Volume 39, Number 5: September/October 2005

Privatizing Canada’s Public Universities

Five Kinds Of Privatization

Perhaps the most obvious kind of privatization of the university is the growing reliance on individuals rather than the collective to finance university operations. As students are all too well aware, university tuition and other fees have been skyrocketing in recent years – as have student debts. Between 1990-91 and 2000-2001, tuition fees in Canada rose by 126 per cent, while average student debts rose from about $8,700 to $25,000. This is because students are paying a far larger share of the costs of postsecondary education, from an average of 17 per cent of operating costs in 1992 to 28 per cent of operating costs in 2002. As well, a growing number of university programs are slated to be, if they are not already, almost fully financed by students. Not long ago, for example, the University of Toronto announced its intention to increase its law school tuition to $25,000.

A second and less obvious kind of privatization of our universities has to do with the ways in which they are run. Increasingly, universities – which are public institutions – are adopting values and practices that are employed in the private sector. This shift is reflected in the new language being used in our universities in which our presidents are “CEOs,” professors are “human resources” and students are “clients.” It is reflected in the displacement of academic criteria by economic criteria in the allocation of institutional resources. And it is reflected in the many new managerial practices that are being employed by university administrators – ranging from greater secrecy in the running of institutional affairs, to various forms of pseudo-consultation, to the increased use of performance indicators and merit pay to control and motivate academic workers – all of which erode the collegialism and institutional democracy that have been the hallmarks of university governance.

The adoption of business values and practices is cause and consequence of another kind of privatization – the universities’ growing involvement in research for hire. Rather than setting their own research agendas in response to a variety of social needs and interests, academics are doing more and more research for and with “partners,” often from the business community, who can afford to pay some of the costs of academic research. This shift towards research for hire is also a product of changes in government funding, which have led to a reduction in support for investigator-initiated research and an increase in support for “partnership research.” What is significant about this form of privatization is that, although control over the research agenda is being ceded to private interests, the costs of academic research are still largely borne by the public, as partners’ contributions to research costs often cover only a small fraction of them.

This third kind of privatization is related to a fourth. Goverrnments have been contracting out some policy-making functions to unelected and unaccountable advisory bodies, such as the Advisory Council on Science and Technology, that are dominated by members of the business community and others sympathetic to their interests. Not surprisingly, people on these powerful committees have used them to produce policies and to institutionalize practices that serve their particular needs rather than those of the general public.

The final form of privatization has to do not with our universities becoming knowledge businesses in their own right. Increasingly, universities and the academics within them are getting involved in lucrative entrepreneurial or commercial activities of their own – selling ring-side seats to leading-edge research, licensing valuable intellectual property, setting up university spin-off companies (often within university innovation, or “smart” parks). This form of privatization is particularly egregious, as knowledge produced in public institutions, by public servants, with public funds, is not being freely shared with Canadian citizens but is being exploited for private profit.

It is important to emphasize that these five kinds of privatization are not discrete but are mutually reinforcing. For example, the more universities get involved in research for business, the more they have to operate as businesses: the more secrecy they require, the more bureaucracy they require, and the less democracy and collegialism they can tolerate. Similarly, the more universities are involved in entrepreneurial activities of their own, the more resources they have to devote to these activities; hence, the increases in the tuition and other fees paid by students.

Cause For Concern

The privatization of our universities has a number of harmful implications for both students and citizens.

For students, higher tuition and other fees are not compensated by an increase in the quality of the education they receive. On the contrary, privatization is eroding their education by contributing to diminished library holdings, deteriorating lab equipment and physical plant, growing class sizes and reduced choice in terms of course offerings and areas of research specialization. Privatization is also reducing students’ access to professors and to leading-edge knowledge, as academics engaged in cutting-edge research are often freed from their teaching responsibilities or are unable or unwilling to disclose the details of their research until (and often after) it is converted into private property.

While for some students privatization means paying more for less university education, for others privatization means being unable to afford university education altogether. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, after graduate and professional user fees were deregulated in Ontario, the participation rates of low-income families were cut in half. In this context, it is worth flagging the dangers of on-line education, which is being touted as a possible solution to the accessibility problem in our country. We need to be very wary of on-line education because it has the potential to produce a two-tiered system of higher education, with elite, actual education for those who can afford it, and inferior, virtual education for those who cannot.

There are many ways citizens are harmed by the privatization of our universities. We are harmed in the sense that the benefits and use of university resources are increasingly controlled by private interests, whereas the costs of our universities are still largely paid by us. We are also harmed because privatization reduces the ability and willingness of academics and university administrators to meet the needs of groups other than the business community, particularly disadvantaged groups who cannot afford to sponsor academic research such as women, poor people, small farmers and Aboriginal people. Moreover, even when research that may be of use to these groups is done, it may not be accessible to them as more and more of the knowledge produced in our universities is being converted into private, intellectual property.

Not only is privatization rendering our universities less and less useful to more and more of us, but it is also making our universities less trustworthy and reliable. As universities become more involved in business ventures of others or of their own, they are less able and/or less inclined to put the public interest over private interests, as the cases of Nancy Olivieri and David Healy, among many others, clearly illustrate. Ultimately, the privatization of our universities threatens to leave our society without a disinterested or uncompromised source of expertise to which we can turn for assessments or advice on important social, economic and political questions, like the impacts of genetically engineered foods or the safety of various drugs and treatments. This will be a tremendous loss to all of us, which is all the more tragic given that even those who have been pushing the privatization agenda stand to be harmed by it.

What Can Be Done?

Although the wave of privatization is sweeping strongly over all Canadian universities, there is still opportunity for citizens to collectively resist and reverse it. At the local level, citizens and community groups can demand greater input into university decision-making processes through greater representation on formal bodies (like boards of governors) and greater inclusion in various kinds of consultative exercises. We can also insist that our universities develop mechanisms to enhance their sensitivity and responsiveness to a broad range of social needs and interests, like the European science shops, which conduct research for communities and groups that cannot afford to sponsor academic research.

At the national level, citizens can challenge both the particular government policies that promote privatization in our universities and the privatization of the policy-making process itself. We can also press for new policies and initiatives that will repair if not reverse the damage done to our universities and to the democratic process, like increases in the base funding of our universities and the establishment of national consensus conferences on higher education that are modelled after the highly inclusive and successful consensus conferences sponsored by the Danish Boards of Technology.

At the same time that we draw on ideas from other places, Canadian citizens must also develop strategies tailored to our particular locations and histories. There should be no shortage of creative ideas to reclaim and revitalize our public universities once we set our minds to the task.