Since this is my last post for 2012, I’ve decided to do something rather predictable and pick out what I think are five significant issues from Canadian PSE in 2012. Here they are, in no particular order:
1: Printemps érable–Québec student movement and strike.
2012 was a year of significant student activism around the world. In Québec, the protests began over a year ago, as a response to tuition increases announced by the provincial Liberal government. An “unlimited strike” (tagged #GGI on Twitter) was called by student groups in February, 2012. The protests had significant political effect, receiving international attention and generating debate about many of the key issues in PSE policy in Canada. There was a broader reaction from Québec citizens when Bill 78 was passed by the provincial government on May 18; the protests spread as residents in Montréal engaged in the rambunctious “Casseroles” events. Québec’s student movement also built connections internationally to other activist efforts such as those in Chile, the U.K. (where tuition protests have been ongoing, in response to PSE marketization and tuition increases), Europe (in the “era of austerity”), the Middle East, and the United States (in particular the Occupy movement, which has found a home on many campuses).
2: Branding Canada–international student recruitment.
Canada is one of the few countries (if not the only one) that has no national ministry or department for education, and many have bemoaned the resultant lack of national strategy and policy in this area. But Canadian university leaders have begun banding together, since they now have a definite shared object: the international student “market” (particularly so-called BRIC nations–Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Canada has finally jumped into the fray in which Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K. have been duking it out for quite some time already. A key part of this discussion has been about building a Canadian national “brand” for recruiting international students, which is tied to the commodification of education as an “export”. The federal government went so far as to convene an Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy in August, which suggested doubling international student enrolment; in lieu of an education minister, the report was presented by the Minister of International Trade. International students are frequently viewed in economic terms, since they pay higher tuition fees, as well as providing (in the long term) “human capital”, which is of course connected to “innovation”. Canada has also made changes to immigration laws, to allow students to stay in the country more easily after graduation.
3: “Death of evidence” & science activism.
2012 was a year in which scientists spoke out loudly and publicly about the growing problems with governance of science (and research in general) in Canada. Following hard on the heels of changes to the census in 2011, came the loss of jobs from the NRC, changes to funding allocations within NSERC, and the funding cuts to multiple long-term scientific projects. Canada has also generated an international reputation for disregarding the environment. The “war on science” critique linked cuts to environmental science (including the Experimental Lakes Area) and the “muzzling” of scientists who want to communicate with media, with the big picture (summed up nicely by David Suzuki) wherein Canada has lost “face” internationally because of its regressive stance on crucial issues, and where policy decisions are based on ideology rather than research. As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, education research has also been cut, which seems like part of the same trend. Through this convergence of critique, the very basis of governance has come under question; scientists highlighted this by holding a protest on Parliament Hill mourning the “Death of Evidence”.
4: Online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
This topic was inescapable for anyone following trends in higher education over the past year. The bulk of the MOOC discussion has been emanating from the United States, probably because of the nature of the changes to higher education that have happened there. For example, there’s much greater privatization and marketization of universities and generally the cost for students is higher, so the anxiety about tuition and student debt (and degree outcomes) is intense. However, MOOCs are included on this list not just because the discussion about their “disruptive” potential has spread northward to Canada (and universities are beginning to jump onto the bandwagon), but also because MOOCs in their current incarnation appear to have been theorised and practiced here first. I’m not going to make any predictions about where the trend of big-league MOOCs is going–others have covered that ground, ad nauseum–but it certainly isn’t going away, especially given the investments now being made by elite universities.
5: Mental health on campus.
This issue has been building for a long time, but its visibility has increased exponentially in the past two years after a series of student deaths at Queen’s University and the subsequent report produced there (here is a PDF of one response). More universities seem to be paying attention, probably not because this is a “bolt from the blue” but because it highlights something they’ve been seeing in the long-term (though much of the media coverage has focused on “puppies” as a remedy). Similarly, the post I wrote about a year ago, about graduate students and mental health, received a lot of attention and was said to have “struck a nerve” (one that’s still twitching now). In the coming years universities will need to find ways of navigating the choppy waters of an issue that is serious (and carries stigma) yet regularly dismissed and de-politicized as merely a phase through which students must pass, in a context where medicating young people for their problems (rather than seeking the root causes) is “par for the course”.
