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.