Refugees and Higher Education

Part III: The Changing Mission of the University

The beginning of the pipeline of resettlement for refugees are the camps and urban areas in countries of first asylum where refugees congregate. The proposed terminus is the university for PSSV students. I now want to put such a proposal within the context of the changing idea and function of the university and then within the context of the current inflexion point as a result of the most important influence on the course of higher education in recent years – the COVID-19 pandemic. I will then review the initiatives universities have undertaken, particularly in the last decade, to actually address the refugee issue. I will then place such a proposal within a context of prospective actual numbers and then practically within a framework of how such a program can be initiated and institutionalized.

In the nineteenth century, the university could be characterized as a Sanctuary of Truth[i], a sanctuary because it was held aloof from society as the inheritor of the wisdom of the ages to be transferred to the political and moral leadership of society. It was a sanctuary of truth because it presumed that it was the repository of inherited truth rather than a locus for discovering new truths. Relative to the society around it, the university served as a place for ossified thoughts and ideas. A very small percentage of students attended universities; there were no community colleges.

In the English-speaking world, the idea behind such a vision of education was articulated very clearly by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 volume, Culture and Anarchy. Culture is the study of perfection in order to resist the forces of anarchy extant in a changing society that valued the work ethic and what he called “money-making.”  It was an exercise not simply in praise of great poetry and literature, but in contempt for popular culture and what he dubbed “philistinism.” Such a pursuit was driven, not by greed or by the need to acquire credentials or even to master a specialty, but by a moral and social passion for doing good. A man – and university students were males – was to be valued by his inherent nature and not by striving to become someone or fulfill some role and especially not anything governed by the measure of commercial success. “Our prevalent notion is…that it is a most happy and important thing for a man merely to be able to do as he likes. On what he is to do when he is thus free to do as he likes, we do not lay so much stress.” It was a philosophy of education for the leisure class, for those destined to rule and ensure that the exercise of liberty did not descend into anarchy.

A parallel set of ideas was applied by Cardinal John Henry Newman in his 1873 volume The Idea of a University in which he integrated ideas articulated in two earlier volumes of essays from 1852 and 1859, the latter with the same title as the 1873 volume. In those essays, he articulated his conception of the nature of knowledge, the role of faith in service of such knowledge and the application of both to the liberal education of university students in opposition to the specialized development of defined skills. Higher education was necessary in order to develop a young person’s understanding of the world.

As a believer in liberal and free scientific enquiry unencumbered by oppression and censorship, questioning dogma and wrestling with the struggle between faith and reason (a general preoccupation of the nineteenth century trying to free itself from the shackles of institutionalized religion), he appeared to be a man ahead of his time. What is most interesting about Newman is that he was descended on his mother’s side from Huguenot refugees while his father as a banker was thoroughly immersed in the world of commerce. The social inflexion point that challenged universities simply rooted in the expression of one faith was the Great Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849; one million died and an estimated at least another million migrated abroad.

Newman led the battle against dogma and in favour of intellectual analysis in partnership with a moral conscience. Though he had converted to Catholicism, he opposed the idea of the university as a vehicle for spreading the Catholic faith, but also education that simply focused on training young Irishmen in real world skills for employment in the emerging industrial society.

In the aftermath of World War I, pressures already widely extant in higher education and already implemented in the United States, led to a new vision for a university, The Sanctuary of Method. The university was still a lofty sanctuary for the few – at most 3% of the population – and for instilling a common culture for a leadership class, but the stress was now placed on the discovery and recognition of new “truths” as skepticism about any inherited truth became widespread. The emphasis was placed on mastery of a particular intellectual methodological skill set – whether in writing history, undertaking English criticism or in electrical engineering and medicine. It meant also mastering a set of books that were classics in the field – whether Grant’s Anatomy or Ham’s Histology or the classics of English literature. The university became the repository for the professionalization of different fields and displacing the moral amateurism of The Sanctuary of Truth. Inculcating a set of values became a side story rather than a major focus of the university.

In the 1960s in Canada, the university underwent another radical transformation from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service Station, a model that had been developed much earlier in the United States. The model took shape with the move to the forefront of social science studies – economics, sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology – and, more importantly, the shift in focus of the university from a primary obligation to acculturate a social leadership class to one centered on addressing social problems. With that shift came an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies accompanied by the fissures that emerged in disciplinary departments on the core methodology to be taught and the core material to be mastered.

