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In a solemn ceremony on November 15, 2007, before an audience of close to 350 freshly minted Sprott-Shaw Community College grads and their families, former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford took to the stage of the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts to be installed as Sprott-Shaw’s first chancellor.

The pipes were played, the national anthem was sung and vows were taken as a host of dignitaries looked on. Customarily reserved for universities, the tradition goes back as far as 1214, when the first chancellor was appointed at Britain’s University of Oxford, purportedly the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Behind all the polite ceremony and tradition-steeped rituals, however, Peckford’s installation as chancellor is the latest salvo in a battle that’s been brewing since the B.C. government started allowing private colleges to grant degrees in 2003. It’s a skirmish involving more than two sides.

There are the legitimate private, for-profit schools such as Sprott-Shaw that want to hang on to the right to run degree programs. There are groups such as the Canadian Federation of Students, whose leaders believe public universities should have exclusive degree-granting authority, and the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. (CUFA), which is calling for tighter controls. And there are the unscrupulous profiteers masquerading as valid schools.

Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal at stake: the reputation abroad of a made-in-B.C. business degree, for one; the interests of both local and international students, who are playing an increasingly prominent role in Canada’s MBA programs, for another; and a piece of the growing – and highly lucrative – knowledge market. To give an idea of just how big the haul is, according to a study by Roslyn Kunin and Associates Inc., the money generated by international students alone at just two of B.C.’s post-secondary schools in 2006 – SFU and Vancouver Community College – amounted to a whopping $90 million.

The B.C. Liberal government originally decided to allow private, for-profit colleges to offer degree programs as a way of increasing access to higher education, particularly business programs. Every year SFU turns away 70 per cent of applicants to its business undergrad degree programs, according to Carolyne Smart, who served as dean until September 2007. “We’re almost in the business of rationing,” she says. “To get into the business program, you have to have close to a 90 per cent average, compared to a 70 per cent average for other programs. There’s a heck of a lot of students out there with 70 per cent averages who are good students and would make good employees.”

Smart sat on the academic panel, along with two other university professors, that approved Sprott-Shaw’s business-degree curriculum. It’s worth noting that all the degree programs offered by private colleges must first meet certain academic and organizational standards as measured by the provincial government’s Degree Quality Assessment Board, the same board that reviews new degree programs for all of B.C.’s public universities.

Smart believes in the rigour of the process, pointing out that not all applicants are approved to offer degrees. But if approved, she says, “there’s a high probability they’ll deliver on all of their targets.”

At the very least, Sprott-Shaw has longevity on its side. It has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1903 as the Vancouver Business Institute, famed early on mostly for turning out legions of crackerjack shorthand typists. Despite an impressive history, the college languished in the 1970s and ’80s to the point of near collapse. Today it thrives as the province’s largest private career college, offering close to 140 programs at 17 campuses in B.C. and Alberta, as well as partnering with schools in Vietnam, the Philippines, Jordan and China.

At the helm since 1991, president and CEO Dean Duperron and his wife, Sherri, company VP, are credited with the school’s turnaround, including the realization of some impressive stats: more than 4,500 students trained annually and, as of fiscal year-end August 31, 2007, reported audited annual revenues of $32.6 million. The school’s performance has attracted its share of suitors. In fact, it was bought for $12 million in December 2007 by CIBT Education Group Inc., a Canada-based education-management group with significant operations in China.

The new owners have retained Duperron and the existing management team to oversee Sprott-Shaw’s day-to-day operations and its expansion into other parts of Canada and Asia. [pagebreak]The once-homeless Duperron, who at one point held down three jobs to climb out of the dark hole in which he’d found himself, knows first-hand how quickly the free fall can happen and how lousy it feels to hit bottom. That pivotal experience inspired a resolve to make things easier for people looking to improve their lives, including getting the training required for a decent job. “I realized that education can set people free, and that it should be more accessible to more people,” he says. A benign-enough objective – unless, of course, it means encroaching on claimed territory.

