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BC Politics

Why BC’s Universities Feel Like Corporations

Robert Cowin’s illuminating, infuriating history traces the fall from grace of higher ed.

Crawford Kilian 6 Nov 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Post-secondary education in British Columbia has been critically important to the lives of millions of us, yet we’ve had no serious history of it. This is one of many gaps in our record.

Robert Cowin’s book goes some way to explaining why B.C. post-secondary, at least, is the way it is. Cowin, a former director of institutional research and planning at Douglas College, has worked for the Universities' Council of British Columbia and in the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education and Job Training. He knows his subject well.

Having spent most of my adult life teaching in B.C. community colleges, I found Cowin’s account illuminating and infuriating: he brings back lost memories, but he also makes it clear that faculty and administrators’ views counted for little or nothing in their schools’ development. We proposed; the politicians and civil servants disposed.

Moreover, they disposed on the basis of principles that often changed but were rarely explained to those of us who actually delivered education in the classroom and graduates on the stage. Some new program or policy was the Next Big Thing; we struggled to accommodate it, until it was junked for non-performance or as a legacy of an ousted government.

Cowin offers three themes that alternate over the 55 years his book covers. The first is “social justice”; in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was clear that British Columbians deserved access to post-secondary education regardless of where they lived or how much money they made. By the 1960s, the social-justice consensus extended from the Socred government to the school boards that helped fund the first community colleges.

Faculty and administrators were also part of the consensus. I well recall the exuberance of Capilano College’s first years in the late 1960s: we were offering post-secondary courses to teenagers and adults who could never have qualified for (or afforded) admission to the University of British Columbia or the very new Simon Fraser. In a time of serious social unrest, surely our students would make a difference for the better.

Social justice was not the only factor, but it dominated the early years of the community colleges and the expansion of research universities to SFU and UVic. A second factor was “human capital” — developing people with employable skills who could help drive economic growth. Hence the emphasis of the colleges and institutes on career and vocational training, which academic post-secondary disdained.

I loved that part of my job. My students never gave me closer attention than when I explained how to design a resumé or write a pitch letter to a magazine editor. “Teachable moments” happen when students see the connection between the course material and their own lives.

The advent of neoliberalism in the 1970s and ‘80s led to a third factor: marketization. In B.C., the Bill Bennett Socreds gladly adopted it as a way to break the unions and government services. (I well recall Bill Bennett saying that only the private sector created “real jobs.”) Sharp budget cutbacks hurt all levels of education, and post-secondary educators began to realize that they were being partly privatized.

That is, if they were to “do more with less,” colleges and universities would have to become more “entrepreneurial,” to find work for themselves — develop new human-capital programs, and make themselves more attractive to students (and government) than their competitors were.

We saw the effects. Programs began to resemble tenants in a big mall: they lasted as long as they attracted enough customers to pay their rent. And “rent” was as many students as you could cram into a classroom. Too bad for programs that couldn’t teach (or find jobs for) more than 15 or 20 students a year.

Marketization also meant savage competition, between schools and inside them. At Cap we were furious when UBC lowered the grade point average required for admission, and effectively poached a lot of “our” students — who might have eventually transferred to UBC with better qualifications. Faculty teaching in academic university transfer programs resented the money and students going into career programs while their own programs withered and died.

Well before the advent of the BC Liberals in 2001, we were welcoming all the international students we could attract. They paid full tuition, which enabled us to open more classes for Canadian students. Before long, every college and university in B.C. was sending its people to education fairs in Asia to recruit affluent students from overseas.

Lost in the scramble was any idea of colleges serving their local communities. Instead each college, institute and university was fighting for a share of a world market, which also depended on prestige. That’s why “university colleges” were promoted to “universities,” along with six colleges like Capilano: internationals and locals alike wanted the prestige of a piece of paper from a university, not a mere college.

The inherent snobbery of the post-secondary world played right into this institutional status inflation. Canadian universities had always looked down on colleges and vocational schools, which in turn have fought to be just as snobbish and elitist. For all involved, the snobbery is just part of the marketing.

Cowin tracks this half-century with remarkable detachment. He is interested in the system, not in people, and rarely mentions even the most influential politicians who oversaw the system. Dave Barrett and his NDP government helped expand the colleges dramatically, but Cowin says nothing about them. He does mention Bill Vander Zalm’s encouragement of social-justice values in post-secondary access in the late 1980s; whatever his many failings, Zalm did more for the colleges and universities than he’s given credit for.

The BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell imposed a doctrinaire neoliberalism on post-secondary from which it may never recover. Private career colleges and schools teaching English as a second language were effectively unregulated, leaving countless students stranded when their schools went broke. Apprenticeship programs graduated no more than one student in three.

This was marketization with a vengeance, and Cowin describes it effectively in a long chapter suitably titled “Cynicism.” What else could you call it when Campbell told Cap College, with much banging of confetti cannons, that we were now a university, when we knew we would have no more funding than as a lowly community college?

Strikingly, Cowin shows how the Christy Clark government that succeeded Campbell was less interested in his policy. “Efforts to promote social justice seem absent in the post-neoliberal moment,” he remarks. “Better protection for international ESL students and for students in private career colleges was a response to their complaint, and it represented a desire to prevent damage to the B.C. brand internationally rather than to advance the welfare of students.”

Cowin’s detached and abstract style takes some getting used to. This is a description of systems and bureaucracies, not of colourful politicians and visionary educators. But those who spent time in those systems, whether faculty, administrators or students, will understand their experience far better when they have read it. It remains to be seen whether the present and future B.C. governments will be able to change our post-secondary system for the better.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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