Stop treating universities like they’re retail outlets

Universities should bring young people into the disciplines and rigours of an examined life, into the habits of careful thinking

Doug SikkemaWhile at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), I got to know a history teacher who was a passionate and self-proclaimed Marxist. She loved to talk about the inequality and injustices that plagued the city, the province, the country and, well, the cosmos.

I asked her one morning if she wouldn’t mind splitting her paycheque with me. From all accounts, she was doing quite well, making around $90,000 a year, while I was paying to teach a full load during my first placement. Would she share the wealth?

No, she wouldn’t. I never got a cent.

I think back to this moment when I think of the current problems facing Canada’s higher education landscape. Despite the social justice papers that speckle their hallways and the numerous lectures on the horrors of wage inequality, most universities seem incapable of recognizing the pernicious hypocrisy of being increasingly built on the backs of precariously employed sessional instructors, graduate students and adjuncts.

What gives?

When push comes to shove, practices always betray principles. This is true for individuals and institutions. But what’s different is that for the university today, such hiring practices are completely in accord with the economic principles that have usurped educational principles. Academic research is now quantified into ‘publishable units,’ students are thought to be ‘primary customers,’ and knowledge is just one of several ‘consumable goods.’

Because of the mission drift of our higher education institutions, non-tenured educators and labour unions have a much more difficult time arguing their case for fair wages and secure positions. Cheap employment increases profits and efficiencies, publication outputs and brand recognition go up as you free up tenured researchers to crank out their publishable units in the hopes they also land in journals with good branding. And with investments in sport facilities, concert halls, rock-climbing walls, and food courts, the student-consumers have almost never been so happy (except during strikes): so why bother about freelance pedagogues hanging on to their jobs by the skin of their teeth?

The tenuous teacher, while economically sensible, is educationally ludicrous. As are so many other things in this arrangement: massive seminar classes; open online courses that transcend human limits of time and space; scads of ‘academics’ only one or two years outside of their undergraduate degrees who shoulder the lion’s share of academic teaching; and esoteric nonsense published in niche journals communicating almost nothing to almost no one.

This is not to say that the economy or the government have no role to play in universities. They do. But neither one provides a sound orientation or set of guiding principles for a place of education and what it should be. Transmitting knowledge, wisdom and – dare I say – virtue, to the next generation are increasingly the accidental byproducts of a system now understood to equip individuals for careers. Our universities and colleges, then, are increasingly institutions of the market and for the market, of the state and for the state.

But what can we do?

Perhaps we need a public discussion around just what our universities are for. I would argue they are primarily institutions unique in their ability to bring young people into the disciplines and rigours of an examined life, into the habits of careful thinking, into the long conversations that precede us about all that is true, good and beautiful – not to mention what is devious, evil and ugly – in this strange world. To speak in terms of salary prospects is not befitting such institutions – and definitely not befitting something as marvellous as we humans seem to be.

Boards, senates, professors and students need to remember just why a university is not a Costco. This will require ending our enslavement to the language of the market. Further, it will mean beginning the work of ending our insatiable desire for more and more wealth, individually and institutionally. Finally, we need academic governing bodies that understand this, and can steward such principled missions with integrity and vigilance.

Only then do the precariously-employed educators worth their salt even have a leg to stand on in justifying why their security is, indeed, a truly educational good.

Doug Sikkema is senior researcher for Cardus and the managing editor of Comment.


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