Michael Ryan's Blog

Higher Education Hits a New Low

By Michael Ryan

Writing in 2009, David Small argued that while neoliberals claim that the corporatization of education, with the transition from “universal and free state provision of education to the user-pays regimes,” means that students “choose their courses of study more carefully as they appreciate the actual cost of their education,” in reality they “adopt an entrepreneurial approach to their studies, viewing their education as a personal investment, or at least a measurable cost, that they might compare with other purchases or investments such as buying shares or a house or car or computer.”  This amounts, he asserts, to the use of educational policy “to construct neoliberal people.”[1]

Extending this observation, Janice Dudley argues:

In the globalised neoliberal age, higher education policy has been directed towards developing entrepreneurial practice on the part of institutions, staff and students.  Universities have become enterprise universities, whilst staff and students are expected to exhibit entrepreneurial practice in the interests of competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.[2]

She argues that the neoliberal educational model changes “students from learners to clients, or consumers of education services,” making the relationship between students and educational institutions and academics “principally economic” and “contractual.”  As the cost of education rises, this relationship “becomes increasingly entrenched and normalised.”[3]

It’s not only students who are affected:  “The declining contribution made by the state to higher education has also required that both staff and institutions become more entrepreneurial.”  The search for funding has made educational institutions “dependent on either philanthropic sources or industry partners – examples include sponsored chairs, or courses of study dependent on sponsorship.”[4]

This market approach to education also influences the administration of universities, with the governing bodies of higher education institutions are increasingly populated by those with “relevant expertise.”[5]  Take, for example, McGill University’s Board of Governors for the 2015-2016 school year:

·    Maryse Bertrand (sits or has sat on the boards of National Bank of Canada, La Senza)

·    Nathalie Bourque (sits or has sat on the boards of Alimentation Couche‐Tard, Horizons Life Sciences, MBA Association of Québec, Cercle Finance et Placement du Québec, CAE, NATIONAL; has worked for CDPQ, a subsidiary of La Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec)

·    Michael Boychuk (sits or has sat on the boards of Bimcor, BCE, Bell Canada, Marnitex Capital, Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada; has worked for KMPG, Montreal Trust Company)

·    Stuart H. “Kip” Cobbett (sits on the board of Stikeman Elliott LLP; has worked for Johnston, Heenan, Blaikie)

·    Peter Coughin (sits or has sat on the boards of Redbourne Properties, Claridge Properties)

·    Kathy Fazel (has sat on the board of Montreal CFA Society, Canadian Council of Financial Analysts; works for PH&N Investment Counsel)

·    Claude Généreux (sits on the board of McKinsey & Company)

·    Stephen Halperin (sits on the board of Goodmans LLP)

·    Bryan Haynes (sits on the board of Bennett Jones LLP)

·    Pierre Matuszewski (sits on the board of Société Générale Capital Canada)

·    Michael Meighen (works for Ogilvy Renault)

·    Manuel Minzberg (sits on the boards of HSBC Bank Canada, HSBC North America Holdings Inc., HSBC USA Inc., HSBC Bank USA, N.A., Reitmans, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP)

·    Ram Panda (sits on the board of Invera; has worked for Canadian National Railroad, Dominion Textiles)

·    Martine Turcotte (sits or has sat on the boards of BCE, Tata Communications Limited, Tata Teleservices Limited, and Comunicaciones Celulares S.A., Bimcor Inc., Bell Aliant, Empire/Sobeys)

·    Thierry Vandal (sits on the boards of Société d’énergie de la Baie James, Hydro-Québec International, Conference Board of Canada, HEC Montréal)

This means that fifteen of McGill’s Board of Governors twenty-three voting members – a clear majority – have strong and often interlocking ties to major business and banking concerns.[6]  I chose the McGill Board of Governors as an example, because I am familiar with the university, but it is in no way exceptional.  A look at the thirty-two members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, for example, produces similar results.  The board includes two U.S. Circuit Judges, one Chief Justice, one Associate Justice, a New York Times columnist, eight academics and university administrators.  The remaining nineteen – a clear majority – come from the upper echelons of the business and finance communities.[7]  In an article entitled Neoliberlism and Higher Education,Camille B. Kagan asserts that this results in “three major trends in higher education:  privatization, commercialization, and corporatization.”[8]

Duncan argues that the marketized education system “provides the individual with the knowledge, the expertise, the credentials, the capacity to become an active participant in the economic domain – in other words, higher education is a source of human capital” that at the same time embeds in the student “an entrepreneurial and individualistic economic subjectivity.”[9]  The end result is that “Students – the clients of the university – become even more instrumentally focused upon higher education as a means to financially rewarding employment, whilst lifelong learning becomes merely the accumulation of a string of credentials and post‐nominals.  Higher education becomes principally a private rather than a public good.”[10]

An approach to education that focuses primarily on “financially rewarding employment” has an immediate effect on educational institutions:

Students are limited by classes and majors that are offered; full-time faculty are concentrated in strategic fields…  Contingent faculty are used to fill in supply gaps. Stratification occurs both between disciplines and institutions…[11]


In the U.S., the right-wing libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch have engaged in a particularly aggressive campaign of corporate interference in higher education.  Koch spokesman Kevin Gentry told supporters of the Koch’s network of philanthropic organizations that the Koch’s objective was “reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power”[12] – a task for which the Koch-funded Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE), “an association of teachers and scholars from colleges and universities, public policy institutes, and industry with a common interest in studying and supporting the system of private enterprise,” is central.  The APEE meets annually to discuss “how to take over university departments, establish free-market centers and divert university and state resources into free-market programs.”[13]  This itself is only one part of a much broader offensive.  As Gentry would have it, “The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline.”[14]

