Op Ed: The Senate gives tenure a bad name
Reading through the new publication about post-secondary education from the Conservative-dominated Senate, I’m reminded of a conference I once attended about academic freedom and the consequences of the commercialization of research.
Many qualified speakers addressed participants about the clear and present dangers of selling off our university research departments to the highest bidder. But one speaker said something that I will never forget. The late Dr. David Noble of York University, a noted rabble-rouser and brilliant academic, said this to his fellow tenured professors on the issue of academic freedom: “if we don’t exercise it, we don’t deserve it”.
It was, and still is, a bold assertion for a tenured professor to declare that many don’t deserve to be tenured. He wasn’t just encouraging his colleagues to be bold—he was quite clear that he wanted you to pack up your dusty books in a box and go into another line of work if you had tenure but failed to take full advantage of it.
His message was a profound one that turns the idea of privilege on its head: your freedom to say and teach unpopular or unorthodox ideas is not a perk—it is a duty.
Looking at the Canadian Senate, where those with big names and close ties to the governing party are given tenure in the political sense, how do these elder(ly) statesmen and stateswomen measure up?
The answer is “poorly”. While they are far from analogous, if we apply the broad principles of tenure and the duty to be bold to Canada’s sleepy Senate, you begin to realize how badly we’ve been served by their report on post-secondary education titled Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.
From top to bottom, the entire report is devoid of anything that could possibly be construed as bold, forward-thinking, or controversial. It was as if the Senate had been asked to collect a set of assumptions that virtually nobody could disagree with—or to be more accurate, nothing that the federal or provincial governments could disagree with. The Senate has succeeded in creating a report to be safely ignored by one and all.
By deftly avoiding innovative or interesting policy options in its report, Senator Ogilvie’s committee has unwittingly endorsed the status quo policy malaise in Canada’s public post-secondary education system.
The committee’s recommendations politely ask the government to “encourage” this or “investigate” that or perhaps develop a “strategy” in ambitious moments. The vast majority of the 22 recommendations would cost governments next to nothing, which guarantees that the impact will be similar.
In fairness, there are a few nuggets in the report worth exploring—it would have been impossible during the public consultation process to ignore the message from multiple sources about Aboriginal students, student grants, and tax credits. But despite the witnesses’ testimony about financial barriers, the committee members couldn’t quite expand their imagination beyond the policy orthodoxy in Ottawa.
The result was a luke-warm endorsement of student loan tinkering (interest exemptions during the grace period and lowering the interest rate to prime) and a total retreat from reason on the issue of tuition fees. For example, the report’s mystifying conclusion to oppose tuition fee reductions or freezes seems to take it on advice from one person’s testimony that reducing tuition fees would be very expensive and have “very little impact on participation.” Yet peppered throughout the report are citations from other studies that conclude that tuition fee deregulation of professional programs in Ontario was a disaster for equitable access.
At the end of the day, maybe it is unwise to call on a Conservative-dominated Senate—packed with lawyers and free-market evangelists—to be bold with policy ideas for public education. “Be careful what you wish for” my conscience beckons.
Still, the underlying analysis remains: a group of educated policy wonks with nothing to lose, charged with finding blue-sky proposals to make public education more accessible, have come up with a list of things that governments are already doing , or have pledged to do if post-secondary education ever reached the top of their priorities.
The Senate committee could have helped equip those of us who are looking to reverse decades-long trends of tuition fee increases, record high student debt, chronic underfunding, and a public research fire sale to the private sector. Instead, a drab list of “improve information flow” and “harmonize programs” will barely make an impact where one was long overdue. If anything, this lackluster performance is more fodder for those who seek to end the tenure of Canada’s Senate.