Image by Jackie Wong

Dr. Elvin Wyly’s Teach-In Speech: “You are students, not $tudent$”

In the last thirty years, higher education has been transformed.  While education has been promoted and celebrated as the source of innovation and advances in “human capital,” the public missions of education have slowly been abandoned and replaced with the cold calculus of supply and demand.  Every year brings a few more changes that make it harder to see what a university is really all about:  a space of thought, inquiry, and exploration that is freed and protected from the market processes that shape everything in the rest of society.  If education is to remain true to its mission — a mission of genuine public education — it must remain universally open and accessible.

We will be told that a ten percent increase on international students still makes UBC a bargain compared to competitor institutions.  We will be told that a twenty-percent increase for residence hall contracts is reasonable compared to the housing market in Vancouver.  These points are distractions.  What matters is that more and more activities at UBC are assigned prices, and evaluated according to the logic of market demand and market competition.  This leads everyone to see themselves differently.  Professors begin to see themselves as entrepreneurs, bargaining for the best salaries they can get.  Administrators look at some students as lucrative sources of revenue, while they look at others as costs.  Schools, departments, and majors compete with one another, and those “in demand” start charging more.  And all of these changes make it harder for students to see themselves as students.

Instead, students are encouraged to think of themselves as customers, paying for just another commodity.  This seems so natural, because everything outside the university is now a commodity with a price attached.  But this is a threat to the spirit of education in a university.  Assigning prices to different aspects of the educational experience just takes us down a road of endless and divisive fights.  Why are some students paying more than others?  Whose extra fees are “subsidizing” the lower costs paid by others?  As soon as these questions are asked, students can no longer see themselves as students.  Instead, the conversation becomes a divisive struggle over the inequalities of opportunity and of history that shape the world outside the university.  As those inequalities widen, it becomes ever more difficult for students to see their common fate on the precipice of an uncertain, unequal world.  It becomes more difficult for students to think differently — even if it’s only for the short time they spend at a university.

Protect the opportunity to think differently.  Protect your solidarity.  Do not allow the details of cost comparisons, market benchmarks, and competitive positions to distract you.  Do not allow detailed proposals for how to spread the costs divide you.  While you are here, you are all students, not customers.  You are creators, collaborators, and citizens.  You are not competitors or commodities.

You are students, not $tudents$.

And you are at a place of mind, not a place of money.

Dr. Elvin Wyly is an Associate Professor in the UBC Department of Geography and the Chair of the Urban Studies program.