A number of things have gone down and up in higher education over the past 10 years. Public funding for education has declined in much of the world. Many universities have responded by becoming ranking-obsessed and that means spending on amenities have gone up. The number of students using food banks in wealthy countries, including Canada, has gone up too. Concerned students clamor to figure how to support their peers, and the result has been that almost all universities in Canada have a campus food-bank. Students are one of the fastest growing groups of food bank users. A study in Australia found the university students they surveyed were twice as likely to suffer food insecurity than the general population.
Homelessness has also gone up in some jurisdictions. A report in the United States determined at least 58,000 college students in the U.S. are homeless — and that this is a conservative estimate. There are more students living in precarious housing situations. Many of these students can’t afford to live in campus housing and with part-time jobs here and there to make ends meet they don’t have time to use the extra amenities. Students struggling to pay the rent, eat and cope with increasing tuition fees are in greater debt than my generation could have imagined.
I like the amenities on my own campus and the others I visit for conferences. I understand spending money on amenities connects to the desire for universities to do well in rankings. I also am not stating we should have campus bare of comfortable spaces. However, we should be asking what makes for a good and worthwhile education?
Is it possible to have an excellent university that is inequitable? Can a university be excellent if student health suffers as they juggle multiple jobs while at the same time decisions are made to build fancy amenities?
Most university mission statement claim they are places of free thought, and that they are committed to democracy. How can we have excellent universities in a democratic and pluralistic society without equity? Resource allocation decisions are about our values and beliefs about who has a right to attend and be supported at a university. It is time to bring more of the 99 percent into the decision-making, particularly the increasing number of people that cannot afford to attend the institutions that their community support including through tax dollars, land and a growing number of low paid sessional faculty and debt ridden students.