That’s all from me. I wish you all a cheerful and recuperative holiday season, and I’ll see you in the new year!
Today’s post is about education in the United States — not higher education, but the ongoing (yes, 100+ years!) wrangle over public primary and secondary education reform.
This month, a new Gates Foundation-funded research project was highlighted by Diane Ravitch in her blog. The research involves the use of “Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)” bracelets on students to measure, physiologically, their engagement in learning activities. While I was already aware that the Gates Foundation has been in pursuit of ways to improve the U.S. public education system — often through the use of technology — this latest item is so odd that I thought, at first glance, that it might be something from The Onion (at first the only article I could find was in the UK Daily Mail). But then I found an article on the Washington Post website (and Ravitch’s blog posts), and realized the study was serious.
In past posts I’ve already written about teaching the “ineffable”, but the extremity of this experiment highlights one of mass education’s perpetual dilemmas: how (and why) do we quantify the process of education when we don’t even know, really, how to “measure” the result? The Gates-funded experiment reflects more than just a flawed approach to assessing pedagogy. It demonstrates the potential conflation of pedagogy and management, in a context where the rhetoric of “accountability” and “efficiency” promises solutions to structural funding problems in education (at every level).
Though this research is meant to be “cutting-edge”, a number of ironic historical antecedents sprang to my mind. Firstly of course, the idea of “Galvanic” bracelets sounds like something from the age of 18th century electrical experimentation. Perhaps next we’ll see the suggestion that we try passing electric currents through teachers to make them less boring for the students (or they could wear these).
The GSR idea is also reminiscent of the late 19th- and early 20th-century concern with measurement of (physical) phenomena for maximum efficiency and productivity, and “scientific management”, which was closely related to production-line techniques of Fordism. Lastly, the bizarre attempt to map the physiological responses of children to specific mental states, based on technologically-mediated measurement, seems to revert to the same behaviourist models that have regularly been favoured in large-scale education initiatives (including standardized educational testing) since the early 20th century. Rather than seeking new ideas to solve old problems, it seems the Gates Foundation is funding further variations on several popular and long-running themes.
Shortly after the article appeared in the Washington Post, The Gates Foundation changed the wording of the research description, insisting that the experiment is “not related to teacher evaluation” — even though the Clemson University project seemed to have been connected with something called the “Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team.” And even in the altered version, the words “measure [student] engagement physiologically” are still key. The question of why we would want or need to do this is not sufficiently answered.
In related news, the aforementioned Diane Ravitch — who was Assistant Secretary of Education for George H. W. Bush and for Bill Clinton, and is now a vocal critic of standardized testing — was booted from The Brookings Institution after criticising Bush-era “education reform” in a new book. (She also criticized the bracelet idea through other posts in her blog, including here and here). Ravitch notes that the break with Brookings happened shortly after she criticised Mitt Romney’s education plan in two different blog posts.
If Ravitch’s critiques are being dismissed, why would wacky-looking research from the Gates Foundation be given legitimacy? One reason is that Bill Gates and other wealthy entrepreneurs have a now-popular argument on their side. Like almost everyone else, they think education isn’t “working”, and because this society views wealth as a signifier of success and thus lends a broader credibility to the wealthy, such individuals possess both the means and the influence to put personal beliefs (and critiques) into practice — even if they’re not really experts on education.
Massive education schemes implemented on a grand scale have never been driven solely by “scientific” (educational) research — not in the U.S. and probably not anywhere else, either — and certainly there is reams of research on pedagogy that’s been produced over the years, much of it ignored. We should be asking why some knowledge receives so much serious attention while other research is ignored, and we should be looking to the past to help find an understanding of this. The search for replicable, standardizable link between the external/physical/”objective” and the internal/mental/”subjective” should not be the only or even the primary approach to evaluating pedagogy, yet because this meshes well with existing systems and stands to benefit large “players”, the agenda is pursued.
