The U of M stands at a historic crossroads

As I walk the picket lines with my colleagues, still strongly supporting the strike in its second week with no sign of a resolution, our stakes are very concrete: increased workloads, performance indicators, and arbitrary management decisions affecting job security, tenure, academic freedom, and collegial governance. At the same time, as a scholar of politics and political economy, I can’t help seeing things in a wider and longer frame.

The UMFA strike is stalemated because it turns on fundamental principles. That is also why it is being watched by university communities the world over. This is why it has received such widespread support: from five student bodies – the U of M Arts Student Body Council, U of M Science Students’ Association, Manitoba Medical Students’ Association, Manitoba Dental Students’ Association, and recently the University of Manitoba Students’ Union which represents roughly 21,000 students – from the trade unions in Manitoba and beyond, and from university associations across the country and the world. If UMFA’s demands are fulfilled, the strike could number among the forces that began to turn the mighty ship of higher education in Canada, and possibly the Western world, away from the commodification and corporatization of education – its transformation into an arena for profit – and towards a renewed commitment to the ideals of public higher education.

Sound overblown? Read on.

For UMFA, the non-monetary issues relating to workloads and governance are so important that it has even signaled willingness to set aside salary demands, urgent as they are given how long U of M salaries have languished at the bottom of its class of Canadian universities. Media coverage has so far failed to note UMFA’s pecuniary forbearance and fails to report, discuss, and appreciate what our non-monetary demands are about. That requires historical context.

Postwar investment and expansion began to transform universities, widening access to these institutions whilst systematic and rigorous research, education, and training, relevant to the major questions of the day, displaced their original elitist and at times obscurantist functions. To be sure, as Cambridge University professor of English and history Stefan Collini noted, this process was far from complete when neoliberalism – the market fundamentalism which posited the state and public sector could do no good and markets and the private sector no harm – abruptly shunted public higher education onto the free market track.

As the world has found out in the decades that followed, free markets do not deliver and the promised Valhalla was not attained. More than three decades on, it is clear that something curious happened on the way there. As Warwick University business professor Colin Crouch pointed out, what advanced behind the covering fire of rhetoric about free markets and competition were large uncompetitive monopoly corporations enjoying cozy relationships with others of their ilk and with governments. As they came to dominate our economies, we experienced stagnant wages, rising inequalities, permanent and unsustainably high unemployment, financial bubbles and crises, and, last but not least, deteriorating public services and public life. The excoriation of public higher education was a central part of the last.

It was a long and involved process. Public services do not easily lend themselves to corporate profit-making. A great deal of government effort, directed by corporate input, goes into it.

The opening move was to starve universities of public funding, increasing their reliance on tuition fees and corporate research funding. Raising fees eventually led to the marketing of higher education (as the U of M has taken to doing in recent years) as a commodity, a lucrative investment in one’s future earning capacity. That this strategy eventually runs aground can be seen in the United Kingdom. The high cost of education combined with the increase in the number of severely indebted university graduates alongside no improvement of job prospects has shrunk the educational premium, leaving many to question whether it’s such a good investment after all.

Meanwhile, turning education into a high-priced commodity is constricting access once again just when greater numbers of women, minorities, and Indigenous people have begun to access it. These are among the reasons why UMFA supports low or no fees, greater public funding of post-secondary higher education, and a return to universities’ core educational, researching, and training functions.

As professor Ursula Franklin noted in her Massey Lectures, corporate research funding became part of university life in the late nineteenth century. Although some form of collaboration between industry and universities is undoubtedly necessary, it has taken problematic forms in recent decades. Since public funding still accounts for most of research funding, relatively small amounts of corporate funding often tend to buy more or less complete corporate control over the direction of research, not to mention control over its dissemination, which clogs up the arteries along which scientific discussion courses to advance knowledge.

Turning public institutions, such as public health care and higher education, into sites for profit-making entail many processes that are jointly sponsored by corporations and states. Their often intangible and indivisible products – health and education – have to be converted into discrete commodities such as pills or course modules. Patients and students have to be converted into willing but also ‘buyer-beware’ customers. Doctors, nurses, and professors, who are imbued with a strong sense of public service and a pride in their vocation, have to be turned into pliant employees. None of these processes are pretty. They are part of what is making so many aspects of university life intolerable for faculty, staff, and students and has made support for the UMFA strike so solid.

A university education is supposed to be one in which students are, on the whole, taught by professors actively engaged in research, each picking away at one or another part of the vast coalface of the unknown and imparting not only the results but something of the experience of seeking knowledge and the tacit and codified skills required to gain it. In Canada, the standard academic was supposed to devote 40 per cent of her job to teaching, 40 per cent to research, and 20 per cent to service. Over recent decades, university administrations appear to want to reduce such positions if not do away with them entirely. They have been pushing most professors to teach more – assigning them more courses or increasing their class sizes – reserving a small number of elite research positions whose occupants students rarely see. Administrations have also been expanding the number of ‘teaching only’ positions and saddling them with even more teaching.

