Academics are asking the wrong questions
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 August 2005)

Academics usually agree on only one point: Canada doesn't understand how vital they are and refuses to provide enough money to make their work effective.

When Maclean's comes around to prepare its annual survey, all universities claim to be offering first-class education. Otherwise, they spend their time complaining that they lack the funds to do the job. University of Toronto administrators, for instance, like to point out that the University of Michigan, a nearby competitor in the big-public-university business, spends about twice as much per student.

This week at the premiers' conference in Banff, Dalton McGuinty of Ontario argued for a first-ministers meeting on post-secondary education. He offered this thought: "In a world where you can borrow your capital and copy your technology ... there's only one thing left upon which to build a sustainable high-wage economy and that's skills." Presumably his fellow premiers received this blinding flash of insight with the awe it deserved.

McGuinty claims to appreciate the importance of education, but who doesn't? I can't think of anyone who would argue with him. Still, it appears we don't care enough to provide the support that universities need. Why not?

That's among the questions raised by Taking Public Universities Seriously (University of Toronto Press), a 650-page book of essays edited by Frank Iacobucci and Carolyn Tuohy. It's the record of a conference held last December as a lead-in to Bob Rae's Ontario government inquiry on post-secondary education. The authors are 41 of the heaviest hitters in the university league, many of them presidents or provosts, most of them economists, political scientists or lawyers, with here and there a zoologist who knows insect neurobiology or a physicist who specializes in matter-antimatter collisions.

They don't mean to mislead us, but their title amounts to false advertising. They don't write about public universities. They write about how to finance and run public universities. Few of the articles say anything at all about what's taught or should be taught, or to whom.

These educators ably state the now familiar case for public investment in the humanities, summarize new data on education's social benefits, and discuss equality of opportunity. They can tell you about transparency, accessibility, accountability and of course governance, which now tops the charts in 21st-century policyspeak, the one word that by law must appear in absolutely every quasi-official report.

But there's no energy or conviction in their writing. They talk about universities, the intellectual cornerstone of civilization, with less excitement than scholars bring to recounting a medieval conflict over the papacy. Aside from the editors' clear introduction, not one article in the book exhibits any notable aptitude for the English language as a means of expression and persuasion.

Still, we should be sympathetic. Administrators have their backs to the wall. Unions, politicians, students, ethnic minorities, aggrieved women, fractious donors -- together these forces entangle the universities in a web of political and cultural frustration.

At the December meeting, after the professors had explained to each other why they should get bigger budgets, Rob Prichard, the former University of Toronto president, asked a difficult question: How can it be that a case so compelling has failed to convince the politicians and the public?

Peter George, an economist and president of McMaster University, replied that universities have done a lousy job getting money from government because the idea of universities as a productive element remains extremely fuzzy. The editors also suggest that universities haven't demonstrated the benefits of public investment in their work.

Is that possible? Could all these lawyers and economists, so articulate on every other subject, be struck dumb when dealing with the value and needs of universities? It seems unlikely.

This now ancient predicament won't likely yield to improved PR or lobbying. Academics, rather than complaining about stingy governments and the refusal of students to pay higher fees, should ask more fundamental questions. Could the lack of support result from the nature of our universities? Are they trying to educate too many people? How many of their students are committed to learning and how many are going through the motions? Does the university create a convenience-driven atmosphere that inevitably leaves students alienated? Are the needs of undergraduates ignored in favour of graduate students and professors?

Canadians aren't famous for making donations to their universities, and if they become politicians they obviously don't consider universities a major priority. Can it be that in starving the universities they are passing harsh judgment on a system they didn't much admire when they were part of it?

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