost and what has been cut from their teaching programs already.
Or you can do a little research yourself! I will use my department, Anthropology, as an example. You can look at the number and variety of courses offered in Fall 2011, the year I started my BA: approximately 50 courses were offered (not including multiple sections and reading courses). This term, Fall 2015, sees an offering of approx. 25, or half as many courses. Of course, other factors abound such as the removal of a couple of courses from the curricula (for the improvement and consolidation of courses in the program in general), but such a drastic reduction in course offerings speaks to the pressure put on individual departments to reduce costs. Check out the courses in your department and compare them yourself on the registration system, chances are the same is happening there as well.
So, why does this matter?
In my experience, most students in their early years are concerned with checking required boxes in the pursuit of degrees, which is important too, but it sometimes ignores or comes at the expense of the pursuit of knowledge itself. And who can blame them? In preparing for University, students in high school are given handy lists with courses they need to complete, the forms they need to fill out, and the letters they need next to their name in order to become a doctor, a dentist, an engineer, a teacher etc. Your goal is to get to the finish line where validation by professional degree awaits. But at what cost? Well, tuition fees and student debt, of course. But, I fear that this assembly line model of “education” also results in turning some once optimistic students into automatons. Socrates said that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” but you wouldn’t know that if you stepped into a traditional University today.
Of course, this romantic Socratic notion of education has not disappeared altogether. Many students love to learn, especially when they find the right courses, programs, and/or professors. Others have “light-bulb” moments which inspire them to follow the road less traveled (for good reason) to grad school and beyond. This is what happened to me. One anthropology course, and an adjunct professor in particular, inspired me to study and practice anthropology as a career. Specifically, unique elective seminar courses which are no longer offered, taught by an instructor no longer in the department, changed the course of my life. With the current budget cuts and economic climate at the University, I do not think those courses would have been offered this year (and, as far as I know, they are not). And, unsurprisingly, that instructor left for greener pastures a couple of years ago, and I am glad they did because the Faculty would not have been able to hire them in a full-time position today anyway.
So, in essence, I would not have discovered my passion for anthropology and research, and the personal success I’ve experienced because of it, had these cuts taken place a couple of years earlier. I shudder at the thought.
Rising costs should not result in sinking futures
There are a lot of vitriolic sentiments regarding the administration of the U of M floating around, but I believe that the administration is generally well-intentioned. Perhaps I am too much of an optimist? What I do know is that Universities everywhere have to contend with rising costs in order to improve campuses and programs, and to remain competitive, which results in extensive administrative, construction and maintenance expenses. New facilities cost a lot of money and, over the years, the appearance and functioning of the university has improved dramatically, especially since I started school many years ago. So, I certainly see the benefits of these investments. However, there are also administrative and infrastructural expenses and marketing redundancies which the university could certainly do without. The Front and Centrecampaign promises to prioritize indigenous achievement and education, graduate student support, research, student support, student learning spaces, along with student experience and engagement. These are all great initiatives and strategic priorities. However, how budgets will be allocated to each strategic priority is, as yet, unclear. Will a proportional amount be allocated to both the building of vast, new facilities and student support services? I’m not so sure.
It is my hope that, going forward, the administration of the University of Manitoba will ensure that the sanctity of education, the pursuit of knowledge, and an environment that nurtures academic freedom and creativity for all faculties and departments, is first priority in budget allocations. After all, how does our institution expect to produce visionary students if much of their view is obscured due to lack of resources? How does one become a creator if they have nothing to create with? How do I blaze a trail if I can’t move beyond the limits imposed by austerity? Therefore, what should be Front and Centre, what needs to come first, is the quality of the education and, consequently, the future of the students at the University of Manitoba.