Waking up to the reality of Canadian higher education

Higher-education systems in Canada and the United Kingdom share much in common, but there are important differences that faculty on both sides of the Atlantic should appreciate. The UK experience can wake Canadian academics up to the urgency of resisting university corporatization and to the opportunities for resistance that remain.

Wake up! That is the call of mindfulness practice to ground us in the present moment, and help us see and use all available resources to meet the challenges that confront us. In this article, we urge academics to become more mindful of the harm that corporatization is causing to Canada’s universities, and especially of the opportunities to resist it.

During the winter of 2017, while conducting interviews at universities across the UK, we realized that many academics—on both sides of the Atlantic—are “asleep,” albeit in different ways. Many British faculty have been so traumatized by the outrageous burdens, irrationalities, and indignities within their higher-education system that they can no longer see—or muster the resources to face—what is horrifyingly clear to an outsider: namely, how aberrant and destructive that system has become. Meanwhile, many Canadian faculty have grown so resigned to the corporate values and practices that have overtaken their universities that they no longer appreciate the numerous resources and opportunities they have to resist corporatization.

We believe that academics in both countries need to wake up to their respective realities, and that they can help one another to do this. Canadian academics can help their British colleagues recover the sense that they are experiencing a situation that is neither normal nor acceptable. In turn, British academics can help Canadian colleagues shake off their complacency or despondency by helping them appreciate the precious opportunities to resist corporatization they still have.

In this article, we use the British context as a backdrop to help bring sharper relief to those unrecognized or underappreciated features of Canadian higher education that make it possible for Canadians to resist—and possibly reverse—the corporatization of their universities. We begin by briefly describing some features of British universities, which provide a glimpse into the reality that awaits Canadian academics should they fail to seize these opportunities.

UK higher education today

Many Canadian academics are aware of well-publicized developments in the British higher-education system, such as the establishment of the Research Excellence Framework (REF; formerly the Research Assessment Exercise) through which academics’ research is ranked and their universities funded accordingly, and the replacement of most direct government grants to universities with student loans to cover the resulting tuition fees. They are also aware of some of the financial, personal, and interpersonal costs that the REF and other performance measures impose, and the ways that they, along with recent funding changes, entrench and advance corporate thinking and practice within British universities. However, what Canadians may not know, and what they may find shocking, is how severely many British academics are disciplined within their institutions and how thoroughly public practices, values, and interests are being excised from British higher education.

For example, unreasonable performance expectations are regularly imposed on British faculty, such as the requirement to meet annual “performance targets” for securing external research funding, despite the reality that almost two-thirds of that funding is awarded to an elite 12 per cent of the country’s universities.1 Tenure was effectively abolished in 1988, and now many faculty are not only relentlessly micro-managed and monitored by administrators, but routinely disciplined—often unjustly and with no recourse—for displeasing management in any number of ways.2

Further, British higher education is being progressively privatized, as for-profit higher-education providers undermine and displace public universities. The market increasingly shapes which academic courses are provided and at what cost, and higher-education institutions use public money to enrich shareholders at the expense of students and taxpayers. Meanwhile, the British government has passed draconian legislation that cripples the ability of academic unions to engage in “political” activities or to strike, and has authorized vicious attacks against citizens who demonstrate in defence of public-serving higher education.3

British higher education is being progressively privatized, as for-profit higher-education providers undermine and displace public universities.

These developments are causing widespread and acute distress, particularly, but not exclusively, among British academics. They are experiencing alarming rates of physical and mental illness and are abandoning, in growing numbers, a cherished profession that has become intolerable.

It is difficult to convey how thoroughly irrational, destructive, and inhumane the British higher-education system seemed to the Canadian author of this article. The intense shock she felt acted as a very powerful wake-up call, not only to the necessity and urgency of resisting university corporatization in Canada, but also to the considerable space and opportunity that still exist to achieve this. In what follows, we briefly describe some of these possibilities for resistance. If Canadian academics and others approach these mindfully, free from any distracting memories of the past or assumptions about the future, they can gain a renewed sense of their ability and power to act, as well as a clearer idea of how they might do so.

