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In my opinion

Deregulating the university: who and how?

It’s up to all of us, with a bit of mutual understanding, to stem the tide of increasing regulation at Canada’s universities.


In response to my recent opinion piece on the preservation of university autonomy published by University Affairs in July, a reader wrote:

“As a front-line academic I’ll say that, while [loss of institutional autonomy] may be a concern, of more immediate concern to those of us in the trenches is the massive growth of university administration in our academies over the past few decades … New senior administration offices spring up, fully staffed, overnight with new and broad mandates for control and intervention in everyday academics … I can see no justification for the enormous expense this must represent to the academic bottom line, with little to show at the classroom end (other than new hoops to jump through, and new ways one might run afoul of regulations …). Seems to me that it is university administrators who are concerned about government taking away their autonomy; academics already feel they have lost a good deal of their autonomy – to these selfsame administrators.”

This is an important concern. Academic environments within universities in Canada are increasingly regulated and managed, as is the case in many other countries. What can be done to stem – or, indeed, reverse – this trend?

A starting point is to identify the causes of increased regulation and management of academic space. This includes external organizations – not only governments, federal and provincial, but also a host of others including accreditation bodies, insurance agencies and accounting bodies. Many of the additional hoops facing faculty members, staff and students result from universities’ need to comply with legislation, regulations or protocols governing matters such as privacy, information security, occupational health and safety, ethics and accountability, accounting, purchasing – the list goes on.

This won’t go away. To the extent that governments and others recognize the negative impact of excessive regulation on institutional performance, the compliance imperative may lessen, but – in this era of increased societal regulation and, indeed, surveillance – there’s no realistic prospect of returning to the brief days of significantly greater faculty autonomy in Canada.

So, what can be done to mitigate the impact of external compliance requirements? The wise university administration and board are attuned to the desirability of preserving collegial space and – to the extent that institutions have discretion – implement external requirements in ways that are sensitive to academic units’ purposes and minimize the resulting disruption and damage. These administrations recognize that, although growth in compliance-related administration is necessary and unavoidable, it should be kept to a minimum. They seek to ensure that every new administrator hired understands that she or he now works for a university and that this means doing things differently than in a corporation or a government department.

By the same token, the wise faculty member recognizes that the impetus for many new hoops is external, rather than a product of sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the administration. If universities are going to survive and thrive in these turbulent global times, mutual understanding is called for.

Of course, not all new regulation, policies, incentives, data requirements, processes and protocols are externally driven. Many are intended to implement strategies, plans and initiatives developed within the institution. University members need to deliver effectively together on their institutions’ missions, in order to secure resources and support from students, governments, other stakeholders and the public at large. Implementing sound, collegially developed strategy is part of that. At the same time, boards, administrations – and, indeed, senates – should keep in mind that, very often, less is more. The cumulative impact of too many new initiatives and requirements for which the rationale isn’t clear is likely to be frustration, resentment and decreased effectiveness.

In my opinion, a final source of increased regulation and managerialism is the university community itself – in other words, it is us! To the extent that faculty members, students and staff call upon the administration (or, indeed, governments) to fix problems or effect change – whether by a new policy or requirement or collective agreement provision – it invites increased regulation of academic space.

Traditionally, much behaviour (good and bad) within universities was regulated by norms. It’s not possible or necessarily desirable to roll back the clock, but the more academic communities shape behaviour through values and norms – and capitalize on culture as a source of change – the less need there’ll be to rely on bureaucratic mechanisms. Faculties and departments with strong, positive cultures tend to be much happier and more collectively successful places than their more dysfunctional counterparts, notwithstanding a common institutional management and policy framework. Deans, department chairs and directors play key roles in creating these great academic spaces, with the support of central administration, faculty and staff.

Ultimately, deregulating the university is up to all of us.

Julia Eastman is a university governance practitioner and researcher, and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business.

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