What is the neoliberal university?
Neoliberalism represents a scientifically discredited economic philosophy. Its propagation inside our society reflects the muscular financing provided by the corporate elite whose interests these ideas serve.
For those working inside universities, the signs of creeping corporatism are everywhere. For the broader public, the consequences of treating education as a commodity are not always clear. Most alumni nourish nostalgic memories about their times on campus, but modern universities today are complex entities with huge endowments, vast property holdings, billion-dollar research budgets and complex partnerships with private donors and public corporations. University presidents are more likely to come from the private sector than working their way up through the ranks of the academy. This raises the question: who are the university’s stakeholders, who determines institutional priorities and to what extent do universities pursue policies consistent with the interests of students and the values of taxpayers?
About university budgets
The funny thing about university budgets is that their numbers seem quite plastic. At the University of Ottawa, for example, forensic accounting revealed in 2018 that the announced $15 million-dollar surplus was actually $69 million. Across Canada, the discrepancy between the budget and balance sheet enables an accounting sleight of hand where administrators can report ‘deficits’ that are more fictional than real. Austerity enables university administrations to take a hard line with its various unions. Given rising tuition, many students are acutely sensitive to this rhetoric of austerity. Deeply in debt, students are instinctively inclined to support cost control measures. However, when you dip deeper into university budgets certain inconvenient truths are revealed:
- Many Canadian universities spend less than 2% of their annual budget on the contract faculty that teaches over half their students.
- Internal budgeting rules siphon the tuition of Arts students to subsidize engineering, medical and business programs whose graduates have better employment prospects and command higher wages.
- Although corporations offer million dollars ‘gifts’ for the funding of applied research, in fact, most programs established in this fashion are not self-funding. Their cost of operation is transferred taxpayers while research is patented for private profit.
- The labor costs of Canadian universities have been relatively stagnant for over a decade, except for one notable group: administrators. In number, salary and benefits they have increased significantly.
Students, alumni, donors and taxpayers need to have a serious conversation about what type of university we want. How can we ensure that the university’s priorities reflect our values and interests?