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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2000

No Point to Private Universities

Bill Graham
The Government of Ontario is once again looking favourably at the question of private universities. This time, however, it isn't Bette Stevenson's Wolf University, but rather institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Unexus — so-called virtual or on-line universities. South of the border the issue is equally hot because of the franchise-like expansion of the University of Phoenix, the establishment of Western Governors University and ICS — a new for-profit university funded by publisher Harcourt Brace. As well, there's the recent decision of the North-Central Association of Colleges and Schools to accredit Jones International University (the first accreditation of a completely virtual institution).

Student demand for higher education will grow across Canada in the next decade due of a number of factors: the increase in the population of 18- to 24-year-olds as well as the needs of the so-called knowledge economy, resulting in a greater participation rate among the cohort. In addition, the elimination of Grade 13 in Ontario will create added pressure known as "the double cohort problem." Enrolments could increase as much as 40 per cent by 2010. But Ontario, like other provinces, is ill prepared for the coming demands. Funding from the federal government and the provincial treasuries remains stagnant and woefully inadequate; no plans have been made to address the incredible faculty shortages which will be created; and the almost total concentration by both levels of government on the pressing issues of health care has all but shut out any serious confrontation of the ticking time bomb that is post-secondary education.

Like jurisdictions elsewhere, the Ontario government has been attracted to private universities because they believe that private universities could address the issue of access without drawing on public funding, and that they would be more sensitive to the immediate training needs of the marketplace and so provide a new level of competitiveness to the traditional university system, forcing those universities to be more amenable to the demands of the government.

But private universities are not the answer to the problems facing higher education. The history of private universities in North America shows governments eventually are dragged into supporting even the elite among private universities — Harvard and Yale, for example. Such universities are now differentiated from the publicly funded institutions by the term "publicly assisted" institutions.

Firstly, governments must offer student aid programs to students at so-called private as well as public universities, and the tuition at the private institutions has been many times higher than that at public ones.

Secondly, research of any quality and intensity can no longer be carried out at universities without high degrees of government subsidy. The Canadian government has attempted to hide this basic fact from themselves and the public by insisting on partnerships with the private sector for most of its government-sponsored research, but this too is bound to undercut the long-term usefulness of university-based research to the public and to industry alike. Research is most useful in the long run when it is driven by the logic of the discipline rather than the need to generate short-term profits. Indeed, no institution can purport to be an institution of higher learning if its faculty are not engaged in the creation of the new knowledge we designate by the term "research." Virtual or on-line universities fall victim to this necessity because they do not have the critical core of full-time faculty required to carry out serious research, nor is it possible for them to develop such a critical core of full-time faculty.

Thirdly, without a critical core of full-time faculty virtual universities cannot offer tenure to their faculty — and without tenure there is no guarantee of academic freedom. So, what some officials believe is an asset of a virtual university — the ability to avoid tenure — is actually a liability, because the guarantee of academic freedom supplied by tenure is precisely the condition which allows faculty members to take the scholarly risks which high level or cutting-edge research entails. It is also the condition which allows faculty members to engage their students in critical education rather than simply passing on a testable skill to them. It is this ability of a university to educate people in a critical and thoughtful approach to any subject matter which distinguishes the university from a mere training institution.

Fourthly, without a critical core of full-time faculty virtual universities cannot sustain a collegial form of institutional governance. It is the faculty which must be in charge of creating a curriculum of studies and be responsible for the creation, delivery and assessment of that curriculum. Virtual universities engage in a practice known as "unbundling." That is, the faculty are course "facilitators," subject in many respects to a group of "content experts" who determine the curriculum, on the one hand, and to a group of "mentors" who deal with student problems and assessments, on the other. Universities as they now exist are amply suited to use the latest means in technology, including on-line services, to enhance their curricula, without giving themselves over to dubious partnerships with private instructional providers.

Fifthly, virtual universities have studiously resisted any attempts at faculty unionization and have no provisions for free collective bargaining by their faculty employees. Yet, faculty organization and collective bargaining are essential elements in any truly democratic system of governance. It is faculty associations and unions which have done the most to protect the quality of our universities and to keep the standards high; to enhance professionalism, guarantee due process and provide for equity among individuals; to defend academic freedom and scholarly integrity; and to protect the bond between the faculty-member-as-mentor and the student-as-learner (rather than as mere consumer). Faculty associations and their collective agreements are also the proper guardians of the intellectual property generated by faculty research.

In short, private universities are not the answer to the needs of higher education in the coming years. They serve no useful function in Canada, and they cannot set aside the responsibility of governments — at both the federal and provincial levels — to address the need to provide substantial core funding for Canada's public universities.