Public vs. private universities in Canada -

Public vs. private universities in Canada

National Post says private Quest University is better than public universities


This article from the National Post takes up the issue of private versus public universities. Post reporter Brian Hutchinson suggests that the education provided by Quest University in British Columbia is far superior to that of Canadian public universities because Quest is:

capable of providing what most public universities in Canada cannot: creative, high-intensity curricula; very low teacher-student ratios; small class sizes and flexible scheduling; instructors who are committed to teaching, rather than to their own research; a positive atmosphere devoid of faculty-level sniping and politicking.

Hutchinson is remarkably capable of maintaining his idyllic view of the university in spite of his mention of lower than projected enrollments; floundering student recruitment; a recent public relations fiasco; a founding president who resigned abruptly under mysterious circumstances; campus construction delays; and no real rational, long-term planning. In the words of the incoming president, who works pro bono, Quest University is a “quixotic dream…. Every day is a crisis”.


Public vs. private universities in Canada

  1. Interesting…the Post has just described Bishop’s, St.FX, Acadia, Mount Allison, and any number of other small – public – universities across Canada.

  2. Not even close, Mark. StFX, Acadia and MTA are way ahead of the rest in Canada, but their focus is premium education and a superior experience through a largely on-campus student life. However, Acadia may never recover from a recent strike and all three have faculty unions who are pushing for more research time and less classroom time. This will push up costs and drive their numbers down. Not many people can afford to drive a Rolls Royce during a recession, especially when that Rolls Royce is starting to look more and more like a Ford Escort.

    Private US-style schools that focus on teaching and learning, keep costs (and wages) to a minimum and are almost totally consumer-driven will continue to chip away at the market our bloated public schools have dominated for decades. The truth is they can offer the same credentials for less than the cost of residence at our three top schools.

    Public school officials will claim the private model is inferior in a lame attempt to save their skins, but let me ask you this, do you wear a cheap digital watch or an expensive swiss-made one?

  3. Acadia’s been around for 170 years, and the recent strike resulted in the departure of a university president who had been a “bad fit” from the moment she set foot on campus. Things are tight, but they’ve been tight before, and the last collective agreement left faculty largely satisfied. In any case, neither of Acadia’s two strikes were very long as compared to, say, York’s current debacle.

    All that aside, the issue of costs is rather silly to bring up given that Quest in particular costs over $24,000 per year in tuition, to say nothing of room and board costs. I’m not clear on where one will find qualified, dedicated faculty willing to be paid the “minimum” while also maintaining very small class sizes, along with adequate facilities. I’ll be surprised if Quest manages to stay solvent much less open in its current form by the next calendar year.

    For that matter, the notion that faculty research somehow takes away from the student experience is entirely at odds with my experience (at one of those three schools – you can guess which); small schools such as Acadia, St FX, and Mount A afford greater opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in research, providing summer employment in many cases of far more career relevance than working at the mall.

  4. I don’t know if the arrival of a single private university in Squamish is a sign that private universities will begin popping up all over the country. While I think Quest could play a role in forcing other comparatively-sized institutions to consider innovative programming, reports seem to indicate that it’s just keeping afloat.

    I also agree with Josh on the topic of faculty research. It’s unusual for undergraduates to work with professors at a larger university, where graduate students are typically working as research assistants. However, at smaller institutions, faculty members regularly enlist the help of undergrads, to the benefit of both parties.

    I still think Mr. Hutchinson is way off in his assessment. I wish Quest University nothing but success, but the same experience can be had on other small university campuses coast to coast – for less money, and with AUCC accreditation, to boot.

  5. Here’s evidence suggesting that big and public is not necessarily better: There are many reporting and accountability issues at Western Canada’s largest public college, Grant MacEwan College:
    Here is my paper on the same:
    and a video with updates:
    as well as links to the evidence cited in the video:!BCDFFB6F4CF5AAB!522.entry
    and a link to a particularly critical update regarding the College’s reporting of its Foundation’s officers:!BCDFFB6F4CF5AAB!381.entry
    The response of Doug Horner, Alberta’s Advanced Ed Minister may be fairly summed up as “get lost.” (p. 4 of the report)
    Marnie Tunay
    Fakirs Canada

  6. It’s very telling that I talk about universities keeping costs down, meaning postage, supplies (oh, and faculty salaries) and Josh mentions Quest charging $24,000 as a cost… which is actually a revenue. It shows the difference in mindset between the publicly supported and the enterprise minded. I would remind Josh that up to 90% of the costs for public institutions are covered by taxpayers. Private institutions are not (yet) eligible for funding. Quest may actually be a better deal for Canadians.

