The Invisible Private Sector

The recent demise of Everest College in Ontario is a cogent reminder that there is a private higher education sector in Canada. However, except for the occasional crisis or controversy, the sector remains essentially invisible in terms of media attention, public debate, and academic research.

Of course there is really nothing new about private higher education in Canada. A century ago private denominational colleges were the most common form of universities, but this all changed with the rapid expansion of higher education following the Second World War. Provincial policies generally favoured funding secular institutions, and many denominational colleges either transformed themselves into secular institutions, or entered into affiliation arrangements with secular public universities. The dramatic reform of the Quebec higher education system in the context of the Quiet Revolution radically repositioned the role of the Church.

By the early 1970s, Canadian higher education was largely viewed as a public, secular enterprise. The university sector was entirely public, and the provinces had created new sectors of public colleges and institutes to expand access to higher education and address the needs of an increasingly complex labour market. There were private career colleges in most provinces, though this sector was largely ignored in the development of provincial “systems” of higher education.

Of course, we might quibble over definitions of private and public. Canadian universities received provincial government operating grants, but most were legally chartered as private, not-for-profit corporations. In other words, most have the same legal status as Trinity Western University, which became the first private university in the contemporary era under a private members bill passed by the British Columbia Legislature in the mid-1980s. “Public” therefore implies public funding and purpose, though the shift in the balance of revenues between government funding and tuition means that many universities and colleges are less public than they used to be. And of course there are the usual Canadian idiosyncrasies, such as the reality that there are colleges that Quebec classifies as private that obtain public funding, and there are other private colleges that do not. “Private” institutions may not receive operating grants, but their students are usually eligible for student financial assistance under provincial government programs and, in the case of recognized universities, government research grants.

While many Canadians continue to view higher education as a “public” enterprise, the reality is that the private sector has been growing and should not be ignored.

While many Canadians continue to view higher education as a “public” enterprise, the reality is that the private sector has been growing and should not be ignored. In a recent paper, Sharon Li and I attempted to pull together the scarce public data on private institutions in order to obtain a national snapshot. There are now approximately 1315 career colleges across the country, by far the largest component of the private higher education sector. This is a highly diverse collection of institutions that includes everything from comprehensive vocational colleges to small family-run training centres. The private college sector includes approximately 67 institutions, the vast majority of which are in Quebec.

There are now approximately 19 private universities located in five provinces. Most of these universities are faith-based institutions, including, for example, the Canadian Mennonite University in Manitoba, Concordia University College in Alberta, and Tyndale University College and Seminary in Ontario. However, the sector also includes secular non-profit institutions, such as Quest University in British Columbia, and for-profit institutions, such as Yorkdale University and the University of Fredericton in New Brunswick.

Why should we pay attention to the private sector? The fact that little data are collected on the private sector means that enrolment in these institutions does not count towards the calculation of national participation rates in postsecondary education , nor is it considered in discussions of accessibility. Based on data from six provinces, we know that there are well over 100,000 students enrolled in the career college sector alone, and this number could easily double if we had accurate headcounts. Enrolment in private universities is far more modest, though we know that there are over 6,000 students associated with the small share of private institutions that have become members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Based on data from six provinces, we know that there are well over 100,000 students enrolled in the career college sector alone, and this number could easily double if we had accurate headcounts.

The private sector is frequently ignored in public discussions of Canadian higher education, and, in most provinces, in the development of higher education policy. Discussions of tuition fee policy, student financial assistance, research funding, or even system planning, for example, seldom include references to the private sector. The exception, of course, is when something goes terribly wrong, as in the demise of Everest College, where students clearly expected the province to step in to deal with their financial and transfer-credit issues. The other important exception is associated with universities that require faculty and students to sign and adhere to statements of religious faith, including concerns by the Canadian Association of University Teachers over academic freedom, and, in the case of Trinity Western University, the question of whether degrees in law will be recognized by provincial bar associations. Postsecondary education in Canada is no longer wholly public and secular, and in reality it never was. Ignoring the private sector provides us with an incomplete picture of Canadian higher education.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to pay attention to the private sector because, in an environment where both institutions and governments are seeking to increase international student recruitment, these colleges and universities are part of the Canadian “brand.” In the absence of national accreditation or quality assessment mechanisms, international students (just like domestic students) assume that provincial governments are paying attention to issues of quality when they recognize or license institutions that award postsecondary credentials, and the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials provides the “official” national list. In most provinces with private universities there are quite detailed mechanisms for reviewing the quality of degree programs proposed by private providers, but the regulation of quality in the private career college sector is far more varied. In some provinces the issue of quality of career college programs has been largely ignored, and yet these colleges may be quite interested in the international market for higher education. Ignoring the private sector may put Canada’s international reputation for higher education at risk.

I am not in any sense arguing that there is a problem with private higher education. My own view is that most of these institutions are playing an important role in terms of addressing the needs of their students and communities, and that, given its growth, the continuing marginalization of the sector is problematic. We need a more integrative view so that we will have a more accurate understanding of participation rates and so that the “whole” system is considered in public discussions and policy debates about postsecondary education in Canada, including the issue of quality. The sector has simply become too large to remain invisible.

Glen A. Jones is the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and Professor of Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

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