Western Inc.: Students, Tuition, and the Corporate University

The university as an institution has gone through some very strange changes as of late, and they are affecting students (or, as the case may be, their parents) directly. Tuition is higher than ever before and rising; just the other week a professor told our class that she paid roughly $400 per year in tuition, in Ontario, just a few decades ago. Now, students can expect to pay somewhere in the $6-7,000 range for their education, and sometimes more. Parallel to this development, corporate partnerships have become a university priority, the university employs far more administrators than faculty, and official university communiques refer to imperatives to diversify revenue streams and the importance of the university’s “brand”. If it all sounds, more than a little suspiciously, like the university has become a business, it’s because it is one. The question of rising tuition must be addressed within the larger narrative of funding and the increasingly corporate operation of the university. The key questions to ask now are, “How did we get here?” and, “How do we fix it?” The first question is easy enough to answer, compared to the second at least, because the question of how we dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in poses some difficult and unique challenges to students and all members of the campus community.

The easiest starting point to answer the question of how we arrived at this dire set of circumstances is with the numbers. According to a recent article by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) president Amir Eftekharpour (but we just call him USC VP External, or Amir), the government provided roughly 80% universities’ operating revenue in the early 1980s. Since then, that number has dropped by a staggering amount and currently sits at 47% [1]. The university today is, by definition, not a publicly funded institution—it is a private organization which must tend to its own finances for survival; in short, a business. What this means is that universities—Western included—must look to other sources of funding to make up for the steep decline in government contributions to their operating revenue. Currently, that money is largely coming from students’ tuition and corporate partnerships in research. In an article titled “Tuition fees on the rise… again”, the CBC noted that in 1977, when the government contributed 84% of universities’ operating revenue, student tuition comprised merely 13.7%. In 2007, when the government kicked in a paltry 57.1%, tuition skyrocketed to contributing 34.2% of operating revenue [2]. Now, with government funding at 47% and ever-dropping, students are picking up the slack with our dollars more than ever before. This provides a perverse incentive for universities like Western to keep enrollment steady and tuition high and rising. It’s not personal, it’s just good accounting.

This rise in tuition costs puts increasing financial stress on students and their families, but there is a less visible effect that arises because so many can’t afford the price of entry in the first place. OUSA notes that between 1999 and 2007, while overall enrollment nearly doubled, the participation rates of low-income students rose from 14-17%, while those of high-income Ontarians rose from 32-46% [3]. This means that more wealthy people are attending university, while many would-be students who come from middle-lower class families are effectively locked out. As a micro case study on the tie between tuition and participation rates based on class, when medical school tuition at Western was deregulated, the average family income of students rose from $40,000 to $60,000 [3]. Beyond forcing students and their parents to dig further into their pockets to pay for a degree, however, this need to find alternative revenue streams has some very serious and immediate effects on students’ university experience and how universities operate on a fundamental level. Namely, the increasingly corporate functioning of the university.

As students at Western, we are intimately familiar with the practices and policy of the corporate university. Our university is a model example of the new corporate face of education. Western’s draft for the new Strategic Plan, “Going Global: Achieving Excellence on the World Stage”—a document that will guide Western’s principles and mission for the foreseeable future—makes this fact readily apparent. In a section titled, rather transparently, “Taking Charge of our Destiny: The imperative to diversify revenue generation”, the plan calls for “strategic partnerships” with private sector organizations. Specifically, it names the Fraunhofer Project Centre (FPC) and the IBM-sponsored Southern Ontario Smart Computing and Innovation Program as examples of partnerships that “point the way forward” [4]. Crucial to note here is that the research being done is guided by the needs of their corporate sponsors. Indeed, the FPC website states that the centre’s goal is to “provide assistance to North American industry, solving design and product development challenges” [5].