    I feel I have to take a shot at Mark too (no offense, it’s a blog right?). There is no such thing as AUCC accreditation. In Canada, permission to grant degrees is awarded by the Provinces. In that regard, Quest is just as “accredited” as UBC or McGill.

    I’m not a Quest supporter. I believe there will be much bigger players arriving from South of the border and around the world. And 170 years or not, the economics do not favor the Acadias, MTAs and StFXs. They are the swiss watches. Nice to have, status symbols, but prohibitively expensive.

  7. I don’t follow – Acadia’s tuition is less than a third of Quest’s and, for the record, no NS university receives 90% of its revenue from the province. The proportion is more like 30-40%. That $24,000 is certainly a cost for individual students… I’m not sure where you’re going with this otherwise.

  8. Granted, the provinces award permission to grant degrees. However, it was in this fine magazine a few years ago the issue of AUCC accreditation was raised, when a student from a B.C. university college went outside the province to do a master’s degree. It was to their shock that they found that their bachelor’s degree wasn’t recognized, having come from an institution unaffiliated with the AUCC. I would argue that, in that context, AUCC accreditation is quite important.

  9. The AUCC is not an accrediting agency, though some universities have argued that it is a de-facto accreditation body.

  10. Well I did say up to 90%. Several institutions in B.C. and Alberta are in this category and I would say that MUN, CBU and NSCC are headed in that direction. But let’s look at Acadia, one of the more expensive and highly regarded institutions in Canada. From Acadia’s site: you can see that in 2007-2008, Acadia collected $29,883,000 in fees and $26,824,000 from the government. They also had a deficit of ($6,622,000) which the government has to go good for. So if you said that the better institutions were in the 50% self-supporting range you would be more accurate. Oh, and faculty salaries are by far the largest expense at every Canadian public institution.

    To summarize, institutions like Acadia are running deficits even though they are already charging tuition rates as high as students can afford to pay (hence the tuition freeze). The government is kicking in for free (operating grants) at least that much again. Canadian faculty members are the highest paid on average in the world (Boston College study, google it yourself).

    So here is my concern. The economic landscape looks very good at the moment for low-cost, private models using online classroom technology and paying stipends to moonlighting faculty from other countries. And I believe that students and governments will welcome them with open arms. Province of NB already has. They will be the Walmarts of education.

    There will probably always be a market for a good on-campus student experience, Qwest is betting on that. But it may soon become the premium exception (the swiss watch) to the digital alternative. I wish Canadian faculty would recognize that most students are concerned with time and money. We need to work toward a new model that will be competitive, with Canadians leading the way. But the typical university response is to hire consultants, ignore their recommendations, create more jobs and drive up operating costs. I don’t want to shop at Walmart, but if it’s the only thing left…

  11. Chad Walters suggests that new types of schools using low-cost, technology-enabled models will soon gain a greater share of the total post-secondary market.

    I agree.

    Earlier this year, I presented a paper at a conference that looked at the likelihood that U.S. for-profits (e.g. Strayer, Devry) would target the Canadian higher education market, and the market conditions (e.g. price competition; regulatory environment) that would shape their success.

    To my surprise, exactly two weeks before I was to present the paper, Apollo (the corporation behind the University of Phoenix) announced that they were launching a new online university in Canada; Meritus University. Meritus is the first fully online and for-profit U.S. provider to set up in Canada.

    There are many interesting dimensions to this development. Two stand out.

