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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

What is academic freedom?

by Brenda O'Neill

Three things you need to know about academic freedom…

1. Academic freedom is the guarantee accorded to academics to conduct their research, teach in the classroom, and publicly comment and criticize free from any pressure to conform to prescribed doctrines. The concept is one that is frequently used, and yet often misunderstood, even by academics.

2. Academic freedom is not without limits, however, and must be grounded in academic integrity. Academics have a duty to ensure that their research, teaching and commentary are based on an intellectually honest search for truth.

3. Academic freedom is also limited by professional and academic standards, as well as institutional requirements. Research must conform, for example, to the codes and norms of research conduct established by professional and academic bodies such as the Tri-Council Policy on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans.  Similarly, the need to offer a program of instruction limits an academic’s ability to refuse to teach courses based on a defense of academic freedom.

Three myths about academic freedom…

Myth #1: Academic freedom isn’t really necessary in modern universities.

The reality: The pursuit of knowledge and truth is fundamental to the mission of the modern university. But truth is not self-evident, static nor discovered in democratic processes. An intellectually honest search for truth can include taking risks and challenging established orthodoxies. Academic freedom, as well as the related concept of tenure, is central to providing the job security necessary for those who push boundaries and challenge our thinking.

Myth #2: Universities must prioritize public opinion given the current funding climate.

The reality: It goes without saying that a reality for modern universities is a reliance on private funding. But it cannot and must not move the institution away from its fundamental principles and primary objective. Universities are not public relations exercises; their primary goal must be the pursuit of knowledge. A failure to defend academic freedom in the face of a public outcry, precisely when it is most necessary is a failure to defend the central role of the university in society.

Myth #3: The importance of academic freedom is self-evident.

The reality: It is incumbent upon academics to understand, explain and defend the importance of academic freedom to the public and our students given its fundamental importance. This is especially important given the high level of misinformation surrounding the concept among the public.

To continue the conversation about the place of universities in Canadian society,
visit Dr. Andrew Gow’s discussion – “Can we afford ivory towers?”.

Brenda O'Neill is Associate Professor and Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on the political behaviour of Canadian men and women, including the role of feminism and religion in shaping political behaviour and attitudes. You can contact her via email at bloneill[at] and follow her on Twitter (@therunningprof). 

Can we afford ivory towers?

by Andrew Gow

Three things everyone should know about the value of universities to society:

1. Universities provide extraordinary value for money, regularly putting top researchers in undergraduate classrooms and charging less than half of what comparable American research universities collect in tuition fees.

2. Universities provide tangible economic benefits by creating jobs and contributing directly to the economic development of their surrounding communities, provinces, and neighbours.

3. Universities are necessary to educate tomorrow’s leaders.

Three misconceptions about the value of universities to society:

Myth #1:  "Tuition fees and professor salaries are out of control." 

The reality: Canadian fees are much lower than at comparable US and UK institutions, and both fees and salaries are pretty much the same in Alberta as in the rest of Canada.  Students get great value for their money and so do taxpayers.  

Myth #2: "University graduates are flipping burgers." 

The reality:  University of Alberta graduates, for instance, have created 1.5 million jobs world-wide, almost 400,000 of them in Alberta. One in five Albertans is employed by a company founded by a UofA graduate. The over 70,000 organizations founded by UofA alumni generate annual revenues of $348.5 billion.

Myth #3:  "Post-secondary students should be taught by 'full-time teachers' in ‘teaching colleges’, not by university researchers." 

The reality:  That might be true at the first-year or even second-year level, and there are certainly efficiencies that we could find, perhaps using MOOCs, but senior undergraduates and graduate students learn to do independent and original work only when they are taught by active researchers.  My 20 years of experience teaching students how to work independently gives me an insight based not on statistics, but on direct observation: my former students don't go out and get jobs; they go out and start careers, either by joining private, governmental or non-profit agencies (my former undergrads who majored in history work at Fortis, in various ministries, the UofA and the Department of Foreign Affairs, to name a few), or they go to graduate or professional schools to become lawyers, physicians (yes!), accountants, speech therapists, writers, entrepreneurs – and then they go on to lead in those fields, because they have the skills to think, research, write and work independently. Active, independent, university-based researchers are the best role models to lead students to work actively and independently, and to educate them so that they can do so.

