The Funding of the University: Shaping the Conditions for Higher Education

The political economy of academia is one of the long-standing, if often muted, interests of this project. An event of direct relevance to that took place in my Department with the presentation of Dr. Gilles Gagné, a Professor in Sociology at Université Laval in Québec City. Dr. Gagné’s recent publications include: Le Canada français. Son temps, sa nature, son héritage (Quebec, Éditons Nota Bene, 2006); L’anti-libéralisme au Québec au 20e siècle (Montréal, Éditons Nota Bene, 2003); and Sociologie et valeurs. Quatorze penseurs québécois du XXe siècle (Montréal, Presses de L’Université de Montréal, 2003), co-authored with Jean-Philippe Warren. Professor Gagné currently holds a three-year SSHRC research grant entitled “Les fondements sociaux de la nouvelle identité québécoise et de son expression idéologique; analyse de l’appui à la souveraineté depuis 40 ans”.

Gilles Gagné

The well attended presentation took place during the afternoon of 18 February 2009 and was titled: “The Funding of Universities in Quebec and the Corruption of Education“. The abstract presented for the presentation read as follows:

Do Quebec universities need more money? When one looks at the pipeline through which the money is delivered, one is not necessarily eager to answer in the affirmative. Laval University is a good example of the Quebec university system. A case study examining the evolution of this university’s funding over the course of the last 40 years can, therefore, be seen to have a representative value. Rather than examining the evolution of university funding by looking at the sources out of which the money comes, this presentation will consider what the money looks like on its point of arrival. To do so, the presentation will begin with a reflection on how higher learning is shaped by the “conditions” of its funding and will end with a discussion of the sorts of social and political preferences expressed in and through these conditions.

Les universités québécoises ont besoin de plus d’argent? A voir la tuyauterie par où il s’écoule, je suis loin d’être disposé à joindre cette chorale. L’Université Laval est un bon échantillon de l’ensemble du système universitaire québécois. Une étude de cas portant sur l’évolution de son financement depuis 40 ans a, pour cette raison, un caractère représentatif. Plutôt que d’examiner l’évolution du financement des universités à partir des nombreuses sources de l’argent, il est proposé ici une heuristique consistant à observer son allure à son point de chute. L’exposé partira donc de la question de l’orientation des universités par les «conditionnalités» de son financement et proposera une interprétation des préférences sociétales qui s’y expriment.

“The Funding of Universities in Quebec and the Corruption of Education,” by Gilles Gagné: Notes

Dr. Gagné began by reminding us that the current mass consensus in Quebec, among university students, university administrations, and various faculty unions, is that the state should commit itself to “reinvesting in education”. (A note to readers: there are no private universities in Canada; while the provincial governments are in charge of education, it is also a fact that the federal government funds most of the research — see my posts on SSHRC here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Dr. Gagné’s challenge to us was to suggest that this mass consensus is misplacing its sentiments and is misled about its goals. He did this by first introducing us to the historical context that has shaped research funding for and within universities.

Americanization, Modernization, and the Restructuring of the University

After the end of World War II, the United States became conscious of itself as the “victorious power,” whose victory in the war hinged to an important extent on scientific innovation directed toward producing technology used for the war effort. Science came to be seen as strategically valuable. Science had been declared “the Endless Frontier,” in a famous report bearing that title: “Science: The Endless Frontier,” A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945. The U.S. won the war with science, and so government should fund it.

Starting in the early 1960s, with the policy recommendations of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), which in 1961 was superceded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), then later drawing on the impetus of the Washington Consensus, there was to be an overhaul of education that focused on supporting economic growth. The university was to become a site for schooling the middle-class, to train the middle-class for jobs that would sustain economic growth. From that point onwards, the university acquired new status, not as a place for an aristocratic elite to pursue knowledge as an end in itself as it might have been in private universities, nor the pursuit of knowledge as a public good (our universities are public universities after all), but rather the mission of the university was now to lead the professionalization of middle-class cadres.  From then we see a 300% to 400% increase in student enrollments. The OECD, which became a vehicle for the modernization of the university, emphasized that universities had to adapt to “what was coming”. The battle to change the university became a battle to control it, as indeed state funding imposed conditionalities. With more students, more funding was needed and provided, and a new technocratic class was created within the university, separated from the rest of the university yet within the university.

