Among the Problems at Laurentian University

April 17, 2021 Updated: April 17, 2021

Commentary

Like most Canadians, I was troubled by the news that Laurentian University is laying off over 100 faculty and cancelling dozens of programs. Senior officials made the cuts after Laurentian declared itself financially insolvent earlier this year.

University finances are a Byzantine and opaque affair at the best of times, and one should proceed cautiously before assigning blame for this disastrous state of affairs.

But there are non-fiscal aspects to this story as well. For example, I was struck by something said by Adam Kirkwood, a Ph.D. student in Laurentian’s boreal ecology program, to CBC:

“[The university is] a place of higher education where people are able to go and learn. … And if you’re running it as a business, then things become a product. And I think that, at some point, defeats the purpose of what a university is purposed to do.” (emphasis added)

Kirkwood is right. His concise analysis identifies a problem that lies at the heart of an ongoing malaise on Canadian campuses.

At some point over the past 40 years or so, Canadians transformed their universities. Institutions that had historically been bastions of disinterested scholarship, designed to cultivate liberal learning in the interests of a fully functioning democracy, became vocational schools geared to training people for the corporate economy. Canadian universities abandoned their intellectual independence and autonomy and capitulated to the interests of big business.

The story of how the market model of education engulfed Canadian universities is too long to relate here. But at the heart of the dilemma lies a direct conflict between a view of the university as an institution designed to preserve and disseminate scholarship and education with that of a trade school, which provides students with credentials and certificates.

The university’s corporate colonization represents a philosophical shift of the first order. Educational values clash with those of the corporate world. The opposing values of the market and education are nowhere better illustrated than in the realm of knowledge production. Historically, knowledge produced by universities was considered a public good and widely and freely disseminated. Not only was the public disclosure of knowledge considered fundamental to the advancement of science, but it also bolstered the ideals of an open society. Universities were public institutions designed to serve the public’s well-being. They did not exist for private-sector profits.

The idea that knowledge is private and proprietary, a commodity that can be brought to market and bought and sold like any other, belongs to the world of commerce, not the world of the scholar. This presents a dilemma: How do universities reconcile a scholarly duty to search for the truth with the pursuit of knowledge to maximize corporate profit?

Moreover, it’s perhaps not sufficiently appreciated how transformative the market model is to undergraduate education, the university’s core function. At one time, Canadians could be confident that universities were places where students experienced an intellectual and spiritual awakening, a place where they learned to reason and cultivate their moral judgement, and where their imaginative horizons would be expanded.

Today, however, the marketplace seeps in everywhere. The mechanistic discourse of corporate culture has displaced the language of education. Universities act as any other rationally ordered business, which means keeping the customer satisfied while seeking a bigger market share. They are blatant in catering to the “customers,” i.e., students. Like any rationally ordered business, the university strives to give the customer what it wants. What the customer wants—or so the universities maintain—are technical, vocational, and professional courses that translate readily into jobs.

This state of affairs leads to mission creep, as universities rush to offer designer courses capitalizing on the labor market’s latest trends. Universities have attempted to make themselves all things to all people. Like Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, they have flung themselves upon their horse and rode madly off in all directions. Too frequently, “growth for growth’s sake” appears to be their overriding outlook.

There are several dismal corollaries to conceptualizing students as “educational consumers.” Subjects and the professors who teach them become “resource units” while graduates are now “products” competing in the “global economy.” Teaching evaluations are less gauges of excellence in the classroom as they are surveys of “customer satisfaction.” Because the customer is always right, students cannot be failed. Professors know that the way to be popular with students is to make minimal demands on their time, pander to their cultural biases and prejudices, and guarantee everyone a good grade. Predictably, grade inflation is rampant as intellectual standards erode.

Most critically, however, is that the moral bond between teacher and student is replaced by a contractual understanding between “consumers” and “service providers.” Suffice to say that an ethical promise between teacher and student is qualitatively different from a commercial contract.

Simply put, the market and education contain opposing logics of value. Yet, we are rapidly losing sight of education as something distinct from preparing students for the workforce. “Education” has become synonymous with job or career preparation.

There are doubtless many factors that have led to the disastrous state of affairs at Laurentian. But among these is the managerialism that has swept over Canadian campuses, converting notions of civic virtue and public service into self-interested economic motives and corrupting our universities by laying education on a Procrustean bed of economic values.

It’s difficult to avoid the thought that Laurentian University’s troubles may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, portending a rude awakening for many other Canadian universities. Perhaps it’s time to return to first principles in our deliberations about higher education, and acknowledge a conception of education that speaks to human aspirations beyond the economic.

Patrick Keeney, Ph.D., is an academic, columnist, and associate editor of C2C Journal.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.