Even more concerning is the fact that the researchers at the FPC, like those participating in so many other university programs across North America, are not actually researching so much as merely testing products already created by the corporation. A press release from Western states that “the centre will focus on developing lightweight composites at this testing-ground facility through full industrial-scale trials” [6]. Here I turn to the words of Cary Nelson in her excellent article The Corporate University: “The most thoroughly degraded corporatized university program is one that no longer does any original thinking; it simply tests products developed elsewhere by the corporation” [7]. Projects like this do not bring to mind an image of the academy as we have ever known it, driven by academic interest, and instead they appear as nodes in a network of corporate capital accumulation. Unfortunately indicative of the path many universities across North America are currently taking, the research power of its students is being sold to corporate clients for their own ends, and not those of academic interest. If partnerships like the Fraunhofer Project Centre “point the way forward”, as Western claims, then we are in deep, deep trouble.

In addition to all this, another aspect of corporate control over research is the role they play in its publishing. If they don’t own the wholesale rights to publish the research done on their own products, they often reserve the right to determine where it is published. In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein lists incidents at the University of Toronto, the University of California at San Francisco, and Brown University in Rhode Island, among others, where research that reflected poorly on the sponsor’s product (i.e. if it was harmful or just plain didn’t work) was blocked from publishing at the request of corporate benefactors [8]. This trend is concerning for obvious reasons; not only are private sector organizations guiding research—which often means contracting the university to provide product testing, as in the case of the FPC—but they are able to control which results actually reach the public. If a university, ostensibly an organization dedicated to knowledge and the betterment of humanity, discovers that a product may be harmful or ineffective, the corporate customer that paid for the product (research) may simply return it. Call it buyer’s remorse in the corporate university system, in which the university has a reputation for excellent customer service.

The impact of corporate influence on research being done through initiatives like the FPC may seem too abstract, in terms of how they affect the daily lives of students, to really care about. However, these changes affect how the university operates at the faculty level and in the classroom as well. Cary Nelson notes that as corporate sponsorships in academic programs become normalized, “profit-making departments become the first priority for institutional resources, and the profit-making function within those departments begins to dominate their other activities, from student recruitment to faculty hiring to curriculum design.” [7].

It’s simple enough: the faculties that make the most money get the most money put back into them. Faculties that have historically been resistant to industry (like my own faculty, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies), and whose research does not easily lend itself to commercialization or operationalization for the purposes of industry face a terrible bind. While the hard sciences are showered with grants and expanding budget lines as corporate money flows into their coffers, the humanities wither. What is taught in the classroom for FIMS, or English, or Women’s Studies, or any of the humanities, may not be of interest to Rogers, CanWest, IBM, or any other potential corporate investor. The bind, then, is whether to change the structure of programs to better fit with the interests of industry, or wither and die from lack of funding. The “choice” here is really no choice at all.

Another factor that affects the funding of university programs is the tying of funding to student employment after graduation. The Ontario PCs recently released a paper on postsecondary education titled “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” In it, they suggest that funding should be tied to “learning outcomes” such as employment rates. In fact, current “outcomes”, whatever they see those as being, need to be reevaluated “to ensure students are not only employable, but are job-creators.” In addition, the paper encourages universities to “embrace entrepreneurism as a profession worth teaching” (a particularly hollow platitude of faddish business jargon), and “develop a new generation of academic programs that aren’t only committed to graduating students with a degree, but graduating our students with a business” [9]. Here, the crass market logic that reduces the value of a university education to creating a model employee is on full display. On the ground level of university operation, this often means building programs with the express purpose of submitting to the regime of labour market and corporate demands, such as FIMS’ much-maligned Certificate in Digital Communication. The goal in programs like these is not just to educate students, but to operationalize their skills to be put to use by industry after graduation. The raison d’etre, to borrow from Nelson, of these programs shifts from providing a holistic and enriching education to scrambling for funding—or else. What is especially insidious about this particular formulation of corporate influence on universities is how invisible it is to students. You never know if the course you’re taking was implemented because faculty felt it would benefit students or if its implementation saved the faculty from another round of hiring freezes or budget cuts. These changes aren’t like a Victoria’s Secret promotional campaign on campus, or Sugar Crisp, for that matter; those corporate interruptions of campus life are tangible, visible, and can be addressed effectively. No, they are the waters we swim in and a drowning person often doesn’t have time to consider why the water is there to begin with.

