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Federal Election 2011: An open letter on post-secondary education

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Donna Palmateer Pennee, University of Western Ontario Guest Contributor “Vote Mobs,” originating with 700 students on the University of Guelph campus, indicate students are preparing publicly for election 2011. Where are the parallel faculty and administrator mobs, to encourage voter turnout and raise awareness of Post-Secondary Education (PSE) as an election issue? We do not know the outcome of our next election, so the proposed federal Budget 2011 may well be back again. And even if it doesn’t reappear, another budget will, so let’s use Budget 2011 for a democratic exercise in consciousness-raising. We can start by watching the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s video, which compares budget choices:

If we won’t mob, let’s at least get informed and consider what to ask for in support of the public mission of the university. Everyone needs to know what is entailed in not asking, not participating in Election 2011, but nevertheless having to live with its consequences. What is the university sector saying to the public on and beyond campus about PSE needs for the future?  Not surprisingly, given the culture of fear and anxiety under which the postsecondary sector has been functioning – fear of being silenced if we engage in the arm’s-length critique of how our society is disinvesting in PSE, and anxiety that the funding will dry up altogether – university leaders make their cases to politicians behind closed doors while publicly limiting their speech to the economic-speak of the day. Yes, the world’s economy is in a mess, but that should not suspend free speech on our campuses, in our presses, or in our streets.

Donna Palmateer Pennee, University of Western Ontario Guest Contributor “Vote Mobs,” originating with 700 students on the University of Guelph campus, indicate students are preparing publicly for election 2011. Where are the parallel faculty and administrator mobs, to encourage voter turnout and raise awareness of Post-Secondary Education (PSE) as an election issue? We do not know the outcome of our next election, so the proposed federal Budget 2011 may well be back again. And even if it doesn’t reappear, another budget will, so let’s use Budget 2011 for a democratic exercise in consciousness-raising. We can start by watching the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s video, which compares budget choices:

If we won’t mob, let’s at least get informed and consider what to ask for in support of the public mission of the university. Everyone needs to know what is entailed in not asking, not participating in Election 2011, but nevertheless having to live with its consequences. What is the university sector saying to the public on and beyond campus about PSE needs for the future?  Not surprisingly, given the culture of fear and anxiety under which the postsecondary sector has been functioning – fear of being silenced if we engage in the arm’s-length critique of how our society is disinvesting in PSE, and anxiety that the funding will dry up altogether – university leaders make their cases to politicians behind closed doors while publicly limiting their speech to the economic-speak of the day. Yes, the world’s economy is in a mess, but that should not suspend free speech on our campuses, in our presses, or in our streets.

