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October 24, 2002 Opinion



Corporate trade agreements hurt us all

by Yves Engler, VP Communications, Concordia Student Union

On October 31 students across Canada and around the hemisphere will be taking action against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (At Concordia, students will be striking.)

The FTAA is the name given to the process of expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to all other countries of the western hemisphere except Cuba. With a population of 800 million and a combined GDP of $11 trillion US, the FTAA would be the largest free trade zone in the world.

These sorts of corporate trade agreements hurt us all. It is clear that corporate globalization is undermining students’ access to quality public education. It is no coincidence that since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement, the first free trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada in 1989, university tuition has skyrocketed across the country.

In 1989, Quebec tuition was $611; today, it is around $2,000. Between 1990/91 and 2000/01, Canadian tuition rose 126.2 per cent, or six times faster than the 20.6-per-cent rise in the rate of inflation during the same period. Not only are students being punished by corporate-dominated globalization, so are most other social services as well.

Since the signing of the FTA and NAFTA, organized labour and workers in general have also been feeling downward pressure on their wages. Companies increasingly threaten to move to “friendlier climates” if workers try to unionize.

Recently released Statistics Canada data show that “at $51,000, the median family income was nearly $1,000 less in 2000 than it was in 1990. Moreover, 75 per cent of Canadian families saw a drop in their financial wealth between 1990 and 2000, while the top 25 per cent saw an increase of 14 per cent.

In the U.S., according to the New York Times, 64 per cent of faculty members who retired between fall 1997 and fall 1998 left tenured positions, while only 45 per cent of those who were hired were given immediate tenure or tenure-track jobs. The numbers are similar in Canada.

Furthermore, as the Nancy Olivieri case at the University of Toronto illustrates, corporations are increasingly influencing academia in a negative way. The reduction in tenure positions and increases in corporate funding certainly threaten academic freedom.

Local manifestations of this corporate power are felt by professors who are restricted by the various encroachments of corporations on campuses and within their academic work. The global cannot be separated from the local.

We on the Concordia Student Union executive ask our professors, no matter what their opinion on the FTAA, to allow students to express their democratic voice. Opening up the negotiating process to public scrutiny is a minor gain, yet it is one that benefits all those who live in a democratic society.

As professors, you can do your part. Please, no exams or assignments for students on October 31. Moreover, a group of people will be doing classroom visits about the FTAA. Please allow them five minutes of your class time. Students and professors in solidarity can improve our education system.

On Oct. 30, at noon, in the De Sève Cinema, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., CBC’s Montreal Matters and the Concordia Student Union will present a forum on money and education with the title “Accessible quality public education is at risk!”

CTR thought readers might like to have another perspective, and invited economics professor Ian Irvine to reply.

Freer trade did not cause higher tuition: economist

by Ian Irvine, Economics Professor

Mr. Engler’s stance on free trade is not one that I share. But he is right to draw our attention to the general consequences of a less fettered trading world. In the limited space available let me allude to some areas of disagreement.

First is Mr. Engler’s concern over the interplay between the outside world and the university: I believe that if any polling organization asked academics if they themselves have ever felt compromised by a link to an external source of funding, be it the granting agencies or the corporate world, about 99 per cent would indicate no, despite the Nancy Olivieri episode.

This is not to say that academics in general may respond so: the moralists worry not about external influences upon themselves but upon other academics — those who have secured the funds. Such paternalism should be recognized for what it is when it arises.

Second, I disagree with Mr Engler’s claim that the rise in tuition in the ’90s is due to a freer trading environment. He proposes: “It is clear that corporate globalization is undermining students’ access to quality public education. It is no coincidence that since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement . . . university tuition has skyrocketed across the country.”

The attribution of causation here stretches the imagination. I favour instead the banal explanation that governments at all levels in Canada decided they could not run budgetary deficits indefinitely, and declared that fees for post-secondary education should reflect more than the tiny fraction of cost that they represented in the late ’80s, particularly since the benefits of this education accrue primarily to the student.

Third, I remind readers that one of the greatest obstacles to Third World development is not corporate barbarism, but instead the desire of citizens in the West to impose de facto trade barriers against potential food exporters from the less developed world. The huge subsidies to agriculture in the EU, and the recent decision by the Bush administration to double such subsidies in the U.S., are a reflection of voter self-interest.

What the less developed economies need here is greater access to Western markets, not less. Mr. Engler and I may be in agreement here, but let’s call it what it is. It is not corporate rape; it is voter and political self-interest in the West.

Fourth, while Mr Engler is correct in his figures on income growth and wealth redistributions, it might be added that wages in the lower part of the distribution experienced a relative increase in the ’90s expansion, and much of the gain experienced by the wealthiest in our society in the ’90s has been wiped out in the post-2000 era. Nonetheless, I share his concerns about the potential for excessive inequities.

Last, I would recommend that we consider the alternative to a world of reduced trade. Great civilizations have always been open ones. They nurtured the free flow of goods, people and ideas, and resulted in fewer wars. Trade growth in Canada in the ’90s has produced a staggering number of new jobs.

While we may sometimes feel that the U.S. is a giant and a bully, I suggest that the absence of an agreed-upon set of trading rules would result in a more anarchic trading environment and therefore one subject to greater, not lesser, self-interest.