Austerity, neoliberalism and Brock University

Education is a subject that seems obvious to discuss in the institutions that were built for that very reason. These days it may seem like some sort of a paradox to be educated about the politics of such institutions. It is then neccessary to talk about education and how it has been changing at a rapid rate within these institutions.

BuildingLet’s first start with education being a public service in Canada. For example, public services like health care, water and housing are similar to education in terms of being a human right, where having universal, equitable and publically-funded essential services seems like a necessary feat for human civilization. This, however, is not how the world is currently functioning.

So, access to services can be argued to be important to live a dignified life. The institutions that carry out these services in Canada have been in the public sector and carried out by the government for some time.

This is now changing; governmental public services are now being outsourced to private corporations. This is happening at a rapid rate across the world, not just in Canada; it is called privatization. It is important to understand this process because it is directing the future of many lives – including those who seek an education.

Privatization has a long history, informed by a mainly economic worldview. In its basic definition, it is the process of the public sector becoming owned and controlled by the private sector. It is tied to the quest for profit, which requires the commodification of whatever is turned into the “product”.

In Canada there has been a dominant political program that also uses privatization – neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has increased in scope in both social and political life around the world, and if we can understand this better, we will understand why certain issues have risen.

Neoliberalism has spread with the rapid globalization of the capitalist economy, seen in public sector planning and regulation in which its ideologies promote individualism, privatization and decentralization.

Neoliberalism has thus been a historical project that has and is changing and normalizing how society is to be structured, which is informed by economic solutions. The problems that neoliberalism pose are then answered by the very same logic.

Those claiming that this is the only way forward – “we need to get out of deficit” – then offer the solutions – “we need to tighten our belts”. This has been the song of austerity for some time now.

We see austerity being implemented when things go wrong for powerful decision makers and individuals are expected to deal with the devastating repercussions.
Understanding it as a “top down” process is also helpful where the hierarchy is seemingly set in stone, so those in municipal, provincial, and even federal governments can claim there is no choice but to keep sailing the unknown waters of the stormy economy.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been the first to demand that European countries begin the wide-spread program of austerity, explaining to people that this was necessary for the economy to become “healthy” again.CUTS

The difference between the language and the reality was that individuals had to sacrifice their pensions, savings and their very standard of living all for a debt of their country.

In the context of education, it is rather easy to see through the language that neoliberal cheerleaders use. Privatization and austerity – those terms seem necessary for a proper functioning society that wants to provide education for its citizens. Right?

Well, most know that when people start living in fear, they will resort to things that they normally wouldn’t do or allow. This step by step process may make it seem less dramatic, but the end result sure will be devastating.

Carlo Fanelli, an instructor at Ryerson University, understands that neoliberal proponents view knowledge as a commodity and education as a means of making money that must be privatized and made profitable.

“Increasingly, then, democratic control over resources, knowledge production and public space is monopolized by private interests with no other aim but to make a profit,” said Fanelli.
An example of this that Fanelli uses is when NAVITAS, a for-profit multinational educational corporation that charges domestic and international students fees while existing at a publicly funded institution. If more of these competitors hired non-unionized staff, for example, they will be at an advantage profit wise.

“Hence, many universities are streamlining their services and course offerings to those that address market considerations or are ‘business-related’, while those more critically inclined, and therefore less likely to buy into a purely market driven educational model are isolated or have their program spending reduced or axed all together,” said Fanelli.

Why is education seen as a place for capital investment then? Look at the two trillion dollars the education industry rakes in a year globally; capitalists are no doubt foaming at the mouth.

So, with this information to consider, how can smaller institutions be isolated from the larger global context that brought its existence about?

President Jack Lightstone of Brock University wrote in a letter addressed to the Brock community that “these are not good economic times, and Brock has not been immune to the financial challenges confronting universities across the country. In the past several years we have attempted to address Brock’s fiscal imbalance by growing revenues and by ‘belt-tightening’ in the budgets in all departments, units and Faculties.”

Although discussing the politics of education is always relevant, Brock University is currently experiencing the pressure of using austerity to stay afloat.
It is quite apparent how capitalism has created a cut throat industry based on competition.

“For Brock there is a significant sense of urgency. Given the cumulative impact of the competitive climate in the Post Secondary Education (PSE) sector, the economic downturn, shifting government policy, funding restraint and reduction, and last but not least, the university’s current fiscal condition, Brock faces extremely difficult challenges in the months and years ahead. The only way to mitigate the impact of these forces is to address them now, head-on,” wrote Lightstone in a report he made to the Senior Administrative Council and to Senate’s Planning, Priorities and Budget Advisory Committee.

