Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part II)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

In attendance at the Future U conference were many people who not only believe in the transformative power of higher education and its importance for democratic life and social justice, but who also assert their right and responsibility to ensure that the university fulfils this function, and who have confidence that it is within their power, largely through collective political and cultural action, to do so. This does not mean that they are always successful; it was clear that there are tensions, and that the ongoing structural transformation of the university into a capitalist enterprise is increasingly difficult to shift here as well. But the fact that many Canadian universities remain public and have functional or partially functional systems of meaningful faculty governance suggests that there is something significant about the faculty association.

Faculty associations, as constituted in Canadian and American universities, are precisely that: associations of faculty members (i.e., academics) which give them collective voice to speak for the well-being of both academic workers and the educational and academic environments of the university. With no single national union, in most universities faculty have their own associations and many of these are united into larger confederated associations. Faculty associations tend to be distinct from affiliate associations and unions of university and educational support workers and students, and in some instances are divided into associations for tenured and untenured (i.e., part-time and contingent) faculty and graduate students; however, at the conference there were stories of some successful strategic alliances between these associations at both institutional and regional levels.

Faculty associations are not necessarily unions, although they serve primarily a similar purpose within individual universities and, in certain regions of Canada, as confederations. Many faculty associations are unionised, a fewer number are not unionised either by choice or due to legal prohibitions on unionisation in particular areas, and some are in the process of debating whether they should unionise or not. I do not yet understand the nuances of the relationship between the faculty association, the unionised faculty association and the union; however:

  • without a ‘national pay scale’ or ‘national bargaining scheme’, faculty associations are instrumental in negotiating policies on pay, working hours and conditions, economic benefits including child care, pensions, and health care at individual institutions and are often the only recognised collective bargaining agents at such; and

 

  • faculty associations that are not unionised neither fall under the authority of nor have the legal protection of the relevant labour relations code, which means that university administrations may restrict the scope of matters which may be negotiated, and unresolved disputes between a faculty association and a university administration would be resolved through the courts rather than through a labour board.

A fuller discussion of the ‘unionisation debate’ from the perspective of British Columbia can be found here. What is more interesting in a UK context, however, is the somewhat broader notion (even where only notional) of faculty association as a form of professional and political organisation that can, under certain circumstances, enable collective action in matters of university governance itself. It asserts that the faculty members, along with other members of the university community, not only have the right to fair working conditions and wages also the right and the responsibility more generally to meaningfully participate in the economic, political and cultural governance of the institution itself. This means not only contributing to negotiations, deliberation on decision-making committees and representing wider interests on Academic Senates, but participating in steering and shaping the overall regulation, direction and day-to-day running of the university. It also means that members of the university have a duty to respond critically to any educational policy which is harmful to education, students, academics or support workers, particularly when it is created by and imposed from non-academic centres of power. While this rarely looks like direct democracy, it often involves not a little direct action.

An even broader function is described in the mandate of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which is to ‘maintain and enhance the quality of higher education in Ontario, and to advance the professional and economic interests of teachers, researchers and librarians in Ontario universities’, and to ‘ensure that the views of its member associations are communicated to government policy makers, the public, and those concerned with the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education’.

This confederation of faculty associations seems a union-plus: a professional association for economic, political and cultural empowerment and collective action that works in an integrated way. Collective bargaining over pay and conditions is a central part of this work, but part of a broader range of activities which aim to transform the internal and external conditions in which such bargains are deliberated and struggled for. These include:

  • maintaining a system of internal communications through which all members of the university community can discuss issues of concern, circulate and have access to critical information about decision-making plans and processes within the university administration, present and consider alternative proposals put forward by other members of the community, and learn about significant reports, analysis and events, thus facilitating internal organisation;

 

  • maintaining a system of external communications through which faculty members can connect with people outside the university community, sharing news and analysis (which may be particularly important if the university’s public relations work does not accurately or adequately represent the voices of students, support workers and faculty members, thus facilitating external organisation and alliances and gaining possibilities to learn about the educational and research needs of local communities; and

 

  • meeting, disseminating information to and negotiating with a range of bodies beyond the university administration which have an interest or stake in university governance and financing, including government ministers and civil servants, members of political parties, state and non-governmental organisations;

 

  • providing statistical information and research on trends in higher education ‘for faculty negotiating purposes’ and running or sponsoring workshops towards this end; and

 

  • and doing a wide range of other stuff, from recognising good work in scholarship and activism, to granting scholarships and organising conferences on critical issues.

No single faculty association does all of this, and Canadian universities has their own politics and particularities because they are relatively autonomous. Nevertheless, the notion of a faculty association that has a broad interest in promoting and educating its members and society as well as struggling for workplace democracy as well as defending workers’ and students employment rights is an interesting one.

This is because the struggle for the university today is not located in only in its consequences; the immediate things that cause us trouble. These must be addressed. But the privatisation and corporatisation of higher education has been taking place for such a long time through a wide range of activities and practices, regulatory and financial operations, policies and recommendations, and campaigns of cultural and intellectual change – some governmental and nebulous, and others contrived. The structural transformation and re-functioning of higher education has advanced as an incremental, cumulative and contested historical project: a general direction of social forces that results from making a ‘determinate choice, seizure of one among other ways of comprehending, organizing and transforming reality’ in a way that ‘defines the range of possibilities open on this way, and precludes alternatives’ (Marcuse 1964, p. 219). Challenges to this, and alternatives, must therefore be just as wide-ranging and comprehensive, and include a range of different kinds of actions and activities. It would be interesting to consider how an organisation such as the American Association of University Professors has responded in this environment, given its historical purpose to ‘advance academic freedom and shared governance, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good’.

Within the current conditions and for the foreseeable future, collective bargaining for fair pay and conditions, adequate pensions, the protection and dignity of part-time and casual workers is an essential part of keeping academic labour fair. It could be even stronger if we dedicate equal work on the ground and in practice to the grassroots democratisation of faculty, university-wide and cross-university political and economic governance. There has been some discussion of university governance in the UCU in recent years (see 2009 and 2011), but could be more articulation of academic governance as a professional or political movement that we can actively work to cultivate and expand in everyday practices and through collective education, organisation and action.

For more on collective economic, political and cultural governance of the university, and hings happening in the world of US and Canadian faculty organising, see here.

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  1. Pingback: Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part I) | Venturing beyond

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