Ontario approves private universities

Provincial legislators in Edmonton recently passed Bill 11, which critics say is the start of a two-tiered health care system in Canada. But, while Alberta maybe the birthplace of increased privatization in the health-care sphere, Ontario may be Canada’s leader in a similar system for education, according to student groups.

On April 28, Ontario Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities Dianne Cunningham released a consultation paper called "Increasing Degree Opportunities for Ontarians." Cunningham held a press conference where she cited the need to give Ontario students more choices after high school, and to make Ontario’s post-secondary institutions "the envy of the world." The location of the press conference was changed when students from the Canadian Federation for Students staged a sit-in and demanded an audience with Cunningham.

"The paper was prepared in secret," said CFS National Director Michael Conlon, an organization that represents 405,000 students nationwide. "No students and no faculty were consulted. Some administrators were, but only those favourable to privatization."

The controversy surrounds Ontario’s proposal to grant colleges the ability to offer applied degrees on a pilot-project basis, and the approval for the establishment of private, degree-granting institutions in Ontario.

"This ground-breaking announcement will stimulate our system to keep pace with the changing needs of our students and the world," continued Cunningham. "[Our] prosperity and the future prosperity of our students depends on them having access to high-quality education programs where and when they need them."

Critics of the Ontario proposal, such as the CFS and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations–(of which the University of Calgary Students’ Union is a member)–have predicted the door to full-fledged privatization of post-secondary institutions across

Canada will open if the proposal receives royal ascent.

"We are worried about a two-tiered education system that could spread across the country," said CASA National Director Mark Kissel.

Education in Canada, although funded in part by the Federal Government, falls under provincial jurisdiction. Legally, provinces can structure and fund educational programs however they see fit, and Alberta will not necessarily follow Ontario’s lead.

U of C SU Vice-president External Duncan Wojtaszek agreed with Kissel.

"Knowing the Alberta government, we fear that they may be looking to the private sector to cure the drastic underfunding of education in the past decade," said Wojtaszek.

According to Wojtaszek, the privatization process is underway. He cited Devry and the Henderson School of Business as examples of schools that receive some public monies, but remain private degree-granting institutions. For Wojtaszek, this is an accountability issue. He says the SU would plan "vigourous opposition" in coordination with the university should such a proposal be pitched here.

"[The U of C] is accountable to the public, its alumni, its students and the government," said Wojtaszek. "The province even hand-picks our Board of Governors. But the private institutions are only accountable to the shareholders and their clients."

The Alberta government has not read the Ontario consultation paper, and has stated that it sees no likelihood of a change from the system currently in place.

"I can’t respond [to] what’s going on in Ontario," said Alberta Learning Spokesperson Ed Greenberg. "Since 1984, we’ve had the Private Colleges Accreditation Board in place. [They] review proposals to grant degrees from private colleges. I don’t see anything changing. There’s no indication that Albertans want a change."

Wojtaszek, Kissel and Conlon, however, still fear the worst. For them the alternative to the privatization process is simple; they want to see a desire from all levels of government to increase core funding to Canada’s public institutions. In that way, universities could afford to give professors more pay, decrease the time to tenure and allot more funds to university infrastructure.

"The public system has been starved," said Conlon. "This was a decision made at the provincial and federal levels."

Wojtaszek will continue to monitor the situation in Ontario, along with his national counterparts. CASA, in turn, stated that private universities in Ontario will bring the high tuition costs of American institutions, without the benefits.

"Are these private universities going to be opening Harvard-quality institutions in Canada? Not likely. Are [they] going to offer Harvard-level scholarships? Not likely. Is this going to improve the quality of post-secondary education in Canada? Not at all."

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