May 042015

By Reid Robinson, The Starphoenix May 4, 2015

Robinson was an administrator at the University of Regina for many years, serving as dean of arts, associate vice-president academic and university secretary.


A recent article by Marina Warner, of the Man Booker Prize committee for 2015, illustrates the deep malaise that is afflicting universities in the United Kingdom. It was entitled Learning my Lesson: The Disfiguring of Higher Education. She ruminates on her own experience as a professor at the University of Essex and provides chapter and verse for her pessimistic analysis. Warner is particularly critical of “managerialist philistinism” that is wrecking the ideal of emancipation through learning.

What relevance does this have to the Canadian experience? Regrettably, some of the more disastrous developments in the U.K. system worm their way into the Canadian system. And “managerialist philistinism” is no stranger to the Canadian scene.

The managerialist approach is accomplished by hiring presidents who see themselves primarily as CEOs rather than academics, and their pay must be CEO-appropriate. At University College London, student protesters at a recent demonstration pointed out that the annual salary of the provost (vice chancellor) could cover the annual wages of about 20 employees on the university’s cleaning staff.

Over the past 10 years, the extraordinarily rapid increase in provost salaries in the U.K. has been mirrored in the increase in presidents’ salaries in Canada. Also in the scramble to be seen to be “accountable,” myriad expensive gatekeepers have been hired to swell the ranks of senior administration.

This diversion of a significant amount of money from teaching and research into administration has consequences, as evidenced in the recent troubles of York University and the University of Toronto. A disproportionate amount of teaching responsibility has been farmed out to lowly paid temporary employees, with inevitable outcomes.

A significant problem that faces Canadian universities is funding. How much comes from government and how much comes from students? This is becoming a major political issue in many provinces.

Consider two very different approaches being taken in the U.K. In England, a revolutionary change was recently introduced to provide the government with substantial savings in university grants. The total cost of the teaching component was charged directly to the student. Thus, typical student fees are now in the range of $17,000.

This was accompanied by an elaborate student loan scheme whereby this cost is all covered, and repayment of the loan is only due over a long-term period (but with interest charged) after the student has graduated and has an income of more than $40,000. The long-term consequences of this approach have yet to be seen, but alarm bells are ringing in that students will start off their professional lives with the equivalent of a mortgage hanging around their necks. The other concern is the perceived long-term default rate.

An immediate consequence is the enormous incentive universities now have to generate income by recruiting students, especially international students who are charged more. Bluntly, many students are inappropriately being persuaded to attend university, with horrendous consequences.

Scotland is using an entirely different approach. Tuition is free for all Scottish students. On his last day in office just after the referendum, First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party unveiled a stone monument at a university in Edinburgh, paid for by the Scottish government, that was inscribed with the words he had previously used in the Scottish Assembly: “The rocks will melt in the sun before I will allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

How the issue of student fees in Canada will be dealt with is of enormous importance. It will be of considerable interest to see how these issues play out in Scotland and England. In the present election campaign in the U.K., the Achilles heel of the Liberal Democrats has been their about-face in campaigning in 2010 for abolition of student fees, and then supporting a tripling of fees when they were part of government.

Let’s all hope that the despairing pessimism expressed by Marina Warner about university experience in the U.K does not take root in Canada. Let us, at least, avoid like the plague “managerialist philistinism.”


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