Students gear for fight over reach of big biz
above us, the ceiling shakes as if it’s caving in, but no one in the Graduate Student Union reacts to the earthquake caused by the phys-ed class on the main floor. It’s business as usual. I barely hear Carol Ramm as she says in exasperation, “Every year, they throw something at us that we weren’t expecting.” It sounds like something that could be said of an opposing school’s rugby team. But Ramm, a staffer at the University of Toronto student union, is reflecting on a question that links students in Toronto’s disparate universities: “Whose campus is this anyway?”
Increasingly, it seems, Toronto’s campuses, accustomed to competing, are being linked by issues bigger than any of them, and just as hard-fought as rugby games. Namely, the need for more clout in an increasingly corporatized learning environment.
An example is the ambitious plan to rebuild U of T’s demolished Varsity Stadium. Last year, administrators wanted to raise a student levy to help pay for their plans to rebuild. Students bristled at the thought of what was essentially a tuition hike to help pay for a building they did not want.
The levy was given a sound ballot-lashing in the largest campus referendum in history, with 82 per cent of votes cast against it. This year, the admin says they need “to find a plan that students would support fiscally,” according to vice-president of student affairs Sheldon Levy.
The university held meetings over the summer. According to Ramm, the maximum attendance was six students. Meanwhile, the admin recently spent $1.7 million to fix up the governing council chambers. It’s unclear how much of that went toward building a very tall ladder to help dust the chandeliers.
When students aren’t defending themselves against having to pay for buildings that will bolster their school’s reputation years after they’ve mounted their bachelor degree above the deep-fryer, they’re having to watch out for who else might be paying.
At York University, the campus’s modernist nightmare is set to expand with a new information technology building of its own, the TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) complex. In seeking funds for the building, York went one step shy of lap dancing with the corporate sector. In a promo pamphlet, TEL’s cheerleaders kindly exhort potential sources of funding to take advantage of “curriculum advisory board opportunities.”
In this shiny new 21st century of ours, classrooms aren’t just classrooms. “Our corporate sponsors are encouraged to look at all these spaces as name-recognition opportunities,” the York promo reads.
Chris Costello, the person in charge of securing funding for the TEL building, insists, “What we’re saying is, “This is how we might be able to help you guys. You’re having a hard time, too.'”
Presumably, once corporations have their newly validated feet in the door, we’ll all just have to trust that they won’t try to meddle.
Needless to say, there’s opposition. Pablo Vivanco, vice-president of external affairs with the York Federation of Students, is doing double duty. He’s working against both TEL and the Free Trade Areas of The Americas, and sees the connection as more than academic. “It’s what the FTAA is about, creating a crisis so administrators are forced to go to the private sector and compromise curriculum.” Even the province’s SuperBuild program is tied to corporate interests. Universities can apply to the fund, but the government will only chip in if the institution finds corporate sponsors.
At this point, students don’t necessarily have a choice. “We do need classrooms,” concedes Alex Lisman of the Ryerson Student Administrative Council (RyeSAC). “But we can make people aware of how private-public partnerships erode education.”
RyeSAC is also interested in the most ubiquitous of student issues: tuition. Despite, or maybe because of, the increased corporate interest in campuses, tuitions are still rising. The Canadian Federation of Students rallied for a freeze in tuition fees last year. This year, they will rally for a cut.
Information technology management students at Ryerson were infuriated to learn they were expected to foot a mandatory yearly exclusive lease of an IBM laptop. That means each student pays $1,400 for computers they will never own.
Ken Grant, director of ITM at Ryerson, sees the laptop levy as a necessity. “Just as a carpenter has to have his own tools, an IT professional needs his.” True, but not many carpenters sink $1,400 into a hacksaw and have to endure a campaign for brand-name recognition. Corporations seem to be using IT departments as focus groups.
George Brown College student association vice-president of education Chris McNeil speaks eloquently about how, under the FTAA, government funding for colleges and universities could be seen as unfair subsidies that go against the market laws of competition. When the weight comes down to “even” things out, it won’t be felt at Harvard North as much as at the predominantly working-class George Brown, he says. “We could see the college system turned upside down.’