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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1998

Public Education for Sale?

The warning signs have been there for a long time, but many of our colleagues have regarded as unduly alarmist the argument that post-secondary education is in danger of being turned into a "commodity," that university scholarship is increasingly being shaped and directed by the profit motive.

The Education Industry Summit, held in Toronto on Oct. 7, 1998, set out a new vision of education in bold and simple terms. Participants were invited to "explore a $700-billion growth industry for the finance and investment community." The presence of Sergio Marchi, Federal Minister of Trade, at the Summit provided high level endorsement of this vision.

In some ways we should be grateful to the Summit for making this new reality so clear. We've seen governments cut back public funding for education, increase tuition fees, pressure universities to seek out corporate "sponsors" and "partners." But most of us have continued to take for granted the principle of publicly funded education. Suddenly it becomes clear that the unthinkable is taking place. The old vision (achieved after centuries of struggle) of education as a public good, available to all, is to be replaced by a new vision of the education industry.

Such a clear and coherent articulation of the commercial vision of education has the virtue of challenging us to articulate the alternative with equal clarity. A coalition of organizations, including the Canadian Teachers' Federation, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union and CAUT opposed to the privatization of public education held a press conference at the Summit.

Speakers from all these organizations pointed out the consequences that follow when society starts to conceptualize education as a commercial opportunity rather than a public investment. As we turn education into a marketable commodity, we will undermine the principle of universal accessibility to education at all levels. Commercial interests are going to exercise increasing control over the nature and diversity of teaching and research within their "industry." The education system will still need to rely heavily on public funding, but with this reshaping of education to meet commercial concerns the public money will now serve corporate interests rather than the public interest. All speakers called on the federal and provincial governments to return to the vision of education as a public good and to restore funding.

Professor David Clipsham teaches in the Department of English at Glendon College, York University. He is also a member of CAUT's Executive Committee.