When university presses post stories with headlines such as “Universities pleased with budget as election looms,” who is their audience? Do these stories reflect what the government of the day demands to hear?  In a  typical example of coverage of early responses to Budget 2011 (before the no-confidence vote), the Chair of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) said, “We are pleased in these tough economic times that the government continues to invest in university research as a critical driver of Canada’s future prosperity and economic recovery.” COU members “are particularly pleased to see an explicit recognition of the importance of social science and the humanities.”  AUCC’s press release expressed similar sentiments. I don’t seem to have read the same budget, but the issue is not about disciplinary turf. Rather, the larger issue is about the PSE sector as a whole, as a public good that requires all of our disciplines, especially cross-disciplinary inquiry, as much as it requires publicly-funded and public-minded support of our collective research. The most typical forms of publicly-funded research in Budget 2011 were:  $10M for the Indirect Costs program; $53.5M for 10 more Canada Excellence Research Chairs; about half that for 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at community colleges; and remarkably small sums for the national research granting councils totaling $37M ($15M each to NSERC and CIHR, $7M to SSHRC). To be sure, more money than what is listed above was allocated for research, but much of it “one-off” and targeted to areas determined by government, a trend which requires careful debate, not cynical rejection in the first instance.  (In their commentaries on Budget 2011, both  the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) lay out the gains and challenges for the PSE.). While shortchanging humanities and social sciences research is a serious problem in a world of cultural as well as capital flows, targeted NSERC funding for Climate and Atmospheric Research at a mere $35M over five years is also a problem – because it is not enough.  We need to front-load and fast-track this kind of research if we are going to see results as rapidly as they are needed for overdue and sound decision-making, even as we also need to forecast the long-term implications of minimal allocations to other forms of research. As scholars we must work harder to make government and the broader public aware of the contradictions in claiming to fund  “future prosperity” while underfunding research and social services for cross-cultural understanding and the alleviation of poverty, pollution, disease, civil strife, and war. What are the real costs and meaning of not funding goods and prosperity for many, now? Another example of a contradiction that matters in the underfunding of research in Budget 2011: the viability of Centres for Excellence requires more than $12M over 5 years – the amount proposed for a Canada-India research centre. Great idea but consider how many university resources will go into competing with sister institutions for this $12M, then how much the search for private funding might  mortgage the academic mission to supplement this  public sum.  Compare the revenues lost to public goods in one budget’s worth of 1.5% cuts in corporate taxes:  $5-6 billion. Do the research allocations for public goods make sense in relation to these cuts in corporate taxes? The trend to greater privatization continues in Budget 2011, with significant amounts of publicly-funded allocations for PSE research allocated to “public-private” institutes. Do the majority of Canadians know about this trend?  Do we want it to continue?  Federal election 2011  is a good time to explore the pros and cons of this trend. The public-private Perimeter Institute was allocated $50M, to be matched by the institute’s other partners over a five-year period.  Up to $100M was proposed for the non-profit organization Brain Canada, again federal (public) funding to be matched by private partners.  To be sure, we need research in physics and neuroscience, too:  that is not the choice that motivates me to write this blog entry. Meanwhile, $37M in new public funds was proposed for NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC to support the research of hundreds of thousands of university faculty and graduate students in Canada.  As welcome as that $37M is, it is not enough. Yes, we are pleased that there was an allocation; but I believe we also have a responsibility to say that it is not enough, and to understand this allocation in relation to other budget items. The amounts and ratios of these allocations are altering the nature of public funding for university research:  they are also changing the definition of public, just as silence from universities about the privatization of funding public goods contributes to the diminishment of public voice, public access, and public accountability for our collective futures. To be sure, the operation of universities has always been a public-private partnership, and all universities are indeed grateful for a long and continuing history of patronage from alumni and other private donors.  But the ratio, allocations, collection, and redistribution between public and private are changing without much commentary or forward thinking from the PSE sector itself. (An early exception from a social science perspective was Janice Newson and Howard Buchbinder’s The University Means Business: Universities, Corporations, and Academic Work;  for a humanities perspectives see Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities, ed. Smaro Kamoureli and Daniel Coleman). Perhaps another option would be to enlist the help of a wider public to make the case for the kind of budgeting we want.  But if I were a member of the general public reading “Universities pleased with budget as election looms,” I would assume universities had what they needed from federal government to achieve the best outcomes, and that PSE is not an election issue with which I need concern myself. If I were a newcomer to the PSE community in Canada, I might be confused about a “disconnect” between the outbound messages of university leaders’ pleasure with federal support for research and the inbound message of university leaders regarding the “constrained” provincial funding environment that necessitates cuts and closures across all of our campuses.  If I were a student experiencing increasing class sizes and possibly tuition fees, I might be wondering about this apparent “disconnect” between external and internal messaging, too. Newcomers to our university system need to know – and the rest of us need to be reminded – that education in Canada falls under the jurisdiction and budgets of provinces, such that any involvement of the federal government in funding PSE necessarily comes through funding research, not basic operating costs or delivery of curricula.  But the provinces are also supposed to be allocated federal revenues under the Canada Social Transfer program to help fund the delivery of education locally. Federal Budget 2011 – and most of the leaders of institutions and organizations representing PSE in Canada – have said little about what amounts of funding the provinces can expect from the Canada Social Transfer, which is to say that planning the provincial budget allocations becomes difficult, which is to say that planning the universities’ budget allocations becomes difficult.  And that just increases the fear, anxiety, cynicism, and apathy among us all, administrators and faculty alike.  We all need to keep posing the question: what about allocations for the Canada Social Transfer? We need to check party platforms for updates on this question, bearing in mind that we will also have an ongoing responsibility to make political leaders stick to their promises. To be sure, there are members of the PSE community who worry about riling the government of the day. Yet democracy is only as effective as our practice of it, which cannot be confined only to election time. Democracies need ideas to be formulated, aired, debated, refined, and implemented. Universities are first and foremost in the business of ideas. Henry Mintzberg, McGill’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies, has called for “a popular movement to get a government of people and ideas instead of a leader with a dogma.” Universities produce a significant cadre of civil society, and traditionally have been granted the authority and legitimacy to do so – a cadre acculturated to engaging and analyzing ideas, in order to reproduce civil society and sustain democracy.  Universities – students, faculty, administrators and their alumni – should be driving this ‘movement’ for a government of ‘people and ideas,’ especially in a knowledge society and economy.  Instead, universities are overly focused on preparing people for a job market that has fewer and fewer jobs in it, and seem to be inordinately responsible for economic prosperity.  How many people does the knowledge economy need?  Are there other sorts of economies currently functional or that we might imagine? Good on those students from Guelph, now joined by others from Carleton and across the country, for getting such a movement of people and ideas started – and posing the challenge to the rest of us to speak up on PSE as an election issue. Donna Palmateer Pennee, Professor of English, Affiliate Member of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, and former Dean, Arts and Humanities, University of Western Ontario.