Finally, the increasing corporatization of the university, and the shifting priorities inherent therein, is observable in the explosion of administrative workers that now direct it. This is a new and unique development in how universities operate since historically the balance of power has been shuffled between students and faculty, but, until now, never administrators and business people. Indeed, the earliest universities were merely bands of students who demanded to be taught by local “masters”; the term “university” itself comes from universitas which denotes only the totality of a group, be it carpenters or students [10]. Now, the directors of the university’s destiny are not students or faculty—the givers and receivers of the university’s ostensible reason for being, education—but the legions of accountants, PR professionals, and other administrators that make up the bulk of its employees. To illustrate, Western employs “1408 full-time faculty members and 2461 full-time staff members” [11]. Of course, any organization needs staff, administration, and a modicum of bureaucracy to be effective, but never have the numbers indicated such a stark shift in power.

It’s worth noting that Western University president Amit Chakma, head administrator of the university, made $479,600.04 in salary and $41,123.21 in taxable benefits in 2012, according to Ontario’s Sunshine List [12]. This makes him the highest-paid university president in Ontario. Of course, if students are now paying the lion’s share of the university’s operating revenue, this means that we are contributing a large amount to his salary, and those of all university administrators. The astronomical salary Chakma earns is particularly striking at a time when many university professors and teaching assistants are facing increasing job insecurity and poverty-level wages. When the highest-paid and most numerous positions at a university are administrators and business people, not faculty, it should perhaps come as no surprise that accounting and efficiency are the order of the day and not education—often at the expense of students’ well-being in material matters like tuition.

Clearly, the university is in trouble. As students, we’re faced with increasing tuition as well as curricula and research guided by the need for funding and not interest in our education or academia. The curricula (and sometimes very existence) of the programs we enroll in, and spend thousands of dollars on, are decided by what will make us better employees for the corporate sponsors of those programs. The question now is what we should do about it, and our options seem limited. Indeed, the corporate university has brought with it corporate brand management and effectively stifled the voices of disgruntled students. Western’s Code of Student Conduct prevents students from “[bringing] the university’s good name into disrepute” or disrupting university events “by any means whatsoever” including “written material” [13]. Unfortunately, the University Students’ Council (USC)—a legal corporation in place ostensibly to represent our interests—is often all too happy to comply with Western’s standards of brand management, even going so far as to remove students peacefully demonstrating from campus [14]. The situation seems hopeless, but every social movement has to come to terms with repression at one stage or another, and then overcome it.

The issue is often framed as having one solution: more corporate sponsorship for lower tuition. If you are against rising tuition rates as well as corporate influence in the university, well, you’d better get a reality check; or at least that’s how the thinking goes. What students and the campus community need to realize is that there is another way. Universities need more funding from the government, and they need to resist the tempting prospect of corporate money. Students must continue, or begin, as the case may be, to apply pressure to university administrators and student representatives to push for meaningful change on these issues. We need to demand that the government act in our interests. We need to be unafraid and willing to tackle issues that seem larger than any one of us, together. That can be done by speaking at council meetings and meeting with representatives personally, but that is only one avenue—and as many frustrated students can attest to, one that often does not result in meaningful action. Students need to organize among themselves and find a way to collectively voice their concerns to government and universities. Funding must increase, and tuition must be lowered. The university must be free from the demands of industry and the labour market, or at least be free to choose how involved they become with those entities without fear of serious financial repercussions if they don’t. Historically, the university has never held a static identity, and it is fruitless to speak of halcyon days of the university that we should return to. What is new is that students have nearly lost control over the institution to the logic of markets and industry, and the wishes of business people and administrators. This is not a call for a return to the academy’s past, but for students to be able to decide its future. It’s time for us to begin fighting for ourselves.


