Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2013

CAUT has a vision worth defending

By Wayne Peters
CAUT is recognized as the national voice for academic staff in Canada, promoting and defending its members’ rights and interests in the academy. While this is an accurate description, it is far from being complete. CAUT’s contributions to post-secondary education are, in fact, much broader than this and go well beyond the scope of the terms and conditions that govern the academic workplace.

In this larger context, CAUT is better described as a defender, supporter and promoter of post-secondary education as a public good. It works to advance the standards of the academic profession and seeks to improve the quality of and accessibility to higher education for everyone. CAUT’s work is built on a belief that, first and foremost, our uni­versities and colleges exist to advance our social, cultural, political and economic interests through the creation and transmission of knowledge and by fostering a well-educated and independent-thinking citizenry.

Currently, though, the ideologies and economic policies of neoliberal governments are adversely transforming post-secondary education in Canada and undermining its value as a public good. In response to significant public underfunding of our institutions and the pressure for them to be held accountable to the free market, they are adopting more corporate-style, private-sector practices that destroy institutional autonomy, academic freedom and collegial governance — principles that underpin institutional integrity and the public trust. Left unchecked, post-secondary education in Canada as envisioned by CAUT will be demolished.

As president of CAUT I am extremely proud of the work it does on behalf of academic staff and post-secondary education. However, I know full well that much more needs to be done to meet the present challenges. CAUT must provide the leadership for even stronger advocacy of our broad vision of the role of universities and colleges. It must do this in a way that leverages the full breadth and capacity of its membership in a voice that resonates at each of the local, provincial and national levels.

And, yet, still more will be required. Although post-secondary education falls under provincial authority, federal policy has a significant impact as well. Generating enough political influence to affect change across these jurisdictions is the real challenge.

The goal for CAUT and its members, then, is to spearhead and sustain a broad-based, publicly-supported social movement that champions the greater good of post-secondary education as an indispensable component of society at large. Such an objective requires the committed support of a general public that understands the value of a publicly-funded, accessible post-secondary educational system, and one that is willing to make it a priority over other public-policy areas. Fortunately, there is hope on this front.

CAUT regularly commissions public opinion polls about post-secondary education. Results consistently show a majority of Canadians think post-secondary education funding should be increased, even at the cost of higher taxes, and most are concerned that the quality of post-secondary education is suffering due to underfunding. Research by the Canadian Federation of Students reveals similar attitudes among the Canadian public. Clearly, then, public support exists on which to build successful campaigns in defense of post-secondary education.

For CAUT and its member associations, maximizing the power of their collective membership begins with an examination of how they are structured and how they do their work. It is no secret that power is drawn from only one source — the members. Members’ commitment to and sense of ownership of their association and their willingness to work to achieve specific objectives are all critical to their organization’s overall success and, similarly, to that of CAUT.

To be effective, everything we do must build member involvement in and attachment to the collective organization and effort. Members must be mobilized to build real power. Success depends on building a collective organization of members, not one for members.

The key role for CAUT, then, is to be an organizer — a mobilizer of members. It is not a question of whether or not it is the right time to organize; it is well past the time. Rather, we must question the ways in which we organize and identify the things that have to be done to launch an effective movement.

What are the new tactics and strategies that have not been used before? How do we engage members so that they feel they are part of something bigger? How do we create awareness that the consequence of organizing is a better life for post-secondary education and those that are part of it, as well as for Canadian society in general? How do we instill the inspiration to make a bigger effort because there is a vision worth fighting for? And, woven into all of this, how do we convey the sense that there is definitely a hope of winning?

To accomplish this, CAUT’s commitment must be to promote and implement an organizing model of mobilizing our members. Our efforts must inspire and capture their grassroots activism. They must be empowered to build a culture of activism within the academy that crosses a broad spectrum of political, social and economic interests connected to post-secondary education and their obligations as public intellectuals to shape public policy.

And, as always, CAUT must organize in collaboration with our many existing coalitions and partners and other like-minded organizations that share our progressive views about post-secondary education and a democratic, civil society. Solidarity within the broader public-sector labour movement is also vital to any successful public-good or social-justice campaigns.

At the end of the day, however, the underlying success of CAUT’s work should always be measured by the degree to which it improves the working lives of individual academic staff members, the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education and the capacity of local associations to promote their and CAUT’s objectives. If we can realize successes in these areas then we have done our job.