Over the last 30 years, public funding of Canadian universities has dropped from 83.8 percent of operating revenues to 57.5 percent, leaving private sources to cover the shortfall.
Though operating costs may have risen in absolute terms, this is a worrying trend which affects students’ wallets (through rising tuition fees), university campuses (through the presence of coffee mega-chains and Coke machines), and classrooms, as many universities turn to private donors to fund academic programs.
Ottawa has experienced the effects of this phenomenon since the Leveller last went to print. In April, Carleton University unveiled the new National Capital Confucius Institute for Culture, Language and Business, one of many such institutes that have drawn the ire of scholars and journalists for their political ties.
In July, revelations about a secret donor agreement between the university and benefactor Clayton Riddell made national headlines and sparked a wide-ranging public discussion about whether privately funded programs compromise academic freedom.
Manning (at) the Helm
In 2010, Carleton signed a secret, $15 million donor agreement with the Riddell Foundation, headed by Clayton Riddell―founder, chairman, and CEO of Alberta-based petroleum company Paramount Resources―to create the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management.
The program is a cross-partisan school intended to train political staffers and operatives for government-related jobs. It is the brainchild of former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and his Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
In July, the details of the agreement were released to the public. According to the 2010 agreement, the Riddell Foundation has the right to appoint three of the five members of the program’s steering committee, which determines how the program distributes scholarships, who it hires to teach, and the program’s curriculum.
The Foundation chose to appoint Manning chair of the steering committee.
Press coverage of the agreement’s finer points caused a public uproar over the influence Carleton had granted the Riddell Foundation. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) called the above provisions “unprecedented and unacceptable.”
Carleton agreed to renegotiate the deal, and on Aug. 29 the university released a statement to clarify the terms of the agreement.
The renegotiated agreement stipulates that the steering committee should provide “timely and strategic advice” on a list of issues extended to include program direction, administrative staffing, and fundraising, “in order to ensure the program’s long-term success.”
CAUT called the above changes “cosmetic” and said that they missed the issue entirely, because the steering committee is still going to play “an intimate role in the actual operation of an academic program at Carleton University.”
CAUT is not alone. In an Aug. 20 open letter to Carleton’s board of governors, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association wrote that “the recent actions of the administration have done more damage to Carleton University than any other issue or challenge we have faced in the past decade.”
Private interference in education is sinister enough, but when one looks at the source of the funding, readers can see why this might be a serious problem.
Riddell is firmly committed to the interests of Alberta’s oil industry. According to its website, at least two of Paramount Resources’ wholly-owned subsidiary companies―including Pixar Petroleum Corp. and Cavalier Energy―were created entirely to focus their operations on oil sands development.
In short, having oil money fund a program which aspires to shape the minds of our next generation of political leaders both reeks of dirty business and undermines Carleton’s credibility as an academic institution.
The Panda’s Broad Paws
Officially, Carleton’s Confucius Institute is committed to “serving as a unique forum for exploring the challenges and opportunities presented to Canada and China by today’s global economy.”
“By fully engaging with the resources available to [the Institute] by virtue of our presence in Canada’s National Capital Region, the Institute can have a profound impact on the cultural and economic relationship between our two nations, and can serve as a forum for policy makers, and business and community leaders,” the institute’s website says.
Fourteen Confucius Institutes currently exist in partnership with Canadian universities, and over 300 exist worldwide. Unlike similar academic and cultural exchange programs (like Germany’s Goethe-Institut), Confucius Institutes do not operate independently of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Some international observers are concerned that these same political ties have a negative impact on the freedom of these institutes and their staff.
These institutes’ ties to the CCP have led critics to view the program’s intent to facilitate trade by teaching Chinese language and cultural practices with suspicion. For one, the curricula of these institutes is decidedly limited―don’t expect any mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Dalai Lama.
Confucius Institutes’ ability to paint a reassuring portrait of China―past and present―is aided by their stringent hiring policies. Successful applicants to teach at Confucius Institutes must be 22 to 60 years of age, “physical[ly] and mental[ly] healthy, [with] no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations and no criminal record.”
It is important to question the motives of any institute so openly supportive of a national government, especially when one considers the political and economic clout of the Chinese. Canada’s burgeoning trade relationship with China arguably provides some context for a further investigation of the issues and dialogue surrounding Confucius Institutes.
One needs only to look back to last year’s diplomatic visit to Beijing, which saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper secure $3 billion worth of bilateral trade deals and the loan of two pandas to Canadian zoos as a token of friendly relations in the future. More recently, China has expressed interest in investing in Alberta’s oil sands, driving Canadian arguments for the installation of the Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific Coast.
People often claim that there is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Though little evidence exists to support the authenticity of this claim, it certainly applies to our particular time and place.
Even in an age of unprecedented access to information, money has the ability to shape the very nature of academic inquiry. With our government apparently primed to do large-scale business with Big Oil and the Chinese, it’s important to question the views of our governments and institutions, and how private sector and partisan institutes reflect the hidden interests of their funders.
At the very least, a little investigation doesn’t make the times any less interesting.
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 5, No. 1.