Tag Archives: The Tyee

Dark Days for Our Universities

Cross-posted from Workplace Blog

[Recent events at Capilano University and University of Saskatchewan have raised serious concerns about the health of the academic culture of post-secondary institutions in Canada. Crawford Kilian, who taught at Capilano College from its founding in 1968 until it became a university in 2008, wrote the following analysis of Canadian academic culture for The Tyee, where he is a contributing editor. The Institute for Critical Education Studies at UBC is pleased to reprint the article here, with the author’s permission.]

Dark Days for Our Universities
Dr. Buckingham’s censure only confirms the long, tragic decline of Canadian academic culture
Crawford Kilian
(Originally published in TheTyee.ca, May 19, 2014)

On May 13 I attended a meeting of the Board of Governors of Capilano University, which has had a very bad year.

Last spring the board agreed to cut several programs altogether. This caused considerable anger and bitterness, especially since the recommendations for the cuts had been made by a handful of administrators without consulting the university senate.

Recently, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the board’s failure to consult with the senate was a breach of the University Act. This upset the board members, who may yet appeal the decision.

Adding to the angst was the disappearance of a satirical sculpture of Cap’s president, Kris Bulcroft, which had been created and displayed on campus by George Rammell, an instructor in the now-dead studio arts program. Thanks to media coverage, the sculpture has now been seen across the country, and by far more people.

Board Chair Jane Shackell (who was my student back in 1979) stated at the meeting that she had personally ordered the removal of the sculpture because it was a form of harassment of a university employee, the president. Rather than follow the university’s policy on harassment complaints (and Bulcroft had apparently not complained), Shackell seemed to see herself as a one-person HR committee concerned with the president alone.

At the end of the meeting another retired instructor made an angry protest about the board’s actions. Like the judge in a Hollywood court drama, my former student tried to gavel him down.

I didn’t feel angry at her; I felt pity. It was painfully clear that she and her board and administration are running on fumes.

The mounting crisis

I look at this incident not as a unique outrage, but as just another example of the intellectual and moral crisis gripping Canadian post-secondary education. The old scientific principle of mediocrity applies here: very few things are unique. If it’s happening in North Vancouver, it’s probably happening everywhere.

And it certainly seems to be. On the strength of one short video clip, Tom Flanagan last year became an unperson to the University of Calgary, where he’d taught honourably for decades. He was already scheduled to retire, but the president issued a news release that made it look as if he was getting the bum’s rush.

More recently, Dr. Robert Buckingham publicly criticized a restructuring plan at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was dean of the School of Public Health.

In a 30-second interview with the university provost, he was fired and escorted off campus.

A day later the university president admitted firing him had been a “blunder” and offered to reinstate him as a tenured professor, but not as a dean. It remains to be seen whether he’ll accept.

The problem runs deeper than the occasional noisy prof or thin-skinned administrator. It’s systemic, developed over decades. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted last November, the University of Manitoba faculty very nearly went on strike until the president’s office agreed to a collective agreement ensuring professors’ right to speak freely, even if it meant criticizing the university.

Universities ‘open for business’

At about the same time, the Canadian Association of University Teachers published a report, Open for Business. CAUT warned about corporate and government deals with universities that would ditch basic research for more immediately convenient purposes.

“Unfortunately,” the report said, “attempts by industry and government to direct scholarly inquiry and teaching have multiplied in the past two decades…. For industry, there is a diminished willingness to undertake fundamental research at its own expense and in its own labs — preferring to tap the talent within the university at a fraction of the cost.

“For politicians, there is a desire to please industry, an often inadequate understanding of how knowledge is advanced, and a short time horizon (the next election). The result is a propensity to direct universities ‘to get on with’ producing the knowledge that benefits industry and therefore, ostensibly, the economy.”

This is not a sudden development. The expansion of North America’s post-secondary system began soon after the Second World War and really got going after Sputnik, when the Soviets seemed to be producing more and better graduates than the West was. That expansion helped to fuel decades of economic growth (and helped put the Soviets in history’s ashcan).

