Public money to boost corporate power – and profits. That’s how critics see the announcement by the Ontario government that an estimated $1.4 billion will be spent on the province’s colleges and universities.
The cash comes from Ontario’s ‘SuperBuild’ Fund, a new scheme to promote public private partnerships in infrastructure projects for health, education, transportation and utilities.
The construction program will begin immediately and continue until 2003, expanding research and teaching space at campuses throughout the province.
But critics are alarmed by the role that SuperBuild gives the private sector in funding and influencing post-secondary education. The provincial government is contributing only $742-million to the project. The rest will be covered by over 100 powerful corporations including Bell Canada, Nortel Networks and General Motors. In order to be eligible for financing, post-secondary institutions had to compete to prove that the private sector would provide financial backing for their building projects.
“It’s just another sell-out to the corporations,” says Derek Blackadder, coordinator of the Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee. Blackadder insists that SuperBuild is nothing more than corporate pork-barreling – a way for profitable corporations to use public funding to construct and repair buildings for their own benefit, while the publicly-funded buildings are left to crumble.
The OUWCC estimates that over the past decade there has been a $1.3 billion shortfall in funding for maintenance of Ontario’s universities and community colleges. “Mike Harris is building and upgrading these bright shiny new P3 buildings and in the meantime the publicly-funded buildings are rotting away because there’s no money for maintenance and there hasn’t been for years,” Blackadder explains.
The issue of deferred maintenance raises serious health and safety concerns according to Rick Graham, chair of the OUWCC and president of CUPE 2361. Graham has seen first hand the deteriorating state of universities as a maintenance worker at the University of Western Ontario in London. “There are rusted pipes, broken waterlines, damaged high-voltage electrical connectors,” says Graham. “We’re patching up equipment that needs to be replaced. These things are deteriorating to a point where someone’s going to get hurt.”
Money for new but not to renew
To make things worse, the new buildings will compete with existing ones for funds. “There’s all this talk about money for new buildings, but there’s no new money for operations and maintenance,” says Graham. “There are no more people to clean these buildings and the provincial government keeps cutting the funds to operate and maintain the physical plant. This tells me they want to privatize in a hurry.”
According to Mikael Swayze, SuperBuild’s privatization agenda will have serious consequences for other university workers as well. Swayze works with CUPE 3902, representing over 3000 teaching assistants and sessional lecturers at the University of Toronto. The university workers gained national attention during a strike/lockout this past January lasting almost 4 weeks. Swayze sees a connection between the SuperBuild announcement and the 3902 job action.
“The fact that we had to engage in that kind of disruption is emblematic of the decision to spend on bricks and mortar and the lack of focus on the human beings who make universities possible,” he says.
But the story doesn’t end there. According to Joel Harden, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), privatization undermines access to education too. “Unless the building funds are accompanied by additional money to cover the costs of the new programs and additional faculty,” says Harden, “these expenses will be passed on to students in the form of increasing tuition fees.”
Education more than just bricks and mortar
Janelle Ho-Shing, a member of CUPE 2396, understands exactly what Harden means. Ho-Shing works for the Douglas College Students’ Union in New Westminster, BC and is the Students of Colour representative on the CFS National Executive. She wants to do a Masters degree in English Literature but can’t afford to take on the student loan debt. “Microsoft and Nike don’t want to fund those programs,” says Ho-Shing, “so I can’t go back to school unless I borrow thousands of dollars, or do a degree that these corporations are paying for, and that’s just not an option.”
SuperBuild is part of a disturbing trend where corporations have more and more control over the priorities of education. “It’s not just that the provincial government is deciding what will be studied,” says Mike Kocsis, president of CUPE 4600, representing 1500 TAs and sessional lecturers at Carleton University, “but they’re encouraging corporations to take an active role in shaping this curriculum. This is a terrifying prospect.” The result in this case is that almost all of the SuperBuild money is for science and technology programs. Programs in the humanities and liberal arts were all but ignored.
“This is an incredibly short-sighted public policy”, adds Kocsis. “The humanities prepare students for a life of critical thought and give students the versatility to work in a changing economy.”
Bruce Strang, vice president of CUPE 3906 representing over 2000 TAs and sessionals at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, agrees. “Societies need the arts, to remember our past, to analyze and criticise the media, to put in context the information we are constantly bombarded with,” says Strang.
Ashkon Hashemi, CUPE 1281 member in Toronto, adds that it’s just a myth that the liberal arts don’t provide ‘value for money’. “Under-funding the arts and training too specifically in the sciences is bad social policy and it’s bad economic policy,” says Hashemi. “Not only are liberal arts programs essential for building a civilized society but graduates in these programs rank very highly when it comes to jobs.”
Hashemi is referring to a recent study that shows the demand for arts graduates is increasing at a significant pace.
For her part, Karen Eryou of CUPE 2396 thinks there’s a bigger political agenda at stake here. “Mike Harris knows that the first thing a right-wing government should do if it wants to dismantle any effective voices of opposition, is to stop funding the liberal arts.” Eryou studied history and women’s studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. She now works as the ombudsperson for students of the City Centre Students’ Union at Vancouver Community College.
“My liberal arts degree taught me how to challenge authority, how to debate and discuss issues. That’s what Mike Harris finds threatening.” Eryou adds, “We need the liberal arts to help us fight for social justice and equality. It gives us the critical tools to participate democratically in a complex society and to challenge an increasingly militarized and class-divided world order.”