Carleton University

The Effect of The Globalization Process

On Tertiary Education

William L.B. Woolrich

York University


Education’s traditional role is now being altered to suit the demands of the market. Larry Kuehn, in Tech High, comments “globalization is also about turning the purpose of our schools into being primarily about the relationship to the economy, of converting community values to the values of the market” (Moll and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 1997, p. 71). Henry et al. propose that “what is needed is a different form of policy entrepreneurship, one which considers how education can best contribute to democratic nation building and which puts social capital back on educational policy agendas” (1999, p. 96).

The undermining of autonomy by supranational forces largely working in the interest of trans-national corporations has effected a change in the purpose of educational institutions. The separation of business and education used to mean that universities had the power and finances to guide education in critical directions that may not have a market imperative. How has this process taken place and what implications does it have for education? It happens through a number of mechanisms. First, and already briefly discussed above, ideology reinforced by propaganda creates conditions that decrease resistance against corporate influence. The autonomy of universities has also decreased because big businesses are large sources of funding. Trans-national corporations often get to dictate how programs are run because they provide the needed monies for infrastructure that supports programs geared toward the creation of employees needed for the market. Thus, universities cater the programs to create conditions for the maximum amount of funding.

Universities have also lost a degree of academic integrity because post-secondary education is now seen as a business and therefore must use the strategies of business. Morrow Torres argues that:

neoliberal pressures to develop educational policies that attempt to restructure postsecondary educational systems along entrepreneurial lines in order to provide flexible educational responses to the new model of industrial production” (Burbules and Torres 1999, p. 35).

Merging business with university administration reinforces the notion of universities as corporations. For instance, many members of York University’s Board of Governors are also involved in industry, e.g., CFO of Royal Bank of Canada, President of The Body Shop, and owner of Bad Boy Furniture. Even in light of the dominance of business models, it is amazing that people rarely see a conflict of interest.

Finally, university education that is not market based is devalued and results in decreased enrollment. The arts are often derided as anachronistic and hopelessly impractical[2]. Yet, the function of universities was not always to provide job skills, but rather to provide education. In this way, universities are not fulfilling their originally envisioned role.

Related but different to the marketization of education is the commodification of education. That is, the emphasis on providing freedom of choice (both intra- and internationally) regarding where people attend university. Education, in other words, is defined as a corporate service that must obey the laws of supply and demand. Marginson comments on this when she writes: “the last decade has seen major growth in the use of information technologies and the rise of the inter-net [sic] and other global communications. These technologies facilitate the growth of global market exchange–-especially trade in money in all its forms--and speed the translation of knowledge into transmittable information so the knowledge is more readily turned in saleable commodities . . .” (1999, p. 21).

There is nothing wrong with choice and variety per se; however, the world market, as it is, is not a system where all players have equivalent power. As a result, systems that are controlled by the market usually end up favouring existing dynamics of power (Currie and Newson 1998). The creation of private universities is one example of that power imbalance. Henry et al. believes that
state schools increasingly are having to operate like their private counterparts, establishing a profile likely to attract corporate sponsorship and a ‘client’ base capable of supplementing declining public funding. Universities must now raise an increasing proportion of their own funding, seeking a competitive edge from wherever they can find it (1999, p. 89).

However, in the U.S., private universities receive the bulk of funding because they are more responsive to corporate interests. Moreover, alumni are more likely to provide a private university with large donations because the wealthy primarily send their children to private universities. Thus, there is a cycle of funding where private universities provide better education (or at least the illusion of it) because of the funding that they receive and the people who provide the funding are more likely to send their children to those private universities. Hence, “. . . there is a hugely differential provision between government and private schools, as well as within the marketized government sector, as the public/private distinction becomes somewhat elided” (Henry 1999, p. 93). With scarce access to private donations and decreasing public support it is little wonder that tuition has risen substantially over the last decade. This dovetails with the notion of accessibility, which was one of the driving principles behind the strike. Marginson states “questions of access and exclusion remain crucially important because of the power of education in allocating life chances” (1999, p. 28).

