Premier Campbell’s university-making magic wand

Are B.C.’s five new universities really “universities”?

When it comes to making universities, B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s government is productive. With five new university announcements under his belt, Campbell churned out more universities in a week than B.C. was able to do in the previous 50 years.

But with the frequency with which Campbell has been using his university-creating magic wand as of late, many are wondering about the validity of the new so-called universities.

The premier and the minister of advanced education Murray Coell brought their magic show to five campuses in just over a week: University College of the Fraser Valley, Kwantlen University College, Malaspina University College, Capilano College, and the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design.

Skeptics, including Robert Clift at the Confederation of University Faculty Associations, have brought up the curious timing of the announcements, mere weeks after the provincial Liberal government told existing universities that they would be receiving less money than they had expected in the fiscal year that started April 1.

But the creation of the new universities has little to do with money. In fact, thus far the government hasn’t pledged any funding to help the institutions transition into universities, which suggests that the schools won’t be all that different than their previous selves.

Vancouver Sun
columnist Vaughn Palmer hit this issue on the head: “There’s the old joke about what the boss offers when he can’t provide a raise: a new title.”

The legislative changes tabled last week in Victoria will pave the road for these schools to be called universities, while ensuring they maintain their focus on undergraduate education and vocational training. The province was careful to make sure that the newly-minted universities don’t turn into research-obsessed institutions. So if the schools continue to focus on education and not research, are they really universities?

There is no perfect definition of “university.” But the general consensus seems to be that a university is a degree-granting (extra points for masters degrees and PhDs) institution engaged in at least some research. Up until now, B.C. has made a distinction between universities pursuing academic knowledge and institutions (colleges, university-colleges, and institutes) mainly concerned with job training. With the five new universities in B.C., the provincial government seems to be broadening that definition.

Not all of the schools are cut from the same cloth. In last year’s Campus 2020 report, Geoff Plant recommended that Kwantlen University College, Malaspina University College, and the University College of the Fraser Valley be promoted to regional universities. One of his reasons for the recommendation was that the title “university-college” is not understood outside of the province.

With the proposed label “regional university,” Plant distinguished between small, undergraduate education-focused schools and research-intensive school such as UBC and UVic. The label was intended to more accurately describe degree-granting schools that serve specific regions but don’t have the same academic culture as the big research-intensive universities.

As soon as the report came out, Capilano College in North Vancouver (which, like Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, never had the university-college designation) began aggressively lobbying to be included as a regional university. Despite the fact that the college is not engaged in research, the campaign argued that it already granted undergraduate degrees and services a specific region with its Sechelt and Squamish satellite campuses. They kicked off a wide-reaching Capilano U advertising campaign that apparently worked.

This was definitely not by Plant’s design. His recommendation for Capilano College (and other B.C. colleges that had been bestowed with degree-granting status) was that it be stripped of its right to grant degrees entirely. “I get that Cap College reaches way up — its region goes up to Pemberton — but the core audience of Cap College is the North Shore of Vancouver, which is within very easy reach of UBC and SFU. I don’t think it’s the right place to create a regional university today,” Plant told the Georgia Straight last August.

Another factor that sets Capilano College apart from the other university-colleges is that it offers only four undergraduate degrees — in music, music therapy, tourism management, and business administration — none of which are academic. Moreover, none of these four programs are offered at the Sechelt and Squamish campuses.

But it’s not only the announcement of Capilano University that is raising questions about the “devaluing” of the university designation. Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, of UBC’s department of art history, is critical of Emily Carr Institute’s university status. He told the Georgia Straight, “I think it’s more about politics than it is about academic or educational value.…I think, in a sense, there’s a mistaken idea that to call everything universities is (a) going to make them universities, and (b) is actually going to serve the purposes of the institutions themselves and their students. And I don’t think it will.”

Windsor-Liscombe is bang on when he says that calling a school a university doesn’t make it one. The announcements bring to mind the last time Premier Campbell used his magic higher education wand: when he gave some colleges degree-granting status.

Capilano College became the poster child of the difficulties of degree-granting colleges when a number of newspaper articles in 2006 reported that, in some cases, its undergraduate degrees were not recognized by universities outside of B.C. The most widely reported case was that of David Cryderman who was rejected as a candidate for teacher training at the University of Toronto, Lakehead University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Western Ontario and Nipissing University, shortly before graduating from Capilano College in North Vancouver with a bachelor’s degree in music. He was told that to be considered for entrance into teachers’ college, he first needed a degree from a university. He thought he had earned the real thing.

I also completed a bachelor’s in music (jazz studies) at Capilano College and was equally surprised when rumours started circulating that the bachelor’s degree I was working towards may not be considered a degree by some universities. Capilano had long been offering music degrees in partnership with the Open Learning Institute (now Thompson Rivers University), which was the degree I (and Cryderman) expected to earn when I enroled at Capilano in the first place. But then, in my fourth year, the game plan changed when they announced Capilano would be granting its own degrees.

When students started demanding information about the rumours, we were told that although these were real bachelor’s degrees, we couldn’t expect to use them to get into post-graduate programs that we weren’t qualified for. In other words, you can’t use a music degree to get into medical school. While this seems reasonable, you should be able to use a bachelor’s of music from Capilano (considering that they have an education stream) to get into teacher’s college.

I don’t regret choosing Capilano College. It has one of the best music programs in the country taught by some of the best jazz musicians around, and that was the reason I went there. But prospective students need to be given accurate information in order to make good decisions. One way to do that is to call institutions what they are. If Capilano College bachelor’s degrees are (while surely valuable in many ways) viewed as a lesser credential than a bachelor’s degree from a university, the province and Capilano needs to be clear about that. Now that Capilano will be called a university, prospective students who are not familiar with the history will assume that a undergraduate degree from Capilano is the same as one from any other university in B.C.

As the editor of the student paper the Capilano Courier at the time, I asked a number of Capilano College administrators (including president Dr. Greg Lee) who should have been responsible for ensuring that the degrees would be recognized. The answers ranged from shrugging to finger pointing. The province and the college seemed to have overlooked this detail.

So, this time around, what’s to say that a change in name will be recognized? President Lee is confident that the new designation will be the end of the problem, he told Maclean’s in an interview last week. I’m not so sure.

Canada has no national accreditation system. Instead, many universities use membership in the university lobby group the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada as de facto accreditation. Malaspina, Emily Carr, and University College of the Fraser Valley are already members. Kwantlen is in the process.

Capilano, on the other hand, does not currently hold a membership in the organization and Lee isn’t sure if they will pursue it. “The criteria for AUCC membership involves a stronger research mandate than we see actually being given to us by the provincial government, and it is certainly not our direction to be a research institution,” he said.

Without AUCC membership, the name change might not solve Capilano’s problems.

One of Geoff Plant’s reasons for his recommendations in the Campus 2020 report to clarify the term “university-college” and strip colleges of degree-granting status was to avoid “mandate creep.” With the five new universities, Campbell hasn’t avoided “mandate creep” — he has guaranteed it.