Put Education on the Ballot

We need institutions where critical inquiry can be freely pursued by scholars and cultivated among students. The future of NL depends on it.

Education has barely figured in what’s passing for an election campaign around here. But it’s not because support for our schools, university and college is such a no-brainer that we can take it for granted.

Quite the opposite. The leaders of the two largest parties just snubbed the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association. Meanwhile, Memorial University, the institution I know best, is in dire straits. Many politicians—including participants in an all-party forum organized by student and faculty unions—credit MUN for getting them where they are. We need much more substance from most of them about how they’ll ensure the next generation of students gets the same opportunities.

Cuts to Memorial’s operating funds over the recent austerity years now amount to an 18% budget reduction. The promised benefits of the new Core Science Building aside, the Province has effectively ended direct investment for deferred maintenance of university infrastructure, which now stands at around $445 million.

The results are obvious to anyone who works or studies at MUN. Most visibly, many buildings are no longer fit for purpose—or perhaps better: #NotFitforLearning. Classrooms and labs are outdated. Walls are patched with duct-tape and tarps to keep the asbestos in. Hose-and-plastic sheeting rig-ups are legion, a seemingly permanent mitigation measure for the water that leaks into our buildings, with all the attendant worries.

No one should wonder if they are being put in harm’s way by showing up to class.

Less immediately visible but even more consequential, Memorial is in the throes of faculty and staff attrition. Last year, to shed salary obligations, MUN ran a Voluntary Retirement Programme (VRP) for qualifying employees. In the aftermath, both administrative support and academic staff complements have shrunk while precarious employment is on the rise.

For now, the university’s teachers and students are mainly being asked to do more with less. But we will soon be compelled to do less with less. Certain areas—Humanities and Social Sciences among them—are particularly vulnerable, as replacement hires come nowhere near to VRP losses. The faculties are being asked to cut again and again from budgets made up almost entirely of salaries.

What is a university?

Facing a similar scenario, former University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan remarked, before nearly losing her job for her pains: “A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university. … Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.”

We are at risk of losing our provincial university. The Province has already reached into the high school curriculum and eliminated history and geography as stand-alone subjects in favour of generic “social studies.” How long till someone decides that we don’t need a history or geography department at MUN either? Or that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t need the option of studying Spanish or classics, philosophy or anthropology?

Not everyone can afford to move to another province for the degree program they want. Others don’t find their academic home until after they arrive at university. If entire areas of study are missing from this province’s only university, it amounts to saying that NL students don’t deserve the same educational opportunities as other Canadians.

We live in a time of derision for many degrees—the list changes but the arts are always overrepresented—and even university itself. The political provenance of this discourse, however, whether in Canada or the US, should make us ask: what’s in it for higher education’s detractors? What might the rest of us lose if they get their way?

What good is a university?

As Megan Gail Coles observes, the domination of our politics by a “collective fear of poverty” hasn’t always led us to the best choices, or the freest ones. In itself, that’s a strong and only partly instrumentalist argument to insist that anyone who wants our vote must offer unstinting commitment to public education.

Starting with the instrumentalism: In a province that needs people, a strong university is a prime way to attract national and international students and scholars, who will contribute in myriad ways to social, political and economic life here. And education is an economic multiplier. The return on spending significantly outstrips the initial investment. That calculation cannot be reduced to industry-specific targets.

At Memorial, as in most Canadian universities, the academic disciplines coexist with professional degree programmes. But if the latter offer a more direct route to a job—it’s pretty clear what you’re going to do with a BN or a BEng, less so with a BA or a BSc—it’s a mistake to dismiss the academic disciplines as “useless” or “fluff.” Applied fields depend on the academic disciplines for the foundational education of their students.

They also need the curiosity-driven research that enables unanticipated applications in engineering, medicine, politics, and elsewhere. And both “pure” and “applied” fields—this clear distinction is itself false—need the protection of academic freedom that lets scholars take risks in their research and teaching. Above all is the risk of being wrong, or getting an answer that funders don’t like.

Our economy will change in unforeseeable ways, as anyone who trained for the last tech bubble will know. Instead of preordaining a narrow range of jobs, we need to teach people the ability to think and learn as such, educating them broadly in literacy, numeracy, and critical analysis.

But I’m flirting with entrapment. To justify higher education in terms of financial “return on investment” is to talk a language that hides, as Joan Scott puts it, how “critical advances in science, technology, social science, and the arts and humanities cannot be assessed in purely market terms; they enrich the quality of the lives … even [of] those who do not go to school.”

That language is also at odds with the most important condition for the refashioned future that Coles and others have called for: our full engagement as citizens, prepared to hold our so-called leaders to account for the collective good.

Re-making the Demos

When I first heard that history and geography were being expelled from our high schools, I suspected a scheme to axe a few teachers. I now fear something worse.

In Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Wendy Brown argues that the hollowing out of public education is one front in a war on democracy. Brown’s analysis is far ranging and extends to the thoroughgoing marketization of life in universities and elsewhere, with the attendant reconfiguration of possibilities for being. (Here’s one example: smart scholars are now described as “entrepreneurial,” rewarded for cannily promoting their “brand” through social media, and “gaming” their metrics on Google Scholar. Meanwhile, in a career market that counts research “outputs” alone, only losers waste valuable research time on undergraduate teaching—to say nothing of collegiate governance.)

Making broad education accessible to the many, says Brown, is one condition for a “democratic public and all that such a public represents at its best: informed passion, respectful deliberation, aspirational sovereignty, sharp containment of powers that would overrule or undermine it.”

In a post-truth world, it is tempting to argue that we need universities to provide us with the facts that will cut through the politics of illusion. And certainly, we need more good research, empirical and interpretive, underpinned by academic freedom.

But it’s precisely because “the facts” are not a self-evident route to the truth that we need institutions where critical inquiry can be freely pursued by scholars and cultivated among students. Our democracy depends on it.

Robin Whitaker is President of MUNFA, the union representing academic staff at Memorial University, and a faculty member in MUN’s anthropology department. The views expressed here are her own.

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