Unintended consequences: The use of metrics in higher education

Metrics are used throughout Ontario’s postsecondary education system—for determining university funding, judging institutional performance, and gauging student perceptions. But metrics are not always the best tool for evaluation, and often have unintended consequences.

Measured scepticism

Statistical measures, or “metrics” as we are now expected to call them, have become as extensive in higher education as they are deplored. The growth in the use of metrics has been neither recent nor restricted to Ontario. Faculty are therefore unlikely to be able to reverse metrics’ rise. But faculty could displace metrics from their core role of teaching and learning by promoting peer review of teaching, which is a far more valid indicator of teaching quality, may support teaching and learning as a community endeavour, and would remain very much the responsibility of individual faculty, rather than the domain of central data collectors and analysts.

Ambivalence about metrics

In an article published in 2000, English academic Malcolm Tight amusingly but informatively compared the ranks of English soccer clubs and universities. His work confirmed that there was a close relation between the distribution of universities and soccer clubs and the population of English cities and larger towns. Tight also found that, in many cities and towns, local universities shared similar ranks to local soccer clubs (if a university was ranked in the top ten, so was the soccer club). However, universities in the South of England were more likely to rank much higher than local soccer clubs, while universities in the North and Midlands were more likely to rank much lower.

Both soccer clubs and universities gain a considerable advantage from being old and well-established, and gain a further advantage when they have a higher income than their competitors (whether through endowments, tuition fees, ticket prices, or merchandise), something which is also strongly related to how long the club or university has been operating. University ranks are also similar to English soccer team ranks in that they are dominated by a stable elite that changes little over time.

Tight’s comparison of ranks illustrates an ambivalence with the usefulness of ranks and, more generally, with metrics, statistical measures, and performance indicators. On the one hand, these ranks seem to democratize judgments and decision-making about specialized activities. Those who know little about English soccer can readily determine the most successful clubs by scanning the league ranks. On the other hand, some highly ranked clubs may play too defensively and thus may not be considered by aficionados to play the “best” soccer. Ranking soccer clubs only by their winning ratio ignores more sophisticated judgements about the quality of the football they play.

Government funding and metrics

The Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD) and its predecessors have long allocated funds to colleges and universities predominantly according to their level of enrolment. However, over the last decade MAESD has relied increasingly on performance indicators to monitor postsecondary institutions and influence their internal decisions. MAESD has been reporting each college’s rates for student satisfaction, graduation, graduate satisfaction, graduate employment, and employer satisfaction. For each university, the Council of Ontario Universities reports data on applications, student financial assistance, enrolments, funding, faculty, degrees awarded, and graduates’ employment outcomes.

Ontario universities get most of their operating revenue from tuition fees (38%), MAESD (27%), the federal government (11%), other Ontario ministries (4%), and other sources (20%).1 Only four per cent of MAESD’s operating funding is allocated according to performance indicators, meaning that just over one per cent of Ontario university revenue is allocated in this way.2 Yet performance funding and its indicators have been debated extensively.

Even more contentious is MAESD’s differentiation policy, which is informed by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s (HEQCO’s) analysis of metrics. The policy is primarily implemented through metrics-heavy strategic mandate agreements negotiated between the province and each university. Further, in a recent article for Academic Matters, the executive lead of Ontario’s University Funding Model Review, Sue Herbert, expressed a need for more “information, data, and metrics that are transparent, accessible, and validated.”3

It is therefore easy to conclude that MAESD’s direction for colleges and universities is driven by metrics that allow government officials and ministers to make judgements about institutions without a detailed familiarity with, or expertise in, postsecondary education. This is similar to arrangements in other Canadian provinces, a number of US states, the United Kingdom, and other countries, where governments and ministries have greatly increased their reliance on metrics.

There are three obvious alternatives to this scenario. The overwhelming preference of college and university management and staff is for governments to leave more decisions to the institutions alone. Funding would be provided to universities with few strings attached, tuition fees would be unregulated, and universities would be able to pursue their own visions for education, free of government interference. However, such a scenario undermines the democratic power of Ontario citizens, which is exercised through the provincial government and its delegates.

The second alternative would be for ministers and ministries to return to making decisions about postsecondary education by relying on their own judgement, attitudes, impressions, and others’ anecdotes, as well as the advice of experts. This is opaque and relies on a high level of trust that decisions aren’t affected by partisan interests or personal prejudices.

A third alternative would be for the government to delegate decisions to an intermediate or buffer body of experts in postsecondary education who would make decisions according to a combination of their own judgements, expertise, experience, and metrics. This was investigated by David Trick for HEQCO, who concluded that:

An intermediary body could be helpful as the Ontario government seeks to pursue quality and sustainability through its differentiation policy framework. Specifically, such a body could be useful for pursuing and eventually renewing the province’s Strategic Mandate Agreements; for strategic allocation of funding (particularly research funds); making fair and evidence-based decisions on controversial allocation issues; and identifying/incentivizing opportunities for cooperation between institutions to maintain access and quality while reducing unnecessary duplication. 4

However, governments and ministries are concerned that buffer bodies restrict their discretion and reflect the interests of the institutions they oversee more than the governments and public they are established to serve. In fact, the UK recently dismantled its higher-education buffer body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Institutional actors

Metrics are also tools for transferring evaluation and monitoring from experts, who are usually the people conducting the activity, to people and bodies who are distant in location and seniority, often senior management located centrally. No organization in Ontario or Canada has replicated the detail of the University of Texas’ task force on productivity and excellence, which compiled data on each professor’s pay, teaching load, enrolments, mean grade awarded, mean student evaluation score, amount of grants won, and time spent on teaching and research. The data on 13,000 faculty in nine institutions was published in a spreadsheet of 821 pages in response to open-records requests.

Metrics are tools for transferring evaluation and monitoring from experts to people who are distant in location and seniority.

HEQCO’s preliminary report on the productivity of the Ontario public postsecondary education system compared data for Ontario’s college and university sector with those for all other provinces, examining enrolments, faculty/student ratios, funding per student, graduates, graduates per faculty, funding per graduate, tri-council funding per faculty, citations per faculty, and faculty workload. OCUFA criticized that report for being preoccupied with outputs at the expense of inputs such as public funding and processes such as student engagement, as well as for its narrow focus on labour market outcomes, which excluded postsecondary education’s broader roles of educating and engaging with students and the community.

In a subsequent report for HEQCO, Jonker and Hicks went further, analyzing data on individual faculty that were publicly posted on university websites and elsewhere. HEQCO wrote that the report:

conservatively estimates that approximately 19% of tenure and tenure-track economics and chemistry faculty members at 10 Ontario universities sampled demonstrated no obvious recent contribution of scholarly or research output, although universities generally adhere to a faculty workload distribution of 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service.

Extrapolating from that sample, the authors say that Ontario’s university system would be more productive and efficient if research non-active faculty members compensated for their lack of scholarly output by increasing their teaching load to double that of their research-active colleagues—for an 80% teaching and 20% service workload distribution.5

This report illuminates several issues with using metrics to measure productivity. Neither of the authors is a chemist, yet they felt competent, based on their use of metrics, to judge chemists’ scholarly “output” and workload. Neither author works at a university with chemists, yet they believed it was appropriate for them to propose major reallocations of university chemists’ workloads. These problems led to extensive criticisms of the report’s method and conclusions.

The report also made economics and chemistry faculties’ work more visible for public scrutiny and, possibly, more accessible for public regulation. This led to the report being praised for promoting the extension of democratic authority over public bodies. Under this argument, the report’s partial and incomplete data and crude, reductive methods were not grounds for abandoning the project but for strengthening its data and method.

A similar trend has been occurring within Ontario colleges and universities over the last two decades. Central administrations in Ontario’s postsecondary institutions have long collected data to allocate funds internally and have increasingly collected and analyzed data to assess and monitor their institution’s performance. Ontario universities now analyze extensive metrics to evaluate their institutional plans and performance. By a process of mimetic isomorphism—the tendency of an organization to imitate another organization’s structure—institutions tend to allocate funds and evaluate performance internally according to the criteria on which their own funds are received and their performance evaluated. These measures are replicated, to varying extents, by faculties. While immediate supervisors and heads of departments still seem to share enough expertise and interests with faculty to trust in their own judgment and that of their faculty members, they still need to take account of the metrics used by senior administrators in their institution.

Ontario universities now analyze extensive metrics to evaluate their institutional plans and performance.

Unintended consequences

A common criticism of the use of metrics is that they can have unintended and undesirable consequences by distorting the behaviour of those being measured. This idea was expressed rigorously by British economist Charles Goodhart, who wrote that an observed statistical regularity tends to collapse once it is used as a target. There are various formulations of this idea, which has come to be known as Goodhart’s law. Similarly, Donald Campbell writes that, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”6

In his paper on Goodhart’s law and performance indicators in higher education, Lewis Elton argued that performance indicators are a tool of public accountability that direct attention away from important processes, undermine academic professionalism, and reflect an erosion of trust in individual academics. However, he was not uncritically protective of academics, and argued that most traditional assessments of students use proxies that are similar to performance indicators (PIs). He argues that most grading is unreliable, suffering the methodological flaws of accountability through metrics:

Much of this traditional assessment is largely through the equivalent of PIs, with all the faults that stem from Goodhart’s Law…

Also, it may be noted that what are normally called summative and formative assessment correspond to PIs used as a control judgmentally and PIs used as a management tool for improvement.

As long as academics use traditional examinations to assess students, they really have no right to complain if the Department of Education and Skills assesses them through quantitative PIs and targets (emphasis in original). 7

Implications for faculty

Much of the data upon which metrics are based are collected from faculty, adding unproductive work to their many other duties. The resources invested in collecting, reporting, and analyzing metrics are diverted from academic activities. Metrics are a tool for shifting power from those who do work to those who monitor that work. They also shift power from experts to those who can interpret descriptive statistics. For both reasons, metrics are also a tool for shifting power from those who are lower down in an organization to those who are higher up. Metrics
may change faculty priorities and increase the pressure to improve their performance on the measures monitored, as Jeanette Taylor found for some of the 152 academics she surveyed at four Australian universities. Metrics are likely to reduce faculty’s discretion over the work they do and how it is evaluated. Metrics are also likely to intensify faculty work.

Metrics are limited and many have methodological flaws. Yet, rather than pausing the use of metrics, pointing out their problems leads to increased investment in attempts to make them more extensive and rigorous. This in turn increases demands on faculty to provide more and better data. Metrics are widespread in postsecondary education in many jurisdictions other than Ontario, and are pervasive in elementary school education. This suggests that faculty can do little more than moderate and perhaps redirect the metrics that flood over the sector. However, there is a major action that faculty can and should take that would redress much of the current distortion of metrics: promote widespread peer review of teaching.

There is currently no direct measure of the quality of teaching. This does not, of course, prevent believers in metrics from seeking to evaluate teaching by proxies such as student satisfaction and graduation rates. Compilers of ranks also incorporate faculty/student ratios and faculty reputation surveys. In contrast, all the measures of research performance are aggregations of peer evaluations: Manuscripts are published on the recommendations of peer reviewers moderated by editors who are experts in the field, citations are by authors published in the field, and grants are awarded on the recommendations of experts moderated by chairs who are experts in the field.

Teams of scholars have developed comprehensive criteria, protocols, and processes that provide frameworks for the peer review of teaching. Typically, reviews are the responsibility of faculties, with the support of an expert in teaching and learning; reviewers are chosen by the faculty member from a team of accredited reviewers; the review is of the whole course, not just the observation of teaching events; and the faculty member meets their reviewers at least once before and after the review. In Canada, reviews are required for promotion and tenure
at some Canadian universities, such as the University of British Columbia, as they are at several universities in the United States, the UK, and Australia.

Peer review of teaching should become an important counterweight to the excessive reliance on research for evaluating the performance of institutions and faculty, as well as the excessive reliance on student satisfaction to evaluate faculty and institutions, and on graduation rates to evaluate institutions. Peer review of teaching enables teaching to become a community endeavour and, of course, remains very much the responsibility of individual faculty, rather than central data collectors and analysts.

Measured progress

Metrics have had a long and extensive history in higher education, despite the extensive critiques they have attracted and notwithstanding the clear dangers they pose. They are pervasive in Ontario, and probably more so in other jurisdictions in Canada, the US, the UK, and elsewhere. While faculty may curb the worst excesses of metrics, it seems unlikely that they will reverse metrics’ advances. But there is a prospect of diverting the application of metrics from one of faculty’s core activities and responsibilities, teaching and learning. Faculty can do this by promoting the peer review of teaching, which is a far more valid indicator of teaching quality than the proxy metrics that are currently used. AM

Gavin Moodie is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

1. HEQCO, “The Ontario university funding model in context,” 2015, http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Contextual%20Background%20to%20the%20Ontario%20University%20Funding%20Formula-English.pdf.
2. Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, “University funding model reform consultation paper,” 2015, http://news.ontario.ca/tcu/en/2015/03/ontario-launches-consultations-on-university-funding-reform.html.
3. Sue Herbert, “Reviewing Ontario’s university funding,” Academic Matters, 2016 Jan., https://academicmatters.ca/2016/01/reviewing-ontarios-university-funding.
4. David Trick, “The role of intermediary funding bodies in enhancing quality and sustainability in higher education,” HEQCO, 2015, http://www.heqco.ca/en-ca/Research/Research%20Publications/Pages/Summary.aspx?link=196.
5. Linda Jonker & Martin Hicks, “Teaching loads and research outputs of Ontario university faculty: implications for productivity and differentiation,” HEQCO, 2014.
6. Donald T. Campbell, “Assessing the impact of planned social change,” Evaluation and Program Planning, 2:1 (1979): 67-90.
7. Lewis Elton, “Goodhart’s law and performance indicators in higher education,” Evaluation and Research in Education, 18:1,2 (2004): 120-128.

Is there a metric 
to evaluate tenure?

How much can data meaningfully inform decisions about tenure? If data only tell part of the story, perhaps faculty should be evaluated so that their different lived experiences are also taken into consideration.

Tenure is one of the foundational concepts upon which Canada’s modern university system has been built. It is not without its issues, of course: Faculty often struggle in their early years as they work toward earning tenure.

How much can data-gathering inform tenure decisions? Or reflect the efforts and experiences of individuals who go through years of tenure-track in the hopes of meeting the expectations for tenure?

Data about tenure

Let’s begin by considering that there are data available about tenure—important and interesting data. One example is data from the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada (see Table 1), which provides quantitative details about the number of faculty with tenure, in tenure-track positions, and in other types of positions. The data are constrained by changes in government policy regarding the collection of the data and, to the best of our knowledge, more recent figures are not readily available. (While it is tangential to this article, when using data for evaluative purposes it is important to consider the possibility that data collection can be altered over time, causing the evaluative process to lose clarity.)

What Table 1 reveals is how rapidly faculty tenure numbers can change. The decline from 27,633 to 19,137 tenured faculty seen between 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 seems to defy the often suggested permanence of tenure. Similarly, the “Other” column values decline dramatically, from 11,361 to 3,822 between 2004/2005 and 2005/2006. These data allow us to evaluate the stability of faculty and confirm the “precarious” moniker used to describe university faculty. In that sense, data-gathering does facilitate some understanding of tenure.

Another collection of data, also from the CAUT Almanac, outlines the number of faculty within different ranks (see Table 2). It is often assumed that promotions hinge on tenure; however, the data clearly show that policies do allow promotion and tenure to be treated somewhat independently. Consider, for example, that in 2004/2005 there were 15,543 tenured faculty but 21,945 full and associate professors. This certainly allows one to conclude that university policies are not as simple as might be assumed. Over the decade covered by the table, the number of full professors increased by 24 per cent, associate professors and assistant professors both increased by 47 per cent, and lecturers by 151 per cent—demonstrating that growth has occurred and that it has favoured non-research faculty. While this category may include permanent faculty with no research requirement, it also includes sessional instructors, who hold the least permanent positions. Both undermine one of the core missions of the university: research. The data also reveal that new research faculty are embedded in a situation with proportionately fewer research mentoring options.

The stories the data do not tell

Although the data presented show various trends and phenomena, they do not, in and of themselves, provide information about tenure decision-making or the experiences of faculty members entering academia. Even if the CAUT Almanac analysis was done at the institutional level and by subject discipline, which is feasible, the information would not suffice. There should be skepticism about its value for informing individual faculty members or tenure and promotion committees about the process of achieving tenure.

Previously, we shared our concerns that evaluative data did not reflect personal decision-making or lived experiences. This led us to look for narratives about the meaning of tenure-track. We were both well established in public education, Tim as an experienced teacher and Tory in educational leadership, before moving to positions in higher education, giving up employment security to pursue tenure. In making that decision, it would have been helpful to have data showing the success rate of achieving tenure. This would have allowed us to make more informed decisions about moving to higher education and, perhaps, such data would illustrate just how precarious it is to pursue tenure. In addition, seeing a description of what goes wrong during tenure-track and what leads to failed attempts at achieving tenure would have allowed us to self-evaluate throughout the process. Instead, tenure-track faculty are given specious advice from colleagues in building corridors, rather than factual evaluative data.

Tenure-track faculty are given specious advice from colleagues in building corridors, rather than factual evaluative data.

It is these kinds of considerations that make one wonder if the control of data collection, and the choices about what data are collected, are being manipulated to avoid revealing or facilitating forms of evaluation that might lead to demands for changes to institutional systems and governance.

This is problematic. For instance, data could be collected that enumerate the number of publications in various categories between successful and unsuccessful applications by subject area, immediately reinforcing notions of tenure being based upon “bean-counting,” and therefore helping to diminish academic freedom. How can faculty be innovative and responsive to the dynamic nature of research if they are ultimately focused on tabulations in fixed categories to achieve tenure? Academic freedom addresses this by ensuring that professors can make choices best suited to the innovations arising from their research. Tenure cannot be measured in terms of static, quantitative achievements that defy the dynamic university environment that is supposed to facilitate innovation.

These considerations led us to develop a book about tenure-track experiences. The Academic Gateway: Understanding the Journey to Tenure1,  brings together narratives of tenure-track experiences from across Canada. To make the task tractable, it focuses on faculty members in education, a discipline in which work experience as a teacher often informs the professorial role. This is not to suggest that other disciplines do not have overlap between careers and academia, only that education was viewed as sharing one meaningful overlap—teaching is 40 per cent of the assignment. In this way, we feel the narratives are likely more biased toward illustrating smoother transitions than might be found in other disciplines. However, they also demonstrate that there is a considerable diversity of experience.

