What kind of society do we want our universities to serve?repurpose and reprogramme our universities to more narrowly serve industry and the labour market. They’re doing so by adopting performance-based funding in the most profound changes the sector has witnessed in decades.
These changes are encapsulated by the statements of former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, who said his government was “trying to retool the education system”.
Last year, Kenney said government funding for universities should align with the needs of the labour market and criticised university arts programmes which he misleadingly claimed provided “very poor” employment prospects for graduates.
It is unsettling to consider the long-term trajectory and the consequences of narrowing universities in their scope to more closely emulate technical and training colleges and the manner in which they serve the current labour market and industry.
Universities already feature a diverse mix of vocational and professional training programmes as well as more broadly focused and flexible undergraduate and graduate degrees. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by attempting to turn universities and colleges into lesser and more convoluted versions of one another.
Both are necessary to provide a robust and diverse education system; and both well-serve society.
The university’s contributions
Responding to similar debates in the United Kingdom, former English literature professor Stefan Collini provocatively asked, “What are universities for?” It is now time for Canadians to ask that same question.
In that spirit we at the University of Regina have set about gathering many national and international scholars, heads of funding agencies, administrators, policy-makers and various publics to engage in discussions on the topic at the appropriately entitled symposium: What are universities for? Exploring roles, challenges, conflicting tensions and promising re-imaginings.
The challenges facing academic institutions demand that we ask such questions, and that we start to grapple with what the answers might be and the legacy we are leaving the next generation.
The university is an entity like no other, and should perhaps be more accurately described as a “multiversity”. Urban geography scholar Jean-Paul Addie has listed seven social and economic ways universities benefit society: being economic engines, changing the face of a city, attracting global talent, building international connections, helping to address societal challenges, fostering creativity and open debate and improving people’s lives.
What are universities for? ‘It depends’
At their core, universities are institutions charged with performing teaching, research and service. They are a place where degree programmes aim to instil subject matter competencies, form critical and creative habits of mind and teach collaborative and civic engagement skills, while scholars perform a variety of discovery-driven, targeted and public-interest research.
Universities are immensely diverse and quite adept at integrating a variety of conflicting demands and purposes: from fostering ground-breaking scientific research and transmitting and critiquing knowledge to supplying teachers for our schools and medical personnel to our hospitals.
Intriguingly, if you ask the students themselves about the purpose of higher education, the answer is: it depends.
Research has found the way students view universities is contingent on how much the education costs.
In countries like Denmark, Germany and Poland, where governments provide greater financial support for university students, there is greater emphasis on the social benefits of higher education. Universities are seen as contributing to a more enlightened and reflective society and helping their country to be viewed more competitively worldwide.
However, in England, Ireland and Spain, where students are expected to shoulder more of the financial cost of their university education, they are more likely to see it as a means to employment.
Canada should avoid pitting these conceptions of higher education against one another. We ought to respect the many and varied benefits of an inclusive, accessible and robust post-secondary education system.
Canada's crossroads moment
Current trends in Canada are a great cause for alarm. Ontario ranks last in the country for university funding as a percentage of total revenue. The government of Alberta has recently slashed hundreds of millions in funding from the province’s universities. Both provinces are the first to subject their universities to narrowly conceived funding metrics.
Canadians must realise that we are at a critical juncture. Canada’s universities should not be an arena for shortsighted and partisan politicking. We urgently need to ask ourselves what kind of society we hope to maintain, foster and create and link that to how universities can best serve that society.
Marc Spooner is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina, Canada. This article is adapted from his piece in The Conversation.