Over many years, post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs) around the world have undergone a transformation toward the corporatization of education. Increasingly, these institutions are seen (and funded) less as providers of public goods (higher education and research) and more as “businesses” that should produce commodities and attract private sector investment.
In keeping with this approach to higher education, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government has, from 2018 to 2022, cut the operating support budget for Alberta’s PSEIs by 18.8%, resulting in a trail of destruction across the province’s universities, colleges, and technical institutes: thousands of employees laid off, increased workloads for remaining staff, teaching contracts cut, academic programs axed and, ultimately, tuition rising beyond the reach of many and growing student indebtedness.
The picture is grim. This domino effect is rooted in the political ideology of the UCP government. Enshrined in the Ministry of Advanced Education’s “Vision 2030 agenda,” the UCP worldview for post-secondary education privileges “industry” needs and the commodification of teaching and research ahead of any benefit to the public interest. The UCP’s funding model for PSEIs dictates which programs will survive, and which will be starved of resources. Under the UCP, politics determines what kinds of knowledge have value, what kinds of education are worthy of government support, and who will be able to access them.
The executives and boards of governors of the PSEIs might have been expected to resist the UCP’s defunding and market-driven restructuring of post-secondary education, but instead, in many cases, they have collaborated. This report explains why, drawing on research into how public members of PSEI boards are appointed, who holds these appointments, and whose voices are underrepresented in decision-making about higher education and research. In this climate of cuts and corporatization, and amid increasingly overt political intervention in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, understanding the impacts of these appointments has never been more urgent. Within the existing legislative framework, public appointees to boards of governors are empowered to subvert and supplant the role of scholars in determining how programs should develop. Governments direct higher education and research priorities via public appointees to the boards as well as the legislative and budgetary means at their disposal.
This report addresses two questions. First, we ask what the agenda and actions of the United Conservative Party government of Alberta mean for higher education and research. Second, we ask how institutional factors explain the sector’s lack of autonomy and ability to resist the corporatization agendas of governments.
To reconstruct the restructuring agenda of the UCP government, we reviewed the pertinent policy documents, government budgets, and accounts of the impacts on Alberta PSEIs, along with the secondary literature on corporatization and neoliberal reform of post-secondary education in Alberta and elsewhere. We made a detailed case study of developments at the University of Alberta, as well as secondary studies of restructuring and board governance at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University.
To answer questions about the backgrounds and political-ideological orientations of the public board members, we collected data on all the public appointees who have sat on Alberta’s 21 public PSEIs boards between April 19, 2019 (date of the election of the UCP government), and March 31, 2021. In total, we collected information on 231 individuals, recording data such as gender, ethnicity, education, area of specialization, occupation, and various types of affiliations (to private sector entities, other civil society associations, the public sector, or political parties).
Since 113 individuals in our sample had been appointed initially by the NDP government, while 121 were appointed for the first time by the UCP, we were able to compare the characteristics of the two groups. This allowed us to see if the NDP and the UCP had significantly different criteria for selecting their appointees, and what such differences say about their respective approaches to post-secondary education.
Finally, we used UCINET software to visually map the networks created by the affiliations between PSEI public board members and a range of corporate, non-corporate, and governmental entities. We were able to do this for each institution, for the predominant networkers, and for the whole sample of 21 PSEIs.
UCP Appointments Reverse Representation Initiatives
Our analysis of the differences between NDP appointees and UCP appointees to PSEI boards indicates that gender, race/ethnicity and Indigenous representation do not appear to have been priorities for the UCP. The NDP appointees during the time frame were 65% female, as the NDP attempted to redress the prior under-representation of women on the boards of public agencies. This figure compares to 51% for the UCP. And the NDP appointees were 13% Indigenous, compared to 3% for the UCP. Overall, Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous racialized minorities continue to be under-represented on the PSEI boards.
What types of qualifications were of key concern to the UCP as they replaced NDP appointees and appointed new public board members? We sought to answer this question by documenting and analyzing various characteristics of the appointees: their occupations, areas of (knowledge) specialization, education, and affiliations to both corporate and non-corporate (government, non-profit, other civil society) organizations.
Since individuals with business and administration occupations accounted for the great majority of appointees for both the NDP and the UCP (71% and 75%, respectively), there appears to be a consensus among Advanced Education ministers that these occupations provide crucial experience and expertise in the governance of post-secondary education institutions. Yet these occupations account for only 28% of the province’s workforce. However, while both parties disproportionately appointed individuals from business backgrounds, the NDP appointed significantly more individuals working in public or non-profit sector administration, and fewer individuals working in private sector management than the UCP. Our occupational analysis showed that PSEI boards largely exclude representation from the working class. Specializations are highly skewed toward management, corporate law, accounting and finance.