When university presses post stories with headlines such as “Universities pleased with budget as election looms,” who is their audience? Do these stories reflect what the government of the day demands to hear?  In a  typical example of coverage of early responses to Budget 2011 (before the no-confidence vote), the Chair of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) said, “We are pleased in these tough economic times that the government continues to invest in university research as a critical driver of Canada’s future prosperity and economic recovery.” COU members “are particularly pleased to see an explicit recognition of the importance of social science and the humanities.”  AUCC’s press release expressed similar sentiments. I don’t seem to have read the same budget, but the issue is not about disciplinary turf. Rather, the larger issue is about the PSE sector as a whole, as a public good that requires all of our disciplines, especially cross-disciplinary inquiry, as much as it requires publicly-funded and public-minded support of our collective research. The most typical forms of publicly-funded research in Budget 2011 were:  $10M for the Indirect Costs program; $53.5M for 10 more Canada Excellence Research Chairs; about half that for 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at community colleges; and remarkably small sums for the national research granting councils totaling $37M ($15M each to NSERC and CIHR, $7M to SSHRC). To be sure, more money than what is listed above was allocated for research, but much of it “one-off” and targeted to areas determined by government, a trend which requires careful debate, not cynical rejection in the first instance.  (In their commentaries on Budget 2011, both  the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) lay out the gains and challenges for the PSE.). While shortchanging humanities and social sciences research is a serious problem in a world of cultural as well as capital flows, targeted NSERC funding for Climate and Atmospheric Research at a mere $35M over five years is also a problem – because it is not enough.  We need to front-load and fast-track this kind of research if we are going to see results as rapidly as they are needed for overdue and sound decision-making, even as we also need to forecast the long-term implications of minimal allocations to other forms of research. As scholars we must work harder to make government and the broader public aware of the contradictions in claiming to fund  “future prosperity” while underfunding research and social services for cross-cultural understanding and the alleviation of poverty, pollution, disease, civil strife, and war. What are the real costs and meaning of not funding goods and prosperity for many, now? Another example of a contradiction that matters in the underfunding of research in Budget 2011: the viability of Centres for Excellence requires more than $12M over 5 years – the amount proposed for a Canada-India research centre. Great idea but consider how many university resources will go into competing with sister institutions for this $12M, then how much the search for private funding might  mortgage the academic mission to supplement this  public sum.  Compare the revenues lost to public goods in one budget’s worth of 1.5% cuts in corporate taxes:  $5-6 billion. Do the research allocations for public goods make sense in relation to these cuts in corporate taxes? The trend to greater privatization continues in Budget 2011, with significant amounts of publicly-funded allocations for PSE research allocated to “public-private” institutes. Do the majority of Canadians know about this trend?  Do we want it to continue?  Federal election 2011  is a good time to explore the pros and cons of this trend. The public-private Perimeter Institute was allocated $50M, to be matched by the institute’s other partners over a five-year period.  Up to $100M was proposed for the non-profit organization Brain Canada, again federal (public) funding to be matched by private partners.  To be sure, we need research in physics and neuroscience, too:  that is not the choice that motivates me to write this blog entry. Meanwhile, $37M in new public funds was proposed for NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC to support the research of hundreds of thousands of university faculty and graduate students in Canada.  As welcome as that $37M is, it is not enough. Yes, we are pleased that there was an allocation; but I believe we also have a responsibility to say that it is not enough, and to understand this allocation in relation to other budget items. The amounts and ratios of these allocations are altering the nature of public funding for university research:  they are also changing the definition of public, just as silence from universities about the privatization of funding public goods contributes to the diminishment of public voice, public access, and public accountability for our collective futures. To be sure, the operation of universities has always been a public-private partnership, and all universities are indeed grateful for a long and continuing history of patronage from alumni and other private donors.  