The book includes authors from every province, and approximately equal numbers of academics who are early, midway, and late in the tenure-track process. As well, there is gender equity across the chapters. However, knowing all this about the book does not allow one to evaluate the experiences that arise within its chapters. These differences are reflected in the varied ways in which the authors entered higher education—for example, some worked while pursuing graduate school and others took time away from their careers—and the experiences they had after joining the academy. The chapters speak to how lived experiences can be much more illuminating than simple quantitative data. In essence, it is the recognition of the importance of these varied experiences that obliges the use of peer evaluation, rather than just data, to make decisions about tenure.

Consider the following quotes from The Academic Gateway that show a variety of faculty experiences and speak to very different circumstances when entering academia: “My wife and I left permanent education positions, financial security, and family networks in Alberta… as I was offered a one-year term position as an assistant professor… This was not a tenure-track appointment, but I was told it would turn into one.” Another writer speaks of the emotional strain of moving: “In my new surroundings—living alone for the first time in 29 years, feeling lost and lonely, and having left family and friends behind—I began to seriously doubt my ability to cope.” There are also changes in stature noted:
“I am on a steep learning path. Transitioning from a position where I had designated authority to a position as a junior faculty member means I am negotiating and navigating the bounds of my role.” While a critical eye can point to these experiences and say that none are relevant to tenure considerations, they are evidence of the deep changes that moving into academia can have on different individuals. For example, the following quote describes a formal application within tenure-track and demonstrates issues with data-gathering and requiring applicants to conform to specific criteria:

This template featured categories and requirements entirely (and appropriately) geared to an academic career; but I found myself, for example, unable to list technical papers and publications I had written because policies in government had prohibited named authorship. This issue turned out to be the tip of the iceberg, as the methods, vocabulary, and rhetorical strategies I used to succeed in government did not transfer as readily as expected.

This issue may have become even more prevalent in recent decades, because graduate students tend to be older, taking longer to graduate as they work to pay for their education.

One difficulty that arises with data collection is that it does not recognize the fine details that are part of lived experiences. The absence of these details creates an environment in which academic supervision does not have to consider anything other than quantitative data. However, many authors in the book speak of circumstances in their lived tenure-track experience that needed a more nuanced analysis and a more personalized response in order to support their personal and professional growth. It is alarming to contrast the personal upheaval of moving into the academy with an impersonal, data-oriented approach that is oblivious to personal struggles.

One difficulty that arises with data collection is that it does not recognize the fine details that are part of lived experiences.

The narratives in the book speak to the human side of tenure-track. While some may favour a quantitative approach to tenure decisions, the book’s qualitative narratives are demonstrable evidence that this approach does not work. Innovative research is rarely clear-cut and frequently ill-defined, but here it speaks to the very core of what tenure is.

A model of tenure: Grief and self-determination

After the book was published, we continued thinking about tenure and about the book as a source of cross-case narratives. This led to a model of tenure that comprises two components. The first component addresses the change in workplace culture when one moves into a tenure-track position: You need to learn the ways of a new institution, a sense of isolation occurs, and a loss of community becomes apparent when individuals move long distances. We address these essentially as a grieving process that models the sense of loss associated with prior workplace colleagues, community familiarity, and a loss of capacity to efficiently address fairly routine tasks.

It appears that, as tenure-track progresses well for individuals, this grief component of the model runs its course. Every professor who is on track to earn tenure, or believes that they are, will overcome any and all of the concerns that led to inclusion of this grief component. Of course, in some cases, individuals simply do not manifest any grief. For example, a person who moves directly from graduate studies to a tenure-track position at the same institution might transition quite seamlessly. We have also hypothesized that when an individual perceives that their tenure-track is not progressing in a successful fashion, the grief will manifest itself in more pronounced ways that reflect a continued sense of regret.

The other component of the model that endures after earning tenure is self-determination. This is a complex theory that reflects the wide array of university professors’ skills and tasks.2 Perhaps the most significant feature of this component is the aspect of autonomy—the capacity to self-direct one’s work. It is not the absence of having to choose (i.e., one cannot use self-determination to justify being lethargic when they have tenure), but about choosing from the different options that arise. In terms of research, this includes academic freedom, but it also includes making choices when academic freedom is not a significant issue.

One of the consequences of this model is that self-determination theory is a grand theory that will not easily succumb to quantitative evaluation. How can one, for example, measure autonomy? Even if it could be measured, as one progresses through the tenure-track years, how much autonomy is required to grant tenure? In this sense, the research aspect of higher education requires freedom to explore where one’s expertise suggests they should explore.

Within the academy, it is clearly important for tenured faculty to have intrinsic motivation. This is a cornerstone of self-determination theory, but runs contrary to having a strictly measured criterion for tenure success. There is a fundamental difficulty fostering intrinsic motivation if specific details will be used to decide the ultimate outcome. The paradoxical nature of tenure decisions manifests itself in the need to assess how well an individual grows when their role is largely self-determined. To have a pre-defined measure would bias the self-determined element and thus defy the very definition of tenure. What is important within self-determination theory is the relatedness inherent within it, whereby circumstantial relationships contribute positive feedback that helps develop intrinsic motivation. Rather than suggesting the importance of using this data, it points to a need to further humanize the process and encourage social interaction through the tenure-track years as a way to support both personal and professional growth. Just as autonomy does not support post-tenure lethargy, intrinsic motivation does not support treating tenure-track faculty as if they live and work within a vacuum.

Fundamentally, self-determination theory operates within individuals as people. Furthermore, evaluation is a broadening of the notion of self that brings peers into the process of evaluation. Peer review is an approach to evaluation that shares the experience of developing one’s self-determination. It is qualitative because of the small sample—the evaluation of a single individual—and facilitates the human capacity for exercising choice. Tenure is fundamentally about personal growth and developing niche expertise, neither of which is suitable for a data-collection approach. It is, however, exactly what some qualitative methods were developed to reveal.

Conclusion

It is disturbing that ideas for altering evaluative approaches do not seem to consider the theoretical grounding of what is being proposed. The Academic Gateway does not provide details about which authors have achieved tenure. This is left purposely unresolved so that readers can consider how they might assess each individual’s merit for tenure. We doubt that anyone can come up with a data-collection approach that will successfully appraise the eventual tenure decisions of the book’s authors. AM

 

Tim Sibbald is an Associate Professor in the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. Victoria Handford is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at Thompson Rivers University.

1. TM Sibbald & V Handford (Eds.), The Academic Gateway: Understanding the Journey to Tenure, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2017. For the quotes contained in this article, see pp. 29–40, 93–110, 179–196, and 249–264.
2. EL Deci & RM Ryan, “The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior,” Psychological Inquiry, 11:4 (2000): 227–268; AV Broeck, DL Ferris, CH Chang, & CC Rosen, “A review of self-determination theory’s basic psychological needs at work,” Journal of Management, 42:5 (2016): 1195–1229.

The abuses and perverse effects of quantitative evaluation in the academy

The world of academic research is scored according to so-called “objective” measures, with an emphasis on publications and citations. But the very foundations of this approach are flawed. Is it time to abandon these simplistic ranking schemes?

Since the neoliberal ideology of the “new public management” and its introduction of rankings in academia began in the 1990s, researchers and administrators have become increasingly familiar with the terms “evaluation,” “impact factors,” and “h-index.” Since that time, the worlds of research and higher education have fallen prey to a dangerous evaluation fever. It seems that we want to assess everything, including teachers, faculty, researchers, training programs, and universities. “Excellence” and “quality” indicators have proliferated in usage without anyone really understanding what these terms precisely mean or how they are determined.

“Excellence” and “quality” indicators have proliferated in usage without anyone really understanding what these terms precisely mean or how they are determined.

Bibliometrics, a research method that considers scientific publications and their citations as indicators of scientific production and its uses, is one of the primary tools that informs the many “excellence indicators” that this administrative vision of higher education and research is attempting to impose on everyone. Whether ranking universities, laboratories, or researchers, calculating the number of publications and citations they receive often serves as an “objective” measure for determining research quality.

It is therefore important to understand the many dangers associated with the growing use of oversimplified bibliometric indicators, which are supposed to objectively measure researchers’ productivity and scientific impact. This paper focuses on analyzing two key indicators used extensively by both researchers and research administrators. It also examines the perverse effects that the oversimplified use of bad indicators has upon the dynamics of scientific research, specifically in the areas of social and human sciences.

The impact factor: Corrupting intellectual output

A journal’s impact factor (IF) is a simple, mathematical average of the number of citations received in a given year (e.g., 2016) for articles published by a journal during the previous two years (in this case, 2014 and 2015). The IF has been calculated and published every year since 1975 in the Web of Science Journal Citation Reports. As early as the mid-1990s, experts in bibliometrics were drawing attention to the absurdity of confusing articles and journals. However, this did not stop decision-makers—who themselves are supposedly rational researchers—from using a journal’s IF to assess researchers and establish financial bonuses based directly on the numerical value of the IF.
For example, as the journal
Nature reported in 2006, the Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology calculates the total IF of articles over a year to help it establish bonuses ranging between $1,000 and $20,000. The Beijing Institute of Biophysics established a similar system: An IF of 3 to 5 brings in 2,000 yuan ($375) per point and an IF above 10 brings in 7,000 yuan ($1,400) per point.

However, in an editorial in the same issue, Nature criticized this system, noting that it is impossible for a mathematical journal to score an IF value as high as a biomedical research journal due to the substantially larger number of potential citers in the biomedical sciences. No sensible person believes that biomedical articles are superior to math articles, nor can they believe that this scoring system justifies granting one group of authors a larger bonus than another group. And, in another more recent (and ugly) example of the kind of intellectual corruption generated by taking the ranking race seriously, universities have contacted cited researchers who are working for other institutions and offered these researchers compensation for including the university as an affiliated body in the individual’s next article.1 These fictitious affiliations, without real teaching or research duties, allow marginal institutions to enhance their position in university rankings without having to maintain real laboratories.

These extreme cases should be enough to warn university managers and their communications departments away from the use or promotion of such inaccurate rankings. In short, it is important to scrutinize the ranking system’s “black box,” rather than accepting its results without question.

The exploitation of these false rankings and indicators to promote institutional and individual achievement is a behaviour that reveals an ignorance of the system’s flaws. Only the institutions that benefit from association with these rankings, researchers who profit from incorrectly computed bonuses based on invalid indicators, and journals that benefit from the evaluative use of impact factors, can believe—or feign to believe—that such a system is fair, ethical, and rational.

The h index epidemic

In the mid-2000s, when scientific communities started devising bibliometric indices to make individual evaluations more objective, American physicist Jorge E. Hirsch, from the University of California in San Diego, came up with a proposition: the h index. This index is defined as being equal to the number N of articles published by a researcher that received at least N citations since their publication. For example, if an author has published 20 articles, 10 of which were cited at least 10 times each since their publication, the author will have an h index of 10. It is now common to see researchers cite their h index on their Facebook pages or in their curricula vitae.

The problematic nature of the h index is reflected in the very title of Hirsh’s article published in a journal that is usually considered prestigious, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “An index to quantify an individual’s scientific research output.” In fact, this index is neither a measure of quantity (output) nor a measure of quality or impact: It is a combination of both. It arbitrarily combines the number of articles published and the number of citations received. In the eye of its creator, this index was meant to counter the use of the total number of articles published, a metric that does not take their quality into account. The problem is that the h index is itself strongly correlated with the total number of articles published, and is therefore redundant.

Furthermore, the h index has none of the basic properties of a good indicator. As Waltman and van Eck demonstrated, the h index is incoherent in the way it ranks researchers whose number of citations increases proportionally, and it therefore “cannot be considered an appropriate indicator of a scientist’s overall scientific impact.”2

This poorly constructed index also causes harm when it is used as an aid in the decision-making process. Let us compare two scenarios: A young researcher has published five articles, which were cited 60 times each (for a given period); a second researcher, of the same age, is twice as prolific and wrote 10 articles, which were cited 11 times each. The second researcher has an h index of 10, while the first researcher only has an h index of 5. Should we conclude that the second researcher is twice as “good” as the first one and should therefore be hired or promoted ahead of the first researcher? Of course not, because the h index does not really measure the relative quality of two researchers and is therefore not a technically valid indicator.

Despite these fundamental technical flaws, use of the h index has become widespread in many scientific disciplines. It seems as though it was created primarily to satisfy the ego of some researchers. Let us not forget that its rapid dissemination has been facilitated by the fact that it is calculated automatically within journal databases, making it quite easy to obtain. It is unfortunate to see scientists, who purportedly study mathematics, lose all critical sense when presented with this flawed and oversimplified number. It confirms an old English saying, “Any number beats no number.” In other words, it is better to have an incorrect number than no number at all.

A multidimensional universe

What is most frustrating in the debates around research evaluation is the tendency to try to summarize complex results with a single number. The oversimplification of such an approach becomes obvious when one realizes that it means transforming a space with many dimensions into a one-dimensional space, thus realizing Herbert Marcuse’s prediction of the advent of a One-Dimensional Man. In fact, by combining various weighted indicators to get a single number, we lose the information on each axis (indicators) within the multidimensional space. Everything is reduced to a single dimension.

Only by considering the many different initial indicators individually can we determine the dimensions of concepts such as research quality and impact. While postsecondary institutions and researchers are primarily interested in the academic and scientific impact of these publications, we should not ignore other impacts for which valid indicators are easily accessible. Think of the economic, societal, cultural, environmental, and political impacts of scientific research, for example.

In the case of universities, research is not the only mission and the quality of education cannot be measured solely by bibliometric indicators that ignore the environment in which students live and study, including the quality of buildings, library resources, or students’ demographic backgrounds. For these dimensions to emerge, we must avoid the “lamppost syndrome,” which leads us to only look for our keys in brightly lit places rather than in the specific (but dark) places where they are actually to be found. It is therefore necessary to go beyond readily accessible indicators and to conduct case studies that assess the impacts for each of the major indicators. It is a costly and time-consuming qualitative operation, but it is essential for measuring the many impacts that research can have.

The simplistic nature of rankings culminate in annual attempts to identify the world’s “best” universities, as if the massive inertia of a university could change significantly every year! This in itself should suffice to show that the only aim of these rankings is to sell the journals that print them.

The simplistic nature of rankings culminate in annual attempts to identify the world’s “best” universities, as if the massive inertia of a university could change significantly every year!

Quantifying as a way to control

The heated arguments around the use of bibliometric indicators for assessing individual researchers often neglects a fundamental aspect of this kind of evaluation, which is the role of peers in the evaluation process. Peer review is a very old and dependable system that requires reviewers to have first-hand knowledge of the assessed researcher’s field of study. However, in an attempt to assert more control over the evaluation process, some managers in universities and granting agencies are pushing forward with a new concept of “expert review” in which an individual, often from outside the field of research being considered, is responsible for evaluating its merits. A standardized quantitative evaluation, such as the h index, makes this shift easier by providing supposedly objective data that can be used by anyone. It is in this context that we need to understand the creation of journal rankings as a means to facilitate, if not to mechanize, the evaluation of individuals. This constitutes a de facto form of Taylorization of the evaluation process—the use of a scientific method to de-specialize the expertise needed for evaluation.

Thus surfaces a paradox. The evaluation of a researcher requires appointing a committee of peers who know the researcher’s field very well. These experts would already be familiar with the best journals in their field and do not need a list concocted by some unknown group of experts ranking them according to different criteria. On the other hand, these rankings allow people who don’t know anything about a field to pretend to make an expert judgment just by looking at a ranked list without having to read a single paper. These individuals simply do not belong on an evaluation committee. Therefore, the proliferation of poorly built indicators serves the process of bypassing peer review, which does consider productivity indices but interprets them within the specific context of the researcher being evaluated. That some researchers contribute to the implementation of these rankings and the use of invalid indicators does not change the fact that these methods minimize the role of the qualitative evaluation of research by replacing it with flawed mechanical evaluations.

Pseudo-internationalization and the decline of local research

A seldom-discussed aspect of the importance given to impact factors and journal rankings is that they indirectly divert from the study of local, marginal, or less popular topics. This is particularly risky in human and social sciences, in which research topics are, by nature, more local than those of the natural sciences (there are no “Canadian” electrons). Needless to say, some topics are less “exportable” than others.

Since the most frequently cited journals are in English, the likelihood of being published in them depends on the interest these journals have in the topics being studied. A researcher who wants to publish in the most visible journals would be well advised to study the United States’ economy rather than the Bank of Canada’s uniqueness or Quebec’s regional economy, topics that are of little interest to an American journal. Sociologists whose topic is international or who put forward more general theories are more likely to have their articles exported than those who propose an empirical analysis of their own society. If you want to study Northern Ontario’s economy, for example, you are likely to encounter difficulty “internationalizing” your findings.

Yet is it really less important to reflect on this topic than it is to study the variations of the New York Stock Exchange? As a result, there is a real risk that local but sociologically important topics lose their value and become neglected if citation indicators are mechanically used without taking into account the social interest of research topics in the human and social sciences.

Conclusion: Numbers cannot replace judgement

It is often said—without providing supporting arguments —that rankings are unavoidable, and that we therefore have to live with them. This is, I believe, a false belief and, through resistance, researchers can bring such ill-advised schemes to a halt. For example, in Australia, researchers’ fierce reaction to journal rankings has succeeded in compelling the government to abandon the use of this simplistic approach to research evaluation.

In summary, the world of research does not have to yield to requirements that have no scientific value and that run against academic values. Indeed, French-language journals and local research topics that play an invaluable role in helping us better understand our society have often been the hardest hit by these ill-advised evaluation methods, and so fighting back against this corruption is becoming more important every day.

Yves Gingras is a Professor in the History Department and Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

NOTE :
This article is a translation of a revised and shorter version of the essay, « Dérives et effets pervers de l’évaluation quantitative de la recherche : sur les mauvais usages de la bibliométrie », in Revue international PME 28;2 (2015): 7-14. For a more in-depth analysis, see: Yves Gingras, Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation: Uses and Abuses, Cambridge: MIT Press.

1. Yves Gingras, “How to boost your university up the rankings,” University World News, (2014) July 18;329, http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20140715142345754. Refer also to the many responses in Science, (2012), March 2;335: 1040-1042.
2. L Waltman and NJ van Eck, “The inconsistency of the h-index,” 2011, http://arxiv.org/abs/1108.3901.

Dérives et effets pervers de l’évaluation quantitative de la recherche

Les professeurs et les chercheurs universitaires sont de plus en plus évalués à l’aide de mesures dites « objectives », qui mettent l’accent sur les publications et les citations. Mais le fondement même de cette approche est problématique. Le temps est-il venu d’abandonner ces méthodes de notation simplistes?