To continue the conversation about the state of academia in Canada today,
visit Dr. Brenda O'Neill’s discussion – “What is academic freedom?”.

 Dr. Andrew Gow is Professor of History and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. Raised a civil service brat in Montreal and Ottawa, he decided to pursue public service in a different venue, and studied at Carleton, Freiburg (Germany), the University of Toronto and the University of Arizona before joining the UofA in 1993. He has published extensively on Christian-Jewish relations, witches and witch-hunting, medieval world maps, and German Bibles before Luther, and taught many thousands of students.

Monday, 28 October 2013

What did the Quebec Court say about Senate Reform?

by Jennifer Smith

The Context

Bill C-7 contains the Conservative government’s scheme to reform the Senate by establishing nine-year, non-renewable terms for senators and by encouraging the provinces to hold Senate elections, the winners of which would be nominated to sit in the Senate by the prime minister.  The Quebec Court of Appeal has determined that Bill C-7 is completely unconstitutional.

Three things to know about the Quebec Court’s opinion:

 1.   According to the court, since each aspect (term and consultative elections) of the Conservative government’s scheme to change the Senate affects the powers of the institution and the method of selection of senators, Parliament cannot legislate the scheme on its own. It must involve the provinces.

2.  The constitution helpfully stipulates that amendments to the powers of the Senate and the method of selection of senators require the agreement of Parliament and the provincial legislatures of two-thirds of the provinces that, taken together, include 50 per cent of the population of all the provinces.

3.  The abolition of the Senate must meet a more onerous test, namely, the agreement of Parliament and the provincial legislatures of all of the provinces.

Three misconceptions revealed by the opinion:

The court also buries some misconceptions that many people hold about the Senate and Senate reform.

Myth #1:  The Senate is an unimportant institution of federalism.

The reality:  On the contrary, as the court points out, the Senate was a condition of Confederation, a fundamental component of the federal compromise of 1867. It was put together with great care.

Myth #2:  The Senate is unimportant as a house of Parliament.

The reality:  Not so, says the court, pointing to its mandated role in the country’s legislative process as well as the function of regional representation.

Myth #3:  Abolition is a convenient solution to the problem of Senate reform – just get rid of it!

The reality:  Abolition is the unlikeliest of options precisely because, according to the court, it would require unanimity, the highest threshold of agreement imaginable.

From a layman’s perspective, the message here is that the Senate of Canada belongs to all of us. It cannot be treated simply as a pawn in the game of partisan politics. The reform of the Senate must be a national project.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Can balanced budget legislation really work in Canada?

by Stephen Tapp

Three things to know about fiscal rules:

1.   The federal government now wants to introduce a balanced budget rule. The idea is to adopt a law that requires balanced budgets in normal economic times. Under this law, the federal government could run occasional deficits, but only when growth is very slow and a timeline to return to balance is given.

2.   Since the early 1990s, Canadian governments have increasingly relied on formal rules to guide fiscal policy. Other countries do this too. Enforcement of these rules is increasingly being delegated to independent budget offices. 

3.      My research finds a robust positive correlation between stronger fiscal rules and better fiscal outcomes on average. This result applies only to selected rules over a selected time period, namely, balanced budget and debt rules in Canadian data from 1981-2007 — i.e., before the global recession. Conversely, I find that spending or revenue rules were generally ineffective in this same period.

Three common misconceptions about fiscal rules:

Myth #1:  Fiscal rules are basically homogeneous and are readily copied from other jurisdictions.

The reality:  The details of fiscal rules matter; they differ and are jurisdiction and context specific. Canadian governments have used rules of various types and strengths. In the early-1990s there was early experimentation with debt, spending and budget balance rules, typically used on their own.  By the mid-1990s as fiscal pressures intensified, several provinces adopted more wide-reaching rules that combined various targets, with balanced budget and debt rules becoming the most common. 

The stringency of rules also varies. Some provinces have had no formal rules (Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island), whereas Alberta and Manitoba have historically had the strongest fiscal rules in Canada.

Myth #2:  When fiscal rules are legislated they are set in stone, and thus act as a permanent constraint on future governments.

