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The Case for Private Universities


Michael Taube

 Author Notes

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

 Essay - 2/7/2000

All State education is a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind; for turning and holding its lines of force in the direction supposed to be most effective for State purposes. - Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1905

In Canada, there has been a great deal of debate over the possibility of creating private universities to compete with our publicly funded institutions. The Ontario government is mulling over a proposal made by the University of Phoenix to create a campus in the province. As well, David Strangway, the former president of the University of British Columbia, is attempting to start up a private liberal arts institution, the University of Whistler, in Squamish, B.C. by 2002.

It's true that there are private religious universities in Canada, including Trinity Western in B.C. and Redeemer College in Ontario. However, there are no private universities in Canada that are accredited to teach courses in the humanities and the sciences without some sort of religious denomination. Our country has had private nurseries, day schools and high schools for many decades, yet there is no education choice in Canada when it comes to our universities. You either go through the one-tier public education system, attend a university with a religious affiliation, or leave the country.

Even with this imbalance, public administrators and educators have erupted like volcanoes during this debate about private universities. They feel that these institutions will be little more than playgrounds for the Canadian elite. High tuition fees will leave the majority of society out in the cold. A two-tier, unequal system of higher education will be created, much like in the United States. And besides, education isn't supposed to be a business. It is supposed to be a benefit for all of society, not some moneymaking scheme to change the nature of a liberal education.

Our public defenders in their beautiful ivory towers are mistaken on all counts.

First, private universities will not be the equivalent of a country club; they will be open to the general public. Second, these institutions will almost certainly have loans and scholarships available for students who can't afford normal tuition rates, just as public universities do. Third, a one-tier public university system is hardly competitive or fair for young, intelligent students who want to learn. Fourth, the lower the amount of students we have in the public education system, the larger the pool of resources will be for them.

Fifth, the insecurities of public educators about private universities, including inaccurate financial information and anti-American sentiments, hardly help their case, and make them seem petty in the public eye.

And most important, while education may be a right, it is also a business. For example, public universities thrive on competition for special programs and philanthropic funding from wealthy individuals and corporations. If the nature of education were as utopian as certain public administrators and educators made it out to be, we would be in even worse financial shape than we already are.

There do seem to be many myths about private universities. For example, while there are private universities in the U.S., most students don't attend them. In the 1980s, U.S. private universities embraced 47 per cent of all postsecondary institutions, but only drew 20 per cent of total American university enrolment. Second, public and private universities have been able to balance their affairs and competitive nature in most countries around the world. Take the example of Japan, which has operated successful private and public institutions since 1918. Of the more than 1,000 Japanese institutions, 79 per cent of them are private and house 72 per cent of the total student population.

To show that that there are many virtues in having a number of private universities, it is important that we examine other successful case examples from other countries. The lessons Canadians can learn on how to create beneficial public and private institutions with high education standards and fiscal management techniques are plentiful.

Consider Buckingham University, the only British institution independent of direct government funding. Originally created in 1976, it was issued a Royal Charter in 1983, and made its first profit in 1990. Buckingham is a small institution of around 800 students from 80 different countries. It issues two-year undergraduate degrees, taught over two four-term academic periods of 20 weeks. It also offers postgraduate degrees in the humanities and sciences. This means that students work through the summer months, but finish a year earlier than most students in the public university system. At present, the student- staff ratio at Buckingham is 10 to 1, leading to smaller classes, tutorials, and more one-on-one teaching throughout the academic term.

In terms of costs, Buckingham is surprising affordable due to two facts: Many scholarships and bursaries are available to students. The basic undergraduate tuition fees for 1999-2000 was 2,499 per term. British students automatically qualify for Local Education Authority grants of 585 per term, which are not subject to any means testing, and a means-tested grant of up to 810 a term. While Canadians might not feel obligated to automatically provide government subsidies to those attending private universities, there is no reason why such students should not qualify for repayable government grants like their public university counterparts.

Another example is Bond University, created in 1987 for $125 million (Australian) by Australian Bond Corp. and a Japanese partner. This small private university has roughly 2,000 students, of which 40 per cent are international. Bond teaches under a three-semester system, which allows students to graduate a six- semester bachelor's degree in two years, and a three-semester master's degree in one year.

Similar to Buckingham, the student-staff ratio is also 10 to one, the lowest of any Australian university.

In terms of costs, Bond is also quite affordable, again based primarily on living expenses for its short, two-year program. The basic undergraduate tuition fees for 1999-2000 was $2,150 (Australian) per term. There are a large amount of scholarships available.

The examples of Buckingham University and Bond University emphatically prove that private universities can be a benefit to Canadian society. They decrease government involvement in education matters and increase freedom of choice in the education marketplace. Students from all walks of life will have the ability to pay for courses in specialized areas of study. Smaller class sizes and tutorials in private universities will alleviate overcrowding and create stronger student-professor relations. And public universities will have a larger public purse to spread around their suffering programs.

Perhaps it is time that Canadians wake up to this reality: Private universities will not destroy our way of life, but rather enhance it. As is often the case in life, choice is good.

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