Robert Prichard, former president of the University of Toronto, says universities should rely less on the state and embrace the forces of the marketplace in order to maintain their autonomy.
Speaking to the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education held during the 70th annual Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at Laval University in May, Prichard said recent government attempts to impose performance indicators on universities are at best an unnecessary burden and at worst an unwarranted infringement on university autonomy.
"There's a thinking in government that we need to get control over universities, that we need to squeeze them a little more to root out the waste and inefficiency," Prichard told the audience of mostly academics. "In Ontario, we've had nonstop studies looking for waste and inefficiency in the university system, but each time they conclude that the root problem with the system is it needs an injection of new funds."
Prichard said that universities need to demand less regulation and government control and to engage in more direct competition with each other.
"We need a more market-driven, deregulated, competitive and differentiated system than we have now," he argued. "In every sector where it has been pursued, deregulation has had positive benefits in terms of encouraging the production of better services for consumers. This market model give universities more freedom, the freedom to innovate."
Prichard also said university tuition should be deregulated, allowing administrators to set fees higher than current provincially-mandated limits, and that universities should diversify their funding sources by more aggressively courting private donors so that they are less dependent upon government grants.
During a panel discussion following Prichard's address, CAUT's associate executive director David Robinson expressed strong concerns about universities adopting a market-driven agenda.
Robinson noted that reliance on private funding often comes with more strings attached that can compromise the autonomy of the university, and the academic freedom of faculty members.
"It's odd that in the name of autonomy, some people would have universities become subservient to the marketplace," Robinson said. "Let's remember how the University of Toronto recently stood by while the appointment of Dr. David Healy was withdrawn after he made critical statements about the makers of antidepressants -- companies who are also important donors. I wonder what this says about the autonomy of the university or the academic freedom of Dr. Healy."
Panellist Arpi Hamalian, president of the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d'université, argued that universities must be more publicly funded and more accountable to the broader public interest in order to preserve their autonomy.
"The deregulation of post-secondary education that some are proposing would lead to a serious erosion of academic freedom," Hamalian said. "Historically, our universities have been best able to respond to changing economic conditions and to serve larger number of students only when they have been adequately funded by government."