Evidence of public college and university administrations using taxpayers' money to hire private lobbyists surfaced earlier this month in Canada's largest province, Ontario. The controversy fuelled a heated debate that began weeks before when similar evidence implicated public hospitals, leading the Ontario government to pledge to legislate a ban on public institutions hiring private lobbyists.
Using freedom of information laws, one of Ontario's opposition parties uncovered nearly C$1 million (US$998,000) spent by nine institutions of higher education on private lobby firms.
The largest culprit was York University, which handed over nearly $491,500 to three major lobby firms in the year following a record-breaking three-month long academic staff strike that lost millions for the institution, faculty and students.
It is no wonder, however, that Ontario's higher education institutions are proritising government lobbying. Despite being the centre of Canada's manufacturing and financial sectors, Ontario's system of higher education is in serious decline. For the past 20 years, tuition fees have increased four times faster than the rate of inflation, leaving Ontario's students paying the highest fees in the country.
During this period, class sizes have continued to balloon and the professor-to-student ratio has fallen 37% behind the national average. This decline in accessibility and quality raises concerns about per-student funding levels that are 24% below the rest of Canada.
What has made students and education advocates so angry is not the fact that college and university presidents are seeking the ear of government, but that public dollars are being siphoned off to pay private lobbyists to do so.
"The government grants that fund Canada's higher education are intended for students, laboratories and professors, not for corporate glad-handing or influence peddling," said my colleague, Sandra Hudson, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario.
One would assume that a properly constituted institutional board would have the expertise and connections to undertake government relations. Additionally, every public post-secondary institution is part of a provincial and a federal lobby organisation that works closely with provincial and federal governments on public policies. Why, then, should public funding be going to hired guns?
The answer can be found in an increasingly politicised system of education, in which public policy decisions are based on political opportunism rather than social and economic merit. The trend is often the same: top partisan strategists are hired because of the fundraising potential of their business connections.
If their candidates win, they are promptly hired by the new government and stay on just long enough to help deliver legislative favours to their party's chief donors. Then they head back into the private sector and sell their government connections to public and private agencies on the grounds that they can make the phone calls and secure the meetings needed to move bills through parliament.
Take, for example, the lobby firm StrategyCorp, which this year earned $156,000 from two Ontario universities. StrategyCorp chairman David MacNaughton's biography boasts that he "was a senior advisor to the leader in the 2003 provincial election, which resulted in the successful election of Dalton McGuinty as premier of Ontario." He then went on to be "Principal Secretary to the Premier of Ontario" before returning to the private sector to reap rewards from his new political connections.
Ontario's Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli offers another example. Before being elected in January 2010, Chiarelli was hired by Ottawa's Algonquin College to lobby the government for a $69 million trades building. After his election, Chiarelli's government announced new funding for the infrastructure project. Such cases expose a revolving door between lobbyists and government that compromises the public interest.
The legislative dilemma for a government looking to ban the use of public funds to lobby for more public funds is how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate consultancy contracts.
Shortly after the controversy broke, several Ontario universities tasked their public relations departments with defending their lobbyist expenses. Some explanations, such as requiring technical support for pension calculations, infrastructure planning or environmental retrofits, seemed credible, but other excuses did not pass that sniff test. At a time when most colleges and universities are crying poor, it is inappropriate for senior administrators to outsource their responsibility to meet with government.
This contradiction is evident at Lakehead University, which arbitrarily shut the campus down for four days last winter as a cost-saving measure but nonetheless found $33,000 for "strategic counsel in building relationships with federal and provincial governments".
Similarly, few would believe Laurentian University's claim that spending $102,000 on lobbyists gave cheaper access to government, when the university's president is the former Assistant Deputy Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.
While the use of public money to lobby the government is not exactly a secret, it entrenches a system where government priorities are defined by politics rather than good governance. In the end the greatest casualty is public education, which is in the public interest.
*Joel Duff works as an organiser for the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students