[1] Eftekarpour, Amir. “The Link Between University Operating Revenue and Tuition.” Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, September 5, 2013. Web.

[2] “Tuition fees on the rise… again.” CBC News: Business. The CBC, June 16, 2008. Web.

[3] Martin, C. “Ontario’s Next Tuition Framework: Reclaiming cost sustainability for students, families, and government.” Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, 2012.

[4] Western University. “Going Global: Achieving Excellence on the World Stage.” 2013. PDF file.

[5] “The Partnership.” Fraunhofer Project Centre @ Western. Western University, 2013. Web.

[6] “Western and Fraunhofer team-up for a new composites research centre in London.” Western Media Relations. Western University, November 6, 2012. Web.

[7] Nelson, Cary and Stephen Watt. “The Corporate University.” Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.

[8] Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000. Pg. 99. Print.

[9] “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” Ontario PC Caucus, 2013.

[10] Boren, Mark Edelman. Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

[11] “Working at Western.” Western University Human Resources. Western University, 2013. Web.

[12] Dehaas, Josh. “Here’s what Ontario university presidents made in 2012.” Macleans on Campus. Macleans Magazine, March 29th, 2013. Web.

[13] “Campus Community Police Service–Code of Student Conduct.” Campus Community Police Service. Western University, 2013. Web.

[14] Coop, Jordan. “O-Week to Activists: Your Presence is Not Welcome Here.” OPENWIDE Online. OPENWIDE, 4 Sept. 2013. Web.

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Jordan Pearson

President of the FIMSSC. Ostensible person.

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63 thoughts on “Western Inc.: Students, Tuition, and the Corporate University

  1. great article! very inspiring! But… how do you mobilize a group of apathetic and privileged kids? (just LOOK at the picture heading this article). Mindless spectacles consume them and encourage more drunken debauchery! This isn’t 1960s Berkeley. We’d rather riot than protest in London (apparently). How do we fuel the right fire?

    • Thank you very much! It’s interesting that you use Berkeley in the 1960s as an example, because I think the situation at Western is closer to that than we realize. The galvanizing issue at Berkeley was free speech, not the corporatization of the university, though Mario Savio and other organizers saw that as a key issue. Protest as a normal activity on campus is precluded by the culture created over the course of years by the stacks of policy that prevent students from spontaneously organizing. 

What Western might very well need is a galvanizing issue like free speech, the spark that ignited Berkeley’s lively and constructive student movement. The only thing needed is an obvious contradiction in the system. We actually saw that during Orientation Week when campus police removed students peacefully protesting, at the request of administrators. Unfortunately, the university administration played the PR game better than the students, by dint of their vast resources and communicative power, and so that battle was lost as it was smoothed over by PR professionals. Western needs people who are not afraid to take the heat that comes with pointing out the cracks in the system and standing in the gap. Hopefully other students follow.

      The other route may be for the student government at Western to act on principles of direct democracy through student general assemblies, rather than elections. That way, students en masse would be able to direct the advocacy power of their student government directly and through debate and voting. The current system is very, very entrenched, however, and so that possibility seems remote to me at the present time.

      I wish I had more concrete answers to the question, but I don’t really know the solution. There are so many moving parts that it’s hard to make a prescriptive statement about what should be done. And I am not one to make that claim on behalf of the thousands of students I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that the current situation is dire, and the rumblings have begun. I think we may see some very interesting developments in the near future.

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  2. Great article, articulated beautifully. Just a couple questions:

    Has the Ontario Government’s University funding per capita increased (past inflation) on a raw numbers scale?

    Also are you able to find any data regarding the total salaries paid to educators and support staff?
    I was able to find this:

    But looking through it, although there are some directors and such in there, the VAST majority are educators
    Mind, I believe this to be a copy of the sunshine list:

    But I have been unable to find data overall salaries paid out divided by admin/educators and support staff.
    From this about 600 million was paid out between for all salaries

    And any thoughts on this by chance?

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