So while we often proclaim “we need more money,” the question that Dr. Gagné poses is: Where is the money leading us? Economic policies, university budgets, and research ideologies combine to direct the university in which we currently work.

In Canada, as elsewhere, an American Fund Accounting model was adopted, which sorted out university funds into three separate categories:
(1) Unrestricted Funds (also known as Operating Funds);
(2) Restricted Funds (money given for a specific purpose); and,
(3) Capital Funds (to support building and infrastructure).

The restructuring of the university taking place in Canada today essentially involves taking money from the first category and placing it into the second, with only certain uses being favoured.

The restructuring of the university can also be seen with the new governance laws being proposed in Quebec which would have universities governed not by academics, but by outside administrators who have no ties to any given university. This is part of a campaign of neo-liberalism applied to the university, of converting a public good into what is a de facto private resource, managed by technocrats who have no connections to universities.

Three Universities in One: The Structure of Inequality

In effect, each university in Canada has the equivalent of three universities within it, three separate, differentially funded and empowered structures. The three universities are in a sense represented by their respective funding bodies, the three main ones that make up the “tri-council”: SSHRC, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council; NSERC, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and, CIHR, Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In Canada, 68% of Bachelors students are in the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). As the number of students in SSH has gone up, the number of professors in SSH has gone down. At Laval, where Dr. Gagné is based, 42% of Laval’s professors teach in SSH, teaching 62% of all of Laval’s students, while producing 71% of the graduate degrees. What we seen then is heightened productivity among professors in the humanities and social sciences, compared to those in the natural sciences, and yet less research funding and support. Indeed, the proportion of research grants goes in the contrary direction, that is, in favour of the natural sciences, and related areas. Overall, almost $400,000 is spent for each student in Health related areas, compared to $18,000 for students in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Universities in Canada are not “underfunded,” argued Dr. Gagné, rather they are unevenly funded within. Students are valued differently, depending on their program — what does not matter, in the official calculus, is that most students are in SSH. Campaigns for more money, that do nothing to address this structure of inequality, simply seek greater funding for the inequalities. The Social Sciences and Humanities have been effectively downsized.

The “Corruption” of the University

When Dr. Gagné says “corruption” he means that in the Aristotelian sense. The corruption of the university involves pulling faculty out of teaching and putting them into the production of intellectual property that can be sold, having them engaged in consulting and working on contracts with private industry. Yet, Gagné informed us, Statistics Canada has found that such commercial endeavours by universities represent a net loss for universities.

In addition, the corruption of the university involves the corruption of the status of knowledge. Knowledge, rather than being viewed as a public good, is now privatized. The new motto of the new university ought to be, Gagné suggested with sarcasm: privatize or perish.

The corruption of the university also comes in the form of teaching, emphasizing a pedagogy that is little more than the mere transmission of information, and even automatic transmission, i.e. through e-learning. Teaching itself is corrupted in another way: by emphasizing research, as if this were the most important activity for a university, teaching is rendered secondary, as if it were easy. The undervaluing of teaching sees the greater number of courses being taught by graduate students and by colleagues paid far less, as contract faculty working part time.

Finally, we also witness the corruption of the university as a normative institution. If the university was at one time concerned with such values as truth, beauty, and justice, the emphasis is instead now on profitability and efficiency. Dr. Gagné ended by calling for principles of cultivated judgment to be revalued, not beholden to the bucks, and against the idea of the intellectual turned into a “professional”.

