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Speculative Diction

Higher ed news tidbits – from around the world and the web


Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland last week that he has a grand plan for Canada, and it sounds like part of this plan will include an overhaul of the Canadian R&D policy and funding structures. Changes are likely to be based on the recent R&D review “Innovation Canada: A call to action” (which I wrote about back in October) and there could be significant implications for Canada’s Tri-Council funding agencies (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR).

Another aspect of this plan is Bill C-11, which has been called the “Canadian SOPA,” although it’s been subject to a relatively limited amount of coverage and debate. The bill has been criticized for its treatment of digital locks (or “technological protection measures”), following the U.S. DMCA that created a series of contradictions and problems for users trying to access legally purchased digital materials. Critics fear that Canadians will soon be dealing with the same problems, since C-11 is built on the same framework of assumptions about digital content.

Back in December the renowned Canadian art school, NSCAD University, faced once again the threat of consolidation with Dalhousie University for the sake of financial efficiency. Nova Scotia’s provincial government has postponed talk of mergers for the moment, and will cover the university’s deficit of $2.4 million under the proviso that NSCAD makes cuts to its budget, potentially through collaboration with other institutions.

On Wednesday, February 1st the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) will be rallying thousands of students across the country for their National Day of Action against rising tuition fees. In Ontario the CFS protests take direct aim at the provincial Liberal government’s recent tuition rebate policy, which has suffered critiques from all sides since it was announced during the provincial election campaign leading up to October 6. The CFS has accused Dalton McGuinty of breaking promises by restricting the criteria for access to the rebate (and for cutting funds in other areas), while Minister Glen Murray has insisted that the policy details were outlined clearly all along.

Tuition has also been an issue south of the border in the United States, where in his State of the Union address last week President Barack Obama made the rather unusual announcement that he is putting higher education “on notice.” The President intimated that if U.S. colleges could not rein in rampant tuition fees, punitive policy tools would be employed (such as withdrawal of government funding from offending institutions). While it’s a step forward that Obama has publicly tackled the issue of student debt burdens and their connection to high tuition, it seems unlikely that this kind of policy would actually cause reductions to costs for students.

The recent “indefinite postponement” of SOPA has meant that researchers’ attention is now directed to the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699) which would eliminate open access by citizens to federally funded research. The bill is supported by academic publishers, who have themselves been the recipients of more frequent and vicious critiques as the costs of access to academic knowledge continue to spiral upwards. Scientists are particularly concerned, given the potential effects of restricted information flows on the creation and use of new scientific knowledge. Mathematician Timothy Gowers has called for an international ban on publisher Elsevier for its support of both SOPA and the Research Works Act, and researchers are now signing up for the boycott via an international petition.

A trans-Atlantic case involving oral history and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continues to raise questions about the limits of confidentiality and academic freedom, and international law. Researchers at Boston College in the United States are struggling to maintain protection of interviews with former IRA members, arguing that revealing their identities would risk their lives and prevent more informants from participating. But aggrieved family members of victims want the information made available so that those who committed crimes can be charged.

After tuition increases of roughly 60% at English universities, what do this year’s undergraduate applications looks like? The Guardian UK reported an 8% drop in UK applicants overall and a 9.9% reduction in England, the largest drop in several decades. Though part of this can be attributed to a bubble of applications the previous year, the numbers are still raising concerns over accessibility of postsecondary education in the wake of significant policy reforms. An independent commission backed by the Sutton Trust will be monitoring how increased fees and student debt affect students; it’s probable that ongoing effects of the changes on students’ lives cannot be “captured” in terms of fee increases vs. enrollments of low-income students.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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