Trying to Keep Public Eye on Private Education

"I'm sure you guys have heard about Harvard," Cyril Okoye told nine MLAs on the province's Select Standing Committee on Education in December 2001. "I'm sure you've heard about Stanford University. These are all private universities. If I tell you that they are leaders in research and development, would you believe me? Why can't we have the same thing here? That's my key question."

That vision must have sounded enticing for the government MLAs on the committee, which had the task of making recommendations on how to improve education in the province. During the following two years, the Liberals set out on a radical new policy course for private postsecondary education, passing legislation making it possible for private schools to grant degrees and even to call themselves "universities".

At the same time as they were handing out those new privileges, the Liberals were preparing to disband the Private Post-Secondary Education Commission, an arm's-length government agency charged with providing consumer protection and encouraging "integrity and high standards of educational competence". It will be replaced with an agency controlled by industry representatives, and some schools, including language schools, will not be regulated at all.

When he made his presentation to the travelling committee during its stop in Port Coquitlam, Okoye was working as an administrator with Sprott-Shaw Community College, one of the largest private career-training schools in B.C., with 10 branches in the Lower Mainland and another nine throughout the province. He argued, as recorded in Hansard, that private education has been looked down upon in the past here but is really quite good and should be supported.

"There are many qualified instructors, if not more qualified instructors, in the private sector than in the public one," he said.

At his own school, Sprott-Shaw, for instance, he said: "It is not a quest for money. It is a quest to satisfy the needs that are there in the community, the need to be able to access education where you are, at your convenience, and very near to your home....There's not much time to go on about the quality and everything. It's there."

Since then, Okoye has parted ways with Sprott-Shaw. He now works at Metropolitan Community College in Vancouver. Reminded of his presentation to the committee, the PhD--holding criminologist told the Georgia Straight: "I did do that at the time, but I can tell you, Sprott-Shaw has changed since then." He was not willing to say more about the school on the record, he said, because "there are a lot of issues outstanding."

Okoye now says the government's changes will make an arguably dodgy industry worse for students, not better. As for private education in general, he said, he still believes it's possible to have high-quality private schools in B.C., even on the level of Harvard or Stanford, but the industry has a long, long way to go. "They could do much better than what they are doing, let me put it that way."

IN B.C. THERE are about 1,150 private schools registered with the PPSEC, taking in some 270,000 students a year. They include a wide variety of institutions offering programs as diverse as hairdressing, English as a foreign language, filmmaking, nursing, and computer administration. Of those, some 260 are accredited by PPSEC, meaning the agency's staff have checked them out and the quality is deemed sufficiently good that the students are eligible for taxpayer-backed loans and grants.

But within the next few weeks, Advanced Education Minister Shirley Bond told the Straight on February 13, PPSEC will be disbanded and replaced with the Private Career Training Institutions Agency. The board for the new agency will be even tighter with the private-education industry than the one that governed PPSEC. Bond will appoint the first board, but after that the industry will elect its own members.

"In essence, we see a self-regulation system being put in place," Bond said in a previous interview in October 2003, just before passage of the enabling legislation, Bill 52, or the Private Career Training Institutions Act.

"Our goal is not to compromise the quality," she said. "We believe the best way to manage those institutions is for them to be self-regulating....This is about looking at more efficient ways to manage those institutions."

Even with the changes, Bond added, there will still be an accreditation process that sets standards and guarantees that students are getting a high-quality education for their money. Also, she said, it's in the industry's interest to make sure the accreditation process is rigorous and a reliable indication of excellence.

In January, news that English-language schools will not be included in the new PCTIA--and therefore their students will have no guarantee of reimbursement if a school closes--prompted harsh criticism from new federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, as well as the Vancouver Better Business Bureau and the Chinese government, which is reportedly considering barring British Columbian recruiters from visiting China to look for customers.

"From our perspective, we'll continue to have ESL schools of high quality in British Columbia," Bond reassured the Straight on February 13. She stressed several times that it will be up to "consumers" to "do their homework" and thoroughly check out a school before enrolling, even if they are applying from the other side of the planet and by definition don't yet speak the language.

A number of language-school owners pushed for the buyer-beware system, she says, and especially didn't like having to put 75 percent of unearned revenues (tuition fees collected from students before classes are provided) in a bond with PPSEC so there would be money available to repay students if a school closed. That scenario plays out often enough at language and other schools that PPSEC has paid out more than $2.7 million in student claims since 1993.

Even though Bond said some owners lobbied hard not to be accredited, "There's always the option to become voluntarily accredited, and we believe many schools may choose to do that."

As the government and the industry draw up the guidelines for the new PCTIA, Bond added, more schools will likely be dropped from regulation as well, depending on their size and the kind of courses they are offering.

