Should a university education be viewed primarily as a business transaction?
As universities are required to demonstrate their contribution to economic growth, their shifting values create an environment more akin to a business than an institution of higher learning. This environment may, in turn, ultimately transform education and the fundamental role of the university.
James Turk, a scholar and visiting professor at Ryerson University, says that he believes the corporatization of contemporary universities is a threat to interactive learning, compromising the core purpose of a university. “The fundamental education is premised on teachers and students learning together,” says Turk. “And that’s the opposite of (a) customer-server relationship.”
In his book What Are Universities For?, Stefan Collini writes that the acceleration of social and economic change has radically changed the general nature and purpose of universities. In Canada, universities now act as a large employer as well as a source for local economies. Collini, an English literary critic and professor at the University of Cambridge, writes that a university’s financial activities, prioritization of branding, reliance on public funding and internal affairs are a few issues that point toward the growing corporatization prevalent in modern universities.
Turk put it bluntly; a professor can be likened to a clerk at a retail store and a student to a customer buying a sweater.
“If I’m a clerk at the Gap and you come up and you have this $100 sweater, and you say (to me) ‘what do you think of this?’ I’m going to say, ‘I think that one’s great’ because I want to sell it to you.”
Turk, who also serves as the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson, says that he believes this underlying incentive distorts the kind of relationship necessary for a university to be a place of education, simultaneously twisting the relationship between teachers and students.
According to Turk, the relationship between a student and a teacher should be a mutual learning experience. “My incentive is to try and engage you,” he says.
Turk says he believes that the beauty of education lies in the freedom to participate in back-and-forth interaction with a common goal: the acquisition of knowledge between both student and teacher. But if a teacher’s actions can be likened to a retail clerk selling a customer a sweater, financial motives can compromise a university’s academic integrity. “You’re here to get this ticket, this credential, and you’re paying for this credential. And if you aren’t able to buy something with that credential when you get out, then has the university failed you?
“If my response to you as a student isn’t based on what I think is going to help advance your understanding of the issue, then it really undermines what education is,” Turk says.
Robert Chernomas, an economics professor at the University of Manitoba, echoes the sentiment. “Administrators are calling students consumers. Many of them are, which is a disastrous idea,” he says. He also notes the ethical questions this model may bring forth. “If you’re my customer, you’re always right. I have to give you an A.”
This mindset shift could also be detrimental to the way students learn. Studies show that operating in this customer-oriented model “may foster a culture whereby students seek to ‘have a degree’ rather than ‘be learners’ because it promotes passive instrumental attitudes to learning.”
A compromise in educational values can affect other areas of the university experience. Chernomas says that with this “customer-driven” model, students can expect fewer courses, less variety in class offerings and a change in funding. “Right-wing governments are now going to stipulate where the money is going to go at universities,” he says. Employment and salary rates are fast becoming key indicators of “success” under a customer model. Therefore, more money might go towards the business department and the professional schools, and less money to arts and humanities.
Arts and humanities play a critical role in a well-rounded education, fostering the growth of the student while serving society, Chernomas says. “It’s often history, philosophy and English majors that service better, even to corporations. And the reason is they’ve got communication skills, which is paramount. They can read and they can write, and they can think critically. Whereas all the professional schools, these skills have a half-life, (and) are often limited by technology.”
Chernomas argues that for students who wish to learn about issues surrounding social topics – such as inequality, sexism, climate change and even politics – studying social sciences and the humanities is critical.
Tuition is also affected by these commercialized ideals. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians can expect to pay an average of $6,463 per year in the 2019/2020 year for an undergraduate degree. Comparatively, students paid an average of $4,917 in tuition fees in the 2009/2010 year, marking a near 24 per cent increase over the span of a decade.
“As tuition grows, students are more likely to have to go out and get jobs; some students won’t get into university because the debt will be too high,” Chernomas says. “Doctors (for example) have to become specialists in order to pay back their debts. So for law, or social work, if the cost of going to school increases, then there’s going to be fewer public sector lawyers and more corporate lawyers. There (are) going to be fewer people operating, quote-unquote, in the general public interest. Which could, consequently, threaten those who play a critical role in the economy, resulting in a shift towards the short-term interest of corporations.”
Turk says he believes that much of this shift could be a product of changing societal values, especially looking towards social media and branding. “Social media is all about turning us into products” Turk notes. He says that this customer-oriented view, increasingly prevalent in various aspects of life, has inevitably crept into the university system. “Society benefits from you getting a good education. (It also benefits from) your ability to be a citizen of the democratic society, to be a good parent – the social aspects that come from having a good education. And all of that gets lost when you think of universities in only commercial terms.”
Chernomas notes, however, that students play an integral role in standing up for academic freedom. “From my perspective, students should be fighting against rising tuition, because that results in equality,” he says. “So students fighting for low tuition, access to a broad spectrum of courses, academic freedom…is absolutely critical.”