In some ways the role played by huge “venture philanthropy” organizations such as the Gates Foundation simply represents another form of plutocracy, one that Canadians should watch carefully given the federal government’s current penchant for cutting basic research and statistics, and also the attacks on credibility of academic researchers. We’ll only “know” what’s available to us, and it may only be coming from those who can afford to produce it, and who often command a premium for their troubles.
There has been so much going on in Canadian post-secondary education over the past few months, that while my blog posts have focused on other things, it’s time to do a bit of a round-up of the major “happenings” in what is called – in the Twittersphere – #CdnPSE.
Top of the news is the ongoing Quebec students’ anti-tuition “strike”, which began in February (protests began earlier, in 2011). The students have joined a global movement of sorts, since similar protests have happened in Europe and in South America; and their activities are beginning to receive international media attention (the Twitter hashtag for the ongoing events is #ggi). The strike was prompted by the province’s announcement in late 2010 that tuition would rise by $325 per year over the next 5 years (a 75% increase). Quebec currently has the least expensive tuition in Canada, and students have been fully willing to hit the streets in defence of this lower-cost education. University leaders and politicians continue to make the argument that PSE quality cannot be maintained without raising tuition, and that low tuition merely subsidizes education of the upper-middle and wealthier classes, rather than providing accessibility for the underprivileged.
The Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC) signed a copyright licensing agreement with Access Copyright. There has been much criticism of the new arrangement, which contains an increase from under $4 to about $26 per full-time student per year, wrapping into the fee what was formerly an extra charge per copied page for coursepack copying. Canadian copyright expert Michael Geist has argued that the deal is over-priced and irrationally restrictive.
York University, after announcing that a partnership was in the works with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) (a think-tank funded by Jim Balsillie of RIM), had to scrap these plans when its faculty rejected the arrangement citing concerns about academic freedom. The arrangement with CIGI would have created 10 research chairs in international law (as well as graduate student positions), but the Osgoode Hall faculty council voted it down by 34 to 7. York, along with Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, had been threatened with censure by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) for its proposed venture with CIGI.
Back in the summer of 2011, Brazil announced it would fund 75,000 scholarshipsfor students to study overseas (in STEM fields only), known as “Science Without Borders.” Canada has acted quickly to secure part of this bountiful student-market for itself. On April 24 a large delegation of Canadian university presidents travelled to Brazil on a trip designed to cultivate lucrative ties between the two nations, and ultimately to recruit more Brazilian students. Brazil is seen as a country with a burgeoning middle class (it’s part of the so-called BRIC nations), unlike other countries long described as “developed” but now presenting sapped markets for international post-secondary students and other economic partnerships.
A recent international comparative study has revealed that Canada’s tenure-track and tenured professors are apparently the best paid in the world. Some people think this is a good thing, since salaries are absurdly low in many other countries where PSE systems have been marketized and academic labour has been destabilized. But others see it as a sign that faculty are over-paid and under-productive, and some have tried to pit faculty salaries against student tuition (and critiqued pensions in the same way) which seems like a kind of “generational warfare” approach. Interestingly, that same argument is being used to position Quebec’s striking students as “entitled” for demanding that their tuition be kept low as it was for previous generations.
More Canadian PSE tidbits…
- On April 4, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and technology released its report on PSE accessibility in Canada.
- Ontario students had their own sit-in on April 5 at Minister Glen Murray’s office, protesting another 5% tuition increase for the upcoming academic year.
- The Ontario “Sunshine list” of public sector salaries over $100,000 was released, providing more fodder for critiques of university employees’ salaries.
- Canadian student visa rules were loosened so that international graduate students can now work in their chosen fields before graduation, potentially earning extra funding for themselves and developing Canadian careers.
- Concordia University was dinged $2 million as a penalty for over-generous severance packages dished out to former senior administrators.
- McMaster University has been chided by the Hamilton Spectator for an ongoing lack of “accountability, transparency and disclosure”, particularly about the details of former university president Peter George’s contract.
By now, many of you may have seen or heard about the (infamous) Washington Post column of March 23 in which author David C. Levy argued that most professors should teach more because currently, they don’t put in enough work hours.
Those of you working in universities already know that there’s a significant leap in logic required to get from “professors are not efficient enough” (they don’t provide us “value for money”) to “professors should teach more”.
