Knowledge over profit

Canadian universities should strive for autonomy from the corporate world

A few examples of members of Queen’s Board of Trustees with corporate backgrounds.
A few examples of members of Queen’s Board of Trustees with corporate backgrounds.
Credit: 
Graphic by Michaella Fortune

Emily Pascall, ArtSci ’15

University students are constantly told that employment and income are what matters after graduation.

The transformation of universities from institutions of higher learning to a hiring pool for the corporate world, though, has harmed the actual purpose of post-secondary education.

In order to gain funding and remain competitive with other schools, Canadian universities are falling to the wills of private corporations. Corporations should have less investment and influence at Canadian universities — and shouldn’t be the primary sources for decisions that are made.

The focus on the job market within Canadian society has become a daunting environment for many post-secondary students. Unemployment rates for university graduates have gone up since 2006, according to the Globe and Mail, while salaries for humanities graduates have dropped.

Such a strong emphasis on employment has taken its toll on the true meaning of a university degree. No longer is university regarded as an institution of higher learning, where students challenge, develop and grow their passions.

Rather, students use it as a stepping-stone to leverage, network and obtain a career. Our academic careers are often filled with this rhetoric: the importance of getting a job combined with the unlikelihood — or so we hear — of actually obtaining one.

By referring to our degrees only in this manner, we neglect the knowledge we’ve learned along the way: how to critically question the world around us, how to challenge our political and moral convictions and how to use our voices to become active and engaged members of our communities.

Strong corporate presences on Canadian university campuses have altered the academic atmosphere. Whether we’re walking through the Athletics and Recreation Centre glancing up towards the long poster advertisements hanging from the ceiling, or participating in employment recruiting activities, students are reminded that their presence on campus is not necessarily the most important one.

It’s their presence in the larger corporate hiring pool that seems more important.

University of Saskatchewan Professors Howard Woodhouse and Alexander Ervin explained in a July piece for Rabble how corporations are increasingly dominating Boards of Governors at Canadian universities, representing corporate interests rather than student interests.

With decreasing government funding, universities have had to rely on corporate sponsors. Queen’s, McGill and the University of Toronto have had representatives on their board of governors from TD Bank, Molson, Teleglobe and Bombardier, to name just a few.

Barbara Palk, senior vice-president of TD, and Edward Speal, former president and CEO of BNP Paribas — a French bank — both currently sit on Queen’s Board of Trustees, which oversees all financial and property decisions at the University.

Queen’s Board of Trustees needs to be more diverse in order to represent the views of minorities and the broader Kingston community. A heavy corporate influence doesn’t serve the interests of the students, who are concerned more with the quality of their education than whether Queen’s can cater to the business elite in order to gain funding.

Corporate entities on campus have largely been responsible for shifting the academic environment to resemble something closer to a business model “seeking to maximize profit, growth, and marketability”, according to a 2010 article by the Journal of Higher Education.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), said in a 2013 statement released by CAUT that “In the majority of [university-corporation]agreements we reviewed, universities have agreed to terms that violate basic academic values.”

This corporate-training ground culture has negative implications on students by creating a competitive pool of individuals who submit to the same ideologies. It’s not uncommon to see students sacrificing their interests and passions in order to join organizations, clubs and events that only serve to better their resume.

Students may feel pressured to pursue education that would make them attractive to future employers, as opposed to what they are most interested in.

Universities have begun to move away from their original purpose – a search for truth, knowledge, and the greater good to focus on churning out factory-made diplomas. Students tailor every step of their education to make sure they seem appealing to the corporate world.

We should begin to shift our dialogue. While finding a job is surely important, the reality of whether or not we find one directly after graduation shouldn’t affect the way students view their university experience.

The overarching emphasis on employment hinders the human experiences we’ve learned along the way in our studies — compassion towards our peers, understanding, empathy and acceptance.

When we regard a university degree as important only if it gets you a job, we really do a disservice to ourselves about what else our degree teaches us about life.

Fundamentally, universities should aim to educate students and promote the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking. This foundation should be maintained in order to serve students.

Emily Pascall is a fourth-year political studies major.

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