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.