Category Archives: Education

The Assault on Universities: A Review

Is there a worse possible fate for Canadian universities than the imminent future bearing down on universities in the UK? A 100 per cent cut to teaching grants for the humanities and social sciences; tripling of tuition fees to £9,000; up to 40,000 jobs lost and 49 universities (out of 130) at risk of closure.

These developments, set to go into effect in fall 2012, will add to the problems facing universities in light of recent cuts of £1 billion and the ongoing sector marketization and privatization via reforms first introduced by New Labour. These processes include the real or perceived corruption of the academy via the pandering to donors, such as the scandal surrounding the £1.5 million donation from a charitable foundation run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader, to the London School of Economics.

Such changes will compound the decade-plus impact of research and teaching ‘assessments’ on universities that have led to the wholesale closures of departments, including traditional academic subjects such as biology and English, because of ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ performances in research or teaching or in attracting students.

The blind faith in market fundamentalism has evolved via the last 15 years of higher education policy into a ‘logic’ that means even a top performance rating will not guarantee your survival.

No story encapsulates this disastrous logic better than the closure of Middlesex University’s philosophy department and its flagship, world renowned Centre for Research into Modern European Philosophy in 2010, despite earning the highest performance research grade (5P). Middlesex will continue to collect £175,000 per year in additional funding for quality over the next four years.2

The arts and humanities dean’s justification for the closure was “… that, it made ‘no measurable contribution’ to the university” (p. 21) or, in other words, it “brought in a lower per capita income … and therefore seemed uneconomical.” (p. 23)

This logic, which can undermine even the most successful and prestigious of programs, is reflected in the “rise of McKinseyism, the doctrine that things that cannot be measured have no value.” (p. 21)

To read more of this review of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, edited by Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, London: Pluto Press, 2011, please go to The CAUT Bulletin, Vol.59, no.5 (May 2012): []

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UWO’s Offer to Post-Docs Reveals the De-valuation of Academic Knowledge

The Public Service Alliance of Canada’s (PSAC) campaign to win fair wages and working conditions for post-doctoral researchers (post-docs) at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, Canada, reveals much about the downward push on the conditions of academic workers in Canadian universities in particular and academics in general.

‘Postdoctoral Associates at UWO been trying to negotiate a first collective agreement for two whole years and negotiations have stalled once again. They are being offered a mere $10.93 an hour – that’s only 68 cents above minimum wage for highly trained academics with PhDs!’ [From PSAC National’s website: (

The conditions faced by the post-docs at UWO are similar to the increasing situation of knowledge workers and academics throughout much of the English-speaking/Anglophone world: the conditions that academics and students in the UK are facing are truly bleak (though there is hope in the organisation and solidarity across institutions and groups, as the attacks on the public sector have broadened out to include virtually every sector of the public and civil service).

At Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario (about one-hour’s drive from UWO), contract faculty (known as Contract Academic Staff or CAS) are waiting for early September to ratify a new contract that was recently negotiated after their last contract expired almost one year ago (2010). Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA), representing the CAS members, has to wait until most of the bargaining unit arrives on campus.

However, given the ways in which the Administration treated them during the last set of negotiations, I would not hold my breath that the contract reflects in any way an adequate recognition of their expertise, education and experience.

The CAS at WLU were forced into a strike back in March-April 2008 because of the low regard held by the Administration towards CAS. For example, one CAS member spoke to me about receiving a doctorate from WLU while at the same time the institution was trying to lower his conditions and pay to McJob wages that younger generations face (i.e. the two-tier work hierarchy that has become increasingly the norm at all kinds of workplaces).

There is a very simple way to determine the value by which university administrations regard the workers, whether academics or cleaners, who make the institutions work: their pay and benefits.

Money in our society is the measure of all things. (Don’t university presidents and provosts claim this when they are trying to explain their six- and seven-digit salaries and benefit packages?!)

Dr Amit Chakma, the President and Vice-Chancellor of UWO, is sending a clear and unequivocal message to all and sundry: someone with three degrees, including a PhD, is worth $10.93 (Canadian) an hour.

