U Views A Report on the University in Canada

James Gifford


When first asked to give a report on the state of the university in Canada, I began by questioning my capacity to do so as a professor at an American private university, albeit non-profit, located in Canada. A situation such as mine sits uneasily in discussions about the state of the discipline, the persistent globalization of an institution – the university – that formerly served the interests of nationalist culture, and the increasing fiscal pressures on Canada’s public education system, pressures that serve to redirect public education’s aims and ambitions. We teach, conduct research and fulfill our professional service, and graduate students prepare to do so, during a time when the idea of a university is transitioning from a space to a series of relations or reputations and from a means of recreating particular national cultures to a mechanism in the economic process of globalization. To the extent that such ‘spaces’ have traditionally been predicated on exclusionary and imperialist cultures, often literally walled towers, so much the better. An idea of the university that serves the community at large and dismantles authoritarian elitism seems a noble thought, and the rubble of such walls seems little to weep over. However, insofar as the emergence of a new type of university simply marks the imposition of new forms of cultural hegemony and effaces spheres of cooperative thought and action, so much the worse for us. We may be simply exchanging our walls for the mind-forged manacles of competition and self-imposed conditions of class.

As a symptom of our current (and justified) anxieties in Canada, I take David Seeler’s recent comments as the President of the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty Association. The province has begun applying pressure on the University to revise its decision against partnering with Richard Homburg to create a Real Estate Studies program – specifically, it is considering allowing direct competition against UPEI by revising the province’s University Act. Seeler responded that “given the experience of other provinces with for-profit, online universities, any decision about these schools should not be taken lightly” (“Hard” A8). It is also worth noting that despite the widespread competition for students already enshrined in such systemic notions as Full-Time Enrollment credits for provincial funding, the more overt introduction of a competitive educational model arouses concern here. A cynic would question whether perhaps this concern grows because such competition relates to those students whose resources are already disproportionately expropriated by the public system. As the CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin notes in its report, of which Seeler’s comments are a part,

New Brunswick shut down Lansbridge University – a mostly online, for-profit school focusing on business studies – this year after a recommendation from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. Similar action has been taken in British Columbia, where the government has imposed a six-month moratorium on new applications for degree programs since September 2010. (“Hard” A8)

The final note on BC is a misnomer since the troubles facing University Canada West – a private, for-profit university formerly in conflict with CAUT/ACPPU (“B.C. Accepts” A2) – were stated directly by the BC Ministry rather than implicitly through a province-wide moratorium that effects public universities more than any other group. Nevertheless, the dilemma and the sentiment it reveals are telling in many ways. As North America struggles through economic woes generated in part from a real estate and speculation bubble, a bubble that is very probably still in process in Canada, real estate is not a neutral or purely training-oriented matter. Cuts in university funding and concomitant hiring or salary freezes (or even compulsory furloughs) are being attributed across Canada to this crisis, whether justifiably or not. In relation to easily valued assets, such as real estate and other forms of property, the largely international student base served by the private, for-profit institutions to which CAUT refers demonstrates the public institutions’ concerns over those students from whom a good deal of assets are expropriated. Our worries surround the potential exploitation of students who are already in a position of exploitation in the existing system.

A second component is the easy elision between private, profit and online universities for emotive rather than factual ends, which leads to an inevitable commentary from James Turk, CAUT’s executive director. His response ends the article: “Hopefully most people understand that a real university isn’t simply about providing a few courses in one subject…. If the PEI government goes ahead with this request, maybe it’s hoping a McDonald’s Hamburger University… will relocate to Charlottetown” (“Hard” A8). The sentiment is entirely understandable and the problem very real, but UPEI itself originates from a private, religious university merging with a younger public college. It also comes at a time when Canada’s major distance education university, Athabasca University, has been awarded accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is largely focused on accreditation in the American Middle States region (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, etc.), and closer to my home, schools such as Simon Fraser University are in the process of applying for the same. Our public institutions have also developed partnerships with private, for-profit enterprise through Navitas Ltd., amongst others, mainly to recruit the cash cow of for-profit foreign tuition. This has ushered in a model that too-frequently places sincere yet non-Canadian students in a position of neo-imperial exploitation and expropriation of their resources by our public institutions while generating new ways to exploit Canada’s academic institutions for commercial or immigration purposes unrelated to study. This situation returns attention to Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins and his contention that globalization “is not a neutral process in which Washington and Dakar participate equally…. [T]he process of expropriation by transnational capital that globalization names is something from which the United States and Canada are currently suffering” (2). Fifteen years later, the global university remains caught within this period of transition, which makes the transition period itself seem like the new era, and international campuses for public, non-profit institutions flourish; although, they do so with funds flowing nearly exclusively in the direction of former colonial trade routes. Such projects are not undertaken for the cultural imperialism implicit in the slogan “the world needs more Canada” but rather because they are profitable for non-profit institutions increasingly facing shortfalls. At campuses abroad, the developing world provides the funding that offsets the effects of cuts to the public system domestically. In only a few instances do the former colonies create campuses in the heart of the home of empire, and even then it is nearly exclusively for the purpose of sending Canada abroad.

