Academic Freedom Endangered in Ontario

Drummond Report threatens universities’ academic excellence
April 1, 2012

The Report of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, headed by economist Don Drummond (the Drummond Report), was released on Feb. 15. It contained more than 600 recommendations, the stated aim of which was to enable the Ontario government to return to balanced budgets by the year 2017-18.

The authors assume that “Ontario faces more severe economic and fiscal challenges than most Ontarians realize.” In light of this assumption, the report warns that, “unless policy-makers act swiftly and boldly… Ontario faces a series of deficits that would undermine the province’s economic and social future.” The Commission therefore argues in favour of serious cutbacks to public spending.

Unsurprisingly, funding for Ontario’s universities is not exempted. Before examining in more detail the report’s plans for the university sector, a brief discussion of its economic assumptions is in order.

Understanding the Drummond Report requires the reader to pay as much attention to what is not said as to what is said. What is not said is that Ontario is not in deficit because of out-of-control government spending, but because of the lasting effects of the 2008 economic crisis. CCPA research associate Jim Stanford has demonstrated that, “due to both the reduction in GDP, and to a modest decline in provincial revenues as a share of GDP, the recession and its after-effects have reduced present revenue in Ontario by $15 billion… Without a recession, there would be no deficit (since the 2011-12 provincial deficit will come in, interestingly, at almost exactly that amount: $15 billion). (Jim Stanford, “Ten Points on Recession, Deficits, and Austerity in Ontario,” Feb. 14t, 2012.)

Silence about the economic causes of the deficit detracts attention from the discussion of economic alternatives and makes austerity appear as the only possible solution.

When we turn to the more particular problem of the structure and funding of higher education in Ontario, and specifically the university sector, we see a different dimension of this problem. The report does note that, even after the injection of $6.2 billion during the McGuinty government’s second mandate, government funding for universities in Ontario is still the lowest in per-student terms in the country.(p.240). Tuition costs, correspondingly, are the highest in the country, a scenario that will not change if the Drummond report is accepted, because it argues that tuition freezes are contrary to the interests of students in a “quality” education. (p.242).

The report does acknowledge that the current system is providing a “quality education to students,” but also claims that it is “unsustainable.” It is unsustainable according to Drummond because he predicts that enrolments will continue to increase by an average of 1.7 % per year, and that overall operating costs will rise on average by 3-to-4% a year, but then recommends that funding increases be capped at 1.5% a year. (p.242). It is true that this system would be unsustainable, but also that it is a pure creation of the Commission’s report itself. Were funding increased to match costs, the system clearly would not be unsustainable.

Again, there is silence about alternatives to a 1.5% cap on funding increases, a level which, as the report itself shows, bears no relation to the fiscal realities of universities, but is instead a function of the mathematics of deficit elimination. As OCUFA’s official response to the report argues, “The Commission proposes to ensure that Ontario universities fall even further behind by limiting growth in the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to 1.5% per year. This increase is in reality a cut; the effects of inflation and enrolment increases will steadily erode operating funds per university student… The cumulative damage would be over $1.8 billion.” (“OCUFA Analysis of the Drummond Report: Long on Cuts, Short on Insight,” p.4.)

Drummond is aware of the potential for this type of erosion, but makes it appear to be a consequence of some abstract necessity, rather than a function of his own recommendations.

A different array of policy alternatives would generate different possible futures. In public policy there is no absolute inevitability, since the future of human societies is not a function of fate or the laws of nature, but the choices that we collectively make. Drummond’s report sets out one of a number of possibilities; the scenarios that it paints as inevitable are functions of its own assumptions. As the OCUFA response reveals, these assumptions are questionable.

Since the OCUFA report has already sharply dissected the data that Drummond employed, (disclosing, among other problems, an over-estimation of the size of faculty salary increases, I want to concentrate on the more general implications of the report for faculty and students in the Ontario university system. The report wants to maintain “quality” while improving the “efficiency” of the system. Decoding what these vague terms means is crucial to understanding the deepest threats the report poses to academic excellence in Ontario universities.

Despite its repeated commitment to “quality” education, the report nowhere defines the term. Instead, it is repeatedly confused with quantitative metrics: how many students can be processed how quickly. Thus, the report recommends that institutions be compelled “to examine whether they can compress some four-year degrees into three years by continuing throughout the summer,” (p.256).

