Higher Education in Peril

Ernest Hopf illustration from ‘Winter Soldiers: The Story of a Conspiracy against the Schools’ by Louis Lerman with a forward by Franz Boas (Committee for Defense of Public Education, 1941). The text documents the impact of McCarthyite hunts for ‘subversives’ in New York State schools and colleges.

Public universities and colleges across North America and the United Kingdom appear to be rushing headlong into a new era, caught up in a stampede driven by state-initiated educational policy and demands for ‘modernization’ (certainly a matter of concern in Ontario right now). There is little doubt postsecondary education in the course of the next several years will be fundamentally transformed, but whether for good or for ill remains an open question.

From those working within higher education, resistance has been most vocal against institutional governance models that emphasize cutthroat budgeting and corporate-style managerialism. Such an impoverished imagination displayed by policymakers and institutional leaders has produced tensions across postsecondary institutions—infiltrating labour relations and classroom instruction, even to the point of impacting the psychic lives of faculty and students.

The educational costs of adopting a narrow view of what constitutes profitability is equally reflected in the way postsecondary institutions have recently championed the adoption and use of digital technologies both in the classroom and instead of the classroom—perhaps without consideration of the full effects these ‘innovations’ have entailed.

The essays featured here by Scott Timcke, Jennifer Fisher, Trent Kays, Melonie Fullick and Henry Giroux comment on the need for a critical perspective on why and how institutional survival strategies—ranging from traditional policies such as teacher tenure to the novel development of massive open online courses (MOOCs)—might be used to enhance teaching and learning, but carry with them no guarantees.

As universities and colleges also depend increasingly on contingent faculty labour, most of whom currently lack a voice in institutional governance, demands are being made for proper consultation with all faculty and students—those who serve and symbolize the educational vitality of the institution. And while the faculty and students are assuredly the lifeblood of higher education, staff and administration are the crucial conduits through which the flow of knowledge and resources is sustained.

Courageous postsecondary students in Quebec, Canada, organized a 200-day strike, successfully demanding a tuition freeze and also reinvigorating the ideal of free, universal education for all. The Occupy movement also demonstrated that new educational spaces of dialogue and action could be forged in the crucible of political activism to advance the public interest—applying additional pressure on the university either to relinquish or to resurrect its long-standing public mission.

For those of us concerned with the future of public universities and colleges, the question remains for us to pose and thoughtfully consider: Is higher education striking new bargains everyday that its leaders feel will secure its and their salvation, but in doing so losing its soul?

In contemplating a range of critical issues related to the present and the future of the postsecondary institutions, let us collectively exercise our ability to participate as stakeholders in the imminent transformation destined to impact higher education while admonishing ourselves with the old adage “Silence gives consent.”

Grace Pollock

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