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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1998

Slippery Slope Proves Perilous for PSE

By Bill Bruneau
One of the standard fallacies of reasoning is "the slippery slope." Many of us learned about it in history courses, perhaps by considering the example of John Foster Dulles and American foreign policy in the 1950s. The argument went that if a non-communist state fell to communism, neighbouring non-communist states would also fall, one after another. Eisenhower applied the theory to justify military aid to South Vietnam in the 1950s.

Most often this form of argument is mistaken and misleading, as it probably was in this American example. But is it always wrong to make the slippery slope argument?

Philosophers suggest (Mary Warnock is one such writer) that the slippery slope may have good and appropriate uses. As she says, we "can usually control an undesirable slide down the slippery slope."

In December, the University of Prince Edward Island found it was about to be audited. This was not to be just any old audit. The Auditor General of the province had been asked to do what's called a "comprehensive audit," to apply a full range of performance indicators (PIs) to the university.

When UPEI found it was about to join sister universities that already had lived through PIs, it quickly learned that PIs had been tried out in nearly every other province.

Seven years ago, PIs were applied willy-nilly to community colleges in British Columbia. In the mid-1990s, the Province of Alberta decided to apply them to its entire range of public services, universities included. Ontario was well advanced in plans for the use of educational PIs by 1994, and the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission was publishing reports on the same subject, hinting that provinces use PIs to make unpopular decisions about funding cuts and university closures.

Some would say PIs should be understood as a way of doing a kind of practical research: research on university and college education, research on problems in access and delivery; research on how to ensure an equitable distribution of knowledge. However this is not the way provincial governments have treated PIs, whether in PEI or British Columbia.

Instead, PIs typically have tended to undermine institutional autonomy. They are a cover for reduction in public funding for higher education. They cost large amounts of money to develop and to administer, and they become a poor substitute for the kinds of educational and political judgement usually called for in human affairs.

The history of PIs in Canadian higher education invites the slippery slope argument. Something about the state of Canadian politics and society makes PIs more and more attractive to provincial and federal governments.

Similar questions arise when we think about growing privatization in Canadian higher education. Is the slippery slope at work at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia, and now Acadia University, where privatization has taken increasingly inventive forms in each of the past several years? Did it all start with apparently innocent decisions to name buildings, and build "inevitably" toward privatization of whole programs of research and instruction, to massive increases in tuition fees and private endowment, and to limiting ideas about research and its uses?

Where these and similar developments reduce collegiality in university governance, these things should be named, and resisted. Where they lead in sneaky fashion to damaging cuts to public education funding, they should be attacked. Where they lead to erosion of academic freedom -- in the choice of research subjects, the evaluation of research findings, and the freedom to carry research findings into teaching -- they should be countered with every weapon in our political arsenal. It would be hard to argue that PIs and privatization are or were inevitable. But even in putting the question, we become more alert and alive to their every negative impact on our colleges and universities.

The slippery slope (and its cousin, the snow-ball) are, when you come down to it, useful after all. We may not be headed for the bottom of a long slope, but it doesn't hurt to look at the lay of the land ... just in case.