Quebec: sound of the corporate pyramid collapsing

HUFF POST (draft)

IT'S A PROBLEM when 250,000 protesters hit the streets of a Canadian city. But who's to blame? And what's the problem? The problem seems clear: Quebec students don't want heavy increases in tuition. And the certainly don't want their protests to be declared illegal by the Charest government.

So whose fault is this? Some blame the students who, they think, should man up like students elsewhere in the country and pay their "fair" share. Others think it's Charest and his heavy handed government foisting a conservative (in-Liberal-clothing) pay-as-you-play agenda on the poor students and those who are least able to afford it.

The actual problem is rather more complicated, and one that tends to get buried under opinion pieces about Conrad Black or his take on Facebook, as if it really mattered. The root problem is the growing interrelationship of academia and business.

University education, over the past five decades, has evolved from a science and liberal arts focus into a Babelized smorgasbord of offerings, most designed for and dovetailed to the needs of industry. Programs such as public health management and carbon capture (not that there's anything wrong with these studies) have superceded the more traditional fields of study such as engineering and literature.

The origins of this convergence of universities and industry are a bit chicken-and-egg. The outcome, however, is plain. Colleges and universities now operate on a corporate managerial platform and collectively act as a corporate feeder system for research and human resources.

As profit-focused entities with higher levels of management to support, teaching costs must be held in check, researchers must be supported, fundraising departments managed and courses developed and culled according to the current (and to a far lesser extent, future) demands of industry.

In other words, universities are now just corporations. Harvard, Oxford, LSE, ENA, Waterloo and McGill are brand names in most respects no different from Apple, Mercedes and McDonald's; companies which also do a fair amount of internal research, education, fundraising and HR.

Students know this whole deal intimately. They're the ones racking up enormous debt (unless they're lucky enough to have parents who will pay) to learn skills that will very likely be obsolete within a decade, and leave them unschooled in the critical and imaginative proficiencies they will require as they take over this increasingly compromised world.

Having worked to market and fundraise for academic institutions and having a daughter currently in university pretty much tells the tale. Few university management, faculty or students deny that this new corporate-academic emperor has no clothes, and most openly acknowledge it. Student newspapers are peppered with WTF articles about the university disconnect from real education.

Ironically, it was the feel-good involvement with fundraising that probably started the decline. Once the universities started putting their fundraising campaigns into high gear, their development philosophies inevitably merged with those of their donors. Donors were only too willing to educate the poor academics about business principles and management practices and the value of developing industry-friendly programs. Until the entire academic process became harnessed to economics rather than higher learning.

But the system thrives, not only because of a lack of organizational creativity to challenge it, but from the conditioned acceptance that this is just the way it all works. And the students are taught from birth they must both conform and compete to get ahead.

Well, until now, until Quebec. Clearly the protest is now about more than just a rise in tuition. On top of the growing student awareness of the whole mess: the crippling student debt, lack of jobs after graduation and the prospect of a collapsing economic future; now there's Charest's cute "back to school" Bill 78, though it's not working. In spite of massive fines of up to $125,000 for organizing peaceful protests of more than 50 people without giving police eight hours notice, students are taking to the streets en masse.

So now what? Well, that's a big question. The universities, like the arts, operate as parasites at the very top of the inverted socio-economic pyramid. And that pyramid is collapsing, at least here in North America and Europe.

Once production and the service sectors were offshored and we transitioned into financial distribution economy the die was cast. Without a strong production base and the innovation to feed it with new ideas, economies simply disintegrate under the weight of the massive management superstructure.

This top-heaviness is as true in the private sector as it is in the public sector, and while austerity measures in both sectors actively target the front line workers, the management class, especially at the senior levels, continues to grow and flourish. And unless graduating students have family connections, they're starting out at the bottom of this pyramid with a load of personal debt piled directly on top of them.

While that might be fine for employers looking for highly incentivized and compliant employees, it certainly doesn't make for a finer society.

Taking to the streets is an immediate reaction. The ultimate action will require shifting our paradigms from profit taking to social wellbeing. Unfortunately, the university leaders who should be leading this reeducation revolution seem to be entirely missing in action.


  1. The other part of the problem is the people selected as chancellors of these universities. Many times they are selected because of political connections. When I went to my daughters university graduation I would not stand or clap for the ELITE as they call themselves especially the Government Member who came to tell us all the great things her government was doing for BC universities. Cutting funding and other cuts were not mentioned. When the Chancellor told the grads they were leaving to join the Elite of thje world I looked around not too many of the parents looked like members of the Elite.Is this what our society is evolving into the gentry and the rest of us. In high school we are told that more tradesmen are needed well in BC hardly a highschool has trades courses kids are funnelled to academics whether they want or can do it. Now we are told we must bring tradesmen in from other countries because we aren't training enough here. Shame on us.

  2. Dear Gerald, great article, and I hope you’re right that the pyramid is finally collapsing. Here are my points for discussion.

    Education is definitely a business, can there even be any doubt? And you don’t even come close to getting any value for your money. How often do you hear anyone say, “hey I got my degree and it only cost me x dollars”, or “well it cost me x to get my degree, but it was a fair deal”.

    The federal and provincial governments are in a conflict of interest because they issue student loans. Student loans are big business. How can governments be in big business and provide a fair system at the same time? Answer: they don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t have this mess in the first place.

    The big kicker? For the average person trying to find a decent 9-5 corporate job, a degree is totally unnecessary and meaningless. You need the stuff that can’t be taught, like aptitude and being able to get along with others. So where is all this “better get your degree” baloney coming from? By the folks making a tidy profit off of it all, i.e., read the above article.

  3. Both good comments (and observations). I agree.


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