Will that be Truth or Profit?

Alberta’s universities have lost autonomy and changed focus. A veteran professor calls for a debate about their future.

By Harry Vandervlist

Over the coming decades, Alberta’s universities will be lucky to survive in any recognizable form. Over the coming decades, Alberta’s universities will be among the most important contributors to more thoughtful, just, sustainable and prosperous ways of living, in a region facing enormous ecological, demographic and economic challenges. Speaking as someone with going on 17 years of experience in Alberta’s university system, I can tell you that both of these contradictory statements are accurate.

Alberta’s universities embody neglect: they are overcrowded, understaffed and housed in crumbling, leaky buildings where drip-catching buckets turn packed hallways into obstacle courses. It’s also true that Alberta’s universities benefit from superlative infrastructure and technology that’s among the best in the country, and are better off than many universities around the world (try visiting a malodorous, graffiti-scrawled French university lecture hall).

Alberta’s universities have been dramatically reshaped since the early 1990s in the name of a new era. How well informed has the public debate about Alberta’s changing universities been? The answer would be “not very”—if such a public debate had even existed over the past 15 years. But it simply has not taken place. Mesmerized by deficit reduction and then by healthcare costs and the recent oil boom, public debate in Alberta has hardly spared a moment for the province’s universities. They certainly haven’t figured in any of the last three elections. Meanwhile our universities have changed in significant and indeed contradictory ways.

On one hand, the words “university experience” hardly mean anything anymore for Alberta undergraduates: typically, students assemble credits from multiple institutions, spread four-year degrees over five or even six years and work 20–40 hours each week to pay tuition—or to fund ski holidays and foreign travel. Yet Alberta’s university students are in a better position than almost any learners before them, as they benefit from better knowledge of how learning works, new methods and technologies of education and flexible study arrangements. 

As for the professors, Alberta’s university faculty enjoy rewarding, creative work, flexible hours and superior benefits. They also face burnout as they spend astonishing amounts of time competing for external funding to keep their departments and research programs alive, or they work as intellectual “temps” for salaries that any bus driver or retail manager would laugh at. 

Meanwhile, as repositories of human knowledge, Alberta’s universities struggle to maintain their archival, artistic and library resources and make these meaningful and accessible to scholars and the public. It’s also true that Alberta’s archives and libraries stand on the verge of a renaissance in usefulness and preservation. 

Arguably, policies developed without any public debate have now made universities’ social roles subservient to private-sector goals and the dictates of government funding bodies. Yet Alberta’s universities demonstrably retain a voice independent of government and the markets and are uniquely placed to defend the public interest. 

This jumble of contradictory claims applies to Alberta universities because “university” has become the name of such a complex, incompatible set of ideas, wishes, anxieties and demands. This is true not just in Alberta, or even Canada, but around the world, as higher education from Germany to New Zealand has been undergoing radical reform. This is why we can hear statements from university presidents and cabinet ministers extolling the bright future of Alberta’s post-secondary system and boasting of the well-funded present—and then the next day hear faculty associations and opposition politicians warn that the whole system is on the brink. They’re all correct. A modern university has so many departments, programs, people and purposes that on any one day, some are thriving and others failing. Meanwhile any individual observer of the system will feel that the failing parts are the heart and soul, and the thriving parts don’t really belong at a university anyway. Or vice versa.

Our universities have changedare changingin significant and indeed contradictory ways.

Really, there’s nothing new about the complex, contradictory nature of universities. Alberta’s universities in particular are a tender new shoot on a very old, gnarled plant. Western culture has about 85 institutions that have persisted, in recognizable form, without a break, for nearly half a millennium. Seventy of those 85 are universities. (The others, according to Clark Kerr in The Uses of the University, are the parliaments of Iceland, the Isle of Man and England, plus a few cantons in Switzerland.)

Like everywhere else, Alberta benefits and suffers from the way universities, like slow-growing oaks, have proven themselves to be essential and incredibly resilient contributors to their cultures. The contributions demanded, and supported, have varied according to time and place: the great medieval universities in Paris and Bologna did not embrace all knowledge, but specialized in theology and medicine, respectively. When John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University that “knowledge is capable of being its own end,” he was describing the liberal university tradition embodied by the Oxford of the 1900s—university as a preparation for citizenship in a democracy. When today’s politicians use the language of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and call for universities that “stimulate research in Canada and serve the needs of the knowledge-based economy,” they echo (sort of) the ideal of the University of Berlin where, in 1809, specialized, subject-focused research became the university’s mission, along with the teaching of new researchers. Meanwhile the idea of a university open to all classes, not just the elite, really comes from Scottish universities of the 18th century. They also give us a model of closer university collaboration with industry, government and the local community. 

