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Commercializing higher learning through the discourse of skills in university co-operative education: Tensions and contradictions

The last 3 decades have witnessed the rise of reforms aimed at conjoining Canadian universities to the economic system. Critics have pointed out how reforms have emphasized economic utility in universities to the detriment of their sociocultural mission, producing negative effects. One curricular innovation that has spread in tandem with reforms is co-operative education (co-op), which is seen to improve economic utility but has not attracted critical scrutiny. This article offers a socially critical perspective on co-op that draws on conceptual work and a sub-set of empirical data from a multi-case study conducted in one university. A tentative portrait emerged of a previously unexplored avenue of commercialization that is mediated through co-op. The process began with students enrolling to deal with personal financial burdens and to feel more secure about their economic futures. Once in co-op, students were exposed to competitive market processes that immersed them in the commercial activity of packaging, exchanging, and accumulating their human capital, using “skills” as discursive currency. Students internalized the discipline of the market, taking an entrepreneurial stance towards their self-definition and presentation. Programmatic features did not to enable students to reflect on or remediate negative experiences (e.g., tacit or explicit sexism) or distorting effects (e.g., devaluation of sociocultural skills). Their experiences highlighted areas for further critical investigation: the devaluation of the liberal arts; power dynamics and asymmetries between employers, administrators, and students; and patterns of social relations (e.g., the exercise of gendered power) in labour markets, workplaces, and universities. The article concludes that a rebalancing of economic and sociocultural purposes is needed in co-op, and the scope of critical inquiries into economistic reforms should be extended to include micro-level effects produced through the market-driven processes at the heart of co-op.