Brock University’s recent Presidential Task Force is underway conducting a Program Review of all administrative and academic programs, units and services at the University. The Program Review will be the instrument that delivers the “integrated planning-budgeting process”; or, more plainly, budget cuts.

The Program Review determining the direction Brock will be taking has been informed by economist Robert Dickeson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance, which other universities have also adopted.

Nathan Cecckin, Vice-President of CUPE’s Unit 1, wrote that in the end, the review process is supported by an assertion that post-secndary insitutions should not be a centre of critical thought and expression, but should be transformed towards a source of development and employment for private capital.”

“As such, Dickeson contends that Universities should move away from developing critical thinking and towards base competence, general knowledge, and specific skills for employers whom demand employable graduates,” said Cecckin.

The Task Force expressed at the beginning of the process that it “must be comprehensive” and “only when a comprehensive review of the entirety of the institution has been completed, then, and only then, can the university shift to maintenance mode and make deliberative decisions of this type in a systematic way as part of an integrated planning-budgeting process,” said Lightstone’s report.

Comprehensive is not a word Brock University Faculty Assocation (BUFA) would describe this process as.

Representing 576 faculty and professional librarian members, BUFA has expressed concerns with the legitimacy of the Program Review and Task Force mandate itself, specifically with respect to the Task Force’s review of academic programs.

Although BUFA has made it clear that they do no object to program reviews, they have brought forth suggestions for the Task Force informed by the major concerns they had.
“One is that we believe the committee is infringing on senate’s legislative responsibility to do the academic review of programs, and the second part of the legitimacy issue is the structure and composition of the committee itself,” said Linda Rose-Krasnor, President of BUFA, in a Brock Radio interview.

For one, Task Force recommendations regarding these budgeting priorities (ceasing activities or engaging in major redesign) are expected by the end of October and to be completed by December, “by which point the data will have been collected and collated, and the findings forwarded to the President,” said Kevin Cavanagh, Director, Communications and Public Affairs at Brock.

Although The Task Force’s mandate is to collect and collate data, not make decisions, the timeline for the Program Review is one of the issues BUFA has with the structure of the process.

Just to provide a comparison, BUFA provided its members with the information from one university faculty association in which they estimated that the data-gathering, analytic, reflective, and writing processes associated with a Dickeson-like program review took their members, collectively, over a million hours during an 18-month period.

“Comments from members to BUFA clearly indicate that the amount of work required by the Program Review is already overwhelming and especially oppressive, given the timing of the submissions. This work has to be done in late summer and early fall. These are particularly heavy workload times for Chairs and Directors, given hiring of teaching assistants and other beginning-of-term requirements, as well as coinciding with research grant submission deadlines and fall course preparations,” said Rose-Krasnor.

BUFA’s perspective then is to see the academic review process of the Task Force stopped, rather than extended.

Jonah Butovsky, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department and BUFA executive, describes the process of being rushed and echoes Rose-Krasnor’s concerns with the Program Review not being representiative of all departments at Brock.

“I can’t help but think that the results are more or less preordained; the closing of smaller programs in the humanities, fine arts, and, maybe, social sciences. These are programs that don’t nicely fit into the corporate or entrepreneurial university.”

Butovsky also gives an example of the University of Alberta recently shutting down 20 Arts programs, due to the financial crisis.

Rose-Krasnor’s duty as BUFA President is to meet regularly with the presidents of other unions on campus. She indicates that the President’s Task Force and Program Review is of considerable concern to the other unions.

Although CUPE 4207, representing Part-Time Instructors, Teaching Assistants, Lab Demonstrators, Course Co-ordinators, Marker/Graders, full-time ESL Co-ordinators and all ESL Instructors, has been excluded from the review itself, Cecckin has been researching it from the outside.

“While the process at Brock has been promised to be inclusive and transparent, there is no representation from CUPE 4207. This should come as no surprise. We are routinely left out from having a voice in the processes that shape our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions.”

Cecckin’s research has been on the review process and ideological underpinnings from Dickeson’s perspective, from Brock and several other universities in Canada that are or have gone through the process.

“More particularly, on the prioritization of commodifiable research in the Sciences. Dickeson is open about Universities investing more in areas like Math and Science, where it can produce marketable products with, and for, private businesses,” said Cecckin.

“In looking at how the University is seeking to advance their review, they are using the same logic. In doing so, they adopt Dickeson’s ideological positions that universities should focus on job training for employers and marketing products rather than in critical thought. Further, the Brockized version of Dickeson’s program prioritization process leads programs to measure up to their strategic plan – one which expects development and expansion of the Sciences.”

In relation to the conversation about austerity, Cecckin’s view suggests that programs will need to be defended as to why they exist – they will be in competition with each other.
What is happening at Brock is deeply political, tied to the growing dominance of capitalism over important aspects of our lives that should not be up for sale.


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