Avec l’arrivée en milieu universitaire de l’idéologie néolibérale adossée aux techniques du nouveau management public avec ses « tableaux de bord », surtout depuis les années 1990, les chercheurs et les administrateurs utilisent de plus en plus souvent les mots « évaluation », « facteurs d’impact », « indice h ». Le monde de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur, est ainsi la proie d’une véritable fièvre de l’évaluation. On veut tout évaluer: les enseignants, les professeurs, les chercheurs, les programmes de formation et les universités. Les indicateurs « d’excellence » et de « qualité » se multiplient sans que l’on sache toujours sur quelles bases ils ont été construits.

Les indicateurs « d’excellence » et de « qualité » se multiplient sans que l’on sache toujours sur quelles bases ils ont été construits.

Parmi les outils utilisés pour mettre au point les nombreux « indicateurs d’excellence » qu’une vision gestionnaire de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche tente d’imposer à tous comme une évidence, une place de choix est aujourd’hui accordée à la bibliométrie—méthode de recherche qui consiste à utiliser les publications scientifiques et leurs citations comme indicateurs de la production scientifique et de ses usages. Que ce soit pour classer les universités, les laboratoires ou les chercheurs, le calcul du nombre de publications et des citations qu’elles reçoivent sert souvent de mesure « objective » de la valeur des résultats de recherche des uns et des autres.

Il est donc important de rappeler, même brièvement, les nombreux dangers que comportent l’usage simpliste qui tend à se répandre de l’utilisation mécanique d’indicateurs bibliométriques supposés mesurer de façon « objective » la productivité et l’impact scientifique des chercheurs. Nous nous limiterons ici à analyser les usages des deux principaux indicateurs amplement utilisés tant par les chercheurs que par les administrateurs de la recherche. Nous nous pencherons aussi sur les effets pervers des usages simplistes de mauvais indicateurs sur la dynamique de la recherche scientifique particulièrement dans les domaines des sciences sociales et humaines.

Les mauvais usages du facteur d’impact

Calculé et publié chaque année depuis 1975 dans le Journal Citation Reports du Web of Science (maintenant propriété de Clarivate Analytics) le facteur d’impact (FI) d’une revue consiste en une simple moyenne arithmétique du nombre de citations obtenues une année donnée (disons 2016) par les articles publiés par une revue au cours des deux années précédentes (soit 2014 et 2015). Bien que, dès le milieu des années 1990, des experts en bibliométrie n’aient cessé d’attirer l’attention sur l’absurdité de confondre ainsi les articles et les revues, cela n’a pas empêché les « décideurs » et, il faut le souligner, de chercheurs supposément rationnels, d’utiliser le facteur d’impact des revues pour évaluer les chercheurs et instituer des systèmes de primes fondés directement sur la valeur numérique du facteur d’impact des revues! Comme le rapportait la revue Nature en 2006, le ministère de la Science du Pakistan calcule la somme des facteurs d’impact des articles sur une année pour fixer une prime variant entre 1 000 et 20 000 dollars! En Chine, l’Institut de biophysique de Beijing a établi un système semblable : un FI entre 3 et 5 rapporte.

 Dans un éditorial du même numéro, la revue dénonçait cette absurdité. Or, il est impossible que le FI d’une revue de mathématiques (par exemple) ait jamais la valeur de celui d’une revue de recherche biomédicale! Pourtant, aucune personne sensée ne peut croire que les articles de médecine sont tous supérieurs aux articles de mathématiques et justifient donc d’accorder à leurs auteurs une prime plus importante. Dernier exemple montrant le genre de corruption intellectuelle engendrée par la course aux classements : certaines universités contactent des chercheurs très cités qui sont employés par d’autres institutions et leur offrent d’ajouter leur adresse dans leurs publications en échange d’une rémunération1. Ces affiliations factices, auxquelles aucune tâche d’enseignement ou de recherche n’est attachée, et dont les chercheurs qui y participent sont complices, permettent à des institutions marginales d’améliorer facilement leur position dans les classements des universités sans avoir à créer de véritables laboratoires.

Ces cas extrêmes devraient suffire pour mettre en garde les gestionnaires d’université, ou leurs chargés de communication, contre les usages médiatiques de tels classements douteux. En somme, mieux vaut regarder à l’intérieur de la « boîte noire » des classements plutôt que de l’accepter telle quelle comme si elle contenait un beau cadeau de bienvenue…

L’usage abusif de classements et d’indicateurs faussement précis constitue en somme un comportement qui trahit l’ignorance des propriétés des indicateurs utilisés. Seul l’opportunisme des chercheurs, qui profitent de primes mal calculées, et des revues, qui profitent de l’usage évaluatif des facteurs d’impact, peut les amener à croire, ou à feindre de croire, qu’un tel système est juste et rationnel.

L’épidémie de « l’indice h »

Il est devenu courant de voir des chercheurs indiquer sur leur page face book ou dans leur curriculum vitae leur « indice h ». Au milieu des années 2000, alors que les milieux scientifiques avaient commencé à concocter des indices bibliométriques pour rendre les évaluations individuelles plus « objectives », le physicien américain Jorge E. Hirsch, de l’université de Californie à San Diego, y est allé de sa proposition : l’indice h. Cet indice est défini comme étant égal au nombre d’articles N qu’un chercheur a publiés et qui ont obtenu au moins N citations chacun depuis leur publication. Par exemple, un auteur qui a publié 20 articles parmi lesquels 10 sont cités au moins 10 fois chacun aura un indice h de 10.

Le caractère improvisé de cet indice se voit déjà au titre même de l’article paru dans une revue pourtant considérée comme « prestigieuse », les Proceedings de l’Académie nationale des sciences des États- Unis : « un indice pour quantifier la production (output) scientifique d’un chercheur ». En fait, cet indice n’est ni une mesure de quantité (ouput), ni une mesure de qualité ou d’impact, mais un composite des deux. Il combine de façon arbitraire le nombre d’articles publiés et le nombre de citations obtenues. Cet indice est supposé contrer l’usage du seul nombre d’articles, lequel ne tient pas compte de leur « qualité ». Le problème c’est qu’il a rapidement été démontré que l’indice h est lui-même très fortement corrélé au nombre total d’articles et se révèle ainsi redondant!

Pis encore, il n’a aucune des propriétés de base que doit posséder un bon indicateur. Comme l’ont montré Ludo Waltman et Nees Jan van Eck, l’indice h est en réalité incohérent dans la manière dont il classe des chercheurs dont le nombre de citations augmente de façon proportionnelle. Ces auteurs en concluent que l’indice h « ne peut être considéré comme un indicateur approprié de l’impact scientifique global d’un chercheur »2.

Cet indice mal construit est même dangereux lorsqu’il est utilisé comme aide à la prise de décisions car il peut générer des effets pervers. Un exemple simple suffit à le démontrer. Comparons deux cas de figure : un jeune chercheur a publié seulement cinq articles, mais ceux-ci ont été cités 60 fois chacun (pour une période de temps donnée) ; un second chercheur, du même âge, est deux fois plus prolifique et possède à son actif 10 articles, cités 11 fois chacun. Ce second chercheur a donc un indice h de 10, alors que le premier a un indice h de 5 seulement. Peut-on en conclure que le second est deux fois « meilleur » que le premier et devrait donc être embauché ou promu? Bien sûr que non… On voit ici que l’indice h ne mesure pas vraiment la qualité relative de deux chercheurs et est donc un indicateur techniquement invalide.

Malgré ces défauts techniques rédhibitoires, l’usage de l’indice h s’est généralisé dans plusieurs disciplines scientifiques. Il semble taillé sur mesure pour satisfaire d’abord le narcissisme de certains chercheurs. N’oublions pas que sa diffusion rapide a aussi été facilitée par le fait qu’il est calculé directement dans toutes banques de données et s’obtient donc sans aucun effort! Il est tout de même navrant de constater que des scientifiques pourtant supposés avoir fait des études en mathématiques perdent tout sens critique devant un chiffre simpliste—cela vient confirmer un vieil adage anglais qui a toutes les apparences d’une loi sociale : « Any number beats no number. » En d’autres termes, mieux vaut un mauvais chiffre que pas de chiffre du tout…

Un univers à plusieurs dimensions

Le plus irritant dans les débats sur l’évaluation de la recherche est la tendance à vouloir tout résumer par un seul chiffre. Le simplisme d’une telle démarche devient patent quand on observe que cela revient à transformer un espace à plusieurs dimensions en un espace de dimension zéro ! En effet, un nombre, considéré ici comme un point, est de dimension zéro et combiner différents indicateurs pondérés pour obtenir un seul chiffre fait perdre l’information sur chacun des axes (indicateurs) d’un espace à plusieurs dimensions. Au mieux, si on considère que le point est sur une ligne, on a quand même réduit le tout à une seule dimension.

Or, seule la prise en compte de plusieurs indicateurs différents permet de tenir compte des différentes dimensions d’un concept, tel ceux de qualité et d’impact de la recherche. Ainsi, le milieu académique est d’abord intéressé par l’impact scientifique des publications, mais on ne saurait négliger d’autres types d’impacts pour lesquels on trouve plus ou moins facilement des indicateurs valides. Pensons aux impacts économiques, sociétaux, culturels, environ-nementaux, politiques de la recherche scientifique.

Ainsi, dans le cas des universités, la recherche n’est qu’une fonction de l’institution, et la qualité de l’enseignement ne se mesure pas à l’aune de la recherche, en faisant abstraction de l’environnement dans lequel baignent les étudiants (qualité des édifices, ressources bibliothécaires, etc.). Si l’on veut faire émerger ces dimensions, il faut dépasser le « syndrome du lampadaire » (« lamp-post syndrome »), qui porte à chercher ses clés dans une zone éclairée plutôt qu’à l’endroit précis (mais sombre) où elles ont en fait été égarées. Il est donc nécessaire d’aller au-delà des indicateurs facilement accessibles et de faire des études de cas afin d’évaluer la présence de certains de ces impacts pour chacun des grands indicateurs. C’est une démarche qualitative coûteuse mais indispensable lorsqu’on a l’ambition de mesurer les impacts de la recherche dans
plusieurs secteurs.

Le simplisme des classements atteint son paroxysme avec la publication annuelle des classements des universités, censés identifier les « meilleures » universités au niveau mondial.

Le simplisme des classements atteint son paroxysme avec la publication annuelle des classements des universités, censés identifier les « meilleures » universités au niveau mondial.

Quantifier pour contrôler

Les discussions animées entourant l’utilisation d’indicateurs bibliométriques dans l’évaluation des chercheurs laissent le plus souvent dans l’ombre un aspect pourtant fondamental de l’évaluation, à savoir le rôle de l’expertise des chercheurs dans le processus d’évaluation. La volonté de mieux contrôler le système très ancien d’évaluation par les pairs (peer review), qui repose sur une connaissance de première main du domaine de recherche du chercheur évalué, fait lentement place à l’idée d’évaluation par des experts (expert review) lesquels sont souvent externes au domaine de recherche considéré. L’évaluation quantitative normalisée facilite ce déplacement en fournissant des données soi-disant « objectives » qui peuvent alors être utilisées par n’importe qui. C’est dans ce contexte qu’il faut comprendre la création de classement des revues en A, B et C pour faciliter, sinon mécaniser, l’évaluation individuelle. Cela constitue de facto une forme de taylorisation de l’évaluation, une déqualification de l’expertise nécessaire à l’évaluation.

On est ainsi face à un paradoxe. L’évaluation d’un chercheur exige la constitution d’un comité de pairs qui connaissent bien le domaine. Ces experts savent déjà, par définition, quelles sont les bonnes revues dans leur domaine et n’ont pas besoin d’une liste préétablie par on ne sait quel groupe d’experts les classant en A, B et C. Par contre, ces classements permettent à des personnes ignorant tout d’un domaine de prétendre quand même porter un jugement autorisé. Mais alors ils ne devraient justement pas faire partie d’un comité d’évaluation! La multiplication d’indicateurs mal construits sert donc en fait un processus de contournement de l’évaluation par les pairs, éva-luation qui doit prendre en compte des indices de productivité, mais qui doit les interpréter dans le contexte spécifique de l’évaluation. Que certains chercheurs contribuent à la mise en place de ces classements, comme à l’utilisation d’indicateurs pourtant invalides, ne change rien au fait que ces méthodes ont pour effet de minimiser le rôle de l’évaluation qualitative de la recherche en la remplaçant par des évaluations mécaniques.

Pseudo-internationalisation et déclin des recherches locales

Un aspect peu discuté de l’importance accordée aux facteurs d’impact et au classement des revues est qu’elle détourne indirectement de l’étude de sujets locaux, marginaux ou peu à la mode. Cela est particulièrement dangereux dans les sciences humaines et sociales, dont les objets sont par nature plus locaux que ceux des sciences de la nature. Il va de soi que certains sujets sont moins « exportables ».

Les revues les plus citées étant anglo-saxonnes (et non pas « internationales »), les chances d’y accéder dépendent de l’intérêt que ces revues portent aux objets étudiés. Un chercheur qui veut publier dans les revues les plus visibles a intérêt à étudier l’économie des États-Unis plutôt que les spécificités de la Banque du Canada ou l’économie régionale du Québec, sujet de peu d’intérêt pour une revue américaine. Le sociologue dont l’objet est « international », donc délocalisé, ou qui fait de la théorie a plus de chances d’exporter ses articles que celui qui propose l’étude empirique d’un aspect précis de sa propre société. Mais, si on souhaite étudier l’économie du nord de l’Ontario on risque aussi d’avoir plus de problèmes à « internationaliser » les résultats.

Or est-ce vraiment moins important de se pencher sur cet objet que d’étudier les variations du New York Stock Exchange? Il y a donc un danger réel que les objets locaux mais sociologiquement importants soient dévalorisés et donc, à terme, négligés si les indicateurs de citations sont utilisés mécaniquement sans que l’on tienne compte de l’intérêt social des objets de recherche en sciences humaines et sociales.

Conclusion : juger plutôt que compter

On entend souvent dire que ces classements sont inévitables et qu’il faut «vivre avec». Cela est tout à fait faux. La résistance des chercheurs est tout à fait capable de bloquer de tels projets malavisés. En Australie, notamment, la vive réaction des chercheurs au classement des revues a réussi à faire plier le gouvernement, qui a abandonné l’usage de ces classements pour l’évaluation de la recherche. En somme, le monde de la recherche n’a pas à céder devant des exigences qui n’ont rien de scientifique et appartiennent à des logiques qui lui sont étrangères. D’autant plus que ce sont en fait les revues francophones et les objets de recherche locaux mais très importants pour la société qui sortiront perdantes de ces dérives de l’évaluation.

Yves Gingras est professeur au département d’histoire et titulaire de la Chaire de recherche du Canada en histoire et sociologie des sciences de l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

NOTE :
Ce texte est une version plus courte d’un article intitulé « Dérives et effets pervers de l’évaluation quantitative de la recherche : sur les mauvais usages de la bibliométrie », paru dans la Revue internationale PME 28;2 (2015) : 7-14. Pour une analyse plus approfondie, voir: Yves Gingras, Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation : Uses and Abuses, Cambridge : MIT Press, 2016.

1. Yves Gingras, “How to boost your university up the rankings,” University World News, (2014) July 18;329, http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20140715142345754. Voir aussi les nombreuses réactions dans Science, (2012), March 2;335: 1040-1042.
2. L Waltman and NJ van Eck, “The inconsistency of the h-index,” 2011, http://arxiv.org/abs/1108.3901.

Collecting data from students with students

Gathering data on university students can provide important information about how they interact with the postsecondary education system, but it is also important to consult students to determine what data are collected and how.

A few years ago, I was part of an admissions committee that developed a short, voluntary survey for one of our academic programs. The survey responses would not be part of admission decisions, but we hoped to determine if we were making effective changes both to the application process and to our outreach to communities facing barriers accessing educational opportunities.

I teach courses in survey development and measurement theory in which I emphasize the importance of checking that respondents understand the questions as intended and are able and willing to answer them. This can be done by recording a few respondents thinking aloud as they read the instructions and respond to the questions, and by testing the questions with a small sample of respondents. Even better, a small group of respondents might be involved throughout the design process to make sure that the questions asked are appropriate, the terms used are familiar, and the intended uses of the data are clearly explained and acceptable to respondents.

Did we involve students in developing our survey? I am embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to us to do that. As faculty and staff who work daily with students, we were confident we knew how applicants would interpret the questions. And as a committee that focuses on equity in the admissions process, we were certain that applicants would believe our assurances about how we would and would not use the data.

Only about half of the applicants responded to the survey—a response rate that would be enviable in much social science research, but was not what the admissions committee needed to evaluate the changes it was making.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: Within a couple of years, the response rate increased to more than 90 per cent. We were able to compare the demographics of applicants to the program with the demographics of the wider community and, when we made changes to the application process or to how we made admissions decisions, we were able to see who was affected. That program has since closed, but we are beginning to apply what we learned from that experience to other programs.

All of the credit for this happy ending goes to students. A Master’s student who was interested in equity in education decided to make the survey the focus of her thesis research—not the results of the survey, but the survey itself. She went directly to the students who were currently in the program to find out what they thought of the survey. She led discussions with groups of students and used an anonymous online survey to find out how individual students interpreted the questions and how they believed the responses were used. Based on what she learned, this student worked with the admissions committee to revise the survey’s title, reorder and reword the questions, and rewrite the explanation of how the responses would and would not be used. Other students helped us analyze the data and, over time, suggested further revisions. The eventual success of the survey was due to their work.

Large-scale surveys, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement and the National College Health Assessment, can provide important data about students’ identities, experiences, and perceptions, but there will always be a need to develop surveys for specific contexts. If faculty, staff, and students have a common purpose in improving universities’ programs, why don’t we work together to develop better ways to collect data from the students in those programs?

If faculty , staff, and students have a common purpose in improving universities’ programs, why don’t we work together to develop better ways to collect data.

Time is one reason, I suspect. Even if our admissions committee had not been confident in its ability to develop a survey that students would want to answer, we had not allowed enough time to involve students. Finding students who are interested in being involved can be a lengthy process. Depending on how we want them to be involved, there will need to be time to mentor the students in survey development and include them in meetings to develop the questions, organize the collection and the analysis of initial test responses, and revise and retest the items if necessary.

Money is another reason we often don’t involve students. For our work, however, we have been fortunate to have access to a small amount of money to hire students. As well, some students have been interested in contributing to the development of surveys as a way to gain research experience.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t another reason we don’t involve students in developing these surveys: We believe we know how students think. Or perhaps we don’t believe we know how they think, but we believe that students won’t mind making the effort to understand what we mean by the questions.

One of my favourite books on survey design is Tourangeau, Rips, and Rasinski’s The Psychology of Survey Response. Based on research by cognitive psychologists and market researchers, the authors list 13 steps respondents might take when answering a survey question, beginning with “Attend to the questions and instructions” and including “Identify what information is being sought,” “Retrieve specific and generic memories,” “If the material retrieved is partial, make an estimate,” and “Map the judgment onto the response categories.” These steps assume, of course, that respondents want to provide as accurate an answer as possible. If respondents judge the questions to be unimportant or to require too much effort, however, they may choose not to respond or, worse, may respond randomly. The authors’ findings are not encouraging: Reading the book always leaves me marvelling that anyone ever manages to collect useful survey data.

