Often we are called to ‘reclaim the civic university.’ This was the topic selected by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) for a session at their 2014 conference: Future U: Creating the universities we want.

The call to reclaim implies that something has been lost and has been replaced by something different—our universities once were civic but are no longer. The call invites us to ask what have our universities become, what are the forces that are changing them, what is the standing and role of universities in our society today?

By many measures, universities have never been more central in public thinking or higher as a government priority.

In Ontario, there has been an enormous expansion of the university. Undergraduate enrolments grew 58 per cent from 2000-01 to 2012-13—this was a larger absolute increase than during the huge expansion to accommodate the baby boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Graduate enrolments grew even more over this period—82 per cent—the largest expansion in Ontario’s history. We tend not to recognize this enormous expansion, perhaps because it was accomplished by expanding existing universities rather than by creating new ones. But this recent expansion is equivalent to creating seven new universities the size of Carleton University. We fondly remember Premiers Robarts and Davis as believers in public universities and their commitments to university expansion for the baby boom. But Premiers Harris and McGuinty oversaw a much larger expansion. And of course this expansion required a huge increase in public funds. Operating grants grew by over 65 percent. Capital funds grew—we can see shiny new buildings on every campus. Grants for student assistance grew more than tenfold. Total government spending on universities was growing at a faster rate than spending on health care.

Participation rates have never been higher—by the time Ontarians reach the age of 21, 46 per cent have entered university (and another 30 per cent have entered college). I believe, although I must note that this is a minority belief, that participation rates are about as high as they can feasibly go or should go. And because the 18 to 24 year-old group will be shrinking over the coming years, the university system is now large enough. Nonetheless, the government has promised to expand the system further and has announced a framework for major capacity expansion, likely to include three new university campuses. Municipal governments are lobbying hard to have a campus located in their city.

The benefits of a university education are widely recognized. Young people and their families have very high aspirations regarding postsecondary education—most aspire to get a university degree.

Since the 1950s, universities have also been seen as places of research that can contribute in the long run to society, especially to our economy, culture, public policy, and health. Over the past 15 or so years, support for university research has expanded enormously (just as the system was expanding at the undergraduate and graduate levels). Federal research funding grew fourfold; provincial funding tripled.

It is hard to imagine how we might give universities a higher priority and standing. Their central place in a knowledge-based society is acknowledged and secure.

Are our universities today civic universities? Certainly a civic university must be publicly supported, and our universities have received major increases in public support.

But many people would answer that they are not. There is concern, tending toward deep disquiet, and some would argue a crisis. Our universities and the way we think about them have been changing.

Universities are thought of more and more as institutions of the economy. They are expanding, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, to meet the needs of a new knowledge-based economy confronting intense global competition. New research funding is intended to stimulate innovation and economic growth. This funding is concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and most especially health; and universities are asked to work actively in partnership with the private sector toward the commercialization of the findings. Students (and their parents) regard a university degree as a means to a better job. Government also thinks this way about universities, and they are not alone. The senior leadership of our universities, as they seek increased funding, build their justification on the basis of these economic arguments.

There is less and less recognition of the contributions of universities, both in teaching and research, to our cultural or democratic life. The humanities, once at the centre of a liberal undergraduate education, are increasingly marginalized. There is little talk that universities should serve the public good.

No, it is argued, these are not civic universities.

But, before we accept this conclusion, let us explore further the concept of a civic university.

One of the meanings of civic refers to that which is of, or relating to, a city or town, especially its administration; of, or relating to, the duties and activities of people in relation to their city or town. This is the meaning at play in the terms ‘civic official’ or ‘civic responsibility’ or ‘civic pride.’ This is the meaning that is connected to one conception of a civic university. There was a civic university movement in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the establishment of six universities in industrial cities: Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and Bristol. In England, they are often still referred to as ‘the civics.’ These civic universities stood in contrast to the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Unlike these ancient universities, the civics were non-collegiate (students did not live in a residential college) and without religious affiliation. They often grew out of private educational institutes. They were intended to make university accessible to middle and working class students, and many of their degree programs emphasized the acquisition of skills—especially in engineering-related fields—to prepare students for jobs in their city.

These civic universities had much in common with the land grant universities established in the United States during the late nineteenth century—the University of Wisconsin is an iconic institution of this type. The land grant universities had a similar focus on access and often emphasized engineering and agriculture. Some established the now famous agricultural experiment stations: scientific research centres that worked with farmers, ranchers, suppliers, and food producers to improve food production and expand the business of agriculture. The ethos of the civic and land grant universities was influential in the development of English-language Canadian universities.

The English civics were publicly supported and city-focused. Today, The University of Sheffield refers to itself as ‘The Civic University.’ The university’s website reproduces an early 20th century flyer from when the institution used to solicit penny donations from industrial workers in the city. The flyer is headed: “A University for Sheffield: You should support the University because…” and goes on to list the following reasons:

1. The University will be for the people.

2. The University will bring the highest education within the reach of the child of the working man.

3. The University will help local industries.

4. The University will be the centre where the treatment of accidents and diseases will be studied.

5. Sheffield is the only large city in England without a University. Sheffield cannot afford to remain in this position.

6. The University will not only benefit this district, it will assist this nation in its trade competition with other nations.

Reading this list of what makes a civic university should give us a jolt. It is eerily close to a description of the trends in our universities today, complete with civic boosters seeking a campus for their city—and yet many look at these current trends and declare that the civic university is being lost. There is an important lesson in this history. One concept of a civic university is that it is city-focused, it is publicly supported and works for the public good. The public good includes accessibility, education that helps graduates get jobs, and applied research that helps the local economy and the national economy faced with global competition.

In this sense, Ontario universities are civic universities. There is no need to reclaim.

