Journal des Alternatives

The World Bank and the Global "Education Industry":


David BERNANS, 1 October 2002

"Imagine a higher education system where institutions are ranked not by the quality of teaching, but by the intensity of electronic wiring and the degree of Internet connectivity. Imagine a country whose main export earnings come from the sale of higher education services. Imagine a socialist country that charges tuition fees to obtain full cost recovery in public higher education. These images are not science fiction, but actual stories of a revolution in higher education."

These are the words of Jamil Salmi, the Adjunct Director for Education at the World Bank and one of the honoured guests at September’s World Bank-sponsored conference on Globalization and Education at Laval University in Quebec City.

Salmi’s vision of higher education’s future is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is not only the inevitable result of an unstoppable globalization process, but also the desirable outcome of progress, that comparative evaluation of educational institutions will not be done not on the basis of "quality of teaching" but measured in meters of wiring and degrees of "Internet connectivity". It is a good thing that education is becoming a commodity sold like any other on the global marketplace, and that governments of the so-called "left" are just as prone to raise tuition as are right-wing governments (as Thatcher said, "there is no alternative").

The more or less explicit goal of the World Bank and its powerful capitalist allies - to redesign the world’s public education systems on the model of global corporations in the private sector - is being realized through the same mechanism that is being used to privatize everything from water to health care - conditional funding. Conditional funding often takes the form of World Bank loans tied to "structural adjustment policies" (SAPs). But we need look no further than the new policy of "performance-based" funding in Quebec if we want to understand the effects of conditional funding on education. In fact performance-based funding is a disciplinary mechanism promoted by the World Bank for internal use by client states meant to reinforce the external discipline of the bank’s conditional loan schemes. As always, what is "conditional" about reduction funding is that serves the interests of the wealthy few, whether or not the education institutions that receive the funding are officially "public" or "private".

Performing for the Market in Quebec

The "Performance" of Quebec’s universities is now ensured by a series of "performance contracts" signed between former Education Minister (and former Air Transat CEO) François Legault and the Rectors of Quebec’s universities in the spring of 2001. Much like the World Bank’s loan schemes, access to the province’s $600 million "reinvestment" in education is conditional on the achievement of quantitative "outputs" in a series of "performance indicators".

The effects of this disciplinary mechanism vary depending on the competitive positions of each respective institution. For instance, Concordia University, which has a history of being "fiscally responsible", has found the process relatively painless, whereas the debt-ridden UQAM has been forced to tighten its belt. First and foremost among the list of performance indicators is the level of deficit financing (a zero deficit is a prerequisite for funding).

When the Quebec government cut transfers to universities in the mid-1990s, the Concordia administration passed those cuts onto students in the form of fee increases and cuts to "unprofitable" programs (151 programs were cut or "rationalized" in 1996-97). Denying students and potential students access to education because of their financial status or the unprofitability of their programs of study, gave Concordia a head start in the performance game.

When faced with the same government cutbacks, UQAM took the courageous stand of refusing to pass the cuts onto students. The inevitable result was a large budget deficit (UQAM’s annual deficit had passed the $5 million figure), the elimination of which is now a prerequisite for provincial funding. Thus UQAM has been forced to commit itself to reducing its annual course offerings by "250 units" and to the "rationalization of its programs". Larger class sizes have also been promised, and students can expect substantial fee increases.

The overall impact of such uneven effects to university budgets is to promote competition between institutions, a "race to the bottom" that mirrors competition in the global marketplace. Universities are forced to sacrifice education and research in the public interest to attract corporate "partners" (the level of corporate funding is another performance indicator), employees benefits are cut, support staff are laid-off, and professors are faced with a choice between doing more corporate-sponsored research and taking on increasingly unrealistic course loads.

All of this suits the corporate sector and World Bank officials like Jamil Salmi just fine even though it means the beginning of the end of education and research in the public interest, truly "a revolution in higher education".

The author is the researcher/archivist for the Concordia Student Union and the author of Con U Inc.: Privatization, Marketization and Globalization at Concordia University (and beyond).