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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1997

Parties Mum on PSE as Election Looms

Bill Bruneau
Within weeks a federal election campaign will likely be called. Your CAUT Executive, along with our staff, are already thinking about questions we shall ask the parties and the candidates. We aim, as usual, to make post-secondary education a central issue in the election. Strange, perhaps, but this has a lot to do with the strike at York University.

As to elections, politicians fear post-secondary education is not a winning issue. They say it's hard to persuade people, who may be afraid of losing their jobs, that federal funding should support advanced research and teaching.

Beyond this practical calculation, Liberal and Opposition politicians are reluctant to make education a top issue because they find it embarrassing to compare past and present. They do not like to think about the difference between their parties’ historic commitments to public education and their present policies.

The Liberals have partial amnesia, to judge by Paul Martin's announcements, especially about transfer payments destined to decline by 40.7 per cent. In the 1960s, Liberals under L.B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau helped build an excellent and accessible national post-secondary education system.

The benefits have been obvious. Canada has been economically resilient despite the oil price crisis of the 1970s and the booms-and-busts of the 1980s. Our society retains trust in its great public institutions. Yet since 1993 the Liberals have withdrawn billions from post-secondary education, health, and social services in Canada. The Liberals no longer speak of fairness, as Pearson did, or of justice as Trudeau did.

The Reform Party and the Conservatives are, of course, famously devoted to reducing government's size and role in society. Ontario’s Conservative premier Mike Harris plans a 30 per cent cut in the provincial income tax. If he manages this, it would come on top of Ottawa’s earlier cuts. There is only one way Mr. Harris can deliver on this promise, and that is through a further onslaught against higher education in Ontario.

I've suggested two main reasons why post-secondary education has not been at the centre of federal election campaigns — that post-secondary education isn't a "winning issue," and that post-secondary education issues are bothersome reminders of politicians' poor memories. But there are more.

In the latest London Review of Books (20 March 1997, pp. 16-17), Conrad Russell writes that governments, faced with the evidence about cuts and their effects, have "taken refuge in a cult of reorganisation designed to produce ‘efficiency’ and ‘better value for money’ — the usual Whitehall euphemisms for ‘less money’."

So even as the funding goes down, the demand for government intervention rises, and with it, insistence on larger class-sizes, officially required use of untested technological devices (whole departments on the Internet??!!), and so on and on.

Governments, whether Canadian or British, feel they must find ways to ensure universities, colleges and schools are doing as they are told, and meeting "public" demands for cheap and "effective" education. Governments do this in two ways. First, they construct huge bureaucracies to check on us, to collect statistical performance indicators and the like. Second, they propagate the belief that the victims of underfunding are to blame for their sad condition. In England, the scapegoating takes the form of an assault on "outmoded politically correct ways of teaching," (as John Major asserts) and leads to publication of an "endless series of school and university league tables" (as Russell says). In Canada, the rhetoric is only superficially different.

So we come to the strike at York University. Yes, the York University strike is about fair salaries and fair conditions for retirement. But it is also about a board of governors whose policies are centralist and non-participatory, whose administration is large and costly, whose fascination with "efficiency" and "value for money" has nothing to do with quality post-secondary education or with broadened access to the university. This strike is about an arbitrary administration, the creature of a business-minded board of governors. Behind the actions of the board and of the York administration is the government view that education must be "transformed," and shown to have a favourable cost-benefit ratio.

This where federal and provincial cost-cutting is transformed into the reality of factory-style education with large classes and little contact between faculty and students.

York’s questions are, then, also the questions to be asked in the coming election: Will we keep knowledge and equity as core values in Canadian society? Will we make open and participatory governance the hallmarks of Canadian post-secondary education — or just a happy memory?