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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

No money... no study

We've talked about sex on this blog. Now is the time to tackle yet another taboo: politics. Let's also throw in the money topic, for good measure.

More specifically, let's talk about the politics and economics surrounding higher education and academia (and let's top it off with medical research).

For those who might not be aware of it, students have been on strike for a few weeks now in Quebec. They are opposing a rise in tuition fees.

For some onlookers, this is absurd. First of all, because tuition in Quebec is very affordable when you compare it to tuition in other provinces.

Second, because according to onlookers, the shortfall (or money lost) from freezing tuition fees would have to be compensated by digging into taxpayers' pockets, some of which are not rolling in money, as we all know. Hence the argument stating that poor taxpayers would have to finance students who will eventually make much more money than them. 

Contradictory to this argument is the one that states that a number degree holders never actually use their diploma, which implies that by financing their tuition, we, as a society, are wasting money.

I will not go into the details of why I disagree with those arguments. There is a lot to be read on the topic and I am confident that readers will get informed before forging an opinion.

For now, let's just remind ourselves that 1) income tax is much higher in Quebec; 2) degree holders who end up as cashiers are not that numerous, and that most degree holders will in fact get "good jobs", become substantial contributors to income tax (more so than very low income citizens, who pay much less taxes), and therefore will be the ones helping pay for other people's tuition. I will allow this is a simplistic explanation, but again: if you want to forge an opinion, read on the topic. Get the real numbers. Inform yourself. Being informed is not a right. It's a responsibility. 

As is being open-minded. The fact that other provinces/countries citizens pay more for their higher education does not mean Quebec-ers should. Especially when you look at this from the following point of view: education is supposed to be free. We already pay taxes towards that. What's next? We'll have to give money directly to the doctor and to the guy who plows the snow on the street, just because the taxes we pay don't seem to be enough anymore? And all the while huge, super-profit companies get taxes exemptions? Come on. Agree or not with the strike, but do see the underlying society debate. It is a huge one.

As for not using their diploma... not only does a university degree help people get a better job, I strongly believe it is useful in many other spheres of life. I am convinced that my university degrees make me a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend, a better communicator (granted, my major was Psychology and my Master's was in Literature and Writing). More importantly, my university degrees made me a better citizen... and a better voter, for that matter, by reinforcing my critical mind and intellectual curiosity.

But let's put that in parentheses.

What I want to question here is the whole focus on money.

My friend P, who happens to be an economics teacher, shared this link to an enlightening article (in French) in Le Devoir, by Diane Lamoureux, professor of politics at Université Laval. This article sheds new light on the reasons underlying an opposition to higher tuition fees.

As Lamoureux underlines it, the main point is not to try and evaluate if students can actually afford higher tuition fees, and to try and determine who should help them pay if it's too expensive. The point is to put tuition fees in a wider context.

More specifically, the question should be: is university a profit-seeking business? Do we mostly want to hear words such as profitability, cost-effectiveness and user pays principle from the mouths of university administrators? Because lately, that's what it looks and sounds like. Someone is putting money in their pockets right now... and it's not the students.

I do not have a student in my family or circle of close friends at the moment, but I happen to share my life with a university professor/researcher. And let me tell you that the whole "Is academia a profit-seeking business" question resonates a lot under our roof these days.

Between questionable government priorities, puzzling university administrators' decisions and the lack of accessibility to research funds (not only in humanities but also in science), it is legitimate to wonder what the purpose of university has become. Does university exist to offer a strong intellectual training and make progress in research, or does it have the mandate to make money? It is not so clear anymore. Not clear at all. If anything, the evidence seems to favor the latter.

This obviously has huge implications. Because when money goes to the wrong places, and when money is taken from the wrong places, it means that the areas where money is truly needed are going to be begging for crumbs.

For medical researchers in particular, no money also means no discovery... and who says no discovery says no remedy!

Or, to be more accurate... incomplete discoveries... and dangerous remedies.

Is it normal that medical researchers have such a hard time obtaining the funds they need to do what they were hired for, namely, research? OK, some money does go to medical research. But from what I understand, right now, emphasis is put on creating new drugs quickly, very quickly. Too quickly. With all the dangerous side effects it implies. But who cares? It is lucrative!

Researchers who study the fundamentals in order to fully understand the human body's underlying mechanisms and therefore benefit generations to come with 1) useful information 2) well-designed drugs/therapies 3) ways to prevent disease altogether... those researchers only get the leftovers. Meanwhile, you see drugs like Vioxx appear in pharmacies... only to disappear later, but not without killing a few people in their path. And this is where, as a society, we have decided to invest?

And now that pharmaceutical companies are in an increasingly shaky state, guess who will be pressured into creating more marketable drugs, fast, faster, fastest?

You got it: universities!

Students and faculty members are facing a similar problem: in today's context, the emphasis that should be put on studying and learning is put on creating (or becoming) sellable merchandise. On generating big bucks. Is that the role we want academia to play?

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