But the ratio, allocations, collection, and redistribution between public and private are changing without much commentary or forward thinking from the PSE sector itself. (An early exception from a social science perspective was Janice Newson and Howard Buchbinder’s The University Means Business: Universities, Corporations, and Academic Work;  for a humanities perspectives see Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities, ed. Smaro Kamoureli and Daniel Coleman). Perhaps another option would be to enlist the help of a wider public to make the case for the kind of budgeting we want.  But if I were a member of the general public reading “Universities pleased with budget as election looms,” I would assume universities had what they needed from federal government to achieve the best outcomes, and that PSE is not an election issue with which I need concern myself. If I were a newcomer to the PSE community in Canada, I might be confused about a “disconnect” between the outbound messages of university leaders’ pleasure with federal support for research and the inbound message of university leaders regarding the “constrained” provincial funding environment that necessitates cuts and closures across all of our campuses.  If I were a student experiencing increasing class sizes and possibly tuition fees, I might be wondering about this apparent “disconnect” between external and internal messaging, too. Newcomers to our university system need to know – and the rest of us need to be reminded – that education in Canada falls under the jurisdiction and budgets of provinces, such that any involvement of the federal government in funding PSE necessarily comes through funding research, not basic operating costs or delivery of curricula.  But the provinces are also supposed to be allocated federal revenues under the Canada Social Transfer program to help fund the delivery of education locally. Federal Budget 2011 – and most of the leaders of institutions and organizations representing PSE in Canada – have said little about what amounts of funding the provinces can expect from the Canada Social Transfer, which is to say that planning the provincial budget allocations becomes difficult, which is to say that planning the universities’ budget allocations becomes difficult.  And that just increases the fear, anxiety, cynicism, and apathy among us all, administrators and faculty alike.  We all need to keep posing the question: what about allocations for the Canada Social Transfer? We need to check party platforms for updates on this question, bearing in mind that we will also have an ongoing responsibility to make political leaders stick to their promises. To be sure, there are members of the PSE community who worry about riling the government of the day. Yet democracy is only as effective as our practice of it, which cannot be confined only to election time. Democracies need ideas to be formulated, aired, debated, refined, and implemented. Universities are first and foremost in the business of ideas. Henry Mintzberg, McGill’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies, has called for “a popular movement to get a government of people and ideas instead of a leader with a dogma.” Universities produce a significant cadre of civil society, and traditionally have been granted the authority and legitimacy to do so – a cadre acculturated to engaging and analyzing ideas, in order to reproduce civil society and sustain democracy.  Universities – students, faculty, administrators and their alumni – should be driving this ‘movement’ for a government of ‘people and ideas,’ especially in a knowledge society and economy.  Instead, universities are overly focused on preparing people for a job market that has fewer and fewer jobs in it, and seem to be inordinately responsible for economic prosperity.  How many people does the knowledge economy need?  Are there other sorts of economies currently functional or that we might imagine? Good on those students from Guelph, now joined by others from Carleton and across the country, for getting such a movement of people and ideas started – and posing the challenge to the rest of us to speak up on PSE as an election issue. Donna Palmateer Pennee, Professor of English, Affiliate Member of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, and former Dean, Arts and Humanities, University of Western Ontario.

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