What is Happening to Canadian Universities?

Post-secondary institutions are noticeably morphing from places of higher learning, to drivers of the economy. That might sound practical, but with a deeper look, it’s more alarming than it is reasonable.

Country-wide, governments like ours are focussing on bolstering the economy by enacting broad austerity measures that include cuts to university funding. It’s an easy way to mask what many are calling a sinister and deliberate attempt to slowly exert control over what universities are, and to remould their purpose.

Post-secondary institutions are noticeably morphing from places of higher learning, to drivers of the economy. That might sound practical, but with a deeper look, it’s alarming. So keep reading on.

As governments cut funding to universities, they force universities to seek money from elsewhere. Like corporations. Corporations that have a vested interest in having a university’s programs and research benefit them somehow.

Just as much text has been written on another culprit of transformation at Canadian universities: The Government, largely for shifting university’s focus away from teaching and student needs to research and provincial needs.

During the media-propelled student rage against MUN spending and pay rates in May, the NDP issued a press release titled, “Reminder: MUN problems stem from Government policies and cuts.” NDP’s Advanced Education and Skills Critic Lorraine Michael said during Question Period that week, that Budget 2017 doubled the expected cut to Memorial University, ignoring the multi-year MUN Attrition Plan that government had agreed to.

it’s part of a bigger trend: there has been a sustained slashing in government funding, just a little at a time, going back to the 1970s, and this has radically affected how Canadian universities operate.

Astounding Cuts to Public Education since the 1980s

Between 1983 and 1995, the contribution of Canadian governments to postsecondary education was slashed by over $13 billion. It’s all been attributed to “necessary austerity measures,” as governments focus on “dealing with deficits” and “building stronger economies.” Yet plenty of scholars say this is a concerted effort to redirect the goals of higher learning toward fulfilling the goals of provincial government.

Indeed, in May, College of the North Atlantic cut 7 programs and their interim president told the media that the decision was based on “the skills and trades that employers are indicating they need.” The college’s new “modernized plan” caters to the needs of the marketplace, not the needs of a healthy society of informed citizens, as was originally the purpose of higher education. Very specific degrees and job-readiness bootcamps do little to help people think about, and understand their world and its societal issues, yet readiness for 1 specific job is what we now consider “getting educated.”

According to Jamie Brownlee’s book, Academia Inc: How Corporitization is Transforming Canadian Universities, both federal and provincial government funding for university teaching and non-sponsored research fell from more than $17,900 per student in 1980, to $9,900 in 2006. Yeah, that’s basically half. Again, according to Brownlee, public funding made up 84% of Canadian universities’ operating needs in 1979; come 2009, that figure was down to 58%.

It’s been easy for federal and provincial governments to cry “austerity measure” while making these cuts, but the sustained cut is certainly helping government link university’s function with provincial job needs. As governments cut funding to universities – and remember, our provincial government has told MUN to expect more slashing – universities are left scrambling to make up for those cuts. It opens the doors to corporate partnerships, corporate models for running a university, or flat-out privatization.

Corporate Interference on Universities

Back in the late 1970s, a cabal of corporate CEOs formed a group called the Business Council on National Issues (now known as the Business Council of Canada).  Under the reign of Tom d’Aquino, they called for the “business-friendly reconstruction of Canada.”

According to the Toronto Star, BCNI were puppeteers of prime ministers like Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien,  and “the BCNI effectively seized control of public policy making.” It is documented that the BCNI strived to undermine public respect for public education, and they flat out called for government cutbacks to universities. Simultaneously, the Corporate Higher Education Forum were forming alliances between corporate CEOs and university presidents, and this group was even more vocal about making universities more responsive to private interests.

They had the money and marketing power to depict universities as the home of “useless degrees” and “wasteful public spending on social programs” akin to welfare. And, as we know, that perception of universities is lodged in the public mind today: if universities are unresponsive to market demands, then what good are they? Well, for starters, a voting public that can think critically about their society’s issues.

It’s interesting to note that arts and humanities programs were largely the origins of university teachings. It was deemed swell if people could learn the “trivium”:  a 3 part system consisting of grammar (how to read, write, and speak), rhetoric (the art of public speaking and critical thoughts on literature), and logic (which taught a means of engaging in healthy debate, as opposed to the online shouting matches of today). In its heyday, university was about learning to think, and understand your world. That was deemed vital to a healthy society. “Educated” no longer means what it used to; now it means “specialized for a very specific field.”

