Print Edition: October 1, 2014
1. a. An institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects and typically having the power to confer degrees. Also: the members, colleges, buildings, etc., of such an institution collectively.
— Oxford English Dictionary
The premier of BC has attended three universities in Canada (SFU), Scotland, and France, yet still doesn’t seem to know what a university is. Then again, perhaps many of us don’t.
For one thing, it’s not a vocational school. The function of a university is not to pump the trades sector with worker bees. To differentiate between it and a trades school requires an understanding of the difference between training and learning — there is one.
To paraphrase the OED definitions, learning is a process whose goal is the acquisition of knowledge and abilities.
Training is a process whose goal is the acquisition of proficiency in occupational skills.
The grey area between the two has been growing for some time in BC’s post-secondary institutions, and the forecast is even cloudier. The function of universities — especially fledgling ones like UFV — is being forcibly moulded by way of fund allocation from learning to fuelling the economic machinations of the provincial government.
According to an article published last month in BC Business, “the government projects it will have earmarked 25 per cent of the $1.9 billion it contributes annually to post-secondary institution operating budgets for programs that lead to high-demand occupations.”
The bulk of those high-demand occupations are related to BC’s blueprint for pipelines, and they’ve created a new blueprint for the education system to manipulate students at both public school and post-secondary levels into trades.
I have nothing against people who want to learn a trade. What I do have a problem with is funding training at the expense of learning. The effect this has on the university, and on our perception of education in general, is that it devalues its focus on learning in favour of a transaction: the government has put in and paid for an order of one million employees, and post-secondary institutions shall provide.
In the same article by BC Business, UFV’s vice-provost Eric Davis is quoted outlining this impact of the government’s push for a focus on trades training.
“The bottom line of the government’s plan is that funding for post-secondary institutions will be based on labour market information and workforce targets, and that institutions will be held accountable to achieving results,” Davis said.
Given what seems to be a governmental disdain for non-vocational study, this is a disturbing trend. By reallocating funding from learning to training, we risk undermining an essential mechanism in our society: the critical voice.
It’s not that a welder or a pipefitter is incapable of criticism, but academic institutions provide — or should provide — a different sort of space in which scholars can ask important questions of the powers that be, and ultimately keep them accountable.
There is absolutely a need for students with an interest in and talent for trades, but the “learners to earners” slogan going around invokes a dystopian vision for education. It implicitly rejects the value of art, advanced literacy, exploratory or theoretical science, sociology, and a number of other worthy pursuits of scholarship.
On the surface, it seems kind of our provincial government to bestow funding on UFV to support expansion of the trades programs it offers. But as we earnestly shake Christy Clark’s hand, thanking the province for its generosity, I recall UFV’s earnestness only a few years ago to achieve its coveted university status.
However, we are apparently less interested in what that designation really means.