Monday, February 4, 2013

Academia in the Age of Austerity

Part 2 – The view from other situations


I return you to the scene: 120 conference attendees, absorbing a talk on the decline of the university as a centre of critical thought and human development, while using a spoon to chip away at a perfect sphere of hyper-frozen desert effectively unsupported on a flat plate without (a) making too much noise; or (b) launching the sphere across the table at a colleague.

Borg adapting to phasers
After lunch, more discussion on the austerity excuse to rewrite Ontario labour legislation brought home the scary point that the government might adapt its strategy based on lessons learned through the zero-zero ‘consultations’ and the various fights with big unions such as the ones representing teachers (in my mind, I think of the Borg response to phaser fire in Star Trek).  The most extreme case would be US-style ‘right-to-[be-exploited-in-your]-work’ legislation to cripple all collective bargaining.  Many of our neighbouring states have it already. 


Britt Hall - National Education Association, Director for Wisconsin
Britt Hall -
National Education Association,
Director for Wisconsin
When warned by Wisconsinites in May 2011 at CAUT Council, that we had one to three years to avoid taking their path, I’m sure many thought such things would be unthinkable in Ontario.  At that time, we were told that the hard-right-wing message is well scripted and revolves around a simplistic “power back to the people” message of (a) eliminating collective bargaining; (b) removing Rand formulae; and (c) requiring constant recertification.  It is a strategy of divorcing both the public and association members from association leadership.  The moral of the story, as told to us, was to learn to fight now, not after it starts, and to use every means to get and stay connected with our members.  A look back at the polling data mentioned in my previous post will convince you of how easily such legislation could slide past the Ontario public.

Maybe this is a good time to point out that if FAUW manages to get you, just once, 0.5% more scale increase than the university/government wanted to pay you, your dues are pretty much covered for the rest of your career.

A session on student perspectives was very enlightening.  We could learn a lot about organizing political dissent from the Quebec student example.  They seem to have made masterful use of decentralized support building and clear messages attuned to the general public’s sympathies.  What got lost somewhat in Ontario news reporting was that the protest was not all that much about money, but rather the forced effective change of higher education from a social good to an individually consumed service.  The metamorphosis in Ontario has been more gradual and is already much farther along, so the Quebec uprising didn’t gain much traction here. 

However, students told us they are very worried about tuition levels which result in too much debt and as many as half of all students are working too many hours at outside jobs during school terms.  They argued that tuition should be zero but I think this ignores some perverse incentives and moral hazards that might enter the picture with that much imbalance between the government and individual investment.  Still, if a university (or college) education is increasingly the franchise for adult life, then it clearly is a social good and saddling the student with an undue fraction of its cost can be viewed as a ‘youth tax.’  Tuition may yet become the galvanizing issue for dissent even in Ontario.

The last half day of this conference focused on international perspectives.  England is always a bracing example.  Recently, government there cut teaching support to universities by 80% (yes, that says eighty percent) and allowed massive increases in tuition, implementing a near instantaneous ideological shift.  They expect an average student to accumulate about $70k (Canadian) in debt and take 20 to 30 years to repay it – essentially education via a mortgage.  One effect this year has been a sharp drop in enrollment.  Whether a student carrying that much debt might go on to graduate studies remains to be seen and was not part of the consideration by government.  England is also way, way down the metrification path and, curiously, universities themselves appear far more interested in rankings than do funding agencies, students, or government.  Perhaps the next time rankings are justified in Senate, we should ask for verifiable proof that these things matter to anyone but us?

From the US perspective (courtesy of Jeffrey Williams,Carnegie Mellon), we heard about what was called a deliberate policy shift over the last few decades.  Students have been reconfigured as objects of private profit (customers).  Faculty have been reconfigured as minority players – only one quarter or less are permanent employees.  Administration has grown and become corporatized.  Buildings and grounds exist largely for self-accumulation with enticing things like luxury dorms and fitness centres.  Two-thirds of students accumulate on the order of $30k of education-related debt by graduation, essentially a form of indenture.  Universities play a role in class sorting and the class divisions which plague the country.

According to panelist Eleanor MacDonald (Queen’s), much of the cutting in Ontario since 1990 was absorbed not just in tuition hikes but in quality degradation and workload increases in universities.  We require less of students in the form of fewer assignments with less participation and less critical thinking, if only due to the sheer number of students in each class.  In addition to this, the corporatization and branding activities in universities are leading to subtle and not-so-subtle disavowal pressures to not talk about the deterioration.  We all are meant to be promoters and marketers of our individual units and schools.  She believes we should get involved in the democratic processes and start to talk more openly.  Since this is precisely what FAUW tries to do, I couldn’t agree more.

George Freeman

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