• Relying on corporations for increased funding of universities undermines education, say student leaders

• Student input was carefully scripted to arrive at a predetermined political goal

When the provincial government released its report on the results of a public consultation on Nova Scotia’s universities, it was speaking to a crowd with high expectations. All the same, there’s a kind of breathtaking finesse in the extent to which they managed to disappoint nearly all of them.

For Ramz Aziz, President of the Dalhousie Student Union, the way the final report was written begs the question of why students were even asked to participate in the first place.

“There wasn’t anything specifically related to any of the things mentioned at the student consultation,” he says. “I felt like if we didn’t give input to the consultation the result would have been the same, so that’s kind of disempowering for all of us.”

Education minister Kelly Regan

At the release of the report last week, Minister for Labour and Advanced Education Kelly Regan implied that hard times lie ahead for the province’s universities. “The cupboard is bare.”

With that one line, says Aziz, Regan managed to dismiss all the changes that students had been advocating for. “It was just brushed aside.”

Michaela Sam, Chairperson of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) echoes this. She says that despite students having shown “overwhelming support” in the consultation process for broad-based support for post-secondary education, including reducing tuition fees and increasing public funding, these concerns were not reflected in the final document.

It’s disappointing for those who participating this consultation process in good faith to see that the government really tried to present what they called a balanced account of those consultations and really hasn’t acted on the demands from students.”

Even issues on which the otherwise at-times fractious student advocacy movement in Nova Scotia is united, such as the conversion of student loans to grants, were absent from the final report.

“I think the ways that they have ignored the need for broad based support is actually an opportunity lost and a failure on the part of this government,” says Sam.

Disinterested in what?

The fact that some the participants in the consultation process, particularly students and faculty, were more disappointed than others – the StFX President took to Twitter to call the report “a balanced and reasonable way forward” — seems hardly incidental.

In the report’s introduction, it says that: “stakeholders often expressed their concerns about issues in terms of their own interests, even though these were frequently portrayed as projecting the preferences and desires of a wider public”.

This characterization of dissenting parties is telling, says Matthew Furlong, spokesperson the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers,.

In the two consultation sessions he took part in, Furlong says that the only person who spoke out of anything that could accurately be described as “self-interest” was a student who had been disqualified from a scholarship because of draconian and contradictory eligibility requirements. Nor was anyone in those sessions attempting to speak for the whole public, he says. The characterization of these competing viewpoints as self-interested, he says, begs the question of what, exactly, it means to be disinterested.

“Is the only disinterested point of view here the one which agrees that the main goal here is to grow the economy?”

Structure of the Report

In the report, responses were structured — and had been solicited — under three topic headlines: “Quality of education, competitiveness, relevance, and sustainability,” “Research and development,” and “Commercialization and helping strengthen Nova Scotia’s economy.”

This produced recommendations aimed at improving financial accountability, increasing opportunities for experiential learning, and aligning university initiatives, including research, with demands from the private sector.

At the release of the report last week, it was clear that changes in the university system are already underway. Regan announced that the government would be introducing legislation to enforce financial accountability later in the Spring, which could include the ability to tie university funding to outcomes.

Challenging the Call for Accountability

The DSU, CFS and Students NS all welcome the possibility of greater accountability, but had problems with the way this accountability was framed.

“While students are glad to see that the government wants to implement standardized financial reporting, a recommendation that the CFS have been making for years, ultimately this is an underfunded system,” says Sam.

While Students NS has historically disagreed with CFS’s position that provincial universities are underfunded, the organization offered its own critique of proposed accountability measures.

Jonathan Williams, executive director of Students NS, says that the organization would welcomed legislation, but points out the contradictory nature of the Minister calling on the one hand for greater accountability, while hinting at changes that would allow universities to increase tuition fees and deregulate fees for out of province students. “Deregulated tuition is the opposite of accountability,” he says.

The NSCC announced Friday that fees for 2015-16 would be increasing by three percent; this suggests, that fees at other schools are likely to increase by the same amount, says Williams.

What’s more worrying, says Williams, is if universities are indeed allowed to deregulate tuition for out-of-province students, this will make Nova Scotia the first province in English-speaking Canada to grow the differential between local and out of province students by increasing costs for out of province students.

“We’re making ourselves less competitive for out-of-province students, and we’re also creating this very strong incentive for other provinces to fight to keep their own students.”

At the release of the report, the Minister announced other imminent changes to the student assistance framework. The debt cap program – which had capped student debt at $28,560, the maximum a student could get in federal loans – will be replaced by the NS Loan Forgiveness program, and will no longer apply for students completing undergraduate degrees outside the province. Students with permanent disabilities will have the time given to finish their undergraduate degrees and still have loans forgiven increased from eight to 10 years.

Experiential Learning

The report also indicated an emphasis on experiential learning and partnerships with business. As stated in the report: “There is an increased demand, across all disciplines, for increased access to co-operative education”.

On the face of it an uncontroversial suggestion, a closer examination reveals a level of support that’s more qualified than the language of the report would suggest.

“Students were very clear that we didn’t want to see our post-secondary education system tied to labour market outcomes,” says Michaela Sam. An emphasis on experiential learning that doesn’t include stipulations for how that learning would avoid contributing to an existing system of unpaid internships and co-ops is worrying, she says.

