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Private vs. public education – start the discussion!

Prior to joining Quest, I had a few qualms with private education


 

Looking at this blog’s history, I note that four out of the five entries were made by Quest University instructors. Since I agreed to contribute to this blog as a chance to start a dialogue between people interested in higher education in Canada, I thought I might try to shake things up by making an entry that’s bound to stir strong opinions. This is my challenge to the other blog writers, as well as to anyone who might be reading these lines – please participate in this discussion – as that’s the way to make this blog useful to all.

Here’s the controversial topic I would like to discuss to start this dialogue:
Is there room for private universities in Canada? Are there benefits? Should it be allowed?

I must confess that prior to joining Quest, I had a few qualms with private education. Like many academics, my ideals lie somewhat left of the middle, so the idea of joining an institution with high tuition fees seemed contrary to my values. However, having been at Quest for 3 years now, and having seen how the system works, my views have changed.

The level of scholarship and financial support offered to students in a private setting is much more developed than at public institutions. Indeed, I would argue that the private setting is more of a social system, where the level of tuition that a student is expected to pay is more in line with the ability to pay. Students from more wealthy backgrounds tend to pay higher tuition, and this money is used to offset the cost of tuition for students coming from more modest circumstances. This tuition adjustment is at the core of a social system. At public institutions, everyone pays a set tuition sum. Historically, this worked well because tuition was low, but tuition fees have been on the rise, and education is increasingly becoming inaccessible to a larger segment of the population.

The other issue often quoted in opposition to a private system is the quality of the programs offered. In B.C. at least, the degree programs offered by private institutions are annually reviewed by the provincial Ministry of Education. This keeps private institutions on their toes and ensures that they are consistently delivering a quality education, one that meets the advertised educational objectives. My understanding is that public institutions do not have to undergo such a rigorous annual review process. This is not to say that public institution programs are bad (clearly many are excellent), but just to point out that in a private setting, there seems to be more outside scrutiny to ensure program quality.

I realize I have written a somewhat one-sided opinion, but remember, my goal was to make this entry provocative so it would make some of the writers’ and readers’ blood boil, and would stimulate discussion on this blog! Please contribute your thoughts – privatization is very much on the Canadian list of most argued topics, and I would be delighted to read all sides of the story!

[poll=14]


 

Private vs. public education – start the discussion!

  1. Pingback: Join the discussion at In the classroom! : Macleans OnCampus

  2. In Ontario, programs in public universities are required to undergo a review by external specialists every few years (I think seven years, because at U of Ottawa 1/7 of the programs were reviewed every year).

    I also note that both advantages you mention (a “sliding scale” for tuition fees and more frequent reviews by the government) are nothing inherently “private” or “public” in them, in the sense that the same policies could be implemented in the public universities without making them less public.

    In fact, since the government subsidizes about 60% of the operating expenses of public universities (maybe more like 80% in Quebec), you could argue that this portion of the bill is paid in proportion to families’ wealth (since wealthier families pay higher taxes). Thus the ideal “sliding scale” (you pay what you can afford) you describe is already half-implemented in public universities.

    As for the government reviews, their frequency is only limited by how much work and money they want to put in them. It doesn’t really matter if the university being reviewed is public or private.

  3. In addition, publicly-funded universities are relatively autonomous from the government, especially on academic freedom matters: they are free to use new pedagogical methods (we can think of numerous medicine schools that work on a system of “apprentissage par projets” – learning by projects?), to hire professors in any domain to do any research, etc.

    Also, it is often the case that only a minority of their Board of Governors is appointed by the government, and their property is fully private by law. So maybe “publicly-funded” or “publicy-subsidized” is a better qualifier for most Canadian universities, rather than simply “public”.

  4. I believe private universities will become more popular in Canada in the future. The escalating costs of public universities are going to provide opportunities and profit driven institutions will likely adapt quicker in that environment. Furthermore, the falling standards in the system, like grade inflation, will lead to less confidence in the current model. The combination of higher costs and lower quality weakens the credibility of the current public model in Canada.

    The present complicating factor in Canada is that that the model is not trusted, but if Quest or others has some success then the private university model will gain momentum.