“What about the other work academics do?” might be the first question that occurs. Indeed, partway through Levy’s article research work falls off the agenda, becoming part of the spare (wasted!) hours that academics spend not teaching. Administration or “service” work doesn’t count. And as for the hours spent preparing classes, this is an argument swiftly dismissed by Levy, who maintains that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth”. I’d argue that Levy’s “30-week academic year” is the myth we should be dismissing.
The “big picture” for this column is illustrated early on in Levy’s argument: he’s framing the “inefficiency” of professors against the rising costs of education, particularly to students and families through high tuition fees, which have led to increased debt burdens. This high cost is positioned alongside the individual economic necessity of having a post-secondary credential, as expressed by the highest levels of political authority (President Obama) through policy programs and endorsements.
The response to this column was immediate and generally very negative, on Twitter and also in many of the comments on the blog (and in quite a few longer written responses; here, and here, including one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times). There was even one post arguing that managerial logic of efficiency simply wasn’t being applied in the right way by Levy in his opinion piece.
For some time now I’ve been paying attention to the way universities and academic work are depicted in the media. During my undergraduate degree I became interested in discourse analysis and the political economy of media, and the politics and policies affecting education. Looking at the media coverage of education debates has been a natural extension of those interests (in fact, I’ll be presenting on this subject at this year’s Canadian Communication Association conference). Over time I’ve written multiple blog posts and essays about media coverage of universities, and media analysis is also a part of my dissertation.
I think that’s why I find myself disappointed but unsurprised by the kind of shallow parody provided by Levy’s column, mostly because I follow the higher education news and I see a lot of pretty frustrating stuff being passed off as serious/informed analysis. I understand if that sounds high-handed, but I think most professors, for example, could provide better commentary and/or analysis than David C. Levy – and would probably be responsible enough to do so (as several of them have done already).
But most people working in PSE aren’t really contributing to the larger discussion in a visible way. When the arguments are informing public conversation and political debate, we need to pay attention to, and provide a response for, what’s being said. I think the often shallow and ideologically polarized (and polarizing) media coverage about higher education shows us that facts will not be enough to make our argument heard; there are so many contextual factors working against us that we need more.
As one retort not only to the Levy article but to all the simplistic and reductionist coverage of PSE issues, Lee Skallerup Bessette proposed a “DayofHigherEd” for today, Monday April 2nd, 2012. All academics – including those off the tenure track – are encouraged to blog, tweet, comment and generally communicate to “outside” audiences about the work they do during an academic day (Twitter hashtag: #DayOfHigherEd).
As part of my contribution on Twitter today, I’ve set up a series of timed tweets of my past blog posts relating to relevant PSE issues. We need to relate the misconception that “most professors don’t work hard enough” (and other stereotypes) to larger issues in PSE, and I think “Day of Higher Ed” could be a great way for us to start opening up that discussion.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland last week that he has a grand plan for Canada, and it sounds like part of this plan will include an overhaul of the Canadian R&D policy and funding structures. Changes are likely to be based on the recent R&D review “Innovation Canada: A call to action” (which I wrote about back in October) and there could be significant implications for Canada’s Tri-Council funding agencies (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR).
Another aspect of this plan is Bill C-11, which has been called the “Canadian SOPA,” although it’s been subject to a relatively limited amount of coverage and debate. The bill has been criticized for its treatment of digital locks (or “technological protection measures”), following the U.S. DMCA that created a series of contradictions and problems for users trying to access legally purchased digital materials. Critics fear that Canadians will soon be dealing with the same problems, since C-11 is built on the same framework of assumptions about digital content.
Back in December the renowned Canadian art school, NSCAD University, faced once again the threat of consolidation with Dalhousie University for the sake of financial efficiency. Nova Scotia’s provincial government has postponed talk of mergers for the moment, and will cover the university’s deficit of $2.4 million under the proviso that NSCAD makes cuts to its budget, potentially through collaboration with other institutions.
On Wednesday, February 1st the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) will be rallying thousands of students across the country for their National Day of Action against rising tuition fees. In Ontario the CFS protests take direct aim at the provincial Liberal government’s recent tuition rebate policy, which has suffered critiques from all sides since it was announced during the provincial election campaign leading up to October 6. The CFS has accused Dalton McGuinty of breaking promises by restricting the criteria for access to the rebate (and for cutting funds in other areas), while Minister Glen Murray has insisted that the policy details were outlined clearly all along.
