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Market modifiers punish students

By Kate Jacobson, September 11 2014 —

Market modifiers are a bad idea based off an even worse idea. For those who haven’t heard of them, market modifiers are degree specific tuition increases tied to the perceived market value of certain degrees. This means that if you’re in commerce, you pay more money per course than a student studying science.

Market modifiers tell students that some fields of study are more important and worthwhile than others. This means we’re fiscally punishing students for choosing to study programs that we supposedly value more. The idea that some degrees are better than others is an inherently poor message to send students. Sure, some degrees will provide you with more job security. Studying the philosophy of science might not land you a well paying job straight out of school in the way that an engineering degree does.

But we need people to study all disciplines in order to have a cohesive and forward moving society. We need both students that can tell you about ancient Rome and students that can manage supply chains. There’s more market value in the latter, but university is about both learning and getting a job. Employability is important, but so is knowledge for its own sake.

Market modifiers are a message to students from our government and our school. It’s a message that belittles the choices students have made by telling them that their studies have no value. At least arts students can look on the bright side — the government won’t ever put market modifiers on our tuition because our degrees are perceived to have little value.

Recently, student lobby group Council for Alberta University Students (CAUS) released documents showing how that the provincial government plans to reopen the submission process for post-secondary institutions to apply for market modifiers. The Schulich School of Engineering applied for a market modifier of around $200 four years ago, but it was turned down.

Fees are often raised under the auspices of improving the quality of programs. While the quality of programs is obviously important, so is their accessibility. Raising tuition on certain programs creates a barrier to access. Market modifiers reinforce class divisions and discourage ambitious students. Public education should be for everyone. Even our current system has a long way to go before that’s a reality.

But the solution isn’t to differentiate supposedly more valuable programs with added fees. That’s financially punishing people who choose to pursue degrees that our society has spent a lot of time insisting are the best and most viable options.

Spokesperson for minister of advanced education John Muir insisted that post-secondary institutions submitting applications for market modifiers do so “with a strong business case.” While that sounds reasonable, universities aren’t businesses and shouldn’t be run like they are.

Universities are public institutions. They’re not supposed to turn a profit, they’re supposed to educate the public. This isn’t an argument for fiscal irresponsibility, but we need to remember that universities are not corporations. Market modifiers are a corporate solution to the problems faced by the university. They aren’t appropriate in the context of public education. Universities shouldn’t be making decisions with a business framework in mind.

Universities should be asking themselves if their decisions benefit students or faculty or research. Of course, these decisions need to be fiscally responsible. But there’s a lot of room between living within your means and trying to run a public institution like a business.

If the provincial government is honestly concerned that people in fields like business and engineering get so much extra value out of their degrees that a monetary adjustment is necessary, perhaps they could look at taxing the people and the corporations that actually make that money.

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