Why Corporate Globalization Destroys Public Education

John McMurtry

Public education, like the rest of the public sector, is under siege in Canada. Along with such publicly funded institutions as health care and transportation, education is starved of funding to make it ripe for privatization by the corporate market. That takeover then returns us, full circle, to the time when education was not a human right, but a privilege for those who could afford to pay for it.

The reason education has been targeted for privatization is simple: globally, education is worth $2 trillion annually; in Canada, it is worth $60 billion. But this windfall is inaccessible to private interests as long as it remains within the public sector. Moving it to the private sector is accomplished by “globalization.”

Corporate Globalization

Corporate globalization is based on the money code of value, by which moneydemand, not life need, is the regulating objective of thought and action. Decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, are based on this overriding value program. It guides choices at every step, creating a matrix of valuecharged actions that have profound consequences around the world. As a product of decision-making, corporate globalization is not, in fact, inevitable or natural or prescribed by an “invisible hand.” It is the outcome of decisions made in corporate boardrooms, political caucuses, municipal offices, university senates and hospital meeting rooms. It is not irreversible, although its effects on the planet are already resulting in irreversible damage.

Corporate globalization seeks to maximize revenues to corporate stockholders including corporate managers, thereby instantiating the money code of value. In order to accomplish this enrichment, transnational corporations roam the world looking for opportunities for the largest output with the smallest input. Output means profits. Input means costs, including paying fair wages, abiding by environmental regulations and adhering to health and safety laws. As business competition becomes more global, the ways that different countries account for such costs creates the so-called “uneven playing field.” Former World Bank senior economist, Herman E. Daly, explains

how this difficulty is overcome under corporate globalization:

“The market left to itself will resolve the difficulty by standardslowering competition the way of counting costs that results in the cheapest product will prevail. Capital will move to the country that does the least complete job of internalizing environmental and social costs. Consequently, globalization results in a larger share of world product being produced under regimes that externalize costs to the greatest degree.” (Daly 1999, 34).

Among the losers in the “casino capitalism” that is corporate globalization, according to a recent United Nations Human Development Report, are:

“The 1.3 billion people living on a dollar a day or less, the 160 million malnourished children, the onefifth of the world’s population not expected to live beyond 40, and the 100 million people in the West who are living below the poverty line.” (Brittain and Elliott 1997, 23).

Education and the Public Sector

A Canadian thinktank called The Caledon Institute for Social Policy lists the contributions that public education can make to the public good:

•Highquality public education advances the wellbeing of all citizens and helps us to accomplish some of our most cherished public purposes.

•Public education is necessary to the economic health of both individuals and nations.

•Public education creates informed consumers who can make intelligent choices as to the products they wish to purchase.

•Public education involves the acquisition of moral and spiritual power. It builds the foundation of nations by helping students develop values related to the welfare society values such as honesty, truth, civility, social justice, cooperation and a determination to combat violence, racism, gender inequality and environmental degradation.

•Public education is the great equalizer, with educational institutions being a place where individuals of diverse backgrounds can come together. It is, by definition, an inclusive system. It provides the glue of shared values and history, providing citizens with a sense of what it means to be Canadian.

•Public education is not only the foundation for an informed intelligent citizenry that comprises the bedrock of democracy, but also a distinguishing practice of a society that properly can be called democratic (Torjman 2000, 34).

According to Nef and Robles (2000, 38), the collectivist concept of the public good is to be replaced with a view of the public good as “individual responsibility’ a responsibility that leaves those unable to fend for themselves in the new economy blamed for their own problems and left largely on their own to solve them.

One of the logical outcomes of such a privatizing transfer is the emergence of education management organizations (EMOs). Modelled on the health management organizations (HMOs) in the United States, these private, forprofit corporations run a school board or a university like a business, looking for the largest output with the smallest input or, in other words, the largest profit for the smallest amount of education provision.

The Charter School

The charter school represents the application of market principles to education while remaining outside any collective agreements or community control. New

Zealand’s experience with charter schools should provide a warning to Canadians. In that country, every public school was turned into a charter school, which resulted in the middle class “shopping” for schools for their children, while the poor and the less mobile were left in ghettoised neighbourhood schools. As a result of this restructuring, 1,000 teachers left the system and one out of every five principals quit (Little 1997).

The United States provides another warning of the privatization of public and secondary education through the example of Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), a corporation that privatizes the management and operation of public schools, and only accepts contracts that allow it to use its own employees and curriculum. The American Federation of Teachers produced a scathing report of EAIs management of Baltimore schools, citing staff cuts, increased class sizes, replacement of paraprofessionals with lowpaid interns and diversion of classroom funding for overhead, lawyers, accountants, corporate travel and profit (CUPE 1997).

The penetration of corporate globalization into the public sector is clearly evidenced by the spread of YNN, the Youth News Network, into the public school system. A private commercial news and current affairs network, YNN provides Canadian schools with televisions, audiovisual equipment and computers in exchange for airing

its 12.5 minute “newscast” and its 2.5 minutes of commercials in all classrooms for at least 80 percent of the academic year (Schofield 1999).

