Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/12/2014 (2773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a report issued a few weeks ago on the state of post-secondary education in Canada, the Conference Board of Canada concluded that the sector "functions much like a 'franchise' business, with the provincial government acting as franchisor and the institutions as franchisees."
Hardly a ringing endorsement for a key sector of our society that was once regarded for its independence of governance with the freedom to set its own research and teaching priorities, its multiple offerings tailored to different community needs and a place to foster judgment and critical thinking in its students.
Now, it appears the role of higher education is to follow, like any other franchise operation, the uniform decisions of provincial governments -- decisions too often driven by political goals and not by the interests of higher education
After reading the recent Manitoba throne speech, this franchising label became even more salient. The overall approach is now on how colleges and universities can better meet government goals of producing targeted skill requirements as seen by provincial bureaucrats, not on how our institutions, each in their own distinctive ways, provide graduates who can think and act to help generate economic development while providing civic leadership. This is particularly important in a time of increasing challenges as we deal with epidemic disease, climate change and extremes of terrorism and when we desperately need more innovative and creative answers.
As well, there was no mention of improving support for international education opportunities for Manitoba students to increase their global awareness and no mention of an increase in graduate education support. As the current government knows, increasing the numbers of grad students is a prescription for promoting a knowledge-based economy. Also missing was how the province can assist universities in cultivating and encouraging critically engaged citizenship among their students and throughout the community as a whole.
But, of course, those simple measures would take more public support, and the throne speech gives no indication of any form of financial investment to assist the universities to upgrade or improve the quality of their education.
The reality is that our system is deteriorating under a formula that puts handcuffs on the capacity of universities to survive, let alone flourish. Tuitions are nearly the lowest in the country, and present restrictions on grants (contrary to previous promises) do not take into account the growth in the number of students per institution, thus creating major imbalances in the level of support between institutions.
There isn't a university in the province that doesn't face a serious disparity between costs and revenue requiring an annual rite of curtailing programs and limiting the scope of what can be done to respond to learning needs. Make no mistake this financial straitjacket has its negative consequences. To put it simply: How do you compete when funding for arts or science degrees in institutions bordering on our province is on average $2,000 to $3,000 more per student than in Manitoba?
The government throne speech response was to herald a cancellation of interest on student loans as a major gesture to access for students. My answer is that the money would be much better spent in financial assistance delivered directly by the universities to low-income students than an across-the-board subsidy to students at every income level and that will have limited impact on enabling low-income students to go to university.
I spent 10 years at the University of Winnipeg working on the issue of access. We were pioneers in providing direct support for low-income, aboriginal and new Canadian students, including students coming out of our foster-care systems with our opportunity fund. More than 1,000 young men and women on low income became students, yet, there is nothing in the throne speech announcements that helps to scale up that process.
The presumed light at the end of the tunnel is a review set up among educational officials on higher education.
The operative word here is among education officials.
No public involvement, transparency, serious comparative research, discussion with community learning organizations, business, labour or aboriginal leadership seems to be involved. This is an inside job conducted with those people who are beholden to the present system. We can and must do better than that if we are to redefine the contemporary role of higher education.
Let's challenge the franchise model. It's time for university leadership, supported by independent-minded university boards and the general community to reassert a different approach.
Lloyd Axworthy is the former president of the University of Winnipeg and is currently the chancellor of St. Paul's University College at the University of Waterloo.