The Harris Tories are strong advocates of deregulating education and making it available on the marketplace. Bill 132 is their effort to enshrine deregulation into law. This legislation passed on December 19 and legally paved the way for the introduction of private universities to Ontario. It is interesting to examine this passage from the Office of the United States Trade Representative First Comprehensive Sectoral Negotiating Proposals in WTO Services, The introductory section on education and training services states

The purpose of this proposal is to help create conditions favorable to suppliers of higher education, adult education, and training services by removing and reducing obstacles to the transmission of such services across national borders through electronic or physical means, or to the establishment and operation of facilities (schools, classrooms or offices) to provide services to students in their home country or abroad. This would apply to countries that permit private education, not to countries that maintain exclusively public systems (2000).

Thus, while the Harris Tories respond to ideological and political pressure[3] from supra-national bodies to allow free market access to education, those same supra-nationals solidify their position by codifying it in WTO trade policies. International students are another valuable source of funding. Many universities, both publicly and privately funded have began advertising for that lucrative segment of the market. Again this problem of unequal resources in the free market grab for funding becomes apparent. Henry et al. comments on this when they write:

in tertiary education but also to some extent in schooling, the educational market now operates globally as well as locally, forcing public institutions to compete for the international student dollar, and to engage in the international software fray–-either as producers of profitable curriculum packages and course offerings, or as consumers of packages which may be more cost efficient than staff salaries (1999, p. 89).

The influence of globalization of post-secondary education produces a number of effects that are pertinent to social work. As social workers, it is incumbent upon us to ask, “who are the winners and losers in globalization”. It is clear that the losers are those who were most vulnerable to begin with, e.g., people in poverty. Case in point is the economic accessibility of education mentioned above. Burbules believes that

. . . the manner in which such new educational imperatives get worked out in particular national and cultural settings depends upon two overarching sets of issues. The first is whether, given the decreasing role and influence of the nation-state in unilaterally determining domestic policies, and given the fiscal crisis of public revenues in most societies, there will be a corresponding decline in the state’s commitment to educational opportunity and equality, or whether there will simply be a greater turn toward the market, privatization, and choice models that regards the public as consumers who will only obtain the education they can afford. More broadly, will these changes produce an overall decline in the civic commitment to public education itself? (Burbules and Torres 1999, p. 22)

In the end, ensuring vulnerable people in our society the ability to afford a university education was the most important issue for me when I walked the picket line for 11 weeks. Tuition at its current level is completely unaffordable for a large segment of our society and with public financing being eroded because of globalization it is unlikely, baring active resistance, that the situation will improve in the near future.


“Brain drain called a wash.” Canadian News Facts 34(10): 6061.

Burbules, N. C. and C. A. Torres (1999). Globalization and education : critical perspectives. New York, Routledge.

Currie, J. and J. A. Newson (1998). Universities and globalization : critical perspectives. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage Publications. Fook, J. (1996).

The reflective researcher : social workers' theories of practice research. St. Leonards, Australia, Allen & Unwin. Henry, M. L., B.; Rizvi, F.; Taylor, S. (1999).

“Working with/against globalization in education.” Journal of Education Policy 14(1): 85-97.

Ibbitson, J. (2001). Our fossilized universities lumber into the future. The Globe and Mail. Toronto.

Marginson, S. (1999). “After globalization: Emerging politics of education.” Journal of Education Policy 14(1): 19-31.

Mishra, R. (1999). Globalization and the welfare state. Cheltenham, UK ; Northampton, MA, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Moll, M. and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (1997).

Tech High : globalization and the future of Canadian education : a collection of critical perspectives on social, cultural and political dilemmas. Ottawa, ON Halifax, NS, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ; Fernwood Publishing. Representative, U. S. T. (2000).

First Comprehensive Sectoral Negotiating Proposals in WTO Services, Executive Office of the President of the United States. 2001.


[1] After completing some preliminary research, I concluded that the distinction was actually somewhat artificial. Labour and education actually share common paths of analyses. It is, of course, with an examination of class. The power (or lack of power) of organized labour can profoundly effect peoples quality of life, including the ability to afford post-secondary education.

[2] Anecdotal evidence from a personal friend who has spent a great deal of time in developing countries lends support to the hypothesis that much of the developing world heavily emphasizes professional degrees, e.g., MBAs.

[3] The pressures that organizations like the WTO can exert on nations like Canada pale in comparison to the financial coercion that come to play when dealing with developing nations. Unfortunately, in spite of its relevance, tertiary education in developing countries is beyond the scope of this paper.