A taxonomy for universities

No, taxonomy is not the study of taxis. That’s taxicology.


Reading through comments on various posts, it has occurred to me that part of the difficulty in discussing what ought to be the status of private universities is that we use the terms public and private in different ways.

A university may be public in one of two senses. That is, it may be run by the government. This is what we typically mean by “a public university.” But any institution may be public in another sense: the sense that it is open to the public (public in the way that “public houses” or “public schools” in the UK are public). Similarly, private might indicate  run by non-governmental bodies (“a private health care clinic”); conversely or it might be private in the sense that it is not open to everyone (“a private club”).

Now this is where I get my geek on, so stop reading if fine distinctions make your head hurt.

With the above provisos, we can imagine at least four different theoretical kinds of universities:

A. PUBLIC/PUBLIC — run by the government and generally open to all.

B. PRIVATE/PRIVATE  — run by some non-governmental foundation or corporation, and limited to only certain kinds of people

C. PUBLIC/PRIVATE — run by the government, but not open to all

D. PRIVATE / PUBLIC — not run by the government, but open to all

Which kinds of schools deserve government money?

Well, I think the idea that type A should be at least largely funded by the government is probably not too controversial. This is the case with most universities in Canada today.

Type B is approximately the situation at Trinity Western University and some others, and I have argued elsewhere that such universities should not receive public funds. That still seems right to me.

Type C is not common if it exists at all. One might argue that Universite St Anne, the French university in Nova Scotia, fits here, since it is limited to French speakers, but, as I understand it, it is not limited to French people. Anyone who is capable of working in French can go there, and that limitation (that you speak the language) is true of every university. First Nations University is closer, though from my reading of their web site, one does not have to be a Native Canadian to attend FNU. Is that a technicality? Is FNU meant to be limited to Native students the way TWU is limited to Christians? The way things are going there, it may not matter much longer. Generally, I would oppose government funding of C-type universities, which is to say I would generally oppose such universities in principle since you cannot be government-run without being government funded to some degree.

Type D is the most difficult. Quest University in BC is of this type, and they are common in the US. Such schools could not claim full government funding, since to do so, they would have to abide by the same government regulations around tuition that other universities do, and then they would effectively cease to be private. But I would not be opposed to indirect funding as, for example, when faculty members receive research grants, or when students receive subsidized student loans.

None of this is likely to convince anyone, of course, but it might help clarify the terms of the discussion.

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A taxonomy for universities

  1. Canadian universities are not publicly owned, they are private non-profit corporations that are publicly funded and have to obey by certain regulations to maintain that funding.

    In theory, they could go “PRIVATE/PUBLIC” according to your taxonomy of universities. The American system has publicly owned universities which truly fit with your description A.

    We’ve never nationalized our universities in Canada, we did secularize them when they started receiving public funding after World War II. It’s an important point that we often forget when discussing the Canadian higher education landscape.

    In reality, all publicly-funded universities (with the exception of maybe Memorial) in Canada fit in category D.

  2. Joey, I don’t think I suggested public universities in Canada are government owned, but rather government run. Now, of course, some universities are more directly run by the government (the Nova Scotia Agricultural College is a good example) than others, but generally they are ultimately answerable to their various Education ministries and Departments.

    Perhaps “Government Controlled” would be a better term.

  3. TWU is open to all. They are transparent as to what they stand for and they are explicit on what is expected of those who attend there; but they are open to all applicants; check out the application process on the website.

  4. What a useless exercise. Both Type B and C are non-existent. The only distinction that makes any sense is whether the government directly funds the institution. From there, it’s up to the individual to see the shades of grey. There’s nothing particularly helpful about the taxonomy you suggest – actually, it only adds to the confusion.

    By the way, the real name of the institution in B.C. is Quest University Canada.

  5. Doug: I anticipate and respond to your objection in my previous post.

    Mike: Sounds like you should have stopped reading when I warned you. As for Type B, I give an example, so it’s hard to see how it is non-existent; and I give a possible example for type C, so if you don’t see FNU as fitting in there, you should explain why not. As for your insistence, on Quest University Canada, that seems a bit odd after you criticize me for making pointless distinctions. Besides, the university’s own web site frequently abbreviates the name to simply “Quest,” so I don’t think it’s a problem.

