Canada’s institutions of higher learning are at risk of losing sight of the public interest
This week, the Ryersonian explored the issue of corporate influence in Canadian universities. We spoke with experts and faculty from across Canada about the ways private entities can influence the structure, management and functions of higher education. The issues covered represent only a fraction of what transpires, but they highlight the importance of accountability as corporations tiptoe ever gradually onto university campuses, staking their claims to higher education.
As the campus morphs into a marketing site for global brands, it can push universities to adopt corporate management styles and corporate language, turning students from knowledge-seekers to either products or customers. Similarly, as tuition has skyrocketed, the centralization of administrative power and the growth of a managerial culture marginalizes the role of academic staff in decision making. On the research side, corporations happily dole out seven-figure grants, but with strings attached – strings that can limit the researchers’ autonomy.
As a University of Regina faculty member Emily Eaton said, the question can really be boiled down to the fundamental nature of the university. The mission of the university is to facilitate the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, through rigid standards of academic freedom and integrity. But the private sector is putting the university’s fundamental purpose at risk.
James Turk, who wrote the book on the corporatized campus, noted that universities continue to make secret arrangements with the private sector. Courses and research have been offered up for sale, and Canada’s institutions of higher learning are still at risk of losing sight of the public interest.
What worsens this dilemma is the lack of any streamlined means of holding universities accountable and maintaining their function as institutions serving the public interest. The role of safeguarding should fall squarely on the government, which has done little to curtail this problem. Government has, if anything, pushed the universities further down the slope, with massive cuts to post-secondary education.
For now, the ones demanding accountability from universities are faculty and students who are trying to reveal the terms of secret research contracts, highlighting the increasingly corporatized administrative bodies and assessing how students are addressed under market terminology.
Ryerson University might not be a massive research university like McGill or the University of Toronto. It may not yet have a long and secretive history with the private sector. But as the school grows, we hope that it does not lose sight of its foremost purpose.