It’s time for private universities -

It’s time for private universities

If governments won’t support the liberal arts, someone else is going to have to do it.


Canadians have  for many years been justly proud of their system of public universities. And as with publicly-insured health care, our system of government-funded universities serves as a means to distinguish us from the U.S. Sure, we say, Harvard and Yale may be great schools, but their costs make them almost exclusively for the elite few, while working-class Americans have to settle for modest state schools or community colleges that no one takes seriously. Here in Canada, by contrast, anyone can go to any of our high quality public universities.

So far, so good, but the times are changing, and changing fast. It is increasingly an accepted article of faith among university administrators and government officials alike that universities are economic levers. As such, programs that seem to have a clear economic benefit — business, engineering, computer science — are increasingly understood as the disciplines that matter, while the traditional areas of studies — the liberal arts in particular — are viewed as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and economically unsustainable.

Like many professors of the humanities, I have railed against this view, with no success. No matter how many times people like me argue that education ought not to be mainly about training workers who can create value for corporations, the march of the Philistines goes on. No matter how many times people like me point out that research shows how liberal arts grads actually end up doing better economically than graduates from applied programs, English Literature still appears to be the discipline you can’t do anything with, while Entrepreneurship seems street smart and savvy.

So be it. Governments have the right to fund what they see as important and if the electorate doesn’t make an issue of it, I suppose we shouldn’t expect our politicians to do so either. The barbarians aren’t at the gate: they’re in the cockpit.

But if governments refuse to properly fund and support and promote the liberal arts, they should allow — indeed, by all rights they must allow — the creation of private universities for those same liberal arts. It’s one thing to deny funds to such programs. It’s entirely another to deny the whole populace the right to pursue the kinds of education they want. Notice, by the way, that I am not talking about for-profit institutions, only institutions that do not rely on regular government funding.

Can such institutions be viable? I think they can be, though the gestation period will be long and difficult. For one thing, they would require a certain amount of start-up capital, and that would mean private donors. But building a foundation of private donations is not impossible, and many existing universities got their start just that way. Such donations would go mainly towards building and furnishing a building (or renovating an existing structure), providing books for the library, and creating an endowment from which an annual investment revenue could be drawn to continue to cover the maintenance costs.

Once a base of donations has been gathered and the start-up costs have been covered, the running of a small liberal arts college is actually extremely cost efficient. Without expensive labs and scientific equipment, and with an endowment to help cover day-to-day costs, the largest expense for such an institution would be faculty salaries, and these could be covered through tuition. I could imagine a small, credible liberal arts university with, let’s say, five departments: Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology/Sociology, and Languages. We could tweak the exact organization and complement, but let’s start there for argument’s sake. Now, let’s imagine five members in each department, and let’s say every faculty member teaches 3 courses per year with 30 students in each class. That’s enough room for 450 students taking a full course load. Now, let’s say each of those students pays something near the top end of the existing Canadian tuition scale (and why not for an elite liberal arts school?) or $7000 per year.  That’s about $3.2 million in revenue. Our 25 faculty members, making, let’s say $75 000 per year, cost about $1.9 million for their salaries, leaving us a surplus of over a million dollars to spend on other things such as administrative costs.

Readers might argue with the particular details and the exact arithmetic, but the basic point holds: a small, private liberal arts university would not be particularly expensive to run. And with a small faculty and student body, the army of administrative staff that bogs down the budgets of other universities could be largely, though not entirely, avoided. There would be no need for Deans or Chairs or their secretaries. Similarly, by focusing only on academics, needless expenses like football teams can be forgone, too. Many aspects of campus life — residences, food services, the bookstore — could support themselves with the revenue they generate.

But why would anyone go there? For one thing, there is still a large number of students (and parents) who understand that the joys of communing with the great minds of our past and present are too great to pass up. Moreover, such a university would attract the very best scholars and teachers in the relevant fields, because Canadian liberal arts professors generally feel undervalued and would jump at the chance to teach in a small university dedicated only to their disciplines.

Moreover, employers would scramble to hire graduates from my little university because they would recognize  that their well-developed curiosity, imagination, and critical faculties make them much more valuable in the long run than graduates from public universities trained in technologies that will be obsolete in five years. And so students will be all the more eager to attend, knowing that a degree from Pettigrew University really means something.

But wait, don’t such colleges already exist as public universities? They do, but given current trends, they won’t in the long run, and those who want to save the liberal arts traditions from the unexamined dustbin of history have to start preparing now. If we don’t, the last university liberal arts program will be cut by the end of the century, long after there are enough people left who remember why it mattered.

