Not for profit
Universities are corporations, my friend.
Or at least that’s what the Academic Program Review would have us believe. While the APR forums have illuminated the constricted financial situation of the university, they are also revealing other interesting attitudes towards education. One attitude that has been revealed is, not surprisingly, that the university should be run like a business. Inherent in this is a limited definition of profit dependent on how much money the university makes by providing a service to their consumers – students. On this model, the university aims to rely less on government funding and more on tuition and other sources of revenue. In other words, the work of the university is being reduced to its immediately obvious monetary impact.
This understanding of a university, however, is an extremely limited one that ignores the varied nature of how a university serves society. While we can certainly point to the direct monetary benefits of a university, some of the more subtle and intangible creations of the university are often ignored and devalued when we start demanding to justify its existence in terms of money.
Investment in the Fine Arts, Arts, and Sciences is much like capital investment into buildings on campus. Without the buildings, the university ceases to exist. Without education that is not directly reduced to profit, our university ceases to exist and becomes a technical college. Proper funding of these programs is an investment in cultural works that don’t necessarily make money but do enhance society – namely things like paintings, books, sculpture, or music. It is also an investment in the structures that maintain culture and ultimately create more wealth, be those structures formalized like a university or informal like the prevailing attitude towards society.
Investment of money into a liberal arts, science, or fine arts is never wasted; it is merely transformed into something more meaningful than dollars and cents. Think of it this way: a farmer can take the money he earned growing a crop to plant another crop the next year, or he can set aside some of the money to buy a tractor, which will allow him to produce more grain in the coming years. The farmer now no longer has the money he spent on the tractor, but he has a tractor which will make his work easier and help him create more wealth. This wouldn’t be possible if he simply hoarded his money for the sake of hoarding it.
While investment in the programs is not as tangible as a new tractor, it is no less important. When viewed this way, the suggestion that the university at the demands of the government, needs to see a monetary return on all investments in education ignores the fact that some government investment in the form of money is necessarily converted by the university –especially by “pre-professional” degrees – into something that is more meaningful than mere currency. In effect, the policy of reducing the usefulness of a university to how “sustainable” it is – read: how much money it makes – is self-defeating.
With this more nuanced understanding of society, it becomes clear that funding post-secondary education is not a waste of money in any sense of the word. It is an investment in the creation of things that people want to make their lives more fulfilling. A more highly educated society is ultimately a happier society, as proper and healthy investments now in education provide a cultural infrastructure that can create wealth in the future in the form of art, literature, scientific breakthrough and so on.
Increasingly, the government is suggesting that turning a visible profit is the be-all and end-all of everything. The idea of a for-profit university is too narrow an understanding for how a university should fit into an effective economy. What it comes down to is that we need to stop reducing everything to the monetary impact and realize there are underlying structures to society that need to be maintained. If we don’t maintain those now, society might find itself in a “cultural infrastructure deficit” much like the infrastructure deficit the city, the province, and the country are currently facing. That is a truly bleak vision of the world.
It’s extremely unfortunate that the government has taken such a simplistic understanding of society in terms of only dollars and cents, neglecting the overall well-being of citizens. It could be why as this trend has developed, employee happiness has dropped across the board, with over 20 per cent of employees experiencing depression in the workplace. It is also unfortunate that the university seems unable to dispel the government’s narrow-minded view of post-secondary education, instead determining to manage cuts and refocus its operations to meet this simplistic understanding of the world. We need to ask why we’ve been ineffective at making a case for post-secondary education that is not solely driven by a desire to make money, and then hold whoever is responsible accountable for this failure.