Student Voices: The value of education? | Work of Arts
Student Voices: The value of education? | Work of Arts

Student Voices: The value of education?

Fine arts student Jessy Ardern shares her take on recent government statements about funding “high value” postsecondary programs

Student Voices is a WOA blog feature that presents the experiences and point of views of current Arts students around campus. Get to know our creative and passionate students through their “voices” and get a snapshot of life as an Arts undergrad. The views and opinions expressed within these student voices posts are solely those of the author.

The brilliant English writer Terry Pratchett died about a month ago, prompting myself and many others to mourn and to raise a banana daiquiri in his honour. I was also prompted to return to his novels. One of Pratchett’s great gifts is his ability to mix insane and humourous illogic with gems of common sense. Here is one such gem, from his Phantom of the Opera send-up, titled Maskerade:

“Is it important? …Opera doesn’t make money. Opera never makes money.”
“Good grief, man! Important? What’d I ever have achieved in the cheese business, I’d like to know, if I’d said that money wasn’t important?”
Salzella smiled humourlessly. “There are people out on that stage right now, sir,” he said, “who’d say that you would probably have made better cheeses.” He sighed, and leaned over the desk. “You see,” he said, “Cheese does make money. And opera doesn’t. Opera’s what you spend money on.”
“But… what do you get out of it?’
“You get opera. You put money in, you see, and opera comes out.”

You put money in, and opera comes out. To those of us in the arts community, this is a perfectly sound model. To those in the Alberta government (and indeed the federal government… not to mention many ordinary Canadians), it is an apparently perplexing notion.

Around the same time that I was reading Terry Pratchett, I became aware of the waves being generated by Minister Campbell’s speech on the 2015 budget. If Mr. Pratchett’s gift is for hiding pearls of sense on the beaches of humour, then surely it is the mark of Conservative governments to hide buttons of stupidity on the waistcoats of reason. Specifically, I’m referring to the section that addresses the funding of our universities:

“We will work with the post-secondary institutions to preserve high demand, high value programs and, correspondingly, to identify and shed low-value programs that do not represent good return on investment.

In the months ahead, we will be discussing with our stakeholders a review of tuition fees and other revenue generation options.”

If only the term “high-value” here meant “high-value.” Instead, “high value” here means “high monetary value,” or to borrow from the speech itself, programs that represent a good return on investment. At some point my education became a cog in a money-making machine. And I am an artist, which I can pretty much guarantee means that my cog is seen as a tiny cog. A tiny, noisy cog. It’s a cog that makes a “ping” noise when the rest of the machine is quietly and efficiently creating “revenue generating options.” My cog is the kind of cog that might very well be left over when the machine is taken apart and rebuilt again. Am I straining the metaphor? Guess I better take a creative writing class, while they still f****** exist.

Timms stageI am in the BFA acting program here at the U of A. Is it high demand? I would say so. I moved here from Winnipeg specifically to attend. Another of my classmates came all the way from Newfoundland. Is the program of high value? Absolutely, in the proper sense of the term “valuable.” After all, this kind of training is about two major things:

1. Understanding and respecting your body and emotions, so that you can work with them properly.

2. Understanding and respecting the body and emotions of other people, so that you can work with them properly.

If I don’t make a career as an actor, will my education have been without value? It depends on who you ask. If you ask an artist, they might say that living in a world where people understand and respect themselves and others is very valuable indeed. If you asked the Government of Alberta, they might say that my education does not represent a good return on investment. Low money equals low value. Hey, Minister Campbell – I may talk in strained metaphors, but at least I don’t think in equations.

But if we must, then let’s do it Terry Pratchett style.

You can put money into something that just makes more money. (Money = money)
You can put money into art, and you get art. (Money = art)
Art engenders creativity, compassion, and critical thinking (Turning money into Art = striving to be better)
Money is just money. (Turning money into money = making the same thing)

My tuition is not a “revenue generating option.” I am not an ATM, my professors are not bank tellers and this is not a transaction. It is grotesque and insipid to think of art – and of education – only in terms of dollars and cents.

We need to remember what it means to have value. Being valuable is not the same thing as being a money-maker. A plan to save our deteriorating environment, if it wasn’t a money-maker, would still be incredibly valuable. (Although I have no doubt that Wal-Mart would attempt to buy it, wrap it in plastic and make a tidy sum on the stability of the ozone.)

By the time that you read this, the Winter Term will be over. This is my last blog post, at least for this school year. (The astoundingly patient editors at the WOA will, I’m sure, be much relieved.)

To those who have kept up with this blog, thank you for your support. It means a lot.

To those who have shared, commented on and disagreed with what I’ve had to say – thank goodness for you. We have to hash this stuff out – complacency will be the death of us.

And to the miraculous Kate Weiss, and her dream team of drama professors – thank you. The education that I have had over the past two years has changed me fundamentally. The work you do is incredible, and your passion is a testament to what truly valuable education means.

I hope the last word belongs to the community – please chime in below with your own opinions and stories.

A full copy of the Budget 2015 speech can be found here.


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About Jessy Ardern

Jessy Ardern

Jessy is a 3rd year BFA acting student. She hails from the wintery wasteland of Winnipeg, Manitoba. When she is not busy being outraged, Jessy enjoys playwriting and making puns. She also enjoys it when people take her out to drink coffee and rant about art (she doesn't figure that anyone will actually do this, but she thinks it is worth a try).