The case for publicly funded universities | Graham Cox

This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue of the journal Academic Matters. All told, Canadian public universities are massive employers of students, teachers, researchers, librarians, academic and research support technicians, academic support workers (custodians, building services, food services, grounds and building maintenance), apprentices, councillors, utility workers, administrators, clerical workers, bartenders, security guards, and parking staff. Together, all of these workers maintain a space that fosters the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

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Reprinted with permission from Academic Matters.

Universities are complex public systems embedded in the heart of our communities. By shear size, they can be larger than smaller municipalities, have more physical infrastructure than a city, and provide a comprehensive array of public services.

All told, Canadian public universities are massive employers of students, teachers, researchers, librarians, academic and research support technicians, academic support workers (custodians, building services, food services, grounds and building maintenance), apprentices, councillors, utility workers, administrators, clerical workers, bartenders, security guards, and parking staff. Together, all of these workers maintain a space that fosters the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

A functioning university system should provide inclusive spaces, welcoming to the broader community. Academics need supportive environments so they can ask the hard questions required to advance academic (and social) interests. Students depend on these supportive environments to develop and expand their understanding of themselves and the world—and sometimes even the universe—around them.

In Ontario, as in many other jurisdictions, public universities provide a distinct and important academic experience. Unlike many K-12 or trades colleges, a university education is supposed to provide an organic process that immerses students within an active process of advanced research, analysis, and discovery, not just routine memorization.

Academic research is the foundation for the rest of the research community (primarily state and industry research) and allows for the development of many of the scientific and cultural advancements produced for the public.

Unfortunately, the Ontario government has been neglecting the university as a space for true academic work for years. (Neo)Liberal government funding policies have ignored the fundamental importance of the academy and its unique role in advancing knowledge for the benefit of society. Successive governments have introduced policy that prioritizes outcomes that can be commercialized. This approach negates the historic role of the academy—one in which the search for knowledge has inherent value for society as a whole and not just the narrow commercial interest.

In the latest round of university funding model changes, the government has re-imagined the funding formula as a tool to further corporate trends. The structure of the formula compels universities to shift their priorities and resources to reflect current fads in management policy and short-term labour market goals. This new model is focused on cost minimization, commercial research subsidization, and skills development for new workers to support profit generation at “Ontario” companies. The essential and unique experience of academic research and study as a space for curiosity-driven knowledge generation has been all but abandoned—except in promotional rhetoric.

Remaking the Ontario funding framework

Funding priorities set by government and university administrators have far-reaching impacts on the form, function, and focus of academic programs. If funding is focused on basic research, students learn in a supportive environment where free thought reigns. If funding is focused, as it increasingly has been, on the short-term exploitation of research results for profit, then students learn in an environment where true academic freedom is discouraged if it does not advance those goals.

Universities should provide an environment where students are taught how to think critically and creatively, not focus on teaching a narrow set of skills currently deemed to be in high demand in the workforce. Students need to develop methods of critical analysis, so that they are equipped to begin trying to solve some of society’s more complex problems. Those who defend the academy understand its social and economic benefit—that it produces the minds and knowledge able to deal with the future’s known (and as yet unknown) problems and invent needed solutions. This requires prioritizing funding basic, curiosity-driven research.

Why then is the government changing the model through which Ontario’s universities are funded? Their motivation seems to be embedded in two pieces of rhetoric: 1) that the existing structures of funding were old and 2) that the existing structures of funding were overly complicated. Given that universities themselves are old and complex, this hardly seems to justify such a fundamental shift. But, if one digs deeper, the true motivation is revealed: reforming universities so that they run more like corpo-rations and are structured to prioritize the interests of for-profit businesses—instead of as public services.

The current provincial Liberal government’s attempts to shoe-horn market-based indicators into a public funding program simply furthers the marketization of access of the university system started by the federal Liberal government in the 1990s. The result of federal reforms—and their provincial knock-on effects—have led to sky-rocketing tuition fees, an undermining of basic academic research, an under-valuing of the social sciences and humanities, an explicit focus on commercialization of (even core) research programs, and the promotion of short-term “entrepreneurial” values among students. In short, this represents the reforming of the university from an academy for the advancement of thought and understanding to one focused on supporting private commercial interests.