In 2013, this influence peddling translated into donations totalling $19.3 million dollars to 210 colleges in forty-six states and DC, up from $12.7 million to 163 colleges in forty-one states and DC the previous year.  A Center for Public Integrity review characterizes this philanthropy as “part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.” [15]

The Koch brothers’ donations definitely come with strings attached.  Not only do they want to be kept informed about students who might prove useful for their purposes, they demand control over information about the programmes they fund.  Charlie Ruger and Derek Johnson, officials at the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), wrote to Peter Calcagno, head of PR at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, a recipient of the foundation’s largesse, “[I]f you intend to engage in press releases or other media outreach associated with programmatic activities, please notify us in advance.  We consider media outreach a collaborative effort and would appreciate the opportunity to both assist and advise.”  Mike Robertson, a spokesman for the college passes off allowing donors this level of oversight as “a courtesy so that they will know the contents.”  In the case of the Florida State University, a major recipient of CKF funding, the memorandum of understanding includes a passage that reads:  “FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of CKF.”[16]

The jewel in the crown of the CKF’s educational machinations is undoubtedly the Mercatus Center.  Charles Koch himself is the director of this free market research center, based at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.  The host university itself received $14.4 million dollars in Koch money in 2013 alone.  CKF VP Ryan Stowers presents the Mercatus Center as essential to “advancing policy priorities,” and the gambit is clearly working.  While the Mercatus Center was only mentioned in either the Congressional Record or Congressional Committee Reports thirty-two times from 1999 to 2008, since 2009 it has been mentioned ninety-three times.  For example, in 2015, a Mercatus Center study that “estimates that Obamacare will reduce employment by up to 3 percent, or about 4 million full-time equivalent workers,” was referenced in both House Concurrent Resolution 27 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 11.

Mercatus Center officials are quick to point out that the center is a stand-alone non-profit, and that while it is based at the university, it is not a university department and the university has not control over it.  In fact, quite the inverse – according to the Mercatus Center’s tax filing, it spent “$3.64 million during that time to ‘support graduate students at George Mason University’ by ‘training future scholars and decision-makers to advance and apply a research agenda for understanding institutions and change.’”[17]

While the CKF has maintained an arms-length relationship with its host at GMU, it has been more proactive elsewhere.  In April 2015, the foundation paid the Utah State University “$1.54 million over three years to support the Institute of Political Economy in the university’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.”  Meanwhile, over the protests of numerous faculty members, the board of trustees at Western Carolina University, in North Carolina, accepted CKF money to found a “free enterprise center.”[18]


The economic disciplining of the public post-secondary education system is only one prong of a two-pronged neoliberal assault on higher education, the other being the “for-profit college.”  The poster child for the for-profit college system is the seventy-five-year-old Carl Barney.  A fervent Randian, who credits Ayn Rand with teaching him “how to live,” and a committed libertarian who sits on the board of the Cato Institute, [19] Barney “opposes government-backed loans and grants on principle.”  “I don’t think taxpayers should pay for our students,” sighs a man who has become incredibly wealthy off the government loans that students take out to attend his private colleges, part of an industry responsible for $1.3 trillion in student debt.  He proposes that the government withdraw entirely from the student loan business and leave it to “schools, potential employers and banks,” something that could only lead to increased financialization of post-secondary education and higher levels of student debt, not serving the interests of students so much as those of his own neoliberal coterie.

For a man insistent upon “a rigorous Rand-inspired ethical code of fair dealing,” Carl Barney is no stranger to fraud and abuse.  His colleges figure prominently among private post-secondary educational institutions under investigation by congress, state prosecutors and federal regulators for misleading student and “leaving them deeply in debt without providing the training and job placements that would enable them to pay it off.”  For example, Felicia Robbins, a student at the Salt Lake City branch of Mr. Barney’s Stevens-Henager College, believed she would be attending “a college,” only to discover that “the course was largely self-taught, with an instructor providing guidance.”  Not feeling her needs were being met, Ms. Robbins dropped out, only to discover that “other colleges would not accept her credits.”[20]

Meanwhile, “Linda Carter, the former dean of the Cheyenne campus in Wyoming … resigned in 2012, saying she was pressured to misrepresent information to school accreditation panels and was disturbed about what she called misleading advertising.”  When her right to unemployment benefits was challenged, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services ruled that Ms. Carter had “proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer’s customary working conditions involved deceit on the part of the employer.” [21]

The Justice Department is suing the Stevens-Henager College asserting that:

Stevens-Henager directly or indirectly encouraged its recruiters to enroll anyone who was willing to apply for federal funds regardless of the students’ likelihood of success or ability to benefit from Stevens-Henager’s educational programs.  Stevens-Henager wrongfully procured funding for its own benefit and abused the Title IV[22] program’s purposes.  Further, this irresponsible recruitment saddles unqualified students with large debts that are difficult or impossible to repay, leading to defaults that ultimately cost the government millions of dollars.[23]

For its part, the Colorado attorney general’s office accuses another of Barney’s colleges, CollegeAmerica, of “deceptive advertising and lying about job placements and graduation rates.”[24]

As A. J. Angulo, a history professor and the author of Diploma Mills:  How For-Profit Colleges Stiffed Students, Taxpayers and the American Dream, sees it, all of this is perfectly predictable:  “There is a fundamental conflict of interest, and it’s created by the profit motive,” and this means that “the thing that gets shortchanged systematically is instruction.”[25]  A report written for the Century Foundation by former US Deputy Undersecretary of Education Robert Shireman confirms Angulo’s assertion; Barney’s“schools have been spending only 16 percent of tuition revenue on instruction/teaching, compared with more than 50 percent instruction spending for nine out of ten other non-profit institutions.[26]

