Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Intractable Problems

In the UK today, students and faculty protest extreme cuts to funding for university teaching, with targeted exemptions (STEM subjects). Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats has predictably been unable to prevent the Conservative government's wholehearted adoption of the recommendations in the recent Browne Report.

You've seen it before--in Canada every year the CFS has rallies around the country protesting tuition fees; in California students stages protests and sit-ins in response to massive funding cuts; now in the UK, students and faculty are rallying in reaction to the policy bomb dropped by Cameron's government.

But the cuts happen anyway--in California, around the U.S., in England and soon enough, Canada as well (this depends on the situation with transfer payments; technically university operating budgets are a matter of provincial jurisdiction, and tuition is set at the institutional level).

At this stage, I'm not interested in launching into a diatribe about the uselessness of activism--because I don't really buy that argument. Activism of the kind I'm describing has had positive results in the past.

What I want to know is how we can engage politically in ways that prevent these kinds of "solutions"--massive cuts, for example, and related retooling of university governance--from being either required or imposed. Because the situation we're in now with university funding is one that's evolved over a period of about 40 years or more. Surely during that time, students and faculty could have been aware of changes happening? Or did we simply not realise until it was too late?

And then there's the economy--the rise and fall, boom and bust, starting with severe recessions in the 1970s and continuing through to the most recent "downturn" beginning in 2008. Why are universities (indeed, governments and banks) incapable of weathering these economic storms? Why is it that each time the axe falls, education--in spite of its apparent relation to economic prosperity--seems to be one of the first areas up for the chop?

Even after spending a fair bit of time with these problems over the last five years or so, I feel bound up as if by a web when confronted by these kinds of policy quandaries, which are central to the governance of universities and which have such real effects on people's everyday lives. Today's protests in the UK remind me of just how far we have to go yet before the answers are in sight.


  1. Good points. The changes came more recently and faster in the UK than here in Canada. Student loans didn't start until 1989 (if I remember correctly) and tuition fees came in in the mid 1990s. Prior to that tuition was free and students had grants for living expenses.

    To go from nothing to what is currently being proposed in 15 years is pretty darn fast. And there are huge differences of political culture around the whole thing.

    I think the reason education is so quick for the chop is to do with it's status as a public good. Or rather political disagreement about whether it is a public good or a private good. The shift in the overall political discourse post Thatcher/Reagan means that even so called "left" parties are not defending public spending for public goods.

    I think that's a bit piece of the problem, anyway.

  2. There have definitely been some changes in the UK, same with Australia and NZ I think, that haven't happened in Canada--and I think a big part of the context is Canada's lack of national education strategy/ministry, the emphasis on provincial control of education policy. Though it's interesting that the student loan program began in the 60s in Canada and so much later in the UK. And the UK converted a lot of institutions into universities, which Canada hasn't done. Actually I think I remember reading in one of the "Academic Capitalism" books that Canada's a bit of an outlier in terms of things like marketization and privatization (lack of both).

    NZ would be a contrasting example, where as a small country with national control, it's easier to make significant changes. They did some fairly extreme things there (at least in primary/secondary ed) within a period of about 10 to 15 years in the 80s/90s. The system is highly marketized and much more heavily reliant on international students (than Canada in general).

    I think it's more the differences between national/provincial contexts that make it interesting that certain kinds of policy changes are becoming familiar internationally. There is an issue in Canada with unsustainable expansion of universities, but I don't know enough about the UK context to know if anything similar has been going on over time.

    As for the reason...I think I agree with what you're saying--I'm interested in public discourse about education, for this reason. How it s circulated and reiterated in certain ways through media channels, and how these things can influence policymaking.

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