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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2011

Market-Driven Higher Ed Not Just in UK

By Penni Stewart
A report titled innocuously “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education” has been released in Britain, to the general des­pair of academic staff. Its recommendations, which formed the ba­sis of British coalition government policy, will dramatically reshape the academic landscape by restructuring post-secondary education financing.

In England, state investment in higher education is to be cut by about 40 per cent. Government support for undergraduate teaching (the “teaching grant”) is to be almost entirely ended for humanities, social sciences and the arts, but not for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

Tuition fees will increase dramatically and, in some cases, triple. In place of block funding of institutions, students will receive vouchers to purchase their education in the form of loans. This will almost certainly lead to the closure of some institutions. The only good news is that research funding has escaped the chopping block for now.

Alarm bells have been ringing across England. Writing in the Nov. 4 London Review of Books, Stefan Collini argues that the effect of the restructuring, especially the cuts to block grants, will be to move education decisively from the public to the private realm transforming it into a “lightly regulated market,” where consumer choice dictates what is taught.

“What is at stake is whether universities in the future are to be thought of as having a public cultural role partly sustained by public support, or whether we move further towards redefining them in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualistic conception of ‘consu­mer satisfaction’,” he writes.

In Canada, we have neither this crisis-driven UK restructuring, nor the huge tuition fees of the major American universities. But we are on a similar, though incremental, path. Canadian universities and colleges are driven increasingly by a business model, where education is available for those who can pay, or are willing to heap up debt, and where curricula and programs are oriented to the labour market (real or imagined).

In this new reality, academic staff are increasingly tiered and casualized. Administrators and university presidents, who should be on the front lines demanding a renewed public funding model are, instead, supporting these trends. Too often, academic staff who protest are blamed for being unwilling to accept change or recognize constraints imposed by economic uncertainties.

At the same time, we have been remarkably reticent about promoting the value of a broad and liberal education to an informed citizenry and we have been slow to speak out against the increasing privatization of our system that results from public divestment in post-secondary education.

Canadian students are paying directly for an ever larger proportion of their education. According to Statistics Canada, average full-time undergraduate tuition fees rose by 4.4 per cent last year, additional, compulsory fees also increased by 7 per cent and graduate students paid 6.6 per cent more for tuition (compared to a 1.8 per cent inflation rate from June 2009 to 2010). Tuition now accounts for about 35 per cent of total university revenue.

This situation seems unlikely to improve. Federal transfer payments, increasing by 2 per cent per year, have not kept pace with the increasing cost of education and the already strained budgets of the pro­vinces makes them unlikely sources of new funding for post-secondary education.

Governments and top university administrators have taken a sanguine view of the increasing burden on students and their families, arguing that as long as student financial assistance increases, tuition fees should increase.

Add to this the demand for increasing stratification of institutions, most notably voiced by the presidents of the “big five” universities, but also by external agencies like the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario which, in a recent report, championed differential investments to push universities to develop “specializations.” This is just code for formalizing the widening gap between “research intensive” institutions with medical, law and engineering schools and large graduate programs and “comprehensive,” mainly undergraduate, institutions.

As higher education is defined increasingly in terms of marketable skills, defunding of the arts, humanities and social sciences in favor of the STEM disciplines is becoming a global trend. In Canada, cuts have mainly been experienced through slow starvation caused by governments directing new post-secondary funding to the STEM disciplines (thus cutting out some basic sciences as well) and to the same bias in corporate donations.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has increasingly targeted areas like management, business, health and the environment, embracing this new “innovation strategy” without demur. Some universities have closed or downsized humanities programs such as women’s and language studies, although mobilization by students and academic staff recently prevented a proposed, drastic restructuring of humanities at the University of Toronto.

Defunding has led to a steady rise in the employment of contract academic staff and in the creation of “teaching-only” streams. And now the Ontario government is seeking to establish an online institute.

As I write, students and academic staff across England are de­monstrating against the government’s plans to increase tuition and cut financing for universities. Resistance against austerity plans is also mounting in the US. We must join our colleagues in this struggle. While the Canadian approach to bleeding education dry through a thousand cuts has so far failed to create the sense of crisis arising elsewhere, it is no less dangerous.