Nevertheless, contrary opinions exist and make their cases on reasonable and rational grounds. Concurrent to Readings’ excavation of the university’s rubble, George Landow responded to John Henry Newman’s nineteenth-century vision of The Idea of a University by arguing “all new developments in information technology have eventually fostered democratization, though some, like writing itself, took millennia to evolve from the property of the few to the empowerment of the many” (342). If the globalization of the university (in a bi-directional flow of intellectual capital as well as capital investments) is leading us to the expropriation of the developing world’s resources as well as those of Canadian classes served best by public education and the democratization of social discourse through education, then what of the alternative contention that the very beasts most feared could ultimately foster democratization and the empowerment of the many, as Landow contends?  What of the “mostly online” education model feared in PEI and currently developed in Canada to achieve an accreditation that best serves American students? The conflict between democratizing the educational opportunities of Canadians and exploiting the ambitions of students abroad may simply be another transitional period or an inevitable consequence of temporary challenges to the new notion of a university. Alas, I cannot easily answer such questions or resolve the conflicted interests.

This said, having taught for Athabasca University, I can attest to the genuine belief in the “empowerment of the many” that shapes AU’s vision, despite the myriad financial constraints increasingly placed on it by a province attuned to the globalization of exchange in a fashion that runs contrary to a vision of egalitarian empowerment. Yet, the discomfiting truth remains that profitable international undergraduate students for our public institutions are disproportionately steered toward open admission programs that primarily generate revenue to cover the shortfalls in public contributions to elite programs. Programs such as unaccredited versions of departments or programs, continuing education, distance education and programs available through satellite campuses generate the revenues necessary when provincial funding is reallocated to research, private enterprise, or is simply cut. The reintroduction of these class distinctions, and some might even say of xenophobia or racism, into the very mechanisms for democratization and empowerment in our universities is disconcerting. When we find instructors who are paid the least, it is very likely we will find them working with the students who pay the most. Programs, departments or faculties that recuperate their costs and generate funding for the rest of the institution while fulfilling the dreaded responsibility for “service” in curricula will likely have the least cultural capital and the strongest markers of class and ostracism.

When we lament the demolition of the university, we most often mean the Arts and Sciences rather than Medical, Legal or Engineering programs. If the diminishment of the role of the Arts and Sciences is what we perhaps mean, then other issues arise. I am currently in a private institution that embraces the notion of a global education, has long-standing ties to the United Nations, and enjoys a special relationship with its Economic and Social Council. My own trepidations over globalization aside, this situation does minimize the potential for varying classes of students within the classrooms or for using one program to subsidize another; although, the counterargument that this relies on egalitarian exploitation still stands. Nonetheless, the ‘chalk and talk’ Arts need no economic or ‘excellence’ apologia. It is telling, then, that the institutions raising concerns in Canada are not the mainstay of private education, the small liberal arts school. Our concerns surrounding the status of the university in Canada circle around the loss of cultural capital previously enjoyed by the Arts and Sciences, and we very often respond by employing a malapropos change of topics to the economic viability of such studies for students. By insisting that the university can succeed on such terms, we have already abandoned the aims of the argument. This leads us back to the misnomer of the discourse of ‘excellence,’ in which we reconceptualize “the University as a corporation, one of whose functions (products?) is the granting of degrees with a cultural cachet, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural” (Readings 11). When confronted by the potential for illegitimate employments of the idea of a university, we turn the university away from its traditional bastions of legitimacy. Our response does not work. Moreover, Readings offered in 1996 a proposition that is appearing before us today: “In a sense, part of what happened in 1968 as revolution happens now as student apathy” (137). My last presentation without the faculty rank appended to my name and affiliation was in 2008 at l’Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense on the subject of anarcho-surrealist poetry networks that began publishing in 1938. The combination of the seventy- and forty-year anniversaries with my talk had not occurred to me until mid-way through the talk itself, but it made me think of my students back home in Northern Alberta where I was teaching outreach in Whitecourt at the time.