Nevertheless, surveys are the best tool we have for learning about students’ identities, experiences, and perceptions. We need such data if we are to improve programs. We owe it to our students to create the best surveys we can so that the time and effort they spend responding to them is not wasted. That means collecting data not only from students, but with students.

Ruth Childs is Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

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.

Understanding the United Kingdom’s Teaching Excellence Framework and its implications

The UK’s new metrics-based teaching evaluation framework is methodologically and politically flawed. What will this mean for the country’s universities and faculty?

In 2017, a new higher-education assessment system—known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) —was launched in the United Kingdom. Based heavily on metrics, the TEF seeks to “recognize and reward excellence in teaching and learning, and help inform prospective students’ choices for higher education.” However, the TEF is both methodologically and politically flawed. It is time for the UK’s faculty unions to put forward alternative approaches for valuing and supporting teaching in higher education.

It is time for the UK’s faculty unions to put forward alternative approaches for valuing and supporting teaching in higher education.

From REF to TEF

The UK has often led the way in developing performance-based assessment systems in higher education. For example, in the mid-1980s, it was the first country to bring in a nationwide research evaluation process, which became known as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Thirty years later, the RAE has morphed into the Research Excellence Framework (REF). As with its predecessor, the REF is based on a peer review process but also uses key metrics on research income, citations, and a qualitative assessment of research impact. The new TEF is a conscious attempt to ape the language and logic of the REF, including the link between awards and additional fee income. But the methodology is different: the TEF relies largely on institutional metrics, combined with a short written submission from universities, which is then evaluated by an “expert panel” and individually benchmarked against the types of students who attend each institution.

The origins of the TEF lie in the UK Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto commitment to “introduce a framework to recognize universities offering the highest teaching quality.” This proposal was based on a perception that official “accountability” mechanisms and commercial university rankings were too focused on research outcomes and were therefore of limited value to potential students in choosing where and what to study. Government ministers had also picked up on a widely shared view that university teaching lacked the same status as research (ironically, due largely to the REF) and so believed that the answer lay in a REF for teaching. The Conservative’s surprise electoral victory in 2015 meant that the policy had to be implemented and, following a year-long technical consultation exercise, the TEF came into being.

Key elements of the TEF

In essence, the TEF is an official process for measuring the undergraduate student experience in higher-education institutions. The TEF panel—comprising academics, students, and employers—considers evidence from a set of metrics using national data as well as a written statement submitted by the institution. The metrics cover retention rates, student satisfaction, and employment outcomes. These data are then benchmarked to take account of differences in students’ characteristics, entry qualifications, and subjects studied.

Therefore, unlike other rankings and evaluations, the TEF provides a judgment of relative, rather than absolute, performance through its data-benchmarking process. This means that elite, well-funded, “research-intensive” universities are not compared directly with newer “access-oriented” institutions on key indicators such as dropout rates. In some ways, this makes the TEF a fairer measure of performance than commercial university rankings are, but it also makes it more difficult to demonstrate student outcomes. Ironically, the new process also makes it much harder for the government to claim that the TEF will aid student choice, especially because the TEF is currently an institutional award that tells students nothing about subject-level provision.

Participation in the TEF is also a voluntary process, and consequences vary for the different nations of the UK. This reflects the increasingly different funding and regulatory systems within the country. For example, in England, participation in the TEF is linked to an ability to increase tuition fees, whereas in Scotland, which currently has no tuition fees for Scottish students, participation in the TEF is linked to potential reputational advantage. Given the absence of additional financial benefits, it is no surprise that the majority of Scottish universities opted out of the latest TEF.

In June, the TEF panel published the results of its first assessment. Using an Olympics-style classification system (gold, silver, and bronze), half of the participants were awarded silver, 26 per cent obtained a gold award, and 24 per cent received a bronze. In terms of institutional classifications, the results defy easy schematization. For example, a number of access-oriented universities achieved the highest award, while a few research-intensive universities were awarded a bronze. In fact, a disproportionate amount of press attention focused on the fact that the prestigious London School of Economics achieved the lowest grade, although the overall results were less disruptive of traditional university hierarchies than many predicted.

Faculty voices

Irrespective of the results, the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) has consistently opposed the TEF, both on methodological grounds and because of its potential impact on institutions, staff, and students. This opposition is based on a number of factors. First, the core metrics—student satisfaction expressed through the National Student Survey (NSS), retention rates, and graduate outcomes—are flawed for the purposes of assessing teaching quality. To a significant extent, these metrics are influenced by external factors such as social background, gender, and, in terms of jobs, the region in which the university or college is located. Above all, they are poor proxies for measuring teaching excellence; indeed, even the chair of the TEF panel admitted that this was the case for student satisfaction scores.

Rather than focusing on improving teaching practice per se, universities are likely to concentrate on targeting better survey results, higher completion rates, and graduate outcomes. That is the nature of metrics and quantitative measures when they end up becoming targets. But this, in turn, can have detrimental consequences for the composition of the student body. For example, some institutions are already talking about increasing their student-entry requirements and cutting student numbers on specific courses in a bid to reduce their dropout rates. Another serious concern is that universities may seek to improve their rating on graduate outcomes by altering their subject mix, such as moving away from creative arts courses, which score lower on short-term labour market outcomes.

As a faculty union, the UCU knows that the TEF has already been cited as a reason for job cuts by some universities, and we are concerned that other institutions may follow suit. There is also a legitimate concern that, alongside the REF, the TEF will lead to a further fragmentation of academic roles into teaching-only and research-only positions.

Despite the preoccupation with the choice of metrics, the most controversial part of the TEF is its link to tuition fee increases. England already has the highest public tuition fees in the industrialized world and the TEF allows institutions in England to increase these further (by the rate of inflation). The government’s ultimate objective is to allow for fee differentiation on the basis of TEF results, although these plans have been delayed until 2020 at the earliest. However, the extent to which the government will be able to deliver on this fee-differentiation agenda remains open to question. The Labour Party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees during the 2016 general election was instrumental in increasing its popularity amongst younger voters. As a result, fees have become an increasingly toxic issue for the Conservative Party.

Reactions from the sector

Because of the TEF’s role in increasing tuition fee levels, the National Union of Students (NUS), along with the UCU, has also opposed key aspects of the TEF. In an explicit attempt to undermine the process, it urged its local student unions to support a boycott of the NSS. The UCU supported this initiative and it had some effect at universities such as Manchester, Bristol, and Cambridge, where NSS returns dropped below the required threshold. Partly for this reason, the government has said that future TEFs will rely less heavily on NSS data than other metrics, although this decision also reflects pressure from the larger research-intensive universities, who tend to score poorly on student satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the response from university leaders has been largely one of self-interest. Although critical of aspects of the TEF, they were willing to go along with the system as a means of increasing institutional revenue (via higher fees). Those universities who struck gold were the first to pop open the champagne, while those who secured bronze were more likely to appeal the decision or dismiss the exercise as “meaningless.” These responses reflect one of the structural problems of the UK higher-education sector: namely, the division of the sector into competing groups who lobby on behalf of their own type of institution (e.g., research-intensive, business-focused, access-oriented, etc.), sometimes at the expense of the system as a whole. In many ways, both the TEF and the REF reflect and reinforce these divisions within the higher-education sector.

The shift to a more market-oriented model was also evident in the passing of a new Higher Education and Research Act. The legislation establishes a new regulatory body in England—the Office for Students—that will be responsible for overseeing future developments of the TEF and encouraging greater competition between providers. For example, the new law makes it easier for private providers to obtain degree-awarding powers and the university title, and access the student-loan system. In the interests of ensuring academic quality and protecting the public purse, the UCU has major concerns about the further entry of private, for-profit providers into the English system. The quicker and easier it is to become a university and award degrees, the more vulnerable the higher-education sector becomes to for-profit organizations pursuing financial gain rather than providing high-quality educational experiences. The UCU has consistently warned that the UK government is opening the floodgates to a repetition of US-type scandals involving for-profit providers. As a union, we will continue to call for additional regulation for these types of risky providers.

Next steps

What is the specific future for the TEF in this new regulatory environment? First, after a cursory lessons-learned exercise, the government announced that it will be making “no changes to the overall structure or methodology of the TEF.” However, in future exercises there will be a reduced role for benchmarking and student surveys in the evaluation process—changes that are likely to benefit research-intensive universities. New supplementary metrics on both graduate earnings and grade inflation have also been proposed by the government. The former reinforces the controversial link between the TEF and labour market outcomes, while the latter seems more of a populist response to media concerns about the growing proportion of students achieving top degree classifications. Despite their different origins, both proposals highlight the politicized nature of metrics in higher-education policy-making.

Second, the government remains committed to introducing a subject-level TEF exercise in the future. A series of pilots will begin later this year. Although no ratings will be attached to the pilots, the whole process is likely to be complex and contentious. If introduced as part of a full subject-based TEF, the impact on faculty will be considerable, particularly in terms of increased workload and student expectations. Whatever the outcomes, the UCU will continue to challenge the use of the TEF as a crude performance-management tool.

Support and recognition for teaching

Finally, despite the obvious flaws with the TEF, there is a need for a proper discussion about how universities can better support and recognize teaching in higher education. There is a key role for faculty unions in this process and an opportunity to build broader alliances with student organizations. The UCU has long argued that faculty working conditions are effectively student learning conditions. In addition to campaigns on public funding, better job security; reduced workloads; access to appropriate training, support, and professional development; and fairer promotion criteria need to be at the heart of the debate on good-quality teaching.

Rob Copeland is a Policy Officer for the University and College Union, which represents over 100,000 faculty and staff at universities and colleges across the UK.

The university in the populist age

Right-wing populism threatens the future of higher education, but remaining passive and retreating to a disinterested vision of the university will actually strengthen the attacks. Faculty have a responsibility to work in solidarity to fight back against these threats.

Right-wing populism has been on the rise in recent years, intensifying following the 2008 global financial crisis. 2016 marked a key moment in the right populist turn, with both Brexit and the US Presidential election constituting formal political legitimacy for right-wing populist leaders and movements. Despite widespread opposition following the election of Donald Trump—itself often taking populist forms—a range of right-wing populist forces continue to push forward. In both Europe and North America, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric and violence has escalated. Populist figures are giving voice to and emboldening longstanding racist and xenophobic currents in western societies. Other variants of authoritarian right-wing populism are also growing. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey has now dismissed over 7,000 academics and in some cases jailed scholars.

Not surprisingly, many academics fear populism. Distrust of elites, perhaps the primary defining feature of populism, is a threat to universities as they currently operate. The threat extends to those who make a living in postsecondary education, be they tenured professors, precarious contract faculty, or staff. Of course, populist attacks on the university are nothing new. Beginning as Plato’s training ground for elites, disagreements about the role of universities as sites of advanced education for the masses versus institutions for the aristocracy have long existed. Most recently in Ontario, the Mike Harris years were harsh for universities. As Paul Martin cut transfer payments to the provinces in the mid-1990s, Harris followed suit with a 25 per cent cut to postsecondary funding at a time when enrolment was growing. Budget cuts were facilitated by popular skepticism towards traditional academic research and an emphasis on the need for job relevancy in university programs. There were protests, but it was relatively easy for Harris to gut education spending (as opposed to healthcare) as he operationalized his populist Common Sense Revolution.

We noted the fluidity of the term populism in a 2014 article in Labor Studies Journal, in which we identified core elements of the term (e.g. anti-elitism, productivism, etc.). Despite the democratization of postsecondary education in Canada in the post-war period, universities remain vulnerable to right-wing populist agendas. Consider the everyday productivist attacks on public sector workers who allegedly produce nothing of value. These attacks extend to well-paid university faculty, often perceived as privileged elites with secure jobs and pensions, who are constantly scapegoated by both politicians and right-wing media. Academic research is written off as obscure, inaccessible, and simply not up to the task of addressing society’s real problems or of providing students with the skills they need for the labour market. Critics claim the only thing university education offers is mounting student debt and a degree that no longer leads to a middle-class job.

Populist attacks extend into the realm of conspiracy as universities are cast as breeding grounds for political correctness, the feminization of society, and Marxist thought police. Protests organized against campus visits by extreme right-wing public figures such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or Gavin McInnes are cited as threats to freedom of speech. Students fighting racism, colonialism, and xenophobia on and off campus spawn nativist backlash. Authoritarians craft the above narrative to strengthen their own cult of leadership and pave the way for funding cuts when they are in power, creating a nexus between right-wing populism and austerity. Indeed, these recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university.

…recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university…

This transformation, supported by right-wing populism includes the casualization of academic labour and the shift away from tenure-stream appointments; increases in performance measurement; work intensification for all employees; and a top-down managerialism that undermines processes of collegial governance. All of this occurs in the midst of manufactured fiscal crises and escalating tuition fees.

Populist attacks on universities are not, however, merely external: they also come from within. As Steven Zhou has reported in articles for the CBC and Now Magazine, there has been an upsurge in racism on campuses in Canada, masquerading as right-wing populism. Our own campus at York University has recently seen both racist graffiti and alt-right recruitment materials. The University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson has parlayed his refusal to recognize genderless pronouns into a freedom of expression crusade adored by the right. If we further consider that Kellie Leitch, one of the Trumpian contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, had an academic administrative career before entering federal politics, we see that right-wing populists do emerge from our own university ranks.

At the same time, there has been resistance from within universities by those who contest neoliberal and right-wing populist visions. Workers on university campuses have pushed back against casualization through union organizing, collective bargaining, and striking. Faculty associations have challenged the power of central administrations, questioning elitist and anti-democratic practices. Coalitions involving students and university workers have supported broader movements of resistance against economic injustice and racism, such as the recent successful strike of York food service workers against Aramark. There are signs that such movements will continue to grow, offering hope that alternatives to right populism and the neoliberal university remain possible.

Yet the struggle against current forms of authoritarian right-wing populism is only beginning. Our instincts may be to resist all populist attacks on universities, internal and external, but what if university workers and students embraced populism? Here, we are not suggesting any accommodation to right-wing populism, but rather a serious engagement with the underlying structures that make universities its fundamental targets. A counter populism must acknowledge the real disconnect between universities as sites of knowledge production and the broader public good. Imagining a progressive populist university as a means of resistance is possible.

First and foremost, a progressive populist university will have to seriously address the persistent elitism of the academy. While there has been ample work on democratizing the classroom and knowledge mobilization, this is far from a complete project. In the US case, it is argued that commodified universities are increasingly Platonized institutions where accessibility is limited, liberal education remains elitist, and academics have retreated into obscure, idealist research divorced from the issues facing communities. There will always be a place for theory for theory’s sake in academia, but research and teaching that engages communities is necessary and should be promoted. We are not speaking about communities as sites or objects of research, but rather about a research process that is deeply rooted in community-based concerns. Genuine academic-community partnerships are oriented towards addressing the interests of all those involved, not solely on producing measurable research outputs.

As to questions of tenured job security and academic freedom, these are interpreted as elitist privileges. There are countless opinion pieces and blog posts arguing that professors should abandon tenure as a Cold War relic and face accountability and job performance measures similar to other workers in precarious labour markets. However, there is another possibility not often considered: the expansion of employment security as a more universalized practice. Such an extension is realistic if one considers the popular support society has demonstrated for protecting whistleblowers and dissenters who witness wrongdoing. Viewing tenure only as a necessary protection for full-time academic workers simply fuels anti-elitism. Defending the tenure system requires the promotion of secure employment across labour markets as a more general social and economic goal.Here, faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector worker to extend job security and academic freedom protections beyond the university walls.

…faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector workers…

A progressive populist university could channel anti-elitist politics towards the highly paid administrators who have ushered in neoliberal managerialism. In this case, a healthy distrust of administrative elites is warranted. Populist campaigns against exorbitant presidential and senior administrative salaries, the dramatic expansion of administrative ranks, the undermining of collegial governance, and investment in vanity capital projects may provide the means to reconnect universities with the broader public good.

Most academics rightly condemn conspiratorial thinking. Warnings about the supposedly evil machinations of elites cannot substitute for analyses of the systems of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that right-wing populism seeks to reproduce. Yet, naming the institutions and actors that reproduce oppressive structures is a necessary part of any analysis. Universities can play a role in exposing those behind the right-wing think tanks who attack liberal education. In Ontario, proposals promoted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario to differentiate the university system into flagship, research, and teaching institutions can be addressed as a conspiracy to cut costs, devalue research, and tier the university system. This must be countered by revealing how this vision will produce a future system with grossly unequal universities incapable of confronting authoritarian power.

As white supremacy and nativism are entrenched in right-wing populism, so must a progressive populism construct a cosmopolitan ethos that recognizes universities as institutions with the power to build social justice. A clear stand must be taken to reject accusations that campus-based actions to counter the spread of hatred limit free speech. A progressive populist university creates space for campus coalitions that appreciate both the context of specific campus struggles and the importance of broader solidarity in achieving social justice across society.

Further, as counter to the current climate of xenophobia, universities can play a role in providing sanctuary for students and academics fleeing conflict zones. A progressive populist university would not only support these scholars, but also value their experiences as necessary to understanding and improving the global condition. At the same time, we should support racialized faculty who find themselves restricted from traveling to the US for research or large conferences—whether by the travel ban itself or due to conscientious objections and expressions of solidarity. This may involve a larger populist critique of US academic imperialism, especially as the global centre of intellectual exchange.

Building a progressive populism will require change, which must include a transformation of our faculty unions. First, faculty unions will have to stop acting like ancient guilds protecting the narrow interests of members. A start will be to reach out to contract faculty and start using the power we have to normalize employment relationships away from precarity. In the short term, this may involve unions shifting demands away from wages and working conditions and towards demands for more full-time hiring. Material sacrifices will have to made (especially by senior administrators). Failing to do so threatens the very existence of a full-time professoriate.

Second, community engagement must be taken seriously and must not be dismissed as a retreat to anti-intellectualism. Many researchers are already deeply engaged in community research and have been for decades. We must learn from others and work to accept different sources of knowledge as legitimate—whether they are from Indigenous groups, labour unions, environmentalist organizations, the business community, or community-based advocacy groups. These collaborative methodologies and relationships must be developed and heralded every time we are accused of disengaged, solitary, elitist research. Continuing in this direction will require replacing a narrow emphasis on academic publishing in specialized journals with a more expansive valuing of a range of research and dissemination activities.

