Farzeen Foda 

Senior News Editor

Universities have undergone a drastic shift in recent years, much of which, most would argue, has been positive. Due to systematic mobilization of resources toward research and innovation, a greater influx of discoveries have been observed – a trend to which McMaster can certainly attest.

There are, however, negative shifts that have persisted. One of them is the transition of funding sources for universities from public to private.

Christopher Newfield, professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained at a McMaster Seminar on Higher Education on Nov. 21, that higher education is more frequently being seen “as a private right rather than a public good.”

The talk was hosted by the President’s Office and jointly funded by the Public Intellectuals Project.

Newfield spoke at length about the economic spiral that has led to the current state of universities, contending that the shift from public to private funding for post-secondary education has been sustained by the “American funding model cycle of decline,” which he referred to as the “Wheel of Death.”

Based on the model, the root of the increasing privatization of universities, in the United States specifically, stems from a reduction of state funding. In Canada, on the other hand, post-secondary education is largely regulated at the federal level.

Inferences made on the “Wheel of Death” suggest that reduced public funding is met by reluctance on the part of university faculty and administration to adapt to the change.

This stubbornness pushes the issue onto students, who are left with no choice but to comply with increasing tuition fees. In turn, the cycle ultimately facilitates the use of the student population as an “indispensable ATM machine” resulting in exponentially increasing levels of student debt. As noted by Newfield.

In discussing educational attainment, he noted that Canada fairs better in the proportion of individuals who complete their post-secondary degree or diploma, but those increasing numbers mean little when the substance of those credentials is consistently diminishing – a trend he has noticed in his own students who often reach the brink of graduation lacking basic skills and competencies. To rectify this, Newfield called for a simple process: “putting the content back into the credential.”

Astonishing to him as well was the increasing numbers of students who don’t quite know what they want out of their education.

To counter this, Newfield suggested a revitalized perspective to post-secondary education, focusing on essentials skills rather than instruction in the first and second year, leaving heavy instruction to the senior years of the university career. This would involve more student-professor interaction in the early years of university education.

These reasons compounded, argued Newfield, necessarily requires a shift in roles of universities and the ways in which they should be managed.

While Newfield discussed the state of the issue in the United States, a similar trend has unfolded in Canada as well.

Newfield noted the effects of the “Wheel of Death” are certainly reversible, but change will require strategic planning of educational goals, followed by seeing the funding for those goals.

While more graduates obtain decrees without substance, and funding for research constantly dwindles, whether or not this shift will occur remains to be seen.


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