Commentary  Curriculum crossroads

Revenue, neo-liberalism, and education

Neo-liberalism is a buzzword on the left and a dogma on the right. Premised on the belief that revenue generation by private enterprises drives society forward, state intervention is seen only as a hindrance to society. Neo-liberalism is a crab clawing at the sandcastle of society, taking the public institutions created collectively by the people and selling them off grain by grain.

McGill Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi has called for 100 Arts courses to be cut for the next academic year. In a town hall meeting with Arts students he emphasized the infeasibility of so many small classes. He spoke in the language of austerity, referencing how “lucky” we were not to be getting across-the-board cuts. Mentioned briefly were the cuts of course lecturer positions and the need to have tenured professors stop teaching small courses in order to teach bigger classes. A professor-turned-manager on Manfredi’s wing of the room delivered a jovial and lively anecdote about how an Arts education was not unlike rowing, and firing course lecturers was merely making sure students got to intimately row with senior rowers (the tenured professors). Larger classes taught by tenured professors would somehow improve education. The implication was that course lecturers are bad rowers and their PhDs and talents are worthless in comparison to tenured professors who are supposedly all great lecturers. It was cute. Many students spoke out passionately for and against the cuts. Many feared the loss of intimate and critical conversation to the impersonal GPA rat race.

I left confused. These cuts are deep and the explanations were contradictory. Some of it made sense. There are, of course, retired courses that need to be removed and under-enrolled courses that need to be rationalized. There are some legitimate needs for housekeeping, sure. But the cuts come articulated against smaller courses in the language of efficiency. The courses that require higher ratios of paid staff to paying students are losing the University money. Put simply, Manfredi wants to minimize the amount of courses that produce less revenue for the University. There is a conversation going on behind closed administrative doors. The belt of austerity is tightening. The global race to privatize and cut public assets and services is being internalized. If the public sector must become profitable, McGill is the front line.

It is a luxury as a McGill Arts student to complain about large classes. I don’t deny this. Many of my friends in other faculties lament the unimaginably large sizes of their courses. Perhaps this is why the Huffington Post rated McGill, out of all universities in Canada and the United States, the university with the most inaccessible professors. If revenue is progress, are we moving forward?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) have been heralded as the way of the future. Imagine classes of thousands students, but no classrooms. Imagine those students enrolled in Montreal, but assessed on the other side of the planet. Imagine no professors, no course lecturers, and no teaching assistants.

At the last Senate meeting MOOCs were presented. The reasons were clear: less spending, more revenue. The difference between sitting in the back of a class of 600, and watching a lecture online isn’t huge. There are some benefits. Free MOOCs – which McGill will probably not adopt – allow students to prepare for university and expand their knowledge. For the students who can’t access McGill’s campus, an online course that forwards your degree is a pleasure and a necessity.

In Senate and at the town hall with Manfredi, there was skepticism and resistance – perhaps only headed conservatism, refusing to change to progress, or perhaps something deeper – a grasping desire for learning and critical debate against the seductive efficiency of profits.

Jimmy Gutman is an Arts Senator. He can be reached at