Tuition has also been an issue south of the border in the United States, where in his State of the Union address last week President Barack Obama made the rather unusual announcement that he is putting higher education “on notice.” The President intimated that if U.S. colleges could not rein in rampant tuition fees, punitive policy tools would be employed (such as withdrawal of government funding from offending institutions). While it’s a step forward that Obama has publicly tackled the issue of student debt burdens and their connection to high tuition, it seems unlikely that this kind of policy would actually cause reductions to costs for students.
The recent “indefinite postponement” of SOPA has meant that researchers’ attention is now directed to the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699) which would eliminate open access by citizens to federally funded research. The bill is supported by academic publishers, who have themselves been the recipients of more frequent and vicious critiques as the costs of access to academic knowledge continue to spiral upwards. Scientists are particularly concerned, given the potential effects of restricted information flows on the creation and use of new scientific knowledge. Mathematician Timothy Gowers has called for an international ban on publisher Elsevier for its support of both SOPA and the Research Works Act, and researchers are now signing up for the boycott via an international petition.
A trans-Atlantic case involving oral history and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continues to raise questions about the limits of confidentiality and academic freedom, and international law. Researchers at Boston College in the United States are struggling to maintain protection of interviews with former IRA members, arguing that revealing their identities would risk their lives and prevent more informants from participating. But aggrieved family members of victims want the information made available so that those who committed crimes can be charged.
After tuition increases of roughly 60% at English universities, what do this year’s undergraduate applications looks like? The Guardian UK reported an 8% drop in UK applicants overall and a 9.9% reduction in England, the largest drop in several decades. Though part of this can be attributed to a bubble of applications the previous year, the numbers are still raising concerns over accessibility of postsecondary education in the wake of significant policy reforms. An independent commission backed by the Sutton Trust will be monitoring how increased fees and student debt affect students; it’s probable that ongoing effects of the changes on students’ lives cannot be “captured” in terms of fee increases vs. enrollments of low-income students.
Over the past month in Canada, academic freedom has been a topic of debate triggered partly by a new statement adopted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in late October. In a National Post column on November 9, George Jonas critiqued the AUCC’s statement for emphasizing the interests of institutions and administrators over those of free academic inquiry; Paul Davidson responded in a letter to the Post. In a previous column, Jonas had argued that the academic environment allows even less freedom of speech than other spheres of life, and that universities are bastions of “politically correct conformity.” Meanwhile the Canadian Association of University Teachers sent a critical letter in response to the AUCC (who responded in turn), and University of Toronto’s David Naylor published his own reaction on the U of T’s website, simultaneously announcing his resignation from the AUCC board.
On a somewhat related note, after some high-profile cases of academic fraud the Tri Council (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) has recently announced that it will in future release the names of those who have committed “serious breaches” of its policies (rather than keeping the names confidential). Other details including the nature of the violation, and the institution at which it took place, will also be made available.
Doctoral students from overseas can now more easily stay in Canada due to a policy change. Up to 1,000 doctoral students per year will be accepted as skilled workers through the Federal Skilled Worker Program. This policy continues the extension of past efforts designed to encourage international graduates to remain in Canada and seek employment (and citizenship) after their degrees are complete. Such students are seen as a valuable commodity — “human capital” — and as such a welcome addition to the citizenry, contributing to the construction of a competitive “knowledge economy.”
Speaking of “human capital,” Canada’s indigenous “education gap” has been brought into the spotlight and framed as primarily an economic issue by a report from a Saskatchewan economist. But calling indigenous people a “natural resource,” and comparing their economic value to the value of the province’s potash industry, seems to me like an inappropriate way of characterizing their roles in Canada’s social, political, and economic landscapes. Surely there are ways of discussing indigenous education issues without reverting to this kind of reductionist logic (would there not still be a moral and ethical problem even if the economic “cost” were lower?).
