Monday, January 21, 2013

Academia in the Age of Austerity

Part 1 – The Ontario economic and political scene

Dr. George Freeman,
Past President of FAUW
For those unfamiliar with it, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) runs a long-term strategy of fact-based lobbying through relationships with all three major political parties and government staff at the provincial level.  Aside from keeping up-to-date with other associations, meetings often bring us into face-to-face discussion with provincial Ministers, MPPs, or staff as well as other labour groups, student groups, think tanks, economists, lawyers, etc.

In the OCUFA style, this day-and-a-half conference assembled a cast of characters with a diverse range of expertise, situations, and views regarding the austerity agenda being promoted by the offices of finance of many governments, and its impact on academia.  The topics were arranged as panel discussions with a moderator and audience question periods.  About 120 people attended with a large representation from faculty associations in Ontario but also many academics and others from across Canada.


As you might expect, December 2012 polling data shows that top-of-mind issues for Ontarians generally don’t include education although in a prompted framework about three quarters of people rank university education as something the government should give high or very high priority.  The number of people who place a high concern on the quality of university education is enough to make a political difference if these people are roused.  People seem not well informed about the link between quality and cost and are about equally split on our purpose being to produce well-rounded or job-ready graduates.  Belief that teaching and research should remain combined is widespread.  For ensuring quality, people seem to trust professors first, administrators second, and the government last.  For trustworthiness of information, people rank student organizations, university administrators, and OCUFA as high but faculty unions, the news media, and the Premier of Ontario as low.

Many people don’t see the value of collective bargaining and would support the government overriding agreements to meet deficit-reduction targets, although in general a majority agree with free negotiation through collective bargaining.  It seems like an effective message would be one that reaches voters consistently from student groups, university administrators, OCUFA, and individual professors.

A campaign from OCUFA called We Teach Ontario will launch very soon and attempt to expose the public more directly to professors on an individual basis.  You can help by talking to people about what we do.

On the economic/political front, it was argued that one way to view the problem is that the ‘normal’ growth of Ontario’s GDP was interrupted for a time then resumed but with a resulting offset of about $70b from where it would have otherwise been.  The missing $70b of GDP was said to equate to about $13b of missing government revenue.  Alternatively, the recession left about 250k additional people without work which was said to equate to about $9b in lost direct tax revenue plus other indirect revenue.  The debate was around whether austerity is a reasonable fact-based response or an ideological agenda which found a convenient time to emerge. 

There’s some evidence that austerity is not working in Europe (even taken seriously by the International Monetary Fund of late).  Should we undo some of the tax cuts of the recent past instead?  Will austerity just put more people out of work and have a perverse effect on government revenue?  On the other side of the coin, it can be argued that what is called austerity in Ontario is pretty mild, addresses the long-term problem, and avoids rapid increase of the provincial debt which is already transferring about a quarter of tax revenues directly to investors.  In an environment where most of our trading partners are in the same boat, it is unlikely that Ontario can generically grow back the missing $70b but it might be possible to target strategically so as to stimulate growth in areas of high potential return.

Uncertainty in the debt markets has caused many corporations to sit on a lot of idle cash for risk-contingency reasons that might otherwise be productively put to use.  The urgency of government intervention can be questioned as well.  Public-sector wage adjustments typically lag behind the private sector by a year or two.  A lot of the investors in provincial debt are domestic.  Cuts or adjustments in the private sector did not destroy collective bargaining. A good description of the bottom-line worry for me would be that short-term coercive solutions to an economic problem are being embedded in legislation with long-term erosion of collective bargaining rights and social-justice norms. 

Although higher education sits on the provincial budget as an obvious target, nobody argued that it is in any way the cause of the current economic plight and would rather plead that it is, in fact, one of the better long-term solutions.  I believe we need to stand firm on Bill 115 being repealed and stand in utter contempt of the Orwellian bill which died with the proroguing of the Legislative Assembly in October.

The keynote address during lunch concerned the decline of the university as a centre of critical thought and human development due to the rise of a labour-market-oriented corporate model for how we operate.  Attendees had the pleasure of hearing Joel Westheimer, who holds a University Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa, describe his views on this painful topic as we collectively chipped our way into sherbet desserts that I’m convinced had just emerged from a liquid-nitrogen bath.  Cold, perfectly spherical, impenetrable – maybe they were meant to be metaphorical of the corporate core of a university.  I’m afraid of what the flakey pastry shell might represent.

The lesson here is perhaps that, although we are not the cause of the recession, we share some of the same types of incentives and moral hazards which led to the situation with the banks – particularly as we pretend to quantify quality and willingly compete with those we should be in collaboration with. You can find more information about the poll and this part of the conference (including some audio transcripts) on the OCUFA website.  Next week I’ll talk about the remainder of the conference.  On the decline of universities as centres of critical thought, you might want to look at Frey, Bruno S., Withering Academia?  (October 19, 2010).  CESifo Working Paper Series No. 3209.  Available at SSRN.

Read Part 2

George Freeman, FAUW Past President

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