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On the idea of British Columbia colleges becoming universities April 29, 2008

Posted by Raul in Uncategorized.

UBC - The Rose Garden
The Rose Garden at UBC. Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

Recent news in British Columbia have indicated that Capilano College, along with Kwantlen University College, Malaspina University College and the University College of the Fraser Valley are on their way to becoming full universities. That should be (in theory) good news, both for incoming students AND for newly minted PhDs who would then become faculty members. Kwantlen, for example, will become Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

As some of you know, particularly those of you who have gone through Canada’s post-secondary educational system, there has been traditionally a distinction between a college and a university (I am using Wikipedia definitions even though I’m a critic of Wikipedia myself, just for the sake of argument). While in the United States, colleges frequently grant university degrees, in Canada this is not always the case, and more often than not, colleges are seen as a stepping-stone towards university degrees (bachelors of arts, or bachelor of science, for example). Some colleges in Canada and other parts of the world are designated university colleges to indicate that they haven’t achieved full university status.

Until a few years ago, only two universities in the Greater Vancouver Regional District were broadly recognized: Simon Fraser University and The University of British Columbia. Some tend to also include Trinity Western University (located in Langley). More recently, with the release of Geoff Plant’s report on the future of post-secondary education in BC, the idea of granting full university status to some of the local colleges has been discussed in higher education circles. The report can be found here.

Interestingly enough, this evolutionary process of shifting from college to university has been taken with political undertones. Instead of being happy with the fact that there will be more universities, the rumor mill in the university academic circles seems to fuel the notion that there is competition for undergraduate enrollment. And that’s a point I want to make clear – it’s the rumor mill. Nobody has said it in writing, yet lots of people discussing the issue in the corridors of academic circles seem to be concerned about issues of quality control, although it appears more like a process of protecting their sacred academic territory.

There are many reasons why the Metro Vancouver needs more universities, some of them are outlined in the Plant report, but one that may not have been considered is the rate at which universities are producing PhDs. Will these recent PhDs be able to gain meaningful employment in academia or will they have to resort to finding jobs in other circles? Where do their many years of training go? And what to do with the increased demand for post-secondary education?

Luckily, if you want to know more, you can always look at the Canadian Information Centre for Academic Credentials‘ website. From their Overview page, I found something *really* interesting… if the issue at stake is “quality assurance”, just read below (quoted from their site):

There is no national accrediting body in Canada to evaluate the quality of degree programs, although a number of agencies and professional bodies perform this function for professional programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at some institutions.

In the absence of a national accrediting body, university membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) is generally taken as evidence that an institution is providing university-level programs of acceptable standards. Degree programs at university colleges, colleges, and institutes are subject to internal quality assurance processes similar to processes used for university programs. For more information on quality assurance mechanisms in Canada’s postsecondary institutions, refer to the CICIC document Quality Assurance Practices for Postsecondary Institutions in Canada (2004).
[CICIC website]

Interesting… so the idea that some colleges may not be of the same quality as universities may actually be somewhat misled? What do you, dear readers, think about this issue? Does British Columbia, and specifically, Metro Vancouver need more universities? Feel free to leave a comment.

EDIT – Hat tips to Tyler Ingram for suggesting the topic!

EDIT 2 – Emily Carr just became a University yesterday!Thanks to Erika and Tyler for pointing this out to me.



1. Beth - April 29, 2008

I have to admit that I was out of the loop on this, so the news that these colleges were turned into universities was a surprise to me, despite this having been in the works for quite some time. I need to do more reading on this, but my initial thoughts are:

-How will these schools differ as universities from what they were as colleges/university colleges? As you state, University Colleges already grant degrees. I always thought of the difference between UCs and unis was that universities are research institutions that also provide an education, whereas colleges & UCs focus primarily (or exclusively) on education. Will these new universities now become research institutes? If so, where will the research grants come from, as we don’t have enough money for research grants as it is.