Throughout that period, academic freedom was in constant peril. In the Cold War, U. S. professors were expected to sign loyalty oaths. In 1969-70 Simon Fraser University went through a political upheaval in which eight faculty members were dismissed and SFU’s first president resigned.

A Faustian bargain

What is different now is that Canadian post-secondary must depend more and more on less and less government support. Postwar expansion has become a Faustian bargain for administrators: to create and maintain their bureaucracies and programs, post-secondary schools must do as they’re paid to do. If public money dwindles, it must be found in higher student fees, in corporate funding, in recruiting foreign kids desperate for a Canadian degree.

So it’s no surprise that Dr. Buckingham was sacked for criticizing a budget-cutting plan to rescue an ailing School of Medicine by putting it into Buckingham’s thriving School of Public Health.

And it’s no surprise that Capilano University had shortfalls right from its announcement in 2008. It had to become a university to attract more foreign students than it could as a mere college, but at the last minute the Gordon Campbell Liberals reneged on their promise to give it university-level funding.

For six years, then, Cap’s board and administration have known they were running on fumes. They are in the same predicament as B.C. school boards, who must do the government’s dirty work and take the blame for program and teacher cuts.

In 40 years of teaching at Cap, I rarely attended board meetings, and never did a board member visit my classes. I don’t know the members of this current board, apart from a couple of faculty representatives, but I’ve served as a North Vancouver school trustee. As an education journalist I’ve talked to a lot of university and college administrators, not to mention school trustees. I know how they think.

Managing the decline

For any school or university board, underfunding creates a terrible predicament: protest too loudly and you’ll be replaced by a provincial hireling who’ll cut without regard for the school’s long-term survival. If you have any love for the institution, you can only try to do damage control. But when your teachers or professors protest, as they have every right to, that annoys and embarrasses the government. It will punish you for not imposing the “silence of the deans” on them.

University presidents and senior administrators make six-figure salaries and enjoy high prestige. They are supposed to be both scholars and managers. Their boards are supposed to be notable achievers as well, though their achievements have often been in the service of the governing party. Their education has served them well, and now they can serve education.

But a Darwinian selection process has made them servants of politics instead, detached from the true principles of education. When they realize that their job is not to serve education but to make the government look good, they panic. Everything they learned in school about critical thinking and reasoned argument vanishes.

In reward for previous achievements and political support, the B.C. government appointed Cap’s board members to run the school without giving them the money to run it well, or even adequately. And whatever their previous achievements, they have lacked the imagination and creativity — the education — to do anything but make matters worse. Faced with an angry faculty and a humiliating court judgment, they have drawn ridicule upon themselves and the university.

They can’t extricate themselves and they have no arguments left to offer — only the frantic banging of a gavel that can’t drown out the voice of an angry retired prof exercising his right to speak freely. [Tyee]

BC Education Plan Linked to Private Corporations

BC Education Plan Linked to Private Corporations
Partnership between education ministry and not-for-profit with billionaire partners raises concerns.

By Katie Hyslop, 5 Oct 2012, TheTyee.ca

The government is proud of using citizen engagement and best practices to decide what and how to teach children in the BC Education Plan. But it’s also engaging at least one not-for-profit organization whose partners include technology corporations and private foundations that favour private market solutions to issues in the public education system.

British Columbia is one of 12 “jurisdictions” of the Global Education Leaders’ Program (GELP), a not-for-profit social enterprise organization based in the United Kingdom that according to its website is “committed to using the power of innovation to solve social challenges.”

“GELP’s ability to bring people together to think collectively and intensively about important issues around transformation is the key,” Rod Allen, B.C.’s superintendent of student achievement, says in a video posted on GELP’s website last month.

“It will be interesting for people to learn from us and we learn from them, but it’s what happens when you’re in the room together actively discussing and thinking about those issues that, to me, is the real magic.”