It’s the Scots who help make the university “a public institution of opportunity and social mobility,” to quote from George Fallis (to whose 2007 book Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy I’m indebted for most of this brief history). Today’s universities in Canada and the US, looking back to this long European tradition, struggle to contain all of these elements—some in tension with one another. The point here is that there never was a golden age when universities simply did the things they’re now called upon to do, a golden age that vanished because of (take your pick) stingy governments, coddled professors, unprepared students, overly high tuition, overly low tuition, too much emphasis on research, too much emphasis on teaching…  

The most significant change we’re seeing today in Alberta, in my view, is the loss of universities’ autonomy. At various stages in history, universities have answered to various masters: churches, professional bodies, monarchs or parliaments. Yet the Canadian conception of universities included a sense of separation, of independence from immediate daily concerns. It would be hard to argue against more fruitful integration between our campuses and society as a whole—if that were in fact the route that today’s less-autonomous universities have taken. But rather than being supported to serve broader social goals, they have become more “marketized,” more narrowly harnessed to goals of economic growth and individual prosperity, than they were 15 years ago. 

The university of Alberta's neo-classical Arts Building (1912).

The university of Alberta’s neo-classical Arts Building (1912). (Pieter De Vos)

Consider a day in the life of a current Alberta university student. Actually, I should use the term “learner,” as that’s the language of Alberta educational policy. As a learner in a province that began to emphasize “transferability” back in the 1990s, you’re very likely to attend more than one institution, collecting credits here and there. When you accumulate enough for a single degree, you graduate. If you’re in Edmonton, you may take up to half of your degree at Grant MacEwan College. In Calgary, Mount Royal College also functions as a virtual first and second year for the U of C. Athabasca University’s distance-education offerings are used more and more to supplement the over-subscribed offerings in Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton.

This may not be the integrated, concentrated educational experience many readers have in mind when they think of university study. Is this situation—a deliberate policy shift made in the name of access—a net loss or a net gain? It certainly helps working students and “non-traditional learners.” The sense of affiliation, of belonging to what universities call a “cohort,” a batch of students progressing through their educations together, is lost. On the other hand, there are real gains in efficiency, flexibility and accessibility. The language of policy-makers is telling here. The emphasis on transferability was designed not for “students” to gain perspective on the workaday world, but for “learners,” envisioned as individualistic, opportunity-maximizing economic agents. 

Another traditional association with the idea of “one’s university years” has been the notion of a period of exploration, not just—or even mainly—of ideas, but of life, sex, independence. Yet if you’re an Alberta student, nothing would be less accurate than to picture you as escaping from mom and dad into some kind of campus bohemia. For one thing, you’re likely to live at home. And increasingly, mom or dad will be coming with you to campus to help you figure the place out. As a student adviser, I’ve experienced meetings where the parent asked all the questions and the obedient student simply nodded and let mom work out the timetable. 

You’ll also most likely be working. A lot. I asked my class of 40 final-year students last March how many didn’t work at all: three sheepish students put up their hands. Everyone else attested to working between 10 and 30 hours a week during term. Two students had already dropped out partway through the course in order to work full time. Increasingly, students inexplicably vanish from the classroom and return, often weeks later, to apologize because their employers pressured them to accept more and more hours, until it became clear their academic term was at risk. 

So the idea of “the university experience” is now—for many students, if not all—so diluted as to be almost meaningless. As an undergraduate student, you haven’t stepped outside the everyday world and into a world of ideas. The university campus now funds itself by scraping every last penny possible from private sources, and so the campus is more than ever a mall, and you are advertised to between classes, in corridors, even in the washrooms. The everyday world follows you, via text and instant messaging, into every minute of every class. And when class is over, as often as not you’ll be sprinting to the parking lot to make your next shift (perhaps accompanied by your prof, who as a contract worker has another course to teach at a college across town).

Why did universities decide to redefine students as “learners,” raise tuition to record levels and invite record numbers of private sponsors to get involved on campus? They didn’t—at least not all on their own. The new student experience reflects increased government involvement in decision making on campus. Initiatives such as the “Campus Alberta” program of the 1990s dictated terms to the universities, conditions for partial and selective restoration of the steep and sudden budget cuts imposed by Ralph Klein between 1994 and 1997. In fact, much of the transformation of Alberta’s universities over the past 15 years can be explained with a very simple mechanism: brutal cutbacks followed by partial, strings-attached funding for government priorities. Writing in History of Intellectual Culture, former U of A president Doug Owram explains this “significant re-engineering” in a review of Paul Axelrod’s 2002 book Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education:

“Universities had to find funds to keep operations going and to do so they turned increasingly to fundraising, the private sector and tuition. As governments returned to the field, they did so in targeted and partial ways. The funding that has come back is welcome, but it is much less flexible and much more oriented toward key areas that have initially been better at arguing they are necessary to economic growth, public well-being and so on.” 