-I have to respectfully disagree on this providing more jobs for PhDs. You pretty much already have to have a PhD to teach at colleges in the Lower Mainland, so I don’t see new jobs for PhDs just because they are now called universities.

-Why are they changing colleges to universities, but they don’t seem to be putting more money into education?

-If the new universities set up accreditation the way the current ones have, and if there is sufficient funds to provide a good education at these schools, I can see a benefit in students having a more universities. I did my undergrad and Master’s in Ontario and, personally, I found the services for students better there and I think that part of the reason is that schools there have to compete for students. If I don’t like the way I’m treated at the U of Toronto, I will go down the road to York, Ryerson, McMaster, Guelph, Waterloo, Queens, etc., etc., etc. Compare that with here, where if you don’t like how you are treated at UBC, your only local options are SFU & UVic(which is small and may not offer your program). Of course, the new schools will need to provide as good an education and have a good reputation to make the competition real. And that requires the government to invest in education.

OK, I think I’ve ranted enough. And, as I said, I haven’t done any research on any of this, so it’s strictly off the top of my head =)

2. Raul - April 29, 2008

Hi Beth 🙂 This is also off the top of my head, I need to read and do research on this too, but I just wanted to put it out there. If you could re-tweet or forward to other people so that they can comment, that’d be awesome!

Although – I also have to respectfully disagree on your respectful disagreement 🙂 Newly recruited faculty *may* need a PhD but as it stands right now, you don’t necessarily need to have it if you’re already in the faculty roster.

I share the same concern – where is the money going to come from, both for new students’ seats and for research grants!

Great to have you here commenting! =)

3. Beth - April 29, 2008

OK, so that sounds like you are suggesting that the current college instructors who don’t have PhDs, ones who have been with the college for many years (and thus didn’t need a PhD when they got hired), should (or will?) lose their jobs because they don’t have a PhD? I have a problem with that – there are some really great instructors who don’t have PhDs.

4. Raul - April 29, 2008

No, no, no! They should NOT lose their jobs, and my hope is that they WON’T lose their jobs. As you rightfully and completely accurately mention, there are GREAT instructors WITHOUT PhDs. What I was indicating was that at the time, they didn’t need one. Actually, I know that there is a process in place now (at least some faculty members that I do know of) whereby if you’ve been a faculty member for a long while and you don’t have a PhD, the university college will support you in obtaining a PhD.

Although I agree with you… this begs the question – do all great instructors require to have a PhD? I would agree with you that no, they don’t. But is that the direction in which the BC post-secondary system seems to be pushing them to go? Apparently so.

5. Beth - April 29, 2008

So if the idea is not that current instructors get kicked out to make way for the newly minted PhDs, and anyone who is hired at colleges right now needs a PhD, then how will turning colleges into universities make more jobs for new PhDs? Perhaps I’m missing something here….

The only way I can forsee there being more jobs for PhDs would be if more money was provided to the schools to hire more faculty and teach more students… but they could have done that with the schools being colleges/UCs.

6. Raul - April 29, 2008

Exactly! You’re right on the point I’m trying to make. They NEED to funnel more money into the new universities IF they want to hire more PhDs. Heck they need to channel more money regardless, simply because our post-secondary system is underfunded.

True, they could have done that with the schools being colleges/UCs. But apparently (or so it would seem), being a university sort of grants them more status… Not sure, but maybe… it’s an important issue to be discussed, though. I am just trying to raise them 🙂

Your third question in your first comment is exactly one of the key ones. Why not simply just add more funding? Is this process of transformation to full universities just a facade for the BC government? What is it exactly that is happening here… Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

7. Darren - April 29, 2008

Beth’s Facebook status pointed me at this blog. Some comments:

1) And Emily Carr makes five. I don’t know if it’s over. There will be no more than six.

2) This is a change in name, and likely in (academic) governance structure. There is no change in mandate, seats or funding. The justification for the university colleges was that nobody knew what their name meant. A couple other institutions managed to get onto the bandwagon.