The reality: As used in practice, fiscal rules are better thought of as moving targets that policymakers generally aim for, but adjust at irregular intervals in response to economic and political developments (such as recessions or changes in governments).

Myth #3:  Examples where a government missed a fiscal target show that fiscal rules don’t work.

The reality:  The natural instinct is to simply compare the target (balance the budget!) and the outcome (balance the budget?). In fact, the correct comparison (the so-called counterfactual) isn’t the target, but what would have happened without it. (Of course, this can’t be observed because it didn’t happen, so it must be inferred with statistical techniques). So just because a government failed to balance its budget, doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a smaller deficit than without the rule in place.  In the same vein, seeing one driver run a red light doesn’t disprove the notion that traffic lights generally make roads safer.

Continue the IPAC Impact discussion on balanced budget legislation by reading Dr. Wayne Simpson's post, "Is federal balanced budget legislation a meaningful step?"

Stephen Tapp is a Research Director at the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP). Before joining the Institute, he was a senior economist and adviser on economic, fiscal and tax issues for Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer. You can e-mail him here; follow him on Twitter (@stephen_tapp); and connect with him on Linkedin.  

Monday, 21 October 2013

Is federal balanced budget legislation a meaningful step?

by Wayne Simpson

Three things to know about federal balanced budget legislation (BBL):

1.  Are the feds serious about BBL?  The 2013 federal throne speech promised legislation that “will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis.”

2.  When would this legislation occur?  During this session of parliament but, like the promises from the last election for income-splitting, it would not occur before the government achieves budget balance circa 2015.

3.  What do “normal economic times” and “concrete timelines for returning to balance” mean?  There was no indication in the throne speech, but these and other details of the actual legislation will be important to watch. 

Three myths about balanced budget legislation:

Myth #1: BBL will change the way governments spend.  The throne speech explicitly links BBL with “reducing the cost of government,” indicating a move toward smaller and more efficient government that is attractive to economic conservatives.

The reality: While governments may intend to “live within their means”, our study of BBL at the provincial level in Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de Politiques  found that the legislation had little discernible effect in restraining spending relative to revenues.  As a result, provinces were unable to avert deficits during the economic recession that began in 2008, and most suspended their BBL.

Myth #2: The federal government can lean on provincial experience to craft superior legislation.

The reality: The provinces have been fine-tuning their legislation since 1995, introducing fiscal stabilization funds with specific targets, defining abnormal times, tightening accounting regulations, imposing non-compliance penalties on cabinet ministers, and relaxing the budget balancing cycle (commonly achieving balance over four years rather than annually).  Yet the legislation uniformly collapsed in the face of its first real test.

Myth #3:  If budgets are balanced, all will be in order fiscally and economically.

The reality: The provinces, faced with drastic cuts to core services to balance the budget in 2008 and beyond, could not justify the spending reductions necessary to make up the revenue shortfall.  It is also difficult to justify spending cuts when public fiscal stimulus is needed to offset private belt-tightening.  The argument for fiscal stimulus, if not for maintenance of core services, will be even stronger at the federal than the provincial level.  The question is therefore whether the federal government can cut spending to accumulate a sufficient “rainy day” fund that, based on the last recession, would have to exceed $165 billionSuperior federal taxing authority, such as restoring the GST to 7%, could help but is probably not in the cards.  Without such a fund, federal BBL would likely collapse in a recession as well, unless it is less stringent than its provincial counterparts.

Continue the IPAC Impact discussion on fiscal rules by reading Dr. Stephen Tapp's post, "Can balanced budget legislation really work in Canada?"

Wayne Simpson is a Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba. He is a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan and the London School of Economics. He is a specialist in labour economics, urban and regional economics, applied microeconomics, quantitative methods and social policy, and has worked for the Bank of Canada and Economic Council of Canada. He is the author of Urban Structure and the Labour Market: Analysis of Worker Mobility, Commuting and Underemployment in Cities (1992) and co-author (with D. Hum) of Income Maintenance, Work Effort and the Canadian Mincome Experiment (1991) and Maintaining a Competitive Workforce (1996).  He has published more than 50 refereed articles in economics and policy journals as well as numerous technical and research reports, book chapters, and other articles. For further details on his professional activity, see  his curriculum vitae.