Thierry Harris: The Corporatization of Campus. Consequences of the public-private marriage in our academic institutions

Thierry Harris: The Corporatization of Campus. Consequences of the public-private marriage in our academic institutions

There are some dangerous trends that I see developing which affect the very core of what a university education should be.

I am talking about the public/private marriage that is occurring on university campuses all across the world. The nature of this marriage is an abusive one. One partner (the public one), offers support and labor, and offers her facilities to the other. The latter (the private one) provides some cash, decent jobs and some quick thrills, like new buildings and facilities to help keep the public side afloat and operational. Like many couples, one partner wants desperately to please the other. In this case, the public side has taken it upon herself to emulate the private side's economic system for survival, to enter the competitive 'knowledge-based economy.'

University Education Factory

A knowledge-based economy is an economy where knowledge is treated as a business product. Universities make money on patenting the research that is conducted by their academics, and they sell this knowledge on the marketplace. This is one of the reasons why American universities have become so big and influential over the past 15 years.

In essence, universities are entering an economic market where they produce products (the students) to meet the demands of the market (the workforce).

The main areas of the public university that have been affected are the way research is conducted, the physical look of many campuses, and also the administration's governance of universities, which directly affect the programs being offered to students, or clients, as they are increasingly called.

This 'knowledge-based economy' approach affects society in general and universities are a big part of these societies. Their vital role is to educate people to help them learn how to think and contribute to society in their future careers. This means not only financially, by contributing to a higher Gross Domestic Product, but also in providing important research in medicine, for social problems such as AIDS epidemics in Africa or alcoholism in aboriginal communities, and also the environment on issue such as climate change.

Right now this research is being marginalized in favor of more profitable ventures such as patenting a new Alzheimer's drug or releasing yet another antidepressant. Knowledge in universities is being marketed and sold.

The question must be asked: Which comes first, the economy or the knowledge?

How the situation came about

Canadian universities were created as public institutions. Tax exemptions permitted them to acquire large areas of land so that learning could take place and citizens could educate themselves, to provide a better future for all.

During the 50s and 60s, North America enjoyed a golden age for government funding of basic scientific research. Less than five per cent of the funding for university research came from private industry. During the late 70s, industries and governments came to view academic research as a powerful commercial weapon in an increasingly competitive global economy. In the new millennium, more than 70 per cent of the clinical drug trials conducted in Canadian universities are sponsored by private corporations.

The Quebec government's current approach to post-secondary education was formulated during the "high tech revolution" of the 90s. Premier Lucien Bouchard and his education minister Pauline Marois wanted to create an education system which facilitated Quebec students' transfer to the job market. Partnerships were created with high-tech, pharmaceutical and management companies to fund and harness the manpower necessary to support the booming economy. Universities were seen as places were marketable skills could be acquired so that students would be prepared to contribute to the workforce more efficiently.

New specializations arose everywhere, and they still are. Students now have a variety of careers they can choose at many universities, and they can guarantee themselves a secure financial future, if the market is in need of their services.

Corporate influence on research

There is a lot more to the corporate presence on campus than meets the eye.

Many corporations can finance research at the graduate level to enhance their products' position in the marketplace, or to provide it with credibility. Companies like Monsanto, famous for developing Agent Orange and Bovine Growth Hormone, and which recently was fined $700 million for knowingly dumping toxic PCBs in Anniston, Alabama, have used facilities at the University of Manitoba to develop Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs) for agriculture.

All of this has been done without questioning the negative effects that GMCs can have on the local population or the other crops affected by them.

Research focused towards profit-making motives is the tip of the iceberg. Universities in Canada are increasingly following the American lead of developing intellectual patents on the drugs and technologies they produce. -

If these are truly public institutions, then why is the research that is produced in them not made available to everyone?

Corporate influence on course content

In terms of course content for undergraduate programs the corporate influence is much more subtle.

Students at Concordia have protested against advertising banners on campus and the naming of the business school after the founder of a popular beer company, a la John Molson School of Business. More serious issues, however, such as the university administration meeting market demands and protocols that dictate the manner in which education is to be transmitted, are overlooked.