Community engagement can extend into the university classroom. The intern economy has been critically challenged in recent years, as exploitative unpaid internships detached from real training have grown rapidly. Yet, students demand experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. Such opportunities should be restructured in ways that contribute to meaningful training and skills development, and that expose students to other forms of learning.

Inevitably, this leads to the debate about whether a liberal education trains students for jobs or citizenship. A progressive populist university rejects this false binary. If we are educating students for their future lives, it should be for the many aspects of what that life might be—and of which work is just one consideration. Only emphasizing the Platonic intellectual life of students or their prospects for employment ignores their multiple material and social needs.

But who do we trust to usher in a progressive populist university? Here, we can turn to our unions; but we may require a more radical imagining of collegial governance than that which unions are trying to salvage in the face of growing managerialism. Efforts to contest the lack of transparency of administrative appointments and the centralization of decision-making are crucial. At the same time, we must not be overly nostalgic for past models of collegial governance that were flawed. Small groups (of mostly white men) determining policy and allocation of resources with (mostly white male) Deans was far from a democratic ideal.

If a progressive populism is to challenge the administrative elite of universities (and reduce the number of managers), we will have to rebuild our self-managerial capacities. Taking back our universities will involve educating faculty, students, and staff about university budgets and the strategic goals of the state. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, including in the efforts of campus coalitions working to develop alternative university budget models that expose the financial manipulations of university financial officers.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option. Building a progressive populist university as a means of fighting back against right-wing populist attacks on our institutions may be a necessary strategy.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option.

In the face of the rising tide of right-wing populism, the very real threats of ongoing and further violence against racialized and immigrant communities, and the potential for deeper tendencies of authoritarian austerity, reshaping the university in the age of populism is not just about the postsecondary system. Rather, the struggle constitutes an element of the most pressing political crisis of our time. Failure to push back against authoritarian right-wing populism now may very well lead us to the point of contemplating the university in an age of fascism. AM

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at York University; Mark Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University

Trump, Brexit, and the academy

There is some truth in the populist attack that the academy has sold-out to corporate interests and become inaccessible to many. Universities should unambiguously reassert themselves as transparent and open institutions that serve the public interest.

“The Brexit vote and the Trump campaign, as well as the success of populist candidates around the world, highlight a distrust of traditional government institutions that is manifesting itself as a dislike of credentialed expertise.
– Beth Simone Noveck, Yale Law School and NYU’s Governance Lab

States and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum. In fact, any political eruptions—past, present, or future—that can be shoehorned into the now dominant media narrative about the rise of populism raise concerns in academic circles. Colleges and universities, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the vanguard of progress, now worry they may end up on the wrong side of history, stigmatized as (re)producers of elites, founts of amoral even toxic expertise, and agents of a hated globalization that has remorselessly destroyed jobs, communities, and national (and local) cultures. Nonsense, of course. But in an age dominated by the post-truth politics of the alt-right, dangerous nonsense may be half-believed by too many people.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. In many other democratic systems, Hillary Clinton would have been elected President. After all, she got three million more votes. Donald Trump is only President because the United States, unwilling to tamper with its sacred-text Constitution, has retained an archaic 18th-century device—the Electoral College—deliberately designed by the Founding Fathers to moderate, if not mute, the will of the people. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was made by a narrow margin, 51.9 to 48.1 per cent. In effect, the country was split down the middle. London, most major cities, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all voted strongly to remain. Whatever alarms there may be, politics in the Netherlands, France, and Germany look poised to remain dominated by the centre-right or centre-left. The EU will survive Brexit and may even be strengthened by the shock, which could kick-start overdue reform. The danger is not so much that we will all be drowned in a tsunami of alt-right populism, but that otherwise sensible politicians (and leaders, including university presidents) may be spooked by this great illusion and do the populists’ work for them.

However, necessary as it is to challenge the dominant media narrative about the rise of populism, it is also necessary to take seriously the list of charges against the academy, and to find ways in which colleges and universities can regain the popular trust they may have lost. The main charge against universities is that almost half a century of mass expansion has predominantly benefited the middle classes, leading to almost universal participation by students from more socially advantaged backgrounds, while higher education remains a rationed privilege for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This stubborn access gap is even more pronounced in the case of elite universities, often the focus of national pride as world-class institutions. This first charge is just one strand in a wider right-wing critique of the welfare state and tax-supported public services—that the haves have benefited at the expense of the have-nots. Ironically, it is the right wing’s tax agenda—the reduction in direct and progressive taxation, and its replacement by indirect and regressive taxes—that has increased inequality and made fairer access to higher education even more difficult to achieve.

But there are powerful counter-arguments against the charge that access to higher education is increasingly unequal. First, definitions of middle class and working class have changed. As a result of far-reaching shifts in economic structures and occupational patterns over the past half-century, the former has grown as a proportion of the population and the latter, in its classic heavy-industry proletarian form, has declined. In parallel with this, there are alarming signs of the growth of the new precariat in the so-called gig economy (many of whom may be college graduates). So, it is hardly surprising that today’s much more open higher education systems still appear to be dominated by the ‘middle class’. Of course, this leaves aside the role higher education has played in upward social mobility, surely a beneficial outcome. Second, although the access gap remains, far more students come from less privileged backgrounds than was the case 50 years ago. Third, some previously disadvantaged groups have made spectacular gains—for example, some (but not all) ethnic and cultural minorities and, most decisively and visibly, women (although this fuels another complaint, that middle-class women have crowded out working-class men). Of course, true equality of opportunity remains to be achieved. Minority students tend to be concentrated in lower-status institutions, and female students are concentrated in particular subjects—arguably excluding them from some elite positions and professions.

However, the claim that the expansion of mass higher education has been a socially regressive phenomenon is plainly false. Of course, there is a far bigger elephant in the room: the growth of income inequality since the 1980s— produced by the erosion of higher-tax welfare states, deregulation, and privatization. The same right-wing critics, who complain about the alleged elitism of higher education, enthusiastically support these anti-state policies. So they can hardly complain about their inevitably divisive effects, whether in terms of health outcomes, school attainment, or patterns of postsecondary participation. The available evidence suggests that the wider availability of higher education, as a result of mass expansion, has mitigated this rise in social inequality. But colleges and universities reflect wider social, economic and cultural trends. They cannot reverse these trends unaided.

Three other charges are levelled at the academy by the Trumpists, Brexiters, and their fellow travelers around the globe. The first is that the expansion of higher education has contributed to the growth of what these groups call an expertocracy—a body that dominates public debate and stifles contrary voices on a whole range of issues from climate change to women’s rights. By default, nearly all of these ‘experts’ are college graduates and many are professors. It is difficult to know how seriously to take this charge. More recently, Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav leader turned dissident, complained that postwar Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were creating a new class of privileged ruling elites. Mass higher education may have created a new graduate class in a similar mode. Contemporary rantings against the Washington or London (or Paris or Berlin) establishment have a long historical pedigree. However, a new twist is provided by the alt-right’s rhetorical assault on globalization as a destroyer of jobs and communities at home (rather than as an agent of post-imperial exploitation fueled by global hyper-capitalism).

Second, universities are also implicated as the producers of much of the science on which advanced, and sometimes disruptive, technologies are based. The historical responsibilities of scholars to uncover truths that conflict with received wisdom, and of scientists to think the unthinkable, have always been disturbing to some. A more solid argument is that some new technologies are reshaping lives, and even personal relationships, in radical and not always immediately welcome ways. Social media are clearly an example—although Donald Trump has shown no more willingness to abandon his Twitter account as a primary channel of Presidential communication than the students who enthusiastically embrace social media as learning tools. The growth of the sharing economy, through online tools such as Uber or Airbnb is another example.

The third charge is that the academy is spreading cosmopolitanism, which for these critics appears to be a mixture of the re-heated culture wars of the last century (most notably in the United States), new fears about immigration, mass flows of refugees, and the threat of terrorism. To this, the  academy can only plead guilty. Universities are vibrant, increasingly multi-cultural places, typically at the heart of Richard Florida’s creative cities—where economic dynamism, technological innovation, and social and cultural experimentation fruitfully coexist. Overwhelmingly, the academy has nothing for which to apologize.

Universities are vibrant, increasingly multi-cultural places

How to respond to this charge sheet? The first response must be to refuse to be spooked by the hypocritical allegations of elitism levelled by ultra-conservatives masquerading as populists, and not to do their work for them by apologizing and abandoning the high ground currently occupied by the academy. Modern higher education systems play a key role in the civic and economic emancipation of millions around the world. Democratic societies, for all the weaknesses revealed by the (hopefully, transitory) triumph of Trump and Brexit, cannot function without a well-educated citizenry. The choices we face are difficult and complex. Beware of so-called populists peddling easy and simple ones. Similarly, the success of our economies, which have generated historically unparalleled wealth (however unequally it may be distributed), depends on the experts so despised by the alt-right and, more broadly, on the skills of an increasingly well-educated workforce. The academy has been a key agent in both the processes of individual and social emancipation and economic betterment. The development of increasingly open higher education systems has been among the most powerful social transformations of the past half-century.

However, a second response is also needed. There is a sliver of truth in the allegation that the academy has sold-out to powerful corporate interests. By incessantly talking up world-class universities at which students from predominantly socially privileged groups are enrolled, we have talked down the need to promote increased access to the widest possible populations. But, for all the research funded by big pharma, energy companies, or the military, there is an equivalent or greater quantity of research on progressive social interventions, new legal principles, and environmental agendas—and elite universities are under constant pressure to open their doors to a more diverse student body.

There is a sliver of truth in the allegation that the academy has sold-out to powerful corporate interests.

With all this, it is important to remember that one of the lessons of 21st-century politics, manipulated by behind-closed-doors data analytics and shouted through the Twitter-sphere, is that doubts, impressions, and perceptions—even when contradicted by hard evidence—are more influential than ever. This is the age of alternative facts, after all.

So, the academy must counter the pseudo-populist narrative with an even more compelling narrative, which should include four key messages:

  • The first is a shift away, in both language and strategy, from ‘world-class’ universities and back to widening participation. The language of world-class institutions is divisive, because talk of the best universities inevitably implies the rest are second-rate. However, it is the ‘rest’ that will always enroll the majority of students, including new groups of students from less privileged backgrounds. It is hardly surprising that the students, faculty, and staff at these universities resent such derogatory language. This language also produces perverse policy outcomes. Being in the top 10/50/100 conveys little about the real research quality and capability of these universities, however hyped it may be by marketing departments, and it carries the real risk that institutional strategies will be distorted by focusing excessively on the metrics that determine league-table positions.
  • The second is that higher education should resist the galloping commodification, and outright commercialization, of teaching. Of course, academic programs should be subject to proper business-like planning so that revenues and expenditures can be properly understood. Of course, there should be greater flexibility in how students can learn—not everyone wants to study full-time in campus-based environments created for the social elites of the past. But both aims can be realized through the action of democratic communities of students and their teachers. Entrenched discipline-bound orthodoxies should also be challenged with more courses in post-2008 financial crisis economics alongside the inevitable ones in econometrics. University education should not be put up for sale, either by turning students into spurious customers (and charging them high fees) or by abandoning academic integrity.
  • The third is to develop new forms of research—how research topics are identified, how research is undertaken, who are defined as researchers, how findings are disseminated, and how quality and value are assessed—alongside more traditional forms of research and scholarship. Closed scientific communities, with their silent hegemonies and powerful hierarchies, need to be vigorously challenged by more democratically-formed research communities in which producers, users, and beneficiaries have voices that are more equal. This goes far beyond action research or practitioner research. University-based research should not be something that is done to people, even with the best intentions, but what people do to (and for) themselves—actively engaging the widest possible sections of our many communities.
  • Fourth is the involvement of universities in their communities—not simply as large-scale employers and spenders, in the familiar guise as economic multipliers; not simply in terms of their vital contributions to urban, regional, or national development as conduits through which global knowledge can interact with these local environments; and not simply as key elements with the clever cities in which they are embedded, as beacons of culture and engines of innovation. All three are crucial. But to consolidate, or win back the trust of the whole of society, including those at risk of being suborned by Trump, Brexit, and other ‘populist’ deceptions, they need to become activists for their communities in the fullest possible sense. Above all, what may be required is a simple thing: a change of tone. It is a tough call. For too long the academy has been absorbing the worst habits of the market. Too many university leaders have concluded that there is no alternative to this course. They raise (or introduce) tuition fees to replace dwindling state support, reimagine students as both customers and units of production, build closer links with the corporate world, and re-engineer universities as business organizations. The rise of this thinking alarmingly coincided with the rise of multinational banks and global corporations. The shipwreck of the former and the growing resistance to the latter should be a wake-up call to the academy, as perhaps should be the backlash to elite political institutions around the world. The academy needs to locate itself, unambiguously and radically, in the public realm and in the common wealth. AM
Peter Scott is a Professor of Higher Education Studies at the University College London Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access to Higher Education.

A populist wake-up call for universities

For many, universities do not represent opportunity or self-realization, but instead elite self-regard and academic exchanges in which they see no relevance. What can faculty do to change these perceptions?

Can we step out of our bubble for a moment? I hope so, because unless we do we will not see that we are losing the battle.

What battle is that? Just the one for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, within the nation and without. Just the contest between the forces of rationality and those of darkness and ignorance. Just the eternal struggle to make ideas, and not force, relevant to the plight of those oppressed by ignorance and bad rhetoric. Just that.

If you have not seen the mainstream media lately, if you prefer more filtered sources of experience or retreats into sanity, maybe this is not obvious. However, a glimpse into the abyss of larger public discourse is enough to make the point vivid. Academic research, once celebrated as the vanguard of the best that was thought and expressed, is on the run. Enrolments are down. Public denunciations are routine, running a gamut from casual dismissal (“useless” degrees and the like) to open hostility (“incubators of social justice warriors,” “ideological fog-machines,” etc. etc.).

You can dismiss these bleats if you like. Of course, the comments boards of right-wing newspapers are no place to look for sane assessment of a liberal education. Of course, there are columnists who will base their flailing careers on mocking a world they do not understand.

This move, a reversal of the injunction to check your privilege, is swiftly self-defeating. Enforce your privilege is not much of a rallying cry, after all, at least when it comes to the rational justification of living the life of the mind with ironclad tenure and on a Sunshine List salary. Is that all we have, a retreat into a cocoon of superiority? Rex Murphy and Margaret Wente may be doltish on the subject, but saying so does not really meet the case, does it? They have a point, especially when it comes to the traditional liberal education, once thought to be an instrument of emancipation.

Inside, meanwhile, things are not much better. The neoliberal overproduction of graduate students, essential for government funding ,and steady supplies of sessional teaching, is a pyramid scheme of such magnitude that in another sector it would warrant regulatory intervention. For example, placement rates for tenure-track jobs in humanities have been stuck at about 30 per cent for years, with no discernible effect on intake. Not for nothing is grad-school culture lately compared to a cult, where the desires of the innocent are blithely annexed to a system that chews up individual will as cheap labour. Citing the palpable desire of junior scholars to enter an academic field is akin to college football coaches shrugging away the fact that young men are more than willing to endure life-shortening concussions in pursuit of a one-percentile payoff.

Here is an idea: think of every graduate admission as a sort of concussion waiting to happen. (In case anyone cares, I am currently director of graduate studies in my department, a job nobody wants; I do my best to be, at least, honest.)

Against this background, indulgences such as the “slow professor” movement, however well intentioned, constitute a somewhat sick joke—something that renders the notion of “First World problem” wildly inadequate. I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?

The humanities and social sciences often appear to be scholarly echo chambers, driven by prize-chasing and chatter-swapping that is only of interest to a comfortable few. The emancipatory promise of learning, once the core mission, lies broken on the floor. There is no freedom here, no route to self-realization. There may be, in some cases, employment. But there is, less defensibly, the mere carapace of radical politics, a pathetic shell of commitment polished and maintained by a collective delusion that what we do still makes a difference to the larger world.

Let me put it in this contentious way: The only justification for the privileges we enjoy is that they should work to make the world better, in some sense of that word. This is, mutatis mutandis, a basic tenet of any theory of justice, whether it is John Rawls’ notion of distributive fairness, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Hume’s regulation of moderate scarcity. There may be no direct material results from our work, but there should be intangible ones: the accretion of wisdom, a deepened sense of what it means to be here. Privilege for its own sake is malign. Intellectual privilege is complacency dressed up with fancy vocational window-dressing.

Look, I know: crisis in our universities is a familiar trope. We have heard all of this before, and scholarship keeps making its steady headway. Stop worrying! Keep your head down, make a contribution, be moderately nice to your colleagues and students, and take home the pay. There are worse ways to measure a mortal span.

I sympathize with this attitude, I really do. Sometimes, like many of us, all I want to do is go to the library and make notes for an article or critical notice, which I am certain will not be read by more than a few like-minded colleagues. Moreover, I am as impatient as anyone with the misrepresentations of what happens in our classrooms and on our campuses. I have no interest in indoctrination, preach no particular political line in lectures, and do not believe my students ought to exit a course as fired-up activists, just as more thoughtful citizens.

But, friends, we are losing. We are losing when it comes to reason and critical intelligence and civility. We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.

Populism might be a political force we revile, but its lesson cannot be ignored: for the vast majority of people, universities do not represent opportunity or self-realization but elite self-regard, out-of-touch levels of comfort, and a discourse that enjoys no traction on the politics of everyday life.

We are losing when it comes to reason and critical intelligence and civility. We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.

Assuming that we see this as a problem that needs to be addressed, what can we do about it?

* * *

As a fan of campus literature, I always read with some envy the depictions of earlier iterations of academic life. I think of Evelyn Waugh, John Williams, Iris Murdoch, or Willa Cather—even David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, and Malcolm Bradbury. Whether taken seriously or wrapped in the chilly embrace of satire, professors in these worlds enjoy implicit status because of their learning. Undergraduates accept authority and the idea that a bachelor’s degree is a good in and of itself. The public at large considers a liberal-arts degree a mark of distinction, the sign of potential, not a sad comment on bad life-choices.

I do not need to tell you that this has all entirely vanished. Universities are now sites of consumer preference and casual student entitlement. Expertise in something as frangible as poetry and philosophy is a matter of routine mockery. Administrators multiply at a rate unknown to any other walk of life. Passionate interest in ideas, meanwhile, is considered a sign of eccentricity, something to be deprecated among the post-grad barista class as adolescent indulgence.

From behind the retail counter, Thoreau’s cry in Walden (1854) about intellectuals as rational rebels for humanity sounds a romantic note. “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,” he intoned. “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

If only. So, the question becomes one of what other possibilities exist given current conditions. Is there any life in the traditional promise of liberal learning? Suppose we denied ourselves the comfortable retreat into privilege, a return to the bubble, what would our duties be then? And what would be the real outcomes, not the ones measured by the dean’s office apparatchiks?

