The Real Problem with University Education

I’ve taken a lot of flack for the academic direction I chose. My father continually told me the story of a guy he knew that got his English M.A. or Ph.D. and ended up a house painter, making $14/hr (Spoiler: I found out after I graduated that the guy he was talking about did actually secure a job at a university, but slept with one of his first-year students. He was then blacklisted from academia and fell back on his “other skills”). Other faculties regularly use the arts as a dead horse to beat, deriding arts degrees for their inability to instantly grant the owner a well-paying job. I trucked on despite these comments. I was paying my own way, and doing something I loved. Once I finished, finding a decent job did take a little bit of time, but not more than can reasonably be expected for a new grad in any other discipline. The pay isn’t too shabby, either. More importantly, I graduated with a great set of skills and a better understanding of myself and what has been called “the human condition.”

My experience has made me a little bit protective of the arts, and I’ve been dismayed to watch as they suffer from death by 1000 cuts. Faculty members retire and are not replaced; professors are forced to focus on 100 level classes, to the detriment of their M.A. and Ph.D students, as the university reduces the number of sessional lecturers; and programs are shuttered due to low enrollment (sometimes due to a lack of available profs and classes, ironically).

At the same time, administrative costs have exploded; there are more and more VPs of random shite that used to be part of someone else’s portfolio—most of which need perks and high salaries to “attract them” to positions. More and more money is thrown down the pit of “increasing profile” for the university.

All of these things actually make a modicum of sense for a business the size of a university…but that’s precisely the problem: Universities should NOT be BUSINESSES. Universities should be places of LEARNING.

Does this mean that universities shouldn’t employ sound business practices? No. Some business practices, specifically those focusing on accountability and efficiency, translate wonderfully into the running of any large institution. The difference is that a university must be operated with the goal of education at the forefront of every decision that is made. If, at any point, a course of action is considered that will not benefit the overall pedagogical goals of a university, it should be dismissed or re-tuned.

Over the recent years, there have been a number of concerns voiced by faculty and the public over the changes that university administrators have imposed across Canada, and the impact those changes have had on academic goals, either directly or through the redirection of finances to achieve goals that have nothing to do with academics. Worse, when pressed on these issues, administrators have often refused to disclose costs, fearing outrage and retribution.

The most recent criticism I’ve come across was in the Calgary Herald, focusing on $8.1 million spent renovating offices for the top administrators at the University of Calgary–at a time when the university was experiencing a 7.3% cut in government grants. Worse, there were other capital-project priorities, such as upgrades to aging classrooms and almost $400 million in deferred maintenance liability (quick primer: necessary, preventative maintenance and upgrades are scheduled for each year, to ensure buildings and systems continue to run. This maintenance can be deferred to save money, but doing so creates a costly backlog of things to be done—that’s the “liability” part—and increases the likelihood of a major system breakdown).

Let me put that another way: at a time when $400 million in maintenance was backlogged for things like electrical systems, plumbing, proactively or addressing issues with student-used facilities like swimming pools and gyms, the administration decided to spend $8.1 million to design, build, and furnish larger offices for their administration, and put in a $150,000 staircase to ensure that executives can travel between floors without slumming it in a public stairwell. The justification? “The space, specifically for the president, that the board of governors worked out of was embarrassing”; offices were “antiquated,” having not received any “significant work” in the previous 5 years. That’s right: 5 years—that’s the timeline they specified. Never mind that many universities in Canada are still using facilities that haven’t been upgraded since they were built in the 1960s, or may have last received a facelift in the 1980s.

Student comments following the article were scathing, and note a massive list of deficiencies currently found at the U of C. They are outraged—and they should be. The problem is that no one is listening. Programs like those lumped into “Arts” continue to die off because they don’t immediately address occupational needs in an increasingly specialist-focused job market; learning for the sake of human advancement has become almost passé. Even those in the well-funded programs (often through private donation) such as engineering have begun to notice the cracks in the walls, as the administrative bloat worsens and there is less to spend on things that need doing.

Call me old fashioned, or even call me ignorant, but I can’t help but believe in a “if you build it, they will come” approach. Focus on doing everything possible to improve the academic experience, without beggaring your students, and those students will come—even if you haven’t spent $200,000 plus perks annually for a V.P. of student engagement.

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