“How Our Universities Can Compete” 2: Let’s Imagine

There has been other important news at the University of Alberta today — though there hasn’t been a peep or a Tweet about it from the University administration. In the latest world university rankings from QS, officially out today, two units at the University of Alberta have made it into the top 50 of universities worldwide in their fields. One of them is the Faculty of Pharmacy. The other is a department housed in the Faculty of Arts.

Let’s think about that, shall we?

In 2009-2010, the department in question was told, along with all other departments in the Faculty of Arts, that it had to cut its already very limited departmental operating budget by 50%. The department in question had no choice but to pull its phones from the wall.

The Faculty has been subject to extremely damaging cuts since, with the cuts last year leading to the loss of many support staff and the closing of faculty positions. Our bark has been “tempest-tost,” and the news today, though on the face of it good, shows us the dilemma: How can we, in the face of the Government’s devastating cuts to postsecondary education in its budget of March 7th, do anything other than dwindle, peak, and pine, and recede from the very accomplishments that make possible today’s news?

In the weekend’s Journal, Kathleen Lowrey (Anthropology) asked Albertans to understand the game of “let’s pretend” that the Government is playing with Albertans, as those who survive in various facets of the public sector struggle to continue doing, on Fumes, the work they were already doing on Not Enough, because they care about the people affected by their work. Let’s play a related game, the game of Let’s Imagine.

Imagine where this department might rank if it had not been subject to cuts but had been instead the beneficiary, along with other departments in Arts, of investment.

Imagine what its faculty members would be achieving, along with other faculty members in Arts, if the Government valued the Arts in such a way as to nurture us.

What work might we be doing for the public good that we cannot now do because we lack, in so many forms, the necessary support?

We lack support staff, lost in the reorganization last year.

We lack research time, for which the Faculty stopped offering internal support a few years ago.

We lack the time to bring the innovations in our research to bear as fully as we want to upon our teaching as time pressures produced by other lacks converge.

And we lack colleagues to teach alongside us and join us in the research through which the dynamic potential of this Faculty might know no end. (Our colleagues are retiring without being replaced.)

This logic applies, of course, across the entire institution. Where might all units at the University of Alberta be with the appropriate investment?

Just a couple of years ago, the University claimed that it wanted to be amongst the “Top 20” in the world by 2020. As I have noted repeatedly, if you look closely at the rankings of the universities that are actually in the Top 20 more often than not their Faculties of Arts outrank the institutions as a whole. And so today’s news is distinctly bittersweet. It confirms that the Faculty of Arts has the potential to help the University as a whole achieve the ambition that the Government’s cuts compel the University to abandon. For at the very moment in which Canada should be investing in its postsecondary institutions, as Provost Carl Amrhein says in this morning’s University Affairs, what is the Government of Alberta doing? It’s pulling the lifecord that sustains us out of the wall.

There is another irony to today’s news. On Monday Albertans received confirmation that the Government is directing funding away from postsecondary institutions, to the tune of $147 million, so that it can fund an institute for research that it can “commercialize.” The Journal reported that the cost of funding that institute in its first year will be about $160 million. The rerouting of funds is thus obvious, no matter what claims the Government may make about where the $160 million strictly speaking comes from. One hundred and forty-seven million dollars is being directed away from institutions that would usually determine, through internal processes, how public funds for postsecondary education and academic research are to be spent, and directed to an institute whose research mandate will be dictated, as the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education has declared, “by the Market.” (See earlier post on that issue here.)

Let’s be clear: the direction of funds away from individual institutions to an institute for commercializing research is a direction of funds away from those units within Alberta’s postsecondary institutions that do non-commercializable research. Pharmacy will do well under the Government’s new scheme, for as the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education has made clear the Government’s plans for that institute centrally involve US Big Pharma. The Government’s choice will have its greatest negative implications for the other Faculty that today scored so well in the QS world university rankings. 

And the implications of this redirection of funds are already been felt, with great pain, at other Faculties of Arts across the province. Mount Royal University will be holding a wake for its many closing programs on May 17th. Most of those programs are in Arts.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 3.04.28 PMToday’s news may be about one department in only one of the province’s Faculties of Arts, but it should give us all some sense of what this Government, with its devastation of public goods in its budget of March 7th, is doing to the province as a whole: undermining our promise, and taking away what might have been. How do universities compete internationally? By being given the funds necessary to do their work to the best of their ability. If only the Government would stop playing its game of “Let’s Pretend,” and play that other, far superior game of “Let’s Imagine.” Let’s imagine what Alberta’s postsecondary institutions might be — and might have been — with the appropriate Government investment. You can hold a wake for what is being killed off. But how do you mourn what does not exist and never will because a Government hasn’t had or does not have the foresight, courage, and imagination to bring it into being?

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6 Responses to “How Our Universities Can Compete” 2: Let’s Imagine

  1. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    U of A’s EFS (at 37) came in ahead of MIT’s (at 40)… but run that new funding strategy by me again? 😉 Great post.

  2. Cressida Heyes says:

    Congratulations to EFS. Rankings are in general a troubling thing, but isn’t it paradoxical that we are exhorted to do well in them, and then when we do, it suddenly doesn’t seem to matter? Useful exposé!

  3. Julie Rak says:

    If we had phones, just think of what EFS (and other departments) could do!

  4. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Depressingly, it’s not just Alberta and it’s not just Arts: basic science in all of Canada is also in trouble.


  5. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    (Certain kinds of) applied science, though, will likely do just fine in the Alberta of the future:


    • Arts Squared says:

      The specifics: “Last week, two days before CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, Oxford University opened a new geoscience laboratory, named after its sponsor, Shell. Among its roles is helping to find and develop new sources of fossil fuel (6). . . . In the US and Canada universities go further: David Lynch, dean of engineering at the University of Alberta, appears in advertisements by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, whose purpose is to justify and normalise tar sands extraction (8).”

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