Nov 152009

Corporatized universities devalue education

Howard Woodhouse

2009/11/15 04:30:00   The Toronto Star

Governments, corporations and most university administrators regard Canadian universities as “engines of economic growth.” Their function is no longer the search for truth, but to increase global competitiveness.

Critical questions about this new orthodoxy are rarely raised. The goal of education, after all, is the advancement and dissemination of shared knowledge, whereas the goal of the corporate market is the maximization of stockholder value. Unless these opposing value systems are recognized, the distinctive features of education are subjugated to the demands of the market.

Some university presidents have expressed skepticism toward the market model of education. Several years ago, Colin Starnes, then president and vice-chancellor of University of King’s College, argued that underfunding by the federal government over a 20-year period (amounting to 30 per cent on a per student basis) combined with increasing student enrollment (more than 60 per cent) had resulted in “a rising tide” engulfing universities.

Two related currents in this tide particularly concerned Starnes: The pressures and benefits of a vastly increased research agenda had, in turn, created a new environment in which undergraduate education was being “privatized” in the form of a dramatic increase in tuition fees. The distinctive features of openness, accessibility and quality were under threat. The net result was that the Canadian university system was becoming much more like that in the United States.

The pace of privatization has since increased, including further increases in tuition fees. The federal government would now have to invest an additional $4 billion a year in universities just to return to the funding levels of the early 1980s.

The Innovation Agenda was first introduced by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien in the late 1990s. The panel which designed the initial report comprised CEOs of private banks and corporations in addition to the president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Not a single faculty member was included on the panel of “experts.” The report defined innovation in exclusively economic terms as the overriding need for universities “to bring new goods and services to market.”

As a result, the federal government required universities to produce research that primarily serves the needs of the market. Matching funds for such research must be found from the provinces and the private sector. Universities and provincial governments have been forced to comply with an Innovation Agenda that undermines the institutional autonomy of universities.

The explicit goal of the Innovation Agenda was to have Canada move to fifth place in the world – from its position as 14th – in research support in order to increase economic productivity. But the agenda has failed to achieve its goal. Canada has not moved into the top five countries in the OECD, our capacity to compete in the global market is much the same as it was, and universities remain chronically underfunded.

A reasoned response would be for university presidents to call for a reassessment of the Innovation Agenda together with a large increase in government funding. But the presidents of the so-called “top five” universities (Toronto, British Columbia, Alberta, McGill and Montreal) have done the opposite.

They want a larger share of existing research money and graduate education for themselves. They believe that other universities should focus on undergraduate education, which is seen as a lesser activity. Indeed, University of Toronto president David Naylor has called for more “differentiation” among universities – just the kind of system which Starnes and others have been decrying.

In order to counteract this trend, faculty, students and the general public must remind governments of their responsibility to fund the entire university system as the only place in society where the critical search for knowledge takes precedence.

Howard Woodhouse is professor of educational foundations and co-director of the University of Saskatchewan Process Philosophy Research Unit. His book, Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in October.

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