  5. So, it seems as though public school are basically private schools, only worse.

    What’s the main argument against private schools? Tuitions are prohibitive, best teachers are siphoned from system, underachieving kids are left behind, etc? I’m not much familiar with this, so if someone could outline the main parts of this (though I could use Google), I’d be happy to give you what you want. He he.

  6. Again I think the debate is somewhat confused by introducing elements that have nothing to do with the public or private character of the universities.

    For example, size. Universities with smaller students/professor ratios tend to provide a better undergraduate experience. This is seen not only in private, but also in some public universities (Mount Allison in NB, for example).

    In fact, if you looked at prestigious private universities in the US (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford), you’d find all of them have very low undergraduate enrolment (in the 5000-6000 range).

    But if private universities are able to maintain low enrolments, it’s precisely because most students don’t attend them. You cannot easily extrapolate from the current situation (where private universities are only attended by a fringe of the total student population) to a hypothetical private university system that could deal with the bulk of students nationwide.

    In fact, if a private system had to deal with the hundreds of thousands of university students in Canada, it would encounter all sorts of problems similar to what publicly-funded universities now have to deal with, and from which the current private universities like Quest are “shielded” due to their marginal status.

  7. The survey question is ill-posed: it does not offer the obvious third choice (and the choice that exists in Canada and almost everywhere else in the world) to have a mixed system.

    I disagree that the small liberal arts education offered at Quest is the exclusive realm of private institutions – the Herstmonceux program is a good example of a group of public universities in Canada that offers a premium education at the premium price normally reserved to private institutions (http://www.queensu.ca/isc/). Programs like Science One and Arts One at the University of British Columbia or the Semester in Dialogue at Simon Fraser University are other examples that don’t come with a hefty pricetag (or the castle).

    I also disagree with the notion that the tuition discounting frequently seen at private universities is not practiced at public ones. In addition to Phillippe Marchand’s comment, I would add that universities devote significant sums of money to both merit based and need-based aid.

    Public universities have their issues – I work at SFU and the provincial government has not kept it’s funding up to pace with inflation, which is acting like a slowly turning vice on our campus. It also means that in the search for more funding, we may attempt to propose to do what the government views as a priority instead of what our students do – that has yet to be seen, but the possibility is distinct.

    The downside of private universities is that they are much more subject to the vagaries of economic swings – the demand for high priced elite education softens much like the demand for Ferraris in troubled times (see this article in the US magazine Higher Education for evidence: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/11/10/beloit). One is much more likely to face the possibility that one’s private university will disappear from under them if it fails to meet enrollment targets. Quest University itself faces the challenge of having planned for far more students than it has convinced to attend thus far (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2008/10/21/rocky-start-for-quest-university/) and the economic conditions are not favourable for building a successful destination university at the moment. I wonder if it would have been better to spend the $100 million dollars invested in Quest to endow a similar program at a public university – it would have been more efficient (no need to buy new student systems, etc).

    The free market economy of universities in the US, rather than make them more efficient as theory suggests, has seen costs for both public and private universities skyrocket in the past 20 years as they try to outcompete each other for everything. This would be a goo thing if students weren’t stuck in the middle holding the bill. There is a tremendous body of evidence to show that the government’s best efforts to pour money into aid like Pell grants has only pushed fees and spending higher. The US has the OECD’s best universities. They also have the worst (400 universities in the US have a graduation rate of below 33%).

    I would love to spend a year as a Harvard student or even at one of the lesser known private Liberal universities (I hear Franklin and Marshall is nice). I would also love to have a sailboat and a cabin in the Gulf Islands. But the fact is that most families can’t afford even the cut-rate for these universities. Most students will continue living with their parents for as long as they can and choose the best local option given their needs. This means investing in great public universities.

  8. A correction re: Harvard: it announced free tuition this year for all undergraduates. The problem would be that I can’t get in, nor can 90% of the students who apply…generally across Canada, those that are eligible to get admission to Harvard would also be competitive for the major scholarships offered by Canadian institutions.

  9. A few points for clarification…

    First, I agree with “Call me a socialist” that the survey question is ill-posed. I did not post that question and I’m a little surprised that people have been responding to it at all. I don’t think that the Canadian system should be primarily one or the other – I think there is room for both. Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, some of which have been discussed in the comments above, and they complement each other.

