Future U: Creating the Universities WE WANT: Crisis in UK Universities

David Porreca, FAUW President

This week’s post is the first in a series of reports resulting from this past weekend’s conference, “Future U: Creating the Universities WE WANT”, organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
At this conference, academics, journalists, union leaders, university administrators and researchers on higher education came together to discuss not just the problems with our current system of higher education, but also what ideals we ought to strive for in terms of creating the universities of the future.

Crisis in UK Universities

Sarah Amsler, a higher education researcher at the University of Lincoln was interviewed, and the following represent highlights from the ensuing discussion.

  • The broader public’s perception of higher education in the UK is driven by personal experience (inevitably anecdotal and idiosyncratic), higher education journalism and the blogosphere (each with its own agendas), with little structural analysis of the whole system. 
  • The UK does not have a distributed system of faculty associations in each university. Instead, they have a single nationwide union (à la CAUT) without its individual member groups.  This situation leads to there being fewer critical eyes examining the university system at the grassroots level, and enables a heavily managerial system where administrators have all the decision-making power.  Individual faculty members – all without our concept of tenure – get to endure the consequences of management’s vision with nary a say in the matter.

It is under such conditions that a crisis was created and solved, leading to a wholesale reform of the higher education system was imposed in 2009-10, during which

  • Universities were removed from the remit of the Department of Education and transferred to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
  • Government transfer payments were systematically cut, leaving universities to cope with a market-based funding model that favours the already-prominent universities (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge) at the expense of other, less elite institutions
  • Students were forced to pay what we would call “full cost-recovery” tuition fees, enabled by a system of student loans. 
“The only redeeming quality of the fees-and-loans scheme in the UK is that it is run by government rather than commercial banks…”

The only redeeming quality of the fees-and-loans scheme in the UK is that it is run by government rather than commercial banks, such that the repayment schedule is automatically deducted from earnings, proportional to income, and subject to time limits.

In other words, students who graduate and happen to get low-income jobs pay back a small proportion of their loans over a defined period and are subsequently released from the debt. This would appear to be a much more humane system than the one prevalent in North America (including Ontario), where bankruptcy laws have been modified to prevent individuals from discharging their student debt by way of bankruptcy.

There are three broad-scale questions or problems that those thinking about higher education need to consider:

  1. The purpose of higher education and/or the university (i.e., in what proportions are we imparting skill sets? Conducting research? Providing credentials? Shaping a critically thinking citizenry? Imparting knowledge? Preserving cultural memory?)
  2. The relations between universities and other power groups in society (governments at all levels, corporations, unions, NGOs)
  3. The ownership of governance (i.e., who gets to decide how academia and academics are governed?)

Take-home point for FAUW and its Membership

Although it may seem that the higher education sector is in deep crisis in Canada, the system of collegial governance we enjoy is of great value in terms of enabling some measure of control over our working conditions. It may not be as efficient as a UK-style manager-driven system, but efficiency is only a virtue if the decisions made under its banner are the right ones. UW-style collegial governance – when it is working well – gives each of us a voice in the major decisions relating to our working lives.

This conference was a potent reminder that other systems exist – the UK model discussed above was also juxtaposed with the state-controlled model prevalent in most of Asia. Our system, for all its flaws and on-the-surface inefficiencies, actually serves curiosity-driven academia reasonably well and therefore is worth defending. The latter is one of the principal purposes for FAUW’s existence.

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