Reflections on the CSSHE Annual Conference: Good, but more policy, please?

This past week, Academic Matters was fortunate to attend the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. As a magazine dedicated to higher education issues, we were particularly interested to attend the sessions of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), held between June 2nd and June 6th.

The sessions were quite good, featuring a lot of insight for student affairs professionals and those interested in teaching a learning. However, as with past years, there could  be more sessions focusing on the public policy dimensions of higher ed.

Not that there were no policy-focused sessions. Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, presented a keynote on “The emerging third sector in Canadian higher education: The case for polytechnic education.” While it made some interesting points, the presentation did not provide a critical or evidence-based perspective on the need for polytechnic institutions, and at times felt more like a PR pitch. A session organized by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development (CHERD) provided a useful overview of the challenges facing universities in Canada, but did so from an administrative viewpoint. Little attempt was made to examine the underlying trends in public finance and politics that have conspired to put universities in a difficult position.

Given the increasing importance of higher education in contemporary policy debates, it is vital that the CSSHE and its members turn their analytical and critical attention to current trends in public policy. We need to understand why institutions are attracting greater public and political attention, and how this attention is creating pressure for change and reform. Are these changes positive? Who benefits? What are the potential downstream effects of proposed reforms and the ongoing austerity narrative in public policy? These are important questions, and CSSHE has an central role to play in providing real answers for policymakers and the public.

The CSSHE, and the academics it represents, has an opportunity to position itself as a leader in understanding the “big picture” of higher education in Canada and around the world. It already does an excellent job on the micro-level issues in higher ed, such as teaching, learning, student support, and institutional governance. A stronger policy focus would strengthen the annual conference greatly, and provide needed context and analysis on rather urgent policy discussions.