Under legal scrutiny from all sides, in a move that industry watchdogs argue is “at least in part, to evade certain regulatory requirements that apply to for-profit schools,” Barney merged “his colleges in 2012 with the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a nonprofit that supports free-market ideas in higher education.”[27]  Specifically, the CEHE claims it exists to advance “the idea that capitalism is not simply about economics, but rather is fundamentally a moral system in which individuals exercise the unalienable right to pursue their own happiness.”[28]  This merger was effectively a takeover, as:

(Barney) is now the “sole member” of the non-profit CEHE, with full power to hire and fire fellow board members at his whim.  For purposes of the deal in which Barney sold his colleges to the non-profit he took over, the schools were valued at $636 million, $419 million of which was not for tangible assets, but instead for the colleges’ supposedly valuable reputations or “goodwill.”  Barney is set to receive $431 million in cash over time, and the remaining $205 million was declared a tax-deductible contribution from Barney to his non-profit.

To which Shireman adds, “Barney is being paid and claiming a tax deduction for CEHE acquiring the reputations of colleges that are currently the subjects of multiple government investigations.”[29]

Shireman describes the CEHE and three other colleges – Herzing University, Remington College and Everglades University – as “covert for-profits.”  Although they are relatively small institutions, “they collect half a billion dollars in taxpayer-funded federal financial aid every year,” while freeing themselves from “government oversight, tax burdens, and stigma.”  For example, non-profits are “freed from 90/10 compliance (which forbids for-profit schools from receiving more than 90% of their revenue from the federal government)…  Their degree programs would no longer be scrutinized by gainful employment.  And they would be able to advertise themselves as nonprofits…”[30]


Barney is not alone in the post-secondary graft and corruption game.  Corinthian Colleges was the second largest for-profit post-secondary educational corporation in the U.S. before its collapse in 2015 in the face of investigations for fraudulent marketing (including advertising programmes like X-Ray Training School and Ultrasound Tech School, which it did not in fact offer) and predatory loans. More than twenty state attorneys and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are pursuing Corinthian Colleges.  Corinthian put a particularly cruel twist on its pedagogical profiteering, targeting extremely marginalized youth, including the homeless, with bogus promises of educational opportunities that would lead to financial security.[31]

Hollie Harsh and her fiancé Brian French provide a salient example.  Even though they told the recruiter they met with when they toured a northern California Corinthian College campus that they were homeless and unemployed, they were aggressively recruited and encouraged to take on large federal student loans.  By the time Harsh realized her Corinthian College education was taking her nowhere and dropped out, she was $15,000 in debt.[32]

Connie Reeder, a counsellor who works with foster kids and homeless youth tells the story of a former foster child and single mother with learning disabilities who was recruited by Corinthian with promises of additional attention that never materialized.  After only a few days, she quit the college, $6000 in debt.  Her debt was turned over to a credit agency.  She now finds herself saddled with a bad credit history that can only serve to further marginalize her.[33]

Corinthian Colleges also knowingly lied when it told federal officials that it placed two-thirds of its grads in jobs.  Its own internal documents acknowledged its overall lack of success and discussed the need to address it, and an independent auditor could only verify half of the job placements that Corinthian reported   The school also advertised that its credits were transferrable, which was untrue.  Perhaps most egregiously, Corinthian denied its direct relationship with the lending agency it referred its students to, but would then go “to great lengths to collect on the private loans, even encouraging employees to pull students out of class or bar them from entering in order to collect on unpaid debts.”[34]  After its collapse, an Illinois federal district court found Corinthian liable for $530 million in predatory loans.[35]  It seems hard to deny the assertion that the “for-profit college industry is less about teaching anybody anything than it is about creating debt.”[36]


While the student loan problem at for-profit colleges might be particularly scandalous, the problem is, in fact, systemic.  The average amount owed by a graduating student is increasing annually, reaching $35,000 in 2015[37] – the highest average amount to date, but likely to be surpassed in 2016.  Writing at Alternet, David Akadjian tells us:  “Adjusted for inflation, this is more than twice the debt students had to repay just 20 years earlier.”  Additionally, 70% of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree take out a loan, up from less than 50% twenty years ago.  In fact, student loans have become so pervasive and costly that “Student loan debt has surpassed both credit card and auto loan debt.”[38]

If $35,000 sounds like a big number, the debt procured by students pursuing a professional education in the U.S. is almost mind-boggling.

Take law schools.  According to one survey, in 2014, the average indebtedness at more than 100 law schools was well over $100,000.  At one law school, the average debt was more than $170,000 for 91% of students attending the school.  At Columbia and Georgetown Law Schools, the average debt was above $150,000.  At Berkeley, a state-supported law school, the average debt for 78% of law students was over $140,000.  Add to this the debt law students take for four years of college studies, a prerequisite for entering law schools.  According to the White House, average college debt is $23,000. So a law graduate, bearing a total debt of $150,000 at 5.25% interest rate will pay a total of $242,584 over a period of 20 years in monthly installments of over $1,000.  Many law graduates owe well over $200,000 in debt, the payment of which will require a life time. Most lawyers will be in their fifties before the entire loan is paid off.[39]