In other words, universities were first starved of oxygen, then forced to agree to change their priorities in return for having the air switched back on, a little bit here, a little bit there. Axelrod himself describes the situation as follows (he’s talking about Ontario here, but what he says applies at least as much to Alberta):

“Government funding once provided some degree of stability. This has not been true for quite some time. We really don’t know how much money will be coming, and we don’t know what form it will take. We can reasonably assume that it will be conditional and targeted—an approach employed recently by governments of various political stripes. Economic imperatives, concerns about access and affordability (around which governments may well be politically vulnerable), and the broader fiscal agenda (deficits and health care) will, in all likelihood, drive their agendas and funding approaches.” 

This is how governments have found ways to make universities dance to their tune, even while providing a smaller proportion of public funding than before. (Government post-secondary funding declined 9 per cent overall in Alberta between 1993 and 2004, according to Statistics Canada.)

As we’ve seen, a student’s “university years” are now less of a distinct experience or separate part of life than ever before. But university research is also less protected from government and market demands than many readers may appreciate. The idea of the “ivory tower” is shorthand for an admiring or resentful recognition that universities are protected from considerations that businesses and individuals must struggle with every day. But if Albertans like the idea of their universities as something like a national park preserving wildlife—a protected zone for ideas—they need to take a closer look. Since the late 1990s, Canadian universities have been assigned a new mandate—“innovation.” But it’s important to note that the definition of “innovation” here has no relation to “newness” for its own sake or to artistic or imaginative creation. The term, in this context, bears a strictly economic meaning: it denotes “the process of bringing new goods and services to market, or the result of that process.” That’s the definition of “innovation” in the document that can be seen as the starting point for this specific re-engineering of universities, the federal government’s 1999 “Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research.” The promise of 5 per cent funding increases was held out to universities that provided incentives to researchers who might produce “innovation,” i.e., things that could be sold. 

An example of corporate sponsorship at the University of Alberta.

An example of corporate sponsorship at the University of Alberta. (Pieter De Vos)

The report generated fierce debate among researchers. But whether you’re in favour of the new mandate or not, it’s clearly a short step from the 1999 panel to the 2008 “mandate letter” which premier Stelmach assigned to Doug Horner, Alberta’s new Minister of Advanced Education & Technology. In it, Stelmach requires Horner to “lead the establishment of a Value Added and Technology Commercialization Task Force to develop a strategy for technology commercialization and economic diversification.”

But our professors—they all have tenure, right? Surely this tenured elite remain in a privileged position, able to shrug off whatever pressures or trends may tug at their ravelled sleeves? Not so much. For one thing, faculty tenure is a shrinking ice floe. About one quarter of the academics on any campus are likely to be contract staff now—and they do far more than 25 per cent of the actual teaching. They may also be invited, and sometimes required, to contribute to “service” roles that range from setting academic policies, to reviewing student appeals, to awarding scholarships and hiring new professors. Tenured faculty members are required to serve on committees that do such work, which is considered to make up about a third of their salaried employment. And even those whose job titles contain the word “tenure” may hang by the thread of continuing grant support. This is the reality of “contingent tenure” positions, in which professors’ salaries are paid out of research funds, for which the professors must successfully compete again and again in order to retain their positions. As you might expect, granting agencies hold enormous power over the futures of these “independent” researchers.

But the granting agencies themselves can be trusted to value long-term intellectual values and the pursuit of truth, right? So far, Canada has a pretty good record here, but it’s worth learning from the British experience. Earlier this year, Canadian science scored an international coup by hiring a star researcher away from Cambridge University. Physicist Neil Turok came to Canada, he said, because he would be allowed to pursue a “clear mission to do pure science with few constraints.” In a May 9 Globe and Mail article, Turok said that “[he] hopes his departure from Cambridge will be a wake-up call to the university and Britain’s funding bodies about the importance of supporting pure scientific research,” and added: “The entire physics community in the UK has been frustrated by the narrow-minded philosophy of the funding councils for quite a long time.”

Turok’s case shows another cost of driving too far down the “marketization” and “accountability” road: universities can lose researchers to countries that impose fewer conditions on research. They can also lose them to the private sector—Turok  would not be in this country were it not for the Perimeter Institute, a public/private partnership founded by Mike Lazaridis of Research In Motion. Interestingly, it’s this private backer who sees most clearly that harnessing a researcher like Turok to a pure research rather than “innovation” mandate may be the best long-term approach.