Exploiting our advantages

To bring some of the opportunities for resistance more clearly into view, it is helpful to compare the Canadian and British university systems and identify key advantages of the Canadian system. Three of these are closed shop unions (i.e., unions to which all employees must belong), tenure, and decentralization.

Closed shop unions, particularly in a context of less restrictive labour legislation, provide Canadian academics with more resources and freedom to organize and oppose corporatization both at the bargaining table and within broader society. This is because Canadian faculty associations do not need to spend substantial energy and resources recruiting and retaining members, as is the case for the UK’s University and College Union (UCU). Canadian faculty unions also face far less severe consequences should they alienate some union members, members of the public, and/or members of government when using the broader range of available means to oppose corporatization. (Stunningly, British legislation allows people who do not even belong to the UCU to launch complaints against it, which can result in fines for the union. The British government also has a lot of leeway to define those “political” activities that unions are prohibited, by law, from undertaking.)

Along with strong faculty associations, the institution of tenure affords many (albeit too few) Canadian academics additional protections against the kinds of retaliation and reprisal routinely faced by British academics who dare oppose corporatization. These protections may not only support, but can also motivate resistance—if tenured Canadian academics realize how relatively little they risk in return for potentially substantial gains.

The decentralization of the Canadian higher-education system, with postsecondary education under the purview of the provinces, is a further advantage for academics seeking change. When public values and services are under attack, no government can single-handedly impose system-wide changes as dramatic and consequential as those the British government has recently put into place. Decentralization also makes those politicians responsible for higher education more accessible and accountable to Canadian citizens (at least in theory).

Most Canadian academics have not fully leveraged these advantages; however, when they are used, they can deal effective blows to the corporatization process that may reverberate throughout the postsecondary system. The recent successful strike in which the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) prioritized opposing corporatization over traditional bread-and-butter issues is a case in point. In forgoing a pay increase and seeking instead to restrict managerial control and the use of performance metrics, UMFA not only prevented its own administration from advancing some of its damaging agenda, but provided an inspiring example that can embolden other Canadian faculty associations to do the same. 4

Canadian academics can deal effective blows to the corporatization process that may reverberate throughout the postsecondary system.

We don’t want what they’re having

Additional opportunities for resistance can be uncovered by identifying negative features of the British higher-education system that are less developed within Canadian universities. Primary among these is the infamous UK audit culture, which involves the use of various institutional and system-wide metrics to measure, rank, and reward —or punish—academics and universities. This culture has produced tremendous waste and dysfunction, as well as acute personal and social harm.

Because the audit culture is less developed and less coordinated in Canada, academics have considerably more autonomy in their work and their institutions than do many of their British counterparts. This autonomy can be used to defend and preserve professional and public-serving values and practices as well as defy the corporate logic and processes being incorporated into Canada’s universities.

Lower average tuition fees are another feature of Canadian higher education that helps limit corporatization. As was demonstrated in Quebec’s “Maple Spring” student protests, low tuition fees (and, in the case of the province’s CEGEP students, no tuition fees) can support the ability and willingness of students to organize and sustain anti-corporatization campaigns. Lower fees may also dissuade for-profit higher-education providers from entering the Canadian university marketplace, because they will not be able to effectively compete and make a profit. This is extremely important, for when large numbers of for-profits enter the higher-education sector, as they have in the UK, corporate practices and dynamics are entrenched and advanced within all higher-education institutions in a viciously circular way.

Finally, there is far less hierarchy among Canadian universities than there is in the UK, and there are fewer established university “clubs,” such as the UK’s Russell Group, that prioritize member universities’ interests over all over others. These features of the Canadian system increase the potential to generate inter-university solidarity and united action to oppose corporatization, and restrict opportunities to employ “divide-and-conquer” tactics in order to advance or legitimize the process.