Why go into debt (a ‘mini-mortgage’) to be treated – and paid – about the same as a ‘fast-food’ restaurant worker?

How much does UWO, WLU or any university charge for their graduate tuition?

Indeed, how much are they charging for undergraduate tuition? Is it worth it when the university administrations insist on paying as little as possible?

Whether you like it or not, money is the measure of value in our society.

So, regardless of what Dr Chakma or any other university president says, what they offer in concrete, material terms (i.e. how much are they willing to pay or what kinds of benefits are they willing to provide?) indicates the regard within which they hold the PhD or any other academic degree (which, of course, is ironic in so many ways!).

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June 30 – What does a pension mean to you?

As a young child, I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning and listening in the dark as my father prepared to go out to work as a deckhand on ferries moving crew, cargo and passengers between various islands in cold, sleet, rain, fog, wind, and sun, too!

My father, along with thousands of other seamen, got millions of passengers, employees and employers, families, relatives, tourists, and others, travelling between various islands and the mainland, safely to and from their destinations.

While I learned to hate the idea of what work might mean for me (I was too young to realise how it might change), I knew all too well what it meant for my father: early to rise, away for five days, a week or more at a time, and sometimes also away from home at Christmas and birthdays. His family grew up and experienced life as he spent (reluctant) time away from family – and at times appeared remote from our concerns.

Yet, once he got full-time – unionised – employment, my siblings and I (there were eight of us, including foster children) benefitted from the fact that my father’s earnings during the late 1960s and 1970s ensured that my mother could stay home with the children. (Talk about a ‘family-friendly’ policy – something you won’t hear these days from Tories or Republicans!!)

My father dreamed of retiring after a life-time spent at work, helping companies make profits, ensuring passengers arrived safely at their destinations and raising a family where the children were able to become relatively socially (and financially!!) mobile: moving up and out of the working class into the middle class. A result of both my father’s and my mother’s love of education, learning and books, as well as their belief that, while they made sacrifices for us in terms of their job prospects, respect and dignity on the job (and in life generally – since so many people’s sense of their own self-worth was dependent upon their occupations in life!) and ‘creature comforts’, they could reasonably expect that we would have a better life ahead of us.

And they, at least, would be able to view that from the comfort of a small, tidy pension which would enable them – unlike their own parents and grandparents – to be free from the compulsion to work until their death, as my father’s father – my own grandfather – had done (had to do!).

A small, but decent (and well-earned) pension that rewarded them for the diligence and loyalty for working hard at unsung jobs, that recognised the work that was still necessary for the movement of goods and people, and for the personal sacrifices that people, like my father, made to do a job in the present to enable a future for their/his children.

My father, left school at 13 years of age, but was self-taught. At a time when merchant seamen had only books (rather than satellite telly) to entertain them (after gambling and/or drinking away their money!!), my father became not just an auto-didact, but a parent who wanted to teach his children to experience a real life of education, knowledge and learning. An education that would take them away from being stuck with getting up at an ungodly hour to do a thankless task for decades.

Pensions are also a recognition that when you give up a part of your life to ensure that certain tasks are carried out, you lose the opportunity to engage in other activities and (possible alternative career paths) – and it is this loss of opportunity which is part of what pensions also represent.

It’s not just the potential that their own lives might have had that people lose, when they do these thankless tasks, but that their own lives may be shortened or become otherwise less fulfilling because of a lack of opportunity to realise their own potential.

That is, pensions are not just a means to which people have contributed as part of their financial planning for life after work, but that we have to recognise that people lose out other possibilities, other potentials that remain unrealised, because – for whatever reason – they chose, or were forced to choose, a life that excluded other opportunities.

My father always talked about how much he would have loved to have been a teacher, a second-hand bookseller, a writer and so many other things. The opportunity for my father never arrived. However, he had hopes that we would not have to live the lives that he had: moving in and out of unemployment; moving from job to job; being ripped off by employers; and so  on.