Moreover, while such positions have long been critical for universities, their recent expansion has been at the expense of the standard academic teaching and research positions. The result is that all-too-many who would prefer to do research as well as teaching are forced into the new positions instead, with costs to their own research aspirations, not to mention students and society. The current increase in workloads that UMFA is fighting against is part of this trend.

The service component of academic work is critical. Like the modern professions, universities are self-governing because their governance involves knowledge not available to lay people; though unlike individual professions, a much greater range of knowledge is involved in university governance. Under collegial governance, the faculty body judges what to teach and research, how to do both, how to evaluate career progress, how to allocate resources, etc. through a whole range of committees – on graduate and undergraduate curricula and programs, academic discipline, research funding, appointments, tenure, promotion and so on at the department, faculty, and university levels. Faculty members also serve their respective disciplines, participating in peer review, editing journals, organizing seminars, workshops and conferences, running learned societies nationally and internationally (such as, for instance, the Canadian Political Science Association and the International Political Science Association).

Without such pro bono work, the entire institutional apparatus on which contemporary scholarship operates would grind to a halt.

Collegial governance requires that university administrators be drawn from the faculty body, be accountable to it, and return to it after relatively short stints in administrative office. Contemporary university governance, on the other hand, has favoured professional administrators. Though most still start out as scholars, they effectively abandon teaching and research and have no intention of returning to it. With the transition to administration being made at earlier and earlier career stages alongside the rising number of administrators who were never scholars, university administrations are increasingly removed from the intrinsic teaching, training, and research functions of universities, less concerned with preserving these and more easily moulded for the corporate agenda.

The proliferating connections between university administration and the corporate world mean that university administrators can expect to move between the two, as the U of M’s current president has, for instance. They are judged by how they create and maintain relationships between universities and various corporations, or how far they advance corporate and pecuniary values in universities, rather than how well they advance teaching and training at our public institutions of higher education.

This is where the increasing frequency with which the universities’ proliferating exclusive relationship with large corporations – whether as travel agencies exclusively supplying all the university’s travel needs, or suppliers of software for everything from maintaining academic records, scheduling classes, booking rooms to accounting, or suppliers of printing and copying equipment and services – which has been the source of so much frustration among students, staff, and faculty alike, fits in. Their efficiency gains remain questionable even as they vastly increase workloads for all concerned.

Collegial assessment of the quality and quantity of a faculty member’s work for tenure and promotion is being replaced by simple, not to say often simplistic, performance indicators because they will permit non-academic administrators to wield them. No matter that such indicators reduce quality to quantity, penalize long-gestation fundamental research or research that does not require high levels of funding (since research excellence is judged only by amounts obtained in research grants) and overlook what is considered excellent in particular disciplines. Such methods of evaluation also endanger academic freedom as professors’ research and teaching priorities are channeled in determinate direction while criticism within the university is increasingly silenced. That is why UMFA is fighting performance indicators.

Why has this now come to a head? Not because UMFA leadership has unilaterally decided to be intransigent – as its flexibility on salaries shows. Rather, it is the membership that has decided ‘enough is enough.’ Extensive surveys revealed that practically all UMFA members are sufficiently affected and alienated by whatever combination of these problems they confront that they have told UMFA to prioritize them. That is why support for the strike is strong.

UMFA is one of the strongest and oldest faculty unions in the country with a long and honourable record of fighting these changes. Partly as a result, and partly because an NDP government ruled in the critical decades during which public higher education was being hollowed out elsewhere, the process is less far advanced at the U of M. UMFA is in the relatively privileged position of fighting to retain what has long been lost elsewhere and now stands between the U of M’s advance towards the precipice.

The final piece of the puzzle is the disrepute into which neoliberalism has fallen, so serious that even the International Monetary Fund, hitherto its chief proponent world-wide, is questioning its own principles. The result is that while UMFA can proclaim the principles for which it is fighting from the rooftops, the administration is fighting for a cause it dare not name and seeks to camouflage behind talk of lack of funds. The effects of neoliberalism and the corporate agenda on universities is increasingly widely chronicled, lamented, and resisted. That is why the UMFA strike is being watched across the country and even internationally.

We in Manitoba have what is sometimes called the ‘privilege of backwardness’: having advanced less far along the neoliberal and corporate road, we could have the privilege of leading others back from it to restore to our universities their public, educational, researching, and training functions.

Radhika Desai is a professor at the U of M in the department of political studies. The views expressed here are her own, not those of UMFA or any other body.

This article originally appeared on TheManitoban.com.

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