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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

Creeping Privatization Threatens Autonomy

By Bill Bruneau
Large-scale social and political change is a bit like snow in Timmins or rain in Vancouver - it can sneak up on you. By the time you notice, the effects are pervasive and irreversible. The rising popularity of privatization in Canada's public colleges and universities reminds me of the weather, and it has the feel of large-scale change.

Privatization has taken a variety of forms - the contracting-out of library cataloguing or food services or dormitory cleaning; the transfer of university research and development facilities to local industry; the 99-year lease of university lands for real estate development. And there are innumerable quasi-privatizations - the granting of monopolies for on-campus services and the "sale" of a university's name to support fund-raising, especially to encourage matching grants to the university itself.

These cases help in making a workable definition of "privatization;" nowadays it will mean permanent or temporary transfer of university property or rights or services, out of university ownership, control, or regulation and into the hands of private interests.

Although Canada's universities have enjoyed a long and mutually respectful relationship with the private sector -- indeed, much of our best research has been done in response to social and industrial demands that came from the private sector, they have also encouraged entrepreneurs, private and public corporations, alumni and other individuals to donate funds for scholarships, research, professorial chairs, student services, and buildings.

In this two-way relationship, Canadian universities have retained control of their programs and properties.

How the weather has changed! Since 1973, public funding of post-secondary education has declined year by year, decade by decade. Not surprisingly, university administrators began to cosy up to private and corporate donors. When that strategy failed to produce the needed funds, the next step was a milder and gentler privatization -- the raising of tuition fees. (In some Maritime universities students pay more than half of their institutions' operating costs and expect, as paying "customers," to have a important part in decision making.)

But what makes the greatest difference, perhaps even more than cuts in public funding, is the rise of neo-rightist market theory. Proponents of the theory argue that application of market principles will make public education flexible, innovative and cheap. If universities and colleges have to move fast to open programs in areas of high demand, they will also move fast to close programs that do not yield immediate and useful employment. Even better, market discipline would cause the re-invention of the university - to make it industry-sensitive and client-driven, effective and "lean." Privatization is a preferred technique on the road to re-invention.

These recent developments have made good old-fashioned philanthropy quite difficult. Unencumbered gifts (money with no strings attached) become scarce in a period when "inputs" are nearly always tied to "outputs." If a pharmaceutical giant "gives" millions of dollars to a medical faculty, and expects the money to produce useful knowledge, but limits the rights of researchers to publish their findings - a whole new atmosphere of secrecy and intellectual privacy is the result.

True "privatizations" lead in a dangerous direction, to the loss of autonomy. It happens little by little. When donors ask not just to have buildings or programs named after them but also to influence appointments, tenure, and curriculum -- then we are in trouble. When all of this happens behind a curtain of administration-imposed confidentiality, the trouble becomes disaster. Worst of all, when privatizations, large and small, distract our universities and colleges from their public purposes, we stand at the edge of a new country, a country where knowledge is granted to the wealthy, where research is restricted by the market and insulated from public criticism, and the university becomes a closed industry.

In the end, privatization of our public colleges and universities would mean the sale of our birthright, and it must be resisted.