As we approach this year’s federal election, professors and academic librarians have a responsibility to speak out.
Academic life and politics don’t always mix. There may be times when we can just keep our heads down, teach our courses, conduct our research, and attend committee meetings with little thought to spare for policy decisions being made off-campus. But not always, and never for very long. Academic life is in many ways inherently political, and a commitment to the integrity of higher education obliges us to act accordingly.
Like it or not, political decisions impact us all. And in 2015, as we head towards a federal election, we are faced with an especially stark set of political realities. After years of ideologically-driven cuts to university and college funding, along with all the gradual yet unmistakable harm to academic missions that we have seen trailing in their wake, it is time to take a stand and demand better. For our profession, for our students, and for the sake of society as a whole, Canadian academic workers need to loudly, and repeatedly, remind candidates from all political parties that postsecondary education (PSE) is an essential public asset, and one that is currently in dire need of more principled public support.
Few would deny the importance of education in modern society. An educated, well-trained and versatile workforce is obviously beneficial to overall economic health, and we depend on such a workforce if we are to confront both immediate and future challenges: from social problems to environmental degradation, international conflict and technological advancement, to name just a few. Ensuring the integrity of a strong PSE system that is fully accessible for qualified and interested students is in our long-term common interest. It is not simply a matter for private investment, nor should it be pursued for the sake of enjoying private returns.
Failure to fully grasp this reality has allowed many of our political leaders to assume that government can, and indeed should, increasingly divest itself of responsibility for PSE funding at both the provincial and federal levels. Calls for ever-deeper tax cuts, accompanied by the ubiquitous mantra of “austerity”, provide further reasons for such divestment. And as government funding dries up, our institutions have come to rely more and more on private sources of revenue: chiefly tuition fees paid by individual students, but also in the form of corporate investment and sponsorships. This has resulted in a mounting crisis of student debt, with economic implications that may not be fully understood for generations to come. It also has serious political consequences for the sort of work that academic workers are expected to do, and the ways in which we are expected to do it.
Teaching and research for the public good, in a publicly-funded system, is a vocation. It differs fundamentally from being contracted to provide educational and/or research services, on a for-profit basis, to paying clients. Yet increasingly we too are expected to pander to the market by competing for raw student enrollment numbers, or by ensuring that our research is profitable to a corporate partner. We have made a political choice if we continue to permit the encroachment of this notion that PSE is essentially a private commodity. And we make a political choice when we choose to register our disagreement with it.
Education in the public interest
Political assumptions that undermine the public character and utility of our colleges and universities must be questioned, resisted, and reversed if we are to defend and improve a PSE system that has already benefited so many of us. Students of the 21st century will continue to need committed and properly resourced educators who can help guide and form their intellectual development—perhaps more than ever before—if they are to navigate the complexities of modern life. We owe it not only to them, but to ourselves and our neighbours, to ensure that they can do so effectively.
Academia is never simply a producer of commodities, and attempts to apply business or industrial models to PSE generally fall flat. Truly formative education cannot be reduced to the mere purchase of data and technical skills from privatized knowledge providers, and the more it is allowed to drift in that direction the more we all lose out. Anyone who expects education to be carried out on a rationalized “just-in-time” basis, for example by eking out maximum “productivity” from technology-based mass delivery systems or through the exploitation of a precarious and casualized labour force, clearly does not understand the true value of PSE or its underlying purposes.
Sustained public investment is therefore crucial to the maintenance of a healthy PSE sector. Students require and deserve mentorship from professors and other academic workers who have the time and institutional support to facilitate meaningful intellectual discovery, as opposed to proscriptive rote learning. Truly unfettered academic freedom is essential to achieve this mandate, as is stable employment, and the ability to develop one’s scholarly interests. And these essential conditions cannot be provided on a system-wide basis without decent levels of reliable core funding.
PSE funding is for the most part a provincial responsibility, but the federal government has an important role to play. CAUT and others have long called for a Post-Secondary Education Act, modelled on the Canada Health Act, which would ensure that predictable levels of provincial funding are made available to public universities and colleges across the country. It is time for this initiative to move forward. Politicians need to realize that education is not something we can afford to treat as an afterthought; it is an ongoing, permanent commitment that Canadians have a right to expect from their governments.
Demanding such a funding commitment is a crucial first step. But it is not just a matter of asking for money. More importantly, the demand is based upon a principle: that PSE is a publicly funded undertaking, and that it is to be managed and directed accordingly—with respect for the rights, the working conditions, and the intellectual integrity of all participants.