Run by the Innovation Unit, another not-for-profit social enterprise organization, GELP’s partners include technology corporations Cisco Systems Inc. and Promethean, and private foundations The Ellen Koshland Family Fund and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the latter of which openly supports the growth of charter schools in the U.S.

The relationship between the province’s Ministry of Education and GELP concerns Tara Ehrcke, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, a local of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).

The government presented the BC Education Plan as a solution to the needs of B.C. students, but the partnership with GELP leads her to believe the plan is actually suited to the needs of technology corporations.

“I think [the Ed Plan’s] goals are related to allowing companies to have a piece of the [Kindergarten to Grade 12] market,” she said.

When GELP met government

The BC Education Plan, launched last October, promises improved access to digital technology for students at school and at home, and includes a partnership with telecommunications corporation Telus to connect all schools to the Internet.

The plan’s online presence is designed around the idea of a continuous discussion with the public about what it would like to see in the future for education in B.C., but the ministry hopes to have a new BC Education Program by 2014.

A key part of the plan is personalized learning, also referred to as 21st century learning. According to the plan’s website, this include identifying what makes an educated citizen and how the K-12 system can achieve that, a focus on the “core competencies, skills, and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century,” and flexibility regarding whether a student learns in the classroom or through online learning.

In comparison, GELP has similar goals. The organization’s main objectives include advocating for 21st century learning and what it calls Education 3.0, a set of ideas outlined through a series of white papers co-written by software corporation Cisco Systems.

Elements of Education 3.0 include a focus on “holistic change” to the school system, “collaborative learning technologies,” and “a transfer of ownership from teachers to learners.”

According to a GELP case study on the BC Education Plan, the Ministry of Education was introduced to GELP when ministry officials met the organization’s co-founder Valerie Hannon at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement conference held in Vancouver in 2009.

The case study outlines stages of the BC Education Plan that are already underway, including redesigning curriculum, allowing school boards to set school calendars, and emphasizing school choice for parents. It notes the ministry has developed a team of 20 experts in order to deliver the plan, chosen by school superintendents, principals and vice-principals.

Future steps for the plan include a focus on reading — which the ministry announced earlier this year with the hiring of Superintendent of Reading Maureen Dockendorf — re-examining assessment, and a “decategorization of special needs education,” after which student achievement superintendent Allen is quoted as saying “no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised [sic] world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.”

BC Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert has concerns about the changes to special needs education, particularly since class size and composition, and the environment children live in at home, aren’t addressed in the BC Education Plan.

“We know that those are the two key factors around teaching and learning that build success; the BC Education Plan is completely devoid of any kind of conversation or addressing of those factors,” she told The Tyee.

“There’s this sense now that if you can just teach children correctly, if we can find a best practice that will allow every child to learn and grow, then we’ll be fine, we won’t have to put in special services for children with special needs, we won’t have to reduce class sizes so that children get more one on one attention. It’s duplicitous, because in fact it is designed simply to reduce the need for funding a high quality system, and that will be at the expense of every child.”

The Tyee contacted the Ministry of Education with questions about its relationship with GELP. A spokesperson told The Tyee the ministry consulted with several groups about the plan.

“The ministry staff talked to educators and other organizations in Alberta, Ontario, Finland, among other jurisdictions, and that was part of the research into the Ed Plan. The discussions and research into the Ed Plan began before the ministry engaged with GELP,” he said, although he could not confirm when that was.

Both Ontario and Finland are listed as GELP jurisdictions on GELP’s website, which outlines how much help they provide: “Each jurisdiction team is supported through six-monthly collaborative events, extended workshops, on-site and remote consultancy support, cross-country working groups and webinars. At the biannual Global Events, the whole GELP community meets in one of the participating countries to share leading-edge thinking and ideas. Teams work together to solve mutual challenges and offer critical support to one another.”

