In LNG We Trust

Here in BC, the government has become a strict adherent to the LNG faith. (If you live in BC you’ll already know what LNG stands for. But for the rest of you, it means Liquefied Natural Gas.) The Liberal government believes that development of a massive LNG industry in the province is the best way to secure heaven on earth or at least future economic prosperity. So it is orientating a great deal of public policy toward devout pursuit of the promised salvation of LNG. I venture no opinion here about whether the gospel of LNG is sound economic policy. My concern is how the narrow evangelical focus on LNG is having a deleterious effect on the government’s understanding and approach to higher education.

The government says it wants “re-engineer” education to orient it directly to providing job training. This re-engineering is intended to ensure that there will be a suitably skilled labour force ready to fill the thousands of new jobs it anticipates the LNG venture will create. It is reasonable for a government to adopt policies that help to equip citizens with employment skills. So some attention in the domain of educational policy to labour market preparation is legitimate. The difficulty arises when LNG job training becomes the sole lens through which university education is viewed. And this is happening in BC.

The government has an obsessive focus on LNG that permeates its relations with universities. At my institution, senior administrators have been called by ministry officials and asked to produce figures (within 24 hours) about how students are being prepared for the LNG future. When university officials recently tried explain a broader vision of university education beyond job training by pointing to the role of universities in contributing to the civic health of the community, an ADM at the Ministry of Advanced Education shut down discussion by flatly asserting: “We don’t want to hear about citizenship!” You cannot go to a meeting with administrators without encountering talk of LNG and the importance of the university demonstrating that it is doing its part to create LNG ready workers. Even more alarmingly, administrators have been discouraged from offering public criticisms of the plan to re-engineer education to fit the LNG agenda.

When the government has a myopic view of higher education and a tight fist with money, the broader mission of universities as places of higher learning and intellectual inquiry suffers. In response to the narrow rhetoric about LNG skills training, the Presidents of UVIC and SFU have offered credible statements about the broader value of a liberal arts education. But even these statements emphasize the contribution of the liberal arts to success in the labour market. They do not fundamentally challenge the government’s conception of university education as vocational training. Of course, university officials are understandably anxious because the government proposes to re-engineer education to LNG without investing any more resources into the already cash strapped post-secondary education system. (BTW, I am NOT complaining about the salaries of professors.) But when it comes to funding decisions, there is a concern that the government will not look fondly upon those suspected of LNG apostasy.

All this has a corrosive effect on the intellectual and administrative environment of the university. In the time of LNG, a great deal of faculty energy is wasted on quixotic attempts to market our programs to our clients (formerly known as students). We are strongly encouraged to identify and to emphasize the career paths that study in given disciplines immediately make available. We are asked to tweet the instrumental benefits of courses and disciplines. (Yes it’s true that philosophy students do especially well on the LSAT and other such tests. But is that really why you should study metaphysics?) The LNG agenda so dominates university discourse that the idea of simply celebrating and supporting pure research is laughed off as quaint nostalgia. Oh sure, everyone is officially in favour of teaching and research that is not expressly tailored to the training of new LNG disciples. But we all know that adding a verse or two of LNG theology to our proposals and pitches is strategically wise. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not much of one and that’s a rather dispiriting reflection of the current situation in BC universities.

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