Knowing that a pension would allow one enough to live on in at least minimal comfort at the end of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of working is an expectation that should be offerred to every man, woman and child, regardless of their position or which position they have ended up in!

Everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, shouldn’t they?

When people think that governments and politicians should just be able to rip up people’s pensions, they never consider perhaps how those people made sacrifices that enabled the economy to function, goods and people to be transported, and so on.

And, that these working people made great sacrifices during their working lives. Why shouldn’t they be able to retire?

Why do we think that only CEOs should enjoy the fruits (profits) of your labour?

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A Modest Proposal for Linking Tuition Fees to Minimum Wage

If increasingly employers require a minimum of an undergraduate degree, even when the necessary job skills do not demand such education (and perhaps such demands are used as a means to sift through greater numbers of applicants for fewer positions), then surely it is a broader responsibility than the student’s (or her/his family’s) to pay for that education.

If it is the case that employers demand that new employees have a degree, then surely there needs to be some kind of commitment from those employers who are the beneficiaries of their new recruits studying for their university degrees. That is, perhaps employers need to think about paying for the education of the people that they hire – or paying their ‘fair share’ in taxes to support such educational provision.

We also have to rethink about providing access to a greater number of young people to obtain the necessary education to earn the degree while thinking about how it should be paid for.

So, I am wondering if it is more ‘realistic’ or ‘pragmatic’ to propose a linking of tuition fees to a certain number of weeks of employment at a minimum wage?

Essentially, I would suggest that we identify a reasonable number of weeks at full-time hours at minimum wage to be equated to one year’s tuition fees for undergraduate education in the humanities and social sciences (or ‘liberal arts’). (Perhaps, sciences, engineering and related disciplines may require a slightly different model, but I will confine my proposal to the areas I know best.)

While the first university degree, the bachelor of arts or science or education, is becoming the equivalent of the high sch0ol diploma, then perhaps we have to work to ensure greater access by more youth to the first degree as part of a social-economic commitment of the nation to its youth.

While my proposal is primarily directed towards the Canadian situation, it may also have some impact upon those involved in combatting the tripling of tuition fees at universities in the UK (I have been both a student and a lecturer in post-secondary institutions in Canada and the UK).

As you can read in a wee bit more detail below (and in an earlier post in this blog where I made a comparison between the late 1970s and today), I would suggest that it should be in the 4-6 week range. That is, we should think about 160-240 hours (4-6 weeks of 40 hours per week) of full-time minimum wage work.

This link would also have an impact upon the concerns and issues in linking up student jobs and what they earn or, more commonly, what minimum wage pays.

Indeed, perhaps such a link would also work to help identify the problems that minimum wages generally don’t meet the costs of living in the same way that the ‘living wage’ does (perhaps there will be the belated recognition that current minimum wages are any where near what they were in the 1970s and early 1980s).

However, we shouldn’t expect people to have to pay more than the 4-6 weeks of work at minimum wage especially when the lack of employment opportunities often force young people to take contract, temporary and part-time employment.


Below are the comments that I made that helped to formulate this proposal, and which are posted on the University Affairs website with the original column by Dr Doug Owram and his thoughts on tuition fees, which can also be accessed via the link (

While I appreciate your identification of inflation as part of the equation that saw the low percentage of university costs (or income?) paid for by student tuition fees, I do think we have to consider something comparable between minimum wage rates and tuition fees to make universities accessible for students from non-affluent backgrounds.

As a working-class teenager, the costs of tuition were always a concern. I certainly would not go to any university, including the one that I teach at now, with the kind of costs that I have to incurr.

In 1978, however, I could afford to go to university (in BC)for the equivalent of 4 weeks of full-time work (40 hours per) at minimum wage ($3 per hour). In Ontario at present, students pay closer to 16 weeks: basically four (4) times the amount of work that my generation had to do to pay for tuition.

I don’t believe that it is just the cost of faculty salaries that is a root cause here if for no other reason than classes are so much larger than what I took when I was an undergraduate.

