On Friday, Feb. 24, on the heels of much recent debate about post-secondary education policy in Ontario, TVO’s “The Agenda” aired a discussion about the “purpose of the university.”
I found myself frustrated at the set-up for the show, and by the discussion that came out of it; and I want to discuss that frustration because TV shows like this one are part of the ongoing public debate — often occurring in the media — about how universities work, what they should be doing, and for whom.
Firstly, the guests certainly didn’t represent a spectrum of viewpoints that seemed relevant to the issue in the Ontario context. Two of those included on the panel were in the United States, and all the panel members were administrators representing what looks like a narrow demographic slice — there was no-one under 50 years old. Notably in a debate about undergraduate and graduate education in the present and future, there were also no students or recent graduates invited to comment, and no faculty members, only administrators (including University of Toronto’s provost Cheryl Misak, Council of Ontario Universities president and CEO Bonnie Patterson, and McMaster University’s president, Patrick Deane).
Another problem with the panel was a lack of coherent policy perspective, which could have been provided by inviting one of the many strong PSE scholars who reside in Ontario (for example, one of those who spoke at the recent OISE conference on the subject). If U.S. viewpoints are present, why not ask a U.S. researcher of higher education to comment? This exclusion seems odd, given the number of people who could have spoken about the issue. Were any of them invited to participate?
This set-up is important because it helps to explain the discussion that followed, in which there was no mention of the contentious debate about teaching universities in Ontario, or of the Drummond Report, or of the still-unreleased (but leaked) “3x3” paper from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, all of which have been reported on recently by major media sources in Ontario.
Much of the discussion involved the key underlying theme of the value of university education and how this value could and should be best maximized and translated into benefits for individuals and for the larger society. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this central issue is what drives much of the media coverage about universities. In this case it manifested as a focus on whether most students should have a general “liberal arts” education, or more “narrow” professional education that is designed to “train” them for specific kinds of work.
In spite of the economic themes that dominated, a real debate about debt was one of the gaping holes in this discussion of the “value” of university education (only one of the participants raised the issue and it was not taken up). There was little mention of workforce or demographic changes and their implications for young people; the increasing pressure on them in the form of tuition and loans; and the academic job market and its effects on graduate education (other than the provocative question of whether there are “too many PhDs”). This seems even more surprising if we consider the influence of financial factors in students’ decisions to pursue either professional/specialized or general education. Does nothing lie between those two extremes? How are students negotiating this situation?
“The Agenda” host Steve Paiken was definitely going for provocative points, raising the infamous Economist article that questions the value of PhDs, for example, and repeatedly returning to the theme of “value for money” as a concern for universities’ “stakeholders”. Swinging from the very general to the very specific, there was also a discussion of the metrics of university “outcomes”, with assurances that such instruments are under development (but with little question of whether this just reinforces deeper assumptions about education governance, economics, and the quantification of intangible externalities).
A debate about “the university” in general definitely has its place, but for an Ontario audience it would have been more interesting and relevant to frame things in terms of the current issues being raised here and now. I felt the discussion really failed to link larger theoretical problems, like the one about liberal education that kept re-surfacing, with specific and significant changes being proposed to the Ontario system and being debated now by politicians and academics, students and journalists. With different participants and structure I think it would have been much easier for that kind of discussion to happen, since the connections are important and they’re there, waiting to be made.