Is there any life in the traditional promise of liberal learning?

We can note several false trails right from the start. The worst possible course of action is to try to recast liberal learning according to a reductive notion of utility. This is the error coiled in the heart of every faculty demand for learning outcomes and transferable skills. Sure, there are such outcomes and skills emerging from the ether of classes in metaphysics or pure mathematics. However, if we assess those classes on their ability to generate such results, we commit two errors—one theoretical and one practical.

The theoretical error is counted as such only by those who are already committed to these esoteric pursuits. Utility-based arguments for math and metaphysics mistake the true value of these undertakings, erasing their special appeal. This is, alas, academic inside baseball. However, the practical error follows immediately and should be obvious to anyone. If we are really concerned with enhancing writing, critical reasoning, or calculating skills, teaching the works of David Lewis and Georg Cantor is a preposterously inefficient way of going about it. Life skills may be emergent properties of postsecondary study; they cannot ever be its point.

It is equally dangerous to devolve university education to either of two popular notions of self-fulfilment. One of these holds that education is entirely for the benefit of an individual subject: the so-called “mental spa” model. On this understanding, in public systems anyway, the taxpayers of a jurisdiction shoulder the costs of unequally distributed luxury goods, in the form of time and opportunity to read, write, and hang out for several years. Tuition provides a necessary cover of personal investment in this high-end experience, but in fact rarely covers the full costs.

The flip-side of this indulgent vision is the popular idea that education must be a matter of radicalization. The notion has a long and respectable history, and there is a kernel of truth in it that must be acknowledged beyond the newspaper caricatures of “political correctness,” that mythical bugbear, and the clichéd talk of microaggressions, safe spaces, and victimhood.

As Paolo Freire reminds us in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), education is either a trap-door into the current arrangement or an escape-hatch into freedom. However, there are sometimes side-traps and bait-and-switch games concealed within the passageways of thought. Freedom need not be standard leftist politics. In fact, it need not, and should not, be any specific counter-ideology at all. Critical intelligence means questioning all easy habits of thought; including the ones we indulge in service of our own political desires.

Critical intelligence means questioning all easy habits of thought; including the ones we indulge in service of our own political desires.

It has been some years since I last read Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University (1852), but in thinking about this article, I was motivated to crack my old paperback copy. It is well thumbed. I bought it for a class I still recall, a first-year ‘great books’ evening course, co-taught in the far-off year of 1980 by two historians—one of them the award-winning Kenneth Bartlett, now a colleague.

Newman’s basic religiosity remains at odds with his self-avowed secularism about education, and his elitism is presumptive, as with any book from the era. Nevertheless, the optimism of his view is forever inspiring. The defence of education as an end in itself, in fact as the discernment of ends rather than means, is timeless. Students, Newman argues, must learn “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze.” That is the point; that is the idea.

* * *

It happens that this spring is the tenth anniversary of a program run at the University of Toronto called “Humanities for Humanity.” My friends John Duncan and Kelley Castle, along with a host of student and faculty volunteers, have run this innovative series with extraordinary success over this decade.

In the program, people from different walks of city life, recruited through community centres and downtown churches, attend a series of lectures and discussion groups. They read very canonical material and hear from professors interested in the topics. (I have lectured every year on Machiavelli’s The Prince; also lately on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in a related program called “Theatre for Thought”.) There is a hearty dinner and free childcare, formal certificates at the end, and, above all, an intellectual fellowship I have not seen anywhere else.

Some 500 students have been inspired by the original program over the years, with another 300 graduating from the theatre-based offshoot. These might seem like small numbers, compared to the massive waves of populism that contend with the very idea of a university, and the huge annual intakes of students at all levels of our system. But, I can tell you that there is nothing in my experience more moving than to hear someone, excluded by language or background from regular attendance, wax emotional about the simple chance to attend a university lecture on power, or identity, or faith.

Speaking of faith, nothing renews my faith in the value of education more reliably than spending time with these students. A program like this will not solve the structural problems of graduate-school exploitation and the new academic precariat. It will not serve as a one-line reply to know-nothings and dopes who court a bogus populism with anti-intellectual ridicule and their comfortable salaries. However, it might sketch the beginnings of an argument about why we do what we do, why it matters, and how it affects actual people.

Our own students are rarely as grateful as these people, who are usually older and coming from situations of deprivation and often oppression. However, as Newman and Freire and a host of us have reason to know, planting the seeds of wisdom is not the same thing as witnessing its flowering. We cannot know, in advance, what effect our ideas and their halting expression will have on the individuals who pass before us in lecture halls, maybe bored and thinking of other things, irritated at the sheer non-utility of it all.

And yet, we go on because we believe in the mission. Or we should. It seems to me that the natural consequence of charges of elite privilege is a dangerous cynicism: the idea that this is all a game, a lottery where tenured faculty are the lucky winners after whom the door slams shut. Good luck, suckers! I’m all right!

Whenever I think about these questions of value, and the ends of university education, I recall the first hard years of my post-PhD career. The job market was experiencing another one of its cyclical crises. My home department at Yale, was in disarray and plummeting in reputation (there were no formal rankings then, just word-of-mouth taint). I struggled to find work, cobbling together what, nowadays, appears to be a fairly typical path: a post-doc, a sessional job, a limited appointment, tantalizing prospects of tenure-track jobs, along with various reversals and disappointments. I applied to join the Foreign Service, contemplated law school, and wrote for money. Of course I did.

Not surprisingly, I resented people who seemed to swan their way from graduate school into tenure-track jobs. I also recall the humiliation of having my name removed from a departmental mailbox because my re-appointment in the folding chair was briefly held up. “You don’t teach here anymore,” I was told. I’m glad those days are gone, but I don’t ever forget them. I am one of the lucky, lucky few: I made it into the clubhouse—or at least one chamber of its rigged, rickety expanse.

I will say it again: it is despicable to enjoy the fruits of academic success and not feel a profound sense of obligation. People who exist outside our bubble feel this too: hence the anger, the contempt, the disdain—and, maybe worst of all, the indifference. Still, we are all citizens together, and the world of the university is as real as anything else that transpires here in the sublunary realm. There is a call to community audible underneath all the hostility.

So I choose to believe, anyway. Every academic I know will tell you that she or he has many, many jobs. Sometimes, to be sure, it can feel like too many. But one of them, maybe the most important one, is to demonstrate why our efforts have wider value than just our personal satisfaction. That is not quite a new pedagogy of the oppressed, but maybe it is a start. AM

Mark Kingwell is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

International students and Canada’s future on the right

Populist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and UK means that more international students are coming to study at postsecondary institutions in Canada. But, what Canada will they find when they get here?

The political events of the past year have been a recurring sitcom of oddities, leading many Canadians to bring out the popcorn and tissues. We watched with wry humour as the UK exited the European Union and we sat in stunned terror as the US elected Donald Trump. It has been more than a little unsettling. Our two closest allies—economically and culturally— have turned their back on the ideals of an open society and are instead pursuing narrow, protectionist policies.

The response in higher education has been ambivalent as institutions wonder what these political changes will mean for them. Most have held meetings and drafted statements to decry US policies while at the same time calculating the revenue they will gain if international students come to Canada instead of the UK or America.

Fortunately, several institutions have also seen the writing on the wall, foreshadowing our own potential to get swept away in the populist mania. Will this struggle become ours more directly? And what role is there for Canadian universities, many of whom are hoping these political events pay out in international students?

US chaos is Canada’s windfall

In the spring of 2016, as the UK made history by exiting the EU and Trump became a legitimate contender in the US, Canadians began to wonder what all of this meant for them. Trump’s protectionist policies were the most immediate concern. Without smooth trade with the US, a Canadian recession is almost guaranteed. Yet, when Trump was officially elected, the higher education response was one of eager anticipation. Would Canada benefit from the hostile environment in the US? Would we see an increase in foreign students and the money they bring in? The evidence suggests the answer is “yes”.

In the wake of Brexit, the EU ranked Canada as the most desirable English-speaking country for study abroad. This is a huge publicity bump for Canada. Shortly after this pleasant promotion, QS World University Ranking listed Montreal as the number one student city in the world, removing the romantic icon of Paris from first place. The world is watching Canadian universities.

In terms of actual numbers, Canada has never been the number-one destination for foreign students. According to the World Economic Forum, we are currently the eighth highest recipient of international students following the US, UK, France, Australia, Germany, Russia, and Japan. The reality is that we receive only 3 per cent of the world’s mobile students compared to the US (18 per cent) and the UK (11 per cent).

So topping the US and UK is a big deal. Students who cannot or will not go to the US and UK, have to go somewhere else, and we hope it is here. The future looks even brighter when you consider that Canadian institutions have already had a 20 per cent rise in applications from American students. Canada is quickly becoming the ideal place to get a degree.

Students who cannot or will not go to the US and UK, have to go somewhere else, and we hope it is here

What Canada are international students entering?

What is this idyllic Canada that international students are entering?

Well, Canada turns 150 this year. If this were not a strong enough reason to revisit our national identity, US xenophobia certainly is. Social media is abuzz with messages that Canada is welcoming, from the Ontario-150 campaign video with its flagship Muslim teen, to reporters finding refugees who have walked for hours just to get to Canada. We are looking for proof that we are made of superior moral fabric, that the hatred could not happen here, that we are not like them.

However, history is not our friend. In fact, Canadian politics has a concerning tendency to follow closely behind our US counterpart. Remember the 1980s, when the US elected conservative Ronald Reagan in 1981 and then Canada elected conservative Brian Mulroney in 1984? Ten years later the more liberal governments of Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien both took power in 1993; Stephen Harper’s conservatives followed George W. Bush by only five years. And now we have our own charming, young Prime Minister in the wake of Barack Obama.

So before we feel superior, let’s stop to consider what will happen when Canadians begin to get disillusioned with our energetic Prime Minister and his diverse cabinet. An international student who eagerly applies for a Canadian degree in 2017 will only be starting their third year of study when Canadians have the chance to oust Trudeau and elect a right-wing leader. We even had our own celebrity-cum-politician vying for the job.

This scenario becomes even more hopeless if we add a recession fueled by US trade restrictions. Loss of employment, government deficits, and a rising cost of living could become a recipe for populist campaigning and protectionism. Even if we successfully construct an image that we are different from the US, that we make our own political choices and are open to the world, a recession would shatter this image fairly quickly. When unemployment hits, “me-first” politics becomes much more appealing.

The picture does not get brighter when you consider the findings of the international student survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Only 13 per cent of international students reported that they faced cultural or religious discrimination from their peers inside the university campus, but 21 per cent said they experienced discrimination from the broader community.

When unemployment hits, “me-first” politics becomes much more appealing

This supports the idea that universities are bastions of liberal thought, and many are working hard to create inclusive communities. But eventually international students have to go out into the world and there is no guarantee that the Canada they find will be friendly. Indeed, there are new barriers on the learning-to-earning pathways for international students in Canada as they are no longer able to count their retail or food service jobs toward their permanent residency status. We want them to come, we need their money and cultural cache on campus, but not all of us want them to stay. And, if we do follow our neighbours to the south down the path of populism, it is unlikely that we will hold our top position for very long.

What is the plan?

So how can we avoid this future? How can Canadian universities take action and ensure that Canada is, as Canadian Federation of Students Chairperson Bilan Arte recently wrote, the “antithesis to Trump’s America?”

Well, the first thing is to leverage all that “stuff” that universities do. The brick and mortar multiversity, which is still the mainstay across Canada, has its fingers in everything from policy advising and medical research to educating young minds. Universities do everything, but can they do it all with the aim of countering discrimination?

The day-to-day grind of competing for funding and marking exams leaves little time for esoteric reflections. Some of us are left looking enviously at our social science colleagues who always seem at the centre of action research and social change.

So, let’s take a step back from the heroic examples of faculty activism and consider three tangible ways all of us in higher education can bring equity and openness into our daily activities. Think postscripts, interventions, and open ears.

First, for faculty and staff—hone your postscript. Find that one message from your work or research that broadens the conversation, that brings it back to equity and caring for the underrepresented. “Well Jim, those are the main findings from our genome project, POSTSCRIPT: I hope we keep in mind how this effects those in marginalized communities…”

Second, a lesson from the safe-campus folk: be conscientious interveners. Choose a phrase that reflects you—be it gentle strength or pithy sarcasm. Speak up when things get uncomfortable. “You know Ann, I felt uncomfortable with the way we treated that student…”

And finally, just listen. Some people take this further, adding an extra 30 minutes of office hours for equity issues. The aim is not to solve all problems on your campus, but it will signal that you are willing to have these conversations. It shows respect for diverse students as valuable, not just lucrative.

Influencing the vote

In terms of actually influencing an election, can universities help prevent far-right victories?

Universities and colleges are uniquely positioned. They educate more than 60 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 to 24. That is huge. And, when it comes to voting, this group is inconsistent. In the 2011 Canadian federal election only 38.8 per cent of this group voted. But, in 2015, when the stakes were higher, 57.1 per cent showed up to vote.

One reason for the increase was that, in 2015, universities worked directly with Elections Canada to make it easier for students to vote. New elections offices were established on university campuses—sometimes more than one—to get students registered to vote. This is a move in the right direction.

If the research tells us that those with a degree are less likely to vote for a populist leader, then let’s make sure our students are voting. Let’s increase funding for “get out the vote” campaigns, provide incentives for students who register, and make it easy and imperative that students cast their ballot.

We also need to remember that our students are not just isolated voters. They may also be an important means of bridging the “education gap.” Research suggests that those who hold degrees were less likely to have voted for Brexit and Trump. In Canada, more than 30 per cent of university students and about 42 per cent of college students are the first generation in their family to attend postsecondary education. This means that the university’s connection to people without postsecondary education—like those unfairly shamed because they voted for Trump—is much closer than we have been led to believe.

Let us assume for a moment that these efforts pay off and Canada manages to ward off the populist surge taking place south of the border and narrow protectionist politics at home. We will, most likely, continue to receive international students and their high tuition fees. But, what will they find when they arrive? We hope it is a Canada that is welcoming and diverse. Whether this is the case is a daily choice for all of us. AM

Grace Karram Stephenson is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Canada’s university administrators must pay attention to right-wing activism on campuses

The surge in racism on university campuses is part of a broader right-wing awakening across the country. University administrators must counter these developments, or the credibility of their institutions will suffer.

That a populist wave has swept over much of the Western world (and beyond) in recent years should not be lost on Ontario’s post-secondary educators and administrators. Canada and its public institutions are also susceptible to the politics and rhetoric of exclusion and hate.

Aside from well-documented incidents in Alberta and British Columbia, alarmingly, the past two years have seen numerous cases of racist propaganda posted and distributed in and around Ontario’s university campuses. In the fall of 2015, “White Student Union” posters were found at Ryerson University, York University, and the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. A year later, flyers decrying “anti-white racism” were found on the McMaster University campus in Hamilton, while a study room in McMaster’s Innis Library was booked with the note: “McMaster KKK meeting.” And then, last fall, some students posed in front of a giant #WesternLivesMatter banner at Western University.

These are just a few examples from a wave of incidents. This surge in publicly racist pronouncements is part of a larger right-wing awakening across the country. And though this emboldening of otherwise suppressed and marginalized views can be traced, at least in part, to the rise of Donald Trump and populist demagoguery in the United States, it is Canada’s own history and phenomenon of far right movements that have laid the foundation for such a surge to take place.

As the far right continues to gain political and rhetorical ground in the US and Europe, university administrators in Canada should remain vigilant. Attempts to use the campus environment (and even the classroom) to reintegrate racist and xenophobic discourse and agendas back into the wider spectrum of acceptable ideas should be expected.

A Canadian problem

In a recent comprehensive study of right-wing movements across Canada, Professor Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and Ryan Scrivens of Simon Fraser University found that the country’s right-wing extremist movement is “more extensive and more active than public rhetoric would suggest.”

The study concluded that approximately 100 right-wing extremist groups have been active in Canada since the start of the 21st century. Concentrations of these groups have taken hold in British Columbia’s lower mainland, Alberta, Quebec, and Western Ontario.

Additionally, CBC Marketplace did a recent study that focused on racist and intolerant language on social media, web forums, comment sections, and blogs. The study found a 600 per cent increase in such language in the past year. Although the researchers called this surge in online racism “The Trump Effect,” internet intolerance and cyber bullying have long been a problem in the age of online communication. According to Statistics Canada, this surge in right-wing rhetoric and racism was preceded by a doubling of anti-Muslim incidents from 2012 to 2014. This also came before Donald Trump achieved serious media and political traction in the US.

It is the combination of a decidedly Canadian history of intolerance and racism along with the recent insurgency of right-wing activism, language, and electoral success in the US that has emboldened Canada’s far right. The surge in racism literature and paraphernalia on major university campuses across Canada in the past two years is a function of this convergence.

The exploitation of free speech

The perceived rise in “political correctness” has long been a central grievance harboured by those on the right. Since university campuses are supposed to be arenas where the free flow and engagement of ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, it makes sense that activists on the far right would use this principle to try and reintegrate otherwise suppressed beliefs that have long been discredited and marginalized.

Such usage of campus culture and the student body is catalyzed by the common perception that universities are biased against conservative thinkers and viewpoints. This discrepancy gives credence to a belief in the “elitist” culture of university campuses that have lost touch with society.

Thus, we see the injection and reintegration of xenophobic populism, often disguised as legitimate conservative activism. Its proponents and enthusiasts characterize this as a necessary attempt to recalibrate the skewed, left-wing university campus culture—one they say has long discriminated against conservatives who will not bow to the pervasive and repressive presence of “political correctness.”

Yet the impacts of this kind of organizing go well beyond the university campus. Groups that seek to create concentrations of far-right activists on campuses do so as a means to galvanize support for movements that aim to have regional and even national influence. The campus or campus group is simply the locus where a certain species of political or cultural rhetoric can take root. The panels, lectures, and rallies that each group undertakes, perhaps with university funding, attract like-minded people. To be clear, this kind of dynamic is basic and germane to groups across the political and cultural spectrum and is not at all exclusive to right-wing activism.

However, as far as the right is concerned, the linkage of on-campus legitimacy and off-campus audiences attracts individuals or groups that exist on the fringes of society. Campus groups may purport to stand for issues related to free speech, taxation, or immigration, but in the age of Trump—who has turned xenophobic rhetoric regarding Muslims and Mexicans into popular political stances repeated daily on broadcast television—such issues act as a dog whistle, publicly galvanizing those further down the far-right spectrum. In this way, the university campus becomes the physical location for a coalescing of right-wing dogma.