Snobelen’s “Useful’ Crisis”

Making us see universities, or a more traditional “higher education” as trivial was an easy way to pave the road to the governmental or corporate takeover of campuses with less outcry. It has worked. In 1995, the actions of Conservative Education Minister of Ontario, John Snobelen, created what is known as the Snobelen Crisis.  There is footage of him arguing that the PC government must “bankrupt” and “create a useful crisis” in the education system to instigate reforms at education institutes. Sound familiar, students of Newfoundland? Snobelen’s “invented crisis” was “fiscal austerity” as well as the notion that universities would benefit from government interference on their spending.

A few decades back, economist David Dodge (who headed “The Task Force on Labour Market Development”) was suggesting methods of inducing a restructuring of universities so that the federal money could be diverted away from funding teaching students, and be poured instead into supporting sponsored research of use to job markets.

Indeed, as government support for university teaching is being cut, specific funding for university research and “innovation” of use to government is going up. Put another way, government money is going to targeted research programs, not classrooms. Google things like the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Canada Research Chairs program: they contribute wonderful things to society, albeit selectively so, as these grants strengthen private sector and university ties. Put cynically, governments and corporations are leaching off the bright minds of university researchers, influencing what those people research, by playing a hand in what research gets funding.

Universities Now Governed with Outside Influence

In August of 2015, UBC announced that President Arvind Gupta had resigned. As more information came to light, it was clear President Gupta had been ousted, in part, because he intended to strengthen collegial governance at UBC. Media eventually untangled the true story: Gupta’s avowed policies threatened some members of the Board, including the chair, and some members of the administration.

UBC’s crisis was one of many that illustrate what’s happening now to Canadian universities. We are struggling to protect faculty from external interests wanting to reshape them to focus on the creation of marketable innovation and research.

Concurrent to governments slashing operating funds to our universities, universities are hiring administrators from outside of the university to govern with a corporate, capitalist approach, devoid of faculty influence. In 2013, the Government of Alberta appointed Firoz Talakshi, a KPMG executive, to the University of Calgary’s Board along with Steve Allan, who specializes in “corporate restructuring and insolvency.”

At the University of Northern British Columbia, the Board of Governors, by a narrow 7-6 vote, recently appointed former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore as Chancellor. Moore is an extremely controversial figure within the university sector given that he was the federal Minister-in-charge when grant agency budgets were cut, and the voices of federal scientists were muzzled.

Joel Westheimer recently made headlines in The New York Times, after being illegally denied. Of the incident, he has written, “The forces that set the process in motion and enabled it to continue are an inevitable byproduct of dramatic changes the academy has been facing in the past several decades … not only NYU, but also private and public universities across the United States and Canada. Universities now model themselves after corporations seeking to maximize profit, growth, and marketability.”

The Refocusing of Research to Benefit Businesses More than Society

A mission statement from the University of Toronto includes lines like “Raising deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.” And yet, contrary to U of T’s little pamphlet, if you Google the name Nancy Oliveri, you’ll hear the story of a heroic professor who was harassed by a big pharmaceutical company (Apotex) for speaking out against a drug. Apotex didn’t care about her concerns and warned her that a confidentiality agreement forbade her from informing participants in her trial about her concerns. The drug in question, deferiprone, is now available in 50 countries, despite she and seven others having released a paper suggesting that deferiprone leads to progressive hepatic fibrosis. This is not an isolated story of corporate interference in university research, not even from a U of T professor.

According to Westheimer, “More than 52% of funding for clinical medical research is now from corporate sources.” Which he deems alarming, “since lives are at stake.” As if we’re living in a bad Hollywood blockbuster, the publication  of inconvenient truths can now be discouraged by university higher-ups, or corporate sponsors of research.

Moreover, funding for research infrastructure provided by things like the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the federal government’s Knowledge Infrastructure Program are designed to secure matching funds from the private sector, furthering strengthening the ties of private companies and universities.

The CFI doled out $4.2 Billion between 1998 and 2009 to various projects, but roughly 90% of these funds went to the physical sciences, health sciences, and engineering ( 5,590 out of 6,310 funded projects).  In contrast, arts, literature, humanities and social sciences received just five per cent of funds. The CFI and its corporate partners are influencing curriculum and research priorities.

