File illustration.

Bill Nelson started teaching at the University of Toronto when Sidney Smith was not a building, but the university’s president.

Nelson went on to become chair of the university government committee in 1969 and held many administrative roles.

Now 90 years old and retired, the history professor has observed one particularly significant change at the institution where he centred his career.

“Something fundamental has happened to North American universities,” Nelson says, “Forty years ago, major universities were not primarily concerned with servicing the world of business and commerce. The primary concern was educating people.”

While much of the University of Toronto community does not have a perspective spanning 50 years, students, some professors, and experts agree that the institution is becoming increasingly intimate with the free market.

FUNDING AND GOVERNANCE 

To Nelson, the increasing corporatization of the university marks a widespread change in attitude brought about by the influence of private money. He says that individuals and corporations have exercised increasing influence through monetary means, such as endowments for academic chairs, which injure the pure academic foundation of the institution.  

“Going back 30 years, academics have been urged to go out and find private money,” Nelson says. “That’s not a way to run a university.” 

Nelson also cites factors such as increased tuition that tie students to the so-called “corporate world.”

In the Faculty of Law, for instance, tuition is around $30,000 for first-year domestic students — a number that, Nelson argues, forces students to pursue high-paying corporate jobs to pay off their debts.

Glen Jones, Ontario research chair on post-secondary education policy and measurement and professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says that universities are complicated corporations, which have to make difficult budgeting decisions when faced with increasing financial pressures.

According to Jones, the university does not have to sacrifice accountability to various constituencies in this process.

“We are a long ways away from the ‘60s when the vast majority of funds that the university obtained was from… government,” Jones says.

The Ontario government has increased funding to universities by 83 per cent since 2003. However, Jones said that funding is down on a per-student basis.

According to university statistics, 42.7 per cent of the university’s 2013 revenues came from government sources, while 36.9 per cent came from student tuition.

“[The university] has to find new sources of income and it ends up spending a lot of effort on fundraising and on its relationship with industry and on other sales of services,” says Jones.

Jones explains that U of T approaches these financial pressures in a unique way because of the “New Budget Model” adopted in 2005.

The decentralized approach of this plan, Jones says, places funding decisions with the faculty deans.

The New Budget Model is a model borrowed from the corporate world.

For Jones, this has been a successful way of managing decisions in a complicated institution such as the University of Toronto. “It makes all kind of sense … because it moves on the assumption that the best academic decisions are made lower down in the institution, rather than centrally,” he says.

The other aspect of managing these pressures is university governance. The University of Toronto has a unicameral governance structure, which combines student, faculty, alumni, members of industry, and government appointees to the single-bodied Governing Council. 

This differs from some other universities with bicameral governance structures that incorporate both a board of directors and an academic senate.  

Nelson considers this structure as problematic because of its weaknesses and its resemblance to a corporate board.

“It doesn’t attract the first-rate people from either the corporate world or the university world,” Nelson says of the Governing Council. “They like to see themselves as CEOs.”

Many of the university’s decisions are also made in secret.

At a recent Business Board meeting on November 3, three items were considered in camera, including an information update on a real estate transaction.

According to section 6.1 of the Business Board Terms of Reference, meetings may be held in closed session when “matters may be disclosed at the meeting of such a nature, having regard to the circumstances, that the desirability of avoiding open discussion thereof outweighs the desirability of adhering to the principle that meetings be open to the public, or… intimate financial or personal matters of any person may be disclosed at the meeting or part thereof.” 

Part of the problem identified by Nelson is that, under this budget model, university administration carries a large price tag. “Once you adopt this corporate model, then you’ve got to pay the president of the university a salary that’s respectable on a corporate basis,” says Nelson.

U of T president Meric Gertler pulled in $351,748 last year.

This is less than half the salary made by the top-paid U of T employee, William Moriarty, who made $772,547 last year as president of the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation.

This is equivalent to the domestic undergraduate Arts & Science tuition fees for 106 students. 

According to the Ontario Sunshine List, Moriarty received one of Ontario’s top five public sector salaries in 2013.

DEGREE COMMODIFICATION 

While the university apparatus becomes more business-like, students are increasingly questioning the value of their degrees and the return that they will see upon graduating.

Cara Lew, a fourth-year economics major, already has a job lined up at TD Securities after graduation. 

Lew says that investing in her University of Toronto degree has produced the desired return. 

Though Lew says it is true that a university degree is shaped by the efforts a student puts into it, Lew thinks that opportunities have been opened up for her as a result of her decision to attend U of T.

“The fact that I was able to get past that initial [job application] stage shows that there is value in going to U of T, getting an economics degree, and being on the dean’s list,” she said.

Lew attributed part of her feeling of success from the decision to enter the field of economics, which is known to have a relatively high rate of return in terms of job prospects and incomes. 

Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC, released a report last year detailing the relative incomes of graduates based on their degree programs.

The report, entitled “Degrees of Success: The Payoff to Higher Education in Canada,” appears to confirm Lew’s inklings.

The report found that math, computer science, engineering, health, and commerce were the program areas with the highest salary payoff in employment.

Tal says that, in today’s economy, a university degree is still a necessary condition for a high-paying job — but it is not a sufficient one, due to increasing competition among university graduates.

To Jones, this perspective is evidence of the commodification of the university degree. “Most of the conversation that we see on a daily basis is the implications of education for personal wealth,” he says. “It’s the notion that this is really about human resources, it’s about adding human capital to yourself through your investment and it’s good for you to do that.” 

The view of using university education as a means to good employment is supported by the government of Ontario’s Strategic Mandate Agreement with the University of Toronto. The agreement outlines U of T’s areas of strength in promoting jobs and economic growth. 

In Lew’s case, the investment has been worth it. For some other students, however, tuition has increased to reflect the “value” that the university degree is meant to provide. 

This affects international students in particular, whose fees are not regulated as domestic fees are under the Ontario Tuition Framework.

Marine Lefebvre, an international student from France and co-founder of the International Students’ Association, thinks that increasing international fees could be, in some cases, a serious deterrent for international students to study at the University of Toronto.

 “The reason why a lot of [international] students are coming here and not going to the States is because it’s cheaper than the [United States],” Lefebvre says.

Due to their deregulated fees, international students can be considered sources of profit to fill funding gaps at the university.

Jones thinks that this is a result of commodification. “People look at international students differently than they did before. That’s another potential source of revenue,” he says.

To Lefebvre, that perspective does not adequately address the role of international students in the fabric of the university. “The University of Toronto has a responsibility to respect us as people and not just as cashflows,” she says.

The International Students’ Association is working to form a campaign to demand regulated fees and international student representation on the Governing Council.

In the meantime, Nelson is waiting for another “fundamental shift” to occur.

“You’re dealing with a fundamental social shift that’s temporary. It’ll change, but you can’t change it by pushing at it,” Nelson says.

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