    1. The intended market

    Canada has no shortage of university spaces at reputable public institutions. Indeed, in the region of the country in which Meritus set up, they are currently struggling with dwindling enrollment. Moreover, due to regulation of tuition, it is hard for a for-profit to compete on price. The intended market, I suspect, is Asia. Canada has a strong brand in education. Few institutions are truly ‘excellent’, but most – due to the style of regulation and funding – are ‘good’. By setting up a new brand in Canada, rather than further extending the Phoenix brand, which is intimately tied to the U.S., Apollo can leverage the strength of the Canadian brand in higher education markets, like China, that are growing at a much faster clip than in North America. Moreover, the tuition being charged by Meritus competes favourably with fees for international students charged by Canada’s public universities (normally 250% greater than domestic tuition).

    2. Reaction by the Canadian university community

    The response to my presentation at the (Canadian) conference was polite, but the reactions clearly reflected the common view that the arrival of a U.S. for-profit institution is a cause for concern. Many people at the conference, and later on the web, expressed the view that these institutions should simply not be allowed to set up in Canada. Predictably, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, treated the arrival of Apollo/Meritus as small town-locals might the arrival of biker-gangs.

    CAUT news release:

    “In its rush to welcome a private, for-profit university to Fredericton, the New Brunswick government is ignoring the dismal record of the school’s parent company, and putting students’ academic futures at risk, warns CAUT . . .

    CAUT executive director James Turk, who has expressed reservations about for-profit educational institutions, said Meritus will be neither good for business, nor post-secondary education in the community.”

  12. Sorry Mark, I read your response after I wrote the long-winded rant above.

    I know what you’re saying, but I think we need to be very careful. Unlike accrediting agencies in the U.S., AUCC does not have the necessary mandate or objectivity to serve as an accrediting body. In the U.S, the regional accreditation agencies are arms length and non-profit. Here it would be just a way for the AUCC to protect its members, with no consideration allowed for new, private applicants.

    No AUCC is just a bully trying to squeeze out competition.

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  14. Chad, reread the financial statement – total revenues at Acadia in 2008 were $78.359 million, so that $26.824 million in government grants represents just over one third of total revenue.

    In any case, the notion that universities are going to be supplanted much less significantly harmed by DeVry-esque online courses seems rather ridiculous – it’s not as if these aren’t already available in some form or another. Online courses are also limited in scope, and offer no substitute for practical college programs.

    For that matter, declines in enrolment in the Maritimes is driven mostly by demographic decline – if Nova Scotia had the growth rate of Alberta, things would be rather different.

    Finally, I’m still entirely unconvinced that Quest offers anything that is unavailable at small existing schools in this country. In fact, given the lack of research activity (and labs!), Quest students will be at a distinct disadvantage, and not just financially.

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  16. On the subject of AUCC:

    AUCC does have a process for vetting new members that looks similar to an accreditation process as it involves questioning members about financial and human resources, academic practices and procedures, and site visits to inspect conditions and so on.

    While the designation of a university is a provincial one, there are certain bodies and funding agencies (including, I believe, both NSERC and CIHR) that require grantees to be associated with an institution that has AUCC membership. So this quasi-acreditation process is a gateway not to degree-granting status, but certainly to having access to a good part of the luxuries to which a university would normally aspire.

    To my knowledge, there is nothing in the AUCC membership checklist that would discriminate against private institutions. In fact, it has had several private religious institutions on its membership list for some time, such as Redeemer College in Ontario and Augustana College in Alberta.

  17. I did my undergrad at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Only had 10 people in many of my 4th year classes and maybe 20 in many third year! Even first and second year journalism courses were tiny and electives had maybe 50 students. It’s a competitive program but goes to show that public universities can operate like privates in student/faculty ratios.

  18. Hi Josh. I am curious in what way online courses are limited in scope. Are you thinking about particular programs or overall? The reason I ask is because nearly all public universities offer courses online and many offer complete programs online for example you can do a Masters in Education at the University of New Brunswick entirely online. As part of my masters I have taken three courses online and they were significantly more work than my F2F courses and I believe that the benefits were greater. After these courses I am very sold on the idea of doing coursework online. Not to say that some online courses aren’t simply distance ed with no interactions with classmates and certainly no critical thinking or analysis. I am talking about rich learner centric courses.

  19. is it true that privat colleges dont have credit in university