Crisis and Radical Thought Experiments: Notes on OCUFA’s Future U Conference

Jasmin Habib, FAUW OCUFA Director

For two days in February, a group of academics, administrators, and students gathered in Toronto for OCUFA’s Future U: Creating the Universities We Want conference. It was among the better-attended conferences that the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has organized in recent years. The scope of the discussion was fairly narrow but the panelists and participants shared a diverse set of experiences and presented a fairly wide range of perspectives.

Crisis, what crisis?

How one experiences the crisis in education depends on where one is located:  students, professors, the public, government and business all have very different investments in the future of the university.

For many students, the crisis is related to the loans they have to repay after they graduate and an economic downturn that has a direct effect on the kinds of opportunities they will have once they enter the labour market.

For faculty, there are very real concerns, particularly for those working in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Just two or three years ago in the UK, for example, funding was lost in just one fell swoop.  Those working in those fields believe that this will limit the impact their knowledge will have on society; some worry that their colleagues will lose their jobs and, of course, that their students may not find secure employment in academia or in the areas in which they have been so highly trained. These changes also mean that identities shift as working conditions change: scholars become more concerned with fundraising and grants than teaching and research.

For government, there are a number of issues.  Over the last several decades, but particularly so since the 1990s, governments have promised their constituents access to post-secondary education.  But that accessibility comes at a cost that neither the constituents (in the form of higher tuition) nor governments (in the form of taxes) want to continue to pay.  

Interestingly, one of the speakers presented us with facts and figures that showed that not only has funding for higher education been growing at a consistent rate in the last several decades but that through those same periods, the degree of bifurcation has also increased. That is, the more public funding is made available for higher education, the more differentiated are those institutions and the greater the likelihood that the rich (students and institutions) will get richer. I will come back to this point in my next post, as it seems so counterintuitive, until one considers the financial needs of research-intensive universities.

The business community wants a highly educated workforce that will innovate, but it does not want costs to offset their profits, or to pay higher premiums for maintaining or developing newer institutions of higher learning.

University presidents are also caught, sometimes between the interests of their board of governors and their senate; and sometimes between those bodies and the provincial or federal government.  But in all instances, they are forced to be politically strategic in order to best negotiate the interests of their institutions, staff, faculty and students.

I found it quite interesting to hear several presenters note that “the rise of the corporate university” and “the death of the university” are the names given for the same crisis and the same struggle, but that the economic crisis is not the same as the education crisis, even though oftentimes these are the links that are being made for us.  Note, for example, that a recent Statistics Canada report linked higher pay with higher education but made no mention of the economic crisis and its deleterious effects on graduate earnings.  And one would certainly be hard-pressed to find faculty or university administrators who would say that the university should be limited simply to training students for the labour market.

One faculty member noted that we may have swung from one extreme – the patriarchal and elitist system university in the pre-1970s era – to a more merit-based but far more managerial and hierarchical system, with its endless surveillance and top down style.  While we have a rise in the number of contingent faculty across the country (and throughout the US), we also heard criticisms linked to the emergence of a US-style “star system”, which crossed our border in the form of Canada Research Chairs (among other, similar strategies).  There is evidence that these positions are having a deleterious effect on departments and programs as these Chairs have tended to work in a kind of bubble, some entirely out of reach not only of fellow faculty members and students, but seemingly also out of touch with the kinds of pressures that their fellow faculty endure, especially when it comes to departmental and faculty service.

What are the effects of all of this?  One faculty member from BC reported that when they were organizing to unionize at the University of Victoria, a mathematician speaking in favour of certification noted with emphasis:  “When I was hired here, this was my institution, and now I feel it is their institution; and when I was hired here, I was hired for my intelligence; but now I feel that they insult my intelligence.”  The faculty overwhelmingly voted to unionize in January.

Thought experiments and the future U

That said, here is one meaningful exercise that a speaker suggested faculty could consider and which several people discussed over the course of the conference:

“Ask yourself if it still possible to do the work that I want to do here? Is it possible to sustain the kinds of research [and teaching, I would add] that I am interested in? How might I create new structures here (or elsewhere) so that I can do that work?”

These questions were not meant to lead us all to consider getting OUT of the university but rather to think about new possibilities, to be innovative, and as a thought experiment.  “The thought of going outside should allow us to consider what we can do on the inside.”

Several examples of new possibilities and responses to the current environment include the re-emergence of “free schools” and the development of the “enlivened learning” movement occurring around the world, and the rise of a new form, “the cooperative university”.  These institutions are intended to subvert the market and competition around such things as funding subsidies. They encourage us to put into practice interdisciplinary relationships not only between departments but also between universities. They suggest we should consider not only moving across departments and disciplines, but around the world, not simply to market ourselves or to compete with other universities for students but in order to find ways to work outside the nation-centred models of education and to link to other institutions, scholars and students in the global south.

All of these movements suggest to me that our formal institutions may not be meeting all of our educational or societal needs.

Such ideas may also be “quite liberating” as they could help us to clarify what it is that we like about our universities as well as what else may be possible. Several times faculty noted that administrators are ready to hear quite radical ideas but that we need to take the opportunity to share them.

Radical U?

Student representatives’ reports were among the most radical, offering visions of an entirely accessible univers
ity that offers all qualified students the entire range of course offerings, both in class as well as, when appropriate, online. Their panel noted that they placed a high value on teaching quality and they have consistently asked the government to invest in full-time rather than contingent faculty. As one student leader put it: “ Students want access to faculty who are long-term, who have offices on campus, who are supported for creating high quality lessons and exploring alternative pedagogical practices. Our future u has more teaching done by more full-time faculty who are on our campuses.”  The bottom line for these student representatives is that online education should not detract from in-class education. And, they want even MORE opportunity for discussions to take place in the classroom.  As one student representative put it, succinctly: “Faculty teaching conditions are our learning conditions.”

Next week, I will share what I learned about differentiation and why some of our panelists thought it was a very good thing.

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