On November 27, 2015, the New York Times printed a story about Liz Kelley, a Missouri high school teacher and mother of four, who racked up a $410,000 debt as a result of what the paper calls “a series of unremarkable decisions.”  Ms. Kelley went to a private college in 1990, earning an English degree over the next four years, and graduating with a debt $26,278 in debt, actually lower than the average $32,600 for a private college grad.  Ms. Kelley then went to law school, accumulating an additional $37,000 debt in three semesters.  Illness forced Ms. Kelley to drop out of school, at which point she consolidated her two loans, and, with interest, owed $68,518.  When she recovered, Ms. Kelley decided to return to school to pursue a teaching degree, continuing on from there to graduate school, again taking out loans, including additional loans to cover childcare expenses, adding $60,700 to her principal.  By 2005, Ms. Kelley’s total debt was $194,603.  In 2008, a cash-strapped Ms. Kelley decided to take advantage of a federal regulation allowing for deferment of payment for three years in cases of extreme economic hardship.  Her consolidated loan, with interest, now stood at $260,000.  By this point Ms. Kelley’s children were college-aged, and she took on an additional Parent PLUS loan of $12,000 for one of her children.  She also enrolled in the Texas A&M PhD programme, chocking up another $7,458 in loans.  When her loan deferment ended, Ms. Kelly applied for and received additional deferment under a federal forbearance.  In September, she was advised that her grace period would come to a definitive end in sixteen months.  Her total debt stood at $410,000.  At this point, Ms. Kelley has one possible recourse, a federal loan forgiveness program where payments are prorated to her income and her debt is expunged if she works in the public or non-profit sector for ten years.[40]

Care2’s Emily Zak argues that five key factors are driving these levels of indebtedness: 1. College Costs Grow Way Faster Than Inflation – “Adjusted for inflation, tuition and fees at state universities and colleges have increased 230 percent since 1980”; 2. States Continue to Slash Funding for Higher Education – “If states continue to cut funding for public colleges at current rates, they will be giving nothing to higher ed within the next 50 years, according to a study by the American Council on Education”; 3. Universities Are Spending More on Administrative Salaries and Campus Amenties – “The average college president of a public university, in fact, makes nearly four times as much as a full-time professor at $428,000 a year, and some have had salaries exceeding $1 million,” while “spending on extras like new stadiums and luxury dorms also add to costs, as universities try to compete with one another and look good to alumni and donors”; 4. Students Don’t Always Understand How Student Loans Work – “Part of the burden falls on the students who skim through their loans’ terms online, ignoring the fine print. Yet, universities are responsible too: Financial aid offices are notoriously understaffed, and financial literacy training is not widespread”; 5. Americans Haven’t Seen a Raise in Years – “Middle-class workers’ wages have stagnated over the last 30 years, while low-income workers’ pay has slightly fallen. This is an often ignored reason why student debt is so high, says Sheila Bair, president of Washington College and former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.”[41]

The student loan crisis is further exacerbated by the bleak post-graduation employment scenario.  An Economic Policy Institute study suggests “that newly minted grads as a whole likely will earn less and have more spells of unemployment during the next 10 to 15 years than if they had graduated before the (2008) downturn. ‘If your wages are starting lower than they would have been in the past, the potential for growth moving forward is diminished,’ said Tanyell Cooke, a research assistant at EPI who co-authored the report. ‘What’s happening now could effect (sic) these young workers into the future because they’re starting at a point of weakness’.”[42]

One might reasonably ask, “In that situation, why not just declare bankruptcy?”  Thom Hartmann explains:  “Thanks to the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005, it’s now illegal … to get rid of … student loans through bankruptcy.”  This is true of only three other categories of debt:  child support, criminal reparations and unpaid taxes.[43]

Not surprisingly in this scenario “43 percent of borrowers (37 million Americans)[44] – together owing $200 billion – have either stopped making payments or are behind on their student loans,”[45] with “One in six people hav[ing] defaulted entirely.”[46]

We are told that “During the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Education Department moved to garnish $176 million in wages.”[47]  This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg as far as aggressive measures taken to enforce student loan recovery go.  Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, who covers “economics of education” for the Washington Post tells us:

It’s not uncommon for federal agents to get involved in the collection of past due student debt.  The U.S. Department of Education hands over old cases of delinquent debt to the Justice Department after trying to recoup the money through private collection agencies, wage garnishment or withholding tax refunds.

This results in “Thousands of people across the country [being] summoned to appear in court over defaulted federal student debt, according to the Marshals Service.”  Twenty-one states will even “revoke driver’s licenses or professional licenses when people default on their student loans.”[48]

The length to which the state is willing to go to collect these unpaid loans is perhaps best encapsulated in Houston resident Paul Aker’s experience.  Mr. Aker took out student loans in 1987, which he never repaid.  One day this February past, a man dressed in a utility uniform, called Mr. Aker’s name from outside his house.  Feeling that something was amiss, Mr. Aker grabbed his gun.  An hour later, four U.S. Marshals armed “with machine guns, and pistols, and a door battering ram” arrived at Mr. Aker’s home.  He immediately surrendered, was forced to the ground, handcuffed and tossed into an SUV and driven to the courthouse, where he was held shackled in a cell for two hours before appearing before a judge.  Mr. Aker’s original loan of $1500, with interest, had grown to $5700.  He was also assessed $1300 for the “gas and manpower” used in his arrest, bringing his total to $7000.  Mr. Aker points out the obvious; he could have “been shot for $1500.”[49]

In a predictable neoliberal response to the student debt crisis, “Purdue University [partnered] with Vemo Education, a Reston-based financial services firm, to explore the use of income-share agreements, or ISAs, to help students pay for college.”[50]  This how it would work:

In exchange for an education loan of say, $15,000, the lender would require a percentage of a student’s future earnings in return. Let’s say the borrower’s interest is the lowest 4.23 percent rate charged to engineering majors on the assumption one earns around $60,000 a year with such a major: The graduate would pay more than $25,000 back over the span of 116 months.[51]

This, as Benjamin Balthaser argues, “sounds like a Milton Friedman libertarian fantasy” that “is less like a student loan and more like an investment in a stock portfolio or piece of flesh-and-blood real estate.” [52]


Canada has not embraced the neoliberal educational model with the same fervour as its southern neighbour, and that is largely because the social democratic nut to be cracked is much harder.  Nonetheless, as the résumé of McGill University’s Board of Directors presented above indicates, Canada’s educational system has been far from unaffected by the neoliberal corporatization of education.

