Universities are in trouble. If it's not student protests in debt-addled Quebec, it's the sagging weight of joblessness and pragmatic cynicism under which post-secondary education suffers. For post-grads it gets even worse, especially if the humanities or social sciences are the end game. Funding at the federal level continues to be curtailed under a political culture in which, and I quote from a conservative convention, "Canada's universities are the think tanks of the left." Imagine the enthusiasm of conservatives to cut bigger cheques.
What is to be done to resolve this stalemate between a marginalized academy and a disinterested, maybe hostile, political class? A few options have surfaced over the last decade.
First, there is independent higher education. Polarization alarmists won't like this at all, but a plural public square doesn't necessarily mean the government needs to fund all aspects of that pluralism. Public education should, in fact, be at the service of the public, and if a public administration feels that job is being done inadequately, or perhaps more odiously has an interpretation of public interest which barely exceeds the moral imagination of the G.D.P., then it might be time to think about finding more creative backers. They do exist. (Watch for a great deal more on state and non-state schooling in the 2012 Cardus Education Survey report, coming next month.)
But newspapers bleed with the casualties of corporate relationships with the academy. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, up to its usual hijinks, has gone hoarse crying foul over both the Balsillie School at Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Waterloo, and the Clayton Riddell deal with Carleton University. CAUT insists the academy is not for sale, but when no one's really sure what it's for or who wants it, it's a buyer's market.
Not so the independents of the post-secondary world, who rid education of the fashionable philosophical fictions of academic freedom, and talk frankly about ends, means, telos. All education has aims, has virtues and values, which underlie them. Political correctness has robbed many professional thinking persons of sustaining their convictions under the pretense of open mindedness. But freedom is constricted most not when education declares and sustains its ends, but when it offers itself as neutral and cleanly secular. There is no such thing, and no such place.
Second, of course, is a project of reformation within the public academy, of the kind that Roland Paris suggests in his June blog. He poses three steps:
- Create a means for assessment and advancement that also includes policy engagement, not only peer review research and teaching.
- Place a priority on translating research into accessible formats, and training academics to write for any audience, not merely their peers.
- Make all this available to the public, the ones who at this point still pay, and have a vested interest in important ideas getting back to them. Why should interested public parties have to pay twice (at least in Canada) for research?
All these steps are targeted at making the academy relevant to policy makers, politicians, and ultimately the public. But what the world needs most is not our relevance. Relevance is not incidental, especially as it relates to funding, but for innovative public/private partnerships, my money is on the folks who talk about what they believe, why, and then sustain it. It's harder to be bought by an agenda if you already have a coherent one, and easier to stand on principles if you know what they are.