One more step towards corporatizing our universities.

Those who spend a good deal of their lives on university campuses have been hearing a lot lately about companies such as Navitas and Study Group International, companies that promote the “pathway college concept.”

The jury is still out on what they will mean for post-secondary education in Canada.  At best, a healthy level of concern is in order.  At worst, they represent the next step in the ongoing “corporatization” of Canadian campuses.

Deals struck between such companies and universities generally unfold as follow: The for-profit company establishes a private “college” on the university’s campus. The company recruits its own students from abroad but uses the university’s name, reputation, and even logo in its marketing. The company targets students who currently do not meet the university’s admissions criteria, often because they lack the English-language skills to pass the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL) exam.

Once at the college, the newly-recruited international students pay tuition to the private college to take English-as-a-second-language courses, pre-undergraduate university course, and sometimes pre-master’s level courses—all of which are taught by the private college.

In many cases, the courses taught have been developed by the university’s professors. But the pathways college courses are usually taught by less-experienced course instructors, often recruited from the university’s own pool of part-time instructors (including graduate students). Moreover, they are paid considerably less than tenured university professors.

If all goes according to plan, the pathway college students eventually gain admission to the university itself, often directly into the second year of a program.

In exchange, the university receives a fee as compensation for use of its brand and its facilities, including its libraries and classrooms. The university also gets a steady stream of new international students. In principle, such students become fully prepared for study at the actual university.

For some senior university administrators, this is win-win. To be sure, as quoted recently in Maclean’s, a Dalhousie University vice-president argues that Navitas has “a much bigger recruiting reach than we will ever have.” (In fact, that is a polite way of saying that, due to insufficient funding from senior levels of government, his university’s international recruitment office does not have the necessary up-front money to undertake a large recruitment effort on the same scale as Navitas.)

For faculty associations representing professors, pathways colleges threaten to erode the quality of teaching at Canadian universities. Indeed, some detractors of the pathways concept believe the profit motive will inevitably result in international students being misled into believing their chances of gaining entry into the university are greater than they really are. In fact, it is alleged that some of the marketing (remember: same logo) even makes it seem that the college and the university are one and the same.

What’s more, the private college decides what its standards are and which students meet them. Sceptics should therefore be forgiven for wondering whether the profit motive will encourage these private colleges to pass students who are not ready for university.

Simon Fraser was the first Canadian university to develop such a partnership when it allowed Navitas, an Australian company, to set up Fraser International College (where, incidentally, more than two-thirds of incoming students are from China). The University of Manitoba followed suit with the same company shortly thereafter.

Yet, Navitas still considers Canada to be an “under-penetrated” market, meaning this is likely just the beginning for us.

In May, members of the Canadian Federation of Students passed a motion at their semi-annual general meeting condemning the pathways college concept, and moved that senior levels of government prohibit their operation on university campuses all together. Other university groups are concerned as well. Both faculty and students from many campuses, most recently the University of Windsor and Carleton University, have registered their opposition to their institutions’ respective corporatization initiatives.

Of course, it may be that students and faculty just don’t know a win-win situation when they see one. Hypothetically, safeguards could be put in place to prevent any kind of abuse that could come out of such public-private partnerships.

But there is another possibility, too. It may simply be that students and faculty are acutely aware of the importance of holding the line in the ongoing fight against corporatization. To be sure, the pathways colleges do not exist because our universities don’t have the know-how to recruit international students. Rather, they exist because our universities’ international recruitment offices have been set up to do their jobs insufficiently well, creating a void that private companies are only too happy to fill.

This leaves student and faculty groups with two options: sit back and watch as private companies take on a more prominent role in university teaching, or fight back.

Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also vice-president of finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).