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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2004

Privatization Plagues University Autonomy

Howard Woodhouse
This article tells a story - one based on 30 years' experience teaching and conducting research at various Canadian universities, as well as one in Nigeria, and another 10 years as a student in England, Canada and France. My experience has been strengthened by the study of philosophy and its relationship to culture, education, science and international relations.

Given this experiential and theoretical base, the question I want to ask is why do I feel so uncomfortable when reading policy documents like the World Bank's Financing and Management of Higher Education (1998), or the federal government and Conference Board of Canada's Innovation and Learning (2003)? Do such reports reflect the needs of human beings engaged in the search for knowledge both for its own sake and for the ways in which it can support the public good?

These and other reports represent the dominant narrative of the day, one which is proclaimed and adopted as though it were true a priori. However, I wish to propose a counter-narrative, one which provides an alternative picture of what universities are, and might still become, were they to embody ideals, or values, consistent with the pursuit of knowledge as a public rather than a private good.

This counter-narrative may be utopian in the sense it imagines universities qualitatively different from how they look today, but it is at least consistent with their history. Since their inception in the Middle Ages, universities in the West have had to withstand strong external forces in order to maintain relative autonomy - first from the church, and then the state - in order to secure their distinctive function of pursuing knowledge.

What is novel about the situation today is that governments and private corporations are united in their belief that the goal of university education and research is to increase corporate profit margins. There is a kind of pincer movement at work in which these two powerful external sources of funding have combined in order to change universities into instruments to enhance private wealth. And universities have done little to resist this move.

Advocates of the dominant narrative deny that institutional autonomy is threatened today any more than in the past. Bruce Waygood, coordinator for health research at the University of Saskatchewan, was recently quoted as saying, "When a researcher develops, for example, a treatment for cancer or improves the efficiency of a small business, there is both a public and private benefit."1 What exactly is the public benefit? Could it also be a public detriment?

Consider the fact the public pay twice for expensive drug therapies. First, multinational pharmaceutical corporations in Canada regularly use publicly-funded university laboratories to develop their products, such as the Canadian Light Source synchrotron which officially opened in October. The largest scientific installation in Canada in a generation is owned by the University of Saskatchewan and paid for by the public purse for mostly private corporate benefit. That is why two drug company beneficiaries have made a total contribution of $1 million - Boehringer Ingelheim
in partially funding a beamline and GlaxoSmithKlein, a research chair.2 Research in protein crystallography will benefit these and other multinationals in the design of new "blockbuster drugs," giving an added boost to stockholder value. In 2002, pharmaceutical companies had worldwide sales in excess of $638 billion U.S., making them the second largest industry after armaments.3

Canadians, meanwhile, pay higher and higher prices for the very drugs that are making more profits for big pharma, and which will be developed in the synchrotron at a cost of more than $100 million over the next few years. The Canadian Institute for Health Information estimates that per capita costs for prescription drugs across Canada have grown by 15.4 per cent from $537 in 2001 to $620 in 2003. Bear in mind who is footing the bill for research and development facilities via higher education dollars. These labs now constitute the highest costs in health care and are increasing at a rate far above the rate of inflation. In British Columbia, pharmacare costs have jumped by 147 per cent in the past decade, and are projected to grow by almost 500 per cent over the next 20 years.4

To assert, then, there is "both a public and private benefit" to university research conducted for pharmaceutical companies fudges the evidence of exploitation and leverage of public facilities for increasing private profits of pharmaceutical multinationals. What is needed is the kind of "sober, serious, and sustained scrutiny and evaluation," enabling the "wise use" of science and technology in the public interest.5

The dominant narrative begins by prescribing the necessity of drastic reductions to government services. The 1995 federal budget cut $25.3 billion from all expenditures, including cuts for transfer payments for health, education and social services. Finance Minister Paul Martin proudly proclaimed that program spending, relative to the size of the economy, was lower in the following year than it had been at any time since 1951.6 Following on the heels of two decades of federal underfunding this placed universities in a particularly vulnerable position. When adjusted for inflation, operating grants per full-time university student are 19 per cent lower today in real terms than in 1991-1992. In order to bring funding levels back to where they were in real terms in 1993, it "would require an immediate funding boost of more than $1.6 billion."7

In the context of this "new reality," the following strategies were adopted: Canadian universities are to serve the federal government's innovation agenda, defined narrowly and exclusively in economic terms, as "bringing new goods and services to market"; the universities' role is to enable Canada to become more competitive in the so-called "knowledge-based economy"; the universities must provide "value added" to the goods and services their research produces, meaning that "outputs" are greater than "inputs" or, more simply, that revenues for private corporations are increased; universities themselves must become more competitive in their search both for funding and for students; the role of governments, particularly the federal government, is no longer primarily one of providing funds for university operating budgets but of steering funds to "high priority areas" of research feeding the economy; tuition fees must rise as students pay a greater percentage of the cost of their education; undergraduate education is no longer a matter of broad, disciplined thought but is largely training for the professions and the corporate marketplace; and finally, all students are considered "revenue units" - customers seeking "client satisfaction" from the private good of a university education.

"There is no alternative," we are told again and again - a position which contradicts rational and critical debate and universities as seats of learning. Where a value system is closed to all but its own demands, it becomes a value program hostile to education at every level.

The goal of university education and research is to advance and disseminate knowledge by sharing it with others. Knowledge, that is, as a public good shared among those who seek it and sustained by an institution whose goal is to ensure the public interest is thereby served. This process is reminiscent of Alfred North Whitehead's statement: "The learned and imaginative life is a way of living, and is not an article of commerce."8

In April 2003, James Downey, former president of the University of Waterloo, gave a speech to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in which he argued for a rejuvenation of the institution's currently muted role of social critic. In his presentation he said: "Through teaching and research the university must cultivate a spirit of intellectual dissent. Not for its own sake, but in the interests of a free, tolerant, enlightened, and improving society."9

Research and teaching must encourage systematic questioning of the dominant images of the age in order to strengthen universities' active participation in a democratic society. Universities today are out of balance.

Howard Woodhouse is a professor in the department of educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and co-director of the university's process philosophy research unit.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.


1 Gerry Klein, "Profit Now Seen As Major Part of Universities," The Star Phoenix, May 14, 2004, p. A4.

2 Howard Woodhouse, "Commercializing Research at the University of Saskatchewan," Saskatchewan Notes, Saskatoon: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Vol. 2, No. 8, 2003, p. 4.

3 Helke Ferrie, "Big Pharma Unhappy with Measly $638 billion in Sales," The CCPA Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2004, p. 14.

4 John Ibbitson, "The Pharmacare Grenade," The Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2004, p. A4.

5 David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002, p. xii.

6 Murray Dobbin, "What Can We Expect from Paul Martin? Read His Budget Speeches," The CCPA Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 7, 2004, p. 8.

7 Loretta Czernis, "Making Democracy Work for Education," CAUT Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 6, 2004, p. A3.

8 Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: The Free Press, 1957, p. 97.

9 James Downey, The Consenting University and the Dissenting Academy: Binary Friction. Ottawa: Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, 2003, p. 16.