On Campus

Private university? Don't be vulgar

A U.S. newspaper notes strange Canadian phenomenon: "an almost philosophical opposition to private universities"

The recently opened Quest University — Canada’s first secular, private, non-profit university — is being cautiously watched by the post-secondary community both in Canada beyond. In an excellent feature in the U.S.-based Chronicle of Higher Education, Karen Birchard discusses whether the private Quest U will be accepted by the largely public Canadian post-secondary community.

It’s not surprising that Quest U has raised some eyebrows, considering that not only is it the first of its kind in Canada, but also conceived out of a number of criticisms of the current post-secondary system. Founder Dr. David Strangway hatched the idea for the small, education-focused university out of what he saw as shortcomings in the public system. In an interview with Maclean’s last year, Strangway was highly critical of the current university model, which focuses heavily on research and less on undergraduate teaching

You can’t easily dismiss Strangway’s criticisms. He was the president of the University of British Columbia for 12 years and served as acting president and provost of the University of Toronto. He’s knows what’s up with research too from six years as president and CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, a body that funds research infrastructure.

Strangway said the school was modeled on the small undergraduate-focused, liberal arts schools of the U.S. Speaking with Maclean’s last spring, Strangway said that Quest takes a different approach, starting with faculty hiring. “You’re not coming here to do research,” he said of Quest professors, who are known as tutors. “You’re coming here to teach and share your experience with students… We will not be building research facilities. But if you want to do research on your own time, more power to you.” Strangway said that this philosophy hadn’t scared potential professors; he said that two job postings attracted 600 applications last spring.

One of the most striking differences between Quest and other B.C. universities is the cost. Tuition and fees for a standard two-term academic year is $28,200 plus another $8,000 for room and board. Quest’s website states it is committed to helping make the Quest experience affordable and accessible to all qualified students through a combination of merit and need-based awards, student loans and campus employment.” But $30,000+ per year surely still induces sticker-shock.

The price tag is another reason that many people in Canada swallow hard when the topic of private universities like Quest comes up. The national average tuition fee for undergraduate students at public universities is $4,524. Critics of Quest worry about eroding accessibility if more elite universities like Quest start popping up.

Strangway noted that top Canadian students have traditionally paid big bucks to study at elite American colleges. He added: “The greatest teaching and research universities in the world are private,” Strangway told Maclean’s last year. “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with private universities.”

In her Chronicle article, Birchard echoes this sentiment, as if witnessing a strange, Canadian phenomenon. “There seems to be an almost philosophical opposition in Canada to private universities and colleges, except religious ones,” she writes. Birchard quotes Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director James Turk saying that CAUT has serious concerns about Quest. CAUT’s position seems to be that they oppose degree-granting private institutions because they believe the public system is doing the job of granting degrees already. Turk told Birchard that Quest adds “nothing useful to the Canadian post-secondary scene.”

But not everyone agrees that the public system is doing a good enough job granting degrees. Brichard interviewed UBC president Stephen Toope on the debate. “Canada has to get over the impression that it has an outstanding university system,” he said. “We have a solid system, but it is largely in stasis, and standing still is a recipe for mediocrity.”

Strangway agreed with Toope in his discussion with Birchard. “We have this Canadian syndrome that says it’s OK to be good, but it’s not OK to be excellent. Everybody in higher education agrees to get to this level,” he said. “So we don’t allow the tall poppies to stand out. It would be nice if we had a higher-education culture that allowed the tall poppies.”

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