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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2000

Commercialization Threatens the University's Mission

Donald Fisher

Universities for Sale: Resisting Corporate Control Over Canadian Higher Education

Neil Tudiver, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., A CAUT Series Title, 1999; 248 pp; paper $19.95 CA.
Author Neil Tudiver makes a tremendous contribution to our knowledge about the development of the Canadian university system. Advocacy and scholarship are integrated as we are taken through the dramatic changes in both the internal and external lives of our universities in the postwar period.

A small complaint at the beginning concerns the misleading title. While the author clearly does want to draw attention to commercialization and marketization, the primary object of concern is to examine "labour-management struggles in Canadian universities over the past 50 years, showing how and why these conflicts developed." (p. xii)

The first five chapters take us over familiar territory as the author provides a historical narrative of the development of Canadian universities from their sectarian origins through the beginnings of serious federal intervention and the unprecedented expansion during the decade 1965 to 1975.

The focus on funding and governance sets the stage for the next two sections on unionization and marketization. By the mid to late 1970s faculty were becoming aware that the funding boom was over and restraint was becoming the watchword. Further, the mode of governance had shifted away from the "collegial" or "political" end of the continuum in favour of a "bureaucratic" model (OECD, 1990).

One response was a change in the relationship between the faculty and the administration both at the level of the institution and nationally. Senates were less able to protect academic freedom and the rights associated with tenure and faculty proceeded to unionize and challenge the centralized administrations by strike action. Chapters six and seven ("Collective Bargaining Era" and "Professors on the Line") document these trends in admirable fashion.

As market ideology became dominant in the 1980s, so our universities became more corporate and adopted a "market" model of governance (OECD). Expanded administrative units took on the role of "managing" faculty rather than facilitating and supporting research and teaching.

Governments and particularly the federal government encouraged a closer relationship between universities and industry through matching funding policies. The decrease in federal transfers has been a critical factor. Real operating grants per student have been declining since 1977-78 (Skolnik, 1992). In an effort to balance budgets, universities have been more open to the private sector but have also increased their general tuition fees and promoted full-cost recovery programs.

Chapters eight and nine trace the rise of commodification as knowledge and people become the source of profits and universities actively participate in "quasi-educational markets" (Marginson, 1997). In the conclusion, the author wants to take us beyond "what is" and suggest ways that we as faculty might increase our resistance and ideally reverse the commodification trend.

The text is full of fascinating information. We learn that in 1966/67, Ottawa paid $400 million to universities compared to $99 million a year earlier. (p. 24) Similarly, between 1960 and 1974, all 10 provinces sponsored major inquiries into higher education. (p. 27)

The author challenges the "aura of collegiality" that characterized governance in the 1950s and 1960s. Governance tended to be hierarchical, taking on aspects of feudalism. In 1956, of the 35 Canadian universities surveyed only four included a faculty voice in the selection of presidents or deans. (p. 30)

The challenges to tenure and academic freedom are well documented, prominent examples being the notorious cases of Frank Underhill at the University of Toronto and Harry Crowe at Winnipeg's United College.

Furthermore, while universities became more democratic and inclusive in the period of massive expansion, by the early 1980s the tide had turned against participatory democracy. The author documents the turbulent years between 1983 and 1985 in British Columbia as well as similar events in other provinces.

To protect themselves and the norms of academic life, the faculty chose to unionize. "By the latter 1980s, more than 80 percent of Canadian faculty were in certified unions or covered by special plans." (p. 115) Strike action becomes much more common. Of the 25 strikes by faculty unions, two happened in the 1970s, seven between 1981 and 1986 and the remaining 16 since 1987. (p. 123)

Founded in 1951, CAUT has played a central role in these conflicts. A defense fund was created in 1977 and the association has on a number of occasions censored individual universities. The author documents the changes in policy during the 1990s as CAUT has become more critical of commercialization.

Quite properly the commodification trend is housed in the history of state science and technology policy. The promotion of links between universities and industry is traced through the activities of the National Research Council, the Science Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, and more recently the Centres of Advanced Technology and the Networks of Centres of Excellence.

For the author, knowledge in the corporate university is defined as "intellectual property, a commodity to be bought and sold." (p. 155) Industry liaison offices necessarily support those parts of the university that produce knowledge with commercial value. It follows that "By 1997-98 Canadian university researchers had created 312 spin-off firms to develop and market their inventions, with equity in 42 of the firms for a total of $17 million." (p. 158)

Fund-raising became a major activity. McGill University raised more than $200 million in a three-year drive ending in 1996, while the University of Toronto's current campaign to raise $400 million by 2002 is well ahead of schedule with more than $350 million already accumulated by the summer of 1998. (p. 165)

The book ends by highlighting some of the major problems associated with commercialization. The author argues persuasively that collective bargaining is made more difficult as administrators introduce policies that encourage commercialization.

Three initiatives are described: performance indicators, technological change, and intellectual property. (pp. 181-182) At base, commercialization threatens academic freedom and will result in less access to a university education for those who cannot pay.

To illustrate the danger of substituting profit as the motive for research, Tudiver examines the recent conflict between Dr. Nancy Olivieri and her employers, namely the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto, and Apotex, a Canadian drug manufacturer.

According to Tudiver, preserving the best parts of our academic culture requires governments to commit with more resources to the concept of the "public university." Tudiver suggests three basic requirements in order to ensure universities remain centres for critical debate and independent research: institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and, tenure. (p.191)

This is a fine book. My criticisms are minor and to some extent go beyond the author's purpose. First is a technical point. The usefulness of the text is diminished by the omission of an index. Second is the slight tendency by the author to idealize the past. At times he does refer to "collegial communities" and "free ideas" as if they existed historically in universities. I would want to argue that a "university without condition" has not existed and cannot be. In essence, universities must combine elements of utility and autonomy (Hindess, 1995).

Finally, I think the author ignores two of the most important influences on the shift in academic culture toward the market. The internal life of our universities with regard to vocationalism and utilitarianism has been significantly altered by the dramatic expansion and consolidation of commerce and business administration since the mid-1950s, and more recently the inclusion and rise of computer science.

Donald Fisher is with the Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training at the University of British Columbia.

Hindess, B. (1995). Great Expectations: Freedom and Authority in the Idea of a Modern University. Oxford Literary Review, 17 (1-2), 29-50.

Marginson, S. (1997). Markets in Education. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, (1990). Financing Higher Education: Current Patterns. Paris: OECD.

Skolnik, M. (1992). Higher Education System in Canada. In A. D. Gregor & G. Jasmin (Eds.), Higher Education in Canada (pp. 15-25). Ottawa: Minister of Supply & Services Canada.