University autonomy serves public interest

The following commentary was published on Nov. 7, 2013, in the Telegraph-Journal:

University autonomy serves public interest

Accountability” has become another buzzword, the meaning of which is sometimes difficult to pin down. Unfortunately the editorial in this newspaper on Nov.1 did little to clarify the issue.

On Oct. 30 the provincial government offered guaranteed funding for public universities, specifically an increase of two per cent for each of the next two years. The Alward government is to be commended for offering even short-­term stability in post-­secondary funding, something universities have long asked for. And in return, the government wants financial accountability. AUNBT has no difficulty with the province expecting greater financial transparency from university administrations. We welcome it. But there are other conditions. According to the Minister of Post-­Secondary Education,”It is essential to collaborate with our provincial universities in offering good quality programs that contribute to rebuilding our province.” It is this ill-­defined proposition for “co-­operation” that worries provincial faculty associations and calls into question, as with the “polytechnic” fiasco of a few years back, whether the provincial government understands what public universities are about.

To whom should universities be accountable? We are rightly accountable to the families who entrust us with their children’s education. We are accountable to our students to provide a high quality education. We are accountable to our profession, to advance research in our fields, and to test that knowledge through peer-­reviewed publication. Every academic at New Brunswick’s four public universities belongs to a discipline of study with its own standards and practices. And we are accountable to the public, to learn as much as we can about our respective disciplines, to share that knowledge with the public, and to work together to build a better world.

Universities are also accountable to the provincial government, to explain what we have done with the public resources committed to us. But it is universities, not politicians and bureaucrats, who must determine how that public money is spent. Within liberal democracies there is a long-­settled consensus that the public interest is served best when government funding and university academic decisions remain at arm’s length. Rather than seeking to limit academics’ focus to local interests as determined by politicians and corporations, it serves New Brunswick better to allow universities to bridge the divide between the global culture of research and local concerns, and to bring those wider types of knowledge here, where they can open doors.

Institutional autonomy is not in conflict with the idea of accountability. It is a way to ensure it. Universities that service political or financial interests are no longer universities, since universities are, ideally, self-­determining, self-­governing and self-­regulating communities. Societies fund universities not to buy services, but because they teach young people, advance knowledge, and benefit both the local community and society. If any group tries to use the university for limited ends, they are robbing the community. Universities do not exist to bolster the political agendas of the day, and they do not exist to provide private industry with job training.

Public funding is not a curtailment of university autonomy. It is a guarantee. In New Brunswick, there are four publicly-­funded universities: UNB, the Université de Moncton, St Thomas University, and Mount Allison. The remaining institutions are either affiliated with religious denominations or are private businesses. The former are constrained by the tenets of their faith communities, while the latter are constrained by their need to show a financial profit. Neither can reasonably be held up as examples of institutional autonomy or academic freedom. Only the four public institutions have that potential. If students are to receive credentials that can enrich the local community while remaining credible nationally and internationally then the provincial government must remain at arm’s-­length from New Brunswick’s public universities.

Miriam Jones is President of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers.

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Categories: Autonomy, FNBFA, Media