Decreasing university autonomy has already been tried, rejected and countered.

To sum up, then: in Alberta today the student experience is less distinct than ever; researchers (apart from the superstars of the moment) are dangerously vulnerable to shifting priorities of governments and funding bodies, and “ordinary professors” face an increasing trivialization of the day-to-day role of teaching, blended with research and service on university committees.

Well, so what? Will this turn-of-the-millennium re-engineering of universities really matter to the Alberta of 2020 or 2050? 

The answer depends on which elements of universities’ 500-year history survive and which find themselves pruned or starved. The current social debate about universities amounts to professors and bureaucrats talking to (or at) one another in a language in which “well-educated knowledge workers are the new ‘natural resource’ of the new global economy” (Price of Knowledge). From Daniel Bell’s 1976 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society to Richard Florida’s 2004 title The Rise of The Creative Class, a consensus has emerged about the economic value of what universities cultivate. And yet even this “resource thinking” can be done well or poorly. Sometimes a valuable resource can be destroyed by the wrong kind of cultivation or management. Might the future creativity and knowledge so coveted by today’s planners end up like BC salmon or Grand Banks cod, a resource so mismanaged that it ends up threatened?

It would be ludicrously arrogant, of course, to see universities as the sole repository of any human quality. The university is just one institution, though an incredibly persistent and useful one. I find it clarifies things to think not of “the university” exactly, but of the collection of purposes and resources that universities have embodied and preserved. The current purposes of wealth generation, social mobility and workforce preparation may simply be incidental to much older goals such as knowledge preservation—something that rarely figures on the list of shiny new mandates. If ancient roots are disturbed to make way for more recent goals, will the university—that gnarled but persistent plant—be able to continue feeding more and more of these new branches? Perhaps the service of these more recent goals depends in part on respecting and preserving the university’s old stock of purposes.

Preservation, it’s important to realize, can never mean simply “storage.” An ancient language or an obsolete scientific instrument is really preserved only if it can still be used, if its original context can still be appreciated. No one can ever see the immediate value of exercising an obsolete language in order to grasp the literature of a vanished culture… until that language provides a metaphor that unlocks unguessed-at relationships in an unrelated field, like biology. If knowledge is a resource, perhaps that resource is best served through the kind of broad habitat preservation that ecologists advocate. What if we were to be humble, and declare that we have no idea what knowledge will be needed in the future, in what subject, and for what purposes? Then the unfettered search for “whatsoever things are true” (that’s the University of Alberta’s motto, by the way) becomes not idealistic or inefficient but terribly pragmatic. 

How can Albertans ensure that universities continue to offer this kind of intellectual “habitat preservation”? My own experience of over 15 years leads me to argue for a restoration of universities’ autonomy. Decreasing university autonomy —“marketization” and “accountability” in an extreme form—has already been tried, rejected and countered. New Zealand, which was once seen as providing fodder for Alberta’s own efforts to bring its universities to heel, stepped back from that direction and reaffirmed the “social contract” which it believes universities should fulfill.

New Zealand’s Education Amendment Act of 1990 clarifies that role as follows: universities are “(i) …principally concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence; (ii) Their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge; (iii) They meet international standards of research and teaching; (iv) They are repositories of knowledge and expertise; (v) They accept a role as critic and conscience of society.”

There’s nothing in the Act about advancing economic aims or “innovation.” There is an acceptance that universities may cause trouble, as critic and conscience of society. And yet in the long run my wager is that recognizing and funding universities to do these things—and then leaving them alone—will produce more value over time than a monoculture of “innovation.” I’m also certain that Albertans, and Canadians generally, would support a similarly renewed “social contract” for universities in the context of a lively public debate about their future. To bring about such a debate is by far the most urgent and daunting challenge faced by people who value what universities can do.

Harry Vandervlist has taught English literature at the University of Calgary since 1991.


Online Learning

University labs and classrooms became participants themselves in a massive natural experiment during the pandemic. COVID-19 remade university life, forcing students and professors to retreat from their cavernous lecture halls and beaker-filled laboratories to much smaller—and often makeshift—study and teaching spaces in their homes. The withdrawal was abrupt and deviated sharply ...

Educational Reform: Failing the Grade

The Klein revolution began with high hopes and all  the subtlety of the Jerry Springer Show. Bombast and in-your-face marketing were “in,” supplied courtesy of much of North America’s fawning corporate media. A retrofitted Ralph Klein was touted  as just the man to enact smaller government, balanced budgets, and market-based ...