Features | Democratize the University

our education’s transformative potential

It is very easy to talk about the university we don’t want. That model of university is already being imposed upon us by a conservative political movement which seeks to privatize, dismantle, and restrict access to essential public services like education. We are told that these changes are inevitable if we want the University to play a key role in shaping the future of social and economic progress. But we ask, who will bear the brunt of this restructuring? The University does not exist in a one-way relationship with the broader community.

We insist on a critically-engaged university that is a dynamic and vital resource for creativity and research – a university that provides students with powerful tools to engage with one another through their learning process, and to participate in social change.

Popular thinking about the University restricts the demands we can make in terms of what is “practical” or “fair” – most alternatives to the current university framework get written off as wishful thinking. This impoverishes our view of the opportunities and possibilities available to us and constrains what we are even able to imagine as “the University we want.” Perhaps more crucially, they delimit who has the privilege of being a student at this institution. We take it for granted that the University, a community of collective learning and research, has to make its current institutionalized and hierarchical form.

We face an uphill battle to convince not only those in power, but our families and peers, that free post-secondary education is not an unreasonable request. It is actually one of the most basic things we should be demanding.

We’re suffering from amnesia when it comes to funding. In the 1990-91 school year, average undergraduate tuition fees across Canada were $1,464. As we know too well, that figure had risen to $4,917 by 2009-2010, an increase of 336 per cent. If tuition had risen at the rate of inflation, it would only come out to $2,110.

Students are being asked to pick up the slack left by massive government funding cuts. By 2005, federal government expenditure on post-secondary education had declined to 0.19 per cent of GDP while military spending held constant around 2 per cent. In fact, the Conservatives have announced their intent to increase defence spending from its current annual budget of $19 billion to $30 billion by 2027.

Such comparisons unveil the priorities at work. We see that it is not so much a shortage of money that inhibits action toward the accessibility of education, but a lack of political will. The University we want is open to students from all economic backgrounds. Abolishing tuition is an important start, but we must not allow the cost of food, rent, and educational materials to inhibit students from benefiting from their education. As we commit to the political project of reworking the way the University functions, we want to emphasize the necessity for involving more diverse student voices.

Social values about the University reveal its troubled relationship with the economy in sterling clarity. Most discussions of the University are framed in the dehumanizing language of the “knowledge economy,” and further emphasized by the way it is “graded” in media rankings.

Much of the research, energy, and resources within universities is geared toward use in governments and businesses. This makes it incredibly difficult to set our own priorities.

The University we want derives its legitimacy from providing students with the ability to be ruthlessly, critically aware of the work they do and the practices of the university itself. Its research is not determined by corporate interests where profit is the goal. The university we want does not respond to the dictates of capital or empire – the harmful applications of military and “development” research. McGill’s recent move to lift regulations on military-related research reflects the exclusion of students from decision-making about research with unethical ramifications.

Some argue that the University should be dismantled for its role in reproducing inequality through programs like these. We realize that we are asking for enormous changes to admissions, funding, and academic practice, but we believe that the University can be a reservoir of potentially transformative knowledge if we nurture its potential. After all, we owe much of our critique to what we have learned within this imperfect institution.

The University we want is a community that openly reflects upon whose interests it serves. This means questioning who sets the agenda of what should be researched. Responsible research means breaking down the barriers between scholars and the people or communities who become the objects of analysis, and rarely occupy a collaborative role within that process. Academia can be pathologizing, stereotyping, and exploitative. It can also be empowering, opening up not only dialogues with the communities from whom universities have stolen so much, but also our abilities to work with them.

There are currently programs working toward democratizing academia, which encourage students to consider their “education” within broader, more progressive terms. Indyclasses at McGill are a good example of students teaching and learning from one another. The Community Research Exchange (CURE) is another such program. Run by both QPIRG-McGill and Concordia, it puts students in touch with local organizations who need their academic labour to respond to pressing community needs. Students can apply for a project to be completed in fulfillment of an independent study or independent reading course, which are offered at McGill departments if you can find a professor to supervise you and meet all registration deadlines. CURE states its mandate is to “facilitate productive, mutually transformative interactions between students and activists that redefine the boundary between universities and the communities which surround them.” Activist and service organizations (such as the Immigrant Workers’ Centre or the Prisoner Correspondence Project, which benefit from participation in this project) need facts, figures, research, and documentation to broadcast their message in media and legislative arenas.

The University we want is one in which learning as radical public service is valued as highly as (or more than) crafting essays that no one will read except an overworked and underpaid TA. This is not to say that critical and thoughtful theorizing has no place in the university. Rather, that it can be more fully developed through engagement off campus, outside of business, government, or internships which do little to respond to what communities need. For this to happen, the University must cut the red tape preventing professors and students from engaging in these kinds of collaborative, independent learning opportunities. 

We have raised many unresolved issues here. There likely isn’t any all-encompassing solution to the problems of accessibility, accountability, and commitment to political change outside of market-driven priorities. But we see programs like CURE as a step in the right direction. We want to encourage creative ways of working within and beyond the system that we hope will continue to emerge as a result of students interrogating the power, privileges, and potentials of their involvement with the University.

For more information on putting your university education to work, see qpirgconcordia.org/cure/. The deadline to enrol in an independent study for the Winter 2010 semester is the last day of the Add/Drop period.


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