Monopoly U: the Very Public Business of Universities

This is an article from the WLUFA Advocate November 2014 3.2.

Sue Ferguson, Digital Media and Journalism

I’m imagining yet another spin-off of a Monopoly game. Only instead of progressively tonier streets in Paris or Rome, your token parades past increasingly differentiated – that is differentially funded – Canadian universities. And you win not by accumulating houses and hotels, but (low-cost) departments and faculties deemed to attract the most customers, er, sorry, students.

For that is the model of post-secondary education we are well on the way to building. Never mind that the sector was designed, and financed, as a public good. Never mind that Canadian universities are supposed to, are in fact mandated to, serve the public interest. Never mind that competition for students is an incredibly inefficient (and arguably costly) way of serving the public.

Such considerations are easily shrugged off, however, by the neoliberal reformers of our institutions, those who constantly claim their hands are tied by deficits and debts, by funding models that follow students, by the vagaries of the labour market.

What are faculty and librarians to do? Well, we can start by reminding ourselves and our administrators that universities are not yet a business. They are still, however inadequately, publicly funded. And the Wilfrid Laurier Act still governs our operations.
That means that universities are tasked with performing a service (or delivering a product if you prefer) that the market in fact fails to provide – that is, one that is not necessarily profitable, but is essential. It also means that we, as the professionals who are trusted to deliver that service/product, are in fact responsible not to the fiscal conservatives in government, but to Ontario’s citizens (those who pay our salaries through taxes and those who don’t).

The articles in this issue track aspects of that responsibility – be it our moral and profes-sional responsibility to provide safe student environments, our collegial responsibility to fight for a fair work environment or our legal duty to govern the institution in the public interest. We hope they contribute to re-imagining the very public business of universities.

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