Photo-illustration: Simon Hayter

Degrees of a lesser standard

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By Michael Friscolanti

A maroon-clad custodian armed with only a yellow stick inspects one of his building’s shiny white floors. A tiny sponge is attached to the end of his tool, one just big enough for the puny speckles of grime he’s looking for. A simple flick of his wrist rids the utopian hallway of anything that takes away from its lustre. “I’d put our building against any other,” says Judy Fraser, a University of Windsor graduate who works as director of outreach and external affairs at the DeVry Institute of Technology.

This isn’t like any other Ontario university, this gleaming two-floor edifice on Chedworth Way in Mississauga. Buckets don’t catch the drips from leaky roofs. The stairs aren’t crumbling. Technical facilities are upgraded at the start of every semester. The walls are painted every semester.

Nearly every door along the school’s glowing maroon hallways leads to a computer lab. Other rooms house such tools as oscilloscopes, voltmeters, frequency counters, digital multimeters, logic probes, signal generators and function generators, only some of the gadgets needed to succeed in the school’s curriculum. All in all, there’s one computer for every three full-time students.

Backed by these facilities, DeVry has applied to the provincial Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities to transform two of its diploma programs, computer information systems and electronics engineering technology, into full-fledged Ontario degree programs.

While DeVry graduates in the United Stated earn degrees, their Canadian counterparts must settle with nailing diplomas to their walls. Since university spaces in Ontario are set be in demand like never before, mostly because grade 12 and OAC students will graduate at the same time in 2003, the government is willing to allow a few private institutions to grant degrees. For-profit schools such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix are ready to offer that alternative to Ontario’s 17 publicly funded universities.

It seems like a logical progression for DeVry, an institute that has proven it can prepare its students for the workforce, but it’s a progression that could forever change the face of an Ontario degree. There’s no such question that for-profit schools such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix provide a viable service — at more than $10,000 tuition per year — but what they offer isn’t the higher learning that has been associated with Ontario universities for the past two centuries. As more and more for-profit institutions get the green light to hand out a degree in Ontario, it can only stain the overall value of that venerable piece of paper — a stain beyond the help of any custodian’s sponge.

“What we don’t want is private universities who start competing by providing education that is not worth the paper the degree will be written on,” says Ryerson president Claude Lajeunesse.

In April, when Dianne Cunningham, minister of training, colleges and universities, announced she was considering opening Ontario’s doors to private universities and allowing applied colleges to offer degrees, Ryerson was among the universities that responded with its concerns. The most urgent of its 14 recommendations was not the fear that escalating tuition may make education less accessible — the hinge on which most lobby groups have rested their anti-private rants — but protecting what has come to be associated with a degree. The report’s second recommendation reads: “the recognized currency of the Ontario university degree must not be confused or diminished as the privilege of degree-granting is extended to private universities in Ontario.”

Since 1834, when the province’s first degree was awarded at what would eventually become the University of Toronto, a university education has been associated with articulation and open-mindedness, diverse and in-depth learning, and perhaps most importantly, academic freedom and critical thinking.

“A degree is a sign of an ability to learn and it’s a sign of an abiding curiosity that people have,” says Michael Doucet, the president of Ryerson’s faculty association. “I think the most important thing we can teach you as a faculty is how to find out things for yourself. A degree means that you’ve proven that in enough places.”

In 1983, the provincial government proved its commitment to keeping things that way when it passed the Degree Granting Act, essentially cementing the monopoly of the province’s 17 publicly funded universities to offer degrees. In 1996, the Tory government’s own Advisory Panel on Future Directions for Postsecondary Education concluded that “for-profit universities … tend to provide ‘niche’ programming. In our view, narrow program offerings are not characteristic of the kind of institutions that we envisage as universities.”

Yet a short four years later, the provincial Tories have changed their tune and are in the process of opening Ontario’s doors to these type of bottom-line institutions.

The ministry is considering allowing eight pilot projects per year over the next three years. As it stands this week, MPPs are set to debate the third reading of Bill 132, the Postsecondary Education Choice and Excellence Act, which if passed would inch DeVry a step closer to its goal.

To reach the finish line it would have to pass the ministry’s proposed Quality Assessment Board, which would make the final call on who gets the power to grant degrees. The panel is expected to be made up of a chair appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor, a vice-chair and up to nine others chosen by the minister.

DeVry’s president doesn’t hold back when talking about the niche education his school provides students and why he believes they should have the opportunity to hang degrees on their walls.

Peter Brown’s office, a five-sided room modest in both size and decoration, is balanced by a deck on one side and a boardroom-style table near the door on the other. The fact that Brown, a middle-aged man who rolls up his grey sleeves, even has an office is probably more of a status quo afterthought than anything else — the president and other top administrators should have one because that’s the way it is everywhere else. DeVry’s professors, all 46 of them, sit throughout the school in cubicles stitched together by portable dividers. Office hours don’t exist here. Professors are available by phone or e-mail 24 hours a day.

The students, whose average ages are between 23 and 28, tackle a rigorous 45-week class schedule every year. They’re here to earn their education and get out, which is one of the selling points mentioned in DeVry’s brochures, along with flexible schedules, year-round classes and career-relevant coursework. “The students don’t care if they have a football team,” Fraser says.