Not all conservative groups or clubs purposefully stoke xenophobia via this galvanization of the far-right. However, the success of Trump, combined with Canada’s own layer of extreme right-wing voices, may create a situation where even well-meaning student groups begin to attract voices and people that do not belong in arenas of civil debate and engagement. Currently, in light of the rather obvious state of right-wing politics, such inadvertent connections seem to be rare.

Administrators and faculty should keep an eye out for this kind of right-wing coalescing because regardless of wider impacts, it affects the university campus climate as well as minority students’ and groups’ safety and place within the campus community. Thus, the university administration’s legitimacy rests on its ability to gauge the level, political nature, and limits of right-wing activism on campus.

The politics of normalization

Incidents of campus racism do not take place or occur within a sealed social vacuum. The language used in far-right paraphernalia found on Canadian campuses reflects Trump’s rhetoric. This reinforces the theoretical connection between the rise in xenophobic campus propaganda and the political insurgency of the American right.

Professor Jasmine Zine of Wilfred Laurier University and Ameil Joseph of McMaster University, both of whom are informed by an extensive scholarly background in the study of discrimination, have related the rise and origins of such campus racism to a process of “normalization”—a gradual mainstreaming of previously unacceptable ideologies or politics by the advent of right-wing populism in Trump’s America and elsewhere.

This normalization mirrors the mechanisms of reintegration that campus groups are capable of facilitating when it comes to far right politics. Just as former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (along with an assortment of far right extremists) have come out and expressed allegiance to Trump, legitimate conservative groups on campus may attract the same kind of attention.

If such dog whistling has been achieved at the top-most levels of national politics in the US, then it is certainly not a stretch to posit that those in smaller venues who harbour similar ambitions and views are mirroring the effect.

If the goal is to drag the national conservation or political framework toward the right, then it makes sense to establish or reinforce this process of “normalization” at every level of society and in every available venue where the exchange of ideas is prioritized. This makes Canadian university campuses a priority for right-wing demagoguery as it looks to move out from the shadows.

The populist tool and the canadian alt-right

It is not just Donald Trump that provides inspiration and comfort to those on Canada’s far-right fringe. Canada has a handful of political figures who have made it very clear that they hope to galvanize a similar electoral base. This brings the political context of campus racism into a domestic frame where it is bound to have serious consequences that warrant attention from university administrators.

Three candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada’s national leadership spoke at Rebel Media’s recent Toronto rally protesting Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s Motion-103, which condemns racism and Islamophobia. The audience of 1,000 people ranged from “Make America Great Again”-hat-wearing Trump supporters to members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which the FBI has designated a terrorist organization in the US.

In other words, those in attendance represented the assortment of right-wing groups and voices that, in today’s parlance, would constitute the Canadian “alt-right.” That some of Canada’s leading conservative voices find it necessary to play to this crowd is a clear sign of the political context within which campus politics will be conducted in the years to come.

The crowd was symbolic of the larger make-up of today’s ever-coalescing right wing, which has evolved into a big-tent and surprisingly multi-ethnic group that share a single purpose: to use today’s political climate to reintegrate their allegedly suppressed viewpoints and rhetoric back into the national conversation. Due to the diversity of right-wing thought, the extreme right can use the legitimacy of those whose history and rhetoric don’t ring as many alarm bells to provide themselves with political cover. And although different right-wing groups may have varying levels of respectability, all are looking to capitalize on today’s Trump-inspired political climate to gain acceptance and more influence.

The high level of visibility and political influence that clearly xenophobic and dishonest views have reached will certainly affect the tenor and character of conservative groups and activism on Canadian campuses. A failure of university administrators to monitor and counter these developments will erode the university’s credibility.

Due to the current political atmosphere, large segments of the student body are looking to those in places of institutional power to re-legitimize their presence as full-fledged and welcomed members of Canadian and university communities. These minority populations and groups have become an absolutely integral and indispensable aspect of Canadian universities—known around the world for their emphasis on diversity of ethnic background, as well as ideological and philosophical viewpoint.

When anti-black racism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia are found on campuses, university administrations should, at the very least, make a very visible effort to rhetorically marginalize these acts of discrimination. Additionally, administrators should hold regular consultations and meetings with different student organizations on campus to get a better idea of what students are feeling and experiencing.

Although universities are arenas where the largest spectrum of ideas and worldviews can be engaged with and critiqued, campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history. There is no such thing as a functional space of ideas or intellectual exchange that tolerates those who are absolutely intolerant.

campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history

For instance, university spaces have no responsibility to include the neo-Nazi or pro-Ku Klux Klan perspectives. To do so would be to facilitate the corrosion of such open spaces. Thankfully, history has cast many of these unhelpful visions aside. Today’s universities should not play any role in their resurrection. AM

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist, editor, and writer focusing on national security issues and foreign affairs.

Global higher education, social solidarity, and the new nationalism

Higher education serves both national and global interests in the pursuit of knowledge and student learning. Given populism’s nationalist roots, there is mounting pressure to redefine the university’s mission. How should universities respond?

The last twelve months have seen a great shift in the North Atlantic political landscape, with only Canada immune (so far). Nobody in universities saw it coming. It is urgent to grasp the nature of this shift. Higher education has become central to societies; it is inevitably caught up in all big political changes and it is directly involved in this particular shift.

There has been a surge of support for ethno-nationalism of the blood-and-soil kind, fearful of global openness and resentful of globally connected persons, whether migrants, traders, or cross-border professors and students. This surge has been strong enough to take the UK out of the European Union and, against the odds, propel a white nationalist protectionist into the White House. Donald Trump is bristling with threats to wage war on a long list of internal and external enemies; he is trying to turn those threats into policy. The alt-right political polarization, grounded in identity, not class (although white nationalism actually claims the mantle of the proletariat, capturing class within cultural identity) turns on an opposition between singular ethno-national identity, and global openness and plural identity. This has rendered Anglo-American higher education and science more controversial and vulnerable, affecting every higher education institution.

What is different about the alt-right?

Though the alt-right is more nuanced and modernist in Western Europe, there is strong support for ethno-nationalist populism in France, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. In fact, Marine Le Pen may have won the French presidency by the time this article is published, and while Geert Wilders failed to sweep the March elections in the Netherlands, his fundamentalist Dutch identity has colonized the political language of the mainstream parties, just as the anti-migration anti-Europe rhetoric of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party have remade the strategies and policies of Theresa May’s Conservative Party in the UK.

Nationalist populism and the rhetorical targeting of elites (often by politicians who draw their own support from the rich and powerful) is an old gambit. In efforts to shore up their power, many other politicians have and are currently leveraging nationalist sympathy, including Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hindu-centric Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. President Xi Jinping in China has also sharpened the patriotic rhetoric. However, alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism: a break from the past in two ways.

alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism

First, the alt-right is explicitly and consistently anti-globalization. It rejects the neoliberal globalism that has shaped politics for the last 25 years, with its world-market dreaming and free flows of capital, labour, and products. Here the alt-right differs from Xi in China, Modi, and even, despite habitual Russian closure (a hangover from the Soviet past), from Putin. Open economic borders still facilitate the rise of China and India; but in the US, UK, and France, part of the economic elite has drawn the conclusion that open borders no longer translate into global dominance. Hence Trump’s emphasis on that other source of US global power, military capability, and the reported desire of his chief adviser Steve Bannon for a “cleansing war”. Second, the alt-right pitches itself against science, higher education, experts, and even graduates, which are all positioned on the wrong side of its simplistic elite/people divide.

A post-neoliberal world

Trump’s abrupt switch from free trade policy to American isolationism has been startling. Nevertheless, US policy never fully discarded all protectionism. Perhaps the abandonment of multilateralism by a mainstream political party in the UK is the larger change. Since the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear that ending free migratory movement from continental Europe is a higher priority for the UK government than either economic enrichment or attracting global talent. If necessary, the UK will leave the single market in Europe to end free movement. In the last generation, the UK’s two most successful global sectors have been financial services, led by the City of London, and higher education and research. Different though they are, each has become collateral damage of ethno-nationalism. UK finance will no longer provide international firms with single-stop access to European markets —the passport to Europe which has been primary in building London as a global business centre. Nigel Farage even argues that, when selecting partners for bilateral trade deals, the UK should give priority to countries that speak English. It is hard to imagine export nations like Germany or Korea giving priority to trading partners that speak German or Korean.

Who would have thought it? The UK and USA have entered a post-neoliberal world in which the goal of maximum capital accumulation has been partly eclipsed. This is a result of a hard-nosed politics of securing and maintaining power in fractured societies rife with material insecurity and frustrated hopes. Alt-right and mainstream centre-right politicians find it easier to scapegoat than to implement reforms to confront the one per cent and reverse growing inequality. This strategic shift may create openings for other opponents of neoliberalism, but it is not the post-neoliberal world that higher education wanted. We long chafed under the dominance of solely economic policy. We now have a larger problem.

Rampant global markets are associated with inequality, the undermining of labour conditions and the social wage, and pressures to privatize education. However, global convergence has not been solely economic. Since the 1990s, open borders and free movement have also been associated with the roll-out of worldwide communications and common databases, a renaissance in higher education with unprecedented international collaboration, and the spread of indigenous scientific capacity and global research to more than fifty countries. A combination of widespread authoritarian national governments and border blockages would be the worst possible outcome for higher education and research at home and abroad.

It will be hard for Canada to remain entirely insulated from pressures to restrict cross-border movement. Nevertheless, the Canadian social consensus about multiculturalism and migrancy should protect the nation from the worst extremes of the alt-right. This is vital for Canadian higher education. Consider the effects already unfolding for higher education institutions in the US and UK.

The UK has 2.9 million resident EU citizens and 2.15 million in the workforce. This includes 43,000 EU citizen staff and 125,000 EU students in higher education. Their position is radically uncertain. Until last June, EU nationals were quasi-citizens with an unquestionable right to remain. That has disappeared. The UK government refuses to announce a blanket guarantee for existing residents. It has been overwhelmed by the volume of applications for residency (it kept no records of EU citizens that would confirm the validity of their applications) and is nudging as many EU citizens as possible back across the border by imposing a difficult 85-page application form and steep requirements for proof of UK residency. This includes a record of private health insurance, though most EU citizens in the UK use the public National Health Service. Universities face the loss of many of their best faculty—in recent years 40 per cent of all new applicants for UK academic posts have gone to Europeans—and a massive drop in EU students entering the UK. After Brexit, EU students will no longer have access to income contingent loans for tuition and will face increases of 120 to 200 per cent in tuition fees. Further, UK researchers will no longer be eligible to participate in large-scale collaborative EU research programs, slowing the exchange of ideas between the UK and the continent.

In the US, Trump’s ban on citizens from six Muslim countries immediately blocks large-scale flows of students, researchers, and faculty visitors. It imposes a discriminatory framework, violating the ideas of secularism, cultural diversity and equal respect, and academic freedom and democratic rights. It undermines the capacity of universities to provide the free cosmopolitan global space integral to their role. Further, Trump has targeted climate science and already cut the budget for Environmental Protection Agency research. No doubt National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health budgets will come under scrutiny. Trump’s early confrontation with the University of California, Berkeley over free speech—on behalf of an alt-right leader who was, ironically, attempting to deny free speech to Muslims—suggests that a long culture war with US universities and colleges is likely.

Higher education and electoral polarization

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology. Not only do universities embody values and cross-border practices that Trump detests; not only do they harbour many of his articulate critics; the social divide between those with college degrees and those outside higher education was crucial to his 2016 electoral strategy. The education/non-education divide, and attacks on experts also figured in the Brexit campaign in the UK.

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology

We can see this by examining voting patterns. A word of caution here: binary political systems trigger heterogeneous voting blocs. Not all supporters of Brexit were persuaded by the alt-right—including many members of the British Labour Party for whom the EU is a bankers’ conspiracy. In the US, Trump drew votes from lifelong Republicans who support the party of Lincoln while disagreeing with the candidate on some issues. Electoral polarization also differed between the US and UK. Ethnicity and gender were larger factors in the US, but there was convergence in the winning ethno-nationalist arguments, particularly in relation to migration (“give us back our country”), national aggrandizement (“make America great again”), and the negative references to experts.

The best overall predictors of how people voted in the US and UK were not whether they were rich or poor. Support for Trump and Brexit cut across class lines, and in different ways: in the UK, the average income of Brexit supporters was less than that of EU supporters; in the US, the average income of Trump voters was higher than that of Clinton voters. The clearest indicators of how people were likely to vote were
(1) whether they lived in large cities (they tended to support the EU and Clinton), or small towns and rural areas (they supported Brexit and Trump); and (2) whether they held degrees. The two factors are related. Like global connections, degree holders are concentrated in cities.

This association between higher education and global mobility is instrumental, not coincidental. Recently the OECD published Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world. The report contained a table comparing the cross-border mobility of people with, and without, university degrees. Among those without degrees, the tendency to move across borders was correlated to income. As income rose, people had more scope for mobility. The capacity for mobility is economically driven and it furthers the economic advantages of those already advantaged. End of story.

Except that it isn’t. Among those with university degrees—and current participation rates suggest this will soon be one-fifth of all people in the world—the OECD found a different pattern. First, at a given level of income, those with degrees are much more mobile than those without degrees. In other words, higher education helps to democratize mobility, providing you can get higher education in the first place. Second, for those with degrees, above a modest threshold of income there is little change in potential mobility. This suggests that because higher education helps graduates to achieve greater personal agency, it reduces the limits set by economic determination and class, constituting greater personal freedom in its own right. Conversely, those who lack higher education have less freedom, which helps to explain the virulence of push-back mobilized by the alt-right.

Nate Silver’s analysis of the November 2016 election in the US shows that in the 50 least educated counties, as measured by the proportion of the electorate with college degrees, Trump made major gains. When compared to Obama in 2012, Clinton lost ground in 47 of these 50 counties with an average slide of 11 percentage points. In the 50 counties with the highest level of college education—otherwise diverse in terms of income and ethnic composition—Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 vote in 48 of the 50 by an average 9 percentage points. These highly educated counties include many with high proportions of white voters, who elsewhere tended to support Trump. Clinton secured more than half the vote from only one group of white voters: college educated women. In the UK, only 26 per cent of degree holders supported Brexit, far less than the 78 per cent of those without degrees who voted in favour. Young people, the most educated generation in UK history—more comfortable with mobility and complex identity—overwhelmingly voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

Ironically, Trump could not have used level of education as a means of dividing the electorate if only 5 per cent of people went to university and it was solely an elite affair. Only when participation reached a third or more of all young people, and higher education had become much less elite, could it be used as a binary political weapon. The alt-right, which positions itself as egalitarian, yet supports low taxes for the rich and demonizes destitute refugees with nowhere to go, is bristling with Orwellian ironies of this kind.

It might be a weapon with diminishing power. If participation in higher education continues to expand then, in the long run, the potential alt-right base must shrink. Yet that is not the only possible scenario. In the neoliberal policy settings that have affected Canada and other countries, higher education has been rendered more vulnerable to alt-right populism because of its growing focus on elite universities and private rates of return to degrees, rather than the contributions of higher education to the common public good. Universities defined as self-serving corporations are painted into a corner, and there is a danger that as the cost of public education rises and its social value is emptied out by stratification, the growth of participation will stop. This is already happening in the US.

Global, national, and local

Higher education institutions suddenly find themselves walking on eggshells. EU-voting UK university cities in the Midlands and the North sit amid strong Brexit majorities in the surrounding regions. Educated city-based people, comfortable with global mobility, have been pitted against those for whom life and self are geographically constrained and global engagement is on the wrong side of the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. This newly constructed social division has entered the political mainstream, as shown by Theresa May’s savage put-down of global values soon after the Brexit vote: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. You do not belong in the UK. As if people must choose between singular identities, national or global, and it is unnatural to be both. This poses dangers for higher education institutions that are local, national, and global at the same time.

Higher education serves national objectives. It also works with universal knowledge and focuses on common global problems. This leaves universities ambiguous in the face of the essential ethno-national question: “Shouldn’t we do more for our own citizens than those of other countries?” One virtue of universities is that they refuse to be trapped by that question. Nevertheless, when the choice becomes a dualistic national-vs-global, they are immediately suspect.

How should higher education respond to this new political landscape? There is no magic key but the following seem essential:

  1. Universities must be even stronger advocates of open borders, global connectivity, and the cosmopolitan ideal, finding every way around ethno-national barriers. Mobility is a human right. Closer cross-border integration coupled with genuine diversity is the way forward. Universities must be relentless, articulate critics of national chauvinism and racism in every form. This is part of their historic mission. The alternative, that universities would be complicit in the slide into militarism in an ethno-nationalist world, is unthinkable.
  2. The struggle over the freedom and validity of science is equally important. Only universities can effectively advance and defend research and the scholarly ideal.
  3. Higher education institutions, regardless of
    individual mission, should maintain their role in nation-building and reposition themselves in solidarity with local and regional communities. They should focus more on their role as producers of public goods, as well as private goods. National social democratic policy alone will not defeat ethno-nationalism and advance global connectivity. The battle for a more global approach must be won in its own right. However, in the long run, only social democratic sensibility can pry class identity away from alt-right demagoguery. Universities can and must be local and global at the same time, combining social solidarity with multicultural and international solidarity. AM
Simon Marginson is a Professor of International Higher Education at the University College London Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, Director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education, and is Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education with Jussi Valimaa.

Populist citizen politics — Beyond the Manichean mindset

A positive political alternative to the rise of demagogic populism will require a vibrant vision of democratic society and the empowerment of individuals to work through these differences. Universities should not be just observers, but engaged participants.

In the inflamed and divided public culture of the United States, we need a different understanding of populism than today’s ideological anti-corporate progressivism and anti-government conservatism. The alternative is populist citizen politics, a politics of popular empowerment and democratic change across partisan divides. Citizen politics aims to repair civic life as well as democratize concentrated power, both corporate and technocratic. Higher education will play a crucial role guiding such populism as it recovers its relational and civic soul. There is a rich tradition of civic and relational practices on which to build. It is a mistake to underrate the civic and relational revitalization in and around colleges and universities—this leads to undue fatalism and hopelessness.

Populisms left and right: The Manichean mindset

In 2016, populism was a ubiquitous trope for describing the US election. “Trump and Sanders: Different Candidates with a Populist Streak,” reported Chuck Todd on NBC. Most commentators used populism to describe the inflammatory rhetoric of the people against various elites. This approach is paralleled in academic literature. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell express prevalent views in defining populism as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.”

Right-wing populism—stoked by Republican politicians who target universities as elite institutions, far removed from the lives and concerns of everyday citizens—sparks fear among educators. However, such populism has parallels on the left as well. It manifested itself when students protested conservative speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College —and, in the process, injured a professor trying to protect him. This incident illustrates a Manichean formula of effecting change that students have learned from my generation of activists.

