Academiology III: Investment

Published on 2024-02-18

There's this one seemingly innocuous memory from my first year of university that sticks out to me--one that I keep finding myself coming back to:

It was late, probably 8PM (that's late for me okay). I had spent probably the entire day, morning to night, studying for some midterm. This was a point in my life where I was really, deeply invested in performing the ritual of education, and I probably didn't have much of a life outside of school because of it. But I had my fix, and I was on my way home.

At the time, I lived in residence. My home was this very blocky building at the far end of the campus. It was six storeys tall. I don't know what it was about that evening, but for some reason, I chose to look up--something I seldom do, surprisingly so. And for a moment, it washed over me, just how tall that building was. Where I grew up, there was a hard limit on how tall you could build buildings--either the height of city hall, or the church, or something of that nature. I'd have this awestruck feeling every once in a while, while looking up at a tree--usually the tallest thing in eye shot of my neighbourhood. But this was so much larger. I was surrounded by these buildings, in fact, that seemed to reach to inhuman heights.

It was a strange and incredible feeling.

University is really expensive. If you're a domestic student in a country with actual public services it might not be devastating for some, but many aren't that lucky. Cynical students like me often find themselves asking dangerous questions like, "is it really worth it?"

If I had all the power in the world, I'd probably change a lot of the financial incentives around universities. Truly, they feel like a system that works best when the only people attending are like, the children of medieval aristocrats. But knowledge should be for everyone. It shouldn't be locked behind a 100 000$/year price tag. It shouldn't just be those desperate enough to strap themselves with a horrible debt for life.

In high school, I remember one of my teachers talked to us a bit about how expensive it is to run a school, be that a public school or a university. They are extremely expensive to run. The buildings, the utilities, the salaries of the many, many people who keep them running on a daily basis, from the sanitation workers to the electricians to the food court servers to the lecturers to the teaching assistants... All of this requires money, and it seems natural that the students, being a significant part of what the university ecosystem exists in service to, ought to bare a significant portion of the burden of paying for it.

If I had the energy I'd love to take the time to imagine building a university from scratch, figuring out how much all of this stuff ought to cost. From the outside, it certainly doesn't seem like the university's finances are equitable at all. For one, the government hands them a ton of money they mostly just sit on. At my university, international students are charged about ten times as much as I am as a domestic student, and the vast majority of their tuition gets immediately placed in an opaque "fund" that nobody ever speaks of. Some people at the institution are paid easily over a hundred thousand dollars. Others much more. And many, many more people are paid minimum wage. Some considerably below minimum wage.

As a student, I'm mostly expected to trust that the wise people behind the university-corporation can handle the financial details responsibly. While there are feedback loops that are operating to make sure the university-corporation continues to work in service to the university-ecosystem, in an economy that demands a surprisingly high level of education for even entry-level positions, the ball is very much in their court.

Needless to say, while I confess I understand very little about how the university-corporation works on a financial level, I can tell it's inequitable. I can feel it every day I step foot off the bus and onto the campus. And the fact that I'm given such a small window into how these things work is suspicious at best.

The university ecosystem asks a lot of you. It asks for a lot of your money. It asks for a lot of your time. At the university, I can get food, housing, medical services, banking services, recreation, and a set of responsibilities that demands a time commitment comparable to a full time job. It asks for everything.

I had a professor in my first year who talked a lot about this. A fear he had as a student, and a fear he worries will impact his students too, is that when the four years are up and this is all over, we still won't have figured out who we are. That we'll be ejected into the world, cursed to wander aimlessly from dissatisfying job to dissatisfying job. He said, the "university system," as he called it, demands a lot of your time, and that it falls upon you to organize your life in such a way that it doesn't take everything you love.

I felt this quite a bit in my first year. The city I ostensibly lived felt so foreign. The campus was a safe place, a place I was repeatedly ensured I was safe, and the rest of the city was this unknown place, where people might hurt me for the way I dressed or the shape of my torso. The university was everything I knew. It shaped all of my experience.

I hated it. I wanted my life to be more than the university. I wanted to have a life outside the system I paid my way into.

I didn't really feel like I had properly escaped until I had fully moved off campus and into the city. For a long time, the university was my entire life. Then, having moved into the closest thing we had to a student slum on the edge of campus, the university became the gateway to my life outside school. Having no car, getting anywhere still meant walking to the university transit exchange first. It wasn't until I moved a good forty minute bike ride away that I stopped feeling like a student and started feeling like a citizen of the town in which I lived.

It is characteristic of the university that it be all-consuming. One thing I'm sure my professor must have realized was that if we really were to graduate school and have nowhere to go, we could always come back. The university will extend you the opportunity to pursue a master's degree. And when you're done that, you can pursue a PhD. And when you're don that, you can just, spend the rest of your life writing reviews of literature, or maybe doing research for the US military. There need not be any end to your time in academia. You can give your whole life to its perpetuation.

I don't think this is necessarily a "bad" thing. I think my life has gotten better since I learned how to reduce its demands, but again, these demands are deeply characteristic of the university itself. Much like a city shapes the circumstances of the lives of its residents, the university ecosystem affects every aspect of its students' lives. It's natural that the university asks so much of you, because when you're a student, the university is everything. What you make of it is up to you.

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