Reviewing ‘The Ivory Tower’ documentary

The 2014 documentary ‘The Ivory Tower’ reveals worrying trends in higher education across North America.

March 24 2016
Suzzallo library at the University of Washington in Seattle

I’m a bit late to the party for watching the 2014 documentary The Ivory Tower, on higher education, but the documentary itself is only becoming more and more relevant. As a fourth-year student getting ready for the transition from post-secondary education to the “real world”, it’s no news for me to hear about rising tuition costs or the pre-graduation anxiety felt over whether what we’ve learned during the academic grind will make us competitive in the job market. On many students’ minds is also the question of repaying the debt accrued in our race for credentials. Let’s face it — we’re no strangers to money problems.

What did come as a surprise was realising how rarely I and many other students tend to reflect on and take a critical look at the education system, at what exactly we are paying for, and what our universities are and aren’t doing to help us. While the documentary focuses on analysing American institutions, the alarming relevancy of the issues and challenges faced by US students to my own post-secondary experience was not lost to me.

One of the biggest challenges facing Canadian students in higher education is skyrocketing tuition costs, which are still unremittingly increasing. You would think this would correspond with an increase in the quality of our higher education – yet more people than ever are earning their post-secondary diplomas and for them they receive $50,000 in debt and a job flipping burgers, waiting tables or cleaning toilets. So where is all the money going?

As documentaries such as The Ivory Tower suggest, for post-secondary institutions, the mission to educate young people is today constantly in competition with the institution’s pursuit of prestige, which is indicated by a higher ranking, which can allow the institution to expand its market and, thereby, increase student tuition fees. In short, post-secondary institutions have more priorities on their mind than young people’s education and, unfortunately, it is far too easy for growing higher education institutions to become more like businesses treating students as consumers and education as a good.

The budgets of many Canadian universities have also been scrutinised. Gradually, we can see the costs for university administration increasing over time. At many Canadian universities, the number of deans, associate deans, vice-provosts, assistant vice-provosts and so on has increased by 25 per cent or more in the past decade. Their salaries have as well. The University of Alberta, for example, as featured in CBC News, was reported in 2010 to be compensating its president with nearly C$1 million each year. In the same article, it is revealed that the University of Guelph’s president also had a budget of C$50,000 for speech-writing. Public funding has only decreased in response to rising university spending, and so we find that the costs of this administrative expansion at post-secondary schools are falling on the shoulders of students through rising tuition costs, which now cover 51 per cent of post-secondary schools’ operating budgets.

It is argued that education is already taking a back seat at our post-secondary schools. Many students of Canadian universities and colleges are familiar with the course evaluations performed at the end of each course, which is a survey of questions used to assess a professor’s teaching. This is often the primary assessment performed by institutions to evaluate a professor’s teaching abilities. Beyond this, there is rarely any other measure used to assess a professor’s teaching. I hear more often in my weekly emails about faculty awarded at my university for research productivity than about a professor who is commended for being an excellent teacher.

Education is an investment in the future of any society, so it doesn’t make sense that our system is making it harder and harder for people to gain access to higher learning. If anything, higher education seems to be falling in priority in our society, when our commitment to furthering the quality of higher education should be increasing. When it comes to the challenges facing higher education and the barriers faced by students, the onus lies on young people to take a stand and make the call for change to be made in the higher education sector. 

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