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What a University Is Not

August 25, 2008

by Fred Donnelly

There has been a great deal of debate in New Brunswick in the wake of the Post-secondary Education Commission Report of 2007 and now the 2008 Report based on consultations with public university presidents and community college principals. These governmental intrusions in our affairs have given rise to eloquent defenses universities as we understand them in this country but what follows here is an attempt to state what a university is not.

A University Is Not A Canary

Two centuries ago coal miners used to take canaries down the mine as these birds gave warning of dangerous accumulations of gas. The birds died from the fumes but human lives were saved. Some in New Brunswick think a university is the educational equivalent of the canary down the mine shaft. It’s the thing that gets killed when we sense a change in the economic environment. There was an initiative in 2007 to kill off the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, not because bad economic times were forecast, but, on the contrary, an economic boom was on the horizon.

The sheer perversity of this scheme was quite astounding as a university that had contributed so much to the regional economy through both good and bad times for decades, including producing 6,500 graduates, was to be shut out from the golden age about to descend on the community.

Surely a university is a long term contract between an educational institution on the one hand and a province and its people on the other. Universities stay with a community through thick and thin for generations and even centuries. They are not like the canaries to be sacrificed when the winds of economic change shift direction.

A University Is Not An Agency Of Any Government

The essence of a university is that it is not a creature or agency of a government. That’s why universities have charters set out in a university act, a board of governors to maintain an arm’s length relationship with legislators and powers bestowed on faculty members to control curriculum through the university Senate.

Universities have a large measure of autonomy so that they can be independent of government as to their research programs and their educational priorities. Some educational institutions are government controlled but they are not designated as universities in Canada.

By definition a university is independent of direct control via governmental policy so let’s stop trying make it something it can never be.

A University Is Not An Agency of Local Business

Universities are independent of business needs in the labour market although co-operation between the two is always possible. Anticipated labour shortages are not the responsibility of universities and further any such shortfalls in skilled tradespeople can be met by importing workers from elsewhere. Universities do not exist first and foremost to meet the needs of local industry or any other segment of the private sector. On the contrary the first priority of a university is to provide post-secondary education of the highest standard to the local population. Whether that mandate meets local industrial demands is quite secondary to the need to educate the next generation of teachers, civil servants, scientists, business managers, librarians and other professionals who may or may not establish careers in the local community.

Likewise the university cannot respond to minority interests in the private sector to produce more than its fair share of graduates for the manufacturing sector of the economy. Manufacturing jobs represent less than 25% of the regional workforce, less in other parts of North America, and they have been in a long term declining trend in the developed world. A university must prepare its graduates for the real world emergent global economy where manufacturing will be less important than it has been in the past.

A University Is Not Always An Effective Tool For Regional Economic Development

The time has passed for university campuses to be located in rural settings isolated from major centres of population. Such university venues are left-overs from an era when only elitist, wealthy males went to university at parental expense to live in residence on the site. Today’s students need extra earnings to keep down their debt loads. A campus in a remote location not only provides few part time work opportunities, it lacks the cultural, metropolitan lifestyle that today’s students see as an important supplement to their education.

There is no evidence that scattering university and college campuses all over the provincial map in an attempt to foster economic growth has done anything positive. Worse still is the possibility of locating post-secondary institutions according to a regional political patronage agenda. Far more effective is the location of university and college campuses in larger metropolitan areas where co-operation between institutions, between local industry and universities and between post-secondary institutions and the cultural sector of the city is more likely to take place.

A University Is Not A Vocational Training Institute

In some educational settings training is provided for specific types of employment. Universities do some of this as well in programs like engineering, nursing, medicine, computer science and business. Something else is going on at the university that is too often poorly understood by some in the wider community.

Most universities have a large portion, sometimes the majority, of their students in general Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science programs. These are not specific vocational training schemes. On the contrary these so-called liberal arts and sciences degree programs are typically the gateway to other university programs or other non-university training.

While students specialize in such degree programs they usually don’t declare a Major/Specialization until the end of two years in a four year program. After four years in a B.A. or B.Sc. Program they often go on to a career in teaching or research or the professions like law and medicine. All of the latter require further studies but here’s the point: For the most part you don’t get in without that general liberal arts and science degree.

It is the university’s mandate to deliver the general arts and science degree at the bachelor level as its first priority. To these we all want to add more specialized graduate programs, professional training and highly specialized degrees but the core must be there for a university to be recognized for its degrees across the country and across the globe. That core is the basic high quality liberal arts and sciences program.

What the exact balance should be between that core of arts and science on the one hand and more specialized or advanced programs on the other is a matter best left to the universities to decide. Ill-informed government meddling in the university curriculum is counter-productive and further it calls into question the university’s defining characteristic, namely, its independence from government.

A University Is Not A Dumping Ground For Ill-prepared Students

Too often universities have come under pressure from the business sector, from other post-secondary institutions and from their own administrators to allow more flexible admissions of students to university in general or to upper level courses in particular. Typically the pressure comes from those who don’t actually have to teach university courses but are enthusiastic about any scheme to boost enrolments.

University programs across the globe make students meet some admission standards as to their secondary school preparation and then put them through courses that become more challenging as one goes up from one year to the next. In short we have prerequisites for both admissions and for senior courses.

Every teacher at university level has a professional concern for students in the class room who cannot learn because they lack skills and/or background knowledge already possessed by their classmates. So we impose prerequisites, we demand standards of admission be effective, we provide help for those with language difficulties.

What we cannot accept is meddling from outside the university as to who can be admitted in the first place, who can transfer from other post-secondary institutions into our senior courses and what credits we accept in a degree program. We need to be in charge of such complex issues as acceptance of credit transfer from one institution to another.

Therefore those who are advocating simplistic “integration” of the whole system of post-secondary education in the province need to back away from this area where they lack the requisite expertise. We cannot sacrifice the quality of a university education for political or administrative “fixes” that are motivated by non-pedagogical concerns.

Our universities cannot become places where ill-prepared students are dumped into programs to satisfy bureaucratic initiatives.

It’s time our politicians abandoned their futile and destructive efforts to make universities into something they can never be.

Fred Donnelly teaches at UNBSJ.

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