Internationally, in the UK the Conservative government’s policy agenda for higher education and reactions to it from the public and the university sector continue to dominate the news. A key theme is that of the perpetuation and exacerbation of existing socioeconomic inequalities by policies involving marketization (competition between universities) and privatization (tuition increases and cuts to teaching grants). There have been large protests by students and university teachers over public-sector pension issues and tuition fee hikes. The university admissions process has also come under fire for further privileging the privileged (private school students).
While it seems that England’s universities have finally begun the process of price differentiation that was the government’s initial goal when it set out to construct a “market” for universities, this has only occurred after policy “tweaks” were introduced that tied additional student places to lower university tuition levels, generating further criticism about creating a “two-tier system.” Two Scottish universities, meanwhile, have taken the opportunity to raise their tuition to the maximum possible level (though this only applies to students from the rest of the UK).
Lastly the UK government is now invoking the issue of “visa abuse” by international students as the rationale behind another series of policy changes. The changes have been critiqued as restrictive and costly both to universities, which will not be able to earn tuition from international students nor lure in the best students; and to the national economy, due to the loss of (again!) “human capital” in a global market for “talent.”
In the United States last month, a violent incident occurred at UC Davis when police used pepper spray on peaceful protesters, hitting them at point-blank range. The video of this action — which went viral — prompted calls for the resignation of UC Davis’ Chancellor Linda Katehi. Instead, Katehi apologized publicly and UC President Mark G. Yudof has “independent investigation of police protocol,” though already the validity of the inquiry is being questioned due to “conflicts of interest.” The events at UC Davis have been connected to the larger “Occupy Movement” and to the treatment of activists by police and other security forces, and the Occupy Movement is tied to higher education issues in the United States through calls to end the burden of student loan debt, and through critiques of the current academic job market and the tenuous position of adjunct faculty.
The “teaching vs. research in universities” debate was lively in Canada this month after the Globe and Mail published an editorial entitled “Canadian universities must reform or perish.” The authors place undergraduate teaching firmly at the centre of the university’s responsibilities, decrying the systemic valuing of research work and suggesting that funding for research and teaching should be separated and the latter made competitive. The Globe is contributing to a debate that cuts to the heart of questions about the “purpose” or ideal goals for the university, which is why it’s not surprising that the editorial triggered quite a few responses from bloggers and also one from OCUFA. I added my two cents as well.
In one of October’s many provincial elections, Ontario kept its Liberal government, now forming a minority (though they’re only one seat short of a majority). The Progressive Conservatives kept opposition status with the NDP coming in third. This means the OLP will need to work hard to follow through on their promised tuition grant for full-time, “dependent” undergraduate students, which they planned to implement by January. Throughout Canada, provincial election results seemed to reflect little desire for a change to government: in Prince Edward Island the Liberals stayed put, while the NDP won a fourth term in Manitoba and the Progressive Conservatives kept their position in Newfoundland.
October was rankings month, beginning with the (UK) Times Higher Education international rankings on October 5; the University of Toronto was the only Canadian university to make it into the top 20 (ranking 19th), while UBC was 22nd and McGill was in 28th position. The ranking methodology was adjusted again this year, raising the perennial questions about the nature of rankings, their validity and reliability, and their function in a global university market. Nationally, the Globe and Mail Canadian University Report was released, followed by the Macleans rankings. To all these we can add the QS World University Rankings that appeared back in September.
- “The Canadian Council on Learning released its last report, “What is the Future of Learning in Canada?,” in which it called for more national standards and research, and more cohesion for Canada’s education policies; of course, not everyone agreed with these recommendations.
- The ongoing debate about innovation and R&D in Canada was stoked by a report released recently, which triggered a spate of articles and blog posts commenting on the reports (and their relation to previous reports and policies!).
- Canada has assembled a panel to begin the process of developing an international education strategy.
- Undergraduate enrollment has reached 1 million in Canada.
- The AUCC has adopted a new statement on academic freedom that was received critically in some quarters.
- Lastly, from the Canadian blog Hook and Eye comes a truly fabulous post on how we feel about being graded.
A new panel on research and development (R&D) and innovation led by Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of OpenText Corp., has produced a report entitled “Innovation Canada: A call to action.” The 6-member panel has recommended “a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council.”
