Michele Haapamaki: Our Universities: Corporate Control?

Michele Haapamaki: Our Universities: Corporate Control?

As someone in danger of approaching 'eternal student' status, the corporatization of the university campus is something that has immediate and very personal ramifications. I am not talking simply about exclusive Coca-Cola agreements with the university, or Nike ads on the walls of school washrooms. Yes, the case can be made against their intrusiveness - but by the age of 18 we should all be able to decide for ourselves whether it is a positive health decision to drink Coke, or a socially conscious decision to buy Nike shoes. Corporatization of the campus goes far beyond advertising-it is a question of increasing control and subversion that should merit real concern.

There are several issues posing an immediate threat to the viability and health of our public university system in Canada. Among the many, I will choose three to highlight briefly. They are:

  • A decrease in quality as faculty becomes a part-time service, and course material is increasingly viewed as content, another commodity to be bought low and sold at a profit.
  • The very real push to privatize large segments of post-secondary education, creating an American two-tier education system.
  • Corporate sponsorship, a.k.a. paying for the desired outcome. This is especially a danger when chemical or biotech companies "sponsor" university research.

For each of these problems I will provide a cursory outline of the basic observations educators have made. For more information, read the primary book I have referenced for this article, The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers to Canada's Colleges and Universities. (Full reference info at the end of the article.)

Problem number one endangers the shopworn notion of the tenured professor - that rare creature who has been ridiculed and scoffed at for years in the neo-conservative press as the source of all modern evils: communism, socialism, feminism and outright sedition. (The irony of the wealthy and powerful bemoaning a few obscure, poorly paid professors apparently completely escapes them.)

It seems that market pushers are increasingly getting what they want: out with the disheveled tenured professor and in with the new "flexible" faculty. The university has not been immune to larger employment trends of hiring temp and part-time workers with no job security or benefits and lousy pay. University departments, facing budget cuts, are complaining about the problem of maintaining quality with a downsized number of full-time profs and a growing contingent of academics performing essentially piecemeal work. Paid for "output" (especially in the cash cow correspondence course industry), these instructors are, understandably, not positively inclined to contribute extra time to the life of their departments when they are treated like superfluous wage slaves - which is not to insinuate that temp faculty are inherently low quality. In fact, some of the best lecturers I ever had were confined to this situation. It is simply that they are given neither the status nor the resources to produce the level of quality that most are capable of.

The ancient idea of slow and contemplative acquiring of knowledge, wisdom and experience is being eroded-mostly by the cult of "market forces." The catchphrases now consist of output, profitability, and efficiency-reducing the educational experience to the bottom line. Yet quality education requires both a labour-intensive environment and adequate compensation for its leaders (professors); it is not a commodity like oil or peanuts. The crux of why a university education matters has less to do with the facts you are able to learn the night before the exam - though important, at least for your GPA - than the ancillary components of the campus experience. The way you learn to think, the new experiences, friends, sports, beer gardens, travel, and interesting profs: these are what makes university more than just the sum of the course material.

In case the plight of professors seems excessively pessimistic to apply to the whole of the university system - I offer up evidence in support of point two, the threat of privatization. If the downgrading of university faculty is a worrying development - the projections of a two-tier system boils down to the issue of whether some students will be able to receive an education at all. Fortunately in Canada, we are still some distance from an American-style system with its yawning distance between the prestigious Ivy League schools (where tuition can hit US$25,000 per year) and its state universities, where considerably less prestige comes at considerably less cost. (Even at that, tuition for four years of undergrad school at UBC is in the range of what an American student would pay for one or two years of State U.)

The concept of "universal access" is one of those touchy-feely terms so loved by Lefties-but what is really meant? Obviously, not everyone can or should go to university. What I think, rather, is that is in our supposed meritocracy, those with a demonstrated ability should be given a fair opportunity to pursue educational opportunities despite their economic circumstances. Already, many disadvantaged students in Canada are finding the debt levels contingent just for an undergrad degree to be prohibitive. The student loans are available - but add up quickly and can be nearly impossible to pay off, especially considering the massive rates of underemployment for young educated people. I know more than a few very intelligent BA grads who are presently grossing a whopping $15,000 per annum at Starbucks or the like. Recent student demonstrators against the highly restrictive rules on student loan debt and bankruptcy held up signs such as "Education shouldn't be a debt sentence." If $2500 tuition is barely tolerable, the consequences can only be imagined if the business interests achieve their stated goals

Combine the twin problems of a) education affordability b) declining university budgets (including for grants, scholarships and loans) and we, once again, have the type of situation so beloved of private interests - fertile ground for corporatization of education itself. The former Chancellor of UBC, Dr. Strangway (allusions to Dr. Strangelove unavoidable) proposes to build a private, "innovate" university in the pristine lands near Squamish and Whistler, where $25,000 per year tuition fees will contribute towards attracting some of the top academics in North America. In Right-wing speak, affordability issues are not taken into consideration: either an acceptable student will have taken the "initiative" to finance their education (how exactly?), or they will be among the top 2% "deserving" of a scholarship.

The dreaded WTO with its pro-business bias is-as any well-read observer knows-a threat to every facet of the Canadian public system from water services to healthcare, and education. Just as gone are the days of lining up in the respectable government Post Office (replaced by those nitwit drugstore outlets), the post-secondary system will likely undergo fundamental changes due to privatization. In her excellent article in our reference book, "Trading Away the Public System: The WTO and Post-Secondary Education", Professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen summarizes the WTO perspective as thus:

In education, so-called 'barriers' to trade identified by the WTO are all 'subsidies' to the public system that restrict the ability of private providers to compete for students. These barriers include government monopolies, the inability to be recognized as a degree-granting institution, restrictions on recruiting foreign teachers, and high government subsidies to local institutions.