  6. You didn’t really respond to my objection Todd. You say TWU -being a type ‘B’ institution- is only open to certain kinds of people; according to the application process they are open to anyone.

  7. Doug, I was referring to my previous post, not this post, in which I said:

    ‘Publicly funded institutions should be for the use of the public. Effectively, Christian universities are not. While, technically, non-Christians may be able to enroll in them, there is no doubt that their missions are to promote a Christian view of the world and to give, as the CMU Statement of Faith has it, “full allegiance to Christ” so they are not meant for the general public in any meaningful way. And even if we concede that non-Christian students can enroll in places like CMU – where they are required to take “Introduction to Christianity” in their first year — non-Christian faculty are not . TWU requires faculty to sign their statement of faith and CMU officials publicly acknowledge that faculty are expected to be “clearly Christian.”’

  8. Are you inferring that because an individual identifies with a particular ‘belief’ and chooses to teach in an environment where there is a basic agreement on some foundational assumptions, then they for some reason are impaired in their ability to conduct research or collaborate with other academics or contribute to the larger academic community.

    And BTW even ‘public’ universities require students to take certain ‘core’ courses and I think it could be argued that in some cases they require their faculty – implicitly or explicitly – to adhere to a particular ‘position’ (political, philosophical or otherwise).

  9. Doug,

    Obviously, you’re not being objective in your posts. Most people who are familiar with the university environment realize that universities with very strong religious influences are not successful in attracting the better “well-rounded” student and staff. That is not to say that students and staff are not bright, it’s just that they are typically far from the brightest.

  10. and thank you Paul for your ‘objective’ post…

  11. Doug, you seem to have missed my point. My suggestion is not that faculty at a private institution cannot contribute to the wider community; that is not the matter at hand. The point is that a university not open to the public is not a public university and should not, in my view, be government-funded.

    As for core courses, the point there is not that CMU has core courses, but rather that required course in question is evidence that they are not looking to educate the general public. Again, that’s fine with me as long as they’re not asking for my money.

  12. Sorry for missing your point. It just seems that the implications of what you are suggesting are far reaching and also need to be discussed.

    Your primary argument in most of your posts seems to be based on a premise that a public university should only offers courses that are applicable to everyone. Or stated slightly differently you imply that if a particular course or program does not appeal to the group that you identify with (i.e. the ‘public’) then the course is irrelevant and the university offering those courses should not receive public money.

    I don’t think you can define public by whether or not the the school meets the need of a particular sector of the public domain. I would propose that the definition of a public university is this: the university is dependent on the public purse for it’s very existence (funds needed to operate). I would agree by that definition private schools are not ‘public’. But to say – by extension – that private universities should be excluded from all tax dollars is a circular argument (i.e. the school does not receive public money therefore it should not receive public money). I agree that private schools should not be dependent on the government for one reason: they lose they autonomy (there is another discussion around whether institutions that are dependent on the government can be ultimately autonomous). But to suggest that private schools and the students who attend those schools should be excluded from receiving tax benefits that are available to the general public suggests discrimination.

  13. This is the life that George Orwell Promised us. This sense of rigidity. Why at the end of the day do we have to come to complete agreement on what terms mean. We could take the term FORD. Many people would identify this as a large car company. My friends would say that it stands for Fix Or Repair Daily.

    This lack of fluidity is not something we want to embrace. This is becoming a movement without a reason.

  14. Dash’s reading of George Orwell is very different from mine. To wit:

    1. In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell criticizes the modern tendency to obscure direct meaning with vague phrasing.

    I could have written: “Given their mandate of pedagogical excellence and robust educational opportunities, Canada’s institutions of higher learning should partake in policy initiatives designed to extend enrollment opportunities.”

    But what I actually wrote was: ” I have argued elsewhere that such universities should not receive public funds. That still seems right to me.” I think Orwell would have approved. Indeed, based on my reading of that essay, where Orwell calls for precision in language, I suspect he would have rejected Dash’s call for “fluidity” in language. BTW, your friends’ joke is old and lame: “fix” and “repair” mean the same thing.

    2. In any case, Dash is probably thinking of Nineteen Eighty Four, but the accusation there is baseless, too. In that novel Orwell’s concern is for the state-mandated reduction the language through its policy of Newspeak. I am not a government agency empowered to police language, and, in fact, I am suggesting new terms, which Big Brother would have opposed.

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