    In answer to the comments that there is nothing inherently special about private education and that all the appealing aspects could be achieved at a public institution – I agree. However, if that’s the case, then why hasn’t it been done? I suspect that the reason for this is that most public institutions are large and somewhat monolithic: to bring about change and innovation can require years of “lobbying”. By contrast, I recall being at a weekly faculty meeting at Quest when we realized we didn’t have a policy for something and since all the key decision makers were in the room, we made one on the spot. That quick response to student need is difficult to match at a larger public institution. Again, this doesn’t have to do with the fact that we are private, but rather the fact that we are new and small. Since I know of no new, small public institutions springing up anywhere in Canada, I’ll have to assume for now that if this type of institution is going to exist, it is going to have to be private for the time being.

    …And there is something about Quest, the sense of community that could not exist at a large institution. I agree that there are excellent programs that form small communities like Science One and the Coordinated Science Program at UBC. However, usually the student to faculty ratio is not 10:1, and at the end of the day, students disperse amidst a larger institution so the community dissolves. I know this from first hand experience, having taught in the Coordinated Science Program (CSP). CSP is a great program, but the sense of community and support that students get is not what they get at Quest. As a faculty at Quest, I am expected to support my students’ growth, in and out of the classroom – I am expected to attend their basketball and soccer tournaments and be involved in their co-curricular activities. This was not the case at UBC. This level of support is not needed for every student, but it is needed for some. I can see that many of our students would get lost in the anonymity of a larger institution. Quest fills a gap that the public sector currently does not fill. Again, this type of support could have arisen in a public institution but to my knowledge, it hasn’t yet. The only institutions with comparable levels of support are religious ones (like Trinity Western), and most of these are also private…

    After reading “Philippe Marchand’s” description of private and public institutions, I must admit that I share “BobIII”‘s uncertainty about “what’s the difference then”? Alot of the arguments for or against private institutions in Canada that I have heard apply to high school education, and these arguments do not transfer to undergraduate education. The only way to define public or private is by the source of funding. However, that currently has concrete implications for the type of institutions that spring up. The government does not appear to have any desire to start new, small, undergraduate student-focused (as opposed to research-focused) institutions. These small undergraduate institutions are a niche market that respond to certain student needs currently not addressed in the larger public system.

    Private funding was required to make Quest happen. However, would I object to Quest eventually becoming a public institution? Absolutely not! As long as Quest could keep its sense of community, its culture, its smallessness, it’s faculty:student ratio, a light decision-making hierarchy, and its focus on undergraduate education rather than research, I would say that this was the best of both world.

  10. Hi

    1. Easy enough to evaluate Quest … how would it score on the Maclean’s rankings? Very poorly would be my guess. Or do the Maclean’s rankings not really mean very much (i.e., good library holdings, highly qualified faculty, research facilities, …).

    2. If private organizations were granted ready access to the university marketplace, it would not be pedagogical ideals that motivated the majority of firms doing so (which at least might be the case with Quest). It would be making money. One can well imagine the likely effect of that objective on the quality of education and standards. For example, someone mentioned grade inflation in public universities. Would not pressures for inflated grades and exaggerated student success (i.e., easy courses) be even greater in private institutions dependent on student tuitions for funding?

    3. Comparisons to US private schools are completely inappropriate. The Harvard-level institutions, large and small, have huge endowments upon which they can draw (or at least they did until the recent economic crisis). Indeed, they were socking away so much money that there was even pressure in the US for laws to require private universities to spend more of their endowments.

    Should it matter, I am a faculty member at a public university in Canada.

    Take care
    Jim

  11. “Since I know of no new, small public institutions springing up anywhere in Canada, I’ll have to assume for now that if this type of institution is going to exist, it is going to have to be private for the time being.”

