Universities and colleges are coming under increased pressure to change the way they operate these days. And this would be a good thing, if it were in response to the intellectual, pedagogical and social concerns of those who truly understand and care about the integrity of higher education. But instead we are dealing with calls for a fundamental realignment of priorities that is driven by political, corporate and managerial interests. “Austerity” is the justificatory mantra, while “prioritization,” “sustainability,” and “revitalization” are the interchangeable code words for a universally-threatened solution.
But no matter what bureaucratic jargon is invoked, the truth is that you simply cannot have productive, cutting-edge, modern research and teaching institutions without adequate and reliable funding. And the expert professionals who work in those institutions cannot fearlessly strive for the advancement of knowledge without freedom and autonomy.
Failure to grasp these truths has serious consequences. And we are already starting to see the effects.
It starts at the top, with governments that treat post-secondary education as an inconvenient burden rather than a stimulating investment in the future. The Conservative government’s 2015 federal budget, for all its promises and political posturing, continues to avoid real commitment to Canada’s public universities, colleges and research institutions.
Rather than reinvesting in tri-council research funding, which has been in steady decline for more than a decade, it engages in sleight-of-hand to move money around. It is more important, we are told, to ensure that wealthy people enjoy tax breaks from income-splitting and tax-free savings accounts; academics will have to find their funding elsewhere.
As government abandons its stake in science and education, private industry has been quick to step in and take over valuable public assets built up by generations of Canadians. Companies now buy their way onto our campuses, branding their logos on academic spaces (as Shell Oil recently did at Dalhousie), and expecting university researchers to perform targeted R&D work in return. And all too often, corporate-minded presidents and boards of governors line up to encourage such privatization. The “Chakmagate” debacle at Western is only the most glaring example of senior administrators being hired and compensated as CEOs rather than academic leaders. Their main concern has consequently shifted from the well-being of academic staff and students to the glad-handing of wealthy investors.
Lack of stable funding, corporate influence and an erosion of academic mission has led to the unfortunate trend of seeking short-term economies through rationalization. This generally means cuts to faculty complement, termination of “unprofitable” programs and an overreliance on underpaid and precarious contract instructors. Academic culture declines as a result, as does curriculum. Advertised courses drop off the books and mentors disappear, while students are nevertheless obliged to pay ever-increasing tuition fees for what may soon be the hollowed-out simulacrum of a once-proud tradition. Academic freedom is another casualty. Freedom is antithetical to corporate regimes, where employees are expected to do as they are told and toe the party line. So as campuses transform into tightly-managed corporate spaces, there is a wholesale decline in the capacity to think critically, to teach and research freely and to speak out on matters of public interest.
“Civility” policies are already emerging to bureaucratically silence those who voice dissent. Curricular and pedagogical changes are being imposed without discussion or debate. And minority voices have been systematically undermined or targeted for excision from departmental structures. CAUT has been kept very busy investigating and seeking to resolve such cases across the country in recent months, and the challenge shows no sign of abating any time soon.
The dystopic future awaiting us has crystalized in the recent passage of Nova Scotia’s Bill 100. Here provision is explicitly made for universities undergoing “revitalization” to be forced into making industry collaboration an essential part of their core mission, while ensuring that faculty research is properly aligned with “business opportunities.” The law also mandates outright suspension of negotiated collective agreements, along with the right to strike, in order to weaken our ability to protest such impositions.
The fact that not a single administrative voice has been raised to oppose this unprecedented legal assault on university autonomy speaks volumes about deals already reached and arrangements already made, as well as the likelihood that similar legislation is in the works for other regions. The responsibility falls instead to us: to stand up for our profession, and to explain why the gutting and privatization of Canadian post-secondary education must be stopped.
As academics, it is our business to understand cause and effect. We know, better than any politician, CEO, or private industry consultant, that a healthy post-secondary system requires both reliable public funding and absolute autonomy from external control. That message must be heard loud and clear in the coming months — on campuses, in board rooms, and across the floor of every provincial legislature. And this fall, we need to send a strong message to Ottawa.
There are consequences when the integrity of a critical public service like education is betrayed. Canadians expect, and deserve, better.