The nice thing about having done an undergraduate degree in a media/cultural studies department is that alumni on Facebook ensure that you will never be uninformed about labour conflicts. For the past few weeks I’ve been receiving almost minute-by-minute updates regarding the dispute between the University of Western Ontario’s faculty and its administration. This was quite a bit more interesting than your typical ‘3% versus 3.5% wage increase’ negotiations, as it dealt with tenure and standards of behaviour.
For an extensive write-up about what exactly was at stake see this excellent Facebook page, but the general idea was a weakening of tenure in favour of a more customer service-oriented and formalized model of post-secondary education.
What this conflict really did was highlight two competing functions and notions of the university. The Faculty see the university as an Academy: the traditional, elite institution of scholars and students. Faculty push the boundaries of human knowledge and engage with bright, motivated, passionate students. The Academy is a community in the most positive sense of the word, capable of effective self-governance. Every individual at the Academy wishes to be there for education’s sake, not for any instrumental, “means-to-an-end” reason. At the Academy, tenure is necessary because academics must be free to pursue challenging research without fear of reprisal. At the Academy, classes are small and driven by dialogue, which often continues outside the classroom.
The administration sees the university as a Training Centre: the pragmatic, results-based, accessible institution of instructors and clients. Instructors, who may or may not conduct research, teach students with varying degrees of motivation who recognize that a degree is crucial to their future labour market success. Centralization of authority is necessary to ensure that instruction is coordinated with labour market needs and provide a standardized educational experience to maintain the value of the degree. At the Training Centre, metrics, such as student satisfaction and graduate employment, drive decision-making. At the Training Centre, efficiency and value-for-money are held in high esteem. At the Training Centre, instructors are Taylorized employees. At the Training Centre, class discussion needs to be incented with participation marks.
The classical university was an Academy, the modern one is increasingly a Training Centre. Even the traditional liberal arts, long thought bastions of scholarly inquiry for normative good, have embraced the Training Centre. Humanities and social science fight for legitimacy against the onslaught of hard science and professional programs by asserting the economic value of well-rounded employees with good writing skills.
The benefits and problems of each model are apparent: the Academy is one of humanity’s greatest achievements when it is the domain of the elite (in contrast to current usage, elite is not a pejorative), but performs poorly when it becomes accessible to less motivated and less intelligent students. It also imposes significant costs on students, parents, and/or taxpayers that are tolerable when enrollment is low, but scale quickly. The Training Centre can give large numbers of students the necessary training and credentials to compete in the “new economy” without crowding out public expenditure on nurses, roads, and social housing, but is dehumanizing for all participants and destroys the passion of the small cohort of truly engaged students.
If my description of the Training Centre seems dismal, that’s because I think it is. I came to university expecting the Academy and got the Training Centre. I was angry then, and I’m still a bit angry now. But now I better recognize the constraints within which Ontario operates. Looming demographic shifts will put unprecedented pressure on the public purse, and every million spent on post-secondary is a million less for hip replacements. Increasing enrollment pressures will introduce even more students who lack the talent and passion to truly engage in the academic community.
As much as I want the classical Academy, it just isn’t realistic anymore. The challenge is to maintain the great features of the Academy while still addressing cost and enrollment pressures.
– By Brent Barron