A Call We Must Answer: How Universities Should Expand Access to Traditionally Underrepresented Communities

The first class I had on my first day of university was an Introduction to Psychology class. When I walked in, I was nervous; I knew no one. The class, part of the Aboriginal First Year Experience Program (AFYEP), consisted entirely of Aboriginal students. It focused on Aboriginal psychology and used culturally relevant examples and content. By the end of term my thirty classmates were friends, studying together for the final exam and helping each other to succeed. And while most of us did succeed, it unfortunately didn’t last. Going into second year I noticed that fewer of my classmates returned. I noticed the same thing in third year. By my fourth year the majority of my former classmates had dropped out entirely.

I had to wonder why. Were they not meant for university? Was the homesickness felt by many to blame? Were they not feeling supported, or being supported, by the university?

My success left me with feelings of guilt—I wondered why I was able to succeed while many of my friends and peers simply weren’t. (Over 50% of first-year Aboriginal students at the University of Saskatchewan don’t return for a second year.) That guilt is a common feeling for successful students from communities that don’t have a long or positive history with universities.

It’s not only Aboriginal peoples who have trouble with accessibility. Many communities have historically been excluded or left behind, including refugees, those with low socioeconomic status, youth in government care, first-generation high school graduates, and Aboriginal people.  These communities have diverse experiences, needs, and challenges that universities need to grasp in order to fulfill their mission statements.

Many mission or vision statements talk about the university belonging to the people of the province, about enriching the public good;  but, these promises are unfortunately not always carried out. Universities must acknowledge communities who have been denied the opportunity to attend because of systemic inequalities. Right now we’re not doing that as much as we should be. Many institutions say that systemic inequalities are outside their purview, or that we cannot meddle in outside communities. But Canada must expand the reach of our institutions to engage new communities and new learners. Although enrolment has never been higher, Canada is not yet home to universal higher education.

Universities across the country need to act. The University of Winnipeg, under former President Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, led the way and undertook an extensive review on access to the institution. The President’s Task Force on Access included consultations with faculty, staff, students, and community members. It asked two questions every institution should be asking:

“How does the university become an agent for change?”    

and

“What barriers can be removed to increase participation among populations traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary?”

This may be one of the most important reports ever on the state of university accessibility. Unlike the usual university report, this one came up with real and immediate solutions that became priorities.
                  
One action that came from the report focused on increasing enrolment for youth in government care. Again, uWinnipeg led the way on this. Since then, a number of institutions have begun offering their own versions of the program, including several institutions in BC such as UBC and Vancouver Island University.

We don’t need more reports, recommendations, investigations, or focus groups. We need action.

These programs make a real difference to those who have for too long been denied the opportunity to attend, and graduate from, university. We don’t need more reports, recommendations, investigations, or focus groups. We need action. This should be prioritized by all universities in partnership with the diverse communities affected.

Universities must provide an action plan with timelines. Commitment to access must be paramount. Governments need to support this by providing financial support despite the trend of reducing operating budget grants to institutions across much of the country. Canada has had great success in research and teaching, and in building partnerships with other academics across the world, but we’re failing in expanding the type of student allowed to join our elite university community.

This will take time and perseverance. We may not get it right on the first try—but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. The benefits are too important.

Universities must begin to look like a viable option to youth who never thought it possible. It’s an achievable goal, but only when it is prioritized and championed. We can begin to live up to our mission statements of truly belonging to all people of the province. Let 2015 be the year of expanded access for all universities.

Max FineDay is nêhiyaw (Cree) from Sweetgrass First Nation and is serving his second term as the President of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, representing 18,000 undergraduate students.

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