The decision in 2004 to allow Sprott-Shaw to offer bachelor-degree programs in business management, marketing and human resources prompted the Canadian Federation of Students to come out swinging. It fired off a press release titled “B.C. Liberal Government Makes Business Degree Worthless,” claiming that Sprott-Shaw’s ability to offer a business degree, in effect, nullified the value of such a degree in this province.

Lisa MacLeod, then-B.C. chair of the federation, issued a statement on November 29, 2004, saying, “Sprott-Shaw offers none of the characteristics of a university education – like academic freedom and standards, comprehensive libraries and variety in programming.” She went on to condemn the government for sending the message to business and academic communities that “business degrees aren’t university-calibre degrees.”

It’s a position on which the Federation stands firm today. “Even if the curriculum is up to snuff,” says current B.C. chair Shamus Reed, “Sprott-Shaw and other private, for-profit colleges simply don’t have the student-support services, such as well-developed library systems and course counselling, nor are they accountable.”

Not surprisingly, Duperron takes exception to many of the arguments presented by naysayers, claiming they tend to be based on outmoded concepts of higher education. “Does learning have to happen in a billion-dollar-a-year facility, for example?” he asks. “If I were to offer a physics course at Starbucks, say, and the teacher was Stephen Hawking, would that be a bad course? It’s not the libraries, the labs or the football fields that make for a sound education but the quality of the instructors and the interaction between the instructors and students.”

Duperron insists that on these counts, Sprott-Shaw’s business-degree program has the public universities beat. “The biggest class in the program right now has 30 students in it, the smallest just one,” he points out. “In a bachelor’s class anywhere else, you might not run a class of one. And with such small classes, access to professors is almost unlimited, compared to public schools where there might be 150 students sitting in on one lecture.”

The commitment of instructors is important too, Duperron adds. “The instructors leading our classes are there not because they are researchers but because they are good teachers. Students evaluate them, and if they don’t measure up, we let them go. Do you think if five students at UBC said a professor sucked, that he would lose his job?”

Another selling point, according to Duperron, is that a student at Sprott-Shaw can complete the business-degree program in about half the time it would take at UBC or SFU. He’s careful to point out this isn’t because there’s less course material but because Sprott-Shaw uses a block system (rather than the semester system customary at public universities) in which students complete two courses at a time in four- to six-week blocks and can choose to study through the summer months.

In an economy where employers are starved for employees, this can’t be a bad thing, he points out. Twenty-one-year-old Kirsten Harvie is among the first group of students to receive a Sprott-Shaw business degree. She transferred to Sprott-Shaw in May 2005 after a year of general studies at Capilano College because she knew she could graduate faster than at the college or other public facilities.

Working through the summers, Harvie took just two years at Sprott-Shaw to earn her bachelor’s degree, at a total cost of about $28,000 for tuition. She’s now working at a local staffing agency with a view to human-resources management. [pagebreak]The Sprott-Shaw price tag for a ­business degree (based on $3,600 for each 12-week semester) isn’t too far out of line with public universities. According to the North American search tool at www.campus­starter.com, students in the­ undergraduate business program at SFU can expect to pay about $24,000 for a four-year program; at UBC they can pay close to $23,000. Students at Kwantlen University College will pay approximately half, about $13,500.

As it turns out, Sprott-Shaw is the least of the student federation’s worries. In February 2007, Lansbridge University, part of an education empire owned by businessman Michael Lo and his wife Queenie Tin, was ordered to shut down for a litany of shoddy practices, among them failing to maintain a line of credit required by law to protect students and abandoning a promise to government to build a proper university campus in Richmond – not to mention doling out bogus transcripts printed on the backs of recycled emails.

What made the Lansbridge situation noteworthy was that the facility had received government approval in 2005 to operate as a university, offering bachelor’s and master’s programs in business administration, after successfully undergoing the government’s quality-assurance process.

To make matters worse, between 2001 and 2006, several other private, for-profit colleges were ordered closed for unlawfully offering degree programs or university degrees. The combined result of these closures and the Lansbridge calamity is that the entire private, for-profit college system in B.C. received one hell of a black eye. The public system was also badly bruised. “Some countries have warned students away from B.C. schools because of the problems within the private system,” Reed observes.

