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By Marco Ursi

‘You know when you get your tooth pulled and they stick the needle in to freeze your mouth?

University is the process of putting the needle in for four years,” James Morfea says inside Timothy’s coffee shop at Bay and College.

In an attempt to find out what the university experience means for our generation, I conducted a series of interviews with friends past and present who, like me, have spent the past few years feeding our minds inside institutions of higher learning. James, a fourth-year industrial engineering student at the University of Toronto and a friend since junior kindergarten, was the first brain I picked.

Canadian universities are packed with more brains than ever. According to Statistics Canada, 990,400 students were enrolled at campuses across the country in 2003. In that same year of the proverbial double cohort in Ontario, undergraduate enrolment went up by 50,000, the third straight, year-to-year record enrolment increase.

Most economists will tell you that more graduates are a good thing. A degree means credentials, and credentials mean money. We must invest in our universities, they say, because otherwise the Americans, Europeans and Japanese will gain a competitive advantage. The same philosophy applies at the micro level. Students are taught that higher education is the best path to success, and it’s true that without a university education, the prospects for a good paying job slim considerably.

But before dividends can be paid, an investment is necessary — an investment more costly than ever. Per student government funding is down 20 per cent from 1980. Tuition fees have more than doubled since 1993 and, as Premier Dalton McGuinty made clear this winter, that rising wave won’t be crashing any time soon.

The extra money we’re pouring into schools is paying for many things, but not always for what you’d expect — while student enrolment between 1987 and 2003 rose 46 per cent, full-time faculty numbers were up only 7 per cent. But never mind all that. The university degree is the key to your future. It will teach you the skills you need to make your contribution to the Canadian workforce. It’s an investment that’s well worth it. Well, maybe.

As Jane Jacobs writes in her 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, a degree “is not a passport to a job, as na?ve graduates sometimes suppose. It is more basic and necessary: a passport to consideration for a job.” Jacobs, like many contemporary authors and scholars, is far more skeptical about what university has become — a place where “edubusiness” has replaced education, a place where degrees are bought and sold like double-doubles, a place that values credentialism over critical thinking. In an increasingly corporatized world, where the almighty dollar is honoured above all else, the university may be one of the last vestiges for the old-world ideals of self-examination passion, and virtue.

But the university, they say, is losing its soul. University sucked the soul out of James Morfea for four years. He’s currently on a paid internship at the electronics manufacturing company Celestica, and still has to return to school next year to finish his degree. “I want done with it,” he says. “I don’t want to go back.” School was a “means to an end” for him and when I ask if he thinks his view is representative of engineering students, he responds, “No one would say they loved it. They’d have to be sick to say that. They’re happy to get that ring and get out of there.” But despite his experience, Morfea says he’d do it all over again. “That degree holds weight. People respect you for it even though they don’t know what it’s all about.”

Scholars have debated about the purpose of university, according to York University’s dean of education, Paul Axelrod. The influential Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman, in his seminal 1852 work The Idea of a University, wrote: “It is the education which gives a (person) a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”

Egerton Ryerson, Ontario’s superintendent of education in the mid-1800s, believed a university should provide “mental discipline fundamentally rooted in social memory,” while Daniel Wilson, University of Toronto president in the late 1800s argued that a university should be “fitting men for the actual business of life.” In his 2004 book The University, The Marketplace, and The Trials of Liberal Education, Axelrod traces the roots of the European university to ancient Greece, when the rise of democracy around the 5th century BCE influenced the growth of intellectual life.

Degree-granting institutions began to pop up around the cities of Europe during the late Middle Ages, fostered by popes across the Mediterranean competing for followers. In the 15th century, they became known as universities, Latin for “a guild” or “a union of scholars.” Students were awarded a bachelor of arts degree upon completion of their studies and could then further pursue a master’s or doctor’s degree in medicine, law or theology.

With the Renaissance came a new divide in universities, this time along the lines of religion versus critical inquiry. Then the Enlightenment brought scientific exploration, rationality, skepticism and the idea of progress into universities, which led to the rise of state-funded, nondenominational schools in Europe and North America. The “elective system,” which allowed students to select their own courses and specialize in specific eras, was established by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot in the 1870s.

