Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2009

Surging Demand for Education Creating Global Concern

By Penni Stewart
Privatization, diversification and casualization are the global trends in higher education, according to speakers at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education earlier this summer in Paris. The conference brought together ministers, heads of state, and representatives of the OECD, World Bank, NGOs and student movements to reflect on the state of higher education around the globe. CAUT associate executive director David Robinson and I were part of the Education International delegation.

Speaker after speaker reminded us that we are in the midst of a revolution driven by a surge in demand for education that began 50 years ago in North America, but has accelerated over the past decade in India, China, East Asia and Latin America. There are now more than 150 million students at post-secondary institutions worldwide, a figure that represents a 53 per cent increase since 2000.

As escalating demand for higher education outstrips their ability and willingness to pay, governments have reduced per-student funding, increasingly differentiated educational institutions by status and function and increased reliance on short-term and contractual teaching staff. Privatization enters as post-secondary institutions around the world find themselves searching for ffunds. The search for external funding has also pushed post-secondary institutions to recruit international students and to become branch plant and offshore operators.

For the rich countries of North America, Western Europe and Australia, international enrolment is an important source of revenue, and this form of globalization has more than 2.5 million students studying abroad. Accompanying this is the exodus of skilled teachers that af­flicts poor and developing nations.

Higher education is becoming one of the most casualized professions internationally, perhaps second only to retail services. Fixed-term academic staff are the majority of post-secondary teachers in many countries, as much as 80 per cent in Latin America. Casuali­za­tion has led to poor working conditions, low wages and a decline in the qua­lifications of academic staff.

What’s more, fixed-term academic staff do not have academic freedom. Without tenure, any “of­fender” can be dealt with by not renewing her or his contract. Higher education cannot fulfill its mission to contribute to the advancement of knowledge when staff do not have academic freedom.

Privatization involves public in­stitutions lessening their dependency on government, but also the
rapid growth of private educational institutions. Globally, about 30 per cent of students are enrolled in private institutions and in some countries private education outstrips public options.

Speakers at the conference ar­gued that escalating costs of re­search demand efficiencies best achieved through centralization and differentiation and there is a global trend toward more resources for a small number of elite research institutions while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education.

I went to the conference with little appreciation for the international landscape of post-secon­dary
education. And many of these trends seem fairly remote — after all, Canadian higher education has been relatively untouched compared to the radical restructuring of the UK and Australian systems. At the same time, the forces at work are genuinely international. The international trends pose formidable challenges to the quality and accessibility of higher education and the integrity of the academic profession and to academic freedom, to which Canada is not immune.

The most recognizable Canadian trend is the expansion of precarious work through casualized teaching across the spectrum of Cana­dian institutions. Although private post-secondary institutions have had only a minor role in Canada in recent years, a handful of universities have partnered with for-profit multinational companies like Navitas, which recruit and provide a transition program for international students and share their hefty tuition fees with host universities. Internationalization challenges us to ensure fair working conditions and academic freedom for academic staff at branch campuses of Canadian universities. We need to collaborate internationally to mitigate the damage to countries of the brain drain of top students and academic staff.

Post-secondary education in Ca­nada is still relatively undifferentiated, with comprehensive universities and colleges in each province providing undergraduate and gra­duate education. But the emerging global trend is also clear. Research funding from granting councils, Canada Research Chairs and now the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program are concentrated in relatively few universities in the country.

Reporting on interviews with the presidents of the University of Bri­tish Columbia, University of Alber­ta, University of Toronto, McGill University and the Université de Montréal (Canada’s largest universities, so called the G5) in the July 22 and July 28 issues of Macleans, Paul Wells describes their self-ser­ving consensus that for Canada to be truly “world class,” research resources must be concentrated among a few institutions, while other universities are reconfigured to become mainly uundergraduate-oriented institutions.

Resisting the centralization, privatization and industrialization of higher education involves the defense of our own interests as teachers and researchers. But at the same time we must speak to the importance of diversity, warn about the risks of specializing and monopolizing the production of knowledge and turning undergra­duate education into rote development of particular, measured skills. But we also have a responsibility internationally. We must develop a better understanding of our role in a rapidly privatizing global system and act nationally and internationally.

One strategy is to form international coalitions. CAUT recently became a signatory along with academic unions around the world to Challenging the Global Market in Education, an agreement that seeks to safeguard working con­ditions for academic staff in branch campuses and offshore programs.