3) Whether a PhD will be required to teach at these universities will be a matter for them to decide internally. I wouldn’t expect massive immediate changes based on a rebranding.

4) Undergraduate enrollment is a problem. There’s a dip in population that’s making its way out of high school and into post-secondary (recall recent school closure issues), and a number of BC’s transfer colleges haven’t been able to fill their seats. UBC has been doing OK, but that may not be the case forever. I understand that institutions in many north american jurisdictions have been ramping up recruiting efforts, trying to poach students from each other. UBC hasn’t really done that yet.

8. Raul - April 29, 2008

Thanks for the comments, Darren. The purpose of my post was to stir discussion and welcome other readers who might be able to give insight into this transformation process.

9. Darren - April 29, 2008

I’m not personally inclined to debate the merits of the decision itself at length, as it’s been formally announced and was discussed for quite some time. I don’t see there being any significant increased demand for PhDs as a result, nor do I see there being any extra supply of them. The main result is that students from the new universities will be able to take their degrees outside BC and get fewer questions around what on earth they graduated from.

The big issues in here, for me, are the redistribution of enrollment amongst institutions and funding of the post-secondary system (which is quite a tangent). In an environment where the number of available students is shrinking, raising the stature of these 5 institutions will hurt the colleges left behind. I can’t see it hurting the major universities to any significant degree. To what extent they colleges are hurt will depend on exactly how constrained the mandates of the new universities are, and my understanding is they’ll be quite constrained.

The post-secondary system is underfunded. It doesn’t help that post-secondary’s getting a 2.6% surprise across-the-board cut effective two days from now that we learned about in mid-March, and I’m not a fan of the seat redistribution either.

Money is transferred from Ottawa to Victoria in one gigantic lump, mixing healthcare and education. Health costs are exploding and the consequences of cuts to healthcare generally involve people being sick or dying needlessly, so that’s where the money goes. On top of this, we’re funded per full-time-equivalent student, without any particular regard to the type of institution — UBC has medical and dental schools and a great deal of federal research money, leading to very high costs for students in some disciplines, and huge amounts of floor space, paperwork, etc., that are required but don’t necessarily scale with FTE students. Ottawa covers some small percentage of these, which I believe is in the neighbourhood of 20%. Except that my recollection is that it’s not really calculated as a percentage of anything, be it actual costs incurred or federal granting council funds awarded — the more research funding you get, the smaller the effective percentage. Operating costs otherwise come out of the provincial grant and tuition, so places like UBC, with huge expanses of expensive floor space and high overhead unrelated to teaching, end up being screwed, and we get large classes, poorly-maintained facilities, and understaffing. Med school is a priority for BC, so that’s funded better than the usual FTE formula would suggest (I think…), but building operating costs tend not to be covered. The Life Sciences Centre costs about $5M/year to run, and Advanced Education thinks it’s a Health responsibility (it’s doing their research and training their doctors), while Health thinks it’s an AvEd facility (teaching and research space at a university). Neither funds it, so it comes out of UBC’s general purpose operating funds.

Separating these issues out from provincial funding would require the federal government to separate education from health in the transfer payment system, and fund the full costs of research. Neither issue seems to be a priority, and explaining why they’re important isn’t easy (nor does it sound overly sexy). If that were done, we’d be in a better position to see to what extent we were being underfunded provincially.

That said, some provincial matters (e.g. a surprise 2.6% across-the-board cut) are not hard to see. It looks to me like either Gordon Campbell has moved on to other themes, or he still cares about post-secondary but there are issues with Advanced Education. I’m personally looking forward to the next cabinet shuffle.

10. Kalev - April 29, 2008

Gordon Campbell doesn’t care a whit about education, except inasmuch as his not caring about it might eventually cause him and his government bad press, which as you point out with respect to education not being terribly sexy in terms of attracting political attention.

