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Private Universities Would Be a Credit


Private universities may help overcome shortcomings of our public institutions of higher learning.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, Report on Business, August 23rd, 1999


Michael Taube

 Author Notes

Columnist for the Moncton Times and Transcript, also published in various other journals

 Essay - 8/23/1999

An overwhelming majority of Canadian students attend a publicly funded university in this country. At the same time, our postsecondary institutions have been stung by calls of extreme wastage and large amounts of government interference.

For the most part, valuable university funds are being spent on unnecessary programs and irrelevant research grants.

For example, certain Canadian universities run inefficient doctorate programs, especially in the humanities. While some universities have taken the hint - neither the University of Guelph nor the University of Windsor offer Ph.D programs in the discipline of political science - most have not.

Little wonder that many Canadian taxpayers are tired of paying for poorly run public universities. New economic solutions are required to bring our education standards back from the dumpster.

So, what are we to do? Overhaul the university system? Change the status of smaller universities to community colleges?

No, there is a far more efficient way to correct the present situation. We should consider opening up the marketplace to allow for and include private universities. By letting some students pay high tuition fees for a formal education if desired, there will be more money in the total education pool for struggling public universities.

While this may seem to be an elitist strategy on the surface, in actuality, it is a realistic and cost effective strategy that will benefit our education rather than hinder it.

Naturally, all of Canada's publicly funded universities are virulently opposed to private institutions. Comments from the University of Toronto's Final Brief to the Advisory Panel on Future Directions in Post-Secondary Education in 1996 summarize these feelings: "It is difficult to see what role, if any, would remain to be filled by private universities. >From our perspective, the affirmative case for private universities has not yet been made."

Add the deafening mantra chant of left-wing university student bodies, and you can see why our governments are currently in a conundrum over this issue.

Because to this assault, the federal Liberal government and most provincial Tory governments have become fearful of this sort of privatization model for their own political safety.

For example, the Ontario Tories have struggled mightily over this issue. In its Report of the Advisory Panel on Future Directions for Postsecondary Education issued in December, 1996, the Ontario Ministry of Education claimed to support, "under strict conditions, the establishment of privately financed, not-for-profit universities with the authority to grant degrees with a secular name." Yet, an advisory body was also recommended to enforce powerful criteria for each privately financed institution, including program quality, financial stability, and the financial and academic protection of students in the event of institutional failure.

Hardly an economic position that would win an award for innovative free-market thinking, wouldn't you agree?

It is high time that Canadians stop fearing the supposed threat of private universities. By allowing some students to pay their own way, we reduce the influence of government controls on our education system and increase freedom of choice in the education marketplace. Public universities will then be able to thrive in an environment where there is more money available in the public purse, and fewer applications to process.

As well, there is no reason why a private university can't do well in Canada. As noted by Douglas Auld in his 1996 book Expanding Horizons: Privatizing Universities, by privatizing our existing universities, each institution would have to provide a reasonable return on the province's capital investment. As well, there wouldn't have to be a component for issuing costly research grants, and school vouchers could be used to pay high tuition fees.

It's true that there are but a few Canadian private universities at present. Some private religious institutions do exist, including Redeemer College in Ontario and Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Elsewhere, a geophysicist and former president of the University of British Columbia, David Strangway, is currently trying to start a small, private liberal arts institution, the University of Whistler, in Squamish, B.C. by 2002.

However, there is an abundance of successful private universities across the world for Canadians to examine and study.

In Britain, Buckingham University charges foreign students full tuition costs and allows British students to qualify for local authority education grants. It made its first profit in 1990 after only seven years in operation.

In Australia, Bond University was created in 1987 for $125 million Australian ($116 million) by Australian Bond Corp. and a Japanese partner.

In Japan, there have been successful joint public and private universities since 1918. Of the over 1,000 institutions, roughly 79 per cent are private and house 72 per cent of all full-time and part-time university students.

In the United States, there is also a mix of public and private universities. But as Mr. Auld notes, contrary to popular belief, while U.S. private universities embraced 47 per cent of all postsecondary institutions in the 1980s, this only constituted 20 per cent of total university enrolment.

Consider this fact. We already have private nurseries, day schools and high schools in Canada. What on Earth is so wrong with having private universities as well?

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