The pervasiveness of university privatization (Back to School Special Part 1) | What's Left

| September 14, 2015


In Canada, universities are widely considered to be public institutions. They should be public, but for years Canadian provincial and federal governments and university administrations have acted to undermine the public aspects of higher education and the academy more generally.


Increased privatization has been the result of several initiatives including ongoing increase to tuition fees, the idea that students are consumers, the need to cut costs by cutting wages, contracting out teaching by hiring precarious professors, and private investment into programs, among many other examples. Given the current political and economic climate, this has not been a surprising development for those on the left, but what has been incredible to watch is just how effectively the capitalist ethos has invaded and altered the academy. It is hard to think of another example that shows so clearly how capitalism steadily undermines social development and the common good.

The privatization of Canadian post-secondary education is typified in the Masters of Business Administration at McGill University, which has attempted to emulate the Ivy League system in the United States with a tuition fee rate aimed at ensuring only the wealthy can apply. By contrasting Canadian colleges and universities with their American counterparts, the rhetoric on the need for higher tuition fees becomes easier for politicians and the public to accept – even if tuition fees for Canadian institutions already make up more than fifty per cent of their revenue. Unfortunately, the reality is that tuition fee increases are just one part of the private sector’s attack on our only knowledge-generation industry.

To fully understand privatization and better direct the struggle towards the ideal public system, the modes of privatization must be identified and targeted. While privatization threatens all public institutions in Canada, the restructuring of university education impacts more than just employment relations and service provision. This makes the struggle for public universities especially important for the left, as a victory here would lead to broader social gain.

It’s important to be more specific than simply talking about “privatization” – a slightly more refined vocabulary must be adopted. Unfortunately, proponents of privatization don’t always use these terms – and this is by design. Constantly adapting and changing the language used is a strategy to avoid public scrutiny. So, it is important for those fighting the privatization agenda to standardize the way these attacks are characterized. Understanding the process is important to recognize and call-out privatization when it is being promoted by governments or administrators.

The process of privatization can be broken down into several parts, including corporatization, outsourcing, contracting-out, commodification, marketization, commercialization and financialization. Each part of this process targets and undermines the public higher-education system in different ways. What’s Left will dive into each one and outline how it undermines the university system and in the end giving activists a comprehensive understanding of how privatization manifests itself in higher education and how it can most effectively countered.

Next week: The Corporatization of Campus

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