Brace for reforming impact

AMS vice-president of university affairs outlines the possible changes that could drastically affect post-secondary educational institutions

Picture, for a moment, a deserted university campus. Classrooms sit empty, doors are locked and boarded up and the usual comforting hustle and bustle of campus sidewalks is replaced with a barren silence.

During a speech at the Partners in Higher Education Dinner in April 2012, Patrick Deane (President of McMaster University and former vice-president Academic of Queen’s) asked guests to contemplate this very scenario: the image of a vacant, lifeless, abandoned campus.

The thought was, to me and many guests, jarring and eerie, tempered with an underlying sense of loss.

Deane was describing this bleak landscape in the context of the rise of virtualized education, and the impact on how society constructs and values higher learning.

He asked the audience, “If the vision does seem dystopian, it is important to ask why this is the case. What do we feel is lost — or will be lost — in the migration of students to the web, in this twenty-first century reprise of the industrial revolution?”

These are the critical questions as post-secondary education in Ontario sits on the brink of fundamental and likely irrevocable change.

The current post-secondary system is financially unsustainable and struggling to position itself within a digital age and changing global economy. With the highest tuition in the country, Ontario students can’t afford to attend university for the sake of higher learning alone.

With information readily available through Wikipedia and open courseware like MITx (where anyone can register for non-credit online courses), they don’t need to.

The death of the university as a place of education for education’s sake is seemingly upon us.

In June 2012, the Ontario government released a discussion paper, entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge.” The paper offered proposals including compressing four-year degrees to three-year degrees, expanding online learning, and increasing job readiness of graduates by expanding experiential education like co-op and entrepreneurship during degree programs.

The ensuing discourse has been dominated by frequent reference to innovation, productivity and the job readiness of graduates.

Queen’s has already embraced “blended learning,” where, in theory, technology is used to enhance the in-person classroom experience. Although reputable research suggests that “blended learning” can, when done correctly, improve a student’s learning experience, it is also no secret that cutting costs is part of the appeal to universities.

Queen’s recently signed a memorandum of understanding with St. Lawrence College and is exploring opportunities for students to obtain a supplemental credential concurrently or consecutively to their Queen’s degree.

Independently, some of these proposals may appeal to students and serve to address pertinent trends. Despite these considerations, I am nevertheless drawn back to Deane’s reference to the dystopian image of a deserted university.

The government discussion paper, and the subsequent discourse across the province, is distinctly removed from the concept of a university as a place of higher learning. The discussion has been couched instead within the context of productivity, labour markets, and repositioning Ontario’s economic advantage.

Students are increasingly viewed and defined as revenue streams, while universities seek to identify learning outcomes that map onto labour market demands, so that graduates can achieve maximum job readiness.

Perhaps universities, including Queen’s, have already evolved beyond the quaint (or antiquated) meaning of “university,” from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, or ‘community of teachers and learners.’ Universities have become businesses of learning, not institutions of learning with attendant business functions.

The increased corporatization of operations and leadership structures is a testament to this shift.

In a Vancouver Sun article in May 2012, titled “Universities have been taken over by administrators,” University of Calgary professor Barry Cooper reflected on the overarching shift from the university as a place of learning to the university as a business.

He suggested that professors value discovery and insight, viewing universities as a means to that end, while administrators view universities “as an end in itself and teaching and research are just the means.”

The post-secondary education sector has been confronted with a fundamental identity crisis. Universities have always had links to careers and employment and only the most impractical among us would deny the relevance of these links. But it is short-sighted to remise the
reform of post-secondary education solely on labour market demands.

Universities exist as necessary sites of discovery and intellectual exchange that benefit society as a whole. A balance must be struck that preserves the University as a community of teachers and learners, as an end in itself.

The dialogue and decisions surrounding the future of post-secondary education are being framed by the wrong set of priorities.

At a time of such critical mass change, communities of teachers and learners across the province must lead the philosophical debate about the place and meaning of education in our society.

Student unions, faculty boards, provincial student advocacy groups and University Senates across Ontario must shape the dialogue. And as we forge ahead, we must ask ourselves: when confronted with the image of a deserted university, what are we at risk of losing?

Mira Dineen is the AMS vice-president of university affairs.

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