Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dismantling the Post-Secondary Education System -- Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about post-secondary education in Canada, and how our excellent educational system has contributed to Canada's global economic success and high quality of life. I posed the question: Why would anyone want to dismantle our post-secondary education system?

There is no doubt in my mind that post-secondary education (PSE) is under siege in this country. In the province of British Columbia, since a liberal-conservative coalition party (the BC "Liberals") took power twelve years ago, colleges and universities have been under assault.

In the first few years, the actions of that government initially appeared positive in terms of greater access for students. In the early 2000's, the BC government opened a slew of new universities, such as Thompson Rivers University, Vancouver Island University, and the University of the Fraser Valley. Essentially, they transformed a number of colleges into full degree granting independent universities under the University Act. Most of these former colleges already had limited degree granting status, and/or had been offering university degrees in partnership arrangements with large BC research universities.

Behind the scenes, however, the BC Liberals were busy interfering with the autonomy of universities to set their own curriculum and course content, and were taken to court repeatedly. The BC Liberals labelled the new universities "teaching universities" and funded them on a different formula than the four "research universities." This was in part a cost-saving strategy, but more ominously, it signaled the government's attempt to remake the nature of university itself. This motive became especially apparent in the last five years when the BC Liberals developed "letters of expectation" for post-secondary institutions as part of the budget process. These letters limit the institutions' autonomy and explicitly provide instruction to universities and colleges to focus on the BC government's priorities. When you consider the fact that universities serve the broader public good, and that universities have very long planning horizons (5 or more years to plan a new program and get government approval to run it, long term commitment to see each cohort of students through 4-5 years to completion, and multi-year or even whole career commitments to highly specialized teaching staff), it seems foolhardy to force universities to align their missions with the  short term ideas of the political party of the day.  

Also, over their years in power, the BC Liberals tore up contracts and cut wages across the entire public sector. Although the budget cuts to kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education and the health sector received the most press, universities were severely impacted as well. More than a decade of legislated 0-0-0 and 0-0-2 salary increments have resulted in BC university professors at many of the institutions being among the lowest paid in Canada in comparable PSE sectors, which affects the province's ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Beginning professors make less than school teachers, bus drivers, letter carriers, and oil field workers; and student support staff at BC universities currently make 50% less than their counterparts in Alberta. 

During the reign of the current premier, the BC Liberals also have decimated the community college system. For example, in the northern half of the province, colleges such as Northwest Community College faced such severe budget cuts that they were required to close campuses and programs, and lay off ten percent of their employees. No sooner had the government thrown the colleges into disarray and decimated upgrading, trades, and technical education opportunities for students, than the government announced that there was a shortage of trained trades and technical workers in the northern part of the province, and demanded that colleges address these training needs (the "Workforce Table" initiative). Ludicrous, cynical, and shortsighted are the words that spring to mind.

Similar budget slashing has occurred across several other Canadian provinces. In Quebec, a recent attempt reduce operating grants to post-secondary institutions and raise student tuition to match rates in other Canadian provinces resulted in widespread student protests, strikes, and campus closures. The government responded to the students by withdrawing the tuition increase, and requiring universities to make up the funding cuts by making large internal budget reductions. Budget cuts to PSE are also underway in Ontario.

Most recently, Premier Redford's Progressive Conservative government in the province of Alberta brought in a bad news budget that disproportionately slammed universities and colleges. In the spring of 2012 (which just happened to be around election time) the Conservatives promised provincial post-secondary institutions three years of stable funding of two percent increases to their operating grants each year. As two percent is not enough to cover additional operating costs each year, this funding level actually entailed making cuts. However, at least it was a known amount that could be addressed through careful planning.

By March 7 of this year, the promise was long forgotten. The Redford's Conservatives announced a cut of 147 million dollars in operating grants for Alberta colleges and universities. The six universities each have to cut 7.3 percent of their continuing operating budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, a mere 22 days after the budget announcement. When this reduction to the operating grant is combined with the increased costs of running a university and meeting contractual obligations, this amount translates as actual budget cuts in the realm of 10-12%. To put this in perspective, it means laying off ten percent of university employees and closing programs and thousands of seats for students. This, in a province that already has a low post-secondary participation rate. To make matters worse, the minister responsible for advanced education, Thomas Lukaszuk, accompanied the budget announcement with "mandate letters" requiring the universities to comply with government directives based on half-baked notions about duplication of programs and misunderstandings of how the provincial transfer system works, and then a few weeks later also decided to freeze tuition at 2012 levels rather than allowing an adjustment for inflation.   

Here is a link that provides an insight into what the cuts will mean. This letter to the editor of the Lethbridge Herald written by Rob Sutherland describes the impact on the University of Lethbridge, and the surrounding community. The University of Lethbridge, a small but very good comprehensive university in southern Alberta, is known for its commitment to access, high quality, small class sizes and a personalized learning environment, and an aspiration to make a positive difference in the world. Sutherland's letter has sparked a thoughtful exchange of ideas in the paper's comment section.

Surely these massive cuts to universities and colleges will have a profound impact on the communities and students they serve. These budget reductions are not just "cutting a bit of fat," but in fact begin the process of dismantling the entire university and college system. The post-secondary education system has taken nearly two centuries to build, and has served Canada well in the global economy. As we destroy our universities, we will lose our competitive advantage and doom our children and grandchildren to less prosperous futures.