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I was not able to stay for most of the discussion that followed the presentation. However, I am told that a number of faculty and students asked questions, for which later Dr. Gagné sent some follow ups by email. If you read French, you will find a lot of valuable insights in his responses to the last question he was asked at the seminar, to which he responds below:

En gros, cette dernière question était la suivante: «Vous faites un tel tapage contre la recherche que nous, les étudiants de 2e et 3e cycle qui nous attendons à (ou qui espérons) consacrer notre vie à la recherche, nous nous sentons mal de savoir que nous ne serons pas tous professeurs ». Vous pourrez dire à l’étudiante que je regrette d’avoir donné l’impression dont elle faisait état poliment, mais très certainement à juste titre, alors qu’en «fait» je crois le contraire. D’abord, et pour utiliser contre moi-même un argument ad hominem, j’ai parfois le sentiment de ne faire pratiquement que cela, de «la» recherche, allant des exportations des pays développés au financement de Laval en passant par l’origine de la pensée systémique et par une douzaine d’autres sujets; j’ai aussi le sentiment que c’est la même chose pour les 40 ou 50 étudiants de 2e et 3e cycle que j’ai dirigés, de même que pour la dizaine que je dirige actuellement; et que c’est encore la même chose pour les 8 ou 10 thèses ou mémoires que je «juge» à chaque année; et j’ai surtout le sentiment que c’est en gros de cette manière que les choses se passent à l’Université depuis au moins deux siècles. Je vous demande donc de dire à l’étudiante qu’en dépit de ce que j’ai l’air de dire je suis en réalité favorable à la recherche, puisque c’est de la recherche (de la sienne propre ou de celle des autres professeurs) que tout enseignement universitaire tire son inspiration, ses matériaux ou sa substance (notamment au 2e et 3e cycle).

J’ai cependant voulu montrer que c’est justement «la recherche» qui avait servi de justification et de moyen principal à l’effort de prendre le contrôle de l’Université, et cela: 1) en la réifiant à titre de pratique séparée commandant en retour une séparation de principe de l’Université (universités de recherche et universités d’enseignement); 2) en soustrayant aux institutions universitaires l’argent publique pouvant être consacré à la recherche et en le transférant aux individus; 3) en soumettant ces individus à des cibles, à des priorités, à des préférences et à des intimations contre lesquelles la résistance est difficile, même quand les objectifs imposés sont «visiblement» obscurantistes; 4) en laissant ainsi de côté un enseignement universitaire appauvri, instrumentalisé, subordonné de loin à des choix normatifs présentés dès lors comme étrangers à la nature même du savoir.

Mais tout cela laisse encore de côté une présupposition qui devrait être abordée pour elle-même: Pourquoi faudrait-il présumer, comme on le fait dans ce qui précède, que le contrôle de l’Université (que ce soit par la recherche, ou par la recherche subventionnée, ou par la recherche subventionnée orientée, ou par la recherche subventionnée orientée vers les innovations techniques, ou par tout autre impératif) soit une mauvaise chose? Autrement dit: Au nom de quoi devrions-nous redouter le contrôle des pratiques universitaires par des puissances de la société qui se présentent à nous armées de «nécessités supérieures»? Autrement dit encore: Quelles «nécessités supérieures» de notre invention pourrions-nous opposer aux nécessités supérieures réelles, celles qui ont les moyens de leur politique?

Peu de chose, à mon avis, si ce n’est une très petite «idée» philosophique et quelques enseignements disparates tirés de l’expérience.

L’idée philosophique est vieille comme la philosophie et elle touche à la contradiction performative: la connaissance, dont nous sociologiques disons qu’elle est un moment de la pratique, un aspect de la vie sociale, ne peut cependant garder son statut dans la pratique qu’en s’y montrant autonome et indépendante. L’Université, c’est-à-dire l’institutionnalisation de cette indépendance du savoir (qui est pourtant impossible sub specie aeternitatis, voir les sociologues), est donc une médiation, un intermédiaire, un filtre, un tampon, un délai, une temporisation dont la consistance réelle sert d’abri à un effort sans lequel l’indépendance de la connaissance serait impossible even under the point of view of our own time. L’Université ne peut donc pas assujettir aujourd’hui la recherche à des puissances qui lui seraient extérieures sans abolir du même coup la valeur dont elle se réclame et qui fonde l’intérêt qu’on lui porte (de même que le statut qu’on lui accorde): l’indépendance du savoir à l’égard des powers that be.