To begin with government funding for post-secondary education in Canada has dropped drastically over the last five decades. In 2013, the Canadian Federation of Students reported:

In the 1960s and 70s, governments were responsible for more than 90 percent of post-secondary costs. In the 1980s, the government’s share stood at 84 percent of overall funding. Two decades later, government funding accounts for only 57 percent. Higher tuition fees have replaced almost all of the lost government funding.[53]

In October 2015, Universities Canada, which represents ninety-seven of Canada’s 233 public universities,[54] including all of the most prestigious, released a document entitled “Canada’s universities’ commitments to Canadians,” essentially a five-point programme.  The five points, each of which is accompanied by a brief explanation, are, as one would expect of such a document, simultaneously grandiloquent and vapid.  The first point is predictable:  “To equip all students with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish in work and life, empowering them to contribute to Canada’s economic, social and intellectual success.”  The order of the contributions in, nonetheless, revealing – “economic” success is the frontrunner, with “intellectual success” the last consideration.

Commitment 2:  “To pursue excellence in all aspects of learning, discovery and community engagement.”  The accompanying text reads, in part:  “Canada’s universities will continue to nurture and support world-leading research, innovate how we learn, and generate new knowledge by mobilizing the brightest minds, key partners and resources to meet society’s evolving needs.”  Keep these “key partners” in mind; they will move into the forefront in the next three points, clarifying the real meaning of all of this rhetoric.

Commitment 3:  “To deliver a broad range of enriched learning experiences,” with the accompanying text including this passage, “We will work with our partners in the private sector and governments to increase experiential learning and enhance international and Canadian mobility opportunities.”  The “private sector – okay, now we’re getting closer to the point.

Commitment 4:  “To put our best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional or local.” In the explanatory text, we read:  “We will continue to pursue and support ground-breaking research for the benefit of Canada and the world.”  One kind of “ground-breaking research” might we be talking about here?  Commitment 5 – “To help build a stronger Canada through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector, communities, government and other educational institutions in Canada and around the world”answers that question.  We are told:  “Universities serve as connectors and catalysts, bringing together ideas and resources from the private sector, government, colleges and community organizations.”[55]

Putting all of this in perspective, Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary and the new chair of Universities Canada says, “We don’t exist alone in the ecosystem and we want to build bridges to the private sector, to government and non-profits … we feel those partnerships need to be celebrated and even expanded.” As to the nuts and bolts, Alan Shepard, president of Concordia University argues, “There is a shift underway in university culture, towards hands-on learning, where students want more of that, particularly in areas where it has not been there before.”  The article then mentions the fact that “Concordia … sociology and journalism students have work placements as part of their degree.”  So, this putative “hands-on learning” in the context of “private sector partnerships” would inevitably be unpaid labour for corporate sponsors, and that, by extension, would mean shaping students “education” to suit corporate demands.

When the federal Liberal Party came to power in October 2015, Universities Canada began to “lobby the approximately 200 new MPs,” encouraging them to “emphasize the research support that universities need to stay competitive globally and advocate for increased internships and international exchanges.”[56]  This lobbying did in fact bear fruit, in March 2016, the Toronto Star reported that “The federal government has earmarked an extra $2 billion for Canadian universities and colleges over the next three years to help meet the challenges of a changing economy, with the first $500 million available this year.”  At first blush, this sounds like an extremely positive development – until you read the fine print, as it were.  In the final analysis, the $2 billion is not intended to provide students with relief in the form of lower tuition fees, increased education funding for marginalized communities, or even an expanded loan programme; the “new Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund [is] to help university and colleges modernize their on-campus research, commercialization and training facilities.”[57]

In short, to address the declining public spending on education, Canadian universities will increasingly corral students as “human resources” involved in research that will serve the interests of the private sector it is wooing for funding.  This is more than a slightly slippery slope into an increased and more formalized corporatization of Canadian post-secondary education system.


Canada has also not shown the same penchant for privatization as the U.S.  Sharon X. Li and Glen A. Jones report that “Canadian higher education is currently dominated by public institutions, especially in terms of institutions with the legal authority to grant degrees.”[58]  To be precise, the CICIC [Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials] tells us that “there are 233 public universities and colleges across Canada, there are 86 private universities and colleges. Only 19 of these private institutions are universities (or university colleges) and they are located in only five provinces.”  Most of this nineteen are “denominational institutions,” with “Only a few of the institutions that have emerged in the last 15 years [being] newly established non-denominational institutions, such as Yorkville University of New Brunswick (in 2003), University Canada West in British Columbia (in 2004), and Quest University Canada in British Columbia (in 2002).”[59]

It is this latter category that most resembles the American private university model, and it is the section most likely to grow as Canada’s post-secondary education system drifts in the direction of increased corporatism.

