Worlds of Education

Hidden privatization

published 15 December 2017 updated 15 December 2017

By Sylvain Marois Vice-president, University Sector, Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec  

This blog was originally published in French

The phenomenon of the privatization of education is increasingly well documented. We note that it is a worldwide concern which greatly affects education projects from kindergarten to university and which, of course, takes on various forms. That said, when we think of the privatization of education, we generally think of big foundations such as the Gates Foundation, or corporations  like Pearson or Bridge International Academies.

With respect to the latter, worth highlighting is the recent research work undertaken by Curtis Riep and Mark Machacek - Schooling the poor profitably: The innovations and deprivations of Bridge International Academies in Uganda. There is a vast array of pressures on education, be they from private enterprise, especially in the university research sector, foundations which only subsidize what suits them or responds to their criteria and expectations, or from philanthropists and other philanthrocrats of this world.

In Quebec, as in the rest of North America, privatization, especially in universities, has been more discreet, more pernicious. We could summarize the situation as a transfer of the administration of the academic world to the technocratic or managerial world. In other words, over the past few decades, the traditional collegial co-administration exercised by the academic community has passed into the hands of the new "merchants of the Temple".


and improvement

Like natural and human resources, knowledge, according to those who subscribe to the free market, must also be harnessed and turned into profit under the weight of big money. What is happening in our universities is part of the process of "enclosure" and "improvement", key elements of the industrial revolution which, inter alia, privatized agricultural land under the pretext of improving production that was considered inefficient when left in the hands of mere independent farmers.

The many negative consequences for farmers and agricultural land are well known. Thus, applying the same logic as the amalgamation of agricultural land, under the guise of obsessive improvement in production, the disciples of managerial fundamentalism want to transform knowledge into an exclusive, chargeable product to be sold at the highest price.This ideological vision of knowledge creation, particularly by academic research, has as its main aim to list "the knowledge economy" on the global market, a market estimated at several hundreds of billions of dollars. But to participate fully and move toward the "enclosure" of knowledge and then to its "improvement", it must be privatized. But how can an intangible “asset” recognized as a public good, largely publicly funded by the State, and often restricted by copyright issues, without even mentioning academic freedom, be privatized?

Privatization on the sly

In order to successfully privatize knowledge and other "products" of research, it is necessary to transform the essence of university governance. The aim is to remove any form of power from the academic community. First by changing the leaders, who will no longer be from the teaching body, but from the private sector. They will no longer be academics, but managers from outside academia. Then their roles and even their titles are changed. Thus, the Principal becomes "Chief Executive” and his/her role is to be a collector of funds and promoter of "his/her" university, particularly abroad.

The emphasis is put on competition between institutions under the pretext of competition emulation. New posts as deans are created and the decision-making process is concentrated into the hands of only a few people. Then, they will resort to the courts in matters of labour relations. So we see more and more lawyers in the human resources management team or at the negotiating table.

Finally, to do all this work, they will hire an  armada of managers, administrators, and other types of managers. In Quebec, for example, the budget that has increased the most in universities is precisely in the area of personnel management. According to figures from the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, the budget for this group increased by more than 200% between 1997-98 and 2007-08. Add to this institutional transformation a difficult budgetary situation which stems from the austerity policies of a neo-liberal government, and you have the perfect storm. The doors are wide open for the private sector!

This internal privatization process is as insidious as it is dangerous. These concrete effects on management and administration are easy to identify, but it must also be said loud and clear that they entail serious consequences for the conditions of study and quality of education and to the working conditions of all personnel. This mode of governance is harmful to the direction and aims of universities, but it also greatly affects the courses and programmes to be offered and constitutes a real danger to culture, research, and the creation of free knowledge.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.