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President’s message / A tale of two conferences

President’s message / A tale of two conferences

By James Compton

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”

The famous opening from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities came to me as I rode the train to Pearson Airport this past Nov. 30. Only 45 minutes earlier I was speaking as part of a plenary panel for the fourth annual Skills and Post- Secondary Education Summit in downtown Toronto. The Conference Board of Canada event had attracted senior university administrators, post-secondary education consultants and corporate donors. I was invited to fly the CAUT flag and represent the perspective of faculty. The message I delivered was not met with much enthusiasm.          

The relatively chilly reception I received from the Conference Board attendees was in stark contrast to the Education International conference I had attended only two weeks earlier in Accra, Ghana. At the 10th International Further & Higher Education & Research Conference, the values and policies espoused by CAUT were not only warmly welcomed, they were being acted upon. My recollection of Dickens’ famous line, and the novel’s themes of resurrection and renunciation, was an attempt to make sense of the Gestalt shift I was experiencing.

I arrived for the Conference Board summit’s first day and quietly slipped into a session called “Connecting the Dots: Aligning Canada’s Skills Development System to Labour Market Needs.” The title should have tipped me off. Something I knew simply as education had been renamed a “skills development system.” This kind of bureaucratese is, I think, what Orwell meant when he wrote, “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”          

I listened to the presentations and discerned a certain pattern. The word “disruption” was very popular. It was used in a way that communicated simultaneous concern and hopefulness. Technological change was ushering in a moment of creative destruction and it was the job of PSE administrators to seize the opportunity during uncertain economic times. It was, according to the speakers, the “season of light” and “darkness,” the “spring of hope” and the “winter of despair.” The basic question addressed by presenters was not: how can we improve education? But rather, how can the PSE sector adapt itself to labour market needs as defined by new technology, industry and business?

I was the first of three speakers on the day’s final plenary panel on sustainable funding for PSE. I delivered a short talk describing CAUT policy and explained that we believe PSE faces a revenue problem, not a cost problem. Academic-rank salaries, measured as a percentage of total university expenditures, have been dropping, not rising in recent years. They now sit at a little over 20 per cent of total expenditures — quashing the stereotype that overpaid professors need to have their sails trimmed.

In the 1990s, state backing for PSE accounted for 80 per cent of funding, but by 2014 it had slipped to below 50 per cent. CAUT, I argued, believes the dramatic shortfall can be rectified by replacing the current Canada Social Transfer with two separate stand-alone funds for social services and PSE. The new PSE Act would be modeled on the Canada Health Act, complete with dedicated funding totaling $400 million.

The moderator exclaimed that I had made some “controversial comments” and invited people to ask questions. They did. How can the government provide more funding? That won’t happen. And my favourite: “this is like believing in unicorns.” The speaker then encouraged the assembly to move on to more practical matters, like how to cut costs. No one addressed the empirical evidence I presented that faculty salaries were not a burden. Instead, one frustrated speaker rose from the floor saying she wanted to make a radical suggestion: Why not treat PSE as a business? The room broke out into spontaneous applause. I responded that education should best be thought of as a public good, and not a commodity. No one applauded. That apparently was not “disruptive” enough.          

It had been a different story in Ghana. Union and faculty association delegates at the Education International conference, gathered in Accra. They came from Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe and Australia — all with a shared commitment to work collectively to combat the forces of privatization and marketization threatening university and college education. Delegates were prioritizing human needs over the functional requirements of an abstract system. Topics discussed included a review of PSE in Africa, labour precarity, and building a knowledge commons — all issues familiar to faculty association members in Canada.          

There was also spontaneous applause. However, in this case, delegates were honouring the courage of Dr. Miguel Beltrán, a Colombian sociologist who spent two years in a Colombian jail on false charges that he had collaborated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He had arrived late after being detained by Panamanian authorities on route to Accra. Beltrán’s critical scholarship on student activism and the FARC movement had put him on the wrong side of the Colombian government. His determination to defend the principle of academic freedom had made him a respected role model.

The Colombian Supreme Court repealed Beltrán’s eight-year sentence Sept. 1, after a successful campaign by union activists and scholars. Three months later, as I sat on the train, the disparity between the two conferences and the principles they purported to defend could not have been clearer. I knew what kind of disruption I preferred.

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