For example, in my department at Wilfrid Laurier University, we teach first-year classes of 300-400 students. Our third-year classes are 50 and last year many classes exceeded that number to cope with cutbacks by the Administration (even though the provincial government made no cutbacks).

However, the Administration has been expanding the number of administrators (estimated at a 48% increase in the last five years versus a 13% increase in faculty and a 18.5% increase in students). (These are the University’s own numbers, by the way.)

Compare that with the late 1970s and early 1980s and third-year classes of 15-30 students (I think there was one I took – a required course – with around 40-50 students in it). My professors were usually full-time and permanent, whereas today at my own university at least 35-40% of classes are taught by Contract Academic Staff or contract faculty (who may be teaching at more than one university to try to earn enough to pay off student loans and other debts incurred while studying for a doctorate). (This, of course, is another issue: the lack of respect shown by Administrators for contract faculty in terms of pay and conditions. Ironic, isn’t it, that universities encourage people to study for a PhD and then want to hire them at McJob rates of pay – even when they’ve earned the PhD from the very same university that treats them with such disdain?!)

Part of it the problem are the low wages available to students when they do graduate: many students also study for a one-year diploma in PR or marketing or Human Resources but still end up working for $25-30,000 per year in Toronto and owe anywhere from $25-42,000.

Universities need to re-think what is at the heart of their mission as well as rethinking how they charge for tuition. Perhaps, we need to consider what the minimum wage is and ensure that NO student has to pay more than say four (4) to six (6) weeks of minimum wage for their full-time university tuition fees.

Universities also need to re-think why they have become so top-heavy with senior administrators and why so much money is being expended in extra-curricular areas rather than in the core missions of the university: teaching and research.

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UK’s new New College of the Humanities…. Back to the 19th Century?

Despite their concerns and expressions, I cannot see how this new private university in the UK is going to be anything but a new university college providing education for the elite (and for those lucky few who lack funds but are supported by scholarships to expand the ranks of the governing elite).

The philosopher A.C. Grayling, in the Guardian today, ‘says he was motivated in part by fears that government cuts to university humanities and arts courses could leave “the fabric of society poorer as a result”.’ Well, I think, most people in the UK and beyond are well aware of that.


“Society needs us to be thoughtful voters, good neighbours, loving parents and responsible citizens,” he said.’

Of course it does, but why should it be for only those who can pay for it? (Well, at least there will be a few neighbourhoods with those few people wealthy enough to afford such education! Elites can continue to look down on the rest of us poor, benighted fools….)

Surely if the new New College claims, in the words of Grayling, that: “If we are to discover and inspire the next generation of lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, civil servants, writers, artists and teachers, we need to educate to the highest standards and with imagination, breadth and depth.” (

Yes, most of us would and do agree with Grayling’s sentiments. But, paying £18,000 a year?!

Why was compulsory schooling introduced and expanded during the 19th and 20th centuries and why was access to and provision of post-secondary education, including vocational and professional training, expanded in the 20th century?!

It feels like we’re moving back to the 19th century.

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For-profit education? Capitalism – in reality – depends on subsidies from the public

A lot of discussion has been taking place lately about the role and impact of private institutions of higher education in the UK in the last couple of weeks. Is the introduction of for-profit, private universities in the UK going to be a good thing or not? Given the need to investigate complaints from students who have gone through the private for-profit colleges in the USA?

Of course, those who support the idea believe that by introducing ‘competition’, prices for undergraduate programmes will be pushed down. At least in theory. Trouble with mainstream economics is that it is always – ‘in theory’.

Little of it actually works in reality (partly because people don’t fit into economists’ conceptions of humans as ‘rational’ or ‘utility-maximizing’ actors – homo economicus is an abstraction with little basis in reality, let alone as an expression of how humans actually think and act).

