Primarily a United States Republican Party construct designed to get the Federal Government “off the backs” of the citizenry, to restore competition, and to stimulate the entrepreneurial instincts of the populace, deregulation and privatization today stand triumphant in many areas of the global political economy. Indeed, NAFTA, the WTO, GATT and other large-scale economic arrangements tout free market economics as the necessary condition of progress and freedom. Yet, as we have seen in recent burgeoning protest against these organizations and the system they buttress, not all prosper through free market economics. Nor—it should be added—can the fragile ecology of the world withstand the brutal assault of unrestrained growth.
As the big kids on the block, of course, American corporations reap most of the profits from regional and global market arrangements. Canada ranks somewhere as a second-tier country, increasingly cast as a cornucopia of natural resources, which given unstable global security conditions, Washington covets. Our dollar, if we can call it that, gives us decreasing clout in the global marketplace. Not quite Third World, when Canadians travel abroad, we sense our frailty.
The current financial crisis of Arts and Science at Queen’s—indeed, of arts and science faculties across Canada—underlines the vulnerability of public education generally and of liberal arts (and the public service professions) in particular. The lack of vigorous Federal debate—seemingly any debate—on the value of higher education as an investment in Canada, combined with the Harris government’s oxymoronic definition of “common sense,” leaves universities increasingly vulnerable—left to their own devices to increase funding and sustain quality.
In fact, several indicators underline the decline of quality at this university, a process mirroring the decline of public support since the mid-1970s. The situation is particular perilous in the burgeoning student-instructor ratio (with the ominous double cohort now looming); in larger classes; in decreasing TA hours; in the inability of the faculty to replace departed colleagues; in the disappearance of courses and programs; in five percent budget cuts; and—not least—in the increasing imbalance in intra-faculty financial support which, in George Orwell’s words, makes some faculties more equal than others. This situation does not facilitate morale.
Already the MBA program here runs wholly on locally generated funding. It is deregulated. It charges what the market will bear—now, roughly four times the tuition paid by arts and science students. Undergrad programs in Commerce and Applied Science, and graduate programs in Law and Medicine feature “mixed” economies—they set their tuition fees, but are supported by government grants. Arts, Education, Rehab, and Nursing are currently limited by government fiat to an annual increase of two percent. Given the three economies at Queen’s—perhaps a cruel metaphor for current first, second and third worlds—we clearly occupy a house divided, and such a structure cannot stand for long.
The two percent increase does not sustain most programs in arts and science, given declining government grants and the tendency to target grants to programs like computer science. Hence we see pressure on Queen’s Park from Queen’s administration to allow a mixed economy in arts and science as well. Principal Bill Leggett turned to deregulation as the only way to maintain educational quality in arts and science. Like other Ontario university presidents, Leggett has tried hard to gain the ears and eyes of a government that cannot hear or see. Ironically, Queen’s Park actually stands athwart Queen’s plan to deregulate arts and science to keep up with rising costs. Queen’s hopes to change the PC mind-set.
Arts and Science courses—long the core of higher education at colleges and universities across North America—increasingly find themselves orphans in a mercenary age. This is a shame—indeed, a tragedy—for without the critical edge provided by a broad-based and complete arts and science curriculum, we shall become a nation of Babbitts, unable to critique power, to raise questions about political culture, to confront inequality, and to make higher education accessible to all Canadians who yarn for this opportunity. So deregulation appears as a short-term solution but is actually a huge step in the wrong direction. Not only does it limit accessibility, but it is an invitation to government to continue to back out of funding higher education.
We must not forget that arts and science exists, by definition, in opposition to political and economic power. It is not vocational (although it helps). Its curriculum merely seeks to stretch minds, to encourage skepticism, to imbue resilience, to foster tolerance, and to say to students—“hey, change your mind a few times. Make a mistake. Examine your values. Dare to fail, but, above all, enjoy what you do.” As Thomas Moore writes in The Education of the Heart, a person does not have to know much to be informed, but an educated person has to be “vulnerable to the transformative events of an engaged human life.”