Date of Award

January 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Research

First Advisor

Marcus Weaver-Hightower


The growing power and permeation of neoliberal ideology across all facets of social life has been instrumental in promoting and orchestrating a shift among Canadian post-secondary institutions towards a reductive view of schooling at the expense of a more liberatory vision of education. The aim of this study was to examine the connections between power, education, and democracy in relation to the neoliberal restructuring of higher education in Canada, while simultaneously exploring discourses of resistance to neoliberal hegemony. Using critical discourse analysis, this study begins by establishing the promotion and naturalization of neoliberal ideology within the policy landscape of Canadian higher education via four discursive manifestations: the reduction of education to a market function by emphasizing job training and curricular compatibility with labor market needs; the construction of students as economic entities or customers who are in the business of purchasing an education for their own personal, material gain; the commercialization of knowledge and research achieved via the establishment of formal linkages between post-secondary education and the private sector; and the trend to compensate for decreased public funding for post-secondary education by promoting “internationalization” which positions international students as a source of revenue generation and human capital. This study then documented the successes, challenges, and teachings of the largest and most recent student-led, grassroots-based movement in Canadian history--the Maple Spring of 2012--which launched a powerful counter-story to the prevailing doctrine of neoliberalism in Canadian educational and social policy. In unprecedented collective action--and despite vilification by the state and media who variably pathologized student protesters as disengaged and lazy or violent and extreme--students used a local policy proposal to illuminate a global ideological shift threatening to transform and obliterate public spaces and services, while interrupting the dominant neoliberal discourse. By presenting a vision for education as a form of cultural politics and vehicle for social justice, this student movement defended institutions of higher education as public resources that serve the common good as opposed to profit-driven entities subservient to the market economy. Considered together, the findings from this study aim to contribute to the ongoing conversation regarding the role of higher education in democratic life and the link, however fractured and tenuous it currently may be, between activism and social policy.