Eliot’s greatest critic was Princeton President James McCosh, who argued that professional training and specialized research destroyed what he felt was the fundamental purpose of higher education: the development of virtue and character. These two streams of thought remain at odds with each other to this very day. The emergence of industrial capitalism in the 20th century (mostly) put an end to the religion versus critical inquiry debate — universities became more interested in preparing men to work in private corporations, public service, and schools than in creating good Christian soldiers.

New subjects such as sociology, psychology, politics, and English were added to the curriculum and the idea of a “major” surfaced. Women were finally allowed to enter universities, although they were almost always encouraged to study the fine arts or humanities, and not the sciences, social sciences, or professional fields like medicine or law.

The Second World War highlighted a growing disconnect in universities between the sciences and the arts, as the need for medicine and engineering skills outweighed the need for critical inquiry and well-rounded individuals in a time of crisis. After the war, human capital became the most important resource for Western democracies. Universities grew to never-before-seen sizes from the 1950s to 1970s, filling with post-war baby boom children, and governments in North America and Europe invested heavily in them.

In 1971, the Canadian government paid for 76 per cent of university costs nationwide, while private donations made up another 10 per cent and tuition fees covered the rest. But this began to change in the 1980s, as neoconservatism, the economic strain of thought that argues for minimal government spending, came to prominence.

Debt-ridden governments were looking to trim their budgets. Provincial spending on education, accounting for inflation, fell 12 per cent between 1992 and 2000. As a result, universities came to rely increasingly on donations and partnerships with private corporations which, in turn, were more interested in investing in universities that emphasized practical learning.

A 1999 report of the Ontario Job and Investment Board commissioned by Mike Harris’s Conservative government warned: “Educational institutions and providers need to meet the needs and expectations of all their clients…. To achieve these goals, they should expand their partnerships with one another and with business.”

By 2001, the federal government had created a “relevance screening” process that gave a committee of academics, government officials and “senior business representatives” the power to oversee the funds ($100 million over five years) allocated to universities through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s “New Economy” research initiative. Its four main principles of learning? Labour market and skills implications of population aging, employer-supported training, adjustments in markets for skilled workers, and international mobility of skilled workers.

In a 1997 Forbes magazine article, the late management guru Peter Drucker prophesized: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive,” adding in a later article, “The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast.” And yet university campuses only seem to be expanding and growing.

But what if we take Drucker’s words in a different way? What if by distance learning, Drucker meant not co-op and correspondence courses, but an increasing sense of detachment? What if Drucker was speaking not so much about the crumbling of physical ivory towers, but of symbolic ones? And what if, as much as governments and big business, students are the ones to blame?

“I know a girl in my history class who’s majoring in human resources. How is that a fucking major?” asks Anthony Marchetti, sitting outside of Stedman Lecture Hall in the concrete maze that is York University, a maze that Marchetti, a final-year history major who begins a three-year term at Queens law school in September, is only too happy to leave.

Apathy, he says, is rampant. He recounts an incident from last year when a small group of students protesting the second inauguration outside Van Hall were beat up by police officers. “Nobody cared,” he says. “They all felt the students deserved it. They said ‘It disturbs classes.’ That’s the point!” What’s left him bitter is not the quality of his professors or the courses he studied, but what he sees as an overemphasis on practicality amongst fellow scholars.

“The attitude of so many students is: ‘When am I ever going to use this again?'” Elvedin Terzic faced similar questions.

His parents, Bosnian refugees who immigrated to Canada in 1989, pressured him to study a subject directly connected to a career. “My parents had the idea that you go to university to make something better of yourself,” he tells me in the very student-like bedroom he rents in the Annex. “They had struggled. And they wanted me to do something that would make my life easier than theirs had been. The way to do that was to make money. And the way to make money was to have a lucrative career.”

