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Toward an Alternative Future for Canada's Corporatized Universities

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 51-70 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0004

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In June of this year, Harper's Magazine carried an editorial by Thomas Frank decrying the astronomically high cost of tuition at U.S. public and private universities. Frank did not refer to the anti-tuition-increase protests taking place at the same time in Québec, but the coincidence is striking. What is even more striking is that Frank located debt-creating tuition fees in the context of the corporatization of education. The corporatization of education, he more than implied, is a negative force and effective political pushback against it is long overdue: "It is easy to criticize the corporatization of education, since the examples are so plentiful and almost no one denies that it's taking place. But criticizing it is different from actually halting its progress—a political step we seem unable to take" (8).

Frank's assessment of corporatization is new—not the part about corporatization being criticized, nor about examples being plentiful, but the part about no one denying that corporatization is taking place. Indeed, the corporatization of Canadian universities has been underway since at least the mid 1980s. Throughout this time, several scholars and commentators on higher education have warned that the university is being reconfigured by a corporatization agenda and have provided analyses to demonstrate how it poses dangers to the university's public mission and mandate. But the claim that "no one denies" that corporatization is happening has been a long time coming. That is what is new.

Is it possible that Frank's editorial, along with other critical commentaries recently published in prominent magazines and numerous examples pointing to growing discontent within the academic community, is a sign that the corporatization of educational institutions has finally moved to the forefront of political critique? Have we reached the point where the negative effects of corporatization can less easily be ignored, denied, outmanoeuvred, or, even worse, made acceptable as the only way forward for academic institutions?

This may be too much to hope for. Nevertheless, the three contributors to this article embrace this hope. Having contributed to the longstanding critical scholarly literature on university corporatization in Canada, they now seek to find, and encourage others to find, new ways forward that will enable academic institutions such as universities to regain and preserve their ability to serve their public mission.

In what follows, each contributor first provides a brief description of how Canadian universities function today—repositioned and reconfigured through three decades of corporatizing pressures. Each description slices into the corporatized university at a different angle: into the central values and purposes that guide its daily activities, into the ground floor of daily routines, and into the precarious position in which their commercial entanglements have placed them. Together they paint a picture of where the university now is, how it got there, and what holds it there.

Following these descriptions, the contributors draw inspiration from Erik Olin Wright's recent exhortation to engage in the sociology of the possible: that is, to fashion alternative futures for the university—"real utopias"—that can be pursued from within universities as they are today but that contain the potential to transform the social relations of academic work in ways that lead to the recovery of the university's public mission.

The Market Model of Education as a Value Program: Sources of Opposition?

Howard Woodhouse

The basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence.

In the last twenty-five years, universities in Canada and around the world have been transformed in ways unimaginable when I first became a faculty member in the 1970s. Serving the needs of the corporate market, "maximizing global competitiveness," and meeting the demands of "the knowledge-based economy" have rapidly replaced the dispassionate search for knowledge and truth.

The market model currently undermining universities threatens education at its core. The opposition between education's logic of value and that of the corporate market can be understood as follows: "The aims and processes of education and the market are not only distinct, but contradictory" (McMurtry "Education" 38). The contradiction is between education as a public...

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