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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1997

Canadian Universities and the 1997 Federal Election

Bill Bruneau

Is the Sky Falling?

The coming election presents CAUT with an opportunity and a problem. First, the opportun-ity. The 1980s and 1990s have been hard on public post-secondary education, just as they have been hard on public schooling, publicly provided health care, and on the great institutions of social security.

Despite freezes and cuts in funding, especially since 1982, we’ve kept Canadian universities the welcoming and excellent places they are. We’ve coped with rising enrolments, and achieved a new balance between teaching, research, and public service. We’ve acquired a strong world-wide reputation for our intellectual, artistic, and scientific work. We’ve played our full part in making and carrying out Canadian public policy in all areas of national life. Our commitment to the highest standards of teaching and research is balanced by an equal commitment to equity and to democratic practice — central features of the Canadian polity.

We have the opportunity during this election campaign to make these points, and to encourage a renewed commitment to adequate public funding for the system.

But we have a problem. Yes, we’ve managed to keep the system excellent, and accountable, and open to Canada’s young people. Unfortunately, the universities are at the end of their rope. We must now be given adequate funding, and without demands for detailed, mindless accounting. Without funding and without autonomy, we cannot do the jobs for which universities were and are intended.

Should we imitate Chicken Little during the campaign, threatening the imminent falling of the sky? Should we argue that without proper post-secondary education funding, Canadian social and economic develop-ment will come to a screeching halt? Of course not.

What we can say is that accessible (and equitable) post-secondary education is under direct threat. We can point to the links between poverty and unemployment, and describe the indebtedness of an entire student generation.

We can show how the underfunding of research has put our international reputation at risk. We can invite the Canadian public into our classrooms (via the media and through our contacts with candidates) to see why quality teaching is now so hard to achieve.

We can point to the looming crisis in our libraries, some already at breaking point. And we should begin to talk again about Canadian university salaries, no longer competitive with wages in industry, and not even close to compensation levels in the US.

Yes, the sky has begun to fall. As usual in Canadian social history, its movement has not yet been noticed by the public. It’s up to us to draw it to their attention, and to do so with vigour. Our watch words might be "access" and "quality."

We’d like the sky to stay where it is, or better, to resume its progress upward.