The formula was developed in 1974 by the environmental group Citizens for a Better Environment, and used for what was termed the “canvass”. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money, and collecting signatures. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including ones run by environment and consumer groups as well as the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network that exists on many college campuses. I defended the canvass method in Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a 1986 book written with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training centre which became the central hub for spreading the method. I remember the urgency we felt in the face of massive mobilization by corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax, and other legislation in the early 1970s. We saw the canvass as a way to fight back.

The canvass had successes on environmental, consumer, and other issues, even during the Reagan presidency. The scale was vast, reaching at least 12 million households a year in the mid-eighties. By 2001, when I developed a broader analysis of the canvass in “A Tale of Two Playgrounds,” a paper for the American Political Science Association, I became concerned about an unintended consequence of the canvass: its Manichean formula polarizes civic life, objectifies the enemy, and erodes citizenship. It frames politics as warfare. However, it continues to spread through robocalls, internet mobilizations, cable TV and talk radio, documentaries in the vein of Michael Moore, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” framework after 9-11. The formula is used by both right and left.

The Manichean model is also widespread in academic discourse. Gary Simpson, a theologian at Luther Seminary, shows the Manichean model in the transformation of his mentor, Carl Braaten. In Simpson’s vivid account, Braaten’s early writings were “a dialectically serious and critical, yet careful, generous, reverential and flourishing discovery [embodying] a poise that respects…particularity of real embedded humans…finite, fallible, and fragile.” In the political and cultural wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Braaten’s work took on a very different tone that “reduce[d] the state of affairs to stark binary opposites—good versus evil, angels vanquishing demons.” The Manichean model was accompanied by apocalyptic and totalistic thinking.“Crucial distinctions…dissipate under the white heat of apocalyptic fire and Manichean purism. If you oppose me on one point you opposed me on all points, all the way down.”

Braaten became a conservative academic, railing against the “antinomian…neopagan gnostic culture” that he saw as growing from the new left and its progeny. However, examples abound on the left as well. Student protests and Manichean stances have sparked calls for defense of free speech, including a statement co-authored by Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence and a well-known conservative scholar, and Cornel West, a progressive African-American Harvard professor. They challenged epistemic enclosure—the tendency of people to live in bubble cultures of similar beliefs. “It is all too common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities,” their statement reads. “Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent…or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campuses or…disinvited.”

We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person

Yet for those who feel the urgent need for change, calls for free speech are not sufficient. We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person.

Civic populism and higher education

Populist citizen politics builds on movements in the United States—with parallels in Northern Europe, Russia, South Africa, and elsewhere—in which populism is not mainly a rhetorical invocation of people against elites, but rather civic organizing which builds popular power. Laura Grattan, author of Populism’s Power, observes that advocates of such populism “downplay the logic of oppositional identification and instead elaborate…regaining popular control over the institutions of civil society, political economy, and governance.” Such populism is different than “a politics of resistance.” It not only exposes “the abuses and failures of established democratic orders,” but it also emphasizes agency, “developing the capacities of grassroots actors, often from divergent backgrounds.” Grattan emphasizes a combination of grassroots organizing and radical public imagination and critique, pointing to Occupy Wall Street as an example of the latter, which fed into the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Luke Bretherton, writing about populism as popular empowerment, emphasizes its political nature. “Orientations and sentiments in political populism are put in the service of forging a political space not limiting, subverting or closing it down.” He points to broad-based community organizing like the Industrial Areas Foundation, which mix people across partisan divisions.

Populist citizen politics has aspects of both transformative vision and cross-partisan understanding. In my view, it reflects the distinctive tradition of civic action associated with American commonwealth history, not only through popularly elected governments, but also as a society that believes in public goods like libraries and schools, community centres and parks, bridges and roads, and the relational civic cultures that sustain them. Such citizen politics were cross-partisan, not ideological. It inspired Jane Addams, John Dewey, Alain Locke, and others’ view of democracy as a way of life.

Many strands of higher education have been associated with this populist view of democracy and citizen politics, from historically black colleges and universities, to liberal arts schools like Augsburg College (the Sabo Center’s new home), to today’s tribal colleges. Scott Peters, a historian of land grant colleges (institutions built on land provided by the federal government and mandated to focus on teaching practical agriculture, science, and engineering), has described the subterranean populist tradition in which scholars, graduates and students are involved in the life of communities through public work that builds civic agency. They are citizen professionals, invested and active in their communities.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University and Chair of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, argued that every aspect of higher education must be infused with a spirit of public work. Specialists needed to see themselves as part of “a great public work,” grounded in respect for the farmers and rural communities’ capacity to be agents of change. Bailey saw the crucial focus of this “extension work” as increasing capacity for self-directed civic action. “The re-direction of any civilization must rest primarily on the people who comprise it, rather than be imposed from persons in other conditions of life.”

Civic populism lost

Sharp partisanship has eroded civic populism. Ron Johnson, David Manley, and Kelvyn Jones have described growing ideological polarization from 1992 to 2012 with people increasingly living in like-minded communities. Meanwhile, within local communities, mediating institutions that once brought people together across partisan and other divides have radically eroded. Grant Stevensen is an organizer for ISAIAH, a broad-based community organization. He observes that, “There used to be mediating institutions like union locals, neighborhood schools, PTAs, or congregations where people interacted with a lot of diversity. Now we’ve lost them. People’s public identities are thin.”

Social fragmentation has also been growing. In 2006, a study published in the American Sociological Review reported radical erosion of social ties. “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist involved in the study. “We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com and email 25 people a day. But they are not discussing matters that are personally important.”

In the last decade, these trends have dramatically accelerated, spurred by the digital revolution. Sue Halpern, writing in the New York Review of Books, describes the replacement of the relational with the informational. “The real bias inherent in algorithms is that they are, by nature, reductive…the infiltration of algorithms into everyday life has brought us to a place where metrics tend to rule. This is true for education, medicine, finance, retailing, employment and the creative arts…in each case idiosyncrasy, experimentation, innovation, and thoughtfulness—the very stuff that makes us human—is lost.” This is the path toward a “McDonaldized” world of manufactured identities and flattened experiences.

How do we bring back the relational as the foundation of politics, education, and civic life?

Civic populism redux

Populist citizen politics have been sharply eroded, but it is a mistake not to see stirrings of its revival. Examples abound in Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy, Doris Sommers’ The Work of Art in the World, and my edited collection, Democracy’s Education. David Mathews’ Ecology of Democracy, widely spread through the Kettering Foundation and its networks, is a manifesto for the revitalization of relational, self-organizing civic life as the “wetlands” upon which democracy necessarily depends. Kettering has made a major contribution to the civic populist project by showing the connections between relational politics and deliberative practices. In our own networks, the movement toward “citizen professionalism” led by William Doherty and his new “Citizen Therapists for Democracy” movement is a powerful and highly effective challenge to the secession of professionals from relational civic life over many decades. On an international level, Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, Laudato Si’, is a brilliant critique of the technocratic paradigm that replaces the relational with information systems.

In higher education, citizen efforts that seek to repair and build relationships across partisan and other divides are illuminated by the 500-plus page report of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which attacks them. Four years in the making, Making Citizens: How Universities Teach Civics charges that a left-wing conspiracy, “the New Civics,” seeks to turn college students into left-wing radicals. Public Achievement, the youth civic education initiative I founded to counter the Manichean politics of the door-to-door canvass and to reintroduce today’s young people to the cross-partisan politics I experienced in the civil rights movement, is at the centre of their narrative.

“The ideas of Saul Alinsky have entered into higher education,” says Making Citizens. “The most serious such transfer occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, via Harry Boyte’s Public Achievement movement.” Public Achievement, it proposes, is smaller than service-learning and other forms of community involvement, “but with a harder political edge. Service-learning generally works to forward progressive political ends. Public Achievement works toward these ends with more focus and organization, via the Alinskyite method of community organizing. The Alinskyite tactical model of Public Achievement is what makes the New Civics formidable.” Public Achievement, it concludes, is “camouflaged Alinskyism” that “relies on the Alinskyite emphasis on power, which reduces politics to the use of force to defeat hostile opponents”.

The NAS report sees the New Civics having huge impact. “The New Civics revolution has been staggeringly successful in the last 30 years… at the 419 institutions that responded to the [2014 Campus Compact] survey, nearly 100 per cent had institutional offices coordinating ‘curricular and/or co-curricular engagement’—and 57 per cent had more than one office. Thirty-nine percent of graduate and undergraduate students, 1,382,145 in total, ‘served an average of 3.5 hours each week through both curricular and co-curricular mechanisms.’”

What of the charges that the New Civics is a left-wing plot? Higher education has a progressive inclination, reflected in some, though not most, of its civic efforts. However, the NAS argument is radically mistaken in confusing tendencies with a Manichean mindset, which reproduces the binary thinking it decries. One way to show the NAS report’s reductionism is to describe the evolution of my own thinking.

During the launch of the report, Stanley Kurtz (a former reporter for the National Review) expresses the conviction that when I left the Democratic Socialists of America after years of involvement with socialist organizations, it was not a matter of conviction but of rhetorical strategy. In fact, my movement away from socialism was a result of my embracing the civic populist tradition described in my book CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics that launched our work at the University of Minnesota.

Against the dominant paradigm of left-wing intellectuals, preoccupied with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in America?”, I argued that the absence of socialism is not a deficiency but a strength. America has an alternative tradition of politics based on civic autonomy and “building the commonwealth.” Civic life has been sustained by the work of diverse citizens who create and care for goods of common use including libraries, parks, local government, bridges, and other public infrastructure, as well as by mediating structures that contribute to this work including families, congregations, schools and colleges, voluntary associations, locally rooted businesses, and labour groups. Such civic life depends on education in civic skills, best learned through experiential education where individuals work for the public good.

It is not only a caricature to propose that my aim is “to create a thoroughly administered state” and turn America’s young people into “left-wing radicals.” In fact, it is also a charge that turns my motivation—and the general gestalt of the civic engagement movement in higher education—upside down. The movement is encouraging because it presents an alternative to left-wing statist technocratic tendencies that are all too widespread throughout higher education.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society. This approach requires ongoing public participation, not just during elections, and it requires a different understanding of politics in which all citizens are agents and architects of democracy.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society

To revitalize this vision, we need a movement that awakens the democratic spirit throughout higher education and beyond. We need to reprioritize our institutions as participants in society, not observers studying it. AM

Harry C. Boyte is a Senior Scholar at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.
Many thanks to Marie-Louise Ström, Dudley Cocke, Laura Grattan, and Luke Bretherton for feedback and sources on this essay.

Telling stories: U of T scholar discovers new role as radio host

In a new radio show, university professor Minelle Mahtani is creating a space where fellow researchers feel respected, honoured, and heard.

“And the weather today—well, it’s another rainy one, Vancouver—6 degrees in the city, with more rain anticipated for tomorrow. For more information, go to roundhouseradio.com…”

I still smile when I hear myself rattle off the temperature on-air these days. It’s one thing to lecture three hundred students intently staring at you as you stand at the podium in an auditorium, but it’s another experience entirely to sit in front of a microphone, banter with the news anchor, repeat time codes, and sit mere metres away from a stranger while having your intimate conversation broadcast across town. How did this happen?

I find myself in unusual territory this year, hosting a daily current affairs show at a commercial radio station in Vancouver. I am on leave from my job as a tenured journalism and geography professor as I try to complete some academic projects. I have worked in journalism before, as a former television hack from the world of national television news, but radio is an entirely new medium for me.

I had heard through the grapevine that a new radio station was opening in town—one that wanted to try something altogether different. It wanted to capture community voices and approach questions of social disparity through a more critical and constructive lens. The station is the brainchild of Roundhouse Radio’s CEO Don Shafer, who dreamed of offering Vancouverites radio that could best be defined by the tag line: Our City, Your Voice. Somewhere in scanning the city landscape for a host for their mid-morning show, Roundhouse Radio approached me out of the blue.

When they called me, I honestly thought, who are they kidding? I have no radio background! Plus, I have to get these three articles done and that book review. But I was intrigued. I cobbled together a short, and admittedly amateurish, audition reel using voice memos on my iPhone.

Next thing I knew, I was hired. Great!

But I also remember feeling, uh-oh. Now what?

After the initial exhilaration wound down, I realized what I was up against. Throw together a two-hour radio show daily, I was told. You choose the theme, the content, the approach. I would be on air at the same time as the vaunted Q on CBC. I shook my head to myself. No pressure!

In some ways, it was a dream come true, a role that many academics would covet. I found it ironic that I would be in front of a mic, when I had spent so much of my career behind it as a producer, happily helping other hosts shine. I had never wanted to be in the public eye as a TV reporter, nor as a host. But there was something about this opportunity that appealed to me. It would give me a chance to consider how I could amplify the voices of other academics, and act as a conduit for their voices to be heard.

Knowledge mobilization and knowledge transfer have become ubiquitous and almost vacuously bandied-about terms in the academy. Granting bodies like SSHRC require that researchers seek out innovative methods to disseminate research. Unfortunately, the practice is often riddled with problems.

I was struck by my colleagues’ disillusionment with the often-dismal experience of engaging various media to attempt and get word out about their research. Most of them dread media interviews. I don’t want to dismiss the opportunities we now have at our fingertips to produce podcasts and wrest agency to mobilize knowledge (as witnessed through the productive energetic force of social media vehicles like Twitter). I had noticed that too many of my researcher friends had at least one bad media experience that stuck with them (admittedly, they do make for great cocktail party conversation). Either the interviewer had not read the book, resulting in a superficial interview, or posed inane questions that only served to reinforce a repetitive narrative the interviewee was trying to quell. Or the interviewer just entirely missed the point of the research. It made the researchers shirk away from other media opportunities.

I wanted my show to create a space where fellow researchers felt respected, honoured, and heard. I also wanted to create a show that would appeal to listeners like me. I am a critical race geography scholar who focuses on matters of social justice. I kept thinking: what would an anti-racist and anti-colonial radio show look like?

I began by recognizing that journalism is no longer just about truth telling. It is, more than ever, about sense making. And one way we make sense of our world is by providing context. That sense-making, or presentation of context, is partly why I am a geographer. Nothing happens on the head of a pin—it happens in a place and it is my job to tell you where that place is. I knew I could most persuasively offer that deep context by telling stories about the communities we, as academics, work with, across, and in. That is why I called the show Sense of Place.

In dreaming about the possibility of Sense of Place, I wasn’t sure how to begin, but I sure knew what I didn’t want the show to be. I had already had too many frustrating experiences during my career as a journalist, where I witnessed decisions about representation made under the continuous rigid restraints of a racialized gendered hierarchy. Voices were ignored or discarded because of ongoing patterns of social and cultural capital, privilege, and power. Often, stories tended to legitimize hegemonic ideas. It is why sites of media intervention become critical to challenge the existing order.

Mainstream media representations tend to fall back on the repetitive dissemination of dominant ideas. This formula is accomplished through particular discursive strategies tabulated by media scholars like Yasmin Jiwani. These strategies include, but are not limited to absences, displacements, juxtapositions, stereotyping, inversions, and reversions, to name just a few of the more blatant maneuvers.

In framing an anti-colonial narrative, I wanted to ask how these dominant frames could be debunked and contested. Would it even be possible to shift or flip the gaze—to show the impact of the colonizers on the colonized by seeing it through the latter’s eyes? I would not embrace an objectivist or neutral perspective. At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism. I knew I had to embed these strategies through a focus on the specificities, experiences, identities, worldviews, and representations of the colonized. I specifically consider agency and capacity as means to make changes to reflect myriad struggles and realities.

At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism.

We try to do our homework. We approach background research differently on Sense of Place by doing deep dives (as much as possible given the daily deadlines). We also try to bring academics together in conversation on Sense of Place. A core value of the show is encouraging connection across interdisciplinary divides. We try to look at the almost magical relationship that can occur between strangers who share passions and dreams. We bring together two or three academics who may never have met, but who are eager to meet and engage them in conversation with one another. We also rehearse this format with writers. For me, one of the most joyful moments on the show was when Orange Prize fiction winner Anne Michaels met Kyo Maclear, another best-selling author, on air. They had both known about each other, but had never met. The resulting conversation was mesmerizing.

We also talk about race beyond what is called “calendar journalism”—the focus on fun, food, and festivals as a way of celebrating ethnic snapshots of identity. We try to present racialized peoples as storytellers in their own right, to capture the magical modalities of how people connect. An example of this approach is when I invited Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke to speak with his mentee, Adebe DeRango-Adem, author of the beautiful book of poetry, Terra Incognita. It was important to capture those innovative partnerships, because relationships matter for me, on and off air, to not only build a connection with the guests and offer them a respectful, generous space to tell their stories, but also to provide a space where they can create relationships with others.

Another core value of Sense of Place is engaging and encouraging equity. I didn’t want the show to become the diversity show with mixed race Indian Iranian rainbow poster child, Minelle Mahtani. It had to move beyond diversity, or even inclusion. It had to be about equity. To that end, I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation, and where that conversation would be amplified.

I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation.

That has been the great surprise of Sense of Place for me —learning that the show is now played in lecture halls across the country because of the kinds of conversations in which we engage. In fact, I receive letters from professors around the country. Here’s a snippet from one of them:

“Sense of Place is an exceptional show that does what my research suggests is very uncommon: it connects quality academic work with public debate and audiences. Most academics are uninterested in or incapable of bridging their scholarship with public debate, and when this kind of work is done, it often consists of simplistic popularization or appeals to sensational current issues. Minelle Mahtani and her producers do an excellent job in choosing timely topics, bringing in thoughtful scholars, experts, cultural workers and activists, asking probing but unintrusive questions and putting together a show that is both entertaining and illuminating.”

So what’s next? We are going to launch Sense of Place Skool—a kind of book club for radio. Once a month, a scholar interviewed on the show will be invited to lead a seminar with listeners at our station. We have a wonderful space at Roundhouse that includes a large oak table, and we want to invite regular Sense of Place listeners to sit around it, and join us in doing a close read of an article by a scholar, an author, or guest. Together the interviewee and I will guide a facilitated conversation with our in-person listeners. I see it as a kind of graduate class for our listeners, and an opportunity to blur the spaces between experts and audiences.

And what have I learned? Well, I am no veteran broadcaster like Anna Maria Tremonti, that is for sure. I have a lot more to learn. I think I’m the most significant beneficiary of the show, given that I’ve now interviewed over a thousand guests and been privileged to hear their stories. I have watched as they wiped away tears, or laughed uproariously about events in their lives. I think it will shift how I teach in the classroom and how I engage with my colleagues. I am looking forward to bringing what I have learned back to the academy. In the meantime, I hope you will tune in. AM

Minelle Mahtani is an author, journalist and an Associate Professor of Human Geography and Planning, and Journalism at the University of Toronto-Scarborough.