Quest University, which only “offers only one degree, a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences” opened in September 2007,[60] and in May 2008, Maclean’s described it as “Canada’s first secular, private, non-profit university.”[61]  One thing you can’t help but notice about Quest is the price tag.  The average tuition in Canada for the 2015-2016 school year was $6091.00, slightly higher than the B.C. average of $5305.00.  In the case of international students, the national average rises to $21,932.00.[62]  Quest’s website places the cost for the 2016-2017 school year at $47,300.00-49,800.00 for Canadian students and $48,10.00-50,600.00 for international students (the only difference being an $800.00 medical insurance policy that foreign students must buy).  The tuition in both cases is $32,500, but this is compounded by an obligatory $12,500 in room and board.  Students must live on campus.  As the Quest website puts it, “Living in a community is an integral part of the Quest experience.  As such, students live on campus for all four years of their undergraduate degree.”  Double-bunking will allow students to knock about $1,400.00 off of that.[63]

The price tag aside, Quest University is a relatively good example of the new privatized model.  The private business college University Canada West, also located in B.C., has, however, been plagued with the sort of the problems we saw in the U.S.  In 2010, the university shut down its Victoria campus only days after registering students for courses.  Although students had been told when registering that their accumulated credits would be fully transferrable, when two students, Josey Reynolds and Ricki Peterson, both of whom had received government loans, attempted to transfer to Camuson College in Victoria they were told that “their UCW courses will have to be assessed before their credits can be accepted.”  When asked why the university didn’t allow students finish their programs before closing the campus, Roydon Trainor, a spokesman from the Eminata Group, UCW’s owner, replied, “We are always enrolling students.  It would be irresponsible to drag out a process once we knew the decision was going to be made.”  That, of course begs the question why enroll students once it was clear “the decision was going to be made.”[64]

UCW is also a student loan disaster area.  According to Student Aid BC’s website, “30 per cent of UCW students defaulted on their government-backed loans in 2009.  That compares with a default rate of 3.7% at the University of British Columbia and 4.7% at the University of Victoria.”  New Democratic Party Member of the Legislative Assembly Rob Fleming, a critic of the private post-secondary education system in BC, chocks this situation up to a combination students either being unable to complete their programs or failing to find adequate employment when they graduate.[65]  That this is the case for approximately seven times more of the students educated at UCW should raise a red flag.

The reader will recall the collapse of the corruption ridden Corinthian Colleges in the U.S. described above.  At the same time as all of this was unfolding, in February 2015, Corinthian’s Canadian subsidiary in Ontario, Everest, a vocational college with campuses throughout the province, was forced to shut its doors when the superintendent of the regulatory boy Private Career Colleges pulled its license to operate because of “financial concerns.”[66]  Both former students and former instructors allege that Everest’s key interest was signing up a many students as possible, and then passing them no matter what to continue collecting on their student loans.[67]  In the aftermath of Everest’s collapse, students found themselves holding worthless degrees – and student debts.  They wanted debt forgiveness.[68]  Within weeks, the Ontario government had stepped in with $7.6 million to provide students with relief.[69]

Although still a minor player overall, the private post-secondary educational system in Canada is not off to a promising start.


When it comes to the student loan situation, Canada is not faring all that much better than the U.S.  In a 2015 report, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) reported that “Students requiring a Canada Student Loan now graduate with an average debt of over $28,000,” while “30% of medical students expect to graduate with over $100,000 in student debt.”  The outstanding student loan debt to the Canada Student Loans Program alone total more than $16 billion.

Increasing student debt also has secondary impacts.  Rising tuitions and the need to take on larger student loans can have a negative impact on “racialised communities, lower income families, and single parents [who] are more likely to hold strong negative feelings toward taking on student debt.” [70]  This is a situation that is unlikely to improve.  “The federal government predicts tuition fees will rise at a rate of 2.5 percent above inflation annually over the next 25 years.  At this rate, it is expected that fees will increase from an average of $5,959 in 2014-153 to $19,900 in 2035-36.” [71]

In the case of students who have taken loans, the overall impact serves to narrow their opportunity and block their access to full social participation.  “For example, very high student debt levels among medicine program graduates appears to be a driving force behind young doctors abandoning the idea of family practice, instead choosing to enter higher-paying specialist positions.”[72] This is, of course, only one example:  “Student debt also acts to discourage entrepreneurship” overall.[73]  It also fuels a growing tendency for you adults to continue living in their parents’ homes.  “The 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) found that 42 percent of young adults were still living at home, up over 15 percent since 1981.  The primary reason given was poor employment opportunities, high cost of living/housing, and student debt,” factors that are also “creating conditions for young Canadians that significantly reduce their ability to [purchase a home].” Compared to their peers, people encumbered with student debt have “Lower net-worth, accumulated assets and a reduced ability to save and invest…”[74]

While the post-secondary education system in Canada has not deteriorated to the degree that is the case for the U.S., all of the building blocks of that decline are now in place.  We see an increasing corporate takeover of university boards, a process reinforced by Universities Canada’s so-called commitment to Canadians, which is to all intents and purposes a commitment to Canada’s private sector, something that is reinforced by the Canadian state’s post-secondary education funding decisions.  We also see the infiltration of private educational institutions, and as the UCW and Everest experiences show, they replicate the problems found in the U.S.  Finally, we see crippling levels of debt that seem destined to rise.  In short, the neoliberal educational system slowly establishing itself, and the experience of our neighbor to the south tells us what we can expect.

[1] David Small, Neoliberalism’s Fate:  Implications for Education – Paper presented at 37th Annual Conference of ANZCIES, November 24-27, 2009, p. 8

[2] Janice Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen:  Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, Murdoch University, Western Australia (2009), 36, accessed at:  http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/4625/2/02Whole.pdf

[3] Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen, 194.

[4] Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen, 195.

[5] Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen, 199.

[6] McGill University Board of Governors 2015-1016, accessed at:  https://www.mcgill.ca/boardofgovernors/board-governors-2015-2016/composition-and-membership-2015-16#ZALBA

[7] Harvard University Board of Overseers 2015-2016, accessed at:  http://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvards-leadership/board-overseers

[8] Kandido, “Neoliberalism in Higher Education,” 157-158.

[9] Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen, 209.

