I feel there is a bit of hypocrisy being shown by those who claim to be shocked – shocked! – that some universities may be hiring lobbyists to advocate on their behalf. As reported by the Canadian Press earlier this week, provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath revealed that nine Ontario colleges and universities had spent close to $1 million on lobbyists to influence the government.
Much as we don’t want to think about it – like the image of one’s parents having sex – universities lobby, as disturbing as that may be.
And, like just about any other organization, universities occasionally resort to the use of contract help. If you don’t have the expertise or human resources necessary to accomplish a task, you hire someone to offer advice or to help you out. Areas that immediately come to mind where this may occur include institutional research and analysis, communications, marketing and recruitment. Why should lobbying be any different?
According to a local newspaper, Wilfrid Laurier University, one of the universities named, said they hired a lobbying firm for a little more than a year because, at the time, they didn’t have a full-time government relations person on staff. The University of Waterloo, meanwhile, said it hired a lobbying firm to help it with a federal funding issue because the university didn’t have a government-relations specialist with sufficient familiarity with the federal bureaucracy.
Laurentian University said it hired a lobbyist to help with the university’s bid to open a school of architecture. As reported in the Sudbury Star, a spokesman for the university said the Laurentian administration determined it would be cheaper to hire the firm to hold day-to-day meetings with government than it would be to hire staff and pay their travel expenses to work on the architecture school proposal. In other words, the university determined it would be a more efficient use of funds.
Some have claimed that it is simply unseemly for universities, which receive much of their funding from government, to use public funds to lobby for more public funds. But that’s a bit of red herring. If these universities had, in fact, hired additional personnel to engage in these activities, rather than contracting from outside, how would that have been any different?
Don’t get me wrong: like many Canadians, I am a bit queasy about the whole idea of buying access to politicians. However, last time I checked, lobbying is a legal activity and universities – like any organization – would be foolish not to take advantage of it. Universities have interests to defend and needs to be met, and it is incumbent on them to communicate these to government in an efficient, effective and professional manner.
If you think lobbying should be banned outright, fine, that is a legitimate position and we can have that discussion. But until it is banned, I don’t see why universities shouldn’t be able to hire lobbyists to advance their cause.