From where I sit - How to ride the blue tide

May 12, 2011

If you look at a map showing the results of last week's Canadian federal election, you will see a tiny dot of red on the north shore of Lake Ontario, surrounded by a sea of unrelieved Tory blue. Yes, Kingston and the Islands, home to Queen's University, is the sole Liberal riding in this part of Eastern Ontario after an election in which the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, at last attained its long-desired majority government.

The isolated, vulnerable spot of red is perhaps a metaphor for higher education in the wake of the election of a prime minister whose platform had little to say about academia and whose most widely quoted statement on the subject comes from 2000, when he said that "we are vastly overinvested in universities".

Previous Harper governments have shown a commitment to directed job training rather than broad-based higher education, and the few promises offered in the election campaign continue that trend: modest financial support for the adult retraining necessary in an economy still in recovery, and the creation of "industry chairs" to strengthen ties between business and academia. While Liberals and New Democrats targeted funding for increased Aboriginal post-secondary education and relief for student debt, the Tories made no such commitments.

Perhaps part of the problem arises from a tendency to associate higher education with the liberal arts. Goodness knows, Mr Harper has a visceral dislike for anything carrying a Liberal label. But nor did former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff's professorial status help the cause. A Harvard University-educated professor who held positions at a variety of prestigious institutions, Mr Ignatieff came with all the academic credentials one could want in a political leader, yet he failed to connect with the public.

Conservative Party broadcasts successfully cast Mr Ignatieff as everything populist opinion resents about higher education, branding him elitist, out of touch with the economic realities of "ordinary people", and dangerously left of centre.

If anything is clear in the wake of Mr Ignatieff's defeat, it is that Canada has taken a decisive step towards a polarised US-style Republican political landscape, in which the middle ground - a position traditionally claimed by dispassionate intellectuals and Liberal politicians - has been cast as untenable. There is no longer a clear will to find a compromise between the (self-)interests of business and a commitment to social support. Jack Layton and the New Democratic Party, long the voice of social programmes, have become the official opposition, but Mr Harper and his majority now have the final say.

So how should university managers position themselves in appealing to a majority Tory government for sustained, if not increased, support for higher education? Perhaps they could tap into Mr Harper's belief that too many Canadian kids choose university who don't really belong there: he could do much to help universities turn them away by hiking funding per student so that administrators can stop expanding enrolment, which has become the only way to balance the books.

The next four years of the Conservative majority will be crucial in determining the direction of Canada's university system: already staggering under the effects of a funding formula that doesn't keep pace with rising costs, and faced with cuts to prized programmes such as modern languages, the sector must find a way to convince a sceptical government of its contribution not just to the knowledge economy and the cultural life of the nation, but also to its broader economic well-being. It must make clear that it fulfils this mandate in ways more subtle and pervasive than simple job training or industry-related programmes.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments