The provincial government has announced its intention to transform Fraser Valley, Kwantlen, and Malaspina university colleges into full-fledged universities.
But are the communities served by these learning centres getting an institution that is a university in name only? Or are they going to get an institution that really is a university?
Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., posed these questions because he considers it odd that Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government made these announcements on the heels of funding cuts to universities and colleges.
“Given the funding cuts at this point, it sounds to me that they’re getting something in name as opposed to substance,” Clift told the Georgia Straight. “The main thing that would concern me is if the government wants to create new universities, fine—they should be moving to create good, quality universities. At this point in the game, it looks to be a bit more window-dressing than substantive.”
Clift noted that as far as he knows, the University College of the Fraser Valley, Kwantlen University College, and Malaspina University-College took the same 2.6-percent cuts that he said other postsecondary institutions had to their respective 2008–2009 budgets.
“We have a number of existing universities now which have less money than they were supposed to,” Clift said. “Not that the folks in these communities don’t deserve university education. They certainly do, but the question is, are they going to get it under the current funding restrictions?”
In a statement to members of CUFA BC in late March, confederation president Chris Petter estimated that operating grants for universities and college across the province were cut by $50 million.
Petter stated that $24 million of the total was slashed from the six existing public universities, namely, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of Northern B.C., Thompson Rivers University, and Royal Roads University.
In a news release on April 3, Petter said that universities are going to offer fewer new student spaces. “Even though the total spending for post-secondary education is up by 4% over last year, the actual amount of money that public institutions will receive per student has dropped by more than 3%,” he said. “Once again, we’re being asked to do more with less and it’s going to negatively affect students.”
Petter also said that funding per student would drop from $9,145 in 2007-2008 to $8,852 in 2008-2009.
Linda O’Connor, spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education, offered a very different picture.
“We’re saying we didn’t cut anything,” O’Connor told the Straight. “We actually gave a $61-million
O’Connor also said there were “funding adjustments” to redirect money to areas that have high labour-market demand, like the trades and nursing.
Meanwhile, by press time the provincial government hadn’t made any decision on the call by executives of Capilano College to redesignate the North Vancouver academic institution as a regional university. On August 16, 2007, the Straight reported that the premier’s only sister, Catherine Vertesi, is part of the college’s senior management team undertaking a high-profile public-relations campaign in this direction.
Capilano College president Greg Lee didn’t return a call before the Straight’s deadline.
O’Connor would only say that the provincial government is aware of Capilano’s desire to be classified as a university. She added that the ministry had no comment about what may be announced in the future.
The redefining of Fraser Valley, Kwantlen, and Malaspina university colleges as universities was among the changes suggested by former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant when he reviewed the province’s postsecondary-education system.
“It is also worth observing that the greatest numerical and relative population growth in the college regions over the next 15 years will likely occur in the Kwantlen region,” Plant wrote in his Campus 2020: Thinking Ahead report, released in April 2007.
“Significant growth will also occur in the Fraser Valley and Malaspina regions.”
NDP advanced-education critic Rob Fleming said that, in general, the creation of the three new universities was a fair recommendation of the Campus 2020 report.
Referring to the announcements, Fleming noted that designating new universities is a worthy measure, as this will enable the institutions to better market themselves and attract both local and international students.
“However, if it’s about a simple rebranding and there’s no money or support to expand enrollment and increase the range of degrees offered, then I don’t think the announcements will mean very much,” Fleming told the Straight. “Premier Campbell and the minister [Murray Coell] is saying that all you’re getting is a new name, [what] you’re not getting is new money.”
According to Fleming, universities must compete to build a reputation of excellence, and that cannot be done on the cheap. Fleming also noted that the government hasn’t tabled legislation to effect the changes and there’s only a few weeks left in the spring sitting of the legislature. He said the legislature is likely to deal with this matter in the fall.
In a government news release, Kwantlen University College president Skip Triplett welcomed the planned designation of Kwantlen as a university, saying that the institution will be able to “enhance programs that contribute to the knowledge and skills needed by our growing, increasingly diverse region”.
The Kwantlen Student Association also hailed the move, stating in a news release that the new designation “reflects the extraordinary diversity of programs at the institution”.
However, the KSA noted that students hope this will not be a mere name change and will lead to increased funding for the Kwantlen library and other services. The association also pointed out that Kwantlen doesn’t have some services that are available at other institutions, citing as an example the lack of athletic facilities at its campuses in Richmond, Cloverdale, and Langley.
“The announcement of the premier doesn’t include any announcement relating to funding,” KSA policy analyst Titus Gregory told the Straight. “We have received no firm guarantees as to funding increases to provide for increases in library services and other services. We think that, in general, a university should have services associated with other universities.”