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Education not for sale

Last year, between January and March, there were mass protests at universities around the world; from McGill and the University of California to Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria; Wellington, New Zealand to Durban and Tshwane in South Africa; from Bonn, Germany to Manila in the Philippines; and so on.

All of these rallies had a single objective – to call for an end to the privatization and commercialization of their universities.

This year, the week of Nov. 9 to Nov. 18 commemorates the Global Week of Action against the Commercialization of Education. Students at Dalhousie will be participating as part of the International Students Movement.

Commercialization denotes one main idea: it’s the process of something becoming commercially viable – a product. The question is: should our knowledge, our “higher learning,” be directed by whether or not it creates a product that can be sold?

Commercialization goes hand in hand with corporatization on campus and the general privatization of public institutions, public programs and public services. To understand these cumbersome ideas we need context.

The trend of post-secondary institutions in Canada goes broadly like this: universities are publicly funded institutions, paid for by our collective tax dollars through the provincial and federal governments.

When politicians decide to slash transfer payments and social programming budgets,  universities are on the chopping block with everything else: welfare, healthcare and the arts. With their pockets turned out, many post-secondary institutions turn to tuition increases to download the cost to students. Pennies are pinched on the ground, right where we can see it – increased class sizes, contract employment for professors, our toilet stalls rented as ad space for corporations.

But the old boys on our Board of Governors know a thing or two about business. As the vice presidents of University Inc. they, too, have a product to sell that can help return some of that lost revenue: knowledge.

Universities are hotbeds of free, publicly-funded labour in research and development that is eagerly capitalized on by, well, capitalists.

In the 1990s, commercialization crept slyly into the growing repertoire of private revenue sources for Canadian universities. By 1997, there were 750 active licensing agreements that brought in US $11 million for post-secondary schools in Canada. These agreements allow corporations to purchase the rights to discoveries that are marketable. By 2008, the trend had become a central tenet of the operation of most universities.

No longer affecting just the engineering and science labs, last year the government also focused increases to Canada Graduate Scholarships for the Social Science and Humanities Research Council to fund only those projects that are market-congruent.

This means corporations have their research costs generously subsidized by our tax dollars and provided by our universities. Corporations not only profit from this publicly funded research, but the private sector now also determines what type of research is worth doing. And what type of research should not be made public.

Private companies have no obligation to maintain responsibility for public well-being, even if they are profiting off of public money.

One startling example of the potential harm in this arrangement occurred in 1996 with the discovery of life-threatening side effects of deferiprone, a product of the drug giant Apotex. Nancy Olivieri discovered side effects when she was commissioned by Apotex to test the drugs on her patients at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. After a concerted effort to silence her, Olivieri violated the fine-print terms of her contract with Apotex that gave the company the right to suppress her findings.

We are left to wonder about the hundreds of other researchers who may not have the same determination to fulfill their ethical obligations, defy huge pharmaceutical companies, and face being ostracized like Olivieri was. But does it really take a potential disaster to make us question whether or not our education ought to be determined by the market?

Once upon a time, we thought of universities as places where people came to learn for the sake of learning. The classroom should and can be about fostering critical thinking, and discussing new ideas about the world and how we want it to look.

The trend toward increased privatization at our university has rolled in with dishearteningly little student outcry, and virtually no public consultation. But elsewhere, it has garnered international uproar. The Week of Action in April saw groups in more than 20 countries on five continents join in protest. This fall, students at Dal will commemorate the International Day against the Commercialization of Education and stand with peers across the globe.

The university belongs to the students, not profiteers. Until students actually have a say in the operation of their university, they will continue to be a product, used to court the services of Aramark, the dollars of Big Pharma and the mental garbage of NewAds. Our voice is what students around the world are fighting for.

Laura Merdsoy is a member of Students Mobilize for Action on Campus. On Nov. 9, the student organization will hold a roving banner forum and street party intended to provoke the creativity of the student body in imagining how their university could be.

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