Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
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To Train or to Educate?
For a fair imitation of a Skinner rat frantically pressing a lever in hopes of getting food pellets, have a look at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s (AUCC) pre-budget submission to the federal government for 2013.
Pre-budget submissions are, in every sense, what they sound like. Various groups and associations, knowing the federal government must write a budget every year, put great effort into letting the feds know what they’d like to see in the budget. The AUCC is pretty sure the only notion that turns the Harper government’s crank when it comes to universities is that universities help create the jobs of tomorrow. So, the AUCC is all about telling the feds that universities help create the jobs of tomorrow.
In this, the association is persistent. It actually submitted two, er, submissions last year with an eye toward this year’s budget. The first was for the Commons finance committee. The second, for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, was more insistent. The AUCC understands that in Ottawa, Flaherty will get you everywhere. Little pun there.
“Canada’s universities put ideas to work for Canadians,” the Flaherty-intendeddocument begins. “We need to compete on our wits to succeed in the global economy,” it continues, and “Canada’s universities help deliver the solutions needed to achieve ongoing prosperity for Canada.”
Subtle. So, Canada’s universities have something to do with work, and the global economy, and prosperity? Yes indeed. “This year, more than one million students are pursuing their first degree,” the document continues. “The kind of experiences they have will have a profound impact on” — their life stories? The depth and variety of the human drama? Silly rabbit! — “Canada’s ability to sustain our quality of life in the decades ahead.”
There are passing hints that universities offer some other, subtler kind of benefit. But if you blink you’ll miss them. “Universities are the hub through which we develop new knowledge, prepare students to be engaged global citizens” — this is all true, and disarmingly altruistic-sounding — “and transfer the creative, innovative and ingenious ideas that will ensure we can compete to win.” Bam. You thought we were getting high-flown there, didn’t you. But have no fear: the proper end of the production of global citizens and creative ideas is national victory in a global competition. Who could think otherwise?
Sometimes the pitch becomes so frank it’s unsettling. “Our vision for a prosperous Canada,” the AUCC says at one point, “continues to be one that leverages our research and innovation through the training of students and the quality of research on our campuses...” I’m afraid I don’t recall the end of that sentence because I got hung up on the mention of “training” students. Perhaps to really get into the spirit of things we could rename Frosh Week as Get Into Harness.
In 2011 in this space I made gentle fun of a quotation from Stephen Harper. “Research leads to discoveries and inventions,” he had said. “That leads to patents that build Canadian businesses and create Canadian jobs, and that makes a greater prosperity for Canadian families and workers. ” The only way to make those sentences true is to insert the word “sometimes” before “leads to patents.” But the sentences appear in the AUCC pre-budget report just as the prime minister spoke them, which means Canada’s universities are eager to repeat back to the big guy a notion of universities’ role within which most of what universitiesactually do has no place.
If universities are thought to exist for the purpose of training students for research that leads to patents so we can compete to win — if, indeed, Canada’s universities are first in line to serve up this vision — then over time, governments will lead the rest of the population by only a step or two in rejecting students who do not care to be trained, research that leads only to understanding, and scholarship for no other purpose than to keep knowledge alive and preserve the university as the bastion of freedom it has been for centuries.
Constant readers of this space will know I am repeating myself. But since I am clearly not changing a lot of minds among the people who push the food-pellet levers, I am content to say once again: explaining what universities actually do is harder than claiming, falsely, that they are efficient job mills. But if we persist in claiming they are job mills, we endanger everything at a university that does not look like a job mill, which is most of a university.
What the AUCC actually requested in its pre-budget submission is not objectionable. Indeed it sounds pretty good. They wanted steadier funding for basic research, a little seed money to promote international research collaboration, and programs to encourage aboriginal participation in postsecondary education. Probably, reading this after the 2013 budget, you will know how those demands fared better than I did when I wrote this before the budget. But the story higher education tells about itself matters, and there is no trustworthy shortcut in telling that story.
Paul Wells is a senior columnist for Maclean’s magazine.
Follow him on Twitter @InklessPW.
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