I think the report is interesting not only because of its potential influence on changes to the Canadian research landscape, but also because what’s being reiterated is in many ways the same story that has been told about Canadian R&D for over 50 years.
The evident goal of the panel’s proposals is to facilitate the “triple helix” of university-industry-government relations (Benner & Sandström, 2000; Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000). One example is the recommended creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council, which “would be an arm’s-length funding agency to help entrepreneurs bring ideas to the marketplace.” So the report fits well with the federal government’s Science and Technology (S&T) policy document from 2007, which takes as its aim the construction of a Canadian knowledge infrastructure that integrates creation of human capital (i.e. a well-trained workforce) with the production of “innovation” through links between academic and business stakeholders.
Of course, the concept of “innovation” is imagined and translated in very specific ways. Peter MacKinnon invokes this logic when he states, “innovation drives productivity growth, which in turn enables Canada to compete globally and maintain our standard of living.” For this reason the “innovation problem” becomes a thorn in Canada’s side, and is by now taken as a given. What’s also a given is that the conversation about innovation continues, even in a self-conscious manner, without policy ever “solving” Canada’s problem. Canada does not “innovate”; its businesses do not invest in R&D, and its research institutes and universities fail to collaborate with industry. Therefore Canada will always fall behind its competitors.
Similar threads of critique have continued through decades of panels, commissions, and reports, some of them government-sponsored and others externally produced by universities, companies, and think-tanks. Past examples include the Glassco Commission of 1962, which criticized the NRC for lack of R&D collaboration with industry (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, pp. 12-14), and the Lamontaigne Commission of 1967-1977 which advocated for “permanent steps [to] be taken to bridge the gap between the academic and industrial sectors” (1968-77, vol. 2, p. 521, cited in Atkinson-Grosjean, House & Fisher, 2001, p.13).
To me it seems there’s something of a paradox in the fact that the government is expected to provide a solution to the problem of lack of private-sector innovation. One of the perennial questions from critics is: why do companies not invest in the R&D side in Canada? Could it be the “branch-plant economy,” the historical emphasis on manufacturing and natural resources, or some flaw in the national psyche? Whatever it is, the assumed role for governments is to provide the most hospitable environment possible for private R&D activities. Which leads to another major critique — that government investments in R&D never live up to their imagined potential in Canada. The argument is epitomized in Carol Goar’s comment that “for roughly 30 years, Ottawa has been pouring taxpayers’ dollars into Canada’s “innovation gap” — and achieving precious little.” Perpetual disappointment tends to be blamed on the private sector problem, or on the government for producing poor policy or trying to alter the market.
Every “innovation” is built on incremental discovery, but the notion of “discovery” itself is one we should consider carefully. What does it mean to “discover” something? What does mean for something to be “innovative”? Innovation policy deals with the economics of knowledge, where knowledge is assumed to be something that can and should be “economized” in this way. When the word “knowledge” appears in this context it’s clear that certain kinds of knowledge are (assumed to be) more closely related to “innovation” than others. What then does it mean to “discover” something that cannot be (immediately, obviously) economized? The parallels with critiques of education and its “outcomes” are not coincidental.
These are questions I’m not equipped to answer — but I do believe that “innovation” and “knowledge,” like “creativity,” are slippery words subject to narrow interpretations when convenient. When it comes to implementation, “innovation” will no longer be a rhetorical abstraction; it will be instrumentalized in some particular way. For this reason the language of policy is important; it tells us something about the way these difficult concepts are being implicitly defined, and how they will be realized in practice.
This month saw a number of articles and blog posts on the theme of academic publishing, or rather, the failure and corruption of academic publishing as an industry and the need for its reform. This issue was raised critically by UK journalist George Monbiot in a column last month.
Because academics rely on journals for career advancement, this is a crucial issue. Young academics are particularly dependent on the publishing system for career advancement (I’ve written about this in the past). If bigger “players” in the postsecondary world begin to take up the cause, we may see implementation of (some of) the radical changes that are being proposed. Already academic librarians have taken up the cause, citing among other issues the egregious costs of journals and shrinking budgets for library materials. Now, Princeton University has adopted a policy of Open Access that “will prevent researchers from giving the copyright of scholarly articles to journal publishers (PDF), except in certain cases where a waiver may be granted.”
