The rise of University Inc.

It must be remembered that education is not to fill the minds of students with facts, it is to teach them to think, and always think for themselves. — Robert Hutchins.

Public forays into educational research are becoming increasingly chained to the buoyancy of corporate profit margins — either through providing fodder to fuel confirmation bias or by marginalizing/discrediting any findings that might shine a light on the fallout of ruthless business acumen.

Despite greater public outcry for funding to higher education, government per capita spending in Canada has consistently declined — money that has instead been squandered wastefully on bullshit inflammatory expansions of our military and prison systems. So the solution has been to partner education with corporate endowed sponsorships.

The standard argument promoting this merger is that it allows access to modern laboratory facilities and exclusive commercial databases that contribute to improved quality of graduate work and all-around research capacity — especially in the sciences, where there is the highest concentration of technological requirements and cost.

At face value this seems like a mutually beneficial marriage between private enterprise and public institution. On the one hand, public students/researchers gain access to the latest and greatest of technologies and financial support for graduate work; they might additionally find a job lined up at the end of this greenback road. As for private companies, they’re spoon-fed ambitious students who are burdened with debt — averaging $21,000 to $28,000 after a four-year program — willing to work for the chance at an opportunity dangling in the future rather than the equitable slice of the pie they rightfully deserve.

The problem, as economist Milton Friedman once penned, is that “the social responsibility of business is profit.” In other words, the neoliberal pathology of business puts profit margins first and foremost above any other function. Everything else — including but not limited to: equitable wages and benefits for employees, responsible environmental stewardship, and superior safety conditions and quality control — are seen as ancillary costs that are toxic to the bottom line and therefore maintained at bare minimum levels.

The strictest adherents to this ideology tend to be the most ruthlessly and recklessly profitable, and are the ones planting themselves on our campuses, essentially acquiring subsidized research facilities using public funds and labour.

A prominent example is found right here on our own campus: Monsanto, a corporation infamous for giving a big “fuck you” to farmers, communities and the environment worldwide. An explicit example of their corrupting influence already surfaced in 2002, when U of M administration went to ridiculous lengths to avoid backlash from Monsanto over the work of two of their very own researchers, Stéphane McLachlan and Ian Mauro. The two had collaborated on a documentary focused on a critical analysis of genetically modified crops — something Monsanto holds a the bulk of the market share on.

In our market-driven age, ideas fuel economies by creating new products that arrive paired with dubious research findings that deem these products safe. Therefore corporate funding comes with the latent dictation that results will not be damaging to the interests of those who are footing the bill, and also be utilized in ways that will more than compensate the corporation for the support of university-based research

As such, our educational and investigative processes of research and the collegial atmosphere of learning itself become hostages to the parameters placed on them by corporate benefactors that view everything in terms of their relativity to market value. This opens the door for profit-driven private interest to shape the discourse and direction of higher learning, using it as a tool in their machinations to disseminate ideologies and products to a vast sea of isolated, uninformed and acquiescing consumers.

While our government is busy indulging in their relatively new-found fetish for big banks, barred-cells and bitumen, they are handing over their fiduciary obligation towards public education to monolithic transnational corporations. Beholden to surrogate supporters of higher education, the current generation of burgeoning intellectuals — that includes us — are being pigeonholed into a leveraged corporate domination of information. Industry-partnered research at universities is a reckless, dangerous and irresponsible step towards turning our academic institutions away from real education and into utilitarian tools for economic growth.

All knowledge is captured and vectored by the interests of the party conducting it. The real question is whether we would benefit more from scientists dedicated to conducting basis research solely on how the universe functions or scientists consumed with making discoveries that can be converted into technological transfers for profit and do not necessarily attend to the risks associated in doing so. Private corporate interests resemble the latter, using our publicly funded and admired centres of knowledge and learning to spew out research data that will legitimate their market driven agenda by subordinating researchers to choking down self-censorship in exchange for economic security.

At its roots, education is the experience of challenging ourselves to grow and think in ways that empower us and our imaginations, allowing us to think individually as informed citizens — it is not simply the linear experience of learning a trade. Education includes the freedom to apply ourselves in ways that challenge what we are being told and the information we are presented with to the point of dissent; critical reflection is an integral part to democratic pedagogy and progress, both inside the classroom and out. Artificially shaping our environment by subordinating our experience to the vested interests of private enterprise suffocates the context required for the self-empowerment that we have all come here for.

Kyle Hiebert is a co-founder of the student groups Docs.

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1 Comment on "The rise of University Inc."

  1. Stephen Howatt | January 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm |

    Great op-ed Kyle, this University needs to recognize that they are diverting public funds to a private gain. Canola was created at this university through selective breeding in the late 1960s- paid for through public funding and available to the general public once it was finished. Baldur Stefanson would be ashamed to see the level of public research that is going towards the corporate ownership of seed.

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