It also treats the value of research in purely monetary terms. Hence it recommends that a comprehensive review of university performance be organized which looks at, among other issues, the “commercialization… of research and development investments.” (p.251) In other words, research that does not produce a monetary return on investment ought not be supported. “Quality” teaching therefore comes down to efficient production of graduates, “quality” research comes down to efficient conversion of investments in research into profitably saleable commodities. A model of efficiency derived from thermodynamic systems is illegitimately transposed to the evaluation of human cognitive and imaginative development.

These twin goals – speedier graduation times for more students and more money from investments in research – ought to guide the future development of the university sector, according to Drummond. His report urges the Mguinty government to “institute a process for establishing mandate agreements, using a review by either a blue-ribbon panel or the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, to ensure that the highest-quality programs are funded to grow and expand.”

Since “highest-quality” means “most profitable,” the real agenda here is to allow market forces to determine the content and means of delivery of academic programs and faculty research.

My argument is not that there should be no peer-review of programs or that programs for which there is absolutely no student demand should be funded. My point is rather that program content, delivery, and research are academic matters that need to be decided upon by academics. The evaluative standards employed must be derived from expert knowledge of the nature of teaching and research, and not from quantitative considerations extrinsic to the academic vocation.

The further conversion of universities from academic institutions into provincial revenue generators is to be speeded along by an intensification of administrative-managerial control over the institution as a whole. The provincial government is encouraged to collaborate with administration to make university management even more hierarchical.

Drummond recommends that government “work with post-secondary institutions to reduce bargained compensation increases, where they exist, and instead align them with trends in more recent settlements in the broader public sector; a rigorous performance system should also be introduced to guide compensation, where one is not already in place,”(p.245).

Salary moderation is not the only goal. Drummond also wants the government to compel institutions to align their strategic priorities with the government’s, a goal to be achieved by making future funding dependent upon institutional compliance with government demands: “Link further provincial funding allocations to quality objectives, which will encourage post-secondary institutions to be more responsive.”(p.249).

Taken together, these recommendations constitute a serious threat to both free collective bargaining in the university sector and, perhaps even more ominously, to academic freedom, insofar as it envisages a role for government agencies in determining performance metrics for individual academics and academic programs alike. If implemented, this strategy would most likely increase the present and growing alienation and conflict between faculty and senior administration, rather than encourage democratic collaboration in the governance of the institution. It would also waste more faculty time in the preparation of reports that serve bureaucratic but no pedagogical or intellectual purposes.

The Drummond report also considers the problem of institutional differentiation in light of its cost-cutting mandate. “Institutional differentiation” refers both to the historical division of labour between colleges and universities and the de-emphasizing of research in smaller Ontario universities. In line with the commercialized conception of research noted above, Drummond recommends that smaller universities begin to de-emphasize research in order to devote more resources to teaching, including more teaching-only positions and greater attention to learning outcomes.

While there is nothing new in these recommendations, (and nothing wrong, in principle, with institutional commitments to improve teaching practices) when read in the context of the overall austerity agenda they pose a further danger to academic excellence in the classroom. The crucial difference between secondary and post-secondary teaching is that, at the post-secondary level, the teachers are also scholars and researchers actively developing new insights in their field of expertise.

University professors should not be conduits through which information passes, or teachers of basic skills, as important as these functions are. They are also creators of new insights, practices, processes, and objectives, able to teach students not only what has been the case in a field, but to engage them — at a level appropriate to their level of experience — in the process of creation. If the research and teaching function is further severed, then students, especially at smaller universities, will increasingly lose contact with the dynamic intellectual processes through which knowledge is created and transformed.

The report is also concerned with finding administrative cost savings. It thus encourages universities to better realize economies of scale in purchasing, to reduce capital investments to the minimum necessary to support enrolment growth, and through centralized administration of individual pension plans. In general, savings that release funds from purely administrative purposes for investment in the teaching and research vocations of the institution are a good thing. The major problem, however, is that the report does not discuss the rapid expansion of senior administrative positions, which are typically remunerated at much higher levels than faculty positions, but which make no direct contribution to teaching or research.

In 2011, more than $2 billion of the $14 billion spent on post-secondary education in Ontario was devoted to administrative purposes (CAUT Almanac of Higher Education, 2011, p. 4). If there is cutting to be done, purely administrative expenses would be one area to examine closely. Yet here, where management’s allocation of funds to itself is at issue, the report has nothing substantial to recommend.

(Dr. Jeffrey Noonan is a professor of philosophy and head of department at the University of Windsor.)