But to start now we need to do two things. First, start keeping your eye out for rich people who want to leave a legacy akin to, say, the Stanford family and when you find them, encourage them to establish a foundation for a private liberal arts university. And get them to tell their friends, too. Second, give up the notion that Canadian universities all have to remain public and get your provincial government to give it up, too.

Once you’ve done those things, contact me, and I will take it from there.


It’s time for private universities

  1. Todd –

    Great article and I agree with you on the importance of a liberal arts education. In fact, I myself am a business student yet some of the most interesting and thought-provoking courses I have taken have been Philosophy and Religious Studies courses.

    And believe me, I know you’re not a big fan of my school (Trinity Western), but our school is all about liberal arts education. You are entitled to your opinion and I know that not everyone is not happy with TWU, but don’t ignore the fact that this institution offers the kind of liberal arts education you are looking for in Canada.

    Let me know the next time you’re in B.C. I’d love to show you around campus, take you to a few classes, and buy you lunch. Looking forward to meeting you.

  2. ” Sure, we say, Harvard and Yale may be great schools, but their costs make them almost exclusively for the elite few, while working-class Americans have to settle for modest state schools or community colleges that no one takes seriously”

    WRONG. Lower income Americans (and Canadians too BTW) can attend Harvard abd Yale free with full need based scholarships funded by their immense endowments. They define low income as any family earning less than US$60,000/year. Also, some of those “modest state schools” outrank most Canadian schools in worldwide rankings: Berkeley, Michigan, Chapel Hill etc.

  3. lol liberal arts.

    what a waste of time.

    if you want to work in Mcdonalds, go study lib arts

  4. Are you serious? Pettigrew, you’re taking all of the source links you’ve provided out of context, and even the source links themselves are flawed…especially the one about graduates in liberal arts doing better economically than more applied fields. The study cites data from 1992 which was when Canada was in a recession. During recessions, companies tend to cut back on R&D and technology infrastructure. Who do you think works in these fields?

    Secondly, you also conveniently forget to mention the fact that your source for “disciplines that matter” state that graduates of more applied fields earn $10,000 MORE annually than liberal arts graduates.

    Also, “modest state schools”?! What about UC Berkley, Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers, etc.?

    • Eng2010, I can’t comment on every single link, but I will make a couple of quick responses.

      First, the disciplines that matter link does show higher earnings for applied fields, but other research (including that of Statscan) says that those immediate earnings hide a larger trend to higher incomes by those whose education is more flexible. But of course, this issue is only by way of introduction and is not central to my main point either way. Even if liberal arts graduates make less than others, that in no way impugns the value of the education.

      As for the modest state schools, now you’ve taken me out of context. My point was that this is how Canadians often imagine the US system and that caricature is used to resist private universities in Canada. I was not commenting on the reality of the US system.

  5. “if you want to work in Mcdonalds, go study lib arts”

    Wow, somebody sure is feeling insecure.

  6. Dr. Pettigrew, you need to seriously sit down and look at the books of a small liberal arts university like the (public) University of King’s College in Halifax or a comparable American private institution. King;s receives government funding, is about twice the size of your proposed college and fees are close to $7k per year.

    $75,000 per year per faculty member is an unrealistic long term cost. It might work out that low when everyone is an assistant professor but as folks start climbing the seniority rank things will esclate quickly. Your numbers also don’t even begin to factor in other costs like pension, benefits, etc.

    Your bizarre model doesn’t actually take into account the purchasing of buildings or maintaining them. It is also unrealistic and insulting to assume that you could operate without any level of administrative support. I hope you let your department administrator know that s/he is a waste of money. Yes, the top level of management needs to be trimmed in the public system, but to think that you could recruit, retain and serve students without financial services, registrars, medical service, etc. departments is foolhardy and short sighted.

    Your fictitious school also would be devoid of all the other things that make elite, small liberal arts colleges so popular and so enriching: active athletics programs (not necessarily varsity), students, public talks, theatre and arts programs, pubs and other social spaces. 30 students per class is also generally considered to be *large* in institutions like the one you envision.

    Quest University in BC tried to create a model not radically different from yours and while they’re fiercely defensive about their school even Quests’ defenders would have to admit that it has had significant financial and administrative struggles so far. (Even though it charges far more than $7k per year in tuition fees)

    Small American schools are able to rely heavily on alumni donations to grow a massive endowment. Vassar for example has an $896m endowment despite its tiny size. Canada’s largest university endowment is at UofT and is about 130% (rough guesstimate not real math) of Vassar’s despite a massive discrepancy in size and the presence of professional schools. Centuries of fund-raising, reinvestment and legacy admissions have built up these endowments and allowed for fairly generous financial aid to offset the unregulated and insanely high tuition fees. The only real hope for starting a viable one from scratch today in Canada would be for some rich billionaire to donate her/his whole fortune to founding one. (or more likely for an existing university to decide to turn private)

    Aside from your questionable premise (that the best way to promote the public good of the liberal arts is to privatize) the logistics of your plan don’t seem to be thought through at all.

