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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2000

B.C. Activists Defend Education

"We are harvesting our children as a cash crop." This stark keynote message from Alex Molnar, head of the U.S.-based Centre for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, captured the sentiments of the three hundred educators, support staff and students from B.C. schools, colleges and universities gathered in Vancouver on May 23 and 24 to learn about, and discuss how to resist, the growing commercial intrusion into education.

The Public Education: Not for Sale! conference was organized by the Coalition for Public Education to coincide with the World Education Market (WEM) trade show being held at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. With $500,000 from the federal government and $250,000 from the provincial government, the WEM brought together hundreds of companies from around the world eager to profit from selling educational products, services and systems.

In contrast, the provincial coalition – whose members are the B.C. Teachers' Federation, the College Institute Educators' Association, the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Federation of Students, and the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union – received only $15,000 from the B.C. government to advance the ideals of education as a public good at their counter-conference.

Gajaraj Dhanarajan, president of the Commonwealth of Learning and one of the organizers of the trade fair, told reporters it was still too early to judge whether expanding commercial activity in education was "a good thing or bad thing."

Meanwhile, participants at the conference heard about institutional administrators whose primary job has become increasing the consumption of Coca-Cola by the students in their charge, and about business groups ranging from the forestry industry, to fast-food retailers, to plastic bag manufacturers who are pushing to have schools adopt industry-developed curriculums.

"To us, education is a public trust, not a business; knowledge is a gift to give, not a commodity to sell; schools are communities, not corporations, and students are citizens, not consumers," B.C. Teachers' Federation president David Chudnovsky told delegates in his opening remarks.

The teachers' federation released survey results at the conference indicating that nine out of ten B.C. high schools and one in three elementary schools have vending machines. The survey also found more than two-thirds of B.C. high schools have exclusive deals with the two major cola companies; deals which mean that no other beverages, not even milk or fruit juice, can be sold at the schools unless they are produced or approved by the cola companies. Similar exclusive agreements are also in place at most B.C. universities and colleges.

Although such arrangements are the most visible indication of corporate intrusion into schools and onto campuses they are merely the sideshows, according to University of Regina sociologist Claire Polster. Polster explained to workshop participants that even though increasing commercialization in university and college research has been attributed to declining government funding, a great deal of the commercial intrusion can be explained by federal and provincial policy frameworks and funding mechanisms that encourage and reward public institutions handing over control of publicly-funded research to private interests.

The dangers of this policy shift were starkly illustrated by Bill Graham, past president of CAUT, when he recounted for conference participants the story of University of Toronto medical researcher Nancy Olivieri, who has been professionally and personally attacked since her decision to go public with evidence that a drug she was testing for Apotex Inc. could be harming the children involved in the drug trials.

The solution, according to Osgoode Hall Law School professor Neil Brooks, is for corporations to get out of schools, colleges and universities, and to pay their fair share of taxes. In the closing address, Brooks, an expert in Canadian tax law and policy, told delegates that corporate influence over public policy has been rising at the same time corporate support of a public sector through taxation has been falling.

BCTF vice-president Linda Watson echoed this message in her closing remarks to the conference. "Companies know we're vulnerable, but they should realize that they benefit more from a good education system and should pay their fair share of taxes so our system stays strong."

Report prepared by Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.