Quant aux enseignements de l’expérience, ils semblent allés dans le même sens : on enlève beaucoup de vigueur aux universités (et on les rend inutiles) lorsque l’on attend d’elles qu’elles préparent l’homme nouveau soviétique, qu’elles revitalisent le centre-ville dans le quartier de la grande bibliothèque, qu’elles réécrivent l’épopée de la race aryenne, qu’elles fournissent des moyens stratégique à la guerre contre le communisme, qu’elles produisent de la valeur ajoutée au profit de l’Axe Chaudière-Appalaches ou qu’elles décapitent les hérétiques. En 1980, les Américains ont pris de grands moyens pour entraîner les universités dans la «guerre des patentes» (en français on dit aussi «brevets») et le Canada a suivi 15 ans plus tard. Un groupe d’hommes d’affaires spécialisés dans l’économie du savoir a écrit alors la politique qui est la nôtre (Les investissements publics dans la recherche universitaire: comment les faire fructifier) en partant de l’hypothèse que les Canadiens ne pourraient tirer de bénéfices de la recherche universitaire que si cette dernière contribuait directement à la compétitivité des entreprises canadiennes par le transfert de «propriété intellectuelle».

Les résultats de cette stratégie de contrôle commencent à arriver. Un think-thank néolibéral (Bruegel) a voulu prouver récemment que la stratégie américaine était la bonne et que le contrôle de la recherche universitaire produisait effectivement de meilleures universités. En cours de route, les auteurs ont été obligés de montrer aussi que, compte tenu de leur population, la Suisse et la Suède (par exemple) obtenaient deux fois plus de bonnes universités parmi les 500 meilleures (selon Shanghai) sur les 7000 qui existent, et cela pour un fraction de ce qu’il en coûtait aux Américains (Philippe Aghion et André Sapir, Why Reform Europe’s Universities?, Bruegel Policy Brief, no. 4, septembre 2007). Que faites vous lorsqu’une «quotation» technocratique destinée à conforter vos opérations vous donne tort? Vous dites que ce qui compte vraiment, ce sont les 50 meilleures universités (et non les 500 meilleures) et que la domination américaine à ce chapitre prouve que «plus de brevets» et «plus de qualité Shanghai» vont ensemble. (Bref, on mesure mal la mauvaise chose pour prouver une connerie et on se plante quand même!) C’est pour cela que votre fille sera bientôt sourde comme un pot. et la nôtre aussi.

2 thoughts on “The Funding of the University: Shaping the Conditions for Higher Education

  1. Louise

    Thanks for your post, it really helped jog my memory regarding that talk.

    What I found unique about Gagné’s talk and email response was that he mentioned that this restructuring was not ‘justifiable’ as a cost-cutting measure – I would be interested to find the Stats Can research he was referring to.

    Also, while he discusses these different forms of corruption, he nonetheless seems to suggest that the ideals of a liberal education are still not completely lost; that they are more a matter of institutional or systematic tension among university administrators, faculty members and federal granting agencies.

    Given his claim that the reorganization of funding and faculty structure is not economically sound for the university, I changed my mind about his theory – at first I thought it was about a one-way street, but in actuality he hints that Quebec universities today are in a ‘moment of truth’ in which they might maintain their grasp on an idealistic approach to knowledge/education.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much for your visit Louise. I too would have liked to know more about the Stats Can data, it is very intriguing and more people need to know much more about it, especially at a time when the “business” angle is touted as a form of salvation for universities, when instead if we believe Gagné it is more of a budgetary undoing of universities. Our university certainly does expend a great many resources in appealing to business, and in hiring overpaid members of the private sector, and the net result seems to be very little change for the university as a whole, apart from the loss of capital. Whatever happens next, it will require both faculty and students to become much more active, because there does not seem to be anyone else who will to retain the public university as a public good, and we can’t just be silent parties to a grand heist.

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