The fact that an approved school went under is significant, agrees Wendy Ma, assistant dean and director of the MBA program at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. While she believes increasing access to post-secondary education is a noble cause, she cautions the government to review the standards that allowed a school like Lansbridge to slide through the cracks. After all, she points out, it’s about higher learning, not just awarding degrees. And in the long run, a less-than-rigorous review process hurts students the most. “If graduates from Sprott-Shaw’s business-administration program decide they want an MBA from an Ontario university,” she asks, “where does it leave them if that university doesn’t accept the Sprott-Shaw degree?”

Ma says she’s already received calls from colleagues in business programs at the University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal asking her to explain some of B.C.’s private, for-profit institutions. She tells them these schools can grant degrees but many of them accept prior work experience as credit, so they may not be providing the coursework foundation required. “Clearly, it creates confusion outside of the province,” Ma says. And not just for other schools, she points out. “A reputable degree speaks volumes to an employer, but it takes a long, long time to build that reputation. If the grads of these private institutions are successful, in 50 years that might say something about their credibility.”

Robert Clift, executive director of the CUFA representing the province’s public-university professors, is more blunt than Ma: “These private institutions have met minimum standards,” he quips, “so, yes, we can say this isn’t a horrible product.” He provides a culinary analogy. “You can get a hamburger from McDonald’s, and you can get one from Rob Feenie’s restaurant. The problem is it’s hard for consumers to assess which one is better before they’ve tried the product.”

In response to the confusion, CUFA has launched a consumer website, www.bcdegrees.ca, which lists the B.C. schools that are allowed to grant degrees and those operating unlawfully. Plans are in the works to beef up the site, but there are significant challenges when it comes to publicly evaluating private programs. “There’s a long history of public institutions savaging each other’s programs without legal consequences,” Clift reports. “But with these private institutions, we could find ourselves up against a defamation lawsuit. In fact, when we try and get internal documents from them, such as teacher evaluations or departmental reviews, on which to base an evaluation, they claim it’s proprietary information.”

Meanwhile, CUFA has been lobbying the B.C. government to raise standards, and it has been somewhat successful. In June 2007, the Ministry of Advanced Education announced new, tighter rules governing private post-secondary schools, which would allow for greater accountability. But, Clift says, last year’s Lansbridge mess revealed a troubling trend: lawyers who have made it their bus­iness to get these colleges approved. “And they are prepared to argue on minute technicalities. These are people who are prepared to mess about at the margins.” His answer: raise the standards even higher.

By all means raise them, insists Duperron, pointing out that Sprott-Shaw’s curriculum is based on those of SFU and York University, so if their grads are prepared for MBA programs, so are Sprott-Shaw’s. In addition, an academic council – which counts among its membership several former university faculty and the new chancellor, as well as a Sprott-Shaw graduate and current student – makes all the decisions pertaining to course material, as well as which students get degrees or not.

Harvie is not sure whether she wants to go for her MBA or not, but she says if she does, she’ll probably do it online so she can continue to work. In the meantime, the transition from classroom to boardroom has been seamless, she reports. In fact, four months before graduating she was already working on contract for an international marketing company, implementing its human resources information system. Once the contract ended, she went straight to her current position as a staffing specialist.

“Every interview I’ve had,” she says, “has been a positive experience. I had one interviewer tell me she was really happy to see I was a Sprott-Shaw grad because she’d hired Sprott-Shaw grads before and they were all highly motivated and energetic. Others might not have known a lot about Sprott-Shaw’s degree program, but once I gave them the details they were impressed.”

As for Duperron, he’s careful not to overstate his case; after all, he’s not claiming Sprott-Shaw is another Harvard or Oxford. And he realizes that until university MBA programs and corporations experience Sprott-Shaw’s business graduates first-hand, the questions around credibility will continue to swirl.

In the meantime, he’s confident his school is doing all it can, including installing Chancellor Peckford, to heal the bruising suffered by the private – and public – post-secondary systems at the hands of a dodgy few.

The rest, he says, is up to Sprott-Shaw grads like Harvie. And if there’s one thing he’s sure about more than anything else, it’s that they are up for the battle.