We are now in the throws of a new radical transformation of the university. There was a fear that out of the Social Service University would emerge a university that, instead of stressing the production of skilled workers for society’s needs and research addressed to society’s problems, there would emerge a university as a supermarket offering consumers a range of courses to satisfy individual interests rather than a focus on development of a specific discipline or a broader interdisciplinary perspective to help resolve social ills. The model would be one based on a consumer rather than a producer society.

That the fear is real is demonstrated by the following shifts:

  • The current pressure on universities and colleges to open just as there has been pressure on and from the consumer product and service economy to open in spite of the pandemic still not under control; in the U.S., the pressure became so great that a great many universities opened to disastrous results in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan as well as other institutions.
  • The pressure of the Baumol effect or Baumol’s cost disease, that is the rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no or low increase of labor productivity, in response to rising salaries in other positions with higher labor productivity, growth as is the case with teaching salaries at universities and colleges where the cost of services rise rapidly because they cannot be made more efficient.
  • Declining provincial (and, in the U.S., state) funds below Great Recession levels so that increased costs combined with shortages are passed onto students in fees so that students acquire greater debts to attend; as debt loads increase, so do attrition rates, thereby compounding the problem for both students and institutions; in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for college tuition and fees were 1,411.16% higher in 2020 versus 1977 (a $282,231.63 difference in value and an average inflation rate of 6.52% per year); in Canada, Statistics Canada announced in 2016 that on average, undergraduates paid 40 per cent more in tuition than they did 10 years previously.
  • The attempt to compensate for these declining sources of incomes with foreign students who pay full costs; however, with COVID-19 (as well as international political tensions with China), this source is subject to sudden and dramatic declines, especially pronounced in the U.S.
  • The pressure of additional non-academic costs that increase as a proportion of overall costs to ensure students receive more comprehensive support and ensure “customer” satisfaction; in the U.S., this pressure has even been greater with universities offering better food plans, better amenities, etc.
  • The shift to market-based solutions that solve some short-term problems but aggravate long-term ones and create new challenges, especially increasing student debt loads so that, in the U.S., student debt is greater than debt on consumer credit cards and for auto loans combined: (only mortgage debt exceeds student debt).
  • In the time of COVID-19, students increasingly question the return value, especially as more and more courses are taught by low-paid adjunct faculty and graduate students. (In the U.S., in 1970 80% of courses were taught by full-time faculty.) In Canada, the current figure is 27.5% on average taught by part-time faculty; though in very small colleges like Mount Allison University, 88% of courses are consistently taught by full-time faculty; this is the clear exception rather than the norm.
  • Poorly prepared on-line courses that fail to take advantage of the benefits of the new technology.
  • The resistance of many if not most faculty to the introduction of online courses and more self-directed learning models because of heritage biases and the resistance of young part-time teachers to the believed threat to their employment opportunities – hence the extreme shortfall in investment in enhanced productivity in both teaching and delivery of learning materials.
  • Universities reduce or wave fees when online courses are offered just at the time when there needs to be much greater investment in such courses to improve the quality and expand the delivery so that combined pressures on the bottom line of universities and colleges to costs will be significantly reduced over time.
  • Yet for many, the pressure will focus on pushing for greater and larger subsidies so that tuition can be lowered and more full-time tenure track positions created; given the COVID-19 crisis, Ontario plans to cut tuition fees for college and university students by 10 per cent for the 2019-2020 year and hold them constant for 2020-2021. At the same time, local and provincial polities have their own financial crises.

There is an irony in all of the above. Higher education institutions are facing their greatest economic crisis of the past few decades precisely at a time when the educational premium they confer is most valued. Universities are coveted at the same time as they have become so traumatized and challenged to deliver on their mission by broadening access even more, raising the quality of teaching by taking advantage of new technologies and even expanding the leading edge of research in a very competitive environment with more claims on scarcer public resources.  With respect to teaching, the application of psychology, the development of teaching and learning design, the development of international programs, the rise of MOOCs and online technologies have all had an effect, but most of the possibilities remain untapped.

Nevertheless, the process of transformation is underway as the last vestiges of the sanctuary university are torn down with innovations in extra-mural learning: internships in NGO’s and labs, civic engagement and service, teaching in prisons, reaching out to refugees and at-risk migrants near and far, not to mention the boom in study and work abroad. What is being considered here is not retrenchment but transformation to the next and higher stage and the effort to overcome the sclerotic systems resistant to reform while the economic costs outpace the ability of society to support the old model.                


[i] See Howard Adelman (1973) The Holiversity: A Perspective on the Wright Report, New Press for an expanded characterization of the different stages of the university articulated in this paper.

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