Yesterday, we examined Jamie Brownlee’s claim that government’s were engaging in “austerity” in order to ensure that universities became “corporatized”. The conclusion was that you have to use some pretty idiosyncratic definitions of austerity to make the term stick even half-way; and even then, it’s impossible to make the charge stick after about 1995. But what about the more general charge of universities becoming “corporatized”? Does that have any traction?
The main problem with examining this claim is that the word “corporatization” – much like the term “neoliberal” – can mean pretty much anything one wants it to mean. I went and checked Brownlee’s PhD thesis for this (available here); in the course of the first few pages, he offers up a number of quite different definitions, without really remarking either on how different they are, or on their implications.
For instance, he says: “corporatization” (refers) to the process and resulting outcomes of the ascendance of business interests in the university system.” Which is fine I suppose, though it depends quite a bit on how one defines “business interests”.
But there are loopier definitions referenced, too: “Corporatization in the university context involves providing businesses with the means to socialize the risks and costs of research while privatizing the benefits, and to accrue advantages through the transfer of technology to the private sector. It subsidizes the retraining of the corporate workforce through a vocational and technically-oriented curriculum, at the same time as increasing marketing opportunities for corporations and bolstering the perception of business legitimacy in higher education”.
So here, the notion of research externalities simply goes out the window. How about the idea that some basic research should be publicly-funded because there are types of research that the private sector will not undertake, as it cannot efficiently capture all its benefits? That’s now twisted into some kind of corrupting evil because the resulting transfer of technology can be described as a “subsidy” to the private sector. Also, in a description that will amaze engineering faculties worldwide, simply having a technically-oriented curriculum is now a form of corporatization.
Here’s another gem of a definition, which describes a corporatized university as: “an institution that is characterized by processes, decisional criteria, expectations, organizational culture, and operating practices that are taken from, and have their origins in, the modern business corporation. It is characterized by the entry of the university into marketplace relationships and by the use of market strategies in university decision making”.
The first part of that sentence is magnificent in its scope. Virtually anything could be described as an “operating practice”, which has its origin in the modern business corporation. “Making biweekly payroll”, for instance. Or, “actively finding efficient ways to run things”, or the dreaded “finding out if people are doing their jobs and rewarding them accordingly”. How terrible. How neo-liberal.
(An aside: I hear lots of cheap talk about “neo-liberal universities”, but nothing about “neo-liberal hospitals”, which are far more advanced than universities at using management techniques that find their origins in the modern corporation. Why is that?)
The second half, the bit about market relationships, is in some ways even better than the first. Now the mere existence of tuition fees, or even the notion of student choice, can be used as evidence of “corporatization” because anywhere where money changes hands obviously implies corporatization. In fact, even a no-tuition system where institutions are paid on some kind of enrolment-basis might be described as “corporatized” or “neo-liberal”, because there would be (horrors) an incentive for universities to enrol more students, and that might lead them to use “marketing techniques” to persuade students to come – which of course is prima facie evidence of corporatization!
(Another aside: I recently saw someone on twitter claim that the increasing numbers of bureaucrats in universities was due to rankings, league tables, and other forms of neo-liberal control. This is perhaps the first time in recorded history that neo-liberalism has been charged with the crime of increasing public-sector employment.)
So, are Canadian universities “becoming more corporatized”? Well, if you define corporatization as, effectively, “taking any steps at all to ensure revenue and expenditure balance”, then yes, they are becoming more corporate all the time. And a good thing, too: because in the real world the alternative to so-called “neo-liberal” universities are either bankrupt universities or much smaller, more access-restricted universities. Which one would you pick?