College Quarterly
Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
Reviews The Exchange University: Corporatization of Academic Culture
Adrienne S. Chan and Donald Fisher
University of British Columbia Press, 2008

Reviewed by Duncan Hill

The Exchange University is a collection of essays that depict a new world of academia, in which commodification, marketization, and accountability have replaced social demands as drivers of Canadian universities' academic missions. This collection of papers is the result of a Canadian conference on academic capitalism held in 2003; each chapter was presented by its respective author at the conference. This presentation is quite successful; the impact of the book is heightened by the sense of teamwork among the authors. The collection is underscored by a concise introduction that clearly outlines the theoretic framework for the book: changes to the academy have resulted from an increase in economics as the driver of university business—changes that are amplified by the constant focus on accountability and the “efficiency of free-market forces.”

A great deal of attention is paid to the impact of academic capitalism on research and academic culture. Adrienne Chan and Donald Fisher present a case study of this impact in Chapter 2 which illustrates the changes experienced at the University of Ottawa as it strived to become a research-focused university. Changes to academic culture were immediately felt, the result of pressure from university administration to bring in research funding. The success of this case study could be heightened by including a contrasting case study of an Ontario university with an existing research focus; specifically, what changes occur in university already focused on research as compared to a university just entering the research arena in response to economic pressures and globalization?

The link between government policy and funding is also well explored—particularly in Paul Axelrod's chapter wherein he provides a comprehensive history of post-secondary funding in Ontario. Here, Axelrod makes an important distinction: while the link between universities and the state's economic prosperity is not new, that link's impact on university autonomy is. Specifically, there are more and more funding envelops from the government that have “strings attached”; to wit, that the academic initiatives supported by the funding further the government's policy initiatives. Thus, the university is forced to tailor its initiatives to match the requirements of the government.

Axelrod also argues that the continued significance of enrolment-driven funding supports university autonomy. However, the impact of socio-economic trends on enrolment undercut that theory—programs of study can gain and decline in popularity for a number of reasons, along with the funding that accompanies enrolment in those programs. For example, at the University of Toronto we have seen a steady increase in the proportion of applications to the sciences and other programs that prepare students for entry to post-graduate professional programs. Prospective students seem to prefer programs of study that directly propel them towards a specific employment goal. The reverse is also true: the collapse of the “dot com” bubble in 2000 precipitated an unprecedented drop in enrolment in computer science programs at U of T, suggesting that students are less likely to enrol in a program they perceive to not result in employment. Thus, the autonomy of U of T to offer academic programs is restricted by the economic forces that influence interest and demand for particular areas of study.

None of the chapters deal directly with the impact of academic capitalism on undergraduate education, an omission even more glaring in light of the framework of university autonomy presented by Janice Newson and Claire Polster in Chapter 6. The authors argue (rightly so) that the efficacy and necessity of academic autonomy is rooted in service of the public interest. The context used here (much like the book overall) is that of research—i.e., that it is in the public's best interest that academics are not influenced by third parties in the pursuit of their research questions. However if university autonomy is rooted in serving the public interest, how does that affect undergraduate education? If universities must serve public interest—a public interest that demands more career-based post-secondary education (even in universities), what of the disciplines? Are the humanities destined to be extinguished through lack of interest, and therefore lack of funding? Unfortunately the book does not address the effect of academic capitalism on undergraduate education, or on the individual student experience. In fact, the only mention of the impact on the student experience is found in Theresa Shanahan's examination of the law profession: “Market-like behaviours have translated into 'fierce' competition among students.” There is no further analysis of this impact.

There are two detailed articles which deal directly with the impact of academic capitalism on individual faculty members, however. Linda Muzzin's chapter illustrates how contingent faculty, once assumed to be a temporary cost-saving measure, have become a permanent and growing part of the academy. Because of their lack of the ostensible protections of tenure, these faculty members have been susceptible to exploitation—a phenomenon that is actually exacerbated by the growing business-like management of universities. Dillabough and Acker's article follows a similar equity focus, this time within the context of teacher education and the effect of academic capitalism on gender identity within the academy.

The final chapter presents a disturbing portrait of the commodification of knowledge through an analysis of the globalization phenomenon known as the “knowledge economy”. Again, the impact in research is most obvious and well explored; the research funding agreements between private interests and universities are shown to “enclose” knowledge, making it available to the public only at a price dictated by private interests. Undergraduate education is addressed somewhat here in the context of access: by packaging course materials and offering them online, undergraduate educational knowledge is enclosed and sold online. While I do not think this phenomenon is materially different from the traditional model of classroom instruction provided with the price of admission (tuition fees), there seems to be a tendency for course materials to be more packaged and separated from the instructor (particularly in light of the entrenchment of contingent faculty as pointed out by Muzzin), potentially effecting quality of education.

Ultimately, this collection is an excellent starting point to examining the pressures facing the modern Canadian academy, particularly with respect to research and government agendas. The lack of attention to undergraduate students and education suggests an area for further research – how does academic capitalism intersect with social demand for undergraduate education, and how does it impact educational quality and access, and the student experience?


Duncan Hill is the Campus Timetabling Officer at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He can be reached at dl.hill@utoronto.ca.

Reviews

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