The value of higher education should go far beyond job training

I write this letter in response to the recent cuts to the degree program for a bachelor of arts in English as a collaborative partnership between Red Deer College and the University of Calgary. While the decision to cut the program is difficult and perhaps complicated, I will present four simple points regarding the negative consequences of this cut, acknowledging that these points need further discussion and elaboration.

I write this letter in response to the recent cuts to the degree program for a bachelor of arts in English as a collaborative partnership between Red Deer College and the University of Calgary. While the decision to cut the program is difficult and perhaps complicated, I will present four simple points regarding the negative consequences of this cut, acknowledging that these points need further discussion and elaboration. However, I wish to state these points rather bluntly, as the cut represents a significant change in the program offerings at RDC and in post-secondary education (PSE) more generally in Canada. It is a representative example of larger trends, and I suggest the points I make here can be further generalized to other programs or operational decisions at the college and in PSE.

As someone who teaches in the program of English at the college, I wish to be very clear that I write this neither as a representative of the college or its position nor as a disgruntled worker who has seen his job diminished. Rather, I write it from the position of a citizen who has spent a lifetime pursuing the questions and problems raised by my discipline of English. In short, I believe in the principles I study and teach, and I consider it my responsibility to speak in the interests, and in this case the defense, of those principles.

First, the cuts were made primarily because of economic reasons, largely because enrollment in the English degree was low when compared with the other two degrees of sociology and psychology. This is a common and seemingly popular justification for many actions. If a program has low enrollment, it should be cut: this is the logic. However, PSE institutions are not businesses and should not be run as such. While fiscal responsibility is necessary, some programs should operate at a loss. The whole point of public funding is that we agree to pay taxes in order to subsidize things that are expensive and may operate at a loss precisely because we attach values to these things other than, or in preference to, monetary value. To use an analogy, hospitals are expensive. It is a lot cheaper to let people die, but we reject that argument and value human life in terms other than economics. Even if we take a relatively ugly utilitarian approach, we might argue that saving a life will save a taxpayer, so we benefit economically from saving people. We invest in education not solely because of economic returns but because we believe it is better to be a society of educated thinkers rather than uneducated drones. Even small programs may warrant existence rather than elimination. Good economies will probably follow from good people. I am not certain the logic works the other way around. In short, we want citizens, not simply taxpayers. The economic argument need not be a trump card to beat all other arguments, although it is often wielded as such.

Second, the elimination of the English degree reduces the range of educational offerings to central Albertans. One of the primary reasons for establishing the collaborative degree program was to increase access for central Albertans. Lacking a BA degree granting institution in Red Deer, prospective students had to move to Calgary or Edmonton (or elsewhere) to pursue BA opportunities, a relocation that can prove extremely difficult for single parents, students with limited income, or students with other family or work commitments that require them to remain in central Alberta. The collaborative program in English, while small, offered options for central Albertans to pursue their education and remain in Red Deer or the surrounding area. Sadly, some students enrolled in the BA in English will be forced to abandon their prospective program of study simply because they cannot move to a larger institution. Red Deer College has the resources to offer a degree program, but it lacks the funding and other important institutional mechanisms to put those resources to work in offering a degree program. It is complex but certainly not impossible. This is a step backward, not a step forward.

Third, one might argue that a low enrollment means a program is unpopular, irrelevant, or otherwise unnecessary. Who needs a degree in English anyway? English is an interesting case, as it remains one of the only disciplines that is a requirement across most degree and many diploma programs. The usual rationale behind the requirement of English as a subject of study is that a student should “know how to write.” From within the discipline of English, the greater concerns attached to writing competence are the abilities to think critically, to formulate an argument, and, if necessary, to face and to raise serious questions. The ability to write grammatically correct sentences (“Is Oilsands one word or two?”) differs from the ability to imagine alternatives (“Should we call them Oilsands or Tarsands?”) and the ability to think beyond immediate needs and pressures (“What are the long term non-financial social and political consequences of sustained exploitation of non-renewable resources?”). Put simply, do we wish to conceptualize English as a utilitarian practice of correct writing or as a way of understanding language as a system that generates, shapes, and perpetuates our belief systems in the world? On the one hand, English is useful to the extent that it teaches us how to write. On the other hand, English equips us with necessary critical skills to evaluate complex situations that require responses other than a quick fix or knee-jerk reaction. Competent writing can be practical, applicable, and utilitarian. Complex thinking can be inquisitive, critical, political, and transformative.

Fourth, education should first serve the people, not the economy. The discussions around PSE are increasingly focused on producing workers for industry and business. In other words, education should get you a job. While employment may be a practical outcome of an education, education should provide people with broader sets of skills and modalities of thought than simply the ability to function at a particular job. Work is only one part of life, and education should address other portions of our human existence. If we were to accept that education should prepare people for jobs, we are essentially supporting a massive training facility for private companies at the expense of taxpayers. True, a meaningful percentage of graduates may filter into public service jobs, but the majority of graduates will serve private, corporate interests. If private companies wish to fund or to establish training facilities, they can do so, but please do not call them universities, colleges, or public institutions. The corporate supplemental funding of public institutions—a point some may argue is a necessity in today’s world—is highly motivated, and we should be extremely conscious and wary of these motivations.

Personally, English is my discipline, and I am saddened by the diminishing of the degree to a two-year transfer program. But, more importantly to me, my concerns lie with my students and central Alberta more generally. We are taking a step toward becoming a region that is less diverse, less intellectual, less critical, and less responsive with respect to our roles as citizens in our society.

Roger Davis

Red Deer

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