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UCP appointments expand corporate power over post-secondary institutions

New report reveals increased corporate governance of higher education in Alberta

Edmonton–The UCP government is on a mission to change the landscape of higher education in Alberta. Cutting to the bone the operating budgets of universities and colleges is the most visible strategy used to advance their privatization agenda. But another front in this process—one that has been largely absent from the public debate—is how the UCP is aggressively using governance models in post-secondary institutions to transform them from within.

Parkland Institute’s new research report, “Higher Education: Corporate or Public? How the UCP Is Restructuring Post-Secondary Education in Alberta,” shows how the UCP is transforming post-secondary education in Alberta through the governors it appoints to the boards of post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs). “Governments direct higher education and research priorities via public appointees to the boards, as well as the legislative and budgetary means at
their disposal,” explains Dr. Laurie Adkin, lead author of the report, which was co-authored by William Carroll, David Chen, Mike Lang, and Mark Shakespear.

Based on extensive data collected about 231 appointees to 21 Alberta PSEIs, the report maps the backgrounds and political-ideological orientations of the individuals acting as “public” board governors between April 19, 2019 (date of the election of the UCP government), and March 31, 2021.

Within this sample, 113 individuals had been appointed initially by the NDP government, while 121 were appointed for the first time by the UCP. That made it possible to compare the characteristics of the two groups and draw conclusions about what criteria guided the selection of appointees for each group, as well as what such differences say about their respective approaches to post-secondary education.

The analysis of appointees’ backgrounds indicates the significant bias of the UCP government in favour of candidates coming from corporate sector backgrounds, with oil and gas industry affiliations constituting the single largest group. The report also found that nearly 60 UCP appointees—including ten board chairs—have affiliations to organizations that have supported right-wing parties and Third Party Advertisers (TPAs).

“Universities are not business corporations; nor are they, principally, research and training centres for the private sector. Their governance bodies must represent a broad spectrum of social interests and perspectives about the roles of PSEIs, subject to a strong public interest mandate.”

The 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. For example, NDP appointees were 13% Indigenous, compared to 3% for the UCP. Racialized minorities continue to be under-represented on the PSEI boards.

The heavy weighting of PSEI boards of governors with individuals who come from the corporate sector is consistent with the process of corporatization of these institutions. Adkin says, “While the neoliberal corporatization of higher education is not a new phenomenon, the UCP government seeks to deepen and accelerate this transformation.” Over many years, PSEIs around the world have undergone a transformation in which these institutions are seen (and funded) less as providers of public goods (higher education and research) and more as “businesses” that compete for private sector and tuition revenue and conduct research in partnership with the private sector.

“It is entirely possible to reverse the trends we are seeing in the higher education sector,” says Adkin, “if governments are willing to trade in their ‘competition’ mindset for one that values education as a public good.” The conclusions to the report offer many recommendations for future reforms that will ensure both accountability and autonomy for post-secondary institutions while democratizing their governance.

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.

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For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Rita Espeschit
Communications Coordinator, Parkland Institute
[email protected]ualberta.ca

For the full report, please visit:
www.parklandinstitute.ca/higher_education_corporate_or_public

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