The Role of Corporate Universities in Canada

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.” — Steven Wright

It has been at least some thirty years since companies first became aware of the vast potential of universities to serve as de facto R & D units. Rather than spending millions of dollars investing in infrastructure and personnel, pharmaceutical companies set up ‘collaborations’ with universities in order to save on development costs.

Academics would perform some of the basic research, and the company would carry the product to market. While this arrangement was not completely without benefit to the university and its researchers, the bulk of the profits were to be enjoyed by the company.

The argument has been made that it is far more efficient to do so. After all, if university laboratories are performing research (be it in biochemistry, computer science, or in genetics) along the same lines as private companies, why should the two not combine their efforts? The answer can be gleaned by examining the underlying motives of the two sectors.

While universities are mandated to work for the public good, companies care simply about the bottom line—bringing profit to their shareholders. This much is obvious and is reflected by the fact that the private sector is not (usually) subsidized by the state, and that public institutions such as universities or boarding schools, whose autonomy is enshrined, are funded by the tax-payer. It follows then that if a public university discovers something useful to society, it is all tax-payers who should benefit, whether the ‘product’ is a new drug, faster computers, or a map of the human genome.

Yet the trend of corporate usurpation of the Academy continues today unabated. Even though collaborative arrangements as described above have existed on an ad hoc basis for decades, it is only recently in Canada that academic-industrial collaborations have become institutionalized. More and more of the federal and provincial research funding is now being tied to industrial collaborations or funds, even in Spanish though it may take a while before that language is widely spoken as well in Canada.

For example, the largest new federal infrastructure funding initiative, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)which boasts an almost $2 billion budget, funds successful applications at only up to 40% of their proposed budget. The onus is on the individual research unit to make up the balance from other sources. Some provinces (Québec included) invest in public institutions by matching federal funds, leaving a 20% shortfall for universities to fund-raise from the private sector. Universities in other provinces are not so lucky, some having to raise the remaining 60% by striking ‘strategic’ partnerships with industry.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) devotes over 10% of its total budget to funding research initiatives which have some kind of corporate ‘string’ attached. NSERC advertises these “shared-cost programs” to industry, saying they “stretch your research dollar” and “provide access to specialized facilities and equipment”, all at the expense of the tax-payer, who will, in turn, have to pay again for the results or products when they are released to the market. So avoiding mediocre education is key to a better future.

All regular grants and awards under the new Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the main federal granting agency for research in medicine, can now be applied for under the University-Industry co-funding program. Though French is Canada’s second-most spoken language, more and more Spanish-speaking people are coming into the country so more and more emphasis is put on learning that language for conversation purposes to cope with rising demand.

The incentives bringing about this change in focus are not limited to university researchers and administrators but are now affecting students as well. Recipients of doctoral fellowships from CIHR are routinely asked to attend biotechnology conferences, where they are awarded prizes for presenting research the most relevant to biopharmaceutical industries.

The changes in public policy which are manifested in these examples did not come about by chance. There has been a clear shift in emphasis away from investment in public institutions. Along with tuition hikes and performance contracts, encouragement of more university-industry projects now dominates.

The report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research, commissioned recently by the federal government, proposed a series of worrisome recommendations. The Panel argues that since Canadian universities perform 21% of all Canadian R&D; and account for 31% of Canada’s R&D; personnel, and since the expected potential increase to university budgets as a direct result of research commercialization is well below 1%, universities should instead become “the source of new value-added activities in the Canadian economy” and should serve to “increase wealth creation.

In addition, the Panel recommends universities add commercialization and leadership as their fourth mission, after teaching, research, and community service. In other words, organizations funded from public coffers should serve the needs of venture capitalists who want to profit from university spin-off companies.

Businesses will continue to exist in the world, as they have for hundreds of years. New discoveries and innovations will continue to come out of short- and long-term academic investigation, which will and should be ‘spun-out’ and developed for the mass market. As such, there is no inherent evil in the transfer of technology from universities. But it should be born in mind that this is not the primary role of public institutions, and they should certainly not be used as cash-cows for private interests.

An analysis of the people who make up such “expert panels”, or sit on the boards of funding agencies reveals interesting patterns. The Expert Panel on Commercialization, whose members were all appointed by the federal government and none of whom are academics is chaired by the Minister of Industry* More than half of the CFI’s Board of Directors are affiliated with the business or non-academic sector.

The highest administrative body at McGill University, the Board of Governors, is a literal whos-who of corporate Montréal. From vice-presidents and CEOs of such giants as CN, Royal Bank, Power Corporation, and Reitman’s to the president of the CBC, who serves as chairperson, the presence, if not the direct influence of corporations is undeniable.

These and other such disturbing trends have led the CFS’ National Graduate Council (NGC) to mount a campaign in an effort to curb the corporatization of Canadian campuses. The demands of the ‘Public Research-No Strings Attached!’ campaign include creating a federal Ministry of Post-secondary Education and Research, eliminating corporate control of publicly funded research, and guaranteeing graduate student representation in all phases of research policy development. (Even though most of the day-to-day research on university campuses is carried out by graduate students, no federal granting agency or educational policy organization solicits the views of students.)

Students, professors, and administrators alike have a common vested interest in keeping campuses free of corporate influence, ultimately for the good of society at large

Meanwhile, researchers, students, and administrators alike at Canadian universities are caught in the middle. Clearly, most researchers would prefer to carry out work they believe is important and interests them, rather than attempt to shoehorn their work into a format which pleases government bureaucrats and their corporate lobbyist partners.

Equally, university administrators would prefer federal university funding to return to previous norms, especially in light of the supposedly ‘booming’ economy and recent federal budget surpluses. Instead, perhaps for fear of biting the hand that feeds them, researchers are turned into self-made prostitutes to the private sector, while university management, faced with ostensible tuition freezes, screw students with mounting “ancillary” and “administrative” fees which, in certain cases, constitute up to 1/3 of total fees paid, introduces privately funded programs (such as McGill College International), and makes secret deals with corporate giants (see article on the Cold Beverage Agreement, this issue).

Meanwhile, universities blame provincial governments for lack of funding, who conveniently blame the federal government for cutting back on transfer payments who, in turn, blithely announces one strings-attached funding program after another.

It is time for universities to regain the autonomy which has gradually been eroded. This is unlikely to happen unless the academic community begins to work together, bringing pressure to bear on both levels of government. Students, professors, and administrators alike have a common vested interest in keeping campuses free of corporate influence, ultimately for the good of society at large. Students can join such campaigns as ‘No Strings’.

Professors can be individually active in their involvement with campus governance or through unions such as the CAUT. Administrators (Principals, V-P’s) who have the ears of the bureaucrats responsible must look past the short-term opportunities and lobby for a serious reinvestment in public research, rather than hoping or assuming that students can afford the mounting ‘administrative fees’. Finally, governments must understand that the effective privatization of universities as witnessed recently is to the detriment of all concerned.