Opening the doors of academe – comment – Opening the doors of academe
May 12, 2008. Carol Goar

Never would she darken a classroom door again, Valerie Ashford vowed, when she finished high school. She had always been a below-average student, to the frustration of her parents and teachers. “I was education-averse from the get-go.”

She kept her vow for 13 years. By then, Ashford was a single mother living on welfare.

Gingerly, she stuck a foot across the university threshold, taking a correspondence course in effective writing at Queen’s. She did well.

She needed three more correspondence courses to build up enough confidence to take the “terrifying plunge” into an undergraduate degree program.

Once in the door, she thrived. Within a few months, Ashford will have a PhD in education. She already has a job as research co-ordinator for the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a think-tank attached to Queen’s.

Last week, the centre released her first paper: Equitable Access to the Canadian University and Quality: Can We Have Both?

It had all the requisite statistics and academic references. But it also had something quite rare; the perspective of a low-income student, who applied to university hesitantly and struggled to come up with the money to get through.

As she looks around campus today, Ashford no longer sees single mothers seeking “to lift themselves from the prospect of a flat and bleak future.” They can’t afford to be there.

Parents who receive student aid don’t get welfare. (Mike Harris cut them off in 1995.) Families are expected to save for their kids’ education, in order to get government assistance. Low-income students – except those with outstanding marks or athletic prowess – have to take out huge loans to go to university.

No survey or pedagogical theory can convince Ashford the doors to higher education are open to all.

Nor does she agree with the way quality is defined and measured at most universities.

The conventional benchmarks – student/faculty ratios, research grants, endowments, international reputation of professors, articles published in peer-reviewed journals, entry-level grade requirements, earning power of graduates – only tell part of the story, she submits.

What is equally important, in her view, is a university’s ability to equip students from all races, classes and backgrounds to participate fully in society.

“As one of the most fundamental tools by which an ostensibly democratic culture reproduces itself, it seems clear that meaningful efforts to enlist a greater population of diversely defined students – whether in terms of race or class or any other type of marginalization – should count as a significant criterion of excellence,” she says.

Ashford’s thinking places her outside the academic mainstream and beyond the comfort zone of most legislators.

Recognizing this, she tried to make the recommendations in her study as practical and politically palatable as possible.

She suggested that:

* Canada develop a two-tiered student aid program, targeting grants at low-income students and offering loans to higher-income students.
* Ontario take the lead by offering low-income students a grant covering the first $6,000 of their tuition fees.
* Ottawa match the first $1,000 saved by low-income earners in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s new Tax Free Savings Accounts.
* The current jumble of federal and provincial student assistance programs be unified into a coherent national education financing system.

Canada’s 90 universities collaborate to create the best online courses, taught by the leading professors in the country, for students who find the prospect of classroom learning intimidating or unaffordable.

These measures won’t remove all the barriers confronting low-income students, many of which arise long before they reach the university portal. They won’t make it possible for every welfare parent with drive and dreams to earn a degree. And they won’t turn Canada’s university campuses into microcosms of the nation.

But they would open the doors of academe a little wider and improve Canada’s odds of developing the educated, adaptable workforce it needs.

Next fall, after defending her dissertation, Ashford will receive her doctorate. She’ll have two changed lives to celebrate. Her daughter is a couple of summer courses away from graduating at McGill.

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