A report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers recently revealed that the U of C has signed deals that essentially give corporate donors veto-power over where their research grants are spent. This report has brought the U of C’s reputation into question. Academic institutions have a responsibility to provide an education free from private interests.
Education is a public trust, not a corporate commodity. The U of C’s deal with five oil companies including Nexen, ConocoPhillips, Shell — otherwise known as the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In-situ Energy — has netted the university $10 million a year from these donors since it was signed in 2007. AICISE is governed by a body known as the Management Advisory Board, which, according to the report, has the power to “approve or disapprove plans and budgets proposed by the university for the AICISE Core Program.”
The deal also stipulates that any motion can pass with a simple majority vote. However, the 10-member board must consist of seven members external to the university. The names of board members are not public. The U of C has effectively relinquished a majority vote over a board that is unaccountable to students and staff, to which millions are donated. This is a problem.
When the university cedes its right to dictate how and where research funds are spent, the university effectively becomes a proxy research branch for corporations with no accountability to the student body.
This lack of transparency is evident in another deal outlined in the report. The Consortium for Heavy Oil Research by university scientists allows sponsors — including Nexen and Husky Oil — to pull funding if “information designated as confidential” is leaked to the public. Sponsors have the right to dictate which pieces of information should be considered confidential. Donation totals have been redacted in the released document. These secrets benefit neither the university’s researchers nor its students nor its reputation.
We should not be surprised about the willingness of corporations to strike deals to their benefit. As they are motivated by profit, controlling how research dollars are spent could potentially lead to higher profit margins. A company’s desire to fund research for its own gain is to be expected. However, relying on corporate generosity comes with strings attached. When corporations are granted control over policy, there is a conflict of interest. The U of C has created such a conflict with these deals.
Although these deals were struck between 2005–07, they are indicative of the corporate funding that the university has pursued in the wake of the March budget cuts. The university is currently trying to remedy its dependence on the vagaries of the provincial government, yet the government is the best source of objective funding. Administration needs a steady stream of revenue to hit its Eyes High benchmark of becoming one of Canada’s top-five research institutions.
The provincial government can and should objectively assess the university’s spending more effectively and with greater transparency than a private corporation. The priorities of our provincial government, however, do not align with that logic. The Redford government is eager to toy with the post-secondary budget on a whim by cutting devastating portions of funding but then injecting a supplementary $50 million earlier this November.
The reason they cut the post-secondary budget is because they claimed to not have enough money. Alberta has the lowest corporate income tax rate compared to other provinces and increasing this by a small percentage could provide millions in revenue, which could be put into objective and balanced post-secondary funding.
Alberta’s current model of education funding is unsustainable and universities will continue to look for funding elsewhere if the province is not willing to provide stable and adequate resources. We can expect these channels to be less transparent, less accountable and less ethical. University research should benefit society as a whole, not the long-term strategies of a corporation.