    • Chris, actually my model does take into account some of the costs you mention, because contrary to your implication I do not see this hypothetical institution functioning only on tuition money. Perhaps raising the necessary private funds would prove impossible and tuition would have to be much higher than I propose above. Perhaps tuitions in the $15 to $30 thousand range would be necessary. Or perhaps by starting with a ground-up institution there could be other creative solutions to keep costs down.

      In any case, I think a fair reading of my post would admit that the specific costs are really not the point. Nor is my point that privatization is the best way to promote the liberal arts. The best way would be for governments and administrations to recognize the value of these disciplines and fund and promote them accordingly. My sense is that governments (and increasingly university officials) have no interest in doing that, and so private liberal arts colleges might be the only way.

  7. Suppose it could be demonstrated by some reasonable, quasi-objective measure, that some private Christian university provides a flourishing liberal arts education. Would you:

    (a) begrudgingly admit that even a Christian university can, on balance, contribute to the public good,
    (b) assert that whatever incidental contributions to the public good a Christian university can make, the stain of religious belief negatively outweighs any such contributions, or
    (c)reject the initial supposition and claim that there is no reasonable, quasi-objective measure by which a private Christian university could be shown to provide a flourishing liberal arts education?

    I’ve a hunch you’d prefer something like (b) (in a comment to a previous post on private religious universities and the public good, I gave some good reasons against (b)). But it’s interesting to note that the very reasons and values you cite in support of liberal arts education are ones upheld by my own institution which is chartered as a private, Christian, liberal arts and sciences university. So, if you really do value the liberal arts, and there’s no compelling argument in support of options (b) or (c) above, shouldn’t you look at least a bit more kindly on Canada’s existing private universities?


    Myron A. Penner
    Associate Professor of Philosophy
    Trinity Western University

  8. Your article is excellent. I truly hope this idea is in some way carried through in the future. I am an English Literature/Cultural Arts major who wants to spend their life in these fields. A private institution that would focus on the arts and humanities would allow me to grow as a writer and artist. After university, I would enter society prepared in my role to service the arts and literary sector.

  9. To ahd39: “if you want to work at McDonald’s take lib arts.”

    I have a masters in History, have worked for a major canadian corporation for the past 5 years, and make more money than the business school graduates of my university who graduated the same year as me. Why? Because I have an ability to reason, to learn new things quickly, and to argue a point. They don’t.

  10. $75K salary? Good luck getting good faculty with that.With no benefits or with? Because that’ll cost you another $10K.

  11. Great article Todd, I never did understand the stigma associated with taking an arts degree. I’m a 4th year Poli Sci major that has just received an early acceptance to Law School next year. I attribute my academic succes to the last 3 years I’ve spent studying English, Philosophy, Poli Sci, History and Psychology. I don’t think that there’s any better prep for Law School than a B.A. and I wouldn’t have changed my path for a split second.

    P.S. I’m also a marker for one of my Poli professors and I’ve had the opportunity to read papers for a 2000 level course, and it blows my mind how horribly some of these commerce and science students write. They’re going to be in for a rude awakening once they enter the working world without the ability to express themselves intelligently and concisely.

  12. I am a graduate of both Canadian public and American private universities. I see no problem introducing a private system into Canada. There are private universities that offer assistance to students in need. One of the Private schools I attended proudly extended help to those in need by way of grants, scholarships, and even special loan programs. They also accepted OSAP and were on par with the price that I would have had to pay in Ontario, had my program been available.

    Let face it, a little competition never hurt anyone. Competition may actually drive down ever increasing public education tuition rates. It would definitely employee more people. After all, it takes many people of varying expertise to properly run an institution.

    I think smaller class sizes made my experiences far more beneficial. Plus they also opened the gates to fascinating debates and problem solving exercises between universities on various subject matter. It created a healthier, less stagnant system where a myriad of ideas were respected and explored.

    As far as Liberal Arts not being respected. I experienced this after my first degree. I blame this in part on a society that has not been providing furtile ground to the minds that could offer real leadership to Canada in the future. A prime example of this lies in the current collection of politicians. (of all parties)

    It takes people educated in Maths, Sciences … and Liberal Arts to help provide a frame work to the success of Canada. Devaluing Lib Arts serves no one.

    I, for one, applaud your point of view.

