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BC's Private School Mess: Lessons Learned?

Libs must reverse 'hands off' policy, say critics.

By Andrew MacLeod 5 Feb 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Minister of Advanced Education Murray Coell.

British Columbia's billion dollar private education industry had its global reputation tarnished by schools that oversold their credentials or left students in the lurch. Critics blame deregulation by the provincial government four years ago.

But despite a damning Jan. 31 report, Premier Gordon Campbell and his minister, Murray Coell, aren't moving to reinstate independent oversight.

"The actions of a small number of institutions are reflecting poorly on the sector as a whole," writes former British Columbia Institute of Technology president John Watson in his review of the Private Career Training Institutes Act.

Former attorney general Geoff Plant recommended the review in his April 2007 Campus 2020 report.

The industry, which includes ESL and career training schools, serves about 160,000 students a year, Watson notes in the review, and is worth over $1 billion to the provincial economy. "Both students and B.C.'s education brand would be well served with enhancements in student protection, increased institutional accountability and effective quality assurance."

The province used to do many of the things Watson is suggesting through an agency known as the Private Post-Secondary Education Commission. It was an arms-length agency that provided consumer protection and encouraged "integrity and high standards of educational competence."

In 2004 the B.C. Liberals junked PPSEC, replacing it with the Private Career Training Institutes Agency, a body controlled by industry representatives. At the same time it excused some schools, including the language schools PPSEC was originally formed to regulate, from any regulation at all.

New era of 'self-regulation'

In an October 2003 interview, then advanced education minister Shirley Bond said, "In essence, we see a self-regulation system being put in place." The schools would make sure they maintained a high level of quality, she argued. After all, it's in their own best interest to do that. "This is about looking at more efficient ways to manage those institutions."

In the legislature she was even more explicit. The change came out of the Liberals' core services review, a process aimed at reducing "red tape" and regulation across the government. The legislation and regulations were "simply too broad," the Hansard records her saying, and she was "pleased" to be "reducing government regulation and allowing the private post-secondary sector to take greater responsibility for their actions."

The move was consistent with a much touted 2001 campaign promise enshrined in Campbell's A New Era for British Columbia platform: "A B.C. Liberal Government will cut the 'red tape' and regulatory burden by one-third within three years."

Decline in quality

While cutting red tape may sound good and win votes, sometimes it works out badly. In Watson's report on the PCTIA he quotes the University Presidents' Council of B.C.: "It now appears that deregulation, particularly in the context of ESL institutions, has facilitated a decline in quality control. This must be reversed."

The government can't re-regulate the industry, however, without Premier Campbell admitting it was wrong to deregulate in the first place, says NDP advanced education critic Rob Fleming. "The whole reckless experiment with de-regulation was driven by the premier from his office," says Fleming. "He's personally involved in this whole ill-conceived ideological mess, and we're all paying the price."

He adds, "Deