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Many conflicts arise out of misunderstandings over what exactly is university

Dear Editor, 

As I wrap up my undergraduate program at a large Canadian university, I would be hard-pressed to give you a coherent answer to an admittedly straightforward question.

What is university?

Popular depictions of university life, on the one hand, and real experiences that I lived over the course of my studies, on the other hand, form such a stark contrast that I am left struggling to bridge one side to the other.

With graduation around the corner, what I had originally planned as a personal reflection on my studies has become what I hope to be a more socially relevant commentary on how we can improve the way we imagine universities – in particular for young people beginning their career, but also for everyone else interacting with the idea or experience of university in their social and professional lives, through the media, or in public debate.

The past year has brought special currency to this question, what with an unprecedented public health event that transformed campuses the world over; aggravated tensions among students, professors, and administrators; and the sudden captivation of public attention by tough, regretfully polarizing issues like academic autonomy, freedom of expression, systemic barriers, and power dynamics in all types of relationships.

Now more than ever, perhaps, we could benefit from building some common ground. I suggest we begin the building process with careful consideration of how university is understood, represented, misunderstood, and misrepresented. For my part, here are a few places to start.

University is not special

That is, not more or less special than any other pursuit. It seems like a bold claim, but it’s not an unreasonable one when we consider what it will take to foster greater respect among those on the inside and outside of universities.

We are targeting two related problems. The first is that academic culture can harbour or even nurture a certain elitism that draws a line in the sand between those who have attended and/or worked for a university degree and those who have not. Higher education is revered in many regards. In discussions and debates, it is often considered the deciding factor as to whether your opinion is backed by the necessary credibility. In turn, this attitude is liable to spark a distaste for the culture of university learning in those who cannot or did not pursue it. Together, these inject everyday conversations with that poisonous tension we know too well.

The thing is, university doesn’t have to be portrayed as special to be portrayed as valuable. Ditto for pretty much anything that anyone does in life. Why, for instance, must we present career options in a sort of hierarchy where university is invariably at the top, when we could simply list the benefits of university education alongside the benefits of other projects? I guess it speaks to a bigger issue in our world where everything is about being the best, not just about being good, but I digress. I believe the “special-to-valuable” shift can go a long way in fostering an appreciation of academic experience or expertise without it always getting an uncritical pass.

In the same stroke, we can address a second problem that touches the lives of almost anyone who spends time on university campuses. If we can finally see universities as less special and more like other places of business and learning, it becomes far easier to broach issues like performance evaluation and accountability for administrators and instructors, labour representation, harassment and violence prevention, client service standards, or whatever you believe good organizations should practise.

University is not a life stage

In my second year of studies, I met a woman in her eighties enrolled in my introductory linguistics class. I have worked on group assignments with teenagers who skipped two years of high school and forty-year-olds who are taking time off work to do something new. Indeed, the university myth that was annihilated the quickest and most abruptly for me was that post-secondary learning was for people at a specific point in their life.

The problem is that this myth is perpetuated by educational institutions themselves. When university recruitment campaigns kick off, their visual marketing strategy is obvious if not comical: well-dressed, curated young people doing whimsical things on campus, snapshots of select venues like coffee shops or dorm rooms… maybe a library if it doesn’t look too dull? Universities are aware of their diversity but remain reluctant to showcase and, more importantly, support some of its dimensions.

Not only do I imagine this can be hurtful to students and others who do not fit the majority profile, I also believe it fails those who do. Let’s face it – intergenerational and intercultural communication can be challenging! University, like many spaces, is a crossroads where people of various ages with various worldviews and assumptions will be asked to work together despite their differences, and it’s about time we discuss it in the open. Better yet, we could dig to the root by actively portraying campuses as places where recent high school graduates are but one of many types of students, not the privileged archetype.

Universities are not bigger, better schools

For those who do go directly from a high school to a university, they usually realize that the transition implies far more than longer readings and bigger lecture halls. Or maybe they don’t? I wouldn’t say universities do all that well at depicting themselves as qualitatively different from grade schools. Instead, they prefer the narrative of climbing to the next “level” of the educational ladder.

The sometimes-intentional confusion of university studies with public schooling is frustrating. The relationship between student and institution where the latter is funded and managed almost entirely by the government cannot be the same as the one where the former pays thousands of dollars in tuition. The relationship between teacher and administrator where the former is employed primarily based on pedagogical qualifications cannot be the same as the one where they are employed primarily based on subject-matter expertise and research capabilities. These are different systems that need to be treated as such, or else certain parties will continue to neglect their end of the bargain at the expense of others.

Understanding university as an optional pursuit with specific benefits and drawbacks outside the system of public education also goes a long way in motivating students to make the best of their experience. Yes, sometimes this means cutting it short to look for satisfaction elsewhere. I sincerely believe that if you want to learn at university, you have to want to seek the opportunities to do so – that the depth to which you engage in this or that activity best determines its value to your career.

The flip side to this personal initiative should be an organization that does not impose burdens, restrictions, or other obstacles beyond or in spite of what you choose to pursue. In other words, freedom with independence, or constraints with dependence. If one isn’t packaged with the other, then the experience isn’t fair.

There is no singular university experience

If it isn’t yet clear, all these points are leading to the idea that a homogenous, inflexible portrayal of the university experience – whatever it may be – is doomed to disappoint. Even to the extent that we recognize that different people will experience university in different ways, we still tend to promote and defend the one we know best, be it experientially or culturally.

In the spirit of building a more enjoyable and worthwhile adventure for those who choose to attend university and those who do not, and in the spirit of a more honest dialogue on learning and working, my strongest belief is that our portrayal of university should be one that emphasizes the agency and the dignity of the individual.

Choosing what to do with your career, whether university is involved or not, should be like choosing what to eat. You know that you need to eat something at some point, but your body will be satisfied with an impressively wide range of options. You feel like one meal tonight, but then in a couple days you may see more value in another meal. You may follow a different recipe than someone else and prepare larger or smaller portions. And, of course, you will have to face certain limits, be they cost, space, or time, although ideally not below a certain threshold and not without improvement.

When trying to decide what to eat, and when actually eating, you wouldn’t tolerate someone constantly telling you that what they eat is better. You wouldn’t tolerate someone telling you that this meal is best for people this age. You wouldn’t tolerate ordering and paying for one meal but getting another. You wouldn’t tolerate someone imposing a specific set of choices and experiences based on their own.

Yet this is what we do. If we want to build common ground and find solutions to our conflicts, after all, then we need to do better.

Keelan Buck is an incoming Master of Arts candidate in public administration at the U of O. He is graduating in spring 2021 with a Bachelor’s of Social Sciences and works in the federal public sector.