On Campus

The demise of institutional autonomy?

Debate continues to rage over New Brunswick Action Plan

New Brunswick’s Action Plan for post-secondary education has generated much debate in the province since its release last month. Debate that continues to rage. Many at the province’s four public universities, and faculty groups in particular, say the plan could potentially strip university autonomy.

Ed Doherty, the minister of education has even hinted that he would like to see the University Acts reopened to see if any amendments could be made to further ensure the universities are in line with the governing Liberals “self-sufficiency” plan.

The Action Plan calls for increased cooperation between universities and community colleges with the creation of “institutes of applied learning and training.” The idea is meant to pacify (apparently) opposition to proposals made last fall that would have seen full integration of the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, as well as two of the Universite de Moncton’s campuses, with community colleges to create dreaded “polytechnics.”

The government says it is looking for “financial accountability,” but what it wants is not merely an assurance that public funds are not squaundered, but that public universities are geared toward state goals.

Performance, it appears, will be measured by how well universities meet labour market needs. And on this the critics have a point. As I have argued before, because of the nature of a university education, meeting the demands of the labour market is more than a bit incoherent.

Miriam Jones, the Saint John vice-president of the Association of UNB Teachers, who contributes to the very thorough and interesting blog Living In Interesting times, sums up the objection very nicely:

“Public education does not exist for the business community. Even trade schools: trade schools and all other institutions that offer applied programmes or training still exist for their students. They exist to give their students the credentials, the skills, that they require.

Public education does not exist for industry. It exists for the future workers in industry, but not for industry itself.

. . . Public education certainly does not exist for government. To subsume the social good of public education to the short-term agendas of party politics is beyond reprehensible.”

However, despite the fact I sympathize very much with critics of the Action Plan, I have a few objections.

The idea that public universities are autonomous entities is, at least to some degree, a bit misleading. The founding legislation of most public institutions, including the University of New Brunswick, sets parameters for governance that are more akin to crown corporations than truly autonomous entities incorporated under provincial or federal corporation acts.

While all organizations — for profit, non-profit, crown corps. and universities — are required to meet certain minimal guidelines, state controlled entities are much more limited in how they can govern themselves. While university boards of governors do have sets of by-laws, stipulations in university acts include many elements that would, under other entities, be drawn up independently.

For example, mission statements and the composition of governing boards are beyond the control of universities, and, governments appoint anywhere from a third to a half of board members. Public universities are, from their very founding, limited in the level they can be self-directing. Still, aside from these stipulations, universities have enjoyed relative independence. Sort of.

Since the 1960s, government’s have exercised much control over institutions. Most notably, universities were expected to lower their entrance requirements, with the aim being almost identical to the New Brunswick Action Plan. That is, to meet demand for university educated workers. Of course such goals were often couched in the language of accessibility, but if the feds and province’s alike didn’t consider meeting labour market needs a priority, universities would be much different insitutions than they are.

Today, as university participation has more than tripled, the vast majority of students are careerist and eager for a credential that will propel them ahead in the job market. What many of them want is not so much a university education but job training or a credential from a university. Universities are seen by some as little more than fancy technical colleges. In otherwords, we want polytechnics, but we want don’t want to call them that.

That so many have been disappointed as the under-employment of university grads becomes an increasing part of the public discourse on higher education, governments are attempting to ameliorate the problem by shaping universities even more than they have in the past. New Brunswick is an extreme example, but, no doubt such intrusive measures will become increasingly the norm. As they have become in B.C. and have been in Ontario for more than a decade.

So while the sentiment that universities don’t exist for government is to be appreciated, governments are merely responding to what the public wants: a university education that provides them with meaningful employment. Of course the idea that institutions should be held accountable to whether or not its graduates gain employment, is ridiculous, as the job market is influenced by factors completely unrelated. And of course, if universities are to be the centres of knowledge they claim to be, state control should be limited.

But to reverse the trend requires more than convincing governments to keep their fingers out of the Ivory Tower, it requires a cultural shift in the society more broadly. We have embraced accessibility. We have embraced the idea that universities are equipped to prepare students for the labour market. We are committed to the idea that everyone should earn get a degree. Those who challenge these assumptions are dismissed as elitist.

This is what we wanted, we should not be surprised at the consequences.

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