Conservative governments are pushing a technology-oriented restructuring of post-secondary education. We started on this path (federally) with the rhetoric used by the Martin Liberal government to rationalize investment in education, from ECEC to university levels. They used the language of creating a Canadian labour force that was “globally competitive,” and the Third Way discourse of investing in “human capital” so as to reduce individuals’ dependence on state welfare. However, with the focus on transforming Canada into a “global energy superpower,” and the provincial Conservatives’ fixation on the promotion of extractive resource exports (as well as legitimation of the oil sands, via “investment” in “sustainable development” technologies), this has morphed into a narrower investment focus. Essentially, both levels of government are restructuring education and research funding so as to channel investment toward the development of skills and technologies in the extractive resource sectors, along with a handful of other areas that they consider to be priorities, such as targeted areas of engineering and medical research. (These are often referred to in the USA and Canada as the STEM areas of research: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.)
The federal and provincial Conservatives appear not to understand the difference between technological knowledge and wisdom. One gets the oil out of the Earth. The other tells us whether or not we should, what we should do with it, and what we should do with the revenue. In order to make public policy about the development and distribution of energy, it is important to have a basic understanding of technological options and needs, but essential to have an understanding of ecological and social needs, now and in the future.
In Alberta, it appears that we have a Cabinet—including its Minister of “Enterprise and Advanced Education”—that does not understand what “university” means. A university is “universal” in the sense that it is a place where all forms of knowledge meet, and—at least ideally—inform one another. It is a place where multiple perspectives may be brought to bear on common problems, to serve the public interest. We have moved away from this model, and this function, with ever-increasing specialisation of research and intensified competition for funding among units of the university. We have moved away from a public service orientation that values the work of all members of the university and tries to create optimal conditions for this work, toward a corporate orientation that insulates decision-makers at the top from members of the university community, promotes unproductive competition, disproportionately rewards “star” performers, withdraws resources from the core functions of the university (teaching, research, service), gives only lip-service to interdisciplinarity, and demoralizes and over-works practically everyone.
We need to start again, from the simple but essential question: What is a university for? Closely related is the question: Why is the university (or why should it be) a publicly-funded institution? Also: with current levels of tuition fees, and dependence on “external” funding for research, when does the university cease to be a public institution?
These are not questions that should be answered by a single political party, and certainly not by a political party that was elected to government by only 23 per cent of the province’s electorate. Yet the reality is — thanks to our political institutions — this party now holds the purse strings for post-secondary education (as for all other public services). It is a party that has demonstrated incompetence to manage provincial finances for the last twenty years, and seems determined to remain inside its ideological box under its new leader. The Wild Rose Party is certainly not the alternative; its neo-liberal extremism would have produced an even more destructive and short-sighted budget than the one that was pronounced on March 7, 2013.
Alberta needs serious fiscal reform. The research to demonstrate this has been produced not by petroleum engineers or nanotechnologists, but by people in the very faculties and institutes that the Conservatives deem to be the least useful to Albertans and their future: sociologists, political scientists, economists, historians, and others.
We can’t bring about fiscal reform without political action and political reforms, such as a proportional representation electoral system, the banning of corporate donations to political parties, real freedom of information, and deliberative decision-making institutions. We have been here before. We were here in the early 1990s, when the Klein government inflicted much deeper cuts on public services than we are witnessing today. At that time, there were fight-back campaigns, but efforts to create a province-wide, cross-sectoral coalition did not succeed. The efforts were led by employees and organizers in the public sector, and academics and students based mostly in the Arts. We haven’t mined what we could learn from the 1990s. But we know that we were unable to build and to sustain the solidarities we needed to unseat the Conservatives, and that we did not have in place the necessary political alternative.
The Coalition for Action on Post-Secondary Education started with a budget—a clear attack on the autonomy and resources of post-secondary education. But not all post-secondary education — not equally. Some sectors (especially the engineering and technology sectors) are likely to be winners of an amalgamation process and its effective rechanneling of funding. How can we prevent the divide-and-conquer dynamics that have permitted the Conservatives to push through their restructuring agenda for the last 20 years? How do we mobilize the consciences of a much broader spectrum of university researchers? (And yes, I am talking to you, engineers, medical researchers, scientists, business school professors . . . ) How do we communicate to the public what we do and why it matters to the quality of life, the ecological sustainability, the quality of democracy and citizenship, and the social well-being of our province?
These tasks are daunting, but perhaps we are organizing on more favourable terrain than we were in the 1990s. (Here, too, there is social science thinking and research to do.) A broad-based coalition that includes, but extends well beyond CAPSE will be needed to pull this budget out by its anti-democratic, technocratic, anti-ecological roots, and to plant long-lasting change in Alberta. I am proud of the leadership that is being demonstrated by students and faculty in Arts, Native Studies, Nursing, and Education departments around the province, and by the fewer, but brave individuals based in Medicine, Sciences, Engineering, Business, Law, and other faculties. Let’s even the odds, folks.