This Thursday marks the kickoff for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliances’ 2009 Blue Chair campaign.
The campaign, now in its second year, was created by OUSA in order to address issues of access to post-secondary education in Ontario.
“The blue chair itself symbolizes chairs that are empty on campus because of students who have been unable to get into the post-secondary system,” Jacqueline Cole, VP-university affairs of the University Students’ Council and organizer for Western’s blue chair campaign, said.
She explained the campaign addresses issues such as financial, socioeconomic and cultural barriers preventing students from entering university as opposed to academic ones.
“So that’s why we’re talking about low-income students, First Nations students, rural and Northern students and students who are the first in their family to attend post-secondary education,” Cole said.
“One of the best indicators of whether a student will attend [college or university] is family income and background in post-secondary education.”
Yet one of the continual issues surrounding access to education is that of financing.
Last week the Educational Policy Institute published their report On the Brink: How the recession of 2009 will affect post-secondary education which, among other things, indicated the likelihood of a double-digit increase in tuition costs and supported such measures if the alternative was a decrease of per-student expenditures.
The report received condemnation from various student groups, including the Canadian Federation of Students.
Alex Usher, co-author of the report and vice-president of EPI, spoke to the issue of public perception of tuition.
“The skyrocketing costs of university ... it becomes a truism,” Usher said. “People don’t think about it anymore.”
Usher explained current borrowing rates in Canada are at an all-time low and the perception that there are less grants available is false.
“That’s not to say there aren’t people who don’t run into problems,” Usher said. “But the tone of the discussion that people have tends to be all or nothing. I don’t think there’s a great deal of discourse about targeted aid.”
Usher cited numerous examples in the past where tuition had risen in excess of 50 per cent and yet enrollment continued to rise, including recently in British Columbia and in the mid-90s in Ontario under the Mike Harris government.
Cole explained while such reports may be true, there may be more to the story.
“I don’t think we have enough information that lets us know what the effect of sticker shock is or how tuition plays into student decisions before they enter,” Cole said.
“It’s difficult for us to make assessments if a student decides when they’re 13 that tuition is too high and decide not to pursue a post-secondary career.”
One of the other problems that needed to be addressed was the perception of access to education being the same across the nation, according to Usher.
“Even before the crisis, the student debt problem in Atlantic Canada was considerably different from the rest of the country and again I think that’s one of those things people tend not to say,” Usher explained.
“[They’d] rather say ‘We’re all in this together and this is a Canadian problem’ — well, no it’s not. Student debt is about a quarter to a third higher there and starting salaries are a quarter to a third lower compared to Ontario.”
Usher explained targeting student aid geographically could deal with some of these issues.
But Cole stressed the role of the campaign as extending beyond mere finances.
“Three quarters of students decide by the time they hit age 15 whether they’ll go onto college or university, and a third decide by the time they’re nine,” Cole remarked.
“So if you’re nine years old and you’re deciding to go to university, you’re not making the decision based on what your marks are — you’re making it based on some kind of motivational reason.”