Research in the public interest
The federal government also has a role in ensuring that the research side of academic life is properly funded and sustained. Research is essential to the public nature of PSE, both in terms of the benefits derived by the community at large from the sharing of new developments in knowledge and practice, and in the opportunities it affords for the training of future researchers. Here too we see the negative impact of corporatization and privatization. The public interest, and in some cases public safety, can be seriously endangered when choices regarding research topics, research practices, or the interpretation and publication of results are not controlled by expert scholars whose primary motivation is intellectual curiosity as opposed to financial gain.
There is a place for business-led research in our economy, but it would be poor science policy to leave our national research agenda entirely in the hands of corporate leaders whose first concern is to ensure profit for shareholders, rather than to consider the long-term interests of all citizens. It is therefore a matter of national importance that governments be consistently reminded of their duty to ensure that a vibrant research culture continues to flourish at the heart of our publicly funded PSE system.
New policies are urgently required to increase the funding of basic academic research in Canada. Since the Harper government took power in 2006, there has been a net reduction to base funding for every one of the federal tri-council granting agencies: a loss of 10.5 per cent for SSHRC alone in real dollar amounts, and six per cent overall. This is simply unconscionable in the modern context, where research and development are key to societal well-being. Funding shortfalls also have a serious impact on individual academic workers’ ability to do their jobs: success rates for major SSHRC grants fell from 40 per cent in 2006 to 21 per cent in 2013, for example, while those funded through CIHR fell from 31 per cent to only 13 per cent over an even shorter period.
Worse still, federal monies made available for research are increasingly directed by government toward pre-selected priority areas such as energy extraction, which are expected to yield profits for industry partners—rather than being awarded through open, peer-driven and expert evaluation of overall intellectual merit. Basic curiosity and discovery-driven research lose out in this process. Yet it is precisely this sort of research that underlies all but the most short-
term developments. No government has ever been able to successfully direct its scientists to solve problems of fundamental importance and complexity without supporting a solid and constantly evolving base of knowledge for those scientists to build on.
CAUT has dedicated much effort over the last few years to generating conversations around Canadian science and research policy with its Get Science Right campaign. We have consistently heard from the scientific research community that current government attitudes toward science desperately need a major overhaul. Not only is the quantity of scientific funding in danger federally, and not only is it being increasingly directed to serve private rather than public ends, but there has also been a worrying tendency in recent years for the federal government to seek control over scientific discourse. In the social sciences the elimination of a national long-form census, combined with major cuts to Statistics Canada, have dramatically reduced the types of questions academic researchers are able to ask about socio-economic issues. There have also been well-publicized instances of federal government communication policies being used to muzzle and silence public scientists, including those employed by the National Research Council (NRC), Environment Canada, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada, whose contribution to scientific discourse is needed more than ever.
One of the most crucial functions of a publicly funded academic community is to carry out unbiased and non-partisan research without fear of reprisal, and to freely publish the results. Science policy should never be informed more by ideology than by sound expert advice, yet since the removal of the National Science Advisor in 2008, Canadian parliamentarians have lacked the benefit of an authoritative independent voice on the subject. CAUT supports the creation of a new Parliamentary Science Officer, who could provide expert advice and analysis on the adequacy and effectiveness of the nation’s scientific policies, priorities, and funding. Again, the point is that publicly funded scientific research, like PSE as a whole, should be managed in the interests of all Canadians. It is a public trust, and should not be owned or directed by any particular investor or political party.
Education and research are spheres of government policy that most directly impact us as academic workers. But they are by no means the ends of the story when it comes to our political commitment—not just as ordinary citizens, but also as citizens who care passionately about the integrity of our PSE system. For even if we manage to ensure a greater degree of political sensitivity to the immediate need for increased public funding of teaching and research, the well-being of our families, neighbours, and friends must also be taken into account. Without adequate childcare, our colleagues and students struggle to participate fully in academic life—or give up it entirely. And without decent, stable employment that pays a living wage, too many otherwise promising Canadians will continue to find themselves unable to ever attend a university or college. The overall shift in our economy toward precarious, underpaid employment, accompanied by attacks on Employment Insurance and labour rights, should give us all pause not just as academics, but as members of our communities.
Politicians need to be held to account for the decisions they make, and the policy directions they decide to follow. For too long now, too many politicians have been making wrong turns when it comes to support for postsecondary education, public science, and general social well being. It is incumbent on us, as academic workers, to let them know that we expect better; that Canadians deserve better. As Canadians prepare to vote this fall, we have a unique opportunity to intervene in the public dialogue around higher education in our country. If we don’t speak out—who will? AM
Robin Vose is the President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.