Terzic was accepted into the computer science program at the University of Toronto four years ago, but after a year in the program, he realized he’d made a mistake. An introductory philosophy course sparked his interest and Terzic decided to shift directions. When he told his parents about the decision, they “weren’t terribly upset and they weren’t ecstatic,” but he has no regrets about his decision. “Philosophy asked the questions I was asking myself,” he says. “It’s helped me develop an appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge.”

And yet this pursuit too often gets crowded out in today’s universities by students looking to pad their resumes and “network.” As Peter Emberley, political science professor at Carleton University, notes in Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada’s Universities, today’s students expect their schools to provide them with real world skills, jobs and competitive advantage. And in a way, this is what universities have always provided: a place to nurture tomorrow’s leaders.

But for students like Elisa Tramonte, who wants to get into teacher’s college next year, university left little time for nurturing. An English major at York, Tramonte says university fell way short of her expectations. “I expected university to be a lot more exciting, to open more doors and opportunities.” School, goes the old clich?, is what you make of it. But for many students looking ahead toward post- post-secondary careers, there’s often little time to make anything of it.

Tramonte spent most of her free time volunteering outside of school to ensure she’d have enough hours to make the teacher’s college cut. Add to that being a part of a university that clearly undervalues humanities majors (York invested over $50-billion in a new building for the Shulich School of Business while Tramonte’s classes most often took place in Ross hall, the oldest and most run-down building on campus) and you’re left with a university experience that did little in the way of inspiring.

“The years passed,” she says. “You did some work and you move on.” I meet Ylenia Montagner at the Eaton Centre where she’s spent the late part of the morning shopping after a cancelled class. When we sit down for a coffee, I explain to her what my piece is about and she listens with interest.

Studying 3rd year early childhood education here at Ryerson, a program narrowly focused on preparing its graduates for careers in childcare and teaching, I imagined Montagner would be a perfect case study to illustrate the points made by those arguing against the career-oriented university model. I imagined wrong. Montagner always had an interest in writing and drama.

So when I ask about her choosing Ryerson instead of a more arts-based education, she says, frankly, “I never thought university was just for fun. It was a place to go and get a job.” She tells me that she raves about Rye to her friends because of its practical, career-oriented curriculum. She feels well-prepared to go out in the field upon completion of her degree, and perhaps more importantly, she’s excited about it, an excitement she attributes to the program and its attendant co-op placements.

For its 2004 university issue, Maclean’s surveyed 12,374 graduates from 1999 to 2001. When asked if the university experience was of significant benefit to their lives today, 77 per cent responded “yes.” When taking into account those who answered “probably yes,” the number is a whopping 95 per cent. But other numbers told a different story.

Just over half were happy with the level of instruction they received and only 38 per cent were positive about the opportunity for and quality of extracurricular activities. When asked about their entire educational experience, 60 per cent of the respondents said they were satisfied. In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs argues that every civilization has a purpose and that for North Americans, that purpose is mass employment.

She notes that this can be seen in everything, from corporations and governments ignoring serious environmental issues because it will cost jobs, to the panicked hysteria of fourth-year students as they compete and scramble for summer internships. Watching passersby in front of Egerton Ryerson’s statue in the middle of campus, I imagine the nervous feeling building inside each student’s stomach. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced many times before, but this year it’s different.

The last weeks of school always remind me of the first ones. The same feelings of anxiety and anticipation fill the air and no one is quite sure how to dress. Like every student in their final year, my stress comes not from essays unfinished and exams upcoming but from an even scarier proposition — next September I won’t be coming back to school. Next September, I need to have a job. Ryerson has no doubt prepared me for work in the field of journalism.

When I first discussed this story with the editors, it was made clear that journalism students would not be the optimal subjects for interviewing. Journalism students are an “anomaly.” Ryerson’s journalism school isn’t perfect. Not even close. There were many times over the last four years, usually during one of Arne Kislenko’s history lectures, when I regretted choosing such a career-oriented university path. But I’m resolved with my decision now.

Because even though we spent many hours working on practical matters such as how to write a lead sentence or how to get a good anecdote, above everything else, my university education has given me an unquenchable curiosity about the world.

If anything, that is what every university program should aim to offer.

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