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Margin Notes

Protecting universities from the cuts to come

Do we make a pragmatic, economic argument for the value of PSE, or stress the intrinsic value of knowledge and scholarship?


Canada’s universities are in considerable peril. That, at least, is the opinion of Paul Wells, a columnist for Maclean’s magazine who frequently writes about the university community (it was his article with the “big five” university presidents which started the whole controversy last August about university differentiation).

However, his perilous prognostication is not in Maclean’s, but rather in the University of Western Ontario Alumni Gazette. A Western alumnus (BA’89), he writes a back-page column for the magazine (available here in a digital edition, pg. 46).

His concern, and I share it, is that the deep spending cuts to education and research that happened in the mid-1990s – both provincially and federally – don’t repeat themselves as governments try to get their finances under control after the current economic downturn.

Mr. Wells says that over the last few years there has been a bit of a disagreement between faculty and administrators over how to spend funding increases: on people (research grants) or new infrastructure (shiny new labs). That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but his main point is that these disagreements assumed there would be new resources.

But, he continues: “Next year’s fight will be a fight against real cuts. It’s going to make the genteel conversations of the past decade, the cozy decisions about how to spend the next few tens of millions, look like a walk in the park.”

There are, of course, already signs of that across the country. To pick just one example, Queen’s University Principal Daniel Woolf recently noted that while the cliché is often “to do more with less,” the time has come for his institution “to do less with less.” On top of implementing a 15 percent budget cut over the next four years, Dr. Woolf plans to review the university’s academic priorities.

Mr. Wells thinks many university presidents will respond to the threat of cuts by making “an elaborate show of looking more pragmatic” by stressing how universities generate the ideas that drive the economy. Both the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the OECD have made such arguments in recent months.

But Mr. Wells wonders if that may be a trap:

“The problem with that line of argument is that in a really nasty economic environment, governments on a tight budget will take that as a cue to go hunting for anything a university does that doesn’t, demonstrably, simplistically, generate the ideas that drive a new economy. Whatever they find that looks like a ‘frill’ by that definition will be in danger of getting cut. And frankly, most of what goes on at a university is hard to justify as part of a job-creation mill.”

Instead, he believes universities “need to go back to basics and talk more … about the intrinsic value of knowledge, scholarship, beauty, contention, and an environment that urges scholars toward ambition and accomplishment.”

I’m not so sure. I agree with him at a philosophical level, but I doubt whether it’s the type of argument that our current governments will buy into.

What do you think? What’s the best line of argument to protect universities from the cuts to come?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / December 15, 2009 at 17:05

    I agree with you, in the sense that I agree philosophically with the intrinsic value argument AND I don’t think our governments will be convinced.

    On the other hand, I don’t think our governments will be convinced by anything. I’m not sure there is an argument out there that is going to stop the cuts when we have governments that think tax cuts are important.

    And in that context, I think universities should be trying to do what they do best. Which is NOT being an engine of the economy, or a job creation mill. And is more like knowledge, scholarship, etc.

    Also, the stuff that is demonstrably important to the economy and job creation is the stuff it will be easier to find private funding for.

    If universities don’t stand up for the intrinsic value of knowledge and scholarship, how will we ever get politicians who will be persuaded by arguments like that?

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