ASSU launches campaign against private academic review session companies
I recently had the chance to speak with Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) Executive Abdullah Shihipar about the organization’s campaign against private review sessions.
Private review sessions are non-university classes that students can pay to attend, to get test tips and course overviews for many of UofT’s science and math oriented courses.
“[These companies] blatantly lie about a previous midterms average,” Shihipar alleged. He argued that review session companies capitalize on student angst because they are not legally accountable for potential misinformation they provide. He also made a point of refusing to call the reviews “tutoring sessions”, as he did not want to de-legitimize other, more personalized forms of tutoring.
In response to an email inquiring about the ASSU’s campaign statement, Ulife Academy President Cindy Kong described her organization as one that is “here for [students] and because of them”. She argues Ulife Academy helps students transition into university and handle fast paced-lectures. She also pointed out that Ulife’s prices were established with student feedback and that ULife is a “proud sponsor of the SickKids Foundation”.
The supposed good intentions of individual companies may not matter, however, the ASSU’s campaign seems (at least publicly) to be more about principles than any particular scandal. For now the ASSU has no plans to target particular companies or to call for their suspension from campus.
In our discussion, Shihipar placed his opposition to private review companies in a broader philosophical context. It is a core belief of the ASSU that education should be accessible and affordable. The union argues that the presence of angst-exploiting review companies on campuses furthers the process of privatizing education.
I began the interview with Shihipar with mixed feelings about the ASSU’s proposal. In the big picture, I supported the campaign as I agree that public education should cover all necessary learning bases. The problem is, however, that the division between the public and private sector is not always so clear-cut.
The University of Toronto itself often acts like a self-serving, corporate entity. While the University Assessment and Grading policy disallows predetermined grade ratios, in practice, the grading system can seem arbitrary and cold. Students are thrown into huge classes that often seem to have the goal of giving tests that make the University look rigorous (and thus prestigious)-rather than tests that give students the best chance to showcase their hard work and talents.
I told Shihipar my own experience taking first year chemistry for my major, despite it not being one of my particular academic strengths. While the subject proved challenging in its own right, this challenge was further exacerbated by test questions that did not directly reflect the skills taught in class, but instead required that these skills be applied to solve complex and non-intuitive problems.
Shihipar’s response was multifaceted. First, he acknowledged the reality of the problem and said it was ultimately a student’s choice whether they felt like they needed support from companies providing review session. He also agreed that if professors want to test application, they should find better ways to teach it. Shihipar did point out, however, that the main goal of the ASSU’s campaign was to advertise under-promoted, tuition-covered, UofT resources such as one-on-one chemistry tutoring sessions at Lash Miller through Victoria college and the ASSU’s past test library.
In targeting the systemic problem of the privatization of education, while simultaneously using the simple but helpful tactic of promoting existing free resources, the ASSU has found a campaign worth waging and sustaining. What will become of the campaign is another question.
In a worst-case scenario, UofT officials may opportunistically adopt the rhetoric of denouncing these companies without realizing that these companies are only able to thrive because of flaws within the current education system. Educational emancipation will not come from simply choosing one side of an expensive guessing game over another. Rather, it will occur when evaluations test what is taught, where getting an ‘A’ becomes the product of one’s concrete and intellectually valid academic advances.