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Niagara Falls bets on a new private university for economic growth

In an effort to revitalize its long-neglected downtown core, the Ontario city has partnered with an international business group specializing in higher education.


The story behind Ontario’s newest university system entrant – the for-profit, private University of Niagara Falls Canada (UNF) – goes back at least a decade, and comes from a small yet well-known city’s desire to breathe new life into an abandoned downtown core.

UNF’s intention to welcome its first class in 2024 was announced last year in mid-October by the City of Niagara Falls and Global University Systems (GUS) Canada, part of a Netherlands-based international business group specializing in higher education that will run the university. UNF will have a strong but not exclusive focus on the international student market, offering five undergraduate and master’s programs in business management, data analytics, digital media and biomedical sciences. It plans to set tuition “broadly in line with similar programs in Ontario,” wrote Victoria Martin, GUS Canada’s chief commercial and compliance officer.

“We’re really excited about this,” Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, told University Affairs. “This will be an economic development driver for our downtown.”

The city’s world-famous waterfalls draw 12 million visitors a year, most of whom spend their time and money in and around its busy, carnival-like Clifton Hill area. But Niagara Falls also used to have a bustling main street a few kilometres away that was popular with local residents, now numbering around 94,000. When retail business started to change several decades ago from smaller storefronts to shopping malls and big-box stores, the downtown went into decline, becoming “an eyesore,” said Mr. Diodati.

The city first made a business case for a postsecondary campus in the area in 2013, stressing the region’s below-provincial-average rates of postsecondary education, low youth retention, and the potential to align programs to support emerging economic sectors. “We knew that having youth in our downtown would bring everything with it – that optimism, that energy, that innovative thinking,” as well as businesses and development to cater to them, said Mr. Diodati.

The Niagara region’s economy is also heavily dependent on tourism, a risk factor made clear by a devastating downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic, estimated to be in the billions of dollars, when the adjacent U.S. border was closed. A corporate news release about the project estimated it would eventually bring in $291 million in annual gross domestic product. In return, the city is offering “brand recognition” through the iconic waterfalls, access to plentiful part-time job opportunities for students, easy transportation connections to the Toronto area, a planned new hospital, and municipal support through favourable rezoning and infrastructure, including an expanding broadband network owned by the city.

Acknowledging that “not everyone is going to love the idea” of a private, for-profit university as the solution to his city’s needs, Mr. Diodati said GUS Canada only emerged as a potential partner after he’d exhausted discussions with public universities in Canada as well as universities outside the country. His first choice was Brock University, based in St. Catharines, about 20 kilometres away. “We very much wanted Brock,” he said.

A spokesperson from Brock acknowledged that it had discussed a potential extension site in downtown Niagara Falls. Meaghan Rusnell, Brock’s associate vice-president, government, community and international relations, noted that the city was interested in hosting a faculty or school, in particular Brock’s business school, while Brock felt it was more realistic to start small and build up. The region is also served by Niagara College, which already has a partnership with the GUS-operated Toronto School of Management, a Toronto career college.

“Brock University is here to serve the Niagara region and if the City of Niagara Falls is looking for programming that we can offer, we’re happy to do that,” said Lynn Wells, Brock’s provost and vice-president, academic. Dr. Wells added that Brock feels it is already meeting the region’s needs “very well” and while UNF will be a new competitor in the higher education field, “there’s competition in all those [program] areas now.”

In addition to approving UNF’s programs (designed by academics contracted from other Canadian universities, GUS Canada said), the Ontario government also gave the institution the right to call itself a university, despite a recommendation against it by the province’s Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB), an arm’s-length agency that advises the minister of colleges and universities. It’s a rare decision, but not unheard of: an application by Collège de Hearst to call itself Université de Hearst was also denied by PEQAB, but approved by the provincial colleges and universities ministry in 2012.

The ministry did not respond to numerous requests for comment from University Affairs. However, a ministry letter to UNF stated that the university must satisfy several conditions before its initial student intake – expected to be 500 students at most – including developing its research capacity and hiring the necessary faculty, staff and leadership to establish a bicameral governance structure.

Calling it a “chicken and egg” situation, UNF’s special adviser, Sheldon Levy, said the new university will work to fulfil those conditions but that it was impossible to appoint senior administrators and faculty or get investor commitments to develop infrastructure without getting provincial approval for the project first.

Mr. Levy, who retired as president of Toronto Metropolitan University (then called Ryerson) in 2015, first got involved with the City of Niagara Falls about nine years ago, when a provincial cabinet minister asked him to help Mr. Diodati realize his postsecondary vision for his city. Mr. Levy discovered a downtown that “was in very, very bad shape,” but thought that “something must be possible,” though he admitted little success in stimulating interest before leaving TMU.

“A private university was furthest from my mind,” said Mr. Levy, who earned a city-building reputation at TMU for the many development projects he engaged in that integrated the campus with Toronto’s downtown core. “What was in my mind was to help [Niagara Falls] redevelop itself and to use a university as a catalyst, like so many small towns in the United States and Canada have done.”

TMU finally set up a tech business incubator program in Niagara Falls in 2019 with federal funding, modelled on its Digital Media Zone. Meanwhile, Mr. Levy was brought back to consult on a possible project between Niagara Falls and GUS Canada after stepping down as Ontario’s deputy minister of training, colleges and universities in late 2017. He became president and vice-chancellor at Vancouver’s University Canada West in March 2022, another private university operated by GUS Canada, with a focus on business and technology programs.

While an exception in Ontario, what GUS Canada is planning for Niagara Falls as a jobs-oriented, for-profit university is “the global norm,” said Elizabeth Buckner, an assistant professor and a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in higher education for global sustainable development at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her recent study into Ontario’s private universities found that they enrolled very small numbers of students – the largest had 1,500  – and that despite legislation enacted in 2000 to make it easier to establish private universities, their expansion has been constrained by government restrictions and a system dominated by public institutions.

It remains to be seen whether UNF will meet the city’s revitalization goals, Dr. Buckner said. Based on her research, she expects that most UNF students will be international, “looking for an affordable and fast immigration pathway at the bachelor’s degree level,” she said. The researcher added that ideally, a university would not operate on a for-profit model but “[w]hen we focus entirely on the profit-making aspect of it [a university] we may forget the fact that there is real demand for the education and for the better life that might come along with it.” While public universities don’t operate for profit, she claims that they “don’t have legs to stand on” in criticizing those that do when it comes to the “outrageous sums of money” they charge international students that ultimately help to maintain staff salaries and subsidize domestic students’ tuitions.

Mr. Levy called the project “a long-term build-out” that will take time “and a lot of money,” none of it expected from any level of government. He also believes that “it will make postsecondary better in Ontario, otherwise, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I believe that competition is a good thing. As long as it’s got great programs, with great faculty, with great students, it will work.”

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