    This debate rather ignores the obvious fact that there are numerous “primarily undergraduate” schools in Canada – they are simply concentrated in the Maritimes, but I’d stack up the quality of education at Mount Allison, St Francis Xavier, and (of course, given my personal bias) Acadia against the plans for Quest any day. More to the point, most universities in Canada are not public in a strict sense, as they are operated largely autonomously with a certain proportion of costs coming from provincial governments. In Nova Scotia, at least, the level of government support is among the lowest, but that’s certainly not a good thing for issues like deferred maintenance or student aid.

  12. “In answer to the comments that there is nothing inherently special about private education and that all the appealing aspects could be achieved at a public institution – I agree. However, if that’s the case, then why hasn’t it been done? ”

    I would ask what the current per-student funding of Quest university is, or for that matter the per-student funding of the top private education providers is? Show me a government willing to pay out that kind of money across the board for programs and I will show you a public university that achieves what you say.

    I actually also argued in my last post that it is being done already: a really good example of this would be music programs (the best public education bang-for-your-tuition-buck in the country!). You can’t teach trumpet as a 500 student lecture (picture it in your imagination…you just heard why). Music programs across the country in public universities do exactly what Quest seeks to do – create small, engaged learning communities that produce very highly-educated graduates. These students get hours of small group and 1:1 training from expert faculty. All for the same tuition an English major like me spent to sit with 100 of my closest friends in a lecture hall. That said, it costs a university far more per trumpet major than it costs per English major and most governments don’t recognize this in their funding formulas: funding music students usually means that a university Dean decides to make History 100 a class for 400 students instead of 300 or English 300 50 students instead of 30 or have one less student affairs staff member.

    The other area we see this learning model is in business schools. In the deregulation of tuition, we have accepted that some business schools in the country (and most MBA programs) are going to be very expensive. Business Faculties charge much higher tuition in many provinces and for that students generally get more services, richer learning environments, smaller class sizes (to an extent) etc. My own politics wish that government would step in to lower the cost of these programs and increase funding to all programs so that they could enjoy similar benefits, but that is not the debate here.

    So, while one could certainly argue that universities could be run more efficiently, my guess is that the reason small, private institutions can offer the kind of programming they can is because someone, be they donors who believe in the mission and want to give a legacy or families who believe in the value proposition of the higher tuition rate (or simply can better afford higher tuition) are willing to fund it.

    Government-funded institutions draw us back to the argument of scale: can government afford to fund the kind of 1:10 ratio of elite institutions or specialized programs? Would this stray too far from government’s imperative of offering the maximum public good per tax dollar spent? Tough to say. Is it, as Annie says, the inflexibility of government on this score that gives the necessary advantage in private education? Maybe. Can we ever educate all university students in this way? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

    How about this thought experiment: what would have happened if Dr. Strangway and the others behind Quest had put their $100 Million into endowing “British Columbia College” at the University of British Columbia (or better yet, SFU (where I currently work). A small, undergraduate liberal arts college within the larger university that was endowed seperately but had the advantage of that extra $6500/student/year flowing from the government, not to mention the economy of scale of having a large institution’s resources in admissions, student systems, etc? Is this not already happening at the Ivey School of Business or the Schulich School of Engineering? It can work. And students don’t have to worry near as much about what happens if the funding runs out. Advantage public.

  13. “In answer to the comments that there is nothing inherently special about private education and that all the appealing aspects could be achieved at a public institution – I agree. However, if that’s the case, then why hasn’t it been done? ”

    I think it comes back to what I said above:

    “But if private universities are able to maintain low enrolments, it’s precisely because most students don’t attend them. You cannot easily extrapolate from the current situation (where private universities are only attended by a fringe of the total student population) to a hypothetical private university system that could deal with the bulk of students nationwide.

    In fact, if a private system had to deal with the hundreds of thousands of university students in Canada, it would encounter all sorts of problems similar to what publicly-funded universities now have to deal with, and from which the current private universities like Quest are “shielded” due to their marginal status.”

  14. I will also point out as an interesting fact that the province of Quebec subsidizes private high schools at a 60% level, thus many of them are relatively affordable (2000$ per year) for upper-middle class families. I’m not sure I agree with that policy, even though I attended one of these private high schools, but let’s put that aside for now.

    What I find interesting is this:

    – I went to a high school where my education was 60% subsidized by the province (in Quebec), the other 40% was paid by my parents as tuition fees. The campus is private property, formerly owned by a religious order. The school has an independent Board of Directors and teaches government-approved programs. It is called a private school.

