Former University of Victoria president David Strong last month received approval from the British Columbia government to call his new institution a university, the first such approval given under the province's controversial Degree Authorization Act.
University Canada West, Strong's private post-secondary institution, will be housed in an elementary school recently closed down by the Greater Victoria School District, and will initially offer two degrees - a bachelor of commerce and a master's in business administration.
The approval comes despite criticism from B.C.'s academics that UCW falls far short of the benchmark set by the province's public universities.
"A university should offer a wide range of instructional programs backed up by an extensive research mandate," said Norma Wieland, president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. "From the information that has been made available to date, David Strong's institution is nowhere close to meeting that goal."
The organization representing educators at the province's university-colleges, colleges and institutes considers the government resort to creating private universities as highly dubious.
"The B.C. government's emphasis on allowing the expansion of private universities is a failed vision," said Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. "What we need in B.C. is for the government to commit to high-quality, affordable post-secondary education so that average and low-income students and their families are not disadvantaged. These private universities are notoriously expensive and certainly do not address the access problems for students."
Tuition for a full undergraduate degree program at UCW is expected to amount to $40,000, more than double the cost of similar programs at public universities.
In the written submission to the province's Degree Quality Assessment Board, Learningwise Inc., the parent company of UCW, proposes to offer degree programs primarily in business administration and related fields, supplemented with programs in other fields such as geomatics, occupational health and safety, horticulture and tourism. General studies BA and BSc degrees are also slated to be offered.
Details are sketchy in the Learningwise submission on how UCW intends to fulfill the research mandate required by the assessment board. However, UCW faculty are expected to have "a solid research background" before they come to the institution, it said.
According to Wieland, Strong intends to hire retired faculty members, administrators and business people to teach at UCW. "By doing so, he can avoid the cost of setting up a research infrastructure to support new and mid-career faculty."
The UCW research plan includes setting aside a portion of net revenue for research by core faculty, but Strong refused to provide any estimates to CUFA/BC of how much this would amount to on an annual basis.
"The fundamental problem here is that it is impossible for the general public to know what they are getting with this institution," said Robert Clift, executive director of CUFA/BC. "The public universities operate in an atmosphere of openness and accountability, but Strong has been able to conceal the details of his plans and yet still get government approval."
Earlier this year, Strong dodged requests from CUFA/BC for further details on the Learningwise applications for university status and degree programs, saying the information soon would be made available on the UCW web site. Among the questions CUFA/BC wanted answered were details about the internal quality control process for degree programs and how academic governance would be structured.
"At this point, it looks like faculty at University Canada West will have no formal authority in academic decision-making," Clift said. "There will be an advisory body, but it appears the final decisions about academic programs will be made by the corporate board of governors."
CUFA/BC believes that if UCW or other private institutions end up offering lower grade degree programs that it will reflect badly on the province's public institutions.
"Even though enrollment at these private institutions will be tiny compared to the total enrollment at public degree-granting institutions," Clift said, "they have the capacity to generate a lot of ill will for everybody if things go wrong."
There are also questions about the type of students Strong intends to recruit for UCW. He is quoted in media reports as saying he expects that those students unable to get into the province's public institutions will come to his school, but documents submitted to the assessment board suggest that the primary market is foreign students from Asia. A perception, Clift said, reinforced by the choice of the name for the institution - University Canada West.
In addition to operating UCW, Learningwise also offers English as a Second Language courses through its web site (www.learningwise.com). But by following electronic links on the site, browsers end up at the "ESL on the Internet" site operated by the South Island Distance Education School - an enterprise owned by B.C.'s Saanich school district.
So far, the province's Degree Quality Assessment Board has received nine applications from private and out-of-province institutions: one application to use the word "university," two applications for exemption from the degree review process, four applications for degree programs and two applications for associate degree programs.