[10] Dudley, Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism, and the Market Citizen, 217.

[11] Kandido, “Neoliberalism in Higher Education,” 159.

[12] Dave Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher Education Investments Advance Political Goals,” Truthout (November 8, 2015), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33567-koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals

[13] Alex Kotch, “Inside Charles Koch’s Plot to Hijack Universities Across America and Spread His Radical ‘Free-Market’ Propaganda,” Truthout (June 24, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.alternet.org/investigations/inside-charles-kochs-plot-hijack-universities-across-america?akid=14390.7338.rJ4GH6&rd=1&src=newsletter1059118&t=2

[14] Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher Education Investments Advance Political Goals,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33567-koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals

[15] Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher Education Investments Advance Political Goals,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33567-koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals

[16] Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher Education Investments Advance Political Goals,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33567-koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals

[17] Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher Education Investments Advance Political Goals,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33567-koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals

[18] David Levinthal, “Koch Brothers Supersize Higher Education Spending,” Truthout (December 20, 2015), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34105-koch-brothers-supersize-higher-education-spending

[19] Cato Institute Board of Directors, accessed at:  http://www.cato.org/board-of-directors

[20] Patricia Cohen, “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream,” New York Times (May 7, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/an-ayn-rand-acolyte-selling-students-a-self-made-dream.html?emc=edit_th_20160508&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=2

[21] Cohen, “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/an-ayn-rand-acolyte-selling-students-a-self-made-dream.html?emc=edit_th_20160508&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=2

[22] Title IV of the U.S. Higher Education Act governs federal student financial aid programmes.

[23] Molly Hensley-Clancy, “How To Make Big Money From Education As A ‘Covert For-Profit’,” Buzzfeed News (October 6, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/mollyhensleyclancy/covert-for-profit-universities?utm_term=.bnnkbYGG2#.gkQprX44q

[24] Cohen, “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/an-ayn-rand-acolyte-selling-students-a-self-made-dream.html?emc=edit_th_20160508&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=2

[25] Cohen, “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/an-ayn-rand-acolyte-selling-students-a-self-made-dream.html?emc=edit_th_20160508&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=2

[26] David Halperin, “Report Exposes For-Profit College Abuses in Converting to Nonprofits,” Truthout (October 10, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33140-report-exposes-for-profit-college-abuses-in-converting-to-non-profits

[27] Cohen, “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/an-ayn-rand-acolyte-selling-students-a-self-made-dream.html?emc=edit_th_20160508&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=2

[28] Sarah Lazare, “Meet the Ayn Rand Enthusiast Whose Private College Empire Reaps a Fortune From the Government,” Truthout (May 15, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/36034-meet-the-ayn-rand-enthusiast-whose-private-college-empire-reaps-a-fortune-from-the-government

[29] Halperin, “Report Exposes For-Profit College Abuses in Converting to Nonprofits,” accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33140-report-exposes-for-profit-college-abuses-in-converting-to-non-profits

[30] Molly Hensley-Clancy, “How To Make Big Money From Education As A ‘Covert For-Profit’,” Buzzfeed News (October 6, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/mollyhensleyclancy/covert-for-profit-universities?utm_term=.bnnkbYGG2#.gkQprX44q

[31] Annie Waldman, “How a For-Profit College Targeted the Homeless and Kids With Low Self-Esteem,” Truthout (March 21, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35302-how-a-for-profit-college-targeted-the-homeless-and-kids-with-low-self-esteem

[32] Waldman, “How a For-Profit College Targeted the Homeless and Kids With Low Self-Esteem,” accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35302-how-a-for-profit-college-targeted-the-homeless-and-kids-with-low-self-esteem

[33] Waldman, “How a For-Profit College Targeted the Homeless and Kids With Low Self-Esteem,” accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35302-how-a-for-profit-college-targeted-the-homeless-and-kids-with-low-self-esteem

[34] Waldman, “How a For-Profit College Targeted the Homeless and Kids With Low Self-Esteem,” accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35302-how-a-for-profit-college-targeted-the-homeless-and-kids-with-low-self-esteem

[35] Annie Waldman, “Who Keeps Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Flowing to For-Profit Colleges?” Truthout (November 4, 2015), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33521-who-keeps-billions-of-taxpayer-dollars-flowing-to-for-profit-colleges

[36] The Daily Take Team, The Thom Hartmann Program, “Would You Like Some Crushing Debt With That Degree?” Truthout (March 2, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29397-would-you-like-some-crippling-debt-with-that-degree

[37] A more recent report puts the figure at $37,000:  Chuck Collins, “A Commencement Address for the Most Indebted Class Ever,” Alternet (May 18, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.alternet.org/economy/commencement-address-most-indebted-class-ever?akid=14273.7338.i3OhXF&rd=1&src=newsletter1056779&t=18

[38] David Akadjian, “How Student Debt Hurts Everything From School Performance to the U.S. Economy,” Alternet (February 25, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.alternet.org/education/how-student-debt-hurts-everything-school-performance-us-economy?akid=14008.7338.wQI-7n&rd=1&src=newsletter1051277&t=22

[39] L. Ali Khan, “Indentured Graduates in America,” Counterpunch (December 10, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/10/indentured-graduates-in-america/

[40] Kevin Carey, “Student Debt in America:  Lend With a Smile, Collect With a Fist,” New York Times (November 27, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/upshot/student-debt-in-america-lend-with-a-smile-collect-with-a-fist.html?emc=edit_th_20151129&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[41] Emily Zak, “Five Reasons Why Student Debt Is Skyrocketing,” Truthout (June 4, 2016), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/36275-five-reasons-why-student-debt-is-skyrocketing

