On Campus

From college to university

B.C. grants full university status to three university colleges, critics concerned lack of funding will hinder transformation

British Columbia’s three university colleges are in a jubilant mood this week as the provincial government announced that they would be granted full university status.

The move comes after a major review of the province’s post-secondary education system last spring, titled Campus 2020. The report, authored by former attorney general Geoff Plant, recommended that B.C.’s university colleges be renamed “Regional Universities” to better reflect the role they play in offering a range of certificate, diploma and degree programs.

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On Monday, University College of the Fraser Valley was renamed University of the Fraser Valley. Tuesday, it was announced that Kwantlen University College will now be known as Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and today it was announced that Malaspina University College will be called Vancouver Island University.

The university colleges have long coveted the designation of university, claiming that the inclusion of the word “college” has made it difficult for their degree programs to be fully recognized, which has hindered, they say, their ability to recruit abroad, and for their graduates to have their degrees accepted by both employers and graduate programs in other Canadian universities.

“University status will bring enormous benefits to our students and communities, while retaining our local focus and our emphasis, above all, on excellent teaching,” said Malaspina University College president Ralph Nilson.

The institutions began as colleges responsible for providing vocational and diploma programs along with two year associate degrees. The two year associate degrees have for the most part been fully transferable into full degree programs and have been a popular option for B.C. students.

Beginning in 1989 five of the province’s colleges were given degree granting status, first in association with other major universities, and then on their own. Okanagan University College has since split into two parts: Okanagan College and the University of British Columbia-Okanagan. University College of the Cariboo has since become Thompson Rivers University.

As of this week, the three remaining university colleges have become full fledged universities, simplifying to some extent what is often seen by outsiders as an overly convoluted system. Provincially recognized institutions will now be either a college or a university.

While the changes are pending amendments to the province’s University Act, it appears that the institutions will be required to maintain their non-degree programs, and it seems it will be expected that the regional focus of the institutions will also stay put.

“Vancouver Island University will build on its international reputation for its Aboriginal-focused programs, leading-edge Coastal Resource Management programs, and trades and technology programs,” premier Gordon Cambell said Wednesday.

There has long been a concern that as B.C.’s colleges evolve, that they will eventually drift away from their mandate to offer technical and vocational training. Kwantlen president Skip Triplett agrees that it is a valid concern but points out that “when you go back to 1989 when the university colleges first happened, that drift has not occurred.”

Triplett also offered some speculation as to what the new legislation will look like.

“We haven’t seen the legislation yet but we expect that the legislation will require us, because we asked the government to require us, to maintain the comprehensive mix of programming that we have, so internally we’re not concerned and we have no intention of moving away from that comprehensive mix,” he said.

While the institutions have claimed for years that they are a “university in all but name” others are skeptical. Robert Clift, executive director for the Confederation of University Faculty Associations says to call these institutions a “university” is a “bit of a stretch.” Acknowledging that faculty at the institutions do engage in research, Clift says that they lack the “culture of inquiry” typically characteristic of universities.

Similarly, Cindy Oliver of the Council of Post-Secondary Educators has criticized the government for making these announcements mere weeks after a series of budget cuts to the province’s post-secondary system. “Without proper funding, these changes may ring a bit hollow. To fulfill their new mandates as universities will require more money. Yet the province has already cut 2.6 per cent from their operating grants,” she said.

Triplett disagrees arguing that all that was left for the transformation to university was the name. He says that while his institution is indeed teaching focused “We do research and we do it very well, in fact at least one department at UBC has told us that our graduates are in some ways better prepared than their own because our undergraduates are involved with research with their faculty members,” he said.

The naming of the institutions appears to be a point of departure from the Campus 2020 report which recommended using the name “Regional University,” and Kwantlen has been given what on the surface appears to be a different designation with the inclusion of the word “polytechnic.”

However, Triplett welcomes the name and says it best reflects the “special purpose” of the institutions, adding that while Malaspina and the University College of the Fraser Valley serve distinct regions, Kwantlen does not need the full range of programs because it is so close to Simon Fraser University.

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