Sadly, the small-minded Canadian politicians with their slash and burn mentalities and five year horizons are not particularly original. As discussed in a chilling article in Aljazeera on the neoliberal assault on academia, it seems that they are simply capitalizing on anti-education trends elsewhere in the world and targeting post-secondary education as a handy way to balance their budgets.

If you care about the future of post-secondary education and the future of our country, don't vote for these politicians.   

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Emotion of Fear

I remember once as a child reading that the four primary human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Happiness, sadness, and anger, yes. I immediately agreed that those are very basic core emotions -- but fear? Back then, I thought that fear was misplaced in the group. "I hardly ever feel afraid of things," I mused, thinking of spiders, bears, monsters, heights, and cowboy movies. I thought that the psychology researchers must have made a mistake.

I guess I had a charmed childhood, and had not experienced very many ugly situations that would have engendered the emotion of fear. Also, I grew up in a houseful of boys, and perhaps absorbed the lesson taught to little boys: thou shalt not express fear. Or perhaps I was a particularly brave (or foolhardy) child; I shudder now when I look back at the kinds of risks I took before I reached adolescence. I climbed cliffs. I skied fast. I spoke to strangers. I went down into old mine shafts exploring. I spied on a hobo camp near the train tracks.

It turns out that the psychologists were right, and I was wrong. When I reached adolescence and junior high school, I discovered that I did feel fear. In fact it became a pretty common emotion. As a younger child, I was confident and sure of myself. But as a teen, I did not fit in socially very well, and came to doubt myself and fear social situations. I was afraid to join groups of girls in the hallway at lunch, afraid of being left out when teams were chosen, and afraid of dressing the wrong way or saying the wrong thing. These fears became deeply woven into my behaviours and approach to life.

I have spent my entire adult life trying to overcome a fear of social groups and my fear of being judged negatively by others. The fear also spills over into lack of confidence about my performance/fear that I will fail. For example, about a year ago, I started a new job. It is a more senior position than my previous job, in a new place, and involving new challenges. It is not surprising that any person would feel some degree of anxiety starting a challenging new job. But I did not feel just a little anxiety; I was really scared, every single day. Every new expectation, every time I had to lead a meeting or speak up in a team discussion, every time I had to make a decision, I worried and dreaded the situation.

Gradually over this year, I have gained confidence. Things that terrified me at first, like standing up front of all of the staff in the the organization and leading a meeting, I now can do comfortably and with hardly any preparation. In fact, things that used to frighten me so much that I could hardly think straight now seem interesting, rewarding, and even "fun." It is kind of strange to describe work as fun, but it is amazingly exhilarating and gratifying to face a situation that is intellectually or socially challenging and work through it to a positive resolution. I guess that is why I like to set challenges for myself, like taking up a new job that really makes me stretch and that is scary to me. It feels good to learn and grow.

Similarly, I have recently taken up painting again after not having painted for about ten years. I used to love painting. But every time I thought about starting to paint again, I would procrastinate, make excuses, and and avoid it. It was fear. For some reason, I feared that I would not be able to remember how to paint. I was so afraid that I could not even start.

In my new city, I signed up for an evening painting class. The first few sessions, I was really gruff, tense, and antisocial. Fear. I was afraid of the room full of strangers, afraid of trying to paint, and afraid of failing at painting. The first picture I painted was fairly rough. But I was feeling so much joy actually making art again that I cut myself lots of slack and gave myself permission to do an imperfect painting. Now the fear has subsided and I am enjoying every hour in my painting class. I am working on my fifth painting since October. And I am loving it!

I guess I know from experience that it is important to experience new situations and to challenge myself, even though I feel afraid. But even with intellectual understanding, the feelings of fear are present at first, and fear doesn't feel good. But maybe the accomplishment wouldn't feel as good if I didn't have to work through fear to get there.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Dismantling of Post-Secondary Education in Canada - Part 1

Canada has an excellent post-secondary education system. Canadian university researchers are at the forefront globally, making discoveries in areas as diverse as neuroscience, innovative communication technologies, forest entomology, distance education, immunology, genetic markers of various cancers, learning disabilities, climate change, new approaches to qualitative inquiry, and indigenous orality and literature.

Our universities and community colleges offer students a wide range of choices in their chosen degree paths, and an opportunity to pursue their education in a post-secondary system that is of high quality and that provides broad access. No matter where in this large and rugged land a person lives, he or she can obtain trades or technical training, or the first two years of university study at a local community college. Cities over 50,000 have a public university or branch campus, and many large cities have more than one comprehensive public university and several colleges, technical schools, and private post-secondary institutions.

Perhaps because of its geography, Canada also is a leader on the world stage in its development of university distance learning. Although university in Canada is not free, it is very affordable, and there is a well-developed scholarships system and government student loans program. Canadian universities also are becoming an increasingly attractive destination for international students, as their high quality affordable degree programs, great student services, and welcoming environments have been recognized.

Canada's excellent post-secondary system can be credited with the success of the Canadian knowledge and technology economy. Through knowledge transfer from basic and applied research in universities to our businesses, industries, and social institutions, Canadians enjoy a thriving economy, a great standard of living, good health, high levels of literacy, and global prominence. Because of the quality of our universities, Canadian scientists, teachers, doctors, nurses, and business leaders are well regarded and can work all over the world.

We have done a great job in Canada of building a world class post-secondary system. So why would anyone want to dismantle and destroy it? Good question. Stay tuned for part 2.