Canadian scholars defend freedoms in face of growing marketisation

November 13, 2010

Academic freedom has always been a struggle for universities to maintain, something that constantly needs to be defended from outside pressures, many scholars would argue.

In Canada, the university system has been relentlessly evolving and expanding in recent years, so have the safeguards of academic freedom kept pace?

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), thinks so, but he has one caveat. “Academic freedom has never been so robustly defended in Canada,” he said. “But, at the same time, never has it been under greater threat.”

Howard Woodhouse, professor of educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (2009), thinks the situation is getting steadily worse.

“It’s a bit like boiling a frog,” he observed. “If you put it in cold water and slowly heat it up, you can get to the point where the frog is boiling and doesn’t realise. It’s the same in Canadian universities – you suddenly look around and realise that your institution has changed.”

Canada’s academy has few centralised unions at national or provincial level. However, the higher education sector has one of the highest rates of union membership in the country.

As “the national voice for academic staff”, the CAUT represents 65,000 academic staff at 122 institutions across the country. Unions protect academics’ freedom by signing collective agreements with individual institutions, setting out basic rights for staff.

According to the CAUT, these collective agreements currently support the academic freedom of more than 96 per cent of faculty.

“In some ways, having individual unions in every institution makes it a lot harder because we have to negotiate in every workplace,” Dr Turk said. “However, we always negotiate academic freedom language into every collective agreement.”

Despite the high number of Canadian higher education staff covered by collective agreements, concerns remain over the defence of academic freedom. One particular problem is the number of contingent faculty working in the sector. Whereas it is hard to dismiss tenured faculty, it is much easier to quietly end contracts for staff who make provocative statements and are not on such a sure professional footing.

“If I’m a contingent faculty member, in a sense all [the university] has to do is wait until my contract is up and then not renew it,” Dr Turk said.

Professor Woodhouse said this reliance on contingent faculty could be attributed to the corporatisation of Canadian higher education.

“The market model of education is taking over universities and there is a contradiction between the goals of education and the goals of the market.

“As a result, the goals of education, which are to advance and disseminate shared knowledge, are being overridden by the need to maximise profit,” he said.

And there are fears that pressure could increase as the higher education sector’s collaborations with the private sector grow.

“The private sector has no tradition and recognition of academic freedom,” Dr Turk said. “As universities become more corporatised and develop more links with the private sector, there is more imposition of a private sector ethos and less room for academic freedom.”

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