Train in Vain

Are B.C.’s private training institutions being given ?the shaft with a raft of tough new provincial regulations?


Are B.C.’s private training institutions being given 
the shaft with a raft of tough new provincial regulations?

It was an ad in the local Hyderabad, India, newspaper that caught Deepthi Aravapally’s eye. Vancouver’s Kingston College, a private post-secondary institution offering a variety of transferable academic courses, promised a high-quality education in beautiful B.C. and a master of science degree from the American University in London – a British institution that, under an articulation agreement, would grant Kingston graduates an M.Sc. Her father, a bank manager, cashed in family savings of $50,000 to help her pursue her academic aspirations. By September 2003, Aravapally had moved to Vancouver for what she hoped would be a career-advancing education with Kingston College. 

In the spring of 2006, after 2½ years of living and studying in Vancouver, those dreams came crashing down. After completing the program, Aravapally discovered that the degree she’d earned from the American University of London was a fake. She also soon discovered that she wasn’t the only one: Kingston College had been scamming hundreds of students, granting degrees it wasn’t authorized to grant.

Kingston College was one of several private schools operating under the banner of Kingston Education Group, all catering to foreign students. The group had been co-founded in 1991 by prominent Vancouver businessman Michael Lo and his wife, Queenie Tin. In 2006 Lo was a board member of the Private Career Training Institutions Agency (PCTIA) – the industry regulatory agency with which Kingston College was registered. He also sat on the PCTIA quality assurance committee and served as adviser to Premier Gordon Campbell’s Chinese Advisory Committee. 

Given Lo’s profile and involvement in the PCTIA, it was no surprise that when the agency ordered Kingston College to close, the news made headlines. A few months later, another one of the group’s institutions, Lansbridge University, was found to be misrepresenting itself as a degree-granting school and was also shut down; its private high school in Vancouver, Kingston High School, soon followed suit. Hundreds of foreign students lost thousands of dollars and were left holding useless degrees or fast-expiring student visas. Several decided to sue. Before long, the incident had gained the attention of foreign governments that promptly issued warnings against studying in B.C. 

Joy McLean, executive director of the B.C. Career Colleges Association, an advocacy group for private institutions, remembers the frustration the incidents caused her membership: “The public, including prospective students, did not have the information to distinguish between Kingston and quality institutions.”

But perhaps no organization was more concerned about fallout from the Kingston debacle than B.C.’s government. The province, keenly aware of how its reputation abroad was being damaged, focused in on the issue with the Campus 2020 – Thinking Ahead report prepared in April 2007 by Geoff Plant, who at the time was special adviser to the premier. 

One of the recommendations of that report was to review the legislation that governed both for-profit career colleges under the jurisdiction of the PCTIA and ESL schools (which four years earlier had been exempted from government oversight). Combined, these two elements of the private education sector serve approximately 165,000 students and contribute an estimated one billion dollars annually to B.C.’s economy.

The aim of the review, according to the Ministry of Advanced Education, was to raise educational standards and protect student rights. But almost a year after tough new rules came into place, many operators of private schools say they’re concerned that those rules leave them exposed to legal and financial risk, and put them at a competitive disadvantage in the increasingly cutthroat world of post-secondary education. 

The PCTIA was created in 2004 after the Private Post-Secondary Education Commission (PPSEC), which previously had regulated all forms of private schools for students over the age of 17, was dismantled. The PCTIA picked up where the PPSEC left off, but only for schools offering career-training skills in courses that exceeded 40 hours and cost more than $1,000. Any school that falls into this category must register with the agency, but those wishing to accept students on student aid must be 
accredited. Schools outside these parameters can voluntarily register with the PCTIA without needing accreditation, as the schools under the Kingston Education Group had done. 

The government’s review of the Private Career Training Institute Act was led by John Watson, a former BCIT president. His report, delivered in January 2008, had 13 recommendations, many of which were quickly seized upon by the government in an amendment to the act introduced in January 2009. And while affected schools were generally in agreement with the principles behind the new rules, several of the rules have been met with considerable criticism. 

Three of the more contentious ones include measures mandating that accredited schools ensure that a certain percentage of graduates take jobs in their field of study (based on industry employment levels); that instructors, who were already required to have a specified number of years working in their field, obtain pedagogical training; and that all student complaints be adjudicated by the PCTIA board, with students being reimbursed their full tuition if the board concludes they did not get the education they were promised (with no accommodation for schools to appeal). Prior to the latter rules, complaints were under the jurisdiction of small claims court, as per provincial contract law. 

George McNeill, owner of Vancouver’s Columbia Academy, a broadcasting school in operation since 1972, is concerned that the rules, as written, raise the opportunity for abuse. He worries that unscrupulous students might use the regulations to get full refunds by falsely claiming their education was lacking and that his good standing with the PCTIA will be hurt by students not finding jobs in their field of study. “We cannot force them into careers,” says McNeill. “A lot of them change their minds, sometimes at the end of the program, and decide they don’t want to go into broadcasting. What am I supposed to do, call them in and say, ‘You’re going into broadcasting or I’m going to lose my school’?”

