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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2002

How Global Market Forces Drive the New Vocationalism

Robin Wylie

Globalizing the Community College: Strategies for Change in the Twenty-first Century

John S. Levin. New York: Palgrave, 2001; 248 pp; hardcover $35.00 us; paper $19.95 us.
This study by John Levin, a former Douglas College instructor and B.C. college administrator who is now professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, suggests we need to be vigilant about the "new vocationalism."

Levin examines seven community colleges (four Canadian and three American), focusing on the multiple impacts of the market on education. Three of Levin's Canadian colleges are in British Columbia — Vancouver Community College, Malaspina University College and University College of the Fraser Valley — and the other is in Alberta. The three American ones are in San Francisco, Seattle (Central City College) and the Hawaiian college system.

Levin uses globalization as a way of illustrating responses of community colleges to market pressures for a more targeted form of workplace training. In response to such pressures colleges have moved to increased reliance on private sector resources, a more corporate (or command) form of management, and to restructuring the workforce for greater productivity.

He begins by emphasizing how the importance of community colleges in the post-secondary system is little understood. In the United States, for example, 35 per cent of all post-secondary enrolments are in this sector and in Canada the figure is even higher, at more than 42 per cent.

Colleges are radically different from universities. They are comprehensive institutions meant to serve communities on an "open access" basis. Levin argues they have been designed not simply to serve local labour market needs, but, as well, to be agents of social mobility and change.

For Levin, globalization is a multidimensional process, one that challenges the community college's mandate economically, politically, culturally and technologically. Economically, the slowing of growth that began in the mid-1970s has progressively redefined education as workplace training. This redefinition is reflected in the decisions of provincial and state governments to reduce public grants, to boost student tuition and fees, and, by their persistent interventions, to force colleges into closer integration with the market.

Closer integration with the marketplace is seen in the creation of new bodies like contract training centers, in an increased emphasis on applied programs and degrees, and in the redefinition of continuing education as workforce upgrades.

The tilt to the market, Levin notes, is happening within new contexts. These include a growing internationalization of the North American workforce (as measured in a multicultural immigrant population and in offering education to an international student body) and the expanding potential, through electronic distance learning, to deliver instruction. New degrees of concentration and centralization appear in the market imposing new demands to accommodate a multicultural, even global, audience of learners within a high-technology education delivery environment.

Responding to Change

How have institutions responded to these pressures? In Levin's seven cases one can see two methods — private corporatism (the American/Albertan model) versus social corporatism (B.C.'s social democratic strategy). The American and Albertan colleges responded by increasing private sector revenues, raising student tuition and fees, creating command management structures (as opposed to the traditional collegial model) through administration-imposed rules and regulations, and by turning instructors into a casual workforce on short contracts.

In the San Francisco case, college management increased electronic distance learning and then reduced the regular faculty to 20 per cent of instructional staff. Class size was raised to 75 students and part-time instructors were paid a fraction of regular instructors' pay. The key to this "productivity raising" was to reorganize the curriculum, creating new interdisciplinary programs.

In this way, management destroyed instructor autonomy and the value attached to mastering disciplinary knowledge and methods. This new division of labour, combined with control and supervision exercised over online courses, broke the professional control and value of post-secondary faculty. Yet, as Levin reports, at the same time and for the same reasons this cost-control "success" led to faculty demoralization, followed by student avoidance of the institution as its interdisciplinary credits were of doubtful external value.

In this private corporatist strategy emphasis is placed on workplace training, students pay more for the training, the private sector direct benefits rise, and faculty union powers are significantly eroded.

British Columbia, under the New Democratic Party, pursued a social corporatist strategy, though for the same goal of closer market integration. A new College Act was developed, governance powers were granted to faculty by specific legislation, and a system-wide strategy was developed.

The purpose, Levin writes, was to reorient the college system on an inclusive basis, through an expansion of committee structures, apparent co-decision-making powers, and job security, either through regularization or through a no-lay-off provision, as at University College of the Fraser Valley. Combined with increased spending, especially in the new university college sector, this model tried to achieve a balance between the original community mandate of the colleges, workforce interests (essentially faculty autonomy to use governance powers to maintain educational quality) and increasing market demands for colleges to act as publically subsidized workplace training centres and as agents of regional economic stimuli.

The Future

Levin's conclusion is that what he calls the "new vocationalism" has shifted the balance between economic, personal, and social needs too far in the direction of the market. While the original mandate of community colleges as open access, comprehensive, locally oriented institutions remains, it is under increasing threat.

The question is, of course, whether the new Liberal government in B.C. will radically redefine the policy context of the colleges, to further serve the market, or whether organized faculty, staff and students can fight successfully for quality, affordability and democratic access to all forms of post-secondary education.

Robin Wylie is chair of the Bargaining Coordination and Review Committee of the College Institute Educators' Association of B.C., first vice-president of Douglas College Faculty Association, and a history instructor at Douglas.