Business Week, MacLean's and The Financial Times are economic publications that rank universities according to economic criteria. They place universities in competition against one another, for students (clients) and investors (corporations). The criteria include things such as exposure to PhDs or tenured professors, or consistency among the content offered in different course sections. Adhering to these can create situations where classes become larger and more impersonal.

An example of the effects of economic ranking criteria is provided by looking at what is occurring at McGill University. Since 1998, the management faculty has been offering a course called 'Social Context of Business,' a core or general education class where business students are challenged to think critically about the underlying structures of the economic society they will enter. The course is taught in classes of 55 students in twelve different sections to approximately 700 McGill undergraduates per year.

The McGill administration wants to merge the small classes to larger ones of 350 students, with tutorials offered once a week by Masters or PhD students.

"The reason why people come to class is because it is required. I would be curious to see how many people came to the course if they didn't have to," said Tana Paddock, a sessional professor currently teaching the course.

"I have a lot of worries. I've been listening to students talking about the large classes that they go to. The brightest don't seem to go to these large classes," said Louis Chauvin, the current coordinator of the course. " I am worried about keeping the students' interest [in the class]."

This is an example of a class where students are challenged to think about the underlying structures of society being made 'more efficient' by enlarging it to meet 'economic criteria.' There are many more like it.

Other consequences

It is important to point out that not all corporate influence is negative. Khaleed Juma, incoming president of the CSU, rightly pointed out that corporate donations helped CASA Cares, a fashion show organized by the John Molson School of Business to raise over $10,000, which was donated to the Montreal Children's Hospital.

Also, as universities such as Concordia offer more programs geared towards developing skills for the job market, they are able to attract a broader 'clientele' and increase their size and status vis a vis other universities.

"Many students who walk out with a B.A. feel like they are at a bit of a loss on the job market, whereas students that have specialized [in a certain functional program] have kind of got a path set up for them," said Juma.

Some people claim that having private companies donate money to the universities is no different from receiving government subsidies. In truth it's not the same thing at all. Private companies are accountable to their shareholders. Governments, at least in theory, are accountable to the citizens who elect them. The lack of transparency and accountability created through the partnership between private corporations and public universities right now is cause for alarm.

He who pays the piper calls the tune

We need to decide whether universities should return to being places where issues can be debated openly and where students are encouraged to challenge the frameworks of society in the courses that are offered to them, or whether they should continue with the current trend and transform themselves into technical colleges, becoming adjuncts of large corporations and serving functional ends to feed the job market. Right now all indicators are pointing towards the latter as the dominant paradigm.

The winning slate on campus is promoting a student center that, according to Juma, will be a place "students can interact with each other and challenge each other, and to have a place that is all of their own which allows them to do what they do." The fact that students have to fight for a place where they can interact with each other is indicative of how much we have actually lost in terms of open, public space on campus.

Students and the various associations that represent them who are protesting for federal government transfers and more accessible education should also be aware of the changing nature of the education system which they are fighting to preserve.

"The endangered species are the humanities and those programs that have no real immediate market value," said Eric Martin, former spokesperson for the Coalition de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante Élargie (CASSEE). "Let's admit that we are fighting to preserve education against people who have no interest in maintaining it. [The current political class] are representatives of an agenda that maintains that this domain will have to be private sector, or totally efficiency-oriented."

What might universities look like in the future? "Physically, think of a shopping mall, and you won't be that far off," concluded Martin.

Five kinds of privatization

  • Growing reliance on private individuals rather than a public collective to finance university operations. Students have been paying 28 percent of operating costs in 2002 as opposed to 17 percent in 1992.
  • Universities adopting values and practices of the private sector. E.g. the use of performance indicators and merit pay to motivate academic workers.
  • Growing involvement in research for the private sector, rather than setting their own research agendas in response to a variety of social needs and interests. This "partnership" research is being ceded to private interests.
  • The outsourcing of government for policy-making functions to unelected and unaccountable advisory bodies which are represented in university but dominated by private interests.
  • Universities and academics and academics getting involved in lucrative entrepreneurial activities of their own.

The Concordian, 12/04/06