English Matters

The March 21st Federal Budget

“Budget protects learning and research,” claims the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.  “A bad budget for the future of post-secondary education, research and job training,” says the Canadian Association of University Teachers.  It’s hard not to conclude that institutional self-positioning has at least something to do with the Himalayan gap between these starkly differing responses to the Federal Government’s 2013  “Economic Action Plan.” Does anyone in ACCUTE know anyone working or studying at any university of college in Canada who isn’t, now, feeling hammered?  Doesn’t this divergence in messaging also send back the message that the postsecondary academic community is divided in its feelings – de facto evidence that on the whole, the government is managing this right?

The postsecondary centrepiece of the 2013 budget is “skills training” – “workers with the right skills” for immediate use by industry. “We’re trying to get to the point where training means jobs,” explains Finance Minister Flaherty.  And so $500 million once devolved to the provinces for unemployment training is now clawed back into a “Canada Job Grants” program designed to hand control of the job training agenda over to the private sector. $20 million in new funding goes directly to the Industrial Research Assistance Program (“Our goal?  To help you accelerate the growth of your business”) so that small and medium-sized businesses can access business development services at universities and colleges. $12 million goes to NSERC to enhance  r&d collaboration between colleges and industry focusing on “company needs” (the “College and Community Innovation Program”).  $7 million of SSHRC’s overall budget, forcibly re-purposed by government in2012 to SSHRC’s industry partnership program, remains so purposed; and it is worth remembering that the effect of that specific government intervention was the cancelling of the Aid and Attendance Grants to Scholarly Associations, which helped bring young scholars in our discipline to Congress, and the suspension in late February of all applications to the SSHRC Connection envelope, because the Connection program had now run out.

In his speech this month to the Empire Club of Canada, outgoing University of Toronto President David Naylor, an expert in clinical medicine and public health policy, called the idea “that universities ought to produce more job-ready skills-focused graduates” a “zombie idea.”  A zombie idea, said Naylor, is a “persistent and infection piece of misinformation, a meme that shouldn’t be alive but just won’t die.” “Six months after graduation,” Naylor noted, “humanities graduates are finding jobs as quickly as computer science graduates…. Graduates must analyze and synthesize information, test hypotheses, challenge assumptions, weigh arguments from different viewpoints, and communicate clearly and effectively in multiple media.  These are skills one can learn at research-intensive universities in philosophy and anthropology… as much as in physics and computer science.”  In fact, Naylor noted, industry employer are actually frustrated with the “skills mix” that this government’s “training means jobs” ideology produces.

The government, obviously, wasn’t listening.  This budget overlooks the value of the critical arts disciplines to the overall health of our society.  It mistakes profit taking for wealth. Even at the level of basic profit-taking, this government’s decision not to invest further in those disciplines that advance integrated skill mixes across the critical activities — writing, speaking, analysis, cultural interpretation, cross-cultural understanding, social critique – is profoundly a loser.





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