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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1999

David Strangway's Private University - A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Bill Bruneau
Canadian university and college teachers have been warned about privatization so often they're beginning to think it's a put-up job. A UBC colleague reminded me the other day about the fairy-tale of the boy who cried wolf one time too many.

If my colleague were referring to the creeping tide of named chairs, and named buildings, and Coca-Cola deals, then it might be reasonable not to cry wolf quite yet. Soon, maybe, but not yet.

But if we're talking about pharmaceutical and engineering corporations who want to acquire "products" from us in the form of carefully pre-trained graduates and scientific findings designed for immediate commercial exploitation, and if we're talking about forms of accountability that link our programs directly to employment and markets, then the wolf truly is at the door. These developments are about advancing proprietary interests at the expense of civic values, liberal education, and transparently public universities.

Even so, some argue that such changes are the necessary and inevitable "costs" of a modern and flexible university. To such enthusiasts, I propose the case of David Strangway's new "private university" in British Columbia.

David Strangway, immediate past-president of the University of British Columbia, has announced he will create a "university" in Squamish, a sawmill town on B.C.'s south-west coast about 30 kilometres north of Vancouver. Times have often been hard in Squamish, and its municipal and business leaders are looking for ways to strengthen the town's economic base.

Dr. Strangway proposes to build a new "university" in the town, diversifying its social and economic base, and thus smoothing the effects of the ups-and-downs of the forest industry. The notion is that a donor will offer a sizeable chunk of land for the new institution, in return for a healthy tax receipt.

The town will re-zone that land so that it can be developed for residential and commercial real estate. A developer will build the entire project, charging whatever the market will bear for residences and business premises on this prime land adjacent to a "university."

Dr. Strangway will sell off portions of his donated land for development, thus raising funds to build the institution and generating an endowment to provide scholarships to young people unable to afford the $25,000 annual tuition fees he would otherwise charge. All of this will be at no cost to Dr. Strangway and his associates.

Dr. Strangway insists his proposed university will be entirely private and independent of public financial support. He claims it meets the needs of a highly specific "niche market," and thus will not compete with Canada's public universities for students or for capital.

He aims to make the curriculum of the new "university" as liberal as possible, and to require every graduating student to acquire and use at least one Asian language, not to mention one or two Anglo-European ones.

He says his student body will start at 200, and never exceed 800, and that his professors will teach, but do no research. He recently let it be known he would welcome university teachers who would come from UBC or Simon Fraser, either "loaned" to his institution or "moonlighting" for nominal pay -- after all, future students might not be easily attracted to a completely research-less university.

There are plenty of reasons to be worried, and in the end opposed to Strangway U (SU).

Dr. Strangway says his university will appeal to a small niche market.

  • Does this mean SU is mainly in the business of marketing - niche-marketing - rather than educating?
  • Should Canadian universities satisfy niche-markets or should they serve a broader public interest?
  • Is a niche-university, unconcerned with broad questions of cultural, political, and economic development and uncommitted to research, really a "university" (in the usual sense at all?
  • The niche of students who can afford the $25,000 annual tuition does not exist in isolation of what is happening at other Canadian post-secondary institutions. It surely won't be long before administrators at public universities and ministry of finance people start to say, "Look, if they can charge $25,000 per annum at SU, we'll forget altogether about limits on tuition. Let's go for full cost recovery. If they can, we can."

Dr. Strangway says his university "won't use public funds, and won't compete with public institutions."

  • The land for SU was donated, in return for a tax receipt - likely worth millions of dollars of foregone income tax.
  • It was a public body, the Municipality of Squamish, whose re-zoning instantly increased the land value of the property where SU will reside. That value may be realized by SU authorities in future land sales, leases or bond issues. This is indirect public "funding" on a massive scale.
  • Canadian students and landed immigrants at SU will likely have access to the Canada Student Loan program, a program supported by the Canadian government and providing a financial benefit to students - and an indirect benefit to SU.
  • Despite what Dr. Strangway says, his professors will surely be tempted to do research, someday, somehow. And when they do, they'll look for grants from the publicly-funded granting councils (SSHRCC, NSERC, MRC, Canada Council).
  • In proposing to "share" UBC and Simon Fraser professors, Dr. Strangway hopes to attract professors whose expertise results from research in publicly-built and publicly-supported laboratories and libraries. This would be a literally incalculable subsidy to SU.
  • And finally, it is highly likely SU would one day find itself asking for operating funds from the state, and probably sooner than later. We have substantial historic precedent in Canada of private institutions seeking direct funds from the state, and the modern examples of Buckingham University (Britain) and Bond University (Australia), both of which began with high hopes of perfect independence from the public purse, and both of which are increasingly dependent on direct and indirect public expenditures.

SU, if it proceeds on plan, will surely draw on Canada's scarce financial resources. After a quarter-century of continuous cuts in public finance for public universities and colleges, and at a time of rising Canadian demand for places in post-secondary education, it makes no sense whatever to lay out huge sums of hidden public money for SU (and all other "private" post-secondary education providers, for that matter).

It's worth adding, SU and its kind are or would be in direct competition not just for funds, but also for academic reputation, and for able and excellent professors and students. Considering tuition costs at SU (and since SU will have no adequate library or laboratories for some time, if ever) it would seem the competition might be weak.

But this expensive and untried university must compete with public institutions to persuade people to come. SU wants to lay claim to traditional liberal education, but can it keep the liberal-education "faith" in a tough and competitive environment?

In its desperation for funds, surely it runs the risk of having to surrender to private and proprietary interests, to the detriment of us all.

What we see here is the beginning of a failure of the notions of the public good and public trust in higher education. If we decide now to charter SU, we open ourselves to becoming a home for academic maquiladoras.

Already the University of Phoenix, City University, Gonzaga University, and their like, are moving northward and demanding equal rights (charters, public recognition, indirect public funding - the lot). Under the free-trade regime of the moment, it is hard to resist them, even though they have no commitment whatever to the Canadian public interest.

If we charter SU we prepare the ground for "universities" flying flags of convenience for short-sighted, self-interested investors. We open the door to the idea that enormous tuition fees are acceptable and possible -- and thus undermine the Canadian tradition of access to post-secondary education (not that we're anything like accessible enough).

The power to grant degrees confers a public trust. After all, post-secondary education is about the transformation of adults who come to universities and colleges in order to learn, and to develop. University teachers have a huge responsibility. Dare we trust private, niche-oriented (and in some cases, profit-oriented) institutions to do this important public work? Of course not.

The Government of British Columbia should deny SU a charter, and the Government of Canada should ensure SU is denied access to all indirect and direct forms of public funding. SU could still come to exist, but only as a wholly and truly private institution.

Otherwise, it seems to me that Dr. Strangway would be better off working for the welfare of the public system from which he has long benefited and which he so long helped to lead.

Bill Bruneau is with the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and past president of CAUT.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.