A quick succession of announcements at the end of April shook up British Columbia’s postsecondary education sector. Over the span of a week, Premier Gordon Campbell declared that his government was changing the status of five postsecondary institutions, turning them all into universities. Once the legislation is passed making the changes official, the province will go from seven universities to 12.
Three of the announcements involved the province’s last remaining university colleges. University College of the Fraser Valley becomes University of the Fraser Valley, Kwantlen University College will be known as Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and Malaspina University-College will be called Vancouver Island University. In making these three changes, the government was following recommendations contained in the Campus 2020 report on postsecondary education prepared by former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant in April 2007.
The two other institutions undergoing a change of status are the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, henceforth to be known as the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and Capilano College, which becomes Capilano University.
The new universities will be designated “special purpose teaching universities” that serve a specific geographic area or region. The exception is Emily Carr, which will have the same designation but will have a mandate to serve the entire province with its unique mix of programming.
According to the B.C. ministry of advanced education, the new universities “will focus on teaching excellence” but will not have a broad mandate for original research. Rather, they will conduct “applied research and scholarly activity that supports the institution’s programs.”
Skip Triplett, president of Kwantlen University College, said the changes signal the end of the university-college moniker in the province, but not the concept. He pointed out that the proposed legislation requires all three university colleges to continue to offer the same comprehensive mix of programs as before, including skills training and trades.
But he also noted that 85 percent of students at Kwantlen were enrolled in degree programs or programs that “track directly to degrees,” yet many people still confused the institution with a two-year community college. Others, he said, wrongly believed B.C.’s university colleges were either faith-based institutions or federated with another university. “No matter how you looked at it, [there was] confusion.”
H.A.”Skip” Bassford, president of University College of the Fraser Valley, echoed that sentiment, saying the university-college label was holding his institution back. He said the change in status means students “will now get a credential that is fully understood as a university-level credential.” Within the institution, he said, the change will make fundraising “much more effective” and will improve efforts to recruit international students.
He also noted that there was strong backing for the move from local communities and their leaders. “The communities get the sense that this is a coming of age. There is a sense of community pride,” he said.
The university colleges will be required to make some changes to reflect their new status, notably to their governance structures. Their current education councils will become true university senates and they will also now have chancellors for the first time. But as for big changes, “there won’t be many,” said Dr. Bassford.
Some media commentators have criticized the name changes for precisely this reason, even suggesting that this could dilute the university designation in B.C.
Dr. Bassford countered that this view neglects the transformation his institution has undergone in the last several years. “We have been working very hard over virtually a decade to make sure we have a proper array of degree programs, that we have faculty well-prepared to teach in them all, that we have decent library facilities, and so on,” he said. “The new name reflects the reality, rather than creating a new reality that we have to find some long-term way to live up to.”
As well, UCFV and Malaspina are already members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, as is Emily Carr. Membership in AUCC, along with a provincial university charter, is generally considered in Canada as equivalent to university accreditation. Dr. Triplett at Kwantlen said his institution has applied for AUCC membership and is awaiting a decision.
Capilano College, meanwhile, currently offers only a small number of degree programs. In his Campus 2020 report last year, Geoff Plant actually recommended that the college be stripped of its degree-granting status altogether to avoid what he called “mandate creep.”
Capilano College president Greg Lee told reporters he is not sure if his institution will pursue AUCC membership. However, the institution is seeking accreditation status with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in the U.S.
Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-secondary Educators of British Columbia, said “it’s great that these institutions have become universities and certainly my hope is it will provide more access for students.” Faculty at all five of the institutions are represented by her federation.
Ms. Oliver also said she is “heartened” to hear the institutions will continue to offer a wide range of programming, adding “that’s a good model.” Her one criticism is with the B.C. government over funding. The five announcements, she noted, came just weeks after the government notified universities that their operating budgets for next year would be cut by an estimated 2.6 percent.