The goal has been clearly outlined in policy papers. Publicly, however, the government continues to argue that the existing funding model was just simply “complicated” and “old”.

Enrolment as a metric for funding

The numerous new metrics the government has introduced into the funding model are inspired by the profit-driven metrics so popular in the private sector. If the reforms were truly about advancing access to education and properly funding universities in the province, then funding would not be assessed at the institutional level through the tweaking of Strategic Mandate Agreements that are drafted and signed by administrators. Instead, funding would be tailored to supporting students and faculty. After all, education and research are the whole point of universities and it is students and faculty who actually do those things, not administrators.

As complex as the funding mechanism is, the base funding for an educational institution, regardless of its particular mandate, is not hard to calculate. An institution is allocated a proportion of available operating funding primarily on the basis of its student enrolment. In most cases, the source of fiscal challenges faced by our institutions, isn’t the complexity of the model, but simply that universities are woefully underfunded. Inadequate public funding leaves institutions struggling to fulfill their mandates to provide support to all those who come through their doors. This situation is exacerbated as more money is diverted to the new entrepreneurial objectives of neoliberal governments and business.

Quality as a metric for the commodification and marketization of education

The metrics being put forward by the government as part of the new funding framework undermine the ability of universities to serve the public. Funding should be structured, first, so that it provides universal access for the public (who funds it through their taxes), and, second, to ensure that all who have access are provided with the highest quality education possible. Maximizing “quality” without prioritizing universal access is, in itself, a marketization of the academy. It means that students from working class or socially marginalized communities who cannot afford a university education cannot get one.

As an example, consider a comparison of the US and Canada when it comes to healthcare. Private healthcare markets are concerned with the maximization of quality (regardless of cost) as they compete with others in the private marketplace for their products. The result is some very high-quality healthcare that is out of reach for a majority of the US public. Alternatively, the Canadian healthcare system offers the best quality service it can while providing universal access that attempts to address the healthcare needs of all Canadians. This means sacrificing what the market would identify as the highest quality option, such as assigning a single doctor to each patient. These different incentives result in fundamentally different structures of service provision.

University research and education is a significant expenditure (public and private). As such, the broader public should be involved in a conversation about what role society wants the academy to play and how those desires align with the long-term implications of proposed funding structures. The broader social and economic impacts of the academy are far too important to allow business leaders and corporate ideologues in government drive the process. Unchallenged, these policies will transform universities into “colleges with research arms” and divorce the practice of teaching from research, thereby undermining both.

This quasi-professionalization of the development of academic policy is the de-democratization of the academy and its social mission. The commercialization of university research, the focus on entrepreneurial development, and the prioritization of STEM over the social sciences are the natural result of this approach.

A need for consultation

If the goal is to build an academy that will serve students today and advance social and economic prospects in the future, we should start where academic researchers would start: detailed critique, broad education and consultation, and proposals debated by knowledgeable peers. Only then would policy makers be properly equipped with the understanding needed to implement changes to university funding.

The development of metrics that support the corporate orientation of new university programs purposely ignore broader social impacts. As policy researchers know, social impacts are not as easily measured as commercial profit-margins or sector-specific hiring numbers. The current metrics put forward by the liberal government should be abandoned and replaced with measures of access and academic output that form the core mission at the heart of all public universities.

The marketization of university research has also led to the increased casualization of both academic and academic support work, the declining social value of degrees in the humanities, and the corporatization of the university. Left unmeasured is the loss of the important social innovation that academic work generates. The de-commodification of university access and research will help reverse the casualization of teaching and learning environments.

To build an inclusive and supportive environment for all workers and students at Ontario’s universities, the government should not only eliminate university access fees, but provide robust and sustainable base funding to institutions and allow for research funding to be set and administrated at the peer level. AM

  1. Graham Cox is a researcher at the Canadian Union of Public Employees who has been doing research for student and labour movement organizations in the academic sector for over 15 years.