University Responsibilities: How Much is Too Little?

               Justin Ober   student at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth

et's face it: University students today have it pretty good.  
At decent-sized schools, students have access to any number of 
low-cost services that civilians would donate organs for.  We get 
gyms and fitness centers for free or close to it.  We have computer 
labs, lounges and more clubs and societies arriving every semester.  
With little or no fees, on-campus coffee bars and pick-up basketball 
games make traveling into the real world increasingly ludicrous.  
Sure, we pay more in tuition rates to help off set the cost, but 
college students these days shouldn't sweat the bill's bundled-in 
activity fees - it's simply worth it to fork over a little extra cash 
for the added convenience.  Besides, with college rates continually 
on the rise, these resource charges amount to a drop in a very large 
bucket.  On the other hand, shouldn't a University provide for its 
students without bleeding them dry?  After all, without the learners, 
the educators and administrators would be jobless.  So why should 
students pay for access to increasingly basic and common services?

Students have come to expect these tasty perks, as if our Universities 
owe us for passing through their hallowed halls.  But have we come 
to expect too much?  Do we truly deserve extravagant bonuses?  My own 
school, the University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth) has for years given 
students free, unlimited, high-speed access to the Internet.  All rooms 
in all dorms have long had an Ethernet port, intended to help us with 
our studies.  Any student can plug in, call up the library's extensive 
database subscriptions, and hunt for journals, articles and other 
information on a boundless range of topics. 
 
Of course, with such power comes responsibility, for students can also 
visit the seedier and less, shall we say, academic nooks of the World 
Wide Web.  In light of this, UMD began cracking down on Internet access 
and Networking capabilities on campus last year.  First, the students' 
file-sharing capabilities were restricted.  Many students grumbled, 
but the administration remained firm.  Most recently, filters blocked 
the transfer of certain controversial file types.  Student outcry led 
to a scaled-back version of the sentinel software, but the students 
haven't finished crusading.  The school, they say, has infringed on our 
rights by installing restrictive programs between the Internet and us.  
University literature promises "free, unlimited" Internet access, and 
that's true, provided one doesn't read the fine print about restricted 
file types and such.  

But what about the school's viewpoint?  The administrators point to 
the massive drain on resources stemming from the wired undergraduates' 
decidedly un-studious activities.  Supposedly reserved for academics and 
research, Internet lines clog with data-cholesterol like my arteries 
after a chili-cheese-dog binge.  While students howl for more bandwidth, 
those in charge could point out that we'd have all we need if we would 
just quit swapping megabytes with like-minded Internet denizens.  Besides, 
more bandwidth costs money, a charge that would necessarily pass to 
students, who aren't known for accepting rate hikes gracefully.

Debates like this fuel complaints from students about the inability 
of modern universities to meet their customers' needs.  Many point to 
regulated, government-run higher education institutions such as 
Australia's, in which students pay little if any up-front tuition fees, 
as models America should follow.  

The truth, however, is that these "free" education systems often gloss 
over the hidden charges they pass to students.  At the University of 
Sydney, Australia, full-time students can opt to pay almost nothing to 
attend classes - the school deducts the state-subsidized tuition from 
wages or taxes after graduation.  At first the glance, the system looks 
perfect:  no tuition fees, a large and energetic Student Union providing 
stores, entertainment, clubs, societies and other student activities, 
and a top-rate education.  But look closer:  students must find their 
own housing in real estate-strapped Sydney (not a cheap proposition any 
time, let alone during this hectic Olympic year) or live in the suburbs 
and commute up to 2 hours each way to attend lectures.  Lecture halls 
literally overflow with students, particularly first-year requisite 
courses.  And forget about trying to speak with administrators in your 
department - two hour queues mar the first several weeks of school as 
understaffed departments struggle to reconcile students' scheduling and 
curriculum woes.  

Truthfully, governments rarely have enough money to elevate the condition 
of University students.  The cash can only stretch so far.  When it runs 
out, students must absorb the costs or give up some of their lifestyle's 
trappings.  Currently, Australia's government seeks to deregulate and 
privatize the University system, to let them compete with each other to 
attract students (and their cash.)  Naturally, those living under the 
current format have staged heated protests at every opportunity.  

And in America, our colleges wrestle between chasing off students by 
raising tuitions, or chasing off students by offering fewer of the 
amenities we feel we deserve.

Somehow, Universities must settle the question of what exactly they 
should offer their customers.  With budgets stretched tight and students 
continually campaigning for extended privileges, conflict inevitably 
thrives.  But at the end of the day, students attend Universities to 
get an education.  College, unfortunately, is not a playground.  If 
publicly funded, the bulk of a University's endowments should, must, 
go towards academic pursuits.  Not doing so would eventually short-change 
the students themselves - we can have all the cheap lattes we want, but 
it won't help us pass those exams.  And for those of us who just want 
to swap computer files back and forth without hassle from The Man, we 
could always start paying for our own Internet connections….
Or perhaps not.

Sydney, Australia
March 23, 2000