By Elaine Laberge, April 8, 2019
Published in The Martlet
American Dream, meritocracy, rags-to-riches, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, born on third base, the (un)deserving poor — these are just a smattering of the dominant, colonial, social class narratives that have been planted in our individual and collective psyches.
To suggest that the proposed international student tuition fee hikes will further, or create, class divisions is a backward logic, and is just as much a fallacy as the dominant narratives that plague Canadian society.
Social class divides are alive and well in this country but it is a taboo subject, even on Canadian higher education landscapes. Canada, as a colonized nation, has a social class system — or rather, a social caste system. As sociologist Andrew Sayer says, social class only matters for those who do not sit in positions of privilege where they can pretend social class inequity and inequality do not exist.
The fact that any of us are on the UVic landscape gives us a position of privilege. I profoundly understand this; I come from generational poverty. I know what it is like to sacrifice everything to try to escape poverty by going to university and ending up impoverished. This is my research and life’s work.
Nevertheless, try to imagine the many domestic and international students who will never be able to travel beyond the wrong side of the social class tracks and access university in this country. It is often surprising to folks when I talk about students (and professors and administrators) from poverty being in university.
To suggest that domestic students have it easy in terms of tuition fees fails to capture not only how every single dollar impacts a student from poverty, but how they experience this poverty. This includes the fear of being kicked out if they cannot pay their tuition; losing their home if they cannot pay rent and utilities; being unable to afford books and decent food; not being able to afford fundamental health care costs not covered by the benefit plan; having to run from (or miss) classes to get to jobs; single mothers struggling to feed, clothe, and school their children; the relentless fear of being outed and ousted if their origins become known; and living in the shadows and margins of the higher education landscape because of the shame and stigma of poverty.
Reducing the conversation to domestic versus international students (and tuition fees) also fails to capture how “poverty-class” students experience being on higher educational landscapes that were not built for the likes of them (not to mention students from working-class backgrounds, from/in foster care, and first-generation).
I do not support the tuition fee hikes. I do not support students being excluded from higher education because of a lack of funding. I do not support students going into debt that they will never recover from. I do not support students being used to balance the books. I do not support higher education being inaccessible and therefore not a means to mitigate generational poverty.
I advocate for all students to have access to higher education — and particularly students from socioeconomically marginalized backgrounds.
To suggest that the proposed international tuition fee hike will create “class differences” is justifiably naïve. Until taking sociology courses, I could not understand social class nor how social class intersects with other social characteristics to include and exclude citizens in society.
The fact is, Canadian universities were built for the gendered-, racially-/ethnically-, and socioeconomically-privileged. If we want a diverse UVic community, then social class needs to become a central part of conversations.
If Canadian universities are not inclusive of students from marginalized social class backgrounds — domestic and international — then universities will continue to perpetuate privilege and not serve the public interest they have been entrusted with.
-Elaine Laberge, UVic PhD student in Sociology