Minds are not commercial products (posted June 4, 2018)

On June 2, DFA President Dave Westwood and President-Elect Julia M. Wright published their opinion piece, "Minds are not commercial products" in the Chronicle Herald.  The piece was written in response to Bill Black's May 26 column "Universities must become flexible to stay successful".  Dave and Julia's article is below and a link to Bill Black's column is found at the end of the piece.

In his May 26 column, “Universities must become flexible to stay successful,” Bill Black uses an economic lens to view and comment on the value of universities in Nova Scotia and their future. The language and approach would not be out of place at a shareholders’ meeting of a large corporation.

For Mr. Black, universities are seen as a good investment if they produce sufficient numbers of graduates to meet current labour market demands, and if they only generate economic benefits for businesses.

Research is seen as valuable if researchers win large grants or find ways to service the needs of local industry for advanced laboratory facilities or sophisticated data analysis.

Unions are scolded for limiting the ability of universities to be flexible, which is taken to mean the ability to rapidly divert scarce — and ever-diminishing — resources towards programs of study demanded by employers and perhaps even students. Degree programs might as well be a type of assembly line that can be quickly assembled or disassembled, as needed, to adjust the output of product based on market factors. But minds are not commercial products.

Mr. Black’s characterization of higher education is insulting, not only to students and instructors, but also to the many Canadians who have benefited from post-secondary education — according to recent data, that includes the majority of Canadians between 25 and 64. Public support for improving funding for Canada’s universities, evident in various polls over the last decade, reflects in part the fact that many taxpayers are university graduates.

Missing from the analysis are terms one might expect to see when discussing education. Things like pedagogy, quality, breadth and depth, critical thinking and the public good. Gradually, decision-makers and critics seem to be losing sight of the fact that universities are places of scholarship and learning, not corporations designed to produce commodities at the lowest possible price.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this change is mirrored by a large and increasing corporate influence on Canadian university campuses, with branded buildings, laboratories and research chairs, industry-sponsored or partnered research programs, and increasing numbers of corporate executives sitting on university boards of governors. If you suddenly woke up inside a university library you could be excused for thinking that perhaps you fell asleep in the food court at a shopping mall.

Not that long ago, it was understood that universities were worth a meaningful investment of public funds — not because every dollar invested produced two dollars of spending at local businesses, but because higher education was necessary to develop leaders and thinkers who could imagine a better, more just society and who could inspire their fellow citizens to do better and be better.

Universities had the rather pleasant side-effect of bringing benefits to the local economy because good ones attracted many students and paid faculty and staff good wages, the majority of which flowed into local businesses.

Well-educated students were also highly desired by employers who saw the value of graduates who could think, communicate, and innovate. But nobody seriously believed that universities existed to stimulate or respond to the needs of the local economy, or that this was an appropriate framework to use in evaluating their value.

Human experience and needs are not reducible to an economic snapshot. Canadians have interests in healthy ecosystems, a just and civil society, health care, communications, public safety, global security, cultural activities (music to sports) and so on. None of these are produced on a factory line or decided in a boardroom.

Modern society is a complex, collaborative effort that requires different sorts of expertise, a wide range of talents and diverse perspectives. Universities contribute to that collaboration. Do businesses? Canada’s private sector has long lagged in support for research, and a recent Globe and Mail article suggests that “one of Canada’s most pressing problems is a long-term decline in business-sector investment in R&D.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to measure and assess the impact of universities as a public good. Those concerned with accountability for public funds turn to outcomes that can be readily quantified such as numbers of graduates, employment rates, and economic return on investment. Instead of serving as useful proxies for an impact on the public good, however, these measures have now come to be seen as the proper endpoints and outcomes for higher education. Academic programs or perhaps entire universities that do not attract sufficient numbers of students are seen as flawed and in need of reduction or perhaps elimination like a poorly performing division in a company that would otherwise be paying large dividends to shareholders.

We need a better framework for considering the value of higher education in Nova Scotia, one that returns the public good to its rightful place at the head of the class. Universities are not corporations and it is unhelpful to continue perpetuating this tired and flawed metaphor.

Dave Westwood and Julia M. Wright are president and president-elect, respectively, of the Dalhousie Faculty Association

Read Bill Black's May 26 column here: https://thechronicleherald.ca/opinion/1573301-black-universities-must-become-flexible-to-stay-successful