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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1999

Universities at the Crossroads

D.W. Livingstone

The university-in-the-midst-of-globalization is in a unique position to be an outspoken advocate for revitalizing democracy and for pursuing social justice.

Universities and Globalization: Critical Perspectives Jan Currie & Janice Newson (eds.), Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998; 339 pp; $29.95 us.
At the end of the 19th century, the noted comparative educator Sir Michael Sadler observed that the things outside the education system govern what goes on inside it. At the end of the 20th century, management gurus such as Peter Drucker suggest that the explosive growth of information systems is making current institutions of higher learning obsolete.

Higher education systems themselves grew massively in numbers of institutions, student enrolment and staffing during the economic boom that lasted from the end of WWII to the 1970s. Enrolment demand has continued to increase during the subsequent economic slump and jobless recovery. While institutional obsolescence therefore does not appear to be imminent, rapid changes occurring outside educational institutions have provoked major structural changes inside them since the 1970s. If university faculties are to play a constructive role in future institutional reforms, there is a clear and pressing need for them to understand the general character of both current societal change processes and internal administrative responses. Universities and Globalization provides some helpful resources to this end.

This book is a collection of analytic overviews and case studies of recent reform initiatives in Australian, Canadian, U.S., U.K., Mexican, Norwegian and French universities. The chapters emerge primarily from collaborative research projects in which either the Australian Currie or Canadian Newson has been involved.

Among the most insightful contributions are a comparative case study (by Richard De Angelis) of the expansive responses of the French university system and the restrictive reactions in Australia to similar economic conditions, a wide ranging review of the extent of commercial penetration of university life in U.S. colleges (by Edward Berman), and a critical dissection of the role of globalization discourse at OECD-sponsored conferences in constructing higher education policies (Robert Lingard and Fazal Rizvi).

The effects of other transnational institutions on higher education are examined through an account of the negative impact of NAFTA on Mexican universities and the resistance centred in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Castanos-Lomnitz, Didriksson and Newson), as well as through a brief portrayal of mega-universities using distance education technologies (Mick Campion and David Freeman). A number of these distance teaching institutions now have well over 100,000 students and face hard choices between technocratic or democratic trajectories.

There are summary accounts of interviews by Currie and her colleagues with Australian and U.S. academics on their perceptions of increasingly centralized management and decreasing autonomy, and a provocative Canadian essay (by Newson and Claire Polster) on the development and implications of performance indicators to measure faculty accountability.

A useful overview of Canadian higher education policies (by Don Fisher and Kjell Rubenson) emphasizes increasing differentiation, vocationalism, and divisions between scholars and administrators. The book concludes with a synthetic reflection by Newson which suggests connections between many of these macro tendencies and faculty experiences during and after the 1997 York University strike.

The major contribution of the book is to debunk simplistic notions of globalization in relation to higher education. The central message is to present globalization: "... as a historically grounded political and economic project that is being promoted by particular agents to serve particular interests ... globalization should not be conceived as a single, logically coherent package of social, political, and economic changes, leading inevitably to a more advanced stage of human history. Rather, globalization should be seen as a more fluid and less determinate process that has often contradictory and contingent sets of possibilities." (p. 141)

Advocates of globalization typically note the confluence of some or all of the following: a single global market for increasing numbers of goods and services, more free trade zones and international divisions of labour, increasing dominance of Western models of production and popular culture. Many of these authors (especially Janice Dudley in her Australian review) point to the distinction between internationalization processes that are occurring on many dimensions and the ideology of globalization which exaggerates the extent of these tendencies -- much like modernization theory did in the post-WWII era. The studies presented in this book clearly demonstrate that both current economic and political changes and university reforms in these countries are much more variable processes than globalization advocates ever suggest.

The actual analysis of the political and economic interests of particular agents in promoting and resisting different aspects of globalization remains underdeveloped both in this book and more generally. Some of the essays that do address the forces promoting private market-driven solutions to government and university financial problems resort to simple dichotomies of industrial/post-industrial societies and corresponding educational models (Dudley, Sheila Slaughter in her U.S./U.K. comparison, and Campion and Freeman) rather than grounded analyses.

While much effort is focused on dissecting a dominant neo-liberal economic and educational discourse, little attention is given to countervailing social forces of growing public support for access to and government funding of universities. The bas-ic contradiction of popular democratic demand for more advanced education versus the more limited needs of capitalist labour markets, and the consequent growing problem of underemployment, are never addressed.

As DeAngelis astutely observes (p. 129) and even the World Bank has recently admitted, austere versions of neo-classical economic policies are rarely successful for very long. Newson in particular does allude to some progressive alternatives to neo-liberal educational policies. But the popular forces that might resist neo-liberal options and support more progressive alternatives remain largely invisible here.

Nevertheless, taken as a whole, these studies offer a rich array of critical insights for challenging the globalization rhetoric that now appears to be widely assumed by university administrators in all of these countries. As Newson concludes: "The university-in-the-midst-of-globalization is in a unique position to be an outspoken advocate for revitalizing democracy and for pursuing social justice in the face of changes that threaten both." (p. 310)

Faculty members and administrators with sympathy for these objectives both outside and inside their institutions should read this book.

D.W. Livingstone is chair of sociology and equity studies at OISE/UT and author of "The Education-Jobs Gap" and "Public Attitudes towards Education in Ontario 1998."