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Don’t blame “realities” for Alberta cuts

Smaller budgets for arts and sciences aren’t inevitable


 

University of Alberta students and an instructor examine Edmonton (Chris Bolin)

If you are my age or younger, you probably can’t remember many times when universities weren’t under financial pressure. When I was an undergraduate in Ontario, everyone was talking about underfunding and rising tuition fees. Today, my university in Nova Scotia continues to deal with annual government cuts. Residents of other provinces can, no doubt, fill in their own stories.

The news that the University of Alberta is suspending enrollment in twenty arts programs is, in a sense, no surprise.

There are plenty of complexities here to be sure. U of A keeps reminding people that not very many students will be directly affected by these cuts since most of the programs are small, and some students may be able to get what they need in similar programs. Besides, U of A is cutting science seats too.

Conversely, others have pointed out that some of these programs should be small (it’s unsafe to have large numbers of students in technical theatre classes, for instance), and cutting tiny, low-cost programs like classical languages can’t possibly save much money. Oh, and in science, they are only cutting enrollments, which is not the same as cutting programs.

Administrators always insist there are certain financial realities, U of A calls it “the new economic reality,” that can’t be ignored. That’s the part that makes me mad. These so-called “realities.”

The facile allusion to “realities” makes it seem as though the financial pluses and minuses are unconnected to decisions and choices made by real people. “Don’t blame us,” they imply, “it’s just the reality.” To question them is to question reality, which is to be naive, if not insane.

And of course, in one sense, there are difficult choices to be made. Government funding is being cut, and many arts programs have low enrollment. But government funding cuts are choices in themselves. Less money for universities isn’t an objective reality, it’s a decision by a crass small-minded government and university officials who won’t stand up to the bureaucrats.

Moreover, universities themselves have done everything they can to undermine the status of the very programs they are now cutting by raising tuition fees across the board, by relentlessly positioning university degrees as job credentials, by constantly parroting government rhetoric about the so-called knowledge economy, and by failing to defend the essential purpose of arts education.

This is their playbook: Allow tuitions to rise unchecked. Watch as student debt goes through the roof. Meanwhile, tell students that a degree is all about getting a job. Inadequately challenge the false narrative that arts grads don’t get good jobs. Soon, students stay away from the arts in droves. Finally, slash arts programs, all the while lamenting this unfortunate “reality.”

Universities are meant to be wide ranging so that students can experience the broadest possible range of perspectives and modes of reasoning. To be sure, even I wouldn’t maintain that every program should survive forever. But we are now reaching the stage where the cuts are coming faster and faster across the country. UPEI just noted a sharp decline in arts enrolment. Taken alone, each set will be justifiable, and considered prudent under the circumstances. But eventually the cuts will add up to institutions that can no longer be called universities in any meaningful sense.

And that will be a sad reality, indeed.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.


 

Don’t blame “realities” for Alberta cuts

  1. Interesting article. I agree with the fundamental concern that the rhetoric used matters, and as a holder of two liberal arts/humanities degrees myself, I also firmly believe in the value and usefulness of such education. I think the case needs to be made for their support, regularly and with vigour.

    While I appreciate the cause for which you are rallying, I don’t feel that hyperbolic language such as “universities themselves have done everything they can to undermine the status of the very programs they are now cutting” is helpful. I don’t believe it, and don’t think it’s true. A case might be made for some of the reasons you articulate; perhaps there has been too much emphasis on the connection to jobs (students might have something to say about that) and I’m always open to vehement advocacy of liberal and fine art, social science, and humanities education. To be honest, I’m not sure where you’re going with your criticism of ‘knowledge economy’ is going…perhaps that the term is becoming trite? As well, your logic of tuition increases ‘across the board’ somehow contributing to undermining programs just doesn’t make any sense any way you slice it (also, fyi: any tuition increase in Alberta is capped by law at inflation.)

    But to claim that University administrations across Canada are actively undermining the programs at their own institutions is, if anything, divisive and serves to channel energy and attention away from where it is better directed and more sorely needed. This is not so say that university administrations are beyond reproach or criticism. By all means, people should think and question critically, but do it constructively. Get involved and make sure that the leaders of our colleges and Universities are have the benefit of your concerns, your input and ideas, and even your expectations– as a member of the University community, as a citizen, and as a taxpayer.

    Because these are public universities and colleges that we’re talking about. As taxpayers, we’ve agreed that it’s in our best interests, collectively, to support the advancement of knowledge, creativity, and innovation through publicly-funded universities and colleges. I believe deeply in the many different positive roles our PSE institutions can continue to play, and would like to see our governments follow through accordingly.

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