Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ If Not Privatization, What?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 22, 2010

In response to Tony Bates, who writes:
As part of its austerity program, the British Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition govt is making massive cuts across the whole public sector (mainly because the UK government ran up a huge debt bailing out its banks – its ‘real' economy is in quite good shape, or it was until the government decided to make the massive cuts). The higher education sector has not been spared.
Well the response by some Canadian universities in the face of much less stringent exigencies is to call for them to be able to set (higher) tuitions independent of government policies.

This is essentially a call for a return to the time when universities educated only a small, elite, and well-connected pool of people (probably the pool that would today be represented by McGill, Queens, St.F.X. and maybe Simon Fraser). It conjures an image of a brighter, purer past.

Such a future would be devastating for most academics, who would quickly discover that they have neither the breeding nor contacts to obtain employment in such a system. Those that could would find employment in the (now extended) private career and community college system (non-union, of course) while the rest would find work in the service industry.

It would also be devastating for Canadian society, exaggerating the distance between rich and poor, and setting the stage for a repeal of many of the social reforms we have earned over the decades, including income support and health care. It would reduce Canadian academia to a rump, and spell the end of innovation and science in Canada.
[The question] is whether there is another route to reform that does not require the privatization of the higher education system aka the UK?
This one is harder. The lesson from the previous reply is that the HE sector in Canada is intransigent, which will lead to a nightmare scenario. Can the sector be saved in spite of itself?

I believe that the answer is "yes" but that we have to let go of the current model of education. We want (and need) to retain the role and concept of the academic, but need to be able to organize the sector in line with 21st century realities.

I think that we ought to define a set of distinct types of academics, organize them such that they are employed directly, rather than in universities, and that each provides a unique type of support to the learning community as a whole. Breaking up and breaking apart the traditional concept of ‘discipline', ‘class' and even ‘cohort' will be essential to the well-structured system of the future.

I think that in many Canadian universities we already recognize that not all professors should be all things to people, as we hire graduate students and support staff to fulfill many of the traditional roles, such as technical support, teaching and marking. But the resulting unfair and divisive class system that has resulted in academic institutions has been demoralizing for staff and devastating to the institution as a whole, which can no longer function without a supply of low-paid academic labour (I'm sure Foucault would have much to say about academic servitude).

We ought to organize out academic sector in terms of a series of publicly funded support systems, such that a person availing themselves of an array of services from these support systems can fabricate an education for themselves, which they would then prove to a federally (or provincially) monitored evaluation (not necessarily testing) system.

Such a system would end the distinction between those who can obtain an education in this country and those who cannot. It would allow any Canadian to obtain as much or as little of a higher education as they desired, generally at little or no cost. Though not a privatization of the system, it allows for private sector provisioning or support. And ends government support of the ‘Yale-type social club service' that has characterized learning for our ruling elite since before confederation.

I'll have more on this in the future.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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