RETHINKING CANADA'S HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY: Corporatization of Universities More Harmful Than Helpful
Polster, Claire, CCPA Monitor
Over the last 30 years, there has been a dramatic shift in the Canadian government's conception of and approach to higher education. Whereas our universities used to be seen and treated by policy-makers as a public resource for social development, they are now viewed first and foremost as instruments of economic competitiveness, whose primary role is to help Canadian businesses succeed in the global knowledge-based economy.
Supporters of greater collaboration between universities and the private sector present and defend this policy shift as an elegant means of serving the needs of four of the main stakeholders in Canadian higher education: universities, industry, the general public, and government. They claim that corporate/university alliances will preserve, if not revitalize, our underresourced universities at the same time that they promote the innovation that is increasingly key to the global competitiveness of our national industry.
They further claim that these alliances will thereby help to sustain the quality of life to which Canadians have become accustomed, and to achieve government's goal of generating maximal value for minimal investment in post-secondary education (PSE).
There is no doubt that increased corporate involvement in academic research has helped to sustain and enrich various projects and units within some Canadian universities. However, claims that corporate support can help to preserve and even revitalize entire academic institutions are more difficult to sustain. Overall, corporations provide a small fraction of the total funds needed to support academic research, let alone more general university operations. Moreover, their investments often produce additional costs for universities (such as those associated with attracting, negotiating, monitoring, and sharing the spoils of research partnerships) which must be paid by redirecting resources away from other areas such as libraries, student support, departments of social sciences and humanities, etc.
The actual effect of corporate links is thus to redistribute university resources in ways that revitalize some areas at the expense of others. These changes do not necessarily enhance the institution, but may generate a host of tensions, imbalances, and weaknesses that harm it in a variety of ways.
The claim that corporate research support preserves our universities can be challenged in another, more fundamental way. Both my own research and that of others on university/ industry research links suggest that these alliances contribute to very significant transformations in what our universities do and in what our universities are. Perhaps the most obvious of these changes relates to knowledge production in the university. In both direct and indirect ways, these links transform the selection and conceptualization of research projects, skewing the academic research agenda towards areas of industrial application and economic relevance.
University/industry links also transform the execution of academic research, by introducing new norms, practices, and exigencies into the research process, such as increased secrecy and competition in research, or the need to work with shorter time-lines and an eye to profitability. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, corporate links transform the ways in which-and conditions under which-academic research is used. Rather than a public good that is freely shared with all who can use it, university research is increasingly being privatized and commercialized and thus rendered accessible only to those who are able and willing to pay for it.
In addition to its knowledge production function, corporate links also produce and reinforce changes in the more general nature and operations of the university. Indeed, the more universities work with business, the more they are required and encouraged to adopt values and practices that predominate in the private sector. This shift is most clearly reflected in the erosion of collegialism and institutional democracy in the university, as administrators centralize more power, make more decisions in secret, and bypass established collegial structures and processes-often in the name of better serving corporate clients. …