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President’s Message / Consulting for austerity

President’s Message / Consulting for austerity

By Peter McInnis​

The notion that our professional careers as researchers and educators may be significantly influenced by private consultants might come as a revelation to many of us. It shouldn’t be, as the world of corporate consulting is a lucrative business and reaches into multiple facets of our lives. The “big four” global consulting firms are well known: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young (EY). However, a niche consulting area in post-secondary education has been advancing steadily and may have more to do with shaping our work environment than first realized. Notable among these is the Australian-based firm, the Nous Group.

Established in 1999, Nous initially sought clients in Australia and New Zealand as part of an aggressive move toward “higher education benchmarking” and the imposition of austerity correctives. The resulting job restructuring led to job losses, with survivors facing high levels of precarity. Nous branched out to the United Kingdom and Ireland and, in 2019, the Nous Group Canada established offices in Toronto.

A “debut client” included the University of Alberta, reeling from the first of what was to be many provincial cuts to the university operating budgets. For Alberta, this partnership helped to “realize more than $100 million in savings.” Nous now lists a dozen Canadian universities as recipients of their expertise. Given the propensity of universities to mimic one another, more clients may be predicted as the company is — much like a virus — “growing in current geographies and potentially in new geographies.”

Paging through the Nous Group website is both startling and alarming. Startling that outside consultants have been active for decades in post-secondary education and alarming to see the human consequences of such a “transformation strategy.” The corporate terminology is replete with oddly decontextualized action words, but persistence yields answers. Nous states they provide governments and senior administrators with a suite of “data-driven insights” to “see the future.”

No innocuous Magic-8 Ball of fortune-telling, this is a future of diminished learning potential and constricted career pathways. Nousers (their term) offer a full slate of managerialism, monetization and audit culture in what has been termed “progressive neoliberalism.”

Following a well-established plan devised for Australian universities, cost-cutting measures are recommended, often with special attention given to disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

The Nous Group declares, “Many universities have a long tail of lightly attended units that generate minimal revenue and sometimes run at a loss. By rationalising course offers and redesigning course architecture, universities can save funds….” The resulting elimination of swathes of “low-value” degrees at universities is one consequence of this relentless audit culture. Senior administrators faced with reductions to government transfers, demographic shifts, spiraling inflation, and the uncertain post-pandemic environment present a receptive audience for this austerity toolkit. We should be wary that the augmentation of technology brought on by COVID-19 has opened opportunities to, as Nous says, “manage the rise of the digital estate… for staff restructuring and a switch to virtual learning.”

Collegial governance is also on their radar. The Nous Group touts its involvement at Laurentian University and the notorious imposition, in February 2021, of the commercial insolvency process through the Companies Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). The CCAA process was devastating to Laurentian, resulting in slashed programs and job losses for faculty and staff.

In Nouser parlance, Laurentian was an excellent candidate for restructuring as declining enrollment and high capital expenditures left the institution with an unsustainable financial outlook. Not mentioned in the anodyne online description is the financial malfeasance of senior university administrators that resulted in a severe rebuke by the Ontario Auditor-General. The use of consultants, with the misdirection of shiny action plans, serves to obscure culpability of wrongdoing at the administrative level. Further recommendations to erode collegial governance, bypass university senate and seek advice directly from Nous will impair any reconstruction process.

Crucial lessons are to be gleaned from the Laurentian debacle, but they will not come from hired consultants.

In response to ongoing threats to collegial governance, the CAUT Executive established a standing committee to monitor these developments and recommend constructive actions to ensure the substantive participation of faculty in university affairs. Beyond drawing attention to post-secondary education consultants, the broader observation is that university and college faculty must participate in the governance of their institutions.

Without active democratic engagement, post secondary education yields ground to neoliberal technocrats. Consequently, our institutions may be “transformed” beyond recognition from ones offering a diversity of subject knowledge and broader societal contributions to highly commodified enterprises geared to extruding “knowledge products.”

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