Higher Education

The privatization agenda of corporate globalization has sinister implications for higher education. Canadian academic James Robert Brown describes what privatization and the business model mean to faculty members:

“Increased dependence on industry and philanthropy for operating the university; an increased amount of our resources being directed to applied or socalled practical subjects, both in teaching and in research; a proprietary treatment of research results, with the commercial interest in secrecy overriding the public’s interest in free, shared knowledge; and an attempt to run the university more like a business that treats industry and students as clients and ourselves [faculty] as service providers with something to sell.” (Brown 2000, 1701).

Forced alliances with private interests have restructured the research agenda itself in higher education. For example, in the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, research was traditionally publicly funded. In the early 1990s, however, university policy quietly changed and half of all research funding was required to come from private interests. Without the input of private funding, no public funding was forthcoming. The predictable result is a systematic censorship of scientific research itself. Only research that supports corporate interests and produces products or knowledge that can be commercialized and sold by corporations for a profit is selected for. No research is done for the public good such as malaria cures for the tropical poor, or even precautionary testing of the safety of genetically modified organisms.

One of the spinoffs of this corporate research agenda now controlling universities is closed thesis defences. Traditionally open to the public as part of the pursuit of public knowledge, some thesis defences are now closed to everyone except those who are willing to sign a document promising they will not reveal what they have heard behind closed doors without the express permission of the researcher. This abrogation of the defining tradition of the academy shared knowledge and open debate has been permitted because “from time to time a student will develop significant intellectual property in the course of his or her research and wishes, legitimately, to protect that property until it can be patented or published in a particular format” (Heathcote 2000).

When asked where such funding choices left a liberal arts education, Noam Chomsky (1999, 12) replied that it came down to a question of values:

“Do we want universities to be places where people come to grips with human affairs, cultural tradition, and the problems that people face? Do we want them to be a place for advancing and understanding society? Do we want them to be a place for creative work? Or, do we simply want students to be servants of private power?”

Distance Education

Distance education could be said to be the Trojan horse of corporate globalization as it invades public education. For example, huge multinationals like Disney, Microsoft and TimeWarner are currently exploring links with a number of American education institutions to create teaching materials for distance learning and to supply the technology to deliver them around the world. Media baron Rupert Murdoch’s giant News Corporation company has recently reached a deal with the 18member worldwide university network, Universitas 21 (which includes three Canadian Universities: McGill University, University of Toronto and University of British Columbia), to offer online distance learning. A number of American universities involved in distance education are lending their brand names to private corporations in exchange for revenues from financial speculation in the education industry through stock options and initial private offerings (Noble 2000, 15).

Extension Education

Like other forms of lifelong learning, extension education is feeling the pressures of corporate globalization. According to Lauzon (2000, 89):

“The meaning of education has changed from being a right that is an inherent part of a civilized and democratic society to being a product or service to be purchased by a consumer. University extension is not immune from this shift; in fact, it is leading the way in the promotion of marketplace values in the university and in the public arena.”

In Ontario, extension education has been completely eliminated since the early 1990s. The demise of this kind of education has left farmers without a fresh source of knowledge, which leaves them dependent on the propaganda of fertilizer and pesticide corporations

some of the largest and most environmentally damaging corporations in the world.

Public Education and the Civil Commons

Public education is part of the civil commons because it was created and maintained for the public good by conscious human agency. It is one of those cooperative human constructs that people ensure together as a society to protect and further life. Education for all people of a society without barriers of social caste or market cost is the nature of the civil commons. This means publicly funded education available to all. If grounded in the life code of value, the entire practice of formal education can be decoded as the process of judging and enabling more comprehensive levels of life capabilities across defined breadths and depths of cognition. However, if grounded in the money code of value, these comprehensive levels of thinking are precisely ruled out where they do not result in sustained or increased profit to private corporations.

The civil commons was expressly built to protect us from the lifeblindness of an unregulated, privateprofit economy. A transcultural phenomenon, it provides the inherited, shared lifesubstance of all sustainable cultures. Public education is its most effective vehicle. It is now being stripped along with the planet’s ecosystems by the agenda of a global market paradigm that, in principle, cannot value beyond monetised corporate costs and profits to the truthful reproduction and growth of human knowledge itself.

John McMurtry

Jennifer Sumner

John McMurtry is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph.

Ms. Sumner teaches in the School of Rural Extension Studies, University of Guelph, and is completing her PhD thesis on “Sustainability and Rural Communities in the Age of Globalization: Can We Learn Our Way Out?”


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Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). 1997. “Corporate CashIn.” Global TeachIn: Challenging Corporate Rule. November 79, University of Toronto, Canada

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Heathcote, Isobel W. 2000. Private correspondence to author from the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University

of Guelph, Canada.

Lauzon, Allan C. 2000. “University Extension and Public Service in the Age of Economic Globalization: A Response to Thompson and Lamble.” Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, pp. 7995.

Little, Doug. 1997. “Charter Schools Making Public Education Private.” Global TeachIn: Challenging Corporate Rule. November 79, University of Toronto, Canada.

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Noble, David F. 2000. “Comeback of an Education Racket.” Le Monde Diplomatique, April, p. 15.

Schofield, John. 1999. “Ads Come to Class: Cashstrapped Schools Take a Closer Look at YNN.” Macleans, April 5.

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March 2001