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My first reaction to seeing the words “shopping cart” on Mosaic was to post a joke about it on Twitter. After my tweet got three likes and my sense of humour was externally affirmed for the day, I glanced over the words again and felt nauseous.

The words “shopping cart” might seem small and meaningless and the intent behind it was probably harmless, meant to turn an administrative process into something familiar. Unfortunately, it speaks to a larger reality of university education: the normalization of seeing universities as businesses and our degrees as products.

These words now serve as a reality check. It makes me ask over and over again: what’s university? Is it a place where knowledge is advanced, where society is challenged? Is it a hub of innovation? The answer is obviously yes, but there’s more to it than that. Being in our undergraduate degrees, many of us will not get to participate in that culture. Many students leave undergrad, either find a job or go to a professional degree, without having ever interacted with the culture of knowledge-advancement that is the essence of the university as a concept.

To undergrads, university is sold as an experience, as the best four years of your life — a fact that I sincerely hope is not true. Degrees are framed as skill-giving products, and those that don’t offer hard professional skills feel the need to justify their existence by teaching “soft” skills, or by shaping their products into something innovative and cool that can then be sold as “elite”. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with university programs just trying to survive as funding decreases for any non-STEM field that involves even a bit of critical thinking.

It makes me ask over and over again: what’s university? Is it a place where knowledge is advanced, where society is challenged? Is it a hub of innovation?

“Shopping” equates a process as significant to our life and career trajectories as academics with trivial everyday undertakings. Things you put in your “shopping cart” usually include: groceries, clothes from online stores, highly acclaimed books from Amazon you’ve been pretending to want to read for a few months. This language positions the university as the seller of knowledge, and you, the buyer.

Universities already use ads to sell their undergraduate programs — a tactic I’ve found ethically questionable for some time. While advertising is understandable, ads playing in movie theatres for our Engineering program directly following that guy from The Source explaining some cool new tech product makes it a lot harder to think of my education as a genuinely enlightening experience.

The student-as-consumer narrative creates a feeling of disconnect between me and my education that cheapens the whole experience, which is unfortunate, because it’s anything but cheap.

But the problems faced by our public education system won’t disappear if McMaster decides to change a few words on Mosaic, or stop playing ads in movie theatres. In a way, I am thankful for the language used on Mosaic. The idealized view of a university education as the creator and disseminator of knowledge in the public interest is seriously endangered by rising tuition fees, degree inflation, and a rocky job market that leaves many graduates unemployed for frightening periods of time.

While we must continue to think of the university as the place for groundbreaking and socially challenging research, reminders of the state that our education system currently finds itself in might not be such a bad thing. Language like “shopping cart,” as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, serves as a much-needed wake up call.

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