In a follow-up email, the ministry spokesperson told The Tyee although the BC Education Plan was officially launched last year, government has been looking at education reform for the last 10 years.

“There isn’t one moment in time when the research began, or research started with one specific organization – this has been an ongoing process. The ministry is always reviewing new and exemplary practices in B.C. and other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world that support students,” reads the email.

Value from every dollar

Innovation Unit, GELP’s parent organization, says in their mission statement they “have a strong track record of supporting leaders and organisations [sic] delivering public services to see and do things differently. They come to us with a problem and we empower them to achieve radically different solutions that offer better outcomes for lower costs.”

The Tyee couldn’t find a reference on the GELP website to the necessity of lowering the costs of education.

In an email to The Tyee, co-founder Hannon confirmed that working with finite resources is GELP’s specialty.

“Resources available to education are not infinite. Rightly and reasonably, the need and demand from education increases. Therefore we need to get the most value out of each $ spent,” Hannon writes, adding, “our sponsors have never attempted to exercise any ‘editorial control.'”

Ehrcke, who wrote a blog post on the ministry’s association with GELP, says Hannon’s focus on saving money jibes with the B.C. government’s history of closing down 176 schools in the last 11 years, citing a lack of funding.

She’s concerned that an organization with private corporations for partners doesn’t have the best solutions for a public education system in mind.

“It’s not surprising if your perspective is profitability for Cisco Systems or whoever, that your point of view would be ‘how do we expand into those markets?'” she says.

“I see public education as something that ought to be provided publicly with public funding and publicly managed, upholding principles of equity, and the private sector really shouldn’t have a part in that.”

GELP’s partners aren’t the only corporations the Ministry of Education has been linked to recently. Donald Gutstein, a School of Communications professor at Simon Fraser University, produced a research paper for the BCTF in June examining the BC Education Plan and speculating as to how the corporate aspirations of Pearson Education, a global education supplies and technology corporation, could fit with the ministry’s plans for education reform.

Pearson purchased the Ontario company The Administrative Assistants Ltd., which produced the software for BCeSIS, the troubled Ministry of Education database, in 2010.

One of the links Gutstein points out between the BC Ed plan and Pearson’s mandate is one that GELP shares: a focus on personalized or 21st century education. It’s a framework both Lambert and Ehrcke find misleading.

“It’s packaged under the guise of a love affair of technology and this criticism of the current system of not keeping up with the pace of change, which is so untrue,” Lambert told The Tyee.

Ehrcke says she isn’t against change in education, and acknowledges that all school boards will purchase computers. But she challenges the assumption that digital gadgets are necessary for learning, and believes the $346,326.66 her district spent on Apple products could have been better spent.

“From an educational point of view, you think about learning first, and then you think about what are the tools that we need to create the best learning environment. You don’t start with the tool and build your curriculum around it,” she says.

BCTF not consulted

Superintendent Allen says in the video on GELP’s website the partnership with GELP isn’t about answers to the ministry’s problems, but rather the correct framing of the questions.

“One of the things that we like about GELP is that it’s more about the questions than about the answers, because we’re just trying to refine the questions. Once you get to answers, it feels like then the inquiry stops,” he says.

“So we want increasingly interesting and engaging questions that lead us deeper and deeper into the work.”

Lambert is upset, however, that GELP was consulted on education reform when, after two years of asking to be part of a revisioning of education in B.C., the BCTF was only asked to consult with government earlier this year after the BC Education Plan was announced.

“We were asked by the [then] minister [George Abbott] during job action,” she told The Tyee.

“We declined during job action. We were at such huge odds at the bargaining table: we weren’t able to negotiate class size and composition, we weren’t able to bargain adequate salaries that would attract the brightest and best into teaching, we weren’t able to bargain prep time, so we couldn’t then go in with the minister and chat about education reform.

“It was hypocritical of them, I think, to ask us in after the development of the vision, even though they knew we had been demanding, asking, pleading to get in on the ground floor, they shut us out.”

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.