Questioning corporatized campuses

Corporate influences on higher education, research

Graphic credit to Bram Keast

The corporatization of higher education and the corporate prioritization of research questions are serious concerns challenging the intellectual integrity of the academy and public research institutions.

Since the 1980s, the corporatization of universities has become an increasingly significant concept with the wider, deeper impacts of privatization on both local and global scales.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines the term “corporatize” as “to change a government organization into a privately owned company.” The corporate structure and influence on state-owned, public institutions like universities has obvious implications.

According to Robert Chernomas, University of Manitoba professor of economics, the core issue is the allocation of funds; influenced by and the determining factor of who controls the research and who does not.

With the presence of various corporate entities at universities, are there legitimate grounds for concern about the corporatization of higher education and the corporate prioritization of research questions?

Questioning the priorities of the current Conservative government, Jamie Brownlee—U of M master of arts graduate and author of Ruling Canada: Corporate Cohesion and Democracy—suggested that there are legitimate reasons for concern. In his presentations, about the commodification of education and the privatization of public universities, offered at the U of M in 2013 and the University of Winnipeg in 2014 respectively, Brownlee asserted that underfunding for public universities leads to austerity measures and leaves public research institutions dependent on corporate funding, leading them to support corporate mandates.

Brownlee proposed that three major problems facing universities were: austerity measures to save in expenditures due to tax reductions; prioritizing short-term economic research; and performance evaluations which are problematic for long-term research.

Universities are the primary locations for basic research to take place and for scientific knowledge to develop. The dynamics of power systems driving corporatization (complex relations between corporations, governments, and public institutions) in determining funding requirements have set the stage for implicit influences on research questions, guiding scientific development of knowledge within public research institutions.

To what extent is the production of scientific knowledge based on the prioritization of corporate interests? What are the impacts of this prioritization on learning, education, and research in the academic setting?

Within institutions of higher learning, various existing perspectives about discovering, representing, and stating the truth—demonstrated by the plethora of faculties, departments, and contradictions within and across fields of study—inform research and reform educational implications.

The prioritization of research interests and direction of research has major implications on both students’ opportunities and the formulation of research questions. Certain research questions—under guidance in the form of grants and funding incentives—and evidence may be used to fulfill capital interests over public concerns.

Is the university setting an appropriate place for addressing public questions and concerns?

The production of scientific knowledge—which provides evidence for informing debates about government and industry development projects—is becoming increasingly limited due to the growing corporate prioritization of research questions and perspectives. The debate about the shifting theoretical and practical implications of the academic truth in post-secondary institutions sets the stage for significant public inquiry.

For instance, there is a growing desire among the student and civic population for opposing power structures to mount resistance against the existing social, political, economical, and ecological circumstances. Dominant approaches to development tend to prioritize corporate matters—perhaps motivated by the need to secure funding—at the expense of marginalizing public questions and concerns.

Will reigning scientific theories and practices of development induced by post-secondary research institutions succeed in dismantling dominant power structures and addressing daily living conditions and distresses?

Academics have expressed concerns that the current approaches at the core of research institutions are insufficient. The dominant approach may be inadequate in determining the relevancy of measured variables and explaining or interpreting certain processes affecting living conditions.

In the context of research and development in the university setting, it is vital to consider the likelihood of under-representing scientific knowledge such as in the natural sciences and humanities. With quantifiable results indicating mechanisms of funding, there are inherent problems with the proposed use of metric assessments for evaluating studies that are qualitative in nature.

Metric assessments will validate certain data gathered through research and fieldwork, subsequently prioritizing and directing the significance of some research questions over others.

In the past, fundamental questions driving scientific inquiry have lacked solid grounds for determining the basis for what the scientific truth should be and how to obtain knowledge about it. It is necessary to understand these fundamental assumptions by developing methods of reasoning for discerning truth. How do universities determine whether particular research questions or guiding theories fit their research mandate? How does academia discern truth?

Some notions about scientific truth assert that it should be determined by the evidence used to support it. This doctrine states that all valid or truthful scientific knowledge must originate in experience and observation. The source of our scientific knowledge and our basis for evaluation of scientific claims is determined by the type of evidence that we use to prove it and our means of interpreting data.

Theory limits our scientific understanding of the world in the way that it dictates and influences our perception and determination of research questions. In the above theory, science is not based on complete knowledge of all the facts. Rather, the construction of scientific knowledge is based on dominating worldviews that guide analysis and determining factors based on analysis.

The dominant basis for accepting or rejecting claims in higher educational and research settings shapes how scientific theory in the classroom leads to the selection of certain topics for research and approaches to finding evidence and solutions. The process may lead to the imposition of research questions through emphasizing problems or variables which are quantitatively defined or monetarily addressed.

Some academics would argue that it is impossible to include all variables or collect all data. There are simply too many variables and too much data. Selective evidence and observations are used. The outcome is biased interpretation.

Furthermore, as much as researchers strive to be objective, they will inevitably choose to focus on particular elements and factors that are worth noticing and writing about, at the risk of excluding other crucial indicators that may seem insignificant at the time and under their particular lens of study.

Objective observation is impossible. Each observer maintains their own worldview, social standing, political perspectives, economic status, and scientific biases varied within and across disciplines.

Consider the impartialities—or lack thereof—for selecting problems for investigation, advancing tentative solutions, and testing said solutions. Objectivity may depend on whether researchers’ definition of science is based on the dominant framework characterized by the progressive accumulation of data and knowledge; or refinement and repeated revolutions in which previous systems of knowledge are overturned and alternatives are produced.

Some theorists argue that scientific research is organized by paradigms. Does this extrapolate to universities? Members of specific scientific communities share the same training or the same goals. These members refer to the same literature and are trained to pose research questions; study different facets linked to their particular lens; and propose specific ways of understanding systems of knowledge.

Political and economic bases shared within paradigms particularly condition how researchers approach data collection and perceive evidence at hand.

Our political and economic exposures fundamentally narrow our viewpoints and prioritize certain research questions and perspectives. This trend allegedly produces students who are inherently taught to uphold certain beliefs in order to ensure that alternative paradigms within the institution will have difficulty competing.

The result is that students either subscribe to dominant approaches or face challenges common to minority groups engaging in any alternative perspectives. Since alternative perspectives may not be financially supported by the university, funding issues could be major concerns – particularly if these approaches come into conflict with conventional approaches enshrined by major sources of funding.

On the other hand, resurgences of alternative perspectives—alongside critiques of previously dominant systems of knowledge—will lead to scientific revolution. The overthrow of scientific paradigms provides grounds for critically understanding the world and lived conditions.

By criticizing power relations and disempowering classifications involved in the production of scientific knowledge, disadvantaged people may become active components of research rather than objects of study. For this to happen, universities need to develop frameworks for working with people in their communities to promote their active roles in seeking objective ways for understanding the environment, humanity, and our social, political, and economic circumstances based on lived conditions.

This requires the collective academic will to develop a framework for academic freedom which permits and encourages basic research, as well as critical thinking and alternative perspectives. It requires direct analysis of the institutional dismantling of the academic setting for undergoing basic research as well as challenging the accepted truths undermining public research priorities and concerns in the humanities and physical sciences. It requires serious inquiry regarding threats to academic freedom on campus and the impacts on undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members in learning, research, and teaching environments.