As far back as the 1980s, the Mulroney Conservatives overhauled Canada’s national research policy to sway university researchers towards projects with a commercial application. In 2006, the Harper Conservatives launched a new Networks of Centres of Excellence program to be “proposed and led by the private sector.” Some of the new NCEs were packaged as Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR).

Sounds okay in theory, but one CECR is the Canada School of Energy and Environment, which supports tar sands development and advises industry and governments on creating legislation to expand fossil fuel sector, a strange function for a school of “environment.”

Under Harper, there was also a strategic reorientation of the federal granting councils, whereby  scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) would focus on “business-related degrees.” The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) also has a new commercial mandate. And the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) got a complete overhaul.

As part of NSERC’s new focus on innovation, the government redirected public funds to programs to help solve company-specific problems. In other words, brilliant university professors are providing free labour to the corporate sector in the form of their research; Professor research will only get funding if it’s of use to some corporation. Since 2009, company specific research funding has grown by more than 1000 per cent.

NSERC’s Discovery Grants program — the main funding source for basic research in the natural sciences and engineering— has declined from 2/3’s of the Council’s budget in 1978, to 1/3 in 2010. NSERC’s governing council is oddly barren in the way of natural scientists, and full of  corporate representatives.

In the 2014 budget, the government launched the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which accelerated council support for targeted research in the interests of corporate Canada. You get the picture, I’ll stop now.

A main point of belaboring the effect of corporatizing university research is that it has caused a plummet in basic research funding, even though basic research is what traditionally yielded many of the world’s most important scientific and technological advancements. Basically, a professor would get a hunch about something, apply for funding, investigate the hunch, and change the world in some small way. Now, their research more or less must fit within the confines of benefitting a corporate partner somehow. Instead of funding the big broad things that advance and better society, we’re focusing on very specific needs of corporations. Luckily, there is some times overlap of corporate good and common good, like the project highlighted on page 5 of this issue (Ocean Choice International availed of brilliant minds at MUN and CNA to make it a robotic butcher of crab meat so NL can become more competitive in global crab markets).

The main point here, is that universities are being forced to be economic drivers of our province and country, above all, and above what they have traditionally been.

The Degradation of Education

As governments cut funds to universities, Canada has seen a sharp trend towards part-time contract faculty over tenure-stream faculty, and a focus on economy-stimulating research over quality education. Universities ought to be incubators of bright minds thinking critically about their world and its issues and societal needs, but they’re instead becoming puppets for governmental or corporate desires.

Westheimer argues “the ‘shopping mall’ university, where students seek the cheapest and fastest means for obtaining the basic skills and certification they need, is becoming a familiar metaphor and model. Courses not directly related to job-training look more and more like useless dust to be eliminated. Meetings among faculty about which program of courses might yield the most robust understanding of a field of study and of the debates and struggles of that field are rapidly being replaced by brainstorming sessions about how to narrow the curriculum … in order to incentivize matriculation and increase student enrolment.”

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1 Comment

  • The Canadian Universities are just following the “great” ideas of the anglo-saxon world starting with USA and followed closely by the UK and this the result of too many years of Conservative thinking which means to recover as much wealth and to concentrate it into fewer hands to make an elite even richer. MUN is following the same system of actually giving value to what brings in lots of money and to give it to the first circle of selected people. Furthermore, to make money, Universities, looking like they defend great principles and folow ethical values, are going to follow three lines :
    1- Force the professors to obtain good student surveys, meaning they will attract more students to get more money from tuition without any regards to quality of the contents or the teaching approaches, the goal is to keep them “happy” so that they keep coming. Hence, the actual pervert effect of tuition is thereby leading to a compromise where University looses its relevance as a place to learn to think freely, explore knowledge, foster new technologies, think out of the box, wish for excellence, etc.
    2- Force professors into an elitist competition, you have to get NSERC funding or you do not get your tenure since this allows to show better in the University surveys which become part of a marketing strategy to impress de public through media coverage which are also compromised by giving value to hollow boxes where a second agenda is hidden.
    3- Force professors into serving companies, as it is mentioned in this interesting article. That explains why Universities like MUN will value relationships with big companies such as petroleum ones and avoid the effort of working with smaller ones which face even more difficult challenges, since these big ones bring a lot of funds but at a cost of loosing their true Universal sense where diversity of approaches is the key to knowledge and learning.

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