The elephant in the room; Or, students bear the cost of the corporate university

BY ALEXANDER ERVIN HOWARD WOODHOUSE  |  JUNE 25, 2014  |  rabble.ca

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Base image: Flickr/sainthuck

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The firing of outspoken University of Saskatchewan Dean Robert Buckingham this May raised questions not only of academic freedom, but of the ongoing transformation of Canadian post-secondary institutions as sites of private profit rather than public education. rabble.ca is proud to launch this special summer series on the corporatization of Canadian universities, by USask Professors Sandy Ervin and Howard Woodhouse. See their first entry: How to make USask ‘The People’s University’ once again.

We have often been asked, “What is going on at the University of Saskatchewan?” The answer, we would maintain, is an appropriation of a younger generation’s future wealth — reflecting larger injustices.

One of our best students ever, a full-time single mom of two, received notice that by paying off her student loans at $800 a month, she would be debt free in 22 years! Only the beginning, since she plans to go on to graduate school aspiring to an uncertain academic job market. The average student debt is $28,000 and rising. It takes a student three times as many hours to earn the equivalent of tuition fees as in 1975. The proportion of the overall revenues paid by student fees has risen to 31 per cent from 10 per cent. Saskatchewan students pay the second highest fees in Canada. They are projected to rise considerably more. Living expenses have also risen dramatically since Saskatchewan’s economic boom.
Lower public funding combined with corporate intrusion and irresponsibility has caused the increase in tuition. The process began three decades ago with the formation of the Corporate-Higher Education Forum (CHEF), comprising 25 members from the Canadian corporate elite and the same number of university presidents. CHEF provided systemic pressure on universities to conform to market demands. This was achieved in two ways: first, ensure that governments defund universities. By 2009, the federal government would have had to invest $4 billion per year in universities just to return to the funding levels of the early 1980s, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Second, it was necessary, in CHEF’s words, “to provide a greater incentive in the university community to seek out corporate partners.” Corporations were empowered to use leverage funding to redirect university research in ways that enabled them to maximize private profits. This completely changed governments’ relationship with universities. Until recently, they took more effort in creating a nation’s most important assets — a well-educated work force and critically engaged citizenry. At the same time, corporations, with already low corporate taxes found new ways to avoid supporting public infrastructures. How about Cameco’s $850,000,000 offshore tax rip-off or PotashCorp’s CEO’s tax sheltered salary declared as “stock options?” Corporations are highly unlikely to move somewhere else — this is where profits are made. And don’t tell us that tax relief on corporations improves economic growth — Canadian corporations are currently sitting on $600,000,000,000 of uninvested profits.

Returning to the institution itself — it reflects the class structure of society. There are at our best guess 100 to 200 (the 1%) people making over $200,000 (the cut-off point for the one percent is $190,000) — these include senior university and college administrators as well as prominent research chairs. The professoriate, especially those full professors with tenure (such as ourselves) are in the top five per cent. Then there are the temporary academic term appointments and instructor positions, but worst off are the sessional lecturers teaching as much as or more than tenured faculty. There are the various levels of non-academic staff, where the lowest paid tend to make about one-twelfth to one-tenth of the highest paid — the president at $400,000 plus perks — not a bad ratio. But that is offset by the 21,000 students who represent the mass of the full 99% given their negative income status by transferring future earnings — in an era with much dimmer prospects for employment and income.

Since 2000 there was a 10.9 per cent increase in student enrollment, 11.6 per cent in faculty but 104.5 per cent in administrators taking the lion’s share of salaries. Studies have shown the debt crises are directly associated with the rise in university administration. If one looks through the University of Saskatchewan telephone book with its expanded centers, institutes, and exponentially increased human resource and university advancement complements, one finds very little that directly benefits either students or teaching faculty. On the contrary, there is a self-multiplying group of senior administrators who do little or nothing to support the mission of the University, namely teaching, learning, and research. Spreading in numbers like a cancer across the body of the University, they usurp the function of academic decision making previously undertaken by faculty and exert increasing control over University finances.

Three blue-chip “schools” have been created with over 60 faculty mainly teaching only a three-credit unit course a year and then usually to a few graduate students. The emphasis since the 1990s has shifted towards research with professors becoming grant entrepreneurs and in the process having their teaching responsibilities reduced. According to a report of the research committee of University Council in 2000, graduate students are the “single most cost-effective means to increased research intensiveness.” And more of that research benefits tax-avoiding corporations. Miscalculations of the operating costs for major building construction have caused reductions in college and department base budgets as administrators scramble to rectify their errors. Teaching departments — the front lines that serve undergraduates — do not create deficits. Senior administrators do. Yet others bear the costs and that will be magnified with the implementation of TransformUS, a process of “program prioritization” already threatening to axe several academic departments and university libraries.

Solutions: Increased corporate taxes and government responsibility for all public infrastructures. Any austerities should focus on cuts to administrative bloat that doesn’t serve students. To show solidarity and improve morale, senior administrators should take pay cuts. Unions could consider wage freezes. High paid faculty, such as ourselves, could enter into a voluntary program of wage reduction. Policies should begin with a tuition freeze with plans for reductions. Yet with neoliberalism, none of this is likely to happen. Solidarity with the young is needed more than ever. We have unloaded enough on them with climate change, toxic wastes, without “debt feudalism” that only benefits banks while restraining them.

Alexander (“Sandy”) Ervin is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan where he has taught for 43 years; Howard Woodhouse is Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2009).