Stop Right Now, Thank You Very Much

I would like to begin by clarifying why I am writing this article. I am not writing this article to discredit the hard work that has been done by dedicated students over the past several years on the subject of questioning increasing tuition. I am not writing this article in defence of the administration. I am not even writing this article to shill for any particular position on the tuition issue.

No – I am writing this article simply because I feel that the past several years at the Faculty of Law have been absolutely dominated by overly negative rhetoric surrounding the tuition issue. Even the once smutty rag upon which these words are printed has become flooded with a plethora of articles, charts, and “jokes” about how much we pay to attend this fine institution (I appreciate the irony as I write this article). Through all of this – the exposés, the town halls, and the walls covered in multi-coloured complaints – the student message remains adversarial, rather than constructive.

The dichotomy is clear: all students are completely disgusted with the current levels of tuition and any proposed increases, while all faculty members are entirely ignorant to the needs of the student body and are happy to watch us squirm under high levels of debt so long as their pocketbooks are padded. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that there is a civil war of attrition being waged at the Faculty of Law.

However, there is a large (and largely quiet) group of law students that fall somewhere in the middle of the tuition issue. You would be hard-pressed to find a law student who doesn’t agree that tuition is high. Yes, $30,000 is a large number. Still, some students actually agree with the faculty’s stance on the tuition issues.  Many contend that high tuition is something that came along with their accepting a position at U of T Law. And most would agree that the tuition debate has become an often aggressive and overwhelming force that has come to dominate student consciousness.

To be clear, I am fully in favour of a productive dialogue on the issue of tuition. No matter what, tuition and tuition increases will be a central concern for most students at any institution. We are consumers of education and we want to know what we pay for and to make informed decisions based on that knowledge. Nevertheless, I truly believe that the current discourse does more harm than good. Rather than work with elected student representatives and the faculty to create solutions to tuition woes, many students have chosen to focus instead on enforcing a culture of unproductive criticism of the administration. These students have effectively alienated a great many students who want change, but who do not wish to take such a divisive stance on the issue.

The fact that I am currently writing this anonymously is a prime example of the hostile tone this debate often takes. I am no stranger to criticism. In fact, many have called me a “lightning rod” (though this may be due to my uncanny ability to conduct electrical current and protect structures from lightning strikes). Still, on this issue, I feel as if I would be personally attacked for airing my grievances. I am afraid that the focus would turn to my family background, my career ambitions, or my personal net worth, and that these factors would be thrown back at me to discount my opinion. I see such attacks happening every day – less often in the form of outright character assaults and more prevalent through passive aggressive comments and “jokes.”

We make these “jokes” every day. We made them at Follies, we make them every month in this paper. Jokes about how long it will take us to pay off our debt; jokes about how poor we will be because of our degree from U of T; and jokes about how we are being forced to go become a corporate cog on Bay Street simply because we have to pay the bills. I don’t find these jokes funny and I don’t find them helpful. They won’t help me make a loan repayment schedule and stick to it. They don’t make me feel any better about how much debt I have; in fact, they serve as a cruel reminder.  And they certainly don’t help me to enjoy my time at this institution while I’m here.

Earlier this semester, a campaign to have students memorialize their “tuition grievances” took place outside Birge reading room. Every day, I walked by a wall where students wrote about the staggering stress of debt load, and being forced to take a job they hate to pay it off. This was an example of aggressive politics. It was meant to make the administration take notice – I understand that much. But it also made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in my own school. It was a visual manifestation of the combative tone into which this debate has degenerated: look what you’ve done to us, watch us paste your failings all over your school.  Am I somehow not part of the U of T student community because I do not feel the need to go to war with the administration?

The question of value is subjective. Is my education at U of T worth X amount of dollars more than an education at Dalhousie, or Western, or UBC? That is a personal choice. It is a choice that I made when I decided to accept my offer from U of T Law. I saw the value of a degree from this institution.  If I could have paid less for the value I imputed to this education, I would have. We need to have a productive debate about how we can make U of T more accessible in the years to come. But I think, most of all, we need to remember that the key word is productive, and stop pretending that we are not part of the problem.