The sneaky way universities are privatizing teaching

UWindsor rejects deal with for-profit company to teach international students; UManitoba criticized for similar program.

Thousands of students from all over the world come to Canada every year to pursue a coveted western credential and the accompanying promise of economic success. Yet, for every student who makes it to a Canadian university, there are many who don’t qualify because their grades aren’t up to snuff or their English skills are lacking. Some of these students instead enroll in the countless ESL schools that cater to international students, some of which offer high quality English training and others, well, not so much.

Recently, however, some Canadian universities have begun offering a new option for these students: the private prep college that offers a year of intensive studies with the chance to get into the real university in second year. The catch is that the colleges are run by for-profit companies, and that is attracting the ire of university professors who see the move as privatizing the public system.

Fraser International College, which is affiliated with Simon Fraser University, was the first college of its kind. Run by the Australian company Navitas, it offers first year courses in business, computing science, arts and social sciences that are designed for international students who need extra support; the program boasts class sizes under 40 students, additional learning and language support and longer classes. Students who earn the requisite GPA in these courses progress to second year as a regular international student at SFU.

While programs like FIC may sound like a dream come true for bright students with borderline English abilities and marks, faculty associations at universities across the country are raising concerns. They say that the practice of bringing in a for-profit company to teach international students equates to “outsourcing” and they have questions about the quality of education these students are receiving.

“It’s a form of contracting out jobs,” explained Brad McKenzie, president of the faculty association at the University of Manitoba, where Navitas opened its second Canadian location in 2008. He worries that Navitas instructors, who are hired by the company and are not employees of the university, aren’t given the same academic freedom, fair pay or benefits to which UManitoba faculty are entitled.

These concerns were echoed by Brian E. Brown, president of the faculty association at the University of Windsor, where a similar company is facing opposition. “Our main concern is the quality of education,” he said. “What are faculty to do with these students if they get into second year and aren’t prepared?”

Last week, the UWindsor senate voted against contracting a company called Study Group International (SGI) to set up a program to prepare international students for its business programs. The decision represents a major blow to SGI’s Canadian expansion plans; SGI claims to be “the largest single provider of international students into the U.K” and has similar programs in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.A.—UWindsor would have been its first Canadian foothold.

SGI and senior administrators at UWindsor had proposed the program to Senate as a way to build recruitment of international students. “Windsor has been a leader in international-student recruitment in Canada for the last dozen years,” Bruce Tucker, vice-president of academic affairs told the Windsor Star. “But it’s also an area where competition is heating up all around the world. In order to be competitive, we need to take the next step.” (Tucker was unavailable for comment for this article.) Although Senate has rejected the business program, three additional proposals for programs in computer science, science and social science will be considered in March.

Considering that UWindsor already recruits a significant number of international students and provides its own language courses, why contract an outside company such as SGI?

Brown thinks that there is no educational reason for partnering with SGI. He believes resources should instead be focused on recruiting regular international students and improving retention of those who are already attending UWindsor. “Do we really want to be the first university in Canada to bring this group onto campus?” he questioned. “There really is no other purpose to bring Study Group on campus other than finances.”

UWindsor professor James Winter also argued in an editorial in the Windsor Star that his administration’s attraction to SGI comes down to lack of resources. “One downside of the current economic crisis is that an air of desperation has pervaded boardrooms, including those on university campuses,” he wrote. “This proposed partnership is largely motivated by budget concerns, although it is being sold as beneficial for international students. Let the private firms recruit students. We have the expertise on campus to teach them, with our own standards, in English as well as other subject areas.”

The scheme goes like this: SGI sets up a small college on the cash-strapped university’s campus and recruits its own students to attend it. Those students would not be students of that university, but SGI students taught by SGI employed instructors. The company uses its affiliation with the university to market its program. In return, the university receives a fee for use of its brand and facilities, such as libraries, and a steady stream of second-year international students.

Falling enrollment due to a demographic shift that will see a dramatic dip in the number of university-aged domestic students is another reason that Canadian universities are looking to for-profit companies to recruit international students. At Dalhousie University, which is also considering a similar deal with Navitas, administrators are anticipating 1,000 fewer Maritime students will enroll by 2015.

“[Navitas has] a much bigger recruiting reach than we will ever have,” Dalhousie’s vice-president (Academic and Provost) Alan Shaver recently said. “And they’ve invested a lot of money over the years to get where they are.” (Dalhousie administrators declined to comment for this article, saying that it was simply too early in the planning process.)

Faculty at Dalhousie see Navitas as a dangerous solution to the problem of putting bums in seats. Professors Terry Mitchell and Carrie Dawson argue that the program would unfairly let inadmissible students into Dalhousie. “A number of institutions where Navitas already operates have objected to the company’s attempt to recruit students by promising ‘guaranteed’ admission to programs at its partner institution,” they wrote in an open letter distributed by the Dalhousie Faculty Association yesterday. “Either way, this ‘back door’ into Dalhousie would allow students to pay for the privilege of bypassing our standard admission procedures.”

It is easy to understand why students are drawn to companies like Navitas and SGI. If you click on the link to Keele University from the SGI website, you’d think you had been redirected to the U.K. university’s own website. The website—which mostly contains recruitment material—has the same grey border, black navigation bar and pale green highlights as the real Keele University site. You’ll even find the Keele University logo featured prominently on the top left corner—although it is clearly lower resolution than the corresponding graphic on the real Keele website. To the prospective student who would not otherwise qualify for Keele, SGI seems to be pitching an alternate way to get in the door, even if it doesn’t represent actually studying at Keele.

While the quality of education these international students will receive is the primary concern of opponents to these colleges, lacking transparency is perhaps more troubling. Senior administration at the University of Manitoba signed the deal to set up a Navitas college without proposing the contract to either the senate or board of governors. The faculty association and University of Manitoba Students Union had to file a freedom of information request under provincial law in order to gain access to the university’s contract with Navitas. (The University of Manitoba administration did not respond to Maclean’s before deadline.)

While UWindsor has been more open to debate on its proposed deal with SGI, there are still major gaps of information. Brown says that he’s unsure of how the college would be kept accountable and academic quality ensured. “We weren’t given very much information about what they would teach,” he said, noting that academic departments at UWindsor had not been given course outlines or material to consider.

Because SGI would function separate from UWindsor and hire its own instructors, it is unclear what qualifications faculty would have. Brown is concerned that students would receive a lower quality education from less qualified instructors who are paid less than regular UWindsor professors.

And that could compromise the quality of education, according to Dalhousie professors Mitchell and Dawson. “It would almost certainly disadvantage the Navitas students themselves, because their teachers—whatever else their merits—would not typically be leading experts in their fields, would not be governed by a collective agreement, and would not enjoy the protection of academic freedom.”

UManitoba’s McKenzie is also concerned about Navitas teaching course material developed by university faculty. Although little information on course material has been provided to the faculty association, he says it appears that Navitas is delivering already developed courses. If this is indeed the case, according to McKenzie, there are concerns about the intellectual property rights of UManitoba faculty being violated.

Regardless of whether faculty rights are being respected, McKenzie still finds it disconcerting that a private corporation should profit from material developed with public funds. “A for-profit company comes on to campus and gets a name and a reputation and brand,” he explains. “They are using publicly funded university facilities to turn a profit.”