Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Cutting My Program at the U of A Makes No Sense

First off, my apologies for not blogging in so long. I’ve got a number of excuses, including that the past year has been the most intense year of my university life, but I won’t go through everything. I’m thankful to say that I recently finished my last course for my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta, so I’ve got much more time now to do things like blog! I’m going to try to get back into the swing of blogging things more regularly (did that make sense?).

The two majors I took for the degree I just finished were Religious Studies and Middle Eastern & African Studies (MEAS – pronounced “mee-az” by those of us who study it). It was the latter program, MEAS, that I recently learned was one of 20 programs cut as a result of budget cuts from Alberta’s Conservative government. The university has said all students who have already started the programs will be able to finish them, but any students getting ready to start their first years in any of those 20 programs will not have access to those programs (Edmonton Journal article about the cuts:

I did a bit of research to see where else in Canada one can find an undergraduate program with an option for a Middle East-focused major or minor. When I started at the U of A five years ago, I remember there being only three such programs in Canada. Looking today with the suspension of the program at the U of A, it appears the only one left is at McGill University in Montreal (Simon Fraser University in Vancouver used to have one too, but it appears they no longer offer it).

I came to the University of Alberta specifically because I wanted to study Middle Eastern politics. One of the things I want to focus on in my life is solving the Israel-Palestine conflict (no easy task, I’m well aware). If it weren’t for the MEAS program at the U of A, I think I would have ended up at a university either in Vancouver or Montreal to pursue the same goal. If Canada wants to play any kind of productive role in our relationships with other countries, how will we do that without people educated about the histories and politics of other parts of the world? If we want to have a strong voice in the international community and be able to solve the world’s big problems, how will we do it without understanding the world? I’m convinced that these questions are not priorities for either our provincial or federal Conservative governments, but I believe they should be.

From my experience in the program, students take MEAS for a number of different reasons. Some, like me, want to work on solving political problems, though not everyone had the same focus I did. There were also students passionate about solving issues in places like Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt, among other places. I would guess that maybe half or so of the students in the MEAS program had some kind of family ties to the regions we studied; the other half, like me, developed a passion for that part of the world anyway. Some of the students who had those family ties wanted a deeper understanding of where their families came from. Many of them were born in Canada and rarely, if ever, visit the countries their parents came from. And even for those who grew up in the countries they were studying, academic studies gave them an understanding of their home region they would never get from living in those societies (though both types of education are beneficial). Others wanted to work in international business and therefore wanted a better understanding of different parts of the world.

The suspension of the MEAS program was not a large step for the university. They tell us it’s because the enrollment levels were too low. What they don’t want to talk about is how the program has been slowly eroding over a number of years. When I began the program 5 years ago, there were at least 6 professors in the MEAS program. Last year, there were only 3, and 1 of them was on sabbatical for the whole year. Because MEAS is not a full department (it’s a program within the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies), its professors are all shared with other departments. That means each professor attached to the program only spend part of their time teaching MEAS; the rest of their time is spent teaching in full departments like Political Science and History & Classics. So last year the MEAS program actually only had two half-time professors teaching (kind of defeats the budget argument, doesn’t it?).

What was most noticeable in the teaching cuts over my time in MEAS was the disappearance of any Africa-specific courses. The three professors left in the program this past year were all focused on the Middle East & North Africa. That was fine for my interests, but for anyone wanting to study Sub-Saharan Africa, there were no courses left to take because there were no professors left to teach them. One of my professors last semester was the one who brought that change to my attention. He said the Alberta government had been directing resources in the program, and since they have business interests in the Middle East and North Africa (read: oil), that part of the program survived. Why that interest is no longer a priority I have no idea.

There are many reasons, some of which I outlined above, why it makes sense to have a MEAS program. It doesn’t cost much. It trains leaders to solve international conflicts. It prepares people for business world. If you want to study the Middle East, you can now either move to Montreal or look to another country. And the bottom line for me is this: we live in by far the wealthiest province in Canada and one of the richest jurisdictions in the entire world. Why would we cut a program (or 20 programs) with so many benefits for so little cost? The answer: we prioritize the profits of oil companies above all else. Our province’s GDP continues to grow, yet our government’s policies bring in so little revenue that we’re slashing university programs, struggling to keep our health care system afloat, and reducing teaching positions when we have more kids in schools than ever before. Yes, the people at the top of the university’s administration make way too much money, but their wages are nothing compared to the amount Alberta’s Conservatives are giving away to their friends who own oil companies (many of them not Albertan). The program cuts at the U of A are just another sign that we need a change in government in this province. And as our late friend Jack Layton used to say, don’t let them tell you it can’t be done!

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