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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2000

Academic Freedom as Just Another Commodity

Tom Booth
Approaching our fiftieth year as an organization, we are every bit as much challenged by threats to academic freedom as we were in our early days. Academic freedom is potentially seen by some as a commodity, as if it were part of our compensation as a group of employees (e.g., see the recent Queen's University arbitration).

Perhaps the greatest danger, however, is bundled into virtual education, commodification, internationalization, and the goals of trade negotiators currently renegotiating the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in closed-door sessions in Geneva.

The Effect of GATS

Left unchecked, the results of GATS sessions will be the enhanced and continual broadening and deepening of the influence of commercial interests on our campuses. Our teaching and research endeavors will be classified as services for trade. Inclusion of educational services will capture many of our activities, treat them as 'commodities', and broaden external influence and control.

Specification of educational services through a process of classification and reclassification will deepen intrusiveness into programs and courses. Under the current definition of subsidy many of our practices, such as public support for students and their research, can be viewed as impediments to free trade and brought into the realm of dispute mechanisms creating a climate of conflict.

Ultimately, in the name of enhanced trade an ideal world of 'sameness' and homogenization will prevail. Diversity of approaches to program content and delivery, currently resident in the university, will be a thing of the past.

Virtual delivery of information to students will facilitate turning university education into a marketable commodity. Inquiry will reside separately from delivery. Senates, collective agreements and academic freedom will fall victim to the drive for the sale of educational services. They are, after all, in the way of unimpeded trade. In the end, university autonomy will suffer, if not be totally jeopardized. Our profession will be casualized. Words and ideals like long term commitment, social responsibility and knowledge for the common good will be disastrously eroded -- or extinguished.

No doubt this is a grim picture. Certainly, it is purposely painted to call attention. It is one which none of us is prepared to accept.

What Can We Do?

First and foremost we can fully understand the potential implications of the GATS for our institutions and over the range of tools which each of us employs in our teaching and research. Inquiry and delivery must not be separated and steps should be taken to promote both for the entire collective professoriate.

We need to see the far-ranging effects of the agreement on our professional functions and attempt to discover what is going on at the GATS negotiating tables. By analyzing possible effects on post-secondary education we can devise positions and arguments for calling the substance and processes of the agreement into question.

On a broader front we can look for allies committed to maintaining academic freedom, diversity of programs and approaches, collegial academic decision-making bodies such as senates, and institutional autonomy. Some of our strongest allies are to be found in the Americas. For example, Red SEPA (the Civil Society Network for Public Education in the Americas), as an outgrowth of IDEA (Initiative for Development of Education in the Americas), lays out objectives and programs which clearly address concerns with globalization, commodification, internationalization and delivery.

Allies at the Grass Roots Level

Members of SEPA and IDEA will be meeting at the Fifth Trinational Conference in Defense of Public Education to be held in Zacatecas, Mexico on 3­5 November 2000. The themes of the meeting will revolve around funding for education, commodification and internationalization. Organizers for the conference have invited the participation of CAUT. They also especially encourage attendance of constituent local associations of our organization.

Various trade strategists advocate collaborative research to analyze impacts of GATS and NAFTA on post­secondary education. Research on educational priorities in hemispheric developing regions is also proposed. An extremely notable component of SEPA is its research program on hemispheric educational issues in the Americas. I see such research activities as important opportunities for all of us.

SEPA and IDEA certainly offer us an occasion to exchange ideas and approaches with allies at the grass roots level on common issues. Participation in the initiative and network can only enhance our abilities to be activists on the bundled issues of distance and virtual delivery, commodification, internationalization and trade agreements.

I hope to work with you at the Fifth Trinational Conference in Defense of Public Education.

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