In other words, the highly accessible system which has enabled generations of Canadians to receive quality university educations is simply too hostile to the pursuit of profit for the neo-conservative social engineers. Private options will not be added without considerable damage being done to our present system. The new education model prides itself on departure from tradition, new "consumer options" that end up only degrading the quality of education. Ironically, students also end up paying more for a bogus product.

Business interests have also insisted that the government divest itself of the Canada Student Loan program, making loans subject to "market conditions." This means, of course that a) students would pay far higher rates of interest from the moment the funds were received, not from time of graduation, and b) the market would happily fund studies in law, commerce, medicine and computer science, but future aspirants to the Fine Arts and Humanities could be left out in the cold. (No matter for the neo-cons, since the arts departments are a leftist bastion of evil - as previously noted.)

As many are belatedly starting to realize, what is beneficial from an educational standpoint is not necessarily what is good for profit making. Just as the bottom line in healthcare, environmental standards and drinking water does not correspond to the best interests of the people, nor does it in the case of the students. Business magazines proclaim the Internet education market to be the "next big thing." (Emphasis on the word market.) These entities, such as unext.com are for-profit enterprises and therefore run as such-looking for profits, dividends and the eventual IPO in the sky. They do not even directly care about the experience of their students. Most of the correspondence schools, in fact, rely on a certain amount of "drop-out money." (I.e. non-refundable courses which students fail to continue for a number of reasons - sheer boredom being one of the primary ones.)

The third concern, of direct corporate influence of research results, can literally be a matter of life and death, as we shall see. The breaching of the delicate wall between academic and commercial pursuit has wrought a whole series of consequences that we are only just beginning to understand. While universities used to be expected to be at least partially free from the taint of kowtowing to commercial interests, the buzz now boasts of a private-public sector "partnership." Because of the desperate lack of university funding, biotechnology and pharmaceutical company management don't need to be geniuses-and believe me, many are not-to sense the ripe opportunity. It is not simply the chance to duplicate private research at a public institution; it is even more advantageous. Consider, for example, the advantage of the academic-corporate partnership in scientific research:

  • Qualified, intelligent researchers (PhD. Students) willing to work for bargain-basement wages (a annual grant or stipend), with no benefits.
  • The prestige of research originating from a "name" university.
  • Confidence in predicting the results, as long as both sides of the deal remember the number one dictate: "He (or She, to be gender inclusive) who has the gold, makes the rules."

The recent fiction book The Constant Gardener by spymaster John Le Carre provoked much comment with its plot line developed around a powerful multinational pharmaceutical company that threatens and even kills those that attempt to air the truth about one of the tuberculosis drugs it is developing for use in the third world. The scene of the research: a university in Saskatchewan (of all places - useful for exciting car chases in blizzards, in any case). To those in the know, the scenario is not simply fiction. The accounts of companies twisting, or outright suppressing negative results are widespread.

In a bone-chilling article, contained in our primary reference (see below) Dr. Nancy Olivieri (a Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the University of Toronto) tells of her personal experience conducting drug tests on Canadian children with a fatal blood disease. When Olivieri and her colleagues discovered that the drug both a) worked inadequately and b) directly caused liver and heart damage the researchers were hit with threats from the company involved, Apotex, if they revealed the toxicity results to patients, parents, regulatory agencies, or the scientific community at large. To her shock, the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children both sided with Apotex. By an amazing co-incidence, Apotex was at the same time negotiating a "donation" of $25 million to the university. When the piper plays, the rats all have to dance to the tune.

The corporatization of universities is, I think we could all acknowledge, more than a struggle against advertising banners on the wall. It directly questions the credibility and future viability of our valued public institutions and the future of education for students and teachers. Perhaps you, the reader, think my brief and marginal attempts to pull together bits and pieces of academic and anecdotal evidence is less than conclusive. Then do some work of your own. Read the book from which I have taken the bulk of my evidence in this particular article, and follow up with other widely available surveys into the problem of corporate control-not only in our universities, but in all Canadian public life. Your mind might yet be changed.


  • Turk, James L. ed. The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers to Canada's Colleges and Universities. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company Ltd. (2000)

Specific Articles from this title:

  • Conlon, Michael "Betrayal of the Public Trust: Corporate Governance of Canadian Universities" pp. 145-150
  • Griffen Cohen, Marjorie. "Trading Away the Public System: The WTO and Post-Secondary Education." Pp. 123-141
  • Newson, Janice A. "To not intend, or to intend not… that is the question" pp. 183-193
  • Noble, David F. "Digital Diploma Mills: Rehearsal for the Revolution" pp. 101-121
  • Olivieri, Nancy. "When money and Truth Collide" pp. 53-62
  • Renke, Wayne N. "Commercialization and Resistance" pp. 31-49

Further Reading:

  • Barlow, Maude and Clarke, Tony. Global Showdown: How the New Activists Are Fighting Global Corporate Rule
  • Clarke, Tony. Silent Coup: Confronting the Big Business Takeover of Canada
  • Finn, Ed. Who Do We Try to Rescue Today? Canada Under Corporate Rule
  • Schafer A. Medicine, Morals and Money
  • Shrybman, Steven. The World Trade Organization, A Citizens' Guide

UBC Social Justice Centre, s.d.