This article contains selected excerpts from the 2009 Canada federal budget that tend to focus on the economic functions of university education, increase attention on business degrees and on research that aims primarily at economic benefits.
Will we arise from this phase of university life with a broader view of the aims of postsecondary education? What will be the effect of this “phase” (hopefully it will end) of economic crisis on our collective sense of the value of liberal arts education?
For example, in one place the budget document declared that
“[PhD and Master’s] scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.”
Certainly there is something quite logical about putting more money into business and entrepeneurship and job training, especially during a time of recession.
But the crisis-centered rhetoric of this budget tends to ignore the fact that any country is more than its economic functions and parts. A federal budget is for the whole country and it shapes the future, especially when it reshapes institutions of higher education.
This document will further shape how government agencies understand the term “knowledge infrastructure” and the relationship between “knowledge” and society.
What will the short and long term effects be?
Imbalance and lack of emphasis on the broad social value of programs in the liberal arts in our federal budget documents will likely narrow our culture’s view of the diversity and purpose of higher education and especially the role of the liberal arts within our institutions of higher education.
Could we not see this coming?
It is not surprising that for a national research granting council that reports to parliament through the Minister of Industry would, in a time of economic crisis and conservative government, receive an injection of new money that is focused on business-related degrees.
Here is the larger context of the quote above within the full 2009 budget document:
Heading: “Further Developing a Highly Skilled Workforce”
“This includes $35 million for each of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and $17.5 million for the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council. These funds will provide for an additional 500 doctoral scholarships, valued at $35,000 each per year for three years beginning in 2009–10, and an additional 1,000 master’s scholarships, valued at $17,500 each for one year, in both 2009–10 and 2010–11. Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focussed on business-related degrees.
Budget 2009 also provides an additional $3.5 million over two years to offer an additional 600 graduate internships in science and business, through the Industrial Research and Development Internship program launched in Budget 2007.” (p. 106-107)
The business-degree theme continues in the section headed “Helping Small and Medium-Sized Companies Innovate”
“$30 million to help companies hire over 1,000 new postsecondary graduates, including graduates from business schools, to implement more effective business processes and strategies, and develop new innovative products and services that companies can bring to the marketplace.” (p. 182)
Indeed, the section 40 pages earlier on “Investments in Knowledge Infrastructure —
Improving Infrastructure at Universities and Colleges” portrays the university’s main role as research and teaching that serves the economy.
“Universities and colleges advance the frontiers of knowledge through research and train highly skilled workers who will contribute to the Canadian economy. Post-secondary institutions, including universities, colleges, and publicly funded polytechnic schools and institutes of technology, have indicated that a major portion of their existing campus infrastructure is at or near the end of its projected life cycle, and often does not adequately meet the needs of today’s research and teaching activities.
Accelerating repairs, maintenance and construction at universities and colleges will provide substantial stimulus in communities across Canada and will help achieve the objectives of the Government’s Science and Technology Strategy by enhancing the research capacity of these institutions and enabling them to attract students and provide a better educational experience for the highly skilled workers of tomorrow.
The funds under this initiative will be managed by Industry Canada, with 70 per cent of the funding dedicated to university infrastructure and the remaining 30 per cent for infrastructure at colleges. Allocation will be based on project merit and readiness. The funds will pay for up to half of project costs, levering an equivalent amount from other partners.” (p. 148-149)
The overall emphasis on universities’ role in economic development and job training is rationalized on page 197 under the heading “Knowledge Advantage—Fostering Skills, Training and Education” where the rationale is to provide education that supports the economy.
In line with its spotlight on business degrees, the budget also includes an emphasis on educating Canadians in the area of “financial literacy”, requiring a task force and a national strategy.
“Another way to enable consumers to look after their best interests is to raise the level of financial literacy. Financial literacy is the ability to understand personal and broader financial matters, apply that knowledge and assume responsibility for one’s financial decisions. Financial literacy is an important life skill that empowers consumers to make the best financial decisions in their particular circumstances. While a number of initiatives are currently underway to improve financial literacy for Canadians, it is time to better organize efforts. To that effect, the Government will establish an independent task force, which will make recommendations to the Minister of Finance on a cohesive national strategy on financial literacy. The task force will include representatives of the business and education sectors, volunteer organizations, and academics, and will be supported by a federal secretariat. The task force is expected to be launched in the spring of 2009. A positive outcome for the group will require the collaboration of the provinces, private sector and community organizations.” (p. 89)
The discussion of Tax Relief on page 258 mentions that reduced taxes will help Canadians “to invest in the knowledge and skills that will lead to a more productive economy” and to finance the education of their children.
So… back to my initial question.
Will we arise from this phase of university life with a more positive view of the value of liberal arts education?
If we do, it will not be due to the rhetoric of budget documents such as this. It will not be due to the strategic funding since it diverts a larger percentage of money and attention away from teaching and research in the liberal arts.
The maintenance — to hope for enrichment is perhaps too optimistic — of our nation’s liberal arts knowledge and skills will only occur if other movements in our society work toward uplifting the liberal arts.
This can happen not merely by connecting the liberal arts to economic development (we must be careful not to narrow it to this), but by increasing citizens’ and government focus on the enrichment and maintenance of Canada’s diverse cultures, communities and public life.
UPDATE: added July 28, 2009:
I am puzzled by the contradictions expressed in these two sources:
This article of February 13, 2009 by T. Kierans, Chair of Council and Vice President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, details the reductions to the SSHRC granting organization over the next 3 years.
a) SSHRC funding is reduced for health-related research that is eligible under the mandate of CIHR.
b) SSHRC funding is eliminated for Research Time Stipends (RTS)—funds that help to provide adequate time for faculty to conduct research.
These two changes represent a total of $8.19 million in SSHRC budget reductions, phased in over three years.
[in addition …]
The 2008-09 Indirect Costs budget of $330 million will see a total reduction of $14.652 million over the next three fiscal years.
However, Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in Parliamentary debates on March 10, 2009:
Hon. Gary Goodyear (Minister of State (Science and Technology), CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is very clear that the member and many of the members opposite have not read the budget clearly. This government has increased the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council budget by 50%. On top of that, in this budget we added $87 million for more scholarships.
So I don’t understand… is the SSHRC budget increasing or decreasing? I am not sure what amount Hon. Gary Goodyear is referring to increasing by 50%. It looks to me like SSHRC funding is decreasing overall, and any “new” graduate student funding initiatives “added” to the program are targeting business-related research.