It is important to emphasize that Canada is not without a developed audit culture, unacceptably high tuition fees, or hierarchy and division within its university system, all of which need to be arrested and reversed. However, because these problems are less developed than they are elsewhere, Canadians are better able to resist them, particularly when one takes into account the advantages addressed above.

Strengths to build on

One final way to highlight Canadians’ opportunities for resistance is to note positive features of British higher education that are equally if not more developed in Canada. Perhaps the most significant of these is the presence of public-serving bodies and institutions that can be used to challenge corporatizing policies in higher education and champion alternatives to them.

On the one hand, Canada has many formal organizations that produce solid critiques of corporatizing policies and develop credible and innovative alternatives to them. These include national and regional organizations that advocate on behalf of faculty, such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, and progressive think tanks that prioritize education issues, such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Canada also has more robust channels and bodies through which progressive ideas can be promoted. There is more institutional democracy within Canadian universities than there is in most British universities, particularly those that have been established post-1992. There is also more opportunity to revitalize neglected collegial bodies (such as academic senates) and to expand academics’ (and others’) representation on governing bodies. These not only allow academics to better defend against corporatizing policies, but also to put forward and move forward alternatives to them.

Canada is also home to a relatively large number of established professional and labour organizations, confederations, and coalitions representing academics and other higher-education workers (such as the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the coalition of university workers, students, and civil society organizations currently promoting the creation of a national postsecondary education act). These organizations’ substantial resources and networks make it possible for them to connect with a wide range of individuals and groups—including their members, political representatives, and ordinary citizens—to generate opposition to corporate values and practices, and to build support for publicly oriented values and practices within and beyond Canadian higher education.

To be sure, many of these bodies and institutions could be further strengthened and their actions better coordinated. For this to happen, Canadian academics and others need to recognize the latent potential that exists within them, just as they must recognize the potential that exists in the other places and spaces that have been addressed here.

Moving forward

Most readers will not be surprised by anything we have said about Canada’s higher-education system. Our aim is not to present anything new, so much as to encourage a more mindful or wakeful way of looking at what exists and what we can do with it.

Many forces currently conspire to keep Canadian academics and others from adopting this perspective. The corporatization process itself dulls awareness by rendering people ever more isolated, frantic, and insecure. Vision is also clouded by memories of past defeats and disillusions, as well as fears of failure that extinguish inspiration or initiative. However, as we have tried to demonstrate, Canadians can and should shake off their sleepy state and approach the present moment with greater clarity and focus. This will help them appreciate the many opportunities and resources that exist to challenge corporatization and to recover a sense of their power and energy to use them.

In closing, we emphasize that we are not calling for naive optimism nor suggesting that defeating corporatization is merely a matter of shifting perspective. On the contrary, we are promoting a more realistic appraisal of the challenges facing the Canadian higher-education system and the possibilities to respond to them. While resisting and reversing corporatization is no simple task, it is, we believe, an achievable and ever more urgent one. The nightmare being lived by British academics highlights both of these truths and offers an excellent reason and motivation to act.

Claire Polster is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies at the University of Regina. Sarah Amsler is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham.

1. The Russell Group of Universities, Submission of Evidence for the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry: The Impact of Government Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research, 2010 Jan., https://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/media/5260/evidence-to-commons-science-and-technology-committee-inquiry-on-the-impact-of-funding-cuts-to-scientific-research.pdf.
2. Liz Morrish, “Why the Audit Culture Made Me Quit,” 2017, http://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/why-audit-culture-made-me-quit; for further analysis, see Morrish’s blog, “Academic Irregularities,” https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/.
3. For elaboration on these issues, see Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, London: Pluto Press, 2013; Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri, Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, London: Verso, 2011.
4. Jen Hedler Phillis, “Beyond Bread and Butter,” 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/university-manitoba-strike-union-umfa-bargaining.