Another theme of critique in the news has been that of the economic value of higher education, one of the ongoing public debates in an era of rising tuition, increased government spending on PSE, and economic instability. While the question of what universities add to the economy is hotly debated, critiques of student debt are clearly necessary, given the relationship between debt and larger economic crises and the ways in which postsecondary systems are being expanded often through reliance on (increasingly complex) student loan programs. I would argue that the assessment of educational value primarily in terms of individual benefits such as jobs and lifetime earnings brings its own theoretical and practical problems.
Canadian tidbits: University enrollment in Canada has reached an all-time high in 2011. Statistics Canada released the salary data for full-time academic staff in 2010-2011. University campuses have experienced beginning-of-year “copyright chaos” after opting out of the new Access Copyright tariff. And lastly, Canadians are heading for political overload with multiple provincial elections coming up in October, including PEI, Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon, and Ontario (my summary of the Ontario election platforms is here).
International Tidbits: The elite Sciences Po university in France has an accessibility initiative for lower-income students that’s succeeding, and they’re matching their peers academically. In the UK, a (male) ex-student of the LSE Gender Institute at the London School of Economics is using anti-discrimination law to sue for…discrimination, based on his claim that gender studies is biased against men. An Australian report released this month indicates that many young academics would like to leave the country due to unsatisfactory working conditions in the universities. UK mathematicians have responded to ongoing policy changes in higher education with a letter to the Prime Minister. In New Zealand the “Voluntary Student Membership bill” or VSM has passed, which expected to have a serious effect on the funding and autonomy of student associations.
Each month here at Speculative Diction I provide a short update on some of the latest post-secondary education news from Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
First up, in Canada earlier this month Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to announce the winners of the 2011-2012 Vanier Graduate Scholarships (PhD awards each worth $50,000 per year for three years). McMaster landed 6 scholarships while the University of Toronto received the most awards (28). Some commentators have suggested that the announcement was part of a long-term strategy to win Hamiltonian support for the federal Conservatives.
Pre-election campaign announcements have begun in Ontario, including several in the past month from Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty. The incumbent Liberals plan to extend the interest-free period on student loans to one year for graduates who take jobs with non-profit organisations, and they have announced changes to credit check requirements for OSAP (Ontario student loans). Hudak’s plan involves reducing the amount of funding available to international students, while increasing access to OSAP for middle-class students.
Nationally, Statistics Canada reports that university completion rates for “first generation” students (those who are first in their families to attend university) have increased, a development that analyst Martin Turcotte attributes partly to a general rise in female enrollments over time. In politics, federal NDP leader Jack Layton’s death on August 22 was mourned throughout the country by those of all political stripes.
The biggest event in UK postsecondary education this month was the release of A-Level results and the university placement process that followed, called “clearing.” This year, an unprecedented 200,000 students will miss out on entry to university due to a “crunch” in available student spots. One reason for the bulge in applicants was that many students were trying to avoid the tuition fee hikes that will come into effect in 2012.
Universities in Scotland are now planning to charge up to £9,000 fees to students from England; lawyers have argued that jacking up tuition in this way would violate human rights laws, and the Scottish House of Lords is now attempting to make the increases illegal. Under the proposed increases Scottish students would continue to enjoy free higher education, as would those from the European Union.
Also in the UK, with impeccable timing, the Office for National Statistics reports that the pay premium has fallen for undergraduate degrees, a development that some have blamed on the recession, while others link it to the increase in postsecondary graduates over time.
After the budget crisis in the United States was resolved in early August, Pell grants have been saved (for the moment) but graduate students will face an increased “burden” in the form of unsubsidised student loans.
New Zealand’s parliament has passed the Student Loan Scheme Bill, which is designed to make it easier for the government to collect loan money from overseas residents. It aims to use this legislation to take aim at “serious [loan] defaulters”, many of whom live and work outside the country. New Zealand’s government is also considering changing the process of visa approval for international students, proposing that students’ visa approval be linked to the “quality” level of the institution the plan to attend.