The tale of budget cuts to higher education institutions in Canada is an old one.
It is ironic that one of the very pillars of progress has become significantly underfunded in the name of “progress” itself.
The decline in public funding for universities, in addition to shifts in the job market, have begun to progressively transform universities into entities geared towards efficiency, profitability, and “economic sustainability.”
Trent University is no exception. Trent’s Strategic Mandate Agreement, approach to instructors, and focus on specific programs are linked to what some may call “austerity measures in the education system.”
The Department of Modern Languages and Literature provides an example of what has been a department-wide struggle.
One of the most significant changes has occurred in the number of tenured faculty members. Tenured instructors are those who hold a permanent position within the university, meaning that they have access to full employment benefits and job security.
Faculty members who do not have this privilege, and there are plenty of them, often work on a contract basis, meaning that they have very limited job security.
Twelve years ago, the Department of Modern Languages and Literature employed 10 tenure faculty members.
Today, that number rests at 2.3. The effects of this are significant not only to faculty members, but to students as well.
The lack of permanent positions means that the composition of departments is subject to constant change. To students, this means that professors are constantly changing.
This structure hinders the possibility of harbouring student-faculty relationships, which have been characteristics of Trent University.
For students, this makes it more difficult to determine thesis supervisors, to request reference letters, and to know what professors will be teaching courses in the future.
The Department of Modern Languages and Literature argues that the near-vanishing of tenure faculty is partly due to the retirement incentive program.
After faculty retire, they are not replaced, leaving those who stay with a much greater load on their hands.
Additionally, Kevin Steele, Canada’s leading higher education monitor, argues that universities have increasingly focused on programs deemed to have a higher market-value when it comes to entry-level pay and returns after graduation.
This means that departments in the hard sciences, though not exempt from the effects of budget cuts, receive more support, while liberal arts and sciences, the historical
foundation of modern universities, are the most affected.
Trent’s Strategic Mandate Agreement reflects this trend. Although it retains many of its notable “soft science” programs within the Areas of Institutional Strength, Environmental Science is at the top of the list.
Additionally, Environmental and Sustainability Science is also at the top of the list in the “Proposed program areas for growth.” Although Trent does have strong departments and programs in Humanities, Social Justice, Development, Indigenous Knowledge, and Education, and has a unique environment for interdisciplinary studies, the supremacy of scientific knowledge is still notable.
If Steele is correct, then it is no surprise that the Department of Modern Languages and Literature now boasts only one major and one study-abroad program – a stark contrast from the 3 majors and 3 study-abroad programs that it once had.
While we reminisce of a time when education was valued for something other than its immediate profitability.
Sylvie Berard, Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, reminds us of something that the government seems to have forgotten: that all academic disciplines and education in itself have something to offer that goes far beyond money.
“If it is true that we live in a global world, then Modern Languages and Literatures courses are as close to it as you will get,” Berard notes.
Universities should not be scrambling for money. Education should not exist to simply make a profit – it is not an industry, but a necessary pillar of progress.