A major OECD report released last month on higher education is recommending governments play a more active role in “steering” universities and colleges while raising tuition fees.
The report results from a three-year review of higher education policy in 24 industrialized countries and found that the main challenges facing governments and institutions are how to ensure greater accountability, diversify sources of funding, promote quality and build stronger links with the labour market.
According to the report authors, governments can best meet these challenges by developing performance-based funding mechanisms, subsidizing education studies offered by private and for-profit providers and requiring students to share the costs of financing their education.
But CAUT associate executive director David Robinson said many of the recommendations in the report would have serious consequences for academic staff.
“The overall direction is on ensuring greater government control over universities and colleges, a more vocational learning focus for higher education and expansion of business sponsorship and privatization,” he said.
Robinson said while he welcomes the report’s findings that academies should focus less on the commercialization of R&D results and more on public dissemination, he warns that recommendations for changes to academic staffing, including the casualization of academic work, are some of the more “troubling aspects” of the report.
Although the report notes there is a need to make academic careers more attractive, Robinson says the central recommendations would undermine this goal. The report acknowledges that casualization has increased, but it nevertheless calls for universities and colleges to adopt “more flexible” employment contracts.
The report recognizes that academic staff salaries are too low, but argues that rather than providing a general pay increase to everyone (which it says would prove too costly), institutions should have broad discretion over tying salaries to merit.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned about merit pay it’s this: it’s extremely expensive to administer, it’s almost always seen as arbitrary and it makes almost everyone unhappy,” Robinson stressed.
The report also argues for the unbundling of academic work by separating teaching from research and claims the tenure system may not in fact be needed to guarantee academic freedom. It concludes that institutions need to find ways to “reconcile academic freedom with institutional goals.”
“There’s a very poor and narrow understanding of academic freedom in the report,” said Robinson. “Academic freedom also includes the right of academics to express their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, free from censorship. The OECD report suggests that academic freedom ends when conflicts arise between academics and institutional priorities. This view represents a serious restriction on academic freedom.”