Growing corporate influence on campuses

Bad news for both students and university workers

Illustration of a university with many tall business building surrounding it.

Big business is actively fostering closer relationships with Canadian universities in an effort to reorient post-secondary learning and research towards serving private business interests rather than the public good.

This trend is worrisome for university workers, students, and those segments of society who believe that the primary goal of a university should be to educate citizens rather than serve the research and labour market needs of corporate interests.

From increased reliance on corporate fundraising and branding, to shifts favouring revenue-generating programs and activities, to compensation practices for senior administration that mirror those in the private sector, to union avoidance schemes disguised as routine organizational restructuring, the signs of the corporatized university are evident on virtually every university campus.

Canada’s universities are increasingly operating as if they are private, for-profit, institutions. Provincial governments, business leaders, and market-oriented university administrators are working in tandem to facilitate and entrench these changes, often ignoring concerns raised by faculty, staff, and students about how corporate restructuring in the university is undermining both students’ learning conditions and employees’ working conditions.

Over the course of the last few decades, Canada’s public universities have become increasingly reliant on corporate funding. While the corporate branding of campus classrooms or buildings, in exchange for a cash donation, is the most outward sign of corporatization on campus (on my own campus, students routinely cross the Canadian Tire bridge on their way to Scotia Bank hall), it’s the inward processes of corporatization, shielded from public view, that are wreaking the most havoc as corporate influence seeps into virtually every aspect of university life.

Corporatization and labour relations
Corporatization also involves introducing private sector labour relations practices that value the bottom line above all else. As a result, we’ve seen an explosion of precarious work on campuses and the replacement of unionized permanent, secure, and full-time positions with temporary jobs and contracted-out work, often under the guise of organizational restructuring. Corporatization has also fuelled the aggressive pursuit of concessions in collective bargaining in an effort to reduce workers’ power and influence in the workplace. Dismantling collective agreements is key for university administrations since these legal contracts, which outline terms and conditions of work, often present roadblocks for those intent on reshaping universities along corporate lines.

The right-wing populist Ford government’s stated objective to establish more centralized control over collective bargaining in the broader public sector may accelerate these trends as part of a larger strategy to reduce unions’ bargaining power and more easily facilitate corporatization of our campuses. Moreover, the fact that business people now outnumber faculty, staff, and students on many universities’ governing bodies will make it more difficult to undo the damage that has already been done.

Students are not clients
Those of us who work in universities, owe it to our students and co-workers to resist the corporatization of our campuses. On a per-student basis, Ontario’s university funding levels are 35 per cent lower than the combined average of their provincial counterparts. This chronic level of underfunding has generated a climate of austerity at Ontario’s universities, undermining the quality of education and providing an opening for business interests to help close the gap, with expectations that their corporate gifts will come with strings attached.

But while corporate leaders try to reorganize our universities to suit their own needs, we must continually remind ourselves that students are not clients and that universities are much more than job-training facilities. Ideally, a university education should enhance students’ critical-thinking skills and develop capacities for engaged and meaningful social citizenship. In the corporatized university, however, these goals are downplayed or altogether ignored in favour of teaching and research agendas that directly serve corporate interests.

Corporatization is also partly responsible for shifting university resources away from the core educational mission of the university towards the expansion of corporate-focused university administrative apparatuses that facilitate these processes. Equally troubling, we see the rise of exclusive partnerships between businesses and universities that threaten to undermine institutional independence by giving corporations influence over university hiring and spending priorities, especially as they relate to
teaching and research.

Cross-campus coalitions are key
In order to reverse the tide of corporatization on university campuses, students, faculty, and staff must work together to resist and dismantle structures, processes, and initiatives designed to reorient universities towards the wants and needs of big business. This is no easy task and requires cross-campus coalition building that unites faculty, staff, and students in common opposition to the corporatized university model.

In part, that means working together to expose and challenge the composition of university governance structures where the business community is afforded the lion’s share of voting positions. Governance has been a key focus of the Canadian Federation of Students’ anti-corporatization campaign, which also links growing corporate influence on universities to increased tuition fees and the loss of student spaces on campus.

While university administrators certainly play an important role in fostering corporatization on campus, they are often responding to the policy preferences of provincial governments. That’s why faculty, staff, and students challenging growing corporate influence on university campuses also need to act politically, outside of the university community, to oppose right-wing governments and politicians, like Ford, who encourage corporatization, oversee cuts to the university system, and prioritize tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations over investments in public post-secondary education.

Coalition building can be difficult, partly because it requires different groups to overcome their divisions and work together towards a common goal. As much as faculty, students, and staff at universities have different kinds of needs and priorities, they also share a lot in common. Focusing on what unites us—like support for the preservation and expansion of quality public post-secondary education—is key to rallying people around an alternate vision of the university and ultimately providing the base from which to effectively challenge the continued corporatization of Canadian universities.

About Larry Savage
Larry Savage is a Professor in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University.

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