Students concerned over Microsoft-U of Waterloo deal

The $2.3-million funding partnership announced Wednesday between Microsoft Canada and the University of Waterloo (UW) has the school’s student federation feeling “disconcerted” over some of the requirements of the deal.

Microsoft Canada announced that it has established a $10-million fund to promote technology initiatives within accredited Canadian universities. [Please see MS gives Canadian universities a technology boost.]

UW is the program’s first recipient, getting $2.3 million in funding and Microsoft technology which will go towards developing a mathematical recognition engine for the Tablet PC, a next-generation portable computer that includes an advanced handwriting recognition capability. The university-developed engine will enable mathematicians to enter and compute complex formulas using pen-based input.

As part of the grant, the school will provide a C# programming course for secondary school students applying to its Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty. C# is a Microsoft-developed language as part of its .NET Web services offerings.

While corporate donations to the university are normally welcome, the funding announcement makes a “dangerous precedent,” said Ryan O’Connor, vice-president of education for the UW Federation of Students in Waterloo, Ont.

The UW Federation of Students represents over 18,000 undergraduate students.

O’Connor said the fact that students will have to take the course before being admitted into the program calls into question the “academic autonomy” of the school.

“The decision to add these course requirements should have been made at the university level, not through an announcement by Microsoft,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said the Federation is investigating whether all the “proper channels” were followed before deciding how to respond.

Representatives from Microsoft Canada and UW were not immediately available for comment.

“This illustrates that when external organizations offer the university money, they can effectively purchase their way into the curriculum,” O’Connor said. We’re quite concerned that a corporation is dictating the academic agenda of the university.”