But, there are further meanings of the word civic.

Another meaning relates to citizens and citizenship. Civics is the study of good citizenship, of the rights and obligations people have to each other, and of how to be more active and engaged in a community. Civic engagement is essential to democratic governance. Citizens have the right to be informed, to express their opinions and to hear the opinions of others, and to be involved in the deliberations that lead to a decision.

A civic university educates students for citizenship in a democracy. Of course, the university is not the only institution responsible for developing citizens and a university education is not a prerequisite for being a good citizen.

This civic role, this connection of higher education and democracy, has always been part of American thinking about the university.

This was especially evident after World War II and during the move from elite to mass university education. Harvard University has always had a special leadership role in American thought about the nature of undergraduate education. In 1943, the famous Harvard Red Book addressing the undergraduate curriculum was published under the title “General Education in a Free Society.” The introduction states “today we are concerned with a general education—a liberal education—not for the relatively few, but for a multitude… [the] purpose is not to educate an élite, but to educate citizens in a democracy.” President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education titled its 1947 report “Higher Education for American Democracy.”

There has always been much debate about what it means to offer  an education for citizenship, and even greater debate about what curriculum would best achieve that goal. But in American thinking, there is usually a group of courses in the curriculum (outside the major) chosen and designed to provide a liberal or general education. These courses were intended, among other purposes, to teach moral reasoning and to encourage civic engagement, and the humanities always have a central place in the group.

The United States has had many organizations devoted to encouraging this conception of a civic university education. For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) was founded in 1917 to advance, explore, and advocate for a liberal education, seeing the purpose of undergraduate study as preparation not just for work, but also for citizenship. More recently in 2000, Campus Compact was formed as a national coalition of 1,200 American college and university presidents who signed the President’s Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, calling on their institutions to re-examine their public purpose and their commitment to the democratic ideal.

This idea of a civic university—a university that provides education for citizenship and civic engagement—has had an influence on the development of Ontario universities, but the influence is superficial. It is evoked in rhetoric about the university and heard often at graduation ceremonies, but there is little of substance in the curriculum designed to achieve this purpose. We do not have special groups of liberal education courses, we have not had any Red Books, and we have no organizations committed to this idea. When we evaluate our undergraduate degree programs we do not investigate whether the degree has educated for citizenship. Our undergraduate degrees are not liberal education programs but rather disciplinary education programs. Over the past few years, Ontario universities have devoted great efforts to specifying degree level expectations and have passed them through their Senates. What should we expect that a student with a Bachelor’s degree will have learned? These degree level expectations say nothing about education for citizenship.

Ontario has never had civic universities in this sense. So we cannot reclaim the civic university. The task is to build the civic university.

There is a third idea of a civic university: the civic university as a fundamental institution of a democratic society.

What institutions are needed for a democratic society? We know of course that there should be universal suffrage, the right to hold office, the right to form political parties, and regular elections held without corruption or coercion. But these are not sufficient. What else is needed? This is not an abstract question. It is a practical question confronted in all countries, not just those making the transition to democracy. We know that democracy is an ideal, often under threat, and that we should constantly consider whether we have in place the institutions to support and sustain it.

One institution vital to a democracy is a free press. And this is just the most obvious example of a wider cluster of institutions often labeled civil society. In a polity, the institutions of the state—the democratically elected government—are very powerful. There are other power centres that exist—business, most obviously in market economies. In many countries, the military and the dominant religious authority are also centres of power. A democratic polity needs strong civil society organizations as counterweights, as alternate centres of power to the state, business, military, and spiritual authority. These alternative centres offer spaces for democratic deliberation, for articulating alternative visions of the good, for creating competing ideas of what should be done, and for critiquing the dominant powers.

A civic university is a crucial institution of civil society in a democracy, an alternative centre of authority and a counterweight to government and business. The university is granted autonomy and its professors academic freedom, in part, to ensure this civic role can be fulfilled. Academic research can be a vehicle for social criticism and professors as public intellectuals have a vital role in public debate. As Amy Gutmann argued in her book Democratic Education, control of the creation of ideas—whether by a majority or a minority—subverts democracy. Universities “can provide a realm where new and unorthodox ideas are judged on their intellectual merits; where men and women who defend such ideas are not strangers but valuable members of the community. Universities thereby serve democracy as sanctuaries of non-repression.”

Are Ontario universities this sort of civic university? The evidence is mixed. Universities are autonomous and professors have academic freedom. Universities provide spaces for democratic deliberation and are sources of social criticism. Many professors are public intellectuals. But universities and their senior leadership are moving closer to government and business. Universities do not see themselves as a counterweight but rather as partners. Their role as an institution of the economy threatens to overwhelm their role as an institution of democracy.

What then can be done to ensure that Ontario universities are civic universities?

Some of the work is external. We must always emphasize the importance of education for citizenship and recognize that the university is an institution of civil society vital to a deliberative democracy. We must also defend institutional autonomy and academic freedom, but must not begrudge the university’s role to prepare students for employment or to conduct research that will help the economy.

And some of the work is internal. As professors, we should challenge our leadership to recognize our universities as civic universities, in all its dimensions. We must work to ensure our tenure and promotion criteria recognize a professor’s contribution as public intellectual or social critic. We must also guarantee that the undergraduate curriculum leaves room for liberal learning. It is also important that effective education for citizenship is a prominent criterion for assessing the value of our degrees.

And with effort and luck, we might indeed create civic universities.

George Fallis is University Professor and Professor of Economics and Social Science at York University. He is author of Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy (University of Toronto Press) and Rethinking Higher Education: Participation, Research, and Differentiation (Queen’s Policy Studies Series, McGill-Queen’s University Press).