O to be back in the good old days, when economism was just a theoretical mistake of mechanical Marxists. The assumptions about the relationship between economy and society underlying the Liberal Government’s “Differentiation” policy for postsecondary education would once have been pilloried by the anti-communist right as philistine economic reductionism. Unless successfully challenged, this policy threatens to not only concentrate power over what academic programs are offered where and to whom in the Provincial Ministry of Colleges, Universities, and Training, but to almost completely subordinate those programs to market forces and metrics.
Before I begin to examine the document, three points to keep in mind to avoid misunderstanding my argument.
1. I accept the obvious, that in a capitalist economy people require paying jobs in order to survive. I also understand that the capitalist economy, crisis-ridden though it may be, is not about to be replaced with a democratic socialist alternative anytime soon. Thus, the need for paid employment will persist, and students, understandably, will be concerned with the problem of whether courses of study will lead to paid work. At the same time, I know from talking to thousands of students (and parents) over a fifteen year academic career (eight of which were spent as Head of Department), that even in very tough economic times, students are rarely exclusively focussed on “employability.” Students retain interests in the intrinsic value of ideas, methods, and disciplines, want careers that are meaningful and not only jobs that are paid. They are also savvy enough to understand (as politicians and bureaucrats are not, or rarely) that being employable and being trained for some specific job are different things. Just because one studies a discipline that cultivates general intellectual and critical capacities rather than certain job-specific skills does not mean one will not find work. Moreover, the types and amount of work available in a capitalist economy are not functions of what people study, but what sorts of labour it is profitable to employ. For the past five years labour markets have been soft not because of anything universities and colleges are doing or not doing, but because of the generalized economic crisis that began on Wall Street. If Canadian governments are really concerned about youth unemployment (currently running at just over 14%), they should be finding ways to force corporations to invest the cash they have been hoarding and to make illegal the grossly exploitative “unpaid internships” into which graduates are increasingly forced.
2. I accept the need for institutional accountability for the fiscal decisions that they make. My argument is not that university administrations or individual programs and departments should be handed blank cheques to spend as they please with no reporting responsibilities. Being accountable for public monies spent is required by any form of democratic social organization and is compatible with the institutional autonomy universities require if they are to fulfill their teaching and research missions. What is incompatible with both democratic social organization and institutional autonomy is the application of metrics extrinsic to academic disciplines (employment levels in fields specifically linked to courses of academic study, commodifiability, etc.,) as the criteria according to which decisions on allowable program offerings will be made. If the government is concerned with university expenditure, it should examine carefully the ways in which higher proportions of operating revenue are being spent on administrative positions and capital investments not directly related to the teaching and research missions of the university.
3. Finally, I accept that social reality is dynamic, and that universities, their departments, and configurations of disciplines must change or risk irrelevance in a changing reality. At the same time, not everything in the natural and social universes (the objects of university study) changes at all times and in all respects. There are permanent features and problems of human reality that require and justify on going study by traditional disciplines (philosophy, literature, history, but also pure scientific research in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth). Moreover, where the questions are what new programs to add, what new interdisciplinary clusters to cultivate, what new means of disseminating ideas and communicating across space are to be pursued, it should be academics themselves deliberating about and making the decisions. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom does not mean institutional stasis or a right to be irrelevant. It means being allowed to shape institutional reality according to the mission of academia, which is to study all that needs to be studied for the sake of understanding and improving the worlds we inhabit, free from the pressure to chase trends and serve the interests of the money-appropriating class.
With these qualifications in mind, let us now turn to the document itself.
The document begins with the argument that postsecondary institutions must temper their expectations for funding growth in light of the “challenging fiscal environment” in Ontario as a consequence of the 2008 economic crisis.(p.5) Instead of drawing the inference that an economic system that is regularly plunged into crisis by its own basic dynamics might itself be in need of transformation, the document paints the crisis as a bedrock reality to which the province’s institutions and citizens must adapt.
