Welcome to the University club

News and analysis by Tariq Ahmed, UBC law graduate and former Senator.

Depending on how deeply buried in the library you’ve been for the last few weeks, you may have heard about Premier Campbell’s trip around the province waving his magic wand and turning everything short of a high school into a “university”. If you want to play catch-up, check out the premier’s media gallery for confetti-filled photos and cut-and-paste news releases that go beyond the recommendations of Campus 2020 report, which included only three new teaching intensive “regional universities”.

Pretty well any media coverage that’s done more than simply reprint part of the government press release has done a good job of going behind the photo-op to look at what (if anything) these changes mean. Of note are The Vancouver Sun, the always great Vaughn Palmer, the Victoria Times Colonist (bonus points for referencing Spinal Tap), the Georgia Straight, and Macleans On Campus.

I don’t really have much I can add to the pieces, but the idea of studying welding or hair-dressing at a university seems counterintuitive to me. I have a great respect for trades and colleges in general, but don’t know that these are programs reflect the culture of research and inquiry typically associated with universities in this part of the world. I’d be interested to know what kind of support these announcements have from students at these institutions since there seems to have been little mention of that so far. A few quick and cursory Google searches yielded little beside a supportive statement) from the UCFV student union and a letter from a student at Malaspina who is against the new name complaining that “VIU sounds like a serious infection”.

What’s also a little distressing is the degree to which these universities to-be have allowed themselves to become pre-writ publicity for the Premier. The current Emily Carr, Kwantlen College and Capilano College webpages have even more beaming Gordon Campbell that the BC Liberal website. The University College of the Fraser Valley and Malaspina deserve props for doing things in a much more non-partisan manner. Though perhaps the former group is just getting a head start on the buttering-up since they’ve come to realize how desperate they’ll be for more money!

Despite what Facebook says (apparently there’s already a University of the Fraser Valley network – cart, what are you doing there in front of the horse?), these new universities have yet to come into existence. Last week Bill 34, the University Amendment Act, 2008 was introduced in the legislature and is at first reading, release here. There are few things in here that are probably of little interest to anyone but a nerd like me, but I’ll mention them anyway, behind the jump:

  • The creation of a new tier for the renamed schools: “special purpose, teaching university” (“SPTU”).
  • What’s interesting is that these amendments will give the government the authority to designate other schools as SPTUs by Order in Council, so other such sprees could occur on a whim (hello University of Spuzzum!). This is different from the “Old Four” (UBC, SFU, UVic and UNBC; but not TRU which has its own act) whose existence is specifically enshrined in the University Act (“the Act”), meaning changes are tougher to make.
  • Chancellors at all universities (including UBC) will no longer be elected by the convocation (which is mainly made up of alumni), but rather “appointed by the board on nomination by the alumni association and after consultation with the senate or, in the case of the University of British Columbia, after consultation with the council [of senates]”. This may allow for some administrative convenience (UBC has been without a Chancellor for months), but seems to send the message that alumni have little place in guiding their alma matter (well except for phone calls at dinner time asking you to donate money).

    [extremely nerdy Peets-esque side note: Section 17 of the current Act says that “[t]he chancellor is to confer all degrees”. Ms. Morgan-Silvester’s term doesn’t start until July. Section 13 sets out that “[t]he president of the university holds the office of vice chancellor”, but doesn’t set out what duties (if any) a vice chancellor is to perform, while explicitly saying what the chancellor is to do. I could see arguments going both ways, but I’m left wondering if the degrees that are to be granted at this Spring’s congregation are even valid by law…]

  • Composition of the SPTU senates will be significantly different than at the “Old Four” (though they share the same BoG structure). Among the changes, SPTU senates will have fewer faculty members, far fewer students, far fewer alumni, but the addition of support staff and a non-voting board-appointed member seats. Seems a little surprising that given the mandate of a “teaching university” there’d be a desire for less input from teachers and students in deciding academic matters!
  • There are also some differences in the responsibilities given to SPTU senates. I won’t list them all, but the general theme is a shift to less senate power and more board control. I think there’s room for relief that the “traditional” university senates were not reformed in such a way.
  • The differences between the intended functions of the “old four” and “special purpose, teaching” universities becomes clear. Traditional universities currently have a wide mandate under the Act to “provide instruction in all branches of knowledge”, to “establish facilities for the pursuit of original research in all branches of knowledge”, to “provide a program of continuing education in all academic and cultural fields throughout British Columbia” and so on. SPTUs, on the other hand, have no such freedom or mandate. They are to teach only what and where the government tells them, and again this can be changed on a whim.
  • There are consequential and related changes to other acts, the most noteworthy of which is the renaming of the TRU (which is governed by a separate Thompson Rivers University Act) university council to a senate. Unfortunately for TRU students, the re-christened senate won’t have any expanded student representation. Like the SPTUs its senate will have a limited student voice with four elected students.

It will certainly be interesting to see what these changes will bring in the coming months and years and whether the government will approach the other recommendations in the Campus 2020 report with the same enthusiasm. Achieving parity of Aboriginal post-secondary outcomes by 2020, for example, will require more than a name change and some confetti.


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