[42] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Graduating from college this year? Employers are hiring … well, sort of,” Washington Post (May 2, 2016), accessed at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/05/02/graduating-from-college-this-year-employers-are-hiring-well-sort-of/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines

[43] Thom Hartmann, “Why Are Students Denied the Right to Bankruptcy?” Truthout (February 22, 2016), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/34936-why-are-students-denied-the-right-to-bankruptcy

[44] Hartmann, “Why Are Students Denied the Right to Bankruptcy?” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/34936-why-are-students-denied-the-right-to-bankruptcy

[45] Collins, “A Commencement Address for the Most Indebted Class Ever,” http://www.alternet.org/economy/commencement-address-most-indebted-class-ever?akid=14273.7338.i3OhXF&rd=1&src=newsletter1056779&t=18

[46] “40% of Students Not Complying with Student Loan Payments,” Democracy Now! (April 8, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.democracynow.org/2016/4/8/headlines/40_of_students_not_complying_with_student_loan_payments?utm_source=democracy+now%21&utm_campaign=9ccd39d25c-daily_digest&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa2346a853-9ccd39d25c-191727937

[47] Collins, “A Commencement Address for the Most Indebted Class Ever,” http://www.alternet.org/economy/commencement-address-most-indebted-class-ever?akid=14273.7338.i3OhXF&rd=1&src=newsletter1056779&t=18

[48] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “U.S. Marshals arrested this man over a three-decade-old student loan,” Washington Times (February 16, 2016), accessed at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/02/16/u-s-marshals-arrested-this-man-over-a-three-decade-old-student-loan/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_highered

[49] Carol Off and Jeff Douglas, “Armed with machine guns US Marshals arrest people over unpaid student loans,” CBC Radio (February 16, 2016), accessed at:http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/tuesday-edition-1.3450287/armed-with-machine-guns-us-marshals-arrest-people-over-unpaid-student-loans-1.3450289

[50] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Investors buying shares in college students: Is this the wave of the future? Purdue University thinks so.” Washington Post (November 27, 2015), accessed at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/11/27/investors-buying-shares-in-college-students-is-this-the-wave-of-the-future-purdue-university-thinks-so/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_highered

[51] Benjamin Balthaser, “New Student Debt Scheme Turns Students Into Stock Options,” Truthout (June 23, 2016), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/36543-new-student-debt-scheme-turns-students-into-stock-options

[52] Benjamin Balthaser, “New Student Debt Scheme Turns Students Into Stock Options,” Truthout (June 23, 2016), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/36543-new-student-debt-scheme-turns-students-into-stock-options

[53] Canadian Federation of Students, “Funding for Post-Secondary Education” (Fall 2013), accessed at:  http://cfs-fcee.info/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/11/Fact-Sheet-Funding-2013-11-En.pdf

[54] Sharon X. Li and Glen A. Jones, “The ‘Invisible’ Sector: Private Higher Education in Canada,” in Private Higher Education:  A Global Perspective, ed. K.M. Joshi and S. Paivandi (Dehli, India:  B.R. Publishing, 2015), p. 4

[55] Universities Canada, “Canada’s universities ‘ commitments to Canadians” (Ottawa:  Universities Canada, October 2015), 2

[56] Simona Chiose, “Canadian universities want to increase private sector partnerships,” Globe and Mail (October 28, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadian-universities-commit-to-helping-students-gain-real-world-experience/article27010871/

[57] Dana Flavelle, “Universities and colleges to get $2B boost,” Toronto Star (March 22, 2016), accessed at:  https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/03/22/canadian-universities-colleges-to-get-2-billion-more-to-meet-needs-of-changing-economy.html

[58] Li and Jones, “The ‘Invisible’ Sector,” p. 4.

[59] Li and Jones, “The ‘Invisible’ Sector,” p. 9.

[60] Quest University website, accessed at:  http://www.questu.ca/

[61] Erin Millar, “Private university?  Don’t be Vulgar,” Maclean’s (May 12, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/canadas-first-non-profit-private-university-quest-u-raises-eyebrows/

[62] Statistics Canada, “University tuition Fees 2015/2016,” accessed at:  http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/150909/dq150909b-eng.htm

[63] Quest University website, accessed at:  http://www.questu.ca/

[64] Kathy Tomlinson, “Students derailed by private university,” CBC News (March 15, 2011), accessed at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/students-derailed-by-private-university-1.1098148

[65] Tomlinson, “Students derailed by private university,” accessed at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/students-derailed-by-private-university-1.1098148

[66] Josh Elliott, “Ontario’s Everest College shut down amid financial concerns,” CTV News (February 19, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/ontario-s-everest-college-shut-down-amid-financial-concerns-1.2243820[67] Sophia Harris, “Everest College closure no surprise to some who call it a scam,” CBC News (February 25, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/everest-college-closure-no-surprise-to-some-who-call-it-a-scam-1.2969513[68] Sophia Harris, “Everest College grads want loan forgiveness for ‘worthless’ diploma,” CBC News (April 17, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/everest-college-grads-want-loan-forgiveness-for-worthless-diploma-1.3036143

[69] Kristin Rushowy, “Ontario to provide $7.6M to help former Everest College students,” Toronto Star (March 11, 2015), accessed at:  https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/03/11/ontario-to-provide-76m-to-help-former-everest-college-students.html

[70] Glenn Burley and Adam Awad, “The Impact of Student Debt,” Canadian Federation of Students (2015), 1-2.

[71] Burley and Awad, “The Impact of Student Debt,” 4.

[72] Burley and Awad, “The Impact of Student Debt,” 6.

[73] Burley and Awad, “The Impact of Student Debt,” 13.

[74] Burley and Awad, “The Impact of Student Debt,” 8-9.

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