I just wanted to mention, which I’m sure most of you know but hasn’t been stated explicitly here that I can see, is that the lack of students (i.e. declining enrollment) is probably driven mainly by pure demographics. The baby boom echo started in Canada in 1978 or 1979, so that relatively large cohort is starting to age out of the traditional university-going age range. Going by that framework, enrollment at universities Canada wide should continue declining for a good 10 years or so, as the children of the baby bust become the dominant cohort going through late high school and post-secondary. You can see this shift happening in primary schools now–there have been some high-profile fights against school closures which are probably mainly demographically-driven.

So it’s interesting the 2.6% cut across-the-board for university and college funding hasn’t been explained a way as that; it seems like that would be an easy way to spin it. Of course, there’s no need to spin anything if the media is giving you a free ride and the CBC, at least, definitely is in this case: in the piece where they announced Capilano College would be converted into a university against the report’s recommendation, there was not one question mark offered in the entire article with respect to why this cut was happening in a time of BC budget surplus. And as far as I know, there wasn’t even an attempt by the government to explain it as encouragement for the institutions to be more “efficient.” That’s pretty disturbing to me. Scratch that: it’s EXTREMELY disturbing to me, that they don’t feel the need to rationalise their cuts nor does the press feel the need to question the lack of rationale.

11. Rebecca - April 29, 2008

Wow excellent post and discussion going on here – I’m glad you wrote about this 🙂

12. Erika Rathje - April 30, 2008

Emily Carr has been a degree-granting institution for several years, so this assignment seems merely cosmetic. I think it’s confusing given how many times they’ve changed their name in recent memory (Emily Carr College of Art + Design, ECIAD, and currently ECI but not legally), plus the school could not be anything further from a university. How does that water down the meaning of the word? It’s a specialized institute that happens to grant well-earned bachelor’s degrees and I’m happy to have the distinction of having attended an *institute* not a university. If we’re going to discuss status with this one, I’d suggest that “institute” gives it the designation of being focused on excellence in core faculties that are not available everywhere. I hope this is not the government’s way of making merry with titles instead of funding.

13. TylerIngram - April 30, 2008

I was going to say Emily Carr was the other one that will be a University. Reminds me I need to look up photography courses there!

Good post though Raul. I don’t personally know if Metro Vancouver needs more Universities but won’t it mean because of the school’s higher status the tuition fees etc will go up too? Aren’t students looking for cheaper tuition fees so people can actually afford to goto school without having to declare bankruptcy after they are done?

Then again I never went to university, I’m all self taught in the way of Geekdom. Though that sucks because I also do not have a piece of paper proving to companies I know what I know. lol

14. Why I’m probably going to cave to Facebook « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - April 30, 2008

[…] — Raul @ 9:28 am I have been having a wonderful discussion with Beth Snow about the “BC colleges becoming universities” story that has been recently in the news. Beth put it in her Facebook updates (using Twitter […]

15. Raul - April 30, 2008

Thanks everyone for commenting. This is a topic that is very relevant to my day-to-day life, so I really appreciate all your thoughtful responses. And if you think someone else has something to say, please re-direct them here. I think that the comments are sometimes even more fun and thoughtful than the actual post I’ve written!

16. DHS - April 30, 2008

Good discussion; couple of quick notes:
1) Tuition increases at ALL public post secondary institutions in BC, whether U’s, Colleges or institutes, is capped at about 2% per year. That was legislated two years ago. So tuitions at the new U’s won’t rise anymore than that %.

2) Population in K-12 system in some regions, according to 2006 Census, is actually increasing, giving added impetus for creation of U’s in those regions (thus “regional universities”), which happen to mostly be where the U-C’s were located.

17. Funding shortages, university presidents resigning, what else is coming? « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - June 10, 2008

[…] the recent flood of BC colleges becoming universities, I was VERY excited because I figured that these news would mean, potentially more jobs for […]

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