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.

Future U: The Future of Academic Labour

Kate Lawson (English Language & Literature), OCUFA President

On 27-28 February, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) sponsored a conference entitled “Future U: Creating the Universities We Want.” I was part of a panel addressing the topic “Faculty in Future U: Current challenges to ‘traditional’ faculty work and re-imagining this work in the future.” I was asked to share my notes from that event for this post.

Like the other speakers on this panel I was asked to consider the challenges facing traditional academic labour today and ways in which we can re-imagine that labour for the future.

Associate Professor Kate Lawson, University of Waterloo
Kate Lawson

As I planned this talk, I confess that the “challenges” part of the topic seemed overwhelming.  The pervasive and continuing underfunding of higher education in Ontario and shifts in academic policy over the last decade have worked together to create deleterious effects on academic labour. We may think of ourselves as scholars engaged in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge—in the classroom, the laboratory, and the library—but increasingly we are viewed as knowledge workers to be “managed,” our labour measured in “metrics,” our “efficiency” and “productivity” quantified.

Efficiency and productivity are not, of course, dirty words. All faculty members and librarians whom I know work not only hard, but work diligently. They work to balance excellence in the classroom and in helping students with research productivity, grant writing, service to the profession, and so on. But in the managerial institution, this kind of efficiency and productivity is not enough.

The challenges to academic labour arising out of context are numerous, but I will list only two.

First is the casualisation of academic labour, a devastating and unwarranted devaluing of the highly trained individuals who work, almost literally, for pennies; it is a devaluing of the students who are taught by professors who often have no offices, no permanent email addresses, and only the loosest affiliation to the institutions where they teach; and it is a devaluing of the eager and talented graduate students whom we teach, many of whom are being set up for these underpaid and undervalued jobs.

Second, I would name on-line education as a challenge to academic labour, not because such education is second rate, but because—done well—it costs as much or more than classroom education. But for government, for those who want to “manage” our labour, “on-line” is frequently taken to be the quick-fix, the cheap alternative, to face-to-face instruction.

I could go on.

However, rather than dwelling on “challenges” I would like to address possible futures for academic labour that rest more in our hands, in our choices, than in the hands of government and academic managers.

First, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with the community?

A brief story. My first tenure-track job was at the University of Northern BC in Prince George, a small city 800 km north of Vancouver.  Prince George had relentlessly lobbied the provincial government for a university for many years. When the university opened in 1994, the community felt that it was their university. They felt that the existence of a real university with teaching and research at its heart was their accomplishment. When I arrived, people would stop me and my family in restaurants and on the street and tell us how welcome we were in their community. And the university, as universities do, made Prince George its community as well. My colleagues worked with First Nations, with doctors, with social workers, with forestry companies—and of course, with students—and made it clear how a university could transform that small city.

Universities in Ontario are generally of an older vintage and I think are frequently taken for granted. But equally we may take our communities for granted. Do we undervalue community-based research in tenure and promotion? Do we participate in our communities as specialists in our fields, as informed observers, or simply as good citizens? Can we find ways to make the community feel more connected to us? Can we advocate for our fellow citizens and perhaps make them our advocates in return?

Second, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with our students?

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own describes walking on the grass at “Oxbridge,” only to be told by a beadle that she must get off the lawn since only Fellows and Scholars are allowed to walk there. Ditto when she tries to enter the library. The great democratisation of university education in Ontario and the wider world would leave Woolf, I think, breathless. My classroom at the University of Waterloo is as diverse as Canada itself—and that can only be a good thing.

Yet some of us bemoan the ways and degrees to which students “these days” are not like students in the “good old days.” I would argue that we should embrace our integral role in the democratization of higher education. We must teach the students who are in front of us and not yearn for a different cohort of students whom we might prefer.

One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means.

One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means. Are we here to confer professional credentials or skills training? Should we inculcate specialised kinds of knowledge or confer cultural capital? It’s useful to ask these questions and to debate the answers. It reminds us of our purpose, and how much that purpose matters to all of us.

Third, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with each other?

I would like to suggest that faculty members should embrace collegiality on a small and on a large scale.
On a small scale, I can say that my notes today are in fact dotted with mental footnotes to my colleagues in the English department at UW whom I asked: how do you imagine the future of academic labour? In writing these notes, I borrowed liberally from them; on occasion, I’ve disagreed with them.

What is true on this very small scale is a self-evident truth for all academic work; we rely on the hypotheses, the arguments, the evidence put forward by those who work in our fields. We also participate with colleagues in interdisciplinary research, joint research projects, etc.

On a large scale, universities are built on a system of collegial self-governance, the belief that academic decisions are best made collectively by those with academic experience and knowledge. This means Senates, of course, but it also means the myriad committees that make universities work. “Committee work” may sometimes be tiresome, but it is vitally important that we play our role in governance. And if we refuse that role, we cannot object when managers take over the running of our institutions.

B
ut I also want to stress that collegiality can and must mean being good “colleagues.” Etymologically, a colleague is “one chosen along with another, a partner in office.” We don’t necessarily choose our colleagues, then, but they are chosen along with us and become partners. We may disagree with our colleagues—that is built in to the academic venture—but as colleagues we should do our best to keep these disagreements as respectful as possible. I am as guilty as any in saying something hasty that I later regretted, but the more time I spend in the university the more grateful I am to my colleagues who are both gracious and thoughtful.

Being colleagues must also mean that workers in the professoriate see adjunct and sessional workers as scholars engaged in the same pursuit of knowledge and its transmission. But there is a key difference: tenure gives the professoriate the freedom to speak out on difficult issues. Part of our academic work then must be to speak out for fairness for those who lack tenure, lack academic freedom, and lack fair salaries.

In closing, I would like to take inspiration from my students and colleagues who are interested in “sustainability” as a model for decision-making on both the global and the local level. How, I want to ask, can sustainability help us in making decisions, be they related to budgets, pedagogy, programs, or governance?

In ecology, sustainability is defined as that which allows biological systems to endure and to remain diverse and productive. Sustainability thus embraces the idea of diversity, now being promulgated in Ontario under the rubric of “differentiation”; and it embraces the idea of productivity. But underlying diversity and productivity is the requirement that a system endure.

Can a high-quality university system endure if it is built on exploitation, low-cost labour, or cheap on-line delivery? Can a high-quality university system endure if scholarship—as research, teaching, or learning—is undervalued or devalued? I’m not sure what a sustainable university system will look like, but I do think we need to think seriously about this if we are to imagine a bright future for academic labor.

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.

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 t
hinking, 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