Okoye worried that inclusion in the PCTIA will do little more than give the appearance of legitimacy and government endorsement without protecting students. "I would not suggest such outright control of the industry to be self-regulating," he said. "The people who make up the industry are not qualified to take up such a position. I could be wrong, but that's my thinking...In terms of economics, it's good for the government, and I think that's why they're pushing it, but they have to tread rather cautiously for the public interests."

According to Okoye, the new PCTIA will be dominated by business-oriented schools that are more interested in profits than in offering high-quality academic programs. "They rush their clients through," he said. "I use the word clients because that's what the industry uses. They rush through as many as they can to make money, unfortunately. Unfortunately for the students."

It will be up to the new board to set its own accreditation process, but Okoye said he believes it will be similar to the current process under PPSEC, which former Sprott-Shaw student and ex-employee Kim Lichtensteiger called "a little bit of a joke" in an article in Monday Magazine in October 2003. Jim Wright, PPSEC's executive director, said last fall: "We in no way have enough staff to cover the waterfront."

Like many provincial-government offices and agencies, PPSEC has had to do more with less and be creative in raising funds. The Liberals cut a $200,000 grant to the agency in March 2002, causing the layoffs of three of its 14 staff; the government expects PPSEC to be self-financing through the fees it charges to institutions. The new PCTIA, when it takes over, won't receive government money either.

AT ABOUT THE same time as the Liberals were getting out of the business of regulating private schools late last year, they put Bill 15, otherwise known as the Degree Authorization Act, into effect (it actually passed on May 1, 2002). The act will, among other things, allow private institutions to grant degrees and even call themselves universities once they gain permission from the Advanced Education Ministry, which will work in consultation with an advisory board in making decisions.

The 11 members of the degree advisory board, appointed in May 2003 to review degree proposals, include a mix of representatives from public and private institutions, plus high-profile business boosters Jock Finlayson, the executive vice-president of the Business Council of British Columbia; John Winter, the president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce; and Thomas Simons, a past director of the Vancouver Board of Trade and the British Columbia Trade Development Corporation.

Asked about the board's pro-business flavour, Bond said: "One would want to make sure there was a balance of views....We think it's important to have a broad perspective." The board includes only three women and just one student.

As of February 13, the Advanced Education Ministry had posted for public comment on its Web site eight applications to grant degrees, with three of them coming from private schools. Two of them came from the language and academic school Columbia College, which would like to offer associate of science and associate of arts degree programs. The other came from LearningWise Inc.--a Victoria company founded by former University of Victoria president David Strong for the international delivery of Canadian education via the Internet--to offer a bachelor of commerce degree.

During its February 10 throne speech, the government promised to create 25,000 postsecondary spaces by the 2009-2010 school year. Could it be that those spaces will be created by making the training offered at private schools into degree programs and rechristening the schools as "universities"?

Minister Bond said she doesn't know yet where the spaces will be but she's sure they will be in the public system. "We're here to fund public education...We have an outstanding public-education system in the province and I think you'll continue to see the majority of those [educational] opportunities to be on the public side."

Letting unproven private schools grant degrees risks tainting all degrees earned in this province, according to Cindy Oliver, the president of the College Institute Educators' Association, which represents 7,500 postsecondary instructors in this province. "I believe it definitely devalues what we have in B.C....It's a slippery slope to be on, as far as I'm concerned."

Although the government is reducing private institutions' responsibilities and giving them new privileges, she added, since taking office in 2001 the Liberals hadn't contributed any more funding to meet the demand for new spaces in the public schools (notwithstanding a February 10 promise to pony up $105 million for advanced education within the next two to three years for unspecified purposes), a situation that left the schools little choice but to raise their admission standards. That left many students who want a higher education to turn to private institutions that may or may not provide the education their sales people promise, she said. "The privates are looking around and licking their chops, quite frankly."

And there are, Oliver said, some problems with that. "I think the biggest issue with private institutions is their lack of public accountability." While public schools have boards of governors, senates, approved curricula, and all kinds of "checks and balances" to provide some guarantee of quality, she said, private schools have owners who aren't accountable to anyone.

"If that's your goal, to make a profit, I don't see how you can put education first," she said. "Private institutions are set up as a business and they are set up to make a profit. There's nothing wrong with business per se, but when you're talking about an education, you're talking about a public service."

A large proportion of students at private schools receive student loans and grants, which are guaranteed by the provincial and federal governments. In the past, students at private colleges in Canada have had a much higher default rate on their loans--as high as 63 percent at one school, the Vancouver Sun reported in 2000--leaving taxpayers on the hook for much of the bill.

For Metropolitan College's Cyril Okoye, the way forward is clear. "Government should be in a position to oversee what is done to make sure it is done properly and perhaps determine who will and will not be part of it," he said. And he disagrees with Bond's assertion that "market forces" will select out the worst schools. "To some extent that might be true, but we've got to go beyond that. What about those students who've been used as guinea pigs? How can you compensate them? You're sacrificing them."