Brown knows his school will never be a research institute, but he says his students face as rigorous a curriculum as those earning degrees, one that includes core arts and science courses.

“I would be happy to compare the amount of our general education in our professional courses with the amount of general education in any engineering program in any university,” Brown says.

Just as Ryerson’s electrical engineering students are required to take such classes as philosophy, English and politics, students enrolled in DeVry’s electronics engineering technology program must take poetry and contemporary history. But combined with those are classes that would seem elementary to some — essay and memo writing, critical thinking and public speaking. Important courses for the type of student DeVry graduates, but not quite up to the standards associated with Ontario degrees.

Brown’s graduates succeed, as measured by the show-me-the-money mentality that has come to be affiliated with Mike Harris’ Tory government. Numbers don’t lie. Between 1998 and 1999, every graduate of the electronics engineering technology program got a job in her or her field, while 80 per cent of information technology grads found work. Many go on to work at companies such as Nortel, AT&T and Telus, all of which are mentioned in the school’s recruitment literature.

“If [critics] genuinely feel that standards are going to be debased and that the value of a degree will be generally pulled down, I think that’s a legitimate fear,” Brown says. “All I can say is, ‘talk to our employers who’ve employed our grads for 40 years, talk to our students, talk to the families of our students.’ Something’s working.”

And with success comes the money. “Our boss is a business-driven bottom line,” Brown says.

DeVry Inc., the international education company, netted $12.2-million in the first quarter of its 2001 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. It was a record high that put the company up 22.8 per cent from the same fiscal period last year.

This drive for bottom line is what strikes fear among those who believe that a university education, in its purest form, can’t be market driven. If it is, it becomes up to the student, or consumer, to distinguish between the schools out to offer a top-quality education and the ones who put profit before that goal.

“It will be a situation where you have to know the difference between East Po Dung College and Stanford,” says Robert Clift, executive director of the confederation of university faculty associations of British Columbia. “It’s a case of buyer beware.”

In Canada’s western-most province, there isn’t a law stopping companies from offering private degrees, as long as they’re not claiming to be provincially sanctioned.

The University of Phoenix, North America’s largest chain of private for-profit universities, with campuses across the United States, opened its first Canadian site two years ago in Vancouver. Plans are in the works to apply to open an Ontario campus if Bill 132 becomes law.

The university’s parent company, Apollo Group Inc., made $610-million in the last fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31. It’s the kind of place that makes degree-granters wary.

“Are we less stringent in our entrance requirements? Is there a reason for that? Absolutely,” says Mark Cameron, regional vice-president of the University of Phoenix’s Northwest region. “We want to provide access to education to the people. Public institutions can’t be all things to all people.”

Students in Phoenix’s business management program don’t have to take liberal studies courses. Although the average age of the school’s students is mostly working adults between 32 and 34, it doesn’t satisfy the critics who think the education offered there is too specialized to graduate with a university degree. Advanced interpersonal communications and written communication are only some of the critical thinking courses they take.

“We’re concerned about the University of Phoenix, DeVry, Unexus,” says Henry Mandelbaum, executive director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. “These are institutions that really offer modular programs, sort of the cookie cutter programs. If these are the institutions that are going to be given degree-granting status, they will be debasing the value of an Ontario university degree in a world environment that’s not aware of the diversity of programs that are available here.”

East Gwillimbury, a town of just more than 20,000 people in the Northern part of York region, has one of the fastest growing populations in the greater Toronto area. In April, 1998, the Ontario Municipal Board approved a plan to boost the population of Queensville, one of its hamlets, to 30,000 from 600. Included in that proposal is the construction of a private, non-profit university on the north side of Queensville Sideroad, east of Leslie Street.

One of the people behind the initiative, ironically enough, is Bette Stephenson. As the former minister of colleges and universities, Stephenson spearheaded the 1983 law that secured the monopoly of Ontario’s public universities to offer degrees. But because her proposed university wouldn’t make a profit, she feels it fits the mould she helped create 17 years ago and could become the type of institution to give existing universities the kick in the pants some say they need to better serve students.

“Strict control. That’s actually what we’re looking for in the private institutions that we want to see established,” Stephenson says. “And we would anticipate that the publicly funded universities would agree to the same kind of assessment on a regular basis.”

But even Stephenson, who has urged the government to open in York Region, is worried about the money-hungry institutions that will filter into the province along with her school. “I don’t know. I really don’t know,” she says. “To this point, I have less than total support for for-profit institutions.”

The reality is that while Stephenson’s not-for-profit, Ivy League-style university is still $200-million away from breaking ground, janitors are already mopping the floors at profit-driven schools such as DeVry, which have no intentions of becoming Harvards of the North.

“I think it’s totally unlikely to happen,” Brown says. “What we’re about and the kind of programming that we do, in my mind just doesn’t apply.”

Their kind of programming is ultimately meant to serve student — and their shareholders — but doesn’t necessarily fit into the tradition of university degrees developed over the past two centuries. “There’s the concept of truth in advertising,” Doucet says. “If you say you’re giving them a university degree, it better damn well be a university degree.”

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