Getting a (neo-)liberal arts education in Canada

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Tucked deep within the latest federal budget is a tiny phrase that has aroused profound nation-wide alarm: "Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] will be focused on business-related degrees."

It is not unusual or unprecedented that a conservative government, under the cover of tough economic times, should tamper with public institutions -- or public education -- in the service of 'business.' This terse but expedient bit of economic policy, at this particular time, marks a new phase in an on-going process of privatization of Canadian educational institutions, a process that is constantly eroding the quality of public education, undermining academic freedom and, above all, regressing equity and justice for students and faculty on campuses.

The University: Serving public or corporate interests?

Just twenty years ago, universities conducted research with a firm understanding that corporate meddling was antithetical to the institution's primary raison d'etre: to investigate, inquire and (re)invent on behalf of the public it served. Today, knowledge produced by universities is far removed from the public interest. It is literally packaged, patented and sold to corporate partners who are constantly on the hunt for 'industry-friendly' research -- predominantly in science and technology, especially biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Public labs become the cost-efficient research wing of private business and graduate students their low-wage labour.

This 'commercialization agenda' was initiated during 1980s, when the federal government and private actors created research & development strategies to more deeply incorporate schools and businesses. By 1998, it received a major boost when the government (then under the leadership of Jean Chrétien) struck a committee, called the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research, mandated to investigate and encourage strategies that elevated 'innovation' as an educational priority parallel with teaching, research and service to the community.

In the pursuit for 'innovation,' universities were pressured to align themselves with industry, supposedly to boost Canada's competitive advantage in a global market. Among other methods used to advance this agenda, agencies were established and a wave of conditions that required public research dollars be matched by corporate funding. To date, almost $4 billion of federal research funding has been tied to private sector partnership.

Buying into the commercialization agenda

On November 18, 2002, many school administrations bought in (with little student or faculty input), signing an agreement with the federal government to solidify and accelerate their previously short-term and sporadic corporate partnerships. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada stopped short of unmitigated devotion to the Innovation Strategy (as it came to be known) but promised that its members would double research and triple commercialization performance by 2010.

"What we saw, in effect, were cuts to the direct operating budgets of universities and increased reliance on private dollars (in tuition fees and endowments) to recover this lost funding," says Angela Regnier, Executive Director of the University of Toronto Students' Union. But rather than reduce costs for universities, the commercialization agenda added bureaucratic burdens and created new costs that the universities had to absorb. As a result, "private industry was not only increasingly able to control and direct the research mandates and structures of our institutions, but do this on the public dime."

Grits and Tories push corporate education agenda

Though the Liberals first engineered this process, the current Conservative government has flown with the baton handed them, weighing more heavily than before on tri-council granting bodies (including SSHRC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC], and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) to produce marketable "value for dollars."

Comparatively un-business-related SSHRC -- the agency with the smallest funding pool to offer the largest number of grant applicants -- hangs by an ever-fraying thread. For instance, while the 2006 federal budget provided $100 million for research, the Canadian Federation of Students [CFS] reports that $60 million was allocated to industry-matched granting bodies and commercialization oversight; $6 million, by comparison, went to SSHRC.

All of these changes did not go entirely unnoticed -- many students felt these shocks and tremors in the form of higher tuition and crippling debt, and mobilized widely against it -- but the effects go even deeper and further than climbing tuition fees.

Grad students as cheap labour

Over the years, the number of graduate students has exploded -- a trend that has been identified, sometimes disparagingly, as a sign that opportunities for (much) higher learning have been expanded to erstwhile disadvantaged individuals and groups. This is true to some extent, but, as Regnier explains, graduate students are "cheap research labour," owed less by the academy or administration than professors and often have only tenuous rights over their own research.

With research replacing teaching as the motor of universities, and with so much cheap labour around, universities have far less incentive to offer their faculty secure employment. Slowly but steadily, Canadian schools have been casualizing their academic workforce: more and more faculty and staff are hired on contract and 'part-time' basis -- a state of employment limbo with few rights or benefits.

Sadly, when these instructors and graduate students dare to protest they often lose the PR battle: public scorn is heaped on them for suspending the school year -- rather than the administrative, government and corporate actors responsible. In reality, says Regnier, "student and labour unions are some of the last bodies working to protect the basic missions of our universities: fighting for academic freedom and the values of teaching and service to the community."

York labour dispute protested casualization

On many of Canada's campuses, labour disputes have been a direct product of the push for privatization. Most recently, CUPE 3903 protested the casualization of York University's workforce for 85 days, bringing attention to York's questionable hiring policies as the school came to resemble a privately-owned franchise rather than a public institution.

As the push for marketable research mounts, the emphasis on teaching at universities has been -- ironically enough -- reduced, and York is no exception. Kelly Holloway, president of the Graduate Students' Association at York University, notes that half of all undergraduate courses at York are taught by contract faculty. Some instructors have been teaching for ten to twenty years on contract; each year they must re-apply for their position, with unpaid summer preparation.

"They are working to be the best teachers they can be," says Holloway. "Lots of faculty have to piece together contracts from different universities. They sometimes only get a couple weeks notice before assigned a class -- that doesn't leave much time to be prepared, present, and knowledgeable."