While the DSU supports experiential learning for students, Ramz Aziz points out that like any exchange, this would come at a cost. “It can be a dangerous game, you’re talking about academic freedom, you’re talking about intellectual property for students, all these things are something you have to be wary of when you deal with the private sector,” says Aziz. “If we do want this what do we have to give up: our freedom, our opinions, our flexibility, what?”

While the report recommends expanding co-op opportunities to more programs, Dalhousie already has something of an experiential learning focus, including an agreement with Shell Canada that has provided Dal with $1.9 million since 2005. On March 25, Shell announced that it would be contributing another $600,000 to experiential learning in Engineering, Science and Management.

There’s reason to think that increased private involvement in the program and research priorities of universities could have an insidiously limiting effect on what these institutions can do. Last fall, when Dalhousie’s Board of Governors considered whether to divest from fossil fuels, faculty and students from the Earth Sciences expressed concern about the effect such a move would have on the funding they receive from fossil fuel companies. From this, it’s not hard to see how an increased private role in the universities could have a profound effect on academic freedom and the development and funding of academic programs.

The Tenor of the Report

While there were significant policy changes that accompanied the release of the report, what is perhaps most revealing is the document itself.

Ultimately, the report outlines in explicit terms a new role for the university. In the entire report, the word ‘educate’ appears only once, and even then in reference to the views of one group: faculty, whose cited concerns about the need for education and not just training is the only clear suggestion in the report that the role of universities might be other than to produce workers.

Participants in the public consultation expressed concerns from the outset that their involvement had been carefully scripted. A consultation that seeks out responses that suit a specific policy agenda, that leaves many participants feeling as though their views were dismissed or ignored, can’t meaningfully be understood as democratic.

“This whole document could have been written up without any consultation taking place whatsoever, its basic suppositions remain totally unchanged…by virtue of the framework it laid out it already signaled which voices it wants to favor,” says Furlong.

Just as importantly, by framing disagreement to this vision as a misunderstanding of the circumstances, the report attempts to pre-empt criticism by positioning itself as the voice of non-doctrinal reason.

People and groups who disagree with the framing of the report, it’s implied, are “limited to their immediate interests,” a mindset the report suggests is 200 years out of date. In this framework, austerity is a given. That humans are, above all, economic beings is a given. Debate is not disagreement but failure to grasp the complexity of the situation.

Yet economic utility is itself an ideological position, even if it’s often hard to identify. In the case of the report, blatant disregard for some interests has had the paradoxical effect opening up the possibility of a more united voice from student and faculty groups not always known for their consensus.

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
Cancel reply
  1. As a university faculty member in the States who has long supported outcomes-based and student-centered initiatives in higher ed, I am distressed to see Nova Scotia going down the same path as we have done.

    Outcomes-based and student-centered approaches have been rolled over into outcomes-driven accountability, with students and faculty left to scramble to fit into what bureaucrats define as “success.”

    Outcomes are supposed to drive student responsibility and active participation in the learning process, and provide the means for improving teaching and learning in the classroom. Thus they are student-centered. What has happened in too many places is that outcomes are defined by those outside the academy as job placement, salary level, and loan payback rates.

    The newest insult to our intelligence and professionalism as educators is to measure excellence by the test scores of those with whom our students interact upon graduation: perpetuating the accounting system further. This is not accountability, nor does it empower student learners to explore options, develop innovative skills, think critically, or communicate clearly.

    Don’t. go. here. Push back, students and faculty.

  2. As a former professor (U Vic) and strong supporter of free or low student tuitions, I hardly know where to begin with this report. The key issues as I see them revolve around:
    – failure of our administrations (gov. and univer.) to insist on funding, that is, to desist from blaming the victims (teachers and students who ‘simply don’t recognize our hard times’ [re monetary priorities, e.g., witness Can. $$$ going to a war abroad]
    – push for international students who pay double tuitions and yet are often left on their own without suitable language training and other needed supports
    – large classes, taught too often by sessional teachers (In this scenario, teachers experience the insecurity of part-time work, and students do not have links with research in the field)
    – an inordinant attention to distance education. This is needed in exceptional circumstances — e.g., when students live in isolated place — and many universities provide excellent services, but distance education can never replace the quality of face-to face contact between profs and students (that is, if the numbers are reasonably low)
    – finally, universities in their rush to commerce, are providing shorter and shorter courses with less and less content (CHECK THIS OUT at your nearer univ.)
    Overall comment: the tone of this recent ‘report’ falls in line with neo-liberal (or market-based) thinking that favours corporations and sells short the intellectual lives of students and teachers. Serious problems with Neoliberal policies — deregulation, weak gov’t, cuts to public services, lowered taxation (particularly for the rich), etc. — have been well demonstated. When will Nova Scotia begin to see the writing on the wall?

  3. Dal is looking more like the U.S. with respect to education. It’s sad. One of the things I always liked about Canada was that out of province students paid the same tuition. (That has not been the case in the U.S. for as long as I can remember). This encourages young people to experience something outside their own familiar little world. As well, it brings in others from outside provinces.

    In the U.S., since there is a penalty for being out-of-state, many students who really want to go to a university in another state and can’t shell out the extra tuition, simply move there, find a dinky job for a year, establish residency and THEN go to university. Most of the rest of them, stay in their home state and never leave or experience anything new and different. Congrats, Dalhousie. This is exactly what you’re encouraging.