Indeed, most of the experiments with privatization and de-regulation only works with heavy doses of public funds to make these experiments ‘profitable’. Whether it has been the privatization of public utilities, as Thatcher et al. did, or whether it is the Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs, UK) or Public-Private Partnerships (P-3s, Canada), these processes always involve ensuring profits and long-term subsidization of private corporations (or at least their profits and executive bonuses). Always, of course, at someone else’s expense – usually the public’s! (Although their ‘front’ or ‘astroturf’ groups always claim to have taxpayers’ concerns at the forefront but they act more as support groups for corporate marketeers.)

The various free-trade agreements are primarily about ensuring that the public has little or no control over what corporations do and act as little more than legal means to ensure that they extract yet more money from consumers and workers (via laws). They can sue governments for the latters’ attempt to exercise democratic control and so on.

And, then, if you factor into the costs all the enviromental degradation, to which it is usually left to the public (i.e. taxpayers) to pick up the costs of clean-up, you have to wonder how capitalism (as a system) pays for itself, except by transferring money from the people who work to the corporations via the state.

The idea of the huge increase in students’ fees for tuition in UK universities is also an aspect of this process of privatization.

Funny, why is it with all this ‘competition’, which was supposedly to enhance the future of the finance industry, was it de-regulated, when we found out a wee bit later that the system nearly collapsed and had to be bailed out by the state?

Of course, it didn’t stop the executive class from claiming ‘bonuses’ for nearly destroying the system from which they benefit so much. Why did we bail them out? And, if we bailed them out because they screwed up, why are we listening to them, let alone permitting them to be paid bonuses while ordinary middle- and working-class families suffer?

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UCEA Offer Reveals Much About Employers

The news that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has offered academic staff ‘a £100 pay rise for the 2011-12 academic year’ is more than an insult. It reveals much about how employers view staff. (See ‘Employers make £100 pay offer’ by John Morgan in THE.)

Whenever you hear excuses about the need to ‘recruit’ and/or ‘retain’ people in the financial services industry, banking and sectors, it is always about the executives (or bureaucrats) at the top who take home pay that is beyond what most people can dream about making during their careers or (in the more obscene cases of executive pay) in a lifetime.

Yet, the same (supposedly) ‘common sense’ expression never seems to apply to the rest of us: those of us that do the teaching, research, administration and service that makes universities (and the rest of the world) work so well. It’s a myth. It’s just an excuse to pay money that comes out of the pockets of employees and consumers, and academics and students, that goes to pay for these bureaucrats at the top.

If you want students to pay £9,000 a year for a degree at a university in the UK, then you are going to have to think about paying academics decent if not competitive salaries in order to compete with universities in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Otherwise, you are going to have an increasing problem with the world reputation of universities. The reputation of the worst affected universities will affect the overall reputation of all universities in the UK, regardless of individual performance.

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University Students, Classes & Tuition: A Comparative Perspective

Today, the Canadian Federation of Students released a news release in response to a Statistics Canada report on how higher tuition fees are having an effect on Canadians – in terms of saving for retirement, for their children to be able to afford to go to university and so on.

It’s hard to sometimes compare what things cost, except I have been using an example with students that I teach for the last ten years or so. Essentially here is what I do (of course, figures will vary, from institution to institution….).

Here’s the ‘twitter’ version:

1-year tuition fees: 1978 – 1 month min. wage work VERSUS 2010 – 4 months min. wage work

average 3rd-year class sizes: 1978-early 1980s: 12-30 VERSUS 2010 – 50+ with reaching upwards to 60, 70 & more

full-time profs: 1978-1980s: 88-90% VERSUS 50-65% (some depts rely on greater percentages of contract faculty)


First, I remember what it cost for my first year’s university tuition:

(1a) in 1978 around $450 = which at that time = four (4) weeks (1 month) of full-time work (4o hours per week) at minimum wage ($3 per hour).

(1b) I then compare it to what the students I teach at Wilfrid Laurier University, for example, have to pay for one  year’s tuition. The average since 2005, when I first started the exercise in some classes, was 15-17 weeks (around 4 months) with annual increases in the minimum wage in Ontario 2008-10 with annual increases in tuition fees, it’s safe to say an average of 4 months work.