Lykke de la Cour is an adjunct professor in Health and Society and Women's Studies at York and member of CUPE 3903 who has been held in contract abeyance for seventeen years. During the strike, de la Cour worked with CUPE to draw attention to the inequity issues aggravated by corporatization. "This is not simply a one-dimensional 'labour' issue. It's a feminist issue, an anti-oppression issue," she says, "we have to consider who is bearing the burden of these changes."

The York strike afforded de la Cour and CUPE a chance to look broadly at these trends and to compile preliminary figures: at York, women make up 40 per cent of full-time faculty and 60 per cent of contract. Among contract faculty, about 25 per cent are of a visible minority or aboriginal, compared with 21 per cent of full-time faculty. But the most apparent gap occurs with disability: 1.3 per cent of full-time faculty identify as having a disability, compared with 15 per cent in contract faculty.

De la Cour has also analyzed the structural changes of corporatization on York's hiring and management. She found that most tenure-track hiring is concentrated in male-dominated, 'industry-friendly' areas, such as Engineering, Natural Science and Public Policy and Administration. Of the 20 tenure-track appointments made at York over the past three years, all but one were men.

"The next generations of scholars and instructors will be coming from diverse backgrounds, classes, and genders," de la Cour observes. "But because of corporatization of schools, they join the workforce bearing overwhelming debt, which only prolongs their degrees, and their prospects for steady work in academia are growing more precarious."

Academic freedom in peril

Equally precarious will be their freedom of speech -- their very crucial role as watchdogs of government, business and media. With corporatization, the ability of university professors to produce honest, reliable, critical -- let alone dissenting -- work is undermined, and academic freedom questioned.

"This is why the institution of tenure was created," says de la Cour, "as a mechanism to protect faculty from being censored or dismissed." But far fewer faculty members receive that protection, and "if you're contract, you can be easily marginalized for speaking out. Your courses can be cancelled and so on."

The privatization process is inherently secretive and increases pressure on researchers to keep vital information from the public; indeed, 'whistle-blowing' is becoming a known academic career killer. This was most famously seen in the case of Nancy Olivieri, a University of Toronto doctor and researcher who defiantly published findings contrary to the claims of her funder, Apotex. She was subsequently dismissed from her position and spent five grueling years struggling with her administration, the pharmaceutical company and the media before being reinstated.

As the CFS reports, in its rush towards an unhindered commercialization regime, the government "has failed to introduce any safeguards whatsoever to protect research integrity and academic freedom. In contrast to the United States and Britain, Canada does not have a research body responsible for overseeing the ethics of publicly funded research investments."

Undergrads pay more for lower quality education

Undergraduate students also suffer; they pay exponentially more for lower-quality education than ever before. "Talking to my students," says Holloway, "they have made it very clear that they don't have space to think. They feel alienated from their classes and campus, they feel no relationship with their professors or stimulus to investigate based on curiosity." In other words, despite the efforts of student and labour unions, a looming corporate agenda threatens to render universities -- of all places -- environments hostile to learning.

We try to act surprised when failing neoliberal policies trigger economic crises that usher in the standard set of neoliberal 'solutions.' Here, the free-market prescription reduces knowledge to 'intellectual property,' any scholars and scholarship beyond the 'business-related' pale become expendable, and ideas are worth only as much as their market value.

SSHRC is one of the last (shaky) legs on which non-commercialized, public-interest-oriented research stands, and now it seems it will be violently undercut. Niki Ashton, Churchill, Manitoba MP, and powerful parliamentary voice against the new earmarks, worries "not only about what's already taken place, but also what this could mean for the future, what possibilities and precedents this opens up."

Because the better part of these decisions passes through no democratic process whatsoever, the public remains divorced from the situation. Who were the 'stakeholders' consulted when this dubious 'stimulus' recommendation was devised? We know only a few names, whose interests are obvious, such as Roger Martin, dean of business at the University of Toronto.

Alternatives require less short-sighted approach

There are, of course, myriad alternatives. If the true object is to curb the impacts of economic downturn, a more effective and less narrowly self-interested and short-sighted approach would be to target grants to research on reducing poverty (especially addressing the feminization and racialization of poverty); increasing access to education and job-training; fostering local and sustainable economic solutions; increasing access to daycare, healthcare, housing and on and on.

Or, better yet -- not telling SSHRC or any council what research to fund. Last anyone checked, they were handling that job very well without the government's guidance (read: heavy-handed mandate), thank you. (See previous paragraph for things SSHRC has less capacity to fund when the priority is 'business-related' research.)

Oh, and what about investing in education -- implementing debt-reduction strategies and freezing tuition fees -- instead of attempting to distort its purpose and sap it of public responsibility? Remarkably, this idea went straight over the heads of Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, and co. (sometimes the obvious answer is just staring you in the face).

Maybe they need a gentle reminder -- in the form of old-fashioned public outrage -- of exactly who universities serve and to whom they are responsible.

What now? Here's what: Niki Ashton and her staff have collected over 20,000 e-signatures against the 'business-related' earmarks, but need printed petitions to present in the House of Commons. Please take a moment to print out the petition, sign and/or circulate it, and send it to Niki Ashton's Ottawa office to keep the feds out of our funding and corporations out of our schools. You can also stay connected and show your support by joining the facebook group.

Sarah Ghabrial is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University, where she researches the development of politics of feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, and citizenship in the context of colonial and postcolonial pasts. She is also a co-founder of The Miss G_ Project for Equity in Education, a young feminist organization that works to combat all forms of oppression in and through education.

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