…Of All We Survey

Below, please find a response to last week’s post on the OCUFA survey of Ontario University faculty [parts one and two linked here], sent by my most frequent respondent :

What you have provided here is empirical evidence of what we all have known in our bones for decades. The colleges have adopted a full-bore “business model.” That involves the commodification of curriculum, the Wal-Mart theory of quality control and the fiscal imperative, which is to maximize productivity while minimizing labour costs. It adds up to a betrayal of any educational ideal worthy of the name.

As for “critical thinking,” it is a new corporate slogan similar to “thinking outside the box.” In practice it means “problem solving,” understood as figuring out the answer to a question, but having no say in defining the question or deciding in whose interest the question should be answered. So, an exercise in critical thinking might arise with the question: “How can we best eliminate poverty?” What remains unstated is the initial premise, “Without altering the economy in any significant way and without changing basic relations between rich and poor, how can we … etc., etc.” […] So, “critical thinking” turns out to be just another illusion or, at best, a method for coming to a pre-determined conclusion from non-negotiable premises. Call it the critical thinking of the Rubik’s Cube.

Admittedly, I may harbour some small disagreements with the sentiment — my concern with current trends in postsecondary education isn’t necessarily some sort of managerially-imposed quality control, so much as the threats to quality that are the effect of underfunding.

Actually, truth be told, I’m all for administrators’ having the power to control quality — the power to determine class sizes, to hire full-time faculty as needed, to ensure that faculty are given what the time and resources that they need to ensure the actual quality of each student’s educational experience.

But that’s not what I’m seeing.  I’m seeing a system in which managers are denied the means to accomplish those things, and in which their continued employment depends upon their creating ‘fixes’ to accommodate (and perpetuate) that denial.  One of those fixes, I think my respondent might agree, is the standardization of education to lowest common quantifiable denominators, where quantifiability is introduced in the stead of anything quite so nebulous as “quality”.  (Or, for that matter, “education”).

But the response of Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities to the survey strikes me as significant.  He’s chosen to reject the collective conclusions of 2,000 university faculty, and to base his assessment of Ontario’s postsecondary system upon funding levels and (uncited) student feedback, instead.

Which does lead me to wonder — assuming that claims of empirical fact need to be falsifiable — what hypothetical piece of evidence would persuade Minister that Ontario’s postsecondary education is, in fact, declining?  (I’m not saying that it is — I’m merely asking what piece of information might serve to convince the Minister in a way that the reported experiences of 2,000 university professors do not.)  After all, if it’s just about “customer satisfaction”, to Minister Milloy, then my correspondent would be wholly correct in saying that the Ministry is treating education as nothing more than a commodity.

This question — about how to make convincing claims about an educational system’s quality — may be crucial to the outcomes of our future efforts as professors to create structural improvements in the college system.  And how dismaying it would be, were Minister Milloy to indicate that he had no interest in professors’ collective opinions, thus leaving them with one sole means of effecting change in the system…

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