These fears are unfounded, according to Royden Trainor. He is the current chair of the PCTIA and legal counsel for the Eminata Group, which operates several private, for-profit institutions, including Vancouver Career College, CDI College and University Canada West. While Trainor was not on the PCTIA board when the new rules were introduced, he defends the intention of them: “I do appreciate the concerns that people have, but I’m reluctant to respond to hypothetical horribles that we just don’t have any evidence [will come to pass].” 

B.C.’s minister of advanced education and labour market development, Moira Stilwell, also dismisses the doomsday scenario presented by McNeill and others: “I think that is an extremely draconian framing of something that is not intended.” She believes that these new amended rules will have little negative effect on the vast majority of schools that are “doing a terrific job” and adds that a new sliding-scale membership fee structure will see non-compliant institutions paying higher fees than long-standing, rule-compliant schools. 

Brian Bonney, B.C.’s director of provincial affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), believes that PCTIA-registered and accredited schools were already overly burdened by the cost of membership and adherence prior to the legal amendments. He conducted a cost analysis for an ESL school that had annual revenues of $5 million and was considering voluntary registration in the PCTIA. “It was going to cost them $73,000 in fees and expenses for the first year alone,” he explains. Ultimately, that school deemed the cost too high for affiliation. But more than 400 private institutions in B.C. don’t have that choice because they are required by the government to register with the PCTIA. 

Historically, private career training colleges worked in harmony with the public system. Students who did not fit into the traditional academic model found flexibility and accessibility in the private model. Private colleges played an important role in feeding students to public institutions and vice versa when students with degrees were looking for specific trade skills. But according to Joy McLean, these days everybody’s stepping on each other’s toes. “Public [colleges and universities] are getting involved in program training that was once the exclusive area of privates, and the private career trainers are crossing over in the academic areas. There should be no elitism but a fiscal recognition that we are in the business of education and labour-market supply.”

Competition is, of course, part of doing business, but some private institutions think the playing field isn’t level. Marty Hasselbach, managing director of the Vancouver Film School – one of Vancouver’s largest career training institutions – says there’s a clear double standard. “There are two different measuring sticks for education in this province,” he argues. “The public schools are measured by one mechanism, while the private schools have to have a more stringent and different approach to how that education is measured.” 

Minister Stilwell is hesitant to directly compare public and private education regulations, calling them “apples and oranges.” She says the government’s goal is “to build and enhance B.C.’s reputation for providing an excellent post-secondary education, regardless of where a student chooses to participate,” and cautions private operators to be careful what they wish for: “The fact is, the regulatory and accountability framework for [public universities and colleges], in terms of accountability to the government for expenditure of taxpayer dollars, is rigorous and much, much more onerous.”

Michelle Nilson, an assistant professor in SFU’s education department, has been studying the question of accountability for private, for-profit post-secondary schools. She acknowledges the challenged relationship between the schools and the government: “The way the [Private Training Institutions Act] is written, it’s seen as a contract between the student and those institutions. It’s sort of an environment where we have ‘buyer beware.’ The protections are different with the public institutions because they are not overseeing the relationship the same way as the non-profits or the public institutions.” Nilson also defends the need for appropriate regulations, regardless of whether a student is choosing the public or private system: “This is about the human resources of the province and developing those human resources.”

But for Brian Bonney of the CFIB and others, the way to develop those resources is not by adding to the educational bureaucracy but rather by reassessing the processes by which schools are regulated. He points to Languages Canada, an industry association that accredits ESL schools, as one example. Members of the PCTIA pay into the Student Training Completion Fund, which is used to refund tuition to a student displaced by a school closure. Languages Canada agrees to absorb the students into one of its other schools, should a member school go bankrupt or close down. Where the PCTIA model provides a monetary resolution to students, often after they have already returned home, the Languages Canada model enables students to finish their education – a resolution to the problem that Bonney believes protects students’ rights and the country’s reputation. 

Alternative solutions are out there, but Minister Stilwell is convinced the province is doing what it needs to do to safeguard students while providing a viable arena for private institutions to run their 
business: “I think that this is a good balance, and we are trying to align the incentives and reward the good compliers. They have nothing to fear from this.”

School owners, meanwhile, continue to feel slighted. “I have never seen such a group of altruistic people,” says the career colleges association’s Joy McLean about her members. “Their primary goal is making a difference in people’s lives. They are not just small-business owners; they are looking for a way of life that will give back.” It’s because of this commitment, she says, that so many owners view the new rules as a “personal affront.” 

George McNeill’s unease comes from personal experience. Columbia Academy used to have two schools in Alberta – one in Calgary, one in Edmonton – but in the early 1990s the Alberta government noticed a high number of his students were defaulting on their loans. McNeill recalls being told by government officials that his school was “training redundant people” and that “radio announcers are no longer being hired; there’s no demand for radio personnel” and because of that, the province was revoking his accreditation. 

That single decision cost Columbia Academy’s two Alberta campuses 70 per cent of their client base; by the end of 1992, both schools had to be closed down. For him, the “hypothetical horribles,” dismissed by the PCTIA’s Royden Trainor, are all too real.

“There have been a few issues or a few problem schools,” acknowledges the Vancouver Film School’s Hasselbach. “But what [the B.C. government has] really done is they’ve pulled out a sledgehammer to kill a fly.”