June 22, 2018

How higher education policy really works: a Canadian example

Photo Vancouver

Beautiful British Columbia; smelly politics

First of all, apologies for the interruption to normal service over the last month. I was on a tight deadline to finish revisions to the manuscript for my book, which is now with the publishers. However, having met the deadline, with everything in clean electronic format, I now learn the book will not be published until July 2011. Traditional publishing is in DEEP trouble.

Second, I apologize to resume service with a highly critical blog post (so out of character, I know). However, there are things that need to be said.

My former colleague Mark Bullen directed me to a news release from Thompson Rivers University, which announced that

the Open Learning Division of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is slated to commence operations at its Vancouver office …. on November 3.  Judith Murray, Vice President, TRU-OL, explained that the OL Administration always intended to have a Vancouver presence for Open Learning in order to help fulfill its mandate to provide open and distance education to the province of British Columbia. “The majority of our students and the majority of the Open Learning Faculty reside in the lower mainland,” Murray said. “The presence is important to keep TRU-OL top of mind for prospective students from the lower mainland and to best serve the needs of our Open Learning Faculty Members.”

Now this is very good news. TRU, which is based in Kamloops, a four hour drive from Vancouver, offers the only open access degree program in the province, and a Vancouver centre makes a lot of sense, since nearly two thirds of the population live within an hour’s drive of Vancouver.

The timing though is, if not coincidental, at least symbolic. Because the very same day, the Premier of the Province, Gordon Campbell, shocked the media (but not the public) by announcing his resignation.

Shortly after coming to power in 2001, Campbell’s government closed both Tech BC and the Open Learning Agency (OLA), which operated the Open University of BC, in partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the University of Victoria (UVic) (at the time, the three premier research universities in the province.)

The OU of BC allowed students to enter post-secondary education without prior qualifications, take foundation courses (first and second year programs) by distance from the OLA’s Open University program, then finish the degree with distance programs from any or all of the other three universities, getting a degree of the Open University of BC, which was recognized as a full public university degree. At one time, its headquarters was just one block away from TRU’s new Open Learning Centre, although it was originally based in Richmond, then when it was closed, in Burnaby, both suburban cities, next to Vancouver. People came from all over the world to see what OLA was doing; indeed, I emigrated to Canada to work there, although I had left for UBC several years before it was closed.

The decision to close both the OLA and Tech BC was done purely to save money to cut a government operating deficit. (OLA at the time had an annual operating budget of $20 million, which covered the OU program, its Open College program, and an educational television channel, as well as providing other services, including an extremely valuable process for recognising foreign credentials and converting them to credits that could be used in the BC post-secondary system). In its place, the government created BC Campus (with a budget one tenth of the OLA’s) which ended up as a useful organization, but not one that offered any programs itself. In other words, in 2001 Campbell’s government abolished open learning within the province.

However, there was a problem. The OU of BC had 16,000 students and they were mad at the government. It had to find somewhere to dump them. For a period of nearly four years, the OU students were in a kind of limbo, being supported by a skeleton staff still located in Burnaby. In 1995, though, to meet the increasing demand for post-secondary education in the province, the government (with almost no consultation) suddenly converted most of the the unique University Colleges of BC, which offered both technical and vocational programs, and two year university programs, from where students could transfer to traditional universities, into full universities. So the University College of the Caribou suddenly became Thompson Rivers University, giving the city of Kamloops a much prized full university. (Poor Kelowna, though, that voted for the opposition, had its University College of the Okanagan split into a two year college, with the university component swallowed up by UBC, another fours hours drive away).

At this point, someone in the government had a brilliant idea: ‘Let’s transfer the OU of BC to Thompson Rivers University!’ This brilliant idea though did not take into account that TRU nor its predecessors had any experience of open or distance learning. For several years, TRU complained that it didn’t get the same level of funding for its open students as it did for the campus students, and nothing much happened until around 2008, when a new VP for the Open University was appointed. Since then, TRU has been developing its open university program with vigour and conviction, and it is certainly ironic that open learning should suddenly return to Vancouver the same day that the premier quits. So what goes around, comes around – even if it takes 10years.

Now I have to tell you that I did a Ph.D. in educational administration at the Institute of Education in the University of London, and a fine program it was. We covered all sorts of things, such as different models of post-secondary education, funding models, government roles, etc. Another thing you should know is that for four hard years, I was an elected representative, a County Councillor in England, equivalent to a Member of the Legislative assembly (an MLA in Canadian provincial politics). I was in fact the opposition spokesperson on education.

But nowhere in my fine University of London program or in my petty provincial politics in England was there anything close to the sheer brutal nature of politics in British Columbia, where voters who support the government are bought off with a new university, and those without power and influence are sacrificed. (We won’t go into the scandal of the sale of BC Rail and the fall two government employees took for their political masters on this). I do have great respect for most politicians who sacrifice a great deal in the name of public service, but not all politicians are like that. Some are in it for the wrong reasons, or for the right reasons, but are so driven by their self-interest or ideology that they do bad things. Gordon Campbell is one of the latter. I am not sorry to see him go, and good luck to TRU and its Open University.

And, in fairness I have to say, the OLA wasn’t perfect – there were changes needed, but not its abolition. And despite the current government, we do have many excellent institutions of post-secondary education in the province. But British Columbia sure ain’t a textbook case of how to run a higher education system – well, not if you’re looking for best practice.

Trackbacks

  1. […] too can be a problem, especially in some developing countries – see also my previous blog, How Higher Education Policy Really Works). It would have been good to have seen some honest self-criticism in the document. For instance do […]

Speak Your Mind

*