(2a) 1978 – the other 3 months of summer work could be used to save up for living expenses (if you could live at home)….

(2b) Instead, students have to work all summer just to earn tuition. Of course, if their parents are rich or well-off or willing to go into debt to finance their children’s education…..

Otherwise, if you came from where I did, you probably wouldn’t go. In 1978, I certainly didn’t want to go into debt, and back then if you were a university student, you could NOT get a credit card. My memory was that it was an automatic disqualification. Of course, in 2000s, I’ve heard from students that some received credit cards (or pre-approved ones, I think) on their 18th birthdays!!

(3a) 1981 – My third-year classes (with one notable exception – about 50-60 students) frequently had anywhere from 12 to 20 to (less common) 30 students.

(3b) 2011 – At WLU, my first year classes have gone up from 100 to 300+ (except for one summer offering). Third-year classes have usually been around 50, but some caps in third-year classes were increased upwards of 100 last year (we’re not the only increasing class sizes, while students pay more)!! And, with the cuts that the Admin are going to punish the Arts faculty for a downturn in recruits….

(4a) Again, I don’t have numbers, but I do remember in the five (5) years I was studying at university for my BA, I had about five (5) non-tenure faculty (including at least two who were on some sort of one-year contract (as opposed to being paid per course). Probably, no more than one-in-eight (12%??) of classes.

(4b) More money in 2000s for more courses taught by contract faculty (at WLU called Contract Academic Staff or CAS). They teach officially something like 35% of the courses (although there are loopholes….) and about 40% of contact time (this probably means they are teaching more first- and second-year courses and tutorials and labs).

(5a) 1978 – 1980s – Administrators were few and far between (or so it seemed). I’m afraid I don’t have the memory of this because you had time to see your profs (they were more likely to know your name…. and know when you weren’t in class!!)

(5b) 2011 – Administrators are increasing at far greater rates than students or faculty. For example, WLU Faculty Association, drawing upon the Admin’s own figures, compared the increases over five (5) years at WLU, 2005-2010:

Student enrolment up: 18.5%

Faculty numbers up: 13%

Administrators up: 48%.

Where’s the money going??

(Ps. Admin refers NOT to the support staff who do the jobs that ensure the university operates so that students can attend classes and faculty can teach, research and engage in service.)

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For what purpose…. education?!

For some time now, there has been a myth that has received widespread promotion: that education can help you get a job. Indeed, the general belief for the middle and upper-middle class youth going to university, is that without a degree they won’t be able to get a decent paying job – er – profession.

Part of that myth has been to blame those lacking education or training or skills for economic downturns or skill shortages.

Funny that. At one time, employers used to engage in training. Few do any more. Sure, they complain to the government that they don’t have enough skilled workers of their own, so please can you (government) bring in some more on temporary work permits?!

They’re less likely to engage in trying to organise and demand better pay and safe working conditions because the government can simply deport them. Employers can decide that they don’t even want to pay them! (You see, it is a lot harder to deport workers that stand up for themselves if they were born and/or raised in your country or have rights of residence or citizenship. Then there are also a few laws that you are meant to follow, such as negotiating with them.)

All aspects of the answers to economic problems are laid at the feet of those with the least amount of power to affect the economy: the workers (except when organised).

Education, however, is meant to be the panacea that solves all the problems created within a system that enables employers to pay less than a living wage. Result? Even full-time work is no longer a guarantee of getting out of poverty. Is it really a fair and just system, if you are expected to spend most of your time subjected to the directions and control of someone else just to earn enough money to eat and pay your rent (although some do not even provide that)?

But, education itself is not necessarily an answer to solving economic problems nor is it the solution to the lack of job opportunities for young and old, for skilled and unskilled, for educated and uneducated. The fact is is that there are fewer and fewer jobs to match the needs of a growing population and the situation for good jobs is even worse. These are jobs that actually make use of the education, training and skills that people are undertaking in order to better prepare themselves for work.

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