The argument is thus rooted in a general contradiction of capitalist social theory. Economic forces are generated by the way in which economic agents (firms and individuals) act and interact. These interactions do generate objective forces, but the forces only appear as natural necessities because the class interests and ruling value system upon which the economic structure rests are never exposed or called into question. The only interests ever called into question are the interests of people who make demands on the collective wealth the economy produces, who are continually enjoined to “adapt to new realities” and then forced to comply if they do not go along willingly. It is thus both affirmed and denied that public policy follows from political choices– affirmed in the case of all social institutions but denied in the case of economic forces.
The consequence is that there is only ever one choice made available by ruling political parties: change all other institutions to preserve the economic system, even when it is acknowledged that the economic system is not working. When is it ever said by governments: the economic crisis is starving public institutions of needed funds, therefore we need to change the economic system? Instead it accepts the economic system as a given and forces the public institutions to change.
The demands are always hidden behind the language of consultation and collaboration. “Over time, the government will align its policies, and funding levers with Ontario’s Differentiation Policy Framework to steer the system in ways that align with provincial priorities while respecting the autonomy and supporting the strengths of our institutions. The government’s goals, combined with a collaborative approach to differentiation, will help facilitate the achievement of targeted quality outcomes.” (p. 6, emphasis added) Institutional autonomy and a collaborative approach are asserted, but their reality is denied by the way in which the policy is going to be implemented. Levers are used to move heavy objects. The university system is treated as a weighty anachronism; money will be used to move it to where the government wants it to be. The Differentiation framework will “steer the system,” so that it aligns with “provincial priorities.” If institutions are being moved by levers and steered to serve government priorities, then they are not autonomous (literally, following the law of their own nature).
Now, the steering and aligning and leveraging might be acceptable if the priorities of the government were acceptable. But when we turn to examine those priorities it becomes very clear that they rest upon a conflation of the outcomes of education with employment in the field studied. The Frameworks Vision sees colleges and universities as drivers of “creativity, innovation, knowledge, and community engagement.”(p. 7) However, the only ways in which these 4 values are cashed out is in terms of employment outcomes. “Postsecondary education is an important driver of social and economic development. The government recognizes the valuable contributions that colleges and universities make towards job creation, enhanced productivity, and the vitality of communities and regions throughout the province.” Community vitality remains undefined, while job creation and enhanced productivity are explicated in terms of money-value growth for the economy as a whole and for individual workers: “Graduates of postsecondary education … have improved labour market outcomes … including higher employment rates and greater earning levels over time. This is especially significant to ensuring Ontario’s social and economic development.”(p.7) What ‘social development” means apart from economic development (money-value growth) is not explained.
Nor are the “personal aspirations” and the values of engaged citizenship ever spelled out, even though they are listed as outcomes of “quality teaching.”(p.7) When we turn to the metrics the government will utilise to evaluate ‘quality teaching,’ not a single one of them has anything to do with any specific capacity developed through study at a college or a university. “As part of forming an institution’s profile and measuring progress in this component, the ministry will use the following system-wide metrics for all institutions: National survey of Student Engagement results (University specific), Student Satisfaction Survey (college specific), Graduation rates, Retention rates, Number of Students enrolled in a co-op program, number of on-line course registrants, programs, and courses at an institution.”(p.14) The two surveys are nothing more than customer satisfaction exercises that treat students as passive buyers of “education.” They are not measurements of whether students have grown intellectually through their studies or what they think it means to have grown (or not) intellectually. One can grow intellectually and be dissatisfied, because intellectual growth in any particular discipline and in general demands confronting and overcoming one’s own initial limitations, a process which is often resented by students, at least in the short term. Graduation rates and retention rates would seem to focus more closely on learning, but if one thinks more carefully about them, they are aggregate figures which do not tell anyone anything about whether one has been changed through the successful completion of a university degree or college program. In general, a good education will enable students to grow in breadth and depth of understanding, theoretically and practically, to critically evaluate the effects their transformative relationships with the natural and social worlds have, will expand their capacity to appreciate complexity, nuance, and contradiction, to enable them to see themselves as members of larger wholes to which they ought to contribute as a constituent elements of their individual good, and most importantly, the confidence to stand up and oppose policies and social forces which manifestly damage the natural and social worlds to which we all belong. The degree to which these cognitive and practical life-capacities are developed or not in an educational institution is indicated through how one subsequently lives one’s life. Not all graduates experience such growth, while others study briefly but quit the institution to continue their education by other means. Hence, retention and graduation rates are not necessarily measurements of a good education. The inclusion of the number of on-line courses as a measure of excellent teaching is transparently absurd and not in need of critical comment.
