In April, I will have the privilege of facilitating a panel at HEQCO’s conference, Rethinking Access: when non-traditional is the new normal. The conference topic excites me because it speaks to the priorities that students have been highlighting for some time.
For the past four years I’ve worked with student governments at Ontario universities. From my current vantage point heading the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the dedication, passion and engagement of undergraduate leaders. These students work hard to represent their peers and make sure the university experience is enriching for everyone.
But is it? Ontario has the highest postsecondary attainment and one of the largest financial aid systems in the country. Yet, students consistently talk about access and affordability as the top problems to solve in the sector.
How can this be, with such a high attainment rate? Are students just misinformed? Quite the opposite, in fact. When you dig a little deeper you can see that for some time, students have really been getting at the more nuanced issue: access for whom? Yes, Ontario has high postsecondary achievement, but are the people who are gaining access to higher education reflective of the broader population? Or are certain groups being left behind?
Some of OUSA’s primary research sheds some light here. The latest round of our biennial membership survey (the results will be available soon on our website) reveals that the majority of our students still come from higher-income backgrounds. Further, the “non traditional” students in the system face unique concerns and barriers; among OUSA members for example, mature students, students from lower-income backgrounds and students with disabilities were more likely than others to have concerns about the affordability of their education. Of course, affordability is just one aspect of access. Informational and social barriers can be stronger factors, and even then, we’re still just talking about getting to the front door. Is a system accessible if certain groups find themselves unsupported and their needs ignored when they arrive? Here too, we need to be mindful of diverse experiences and demographics.
Indigenous students, students with physical or psychiatric disabilities, first-generation students, students with LGBTQ+ identities, mature students and students with dependents all face different barriers. Some marginalized groups face intergenerational trauma, potentially reducing their willingness to access government assistance. Some groups might face systemic prejudice their whole lives, with teachers, guidance counsellors and others harbouring low expectations and directing them away from postsecondary education. Others may not have the benefit of a family member or friend with experience moving to a new city or coping with a heavy academic workload.
So when we talk about access, we’re talking about expanding not just the quantity of students in the system, but the diversity and breadth of students. We’re also talking about getting students to the front door while also designing a system that fosters persistence in the face of different barriers. The methods we use must be as diverse as the problems themselves, rather than universal. If we fail to be mindful of these diversities, we will continue to leave some students behind, no matter how well intentioned we are.
Zachary Rose is executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.