Ontario opens the door to private universities

May 12, 2000

Canada moved one step closer last month to establishing a competing system for the country's public universities, when its biggest province paved the way for private universities.

Despite protests and fears from university, teacher and student groups, Ontario followed the lead of New Brunswick province and will allow private universities to grant degrees, a responsibility previously reserved for its 17 publicly funded universities. The province says it is one way to handle the anticipated 20 per cent rise in undergraduate enrolment over the next 10 years.

Ontario premier Mike Harris, a long-term aggressive political proponent of private universities, has indicated that private institutions will not be eligible for capital or operating grants from the provincial governments. Supporters feel this sink-or-swim situation will create new models of education, as institutions compete for students.

But Paul Axlerod, professor of social sciences and history at York University in Toronto, said this was the beginning of an invasion of fly-by-night universities. He fears that education in Canada will eventually mirror the business sector, where US operators are major players.

"Once private institutions are allowed to compete with public universities, there is no stopping branch plants of American universities from setting up at will," Professor Axlerod said.

While the Ontario government is trying to stay out of the funding, some say that government involvement is inevitable. Bill Graham, outgoing president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, argues that the history of private universities in North America shows governments are dragged into supporting all private institutions, including elite universities such as Harvard and Yale.

Others assert that if private institutions become accredited for student government loans and research grants, there will be a smaller slice of a diminished pie for public universities.

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