To argue against these government mandated metrics is not to argue that teaching in particular courses and disciplines should not or cannot be evaluated. Teaching already is evaluated– imperfectly, to be sure– at the end of every class, by every student who chooses to fill in the now ubiquitous course evaluation forms. When these forms are well-designed they can provide valuable feedback to instructors about strategies that worked and strategies that did not work, and can thus serve a as productive basis for genuine improvement of teaching practice. The important point here is that these surveys, though they use generic questions, are filled out for particular courses, and can be discussed with peers who have a shared understanding of what it is like to teach in this or that discipline, intimate knowledge of the art of teaching specific subject matter not available to government bureaucrats.
The metrics to be applied to research are somewhat better in that in focussing on the number of tri-council grants, publications, and citations, the values for each score will be connected to disciplinary expertise through the peer review and scholarly discussion process. (p.15) At the same time, publication and citation alone are not necessary and sufficient conditions of research excellence. Large numbers of citations can be indicative of fashion as much as lasting contribution, when it is presumably lasting contribution to the discipline (and by extension to whatever aspects of natural and social reality the disciplines studies) that interests the government. As for grants, while applications are peer reviewed, the organizations that distribute them are not free of political influence, especially since the Conservatives secured a majority government. They have pursued a more and more aggressive posture towards NSERC and SSHRC in particular, pushing them towards funding commercializable research at the expense of basic research in the natural sciences and socially critical work in the arts and humanities. That a project is not funded does not therefore mean it was not worthy of funding; it could equally well mean it fell outside of the political parameters imposed on the agency.
As troubling as the problems these quantitative metrics are, they are not new. Grants and peer reviewed publishing have always been more or less hostage to fashion and political power. What is new, at least in Ontario and in my experience, is the final category discussed, that of Program Offerings. Of most concern are the first and third metrics, “Concentration of enrolment at universities by program major …” and “Institutions’ system share of enrollment by program major …” (p. 15) When interpreted in light of the goals of the differentiation framework, which include “build[ing] on and help[ing] to focus the well-established strengths of Ontario colleges and universities while avoiding unnecessary duplication,” it is hard to conclude that this metric is anything other than a tool to justify program cuts, especially at smaller schools where enrollment in certain disciplines may be low. If “differentiation” means supporting existing strengths and avoiding unnecessary duplication, and strengths are measured by enrolments, what purpose could such a metric serve other than to justify the closure of small programs? As with the metrics for teaching and research, the quantitative information cannot capture the quality of the program, but it can yield information about cost. And so, when the final tally comes in and smaller schools with smaller programs are asked to define their traditional strengths, they will point to the areas of highest enrolment in order to give themselves the best chance at securing as much provincial money as possible, and the position of disciplines with low enrolment (even if of high quality internally and of supreme social importance externally) will be even more precarious than ever. If this is not the outcome the government seeks, it needs to explain what exactly its intentions are.
If as I suspect and fear the real aim of this exercise is to encourage (force?) a significant reduction in the range of programs offered at Ontario universities, then it is the university institution itself that is at risk. As its name implies, the university is not a collection of professional programs and niche degrees, its mission is to comprehensively preserve and extend human knowledge and practice across the full range of disciplinary approaches to the natural, social, and personal worlds that comprise human reality. For example, The University of Windsor Act (1962) which created my home institution states that the university will ”provide facilities for instruction in all branches of higher learning.” It says nothing about supporting the ”government’s vision and priorities for higher education.”(p.9). The two goals cannot be made compatible, because government priorities change as governments change. The branches of higher learning represent permanent human intellectual dispositions towards the realty we inhabit.
While there is thus much to object to in the policy document, its public release provides an occasion for Ontario academics to build common cause against the potential threat it poses. The first step needs to be the construction of a coherent alternative; not retreat to an abstract ivory tower but advance towards a unified explanation of the social value of academic work and why institutional autonomy and academic freedom (with regard to teaching, research, and program offerings) are necessary conditions for its realization and enjoyment, not just by academics, but all Ontarians.