The foundational concept of public services is that of universal access. Without this foundation, a service is neither fully public or it is inaccessible to taxpayers. The move towards charging a fee for public services is where commodification starts. It ends when a private service provider see the users themselves as the product being bought and sold.
The process of commodification has been underway in Canada since the reintroduction of tuition fees and the rise in mandated “ancillary” fees. In fact, “tuition fee” essentially means “commodified knowledge”.
The introduction of the additional fee itself was simply an invention by corporate university administrators who thought themselves clever by finding a way around tuition fee caps demanded by the student movement.
While a socialist-oriented student movement has been essential to fighting tuition fees, the unique structure of the academy has also contributed to a break on the process of commodification. The full commodification of university education has been limited because student loan services are themselves publicly financed (after the private sector rejected the scheme as unworkable) and academic research still funds much of the non-teaching infrastructure of a campus. However, this has not limited the damage that commodification has wrought.
For the academy, the destructive impact of the commodification of knowledge goes beyond just universality of access. When knowledge is commodified, the system of sharing has is destroyed and no longer operates effectively or efficiently. Knowledge, taught or developed, must be free or it cannot be questioned, challenged, reformed, expressed or found to be legitimate. If knowledge has a price and operates through a market to be bought and sold, the process of sharing grinds to halt. Knowledge becomes compartmentalized, researchers stop collaborating and understanding becomes the purview of the economic elite instead of those that have a capacity and love of knowledge. In the end, commodified university education is not one based on merit, it is based on the power of the dollar.
Commodified knowledge is seen in the increased cost of academic journals, charging access to research libraries, limiting public access to university space, closed thesis presentations, intellectual property offices, monitoring of academic communication and limits on academic freedom.
But, the worst part of the commodification of the academy is the change in social orientation towards the academy. It starts with a loss of solidarity between the students and the workers as students become consumers (buyer and owners of knowledge or skill) instead of just accessing a service. This re-orientates people’s attitude towards university education so they see it as a path to employment instead of the development of knowledge for the collective good. The historical separation of the academy and vocational education system is essential, learning a skill is not the same as developing the basis for the skill. The university exists simply as a space for knowledge development and it cannot also exist as a space for the purchase of a specific vocational skill – the two are at their essence contradictory processes.
Flowing from this changing view of the academy is the undervaluing of certain types of knowledge as they are seen to relate to employment. Arts and philosophy are seen to be undervalued (and thus receive less public financing) whereas applied sciences and professional programs become heavily supported relative to pure sciences and arts.
In Canada, we have gone through these stages and this has seeped into the popular consciousness. People ask students what they are going to do with this or that degree, with the same tone one would ask about the purchase of an expensive garden gnome. Historically, whenever a society starts seeing education, knowledge and its development as no different from any other product, it foretells a societies’ decline as other more forward-looking societies advance.