Western Inc.: Paying the Price for Education on the Corporate Campus

A man dressed in a suit and tie, carrying a leather backpack

The following was researched by Steven Wright, and written by OPENWIDE staff writer Ainsleigh Burelle. The Western Life feature was published in our November 2013 issue “Western Inc.”, and is one of our highlights from November.

The controversial issue of corporate presence and sponsorship on the university campus is a pressing one. In preparation for this article, we asked ourselves exactly what it is that renders corporate influences as inherently negative for the university as an institution of education. Admittedly, this question is broad and inherently challenges the overarching neoliberal systems at play. However, it does give way to larger debate about corporate ethos’ obstruction of constitutional education.

At its inception, the university was merely a body of students interested in creating a space within society for free, critical, and unadulterated thought. Many have argued that while the university was intended as a “citizen training ground,” the 1960s and 1970s saw a shift in practice, causing this model to become obsolete and paving the way for the university as a factory for the “vocationalization of human capital.” As corporate institutions become more heavily linked to the corporate profit pipeline, as Cary Nelson wrote, their whole rationale begins to shift. Inevitably, this has necessitated the operation of the university as an enterprise itself, enforcing market logic on its counterparts rather than the critical, freethinking ideals which lay at the heart of its foundation. Because of the university’s current embeddedness within neoliberal capitalist society, its existence as the last bastion of free thought is being threatened. It is left trying to balance both the interests of students and private corporations.

The normalized issue of the Corporate Campus is two-fold: not only is the university administration further bound by corporate interest relative to the amount of funding it accepts from private groups, but there is also a general sense of apathy and indifference about this pressing issue amongst students. After speaking with countless colleagues and peers, the general consensus seemed to be that the issue of corporate presence on campus has become completely debased. Some responses included: “That’s just the way the world works, there’s no way around it,” and, “without corporate support, how would the university make money?” Not only are students apathetic about private dollars flowing into their education, but many see it as a necessary means to forge connections with the outside market. The concept of public educational funding has become next-to-obsolete in the minds of students.

This is especially evident in the USC’s Budget town hall. The Gazette confirmed that, “most students seem to feel comfortable with the level of commercialization, and would even be open to increasing the corporate presence if it meant more money off of student fees.” While only 11% of the USC budget currently oversees government advocacy and lobbying, more students would rather see advocacy dollars spent on student programs like Homecoming and Charity Ball, which already uses 40% of the USC’s budget. In 2010, Canada spent 5.5% of the GDP on education. Tanzania spent 6.8%, and Cuba spent 12.9%. With education a democratic right in Canada, why is this the case? Not only is our corporate campus seen as a non-issue, many are supportive of corporatization if it translates into a few extra dollars in their pocket. And how could they not be? Recent tuition inflation has been merciless, and attending university amidst an economic crisis proves difficult enough. So where are the alternatives? And why don’t more students give a crap about fighting for their implementation?

There has undoubtedly been a shift within the administration itself from faculty to bureaucracy. The value of independent learning has decreased as the crisis within higher education has transformed university culture as a whole. Finance, as Nelson argues, controls the discussion, and decides who is worthy of resources and support. This is evident in Western’s focus on funding those departments whose research generates a return for industry. The results of such an agenda are funding cuts to departments like FIMS, steadily worsened by provincial cutbacks on education.

The administration, as the economic spokesperson of university operations, has a business mandate to fulfill in order to successfully compete within the market economy and is, by extension, largely receptive to corporate support dollars that ensure the prevalence of the university “brand.” By the corporate logic of the admin, support from the private sector becomes necessary to preserve the university’s sense of “Excellence” – a term Bill Readings defines as ambiguous and semantically empty – and relevance to incoming consumers. Or rather, students.

To regulate corporatization on campus, there is the USC’s Advertising Oversight Committee, which supervises all corporate sponsorship agreements and their respective ethical implications. For instance, the USC has denied Red Bull’s presence on campus due to its notorious health effects. As such, coffee companies that appear on campus such as Williams, Starbucks, and the USC’s Spoke all serve fair trade, organic coffee (Tim Hortons’ is another story). While each new corporate agreement is reviewed by the Committee, there exists no official policy in place denoting certain criteria  by which corporate sponsors are approved. Such a policy need be put into effect; this would lend a more democratic edge to sponsorship decision making and would provide some resistance to the University’s dedication to “Excellence” becoming, as Nelson writes, conflated with profitability.

Although the university has perhaps been forced to operate as a business enterprise, this does not necessitate that it hold the same values as the market economy. As an free-thinking institution within this corporate-capitalist society, the university ought to value cooperative scholarship over competitive branding edge, openness to learning rather than ownership of it, and education independent of entrepreneurial success. The university campus should be a place for criticism of the current socioeconomic structure of the world; a place for the generation of genuine and sustainable alternatives. It  should not funciton as another market-oriented industry, where students are funnelled into oppressive technocratic systems that function on exploitation and cause irreversible damage to the earth.

While the university was intended as a place of collaborative, collective, higher learning, it is quickly transforming into a deregulated and factionalized extension of external corporate agents. So, is there any way to reconcile the tension between student and corporate interests within a university that operates as part of the neoliberal market economy? For, as Nelson writes, corporatization is here to stay. It cannot be stopped, but it can be shaped, and where appropriate, it can be resisted. If there exists any way to create genuine alternatives to the current system, it exists in the student collective. We need to slow down, acknowledge where we are and why we’re here, and take a damn stand while we still can – because freedom to education through The Corporation isn’t really freedom at all.

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