  13. There should be no need for private liberal arts colleges, if education in the secondary level would provide for a strong base for a personal liberal education for every graduate who must, thereafter, enroll in the tertiary level (or vocationally-oriented education to qualify for a job in the community where he chooses to live). A university education may, thereafter, be a higher level of education where the high school gaduate’s base for a liberal education may be expanded (depth and breadth). The university education should be funded by the state and those enrollees should qualify for it through state-conducted qualification examinations. University education becomes a privilege of the qualified and the potential-leaders/thinkers/teachers/philosophers, etc.

    Indeed, it is the state’s responsibility to provide for all levels of competence and responsibilities needed in developing the common wealth of the community.

    Democracy in education is unnecessarily overestimated in Dr. Pettigrew’s model. A high school graduate, given good reading and thinking skills, could provide himself with a liberal education that would serve the needs for a “finer, more civilized” citizenship. (Scholars like Maynard Hutchins have compendiums like “The Great Books”, Will Durant the tomes of the “History of Civilization” and the various encyclopedia of philosophy, languages, science, and literature — all these are available resources for a private liberal education. Professors in liberal education are not needed in this scenario — let them do research or write more books to enrich liberal education.)

    Liberal education-based preparation for University has always worked well with the screening of students qualified for higher learning. (There used to be the Associate in Arts certificate — a two-year liberal arts education, until it outlived its usefulness in Asian universities. It is, indeed, a misdirected utilisation of scarce tuition and other funds). It is futile to encourage every secondary school graduate to proceed to university if they are clearly not equipped nor inclined to serve the community as university-education equipped citizens. Surely, college/techincal school/vocational school graduates have their role in the development of the community. University graduates may primarily be equipped for leadership and planning for the dynamic continuum of social/economic/cultural development of the country.

    Let the high shool graduate provide for his liberal education, as well as technial/vocational education. While the earns money after his vocational education, he might want to save for university education if he is so inclined or qualified. If he wants to proceed to university, he should pass a qualifying examination and be supported through a university education by the state.

    If private liberal education can be supported by endowments, that can only add to the depth and breadth of an excellent educational milieu. Private enterprise should not be precluded from establishing the private liberal arts colleges. They, like technical/vocational schools thrive or perish according to their usefulness and trustworthiness in equipping the citizen.

    Elementary, secondary, university (from masteral to doctoral levels) should remain as the responsbility of the state. Look only to Denmark for an exemplar in this scheme. Denmark is by UN-ranking considered the best country to live in.

    The argument that should never prosper, neverthelss, is whether a liberal education is necessary for cultural/social development of a country. It is stupid not to rest on the shoulders of civilisation’s giants if these shoulders are available. Liberal education provides these perch to see and grasp opportunities otherwise beyond the reach of the feeble individual who invented government to provided services to guarantee that he is equipped to have dominion over the Earth and its resources. Or does man have dominion?

  14. The problem is in your premise. The death of liberal arts is not caused by the rise of applied studies. Applied studies are the refuge from the self-destruction of liberal arts.

    Start with the question: why get an education at all? Traditional answers are to transmit and build our cultural heritage, to develop critical reasoning and to gain entry into a career.

    The university I remember openly mocks cultural heritage in favor of critical reasoning. Yet logic is well taught in math courses, critical analysis is important in engineering and neither is very much in evidence in the fashionable departments of gender studies and political science.

    A liberal arts degree might justify itself as badge of hard work and discipline. Instead, standards are so low that applied students take arts courses (that is, courses outside their core areas of strength!) as GPA boosters.

    Corruption in every other measure is accepted in defense of “critical thinking”. Yet the modern university imposes speech codes and tolerates gender and race studies courses that explicitly reject logic and militantly persecute dissenting views. Tolerate is perhaps too weak a word. English professors openly bemoan the presence of applied programs and welcome gender studies “perspectives” into their classes.

    Universities think of themselves as open, diverse and self-critical. Yet the public sees them as insular ivory towers: thanks to a Platonic worldview, impregnable towers. Faculties of Science and Commerce, being empirical, leave at least one window for truth to get in.

    Finally, we have an institution that rejects the classics, formal logic, dissenting voices, rigor, empirical fact and the society that supports it.

    There was a time that the arts dominated universities. Students studied large numbers of dusty books of great thinkers. But those institutions were small because society has a limited need for such people and few people will study like that without a tangible reward. Universities grow because we need highly trained people. The arts thought it should grow proportionally, though there was never a driving need. In order to grow it had to be “relevant” and “accessible” (that is, fashionable and simplified). Now, instead of an institution with a small, important role, it has a large unnecessary one.