    – I went to a university (University of Ottawa) where my education was 60% subsidized by the province (Ontario in that case), the other 40% was tuition fees that I paid in part because I had a scholarship. The campus is private property, formerly owned by a religious order. It has an independent Board of Governors and teaches government-approved programs. It is called a public university.

    That’s exactly what I mean by the fact that publicly-funded universities are not that public…

  15. “In answer to the comments that there is nothing inherently special about private education and that all the appealing aspects could be achieved at a public institution – I agree. However, if that’s the case, then why hasn’t it been done? I suspect that the reason for this is that most public institutions are large and somewhat monolithic: to bring about change and innovation can require years of “lobbying”.”

    One school/program that springs to mind is the Foundation Year Program (FYP) at the University of King’s College in Halifax. It admits 300 students and is a greats book program. King’s has a total enrollment of just over 1000 students There are some professors who act as tutors, leading tutorial groups, but most tutors are called “teaching fellows” and are not expected to publish. Rather than being seperate courses broken up over semesters it is split into 6 chronological periods (Age of Reason, Age of Revoloution, etc.) and you receive one final mark for the whole program. You also take one elective. It also stresses interdiscplinarity, etc. Tutorial groups are 12-14 students.

    Basically it accomplishes everything Quest seems to set out to do while be a recognized name, charging less than 1/3 of the tuition fees of Quest, and not relying on gimmicks like “community days” to build community and tradition.

    It’s also not new: The school was founded in 1789 and FYP was first offered in 1972.

    What I am getting at is that there are tons of innovative programs centered on undergraduate education in this country. Some of them are just shrinking down traditional models, some are creating totally new ways of teaching, some are located within larger universities and some are found in tiny institutions. Faculty wanting to teach in such programs, and students wishing to attend them, have options in the public realm. Do our public universities need more money from the government? Of course. Should innovative teaching programs be encouraged more? Of course. But those things are possible, and have been and are being done, within the public system. You come across as sounding like Quest is reinventing the teaching wheel, here.

  16. Pingback: The Public/Private Debate : Macleans OnCampus

  17. I agree that public and private institutions can complement each other. The real threat to the public sphere has been the undue influence of free-market zealots who aim to gut the public sector. In funding schools, as in other human endeavors, I think it is best to seek an optimal balance of approaches. Quest could have been created publicly or privately, but it is what it is. A more fundamental debate relative to schools persists elsewhere between some who value the liberal arts approach to education and many who regard it as a distraction. An early focus on specialization suits the needs and desires of some, but as global human actions grow ever more entangled culturally, economically and ecologically, I think that possession of broad insights into of a number areas, in concert with professional competence in one’s own, is highly desirable. There is an array of choices. I welcome new liberal arts schools.

    I have visited Quest and have spoken with a number of its staff. I have also seen the assignments prepared by my daughter, who is currently a second year Quest student. I have seen how the school encourages a student’s native curiosity, and I am confident in the quality of their instruction. No school is perfect, but for some reason some posters on this and other blogs have been quick to belittle Quest while presenting no evidence. One important distinction is the fact that Quest is a CRA registered non-profit, which is not the case for every Canadian private school. If you doubt the quality of the faculty, visit Quest’s website and examine their backgrounds. CVs don’t tell the whole story but are an important indicator. Because of yet-to-be-established visibility and little budget for advertising, Quest is not yet running at full capacity, but this has not occasioned the acceptance of unqualified applicants, of which there have been many. A few might evade early detection, but Quest’s one-course-at-a-time “block program” is intense, and slackers would encumber small, discussion-based classes in which they cannot hide.

    Finally, “community days” need not be a gimmick, and I see no indication that they are so at Quest. Many people within institutions and corporations have been subjected to infuriating “team building” presentations by individuals (often hired only for the occasion) with a slick routine and no connection with their audience. Quest’s efforts to strengthen its community are pervasive, and Quest is small enough that no one there is a total stranger. I have observed that the man most responsible for leading all-school events is exceptionally talented and is intensely involved in the life of the school.

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