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Higher education: A frill? Or actually dangerous?

October 28, 2008

With “Public Universities at Risk Abandoning Their Mission” (CHE 31/10/08) Gene R. Nichol responds to and elaborates on Christopher Newfield’s “Public Universities at Risk: 7 Damaging Myths.” Again, while the context of these articles is American, there is much here that should interest us in Canada.

To recap, the “7 Damaging Myths” are as follows:

Myth 1: The public hates taxes now more than in the past.
Myth 2: The public rejects tax-based support for higher education.
Myth 3: Privatization of public higher education has been happening for years and is an established practice.
Myth 4: State cuts have no effect on educational quality or student outcomes.
Myth 5: Revenues from industry can replace lost public money.
Myth 6: Privatization won’t hurt public universities because revenues from philanthropy can replace public support.
Myth 7: Cutting higher-education support is a national trend that cannot be stopped.

Newfield, as some will know, is the author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Nichol writes

I am particularly drawn to [Newfield’s] claims that the crises threatening public universities are not primarily the result of economic downturns or altered cost structures. They stem, rather, from a conservative-led campaign to end higher education’s democratizing influence on the nation.

“Conservative elites,” he writes, challenged by “the postwar rise of [a] college-educated economic majority have put that majority back in its place.” Their weapon, he says, “has been the culture wars” — on both higher education and the “progressive … trends” it fosters. The success of the right’s cultural crusade has “severed the public university from [its] broader base,” and has led to the “abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses.” Tough words.

Nichol seems, in the main, to agree with Newfield, though he ascribes considerable blame to the institutions themselves.

To bring this closer to home: for over a year now we have been experiencing an assault on university education in this province, an assault that can only be partially explained by the provincial Liberal’s “how high?” response to the demands of the energy industry. If you thought we were “safe” now that the polytechnic idea has been discredited and the “energy hub” is somehow managing to recruit workers without it, consider the ongoing calls for “flexibility” and “accountability” in both the government’s pronouncements as well as from certain special interest groups in the City (interest groups that have met with the Joint Nominating Committee searching for our next president, I might add). Consider that the chronic underfunding of N.B. universities, and in particular of this campus, has not only not been addressed by government, but has never even been acknowledged. Consider that we are widely seen to be moving into a period of “belt-tightening,” and we all know whose belts will be shortened and who will feel scarcely a pinch. Consider recent UNB appointments which could be interpreted as government seeking through the back door what it couldn’t wrestle through the front.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that all our arguments about the desirability of access to education, the right to education, the specific need for a university in Saint John given its history and demographics, the proud history UNB Saint John has of providing education to students who would otherwise have no opportunity to attend a university, and the number of our students who are the first in their families to attend university: it is not that these arguments are not being heard, as one might have assumed given the deafening silence. It is, rather, that these are some of the very reasons why certain elements do not value — in fact, dislike — having a university in this city.

The situation is positively Dickensian, in a Milton Friedman-meets-Rollerball kind of way.

  1. Linda Hansen permalink
    October 29, 2008 7:29 am

    Actually, a critical look at a recent publication of the university designed to recruit students would suggest that the government has in fact implemented the *vision* of the PSE proposals from last fall — we just missed it.

    The publication (called *Experience University of New Brunswick Saint John 2009) features an empty road and a large rock face on the cover, along with three young male students.

    Inside, the *learning experience* at UNBSJ enjoins you to *Trust your future to UNB Saint John, and we will give you a memorable and unique education. Find yourself in a classroom where your professor knows your name. Or knee-deep in a muddy marsh in the name of research.*

    Leaving aside the style and grammar issues — this publication appears to love the period followed by an Or — are those my choices?

    Page 1 has a clever photo of the campus and text which combine to imply that the buildings of the hospital make up one side of the quad. (*The Quad is formed by academic buildings on four sides* — has a building sprung up in the parking lot?)

    Page 2 shows women playing basketball and students playing poker.

    Page 8 wants you to become a student abroad, before you see anything about the programs UNBSJ has to offer.

    Not until page 13 do I see my first program, Nursing, where one *learns basic nursing skills*

    Page 14 is headed Arts Education and emphasizes the practical business of teaching.

    Page 16 features Business with a prominent notice of accreditation of the business co-op program.

    Page 18 and 19 — the only heavily text, two page spread for a program — features Applied Management for the College Graduate.

    I won’t even get into my feelings on the way women are portrayed throughout.

    I looked in vain for some significant description of the library / research facilities.

    Now, don’t get me wrong — this is a slick, effective publication and clearly someone put a lot of thought and effort into it so that it would convey the exact message it conveys — it is just, I don’t like the message

  2. October 29, 2008 7:08 pm

    If you happen to be in Toronto in November, please check out the “Quality of Education” conference Nov 13/14. Registration is free!

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