Congress 2015: The one-sided higher ed conversation

There are missing voices in the public conversation around higher education, and it is hurting our ability to articulate alternative visions for the future of our universities.

I’m at the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Studies in Higher Education (CSSHE) at the excellent Congress of the Social Sciences in Ottawa. As usual, it’s a diverse program filled with interesting higher ed scholars presenting interesting and important research. The schedule also includes a keynote by Ian Clark, former civil servant and past head of the Council of Ontario Universities, as well as plenary panel featuring Paul Davidson, head of Universities Canada, and Denise Amyot, head of Colleges and Institutes Canada. All three are distinguished leaders and thinkers- why shouldn’t we consider what they have to say?

A few weeks ago, I was at a symposium on enrollment and university funding hosted by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU), the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), and OISE (where – disclosure time! – I am a PhD candidate). The first panel featured Harvey Weingarten, CEO of HEQCO and former President of the University of Calgary; Dan Lang, a respected economist with expertise in higher education; and George Fallis, also an economist and former Dean of York’s Faculty of Arts. Again, a very accomplished and expert panel, worthy of our time and attention.

But there’s also a pattern here. Two conferences, weeks apart, but a group of speakers with similar CVs. Civil Servants. Economists. Former administrators. These are the people we’re used to hearing from when there is a public conversation about higher education. You could also add paid consultants to this list, as they also make the speaking rounds with impressive regularity.

Not only do these speakers share similar CVs, but they also have strikingly similar views. They are individuals who have been trained to be single mindedly practical when it comes to higher education, to make the best of what is available within a well-defined public policy box. The walls of this box are well known: constrained public funding, high tuition fees, and the need for universities to justify their existence by aligning themselves to the short-term political objectives of the sitting government.

But who are we not hearing? What perspectives are missing? Absolutely nothing against the speakers I’ve singled out above, but public policy conversations around higher education in Canada and beyond are limited by a glaring absence of contrary or critical views. It’s not that these people don’t exist- there are many scholars and thinkers doing very interesting work on university governance, university priorities, and public policy. Indeed, many of them are presenting papers at the CSSHE conference. But when it comes time for plenary panels or public symposia on essential public policy questions, critical scholars are never given the stage or the microphone.

There are some – usually those who benefit from a radically constrained policy discourse – who would chalk this up to a lack of relevance or rigour in the work of those who criticize the current higher education policy box. But I don’t buy it. The problem, I think, is that the critical viewpoint has not attempted to assert itself publicly in any concerted way. As a result, critical thinkers remain unknown to the public gatekeepers – the editors, the conference organizers, and others who cultivate public opinion.

I suspect many critical scholars would prefer not to address the policy box, and to engage with the dominant perspectives on their own terms. Engagement with the policy box may be unpleasant, or intellectually frustrating, but it is necessary.

There are some positive signs abroad. The “Critical University Studies” movement is gaining momentum in the United States, and features some notable public appendages like Michael Meranze and Chris Newfield’s excellent Remaking the University blog. So far, similar initiatives are missing here in Canada.

So, here’s a call to action: if you disagree with the current public policy box around higher education, if your research has led you away from the current technocratic, metrics-obsessed discourse, then let’s hear from you. If we make enough noise, then it will be difficult to ignore the contrary perspectives that the current conversation needs.