News | The knowledge economy

Eric Andrew-Gee explores student opposition to the corporatization of campuses

“Yes, we are for accessible education. But we have to ask: What kind of education?”

Speaking in French, Martin Robert – a leading researcher for the student lobby group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) – answered his own question in the negative many times over: “Education should not serve economic growth;” “education must not be transformed into profit;” “We cannot deny the fact that universities, more and more, are aimed toward solving the economy’s problems.”

Increasingly, the Quebec student movement is lining up behind Robert’s assessment. They are opposed to their universities’ growing role in “the knowledge economy,” which thrives on marketing new ideas, partly through corporate investment in academic research.

For example, a report McGill submitted to the National Assembly in September shows that in 2008, McGill received $30.3 million in research funding from industry, a spike of 73 per cent from 2003. The phenomenon is nation-wide: between 1997 and 2007, Canadian universities saw their research and development spending grow at the fastest rate among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.

Robert and those that agree with him are fighting a lonely fight. In their opposition to this trend, students are clashing with the federal and Quebec governments, government-affiliated think tanks, and university administrations.

Corporate funding of research is nothing new, nor is student skepticism about the practice. But this school year, the “knowledge economy” has become something of a buzzword in Quebec student politics. On October 16, Robert gave a presentation to the monthly meeting of the Quebec Student Roundtable (QSR), laying out ASSÉ’s position on the danger facing universities.

“The function of universities is being transformed to doing more research…to be used by the market,” said Robert, in the Break Out room of Shatner, where the meeting was held. Representatives from eleven student unions across Quebec were present.

At a symposium on post-secondary education in Shatner on October 22, the idea came up repeatedly.

“We are in danger of creating a Canadian version of an industrial-educational complex. … The absence of protest is a green light for exploitation,” commented PGSS VP External Ryan Hughes at the event.

ASSÉ’s research committee is at work on a paper expanding their position on the “knowledge economy.” QSR is set to take a position on universities’ role in the knowledge economy at their next meeting, on November 13.

The flurry of activity on a single, fairly abstract issue begs the question, “Why now?” Different student groups have different explanations. SSMU VP External Myriam Zaidi, who sits on QSR’s board, pointed to fears about outside influence on universities sparked by Bills 38 and 44 last year. The bills, which died after fierce opposition from students and administrators alike, were the Liberal government’s attempt to mandate a certain number of members for each of Quebec universities’ governance board.

“Ideally, universities should be controlled fully in a collegial manner – so by its own members, whether its administration, staff, students,” she said. “When external groups start getting involved, students and other members of the university will be losing power. I think today, student groups realize more and more how much power they’re losing.”

Robert drew a connection between the student movement’s preoccupation with tuition hikes and opposition to the knowledge economy.

“Increased tuition follows the logic of the knowledge economy,” he said. Corporations involved in research, “impose their manner of organization and functioning on universities.” The result, Robert says, is that universities are run more and more like business, with services (like teaching) and goods (like diplomas) sold for market value. This is anathema to ASSÉ, who advocate for abolishing tuition.

Others have different reasons for opposing university complicity in the knowledge economy. Robert Sonin of Free Education Montreal sees the exact opposite of what universities should strive to be in the relentless commercial drive of businesses.

“[Now] if you say, ‘It’s good to have an ambulance service,’ you have to justify it in dollars and cents. … It’s not just good to have a hospital; you have to make it profitable,” said Sonin.

He said he was alarmed by the knowledge economy, “because it’s a code word for corporatization. It’s not bringing knowledge into the economy, it’s bringing businesses into universities.”

Sonin said that universities used to “leave it to the researchers” to decide what they would research. Now, he argued, “they’re chained to a commercial imperative,” by corporate-funded research.

“If you’re going to invest money in the schools – and they [businesses and the government] always frame it as an investment–they want a return.”

“Researchers who are interested in something really ephemeral have to justify grant proposals by saying it’s going to make a better shampoo,” he said. “You have to monetize your research.”

Sonin said he thought the place for companies to do profitable research is in private labs. He pointed out that Bell Canada’s telecommunications research, which has been “a huge benefit to society,” was not done in universities.

He insisted, however, that marketable applied research does have a place, if a small one, in post-secondary institutions. “There is room for both” research and development and pure science, he said.

Marie Malavoy, Member of the National Assembly for the Taillon riding in Longueuil and Parti Québécois education critic, said corporate investment in university research should be undertaken with caution.

On the phone from Quebec City, she said in French that academic freedom must be guarded against researchers, “finding results that show in one way or another something that will create value for companies.”

“We need to leave place for people who are just interested in advancing science,” she continued.

Louis-Philipe Savoie, president of the Fédération des étudiantes universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), the province’s biggest student lobby group, took a similar position to Malavoy’s in an interview last Thursday.

He conceded that recent federal bursaries that focused heavily on business programs were “an example of the government trying to…restrain academic freedom.”

But while Robert said ASSÉ is “fundamentally opposed to the knowledge economy,” Savoie said that it is a fact of life and “not a problem.”

“The economy has changed, it will continue to change. That’s fine,” he continued.

He went on to say that he would like to see increased corporate funding of research at universities. “If there is more financing that is available to do university-level research that is quality research, and that does not impede academic freedom, I don’t see why not.”

He added that it’s bad if corporate funding “directs the research…or if it falsifies conclusions, but this is a rare phenomenon. … There are policies in universities to make sure there is quality research being done.”

Numerous governmental bodies, think tanks, and university administrations agree that the private sector must be more involved in university research. Three weeks ago, the Canadian University Press (CUP) reported that the federal government was undertaking a review of private-sector research in Canada, including research at universities. The aim of the review is to encourage Canadian companies to spend more on research and development.

CUP also reported that the day before the federal review was announced, a group called Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada (CAIC) released a report with similar goals. CAIC is headed by former Liberal MP John Manley and Paul Lucas, president and CEO of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline Canada, whose British parent company recently paid a $750-million settlement in criminal and civil cases charging that the company sold contaminated baby ointment and an ineffective anti-depressant.

CAIC’s October 13 report calls for more government funding to help university researchers “commercialize” their research. The report’s advice could not be more diametrically opposed to Sonin and Martin’s position.

“An important step [for the federal government] would be to raise the level of funding for research programs that entail partnerships between business and academia,” the report reads. “Other countries, notably the United States, provide more extensive support of indirect costs, including the funding of much more robust industry liaison and technology transfer offices.”

The Science, Technology, and Innovation Council of Canada (STIC), an arm’s-length agency that reports to the Ministry of Industry, constitutes another voice calling for more commercial university research. McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum is a member of STIC.

In a May 2009 STIC press release, Munroe-Blum wrote, “Business, universities, colleges, non-profit institutions, communities and all levels of government…need to work together to nurture the capacity to create, apply new ideas and finance their translation into commercial successes in the global marketplace.”

Many students have begun despairing of this view. Martin said he thought universities should “fund teaching as much as research…and pure research as much as applied research.”

Sonin complained that the model of economic expedience “was being transferred to the humanities and social sciences, and they don’t produce that kind of knowledge.”

“It’s reasonable [for taxpayers] to ask that there be some benefit [from universities], but it doesn’t have to be a direct economic benefit,” he went on.

“People forget that school is good in itself.”