The chance to compare our current situation with Readings’ discussion of the 1968 student revolts is telling. In the closing days of 2010, British students became angered enough by increases to tuition to angrily shake Prince Charles’ car (gasp!) and to spark memories of 1968, which make some suggest that the apathy currently ascribed to the youth is misplaced. Canadian protests continue against tuition as well, but the student body has been capably divided into classes with differing interests – we have no convenient royal vehicles to target – and the discourse of excellence seems enshrined. A genuine transformation empowered by student support seems unlikely, especially as our universities fight to retain the same students who might otherwise turn to a for-profit education system in order to most readily serve their particular interests in contradistinction to those of the public. What then, precisely, would Turk’s ‘real university’ do to nurture a community of dissensus that might encourage the revolutionary interests of students and lead them to question an education aimed at placing them in a technical-managerial class? As with democratizing educational opportunities in contrast to exploiting second-class students, I am unable to offer any answers, but I am concerned to notice that technical-managerial class aspirations are the express purpose of university education for an increasing number of students.

In the end, I am left asking myself what does the phrase ‘a real university’ mean, and perhaps more importantly, how does it mean? By virtue of what system of cultural values does ‘a real university’ come to signify something in relation to cultural capital, which in turn symbolizes something else? If a ‘real university’ exists to serve the state-oriented interests of a national culture, how can an antiauthoritarian series of social relations emerge?  If a ‘real university’ rejects the expropriation of the assets of a socially-rejected class or of the developing world, how can we reconcile that vision to the existing conditions of our Canadian public institutions and their overseas branches, for-profit recruitment organizations, or streaming of differing classes of students? My aim is most certainly not a defense of private, for-profit education in Canada, but it does imply a critique of public, non-profit institutions engaging in the same globalization of exploitation we rage against. Most importantly, how can I as an individual within an ostensibly ‘real university’ continue to align my values, research and teaching to a series of responsibilities to my students and community? 

My only tentative answer returns the problem of how a ‘real university’ means rather than what it means – it points to a conflict between two visions of complex series of relationships. On the one hand, a real university is the cultural capital invested in a symbolic sense of value, such as the distinction between a pedigree originating in the University of Oxford in contrast to my former students in Whitecourt, Alberta, enrolled in an outreach program through Athabasca University, who could not otherwise afford a face-to-face education. Our sense of class and cultural capital, no matter how well hidden, appear promptly when such students are placed in competition for enrollment in graduate programs or for subsequent entry to the profession. In contrast, a real university might also be the investment in the relations between students and teachers in a variety of academic enterprises that exist in something most akin to what Matthew Ogle has called an “Open Source Revolution” (24). The free exchange of ideas and knowledge in a mutualist relation of trust also provides an opportunity to exam the how of ‘a real university’s’ meaning. A real university acquires meaning through the quotidian exchanges between peers, students and teachers with an aim of advancing knowledge that remains freely exchanged with others. Tangible and capitalist benefits might accrue to participants in such exchanges, but these remain correlates rather than effects of engaging in a real university. At the very least, those series of relations and responsibilities between individuals remain my own focus in how I conduct myself within the university, whatever such an institution might signify or whatever cultural capital may accrue around it. This is especially so when the state of the discipline is difficult to define and its aims are clouded.


Works Cited


“B.C. Accepts Private University.” CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin (September 2004): A2. Print.

“Hard Reception for Real Estate U.” CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin (December 2010): A8. Print.

Landow, George P. “Newman and an Electronic University.” The Idea of a University. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. 339-361. Print.

Ogle, Matthew. “Hackers, Humanists, and Intellectuals: Lessons from the Open Source Revolution.” Culture + the State: Alternative Interventions. Eds. James Gifford and Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux. Edmonton: CRC Humanities Studio, 2003. 24-43. Print.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.




James Gifford is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the University Core at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Vancouver, BC. He was previously Assistant Professor (limited term) and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Victoria. He has published widely on modern British and American literature, edited The Henry Miller – Herbert Read Letters 1935-1958 (2007) and recently prepared scholarly editions of Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper of Lovers (2008) and Panic Spring (2008).



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