Alberta atrophies

The University of Alberta recently decided to suspend admission to 20 arts programs. The programs were axed because they had too few students enrolled as majors.

In isolation, this decision could be portrayed as pragmatic and reasonable. Nevertheless, changes taking place at universities in North America can’t be ignored.

Universities used to be fairly unique institutions. Amongst other things, they were expected to ensure creative and intellectual vitality in human society. Now, universities are increasingly businesslike and expected to efficiently serve the economy. This transition, currently in its later stages, is regrettable for
many reasons.

Universities used to ensure that individual students were exposed to a variety of subjects. Today, the aggressive separation of subject matter into different “silos” is one of the most pernicious problems with education.

University students often find themselves stuck in a certain major, unable to branch out into related fields. Conversely, students who desire to study a specific topic within their field can’t find
enough courses to do so. Either way, filling out prerequisites and required credits to form a seemingly random catalogue of completed courses becomes the default strategy.

Perversely, the strict separation of subjects makes it easier to cut individual faculties as student solidarity is reduced through isolation. Students don’t see the value of the programs
on the chopping block because they were largely prevented from engaging with them.

Universities shouldn’t stagnate; they should experiment with things like online courses. Programs with little or no demand should be put up for elimination or integrated into other programs or faculties.

However, these decisions should be made with increased student and faculty consultation. That was one of the major problems with what happened at the University of Alberta — the decision to suspend the programs was made unilaterally.

It’s not clear how much money the University of Alberta will save by eliminating or restructuring the programs it has suspended. Broad cuts are now pre-emptively justified based on limited savings.

The fact that these decisions are made in an authoritarian manner adds insult to injury. Those who desire a vibrant society that honours artistic and intellectual pursuits should resist the new paradigm.

— Journal Editorial Board

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