Social Diversity on Alberta’s PSEI Boards
The differences between the NDP appointees’ occupations and those of the UCP appointees suggest that the NDP had initiated an effort to enhance the social diversity of the boards that was bearing fruit in two ways. The first is the appointment of individuals employed in arts, culture, and media occupations, which were almost solely represented among NDP appointees. The second is the prominence of people from non-profit or public sector backgrounds. Twenty-one per cent of the NDP appointees were administrators in the public or non-profit sectors, compared to only 5% for the UCP. Moreover, 31% of all NDP appointees worked in the public or non-profit sectors, compared to only 10.5% for the UCP. Individuals working in Indigenous business corporations or governmental bodies constituted 2.7% of the NDP appointments and 1.3% of the UCP appointments.
Forty-eight per cent of NDP appointees had expertise in areas other than business, law, accounting, finance, investment, and real estate compared to 23% of the UCP appointees. Thus, the NDP appointees were twice as “diverse” in these respects as the UCP appointees. However, there is more work to be done to improve the diversity of knowledge represented on PSEI boards, with 68% of their public members still coming exclusively from six business-related specializations.
Why are these differences significant?
The social backgrounds, political orientations, and economic interests of the appointees reveal a great deal about the government’s priorities and goals for the post-secondary education sector. These characteristics of the appointees tell us what kinds of knowledge, expertise, and connections are considered appropriate and important for governors of universities and colleges, and what “public” means to the appointing government. How this group is constituted, and what kinds of knowledge, experience, and perspectives it excludes, speak to the government’s perception of the public interest. More broadly, the processes of appointment serve to define who “the public” is, or ought to be, and who is able to claim the role of representative.
Mapping of Corporate and Political Affiliations of PSEI Boards Shows Significant Bias
Our analysis of appointees’ backgrounds indicates the heavy bias of the UCP government, in particular, in favour of candidates coming from business backgrounds and from the private sector. These appointees hold significant corporate and political ties. Our findings on corporate affiliations confirm the patterns that Albertans have observed anecdotally over the years. For the entire sample of appointees, the single largest group of affiliations is with oil and gas corporations (112), far outstripping the number of affiliations in the second largest group, consulting firms (46). Coming third are the auditing
and accounting firms.
In our network analysis, we found 438 corporate affiliations and 415 non-corporate affiliations with other civil society entities. There are, however, significant differences between NDP and UCP appointees’ corporate affiliations. Among the 113 NDP appointees in our study, there were 19 affiliations to the oil and gas companies (0.17 per person), compared to 99 such affiliations for the 153 UCP appointees (0.65 per person).
At least 42 of the UCP public appointees to the PSEI boards (nearly 28%) have important links to the oil and gas sector. That number increases if we include appointees from the corporate services and construction firms that rely on the oil and gas sector for contracts, or the banks and investment firms that finance and/or own shares in oil and gas companies. The group of 45 NDP-appointed board members whose positions were rescinded by the UCP government in 2019 had, in aggregate, only four affiliations to oil and gas companies. The UCP-appointed group of 60 that replaced them, on the other hand, had 61 such affiliations. Through its selection of the “replacement” appointees, the new UCP government may have been sending a strong,
“disciplining” message to the PSEIs about their expected relationship to the fossil fuel industry, in the wake of stirrings of campus fossil fuel divestment movements.
When governments “stack” the boards of public agencies with political friends, i.e., individuals with known associations to the ruling party or organizations close to the party, the message is that the direction of the institutions will be closely aligned with the goals and priorities of the ruling party. In other words, the criteria for selecting ‘public’ board members may
be predominantly politically driven.
Using data from Elections Alberta’s financial disclosure database and other sources, we assessed the partisan connections of the PSEI appointees. We also searched for contributions to political parties or candidates from the corporations and other entities (such as industry associations) with which our appointees have affiliations (in senior management positions). Overall,
UCP appointees were found to be considerably more partisan than the NDP appointees, with 37% of UCP appointees contributing to the UCP or other right-wing parties, compared to only14% of NDP appointees contributing to the NDP. Nearly 60 UCP appointees—including 10 board chairs—are affiliated to organizations that have supported right-wing parties and TPAs.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In light of the patterns we see in the governance of PSEIs, what problems do we identify and what recommendations for reform do we propose?
Rather than specific prescriptions for governance design, we propose a comprehensive deliberation about framework legislation that would allow the PSEIs more autonomy to decide upon their own governance models, while setting out general parameters regarding the representation of “internal” constituencies and the general public, gender parity, representation of racialized minorities and Indigenous communities, conflict of interest, limits to ministerial authority over institutional governance, and many other matters. Counter to accusations of Ivory Towerism, this shift would balance autonomy with accountability, and buttress the public interest mandate of PSEIs with democratic mechanisms of representation. The governance framework for post-secondary education must be democratized to allow students, staff, and faculty a greater voice in how their institutions are managed and to safeguard the autonomy of PSEIs. Public post-secondary education must be both autonomous and accountable.
Ultimately, the choice is stark: We can permit the UCP government and neoliberal-minded higher education managers to take us further down the path of the subordination of the public interest to a narrow set of private interests, or we can organize collectively to demand a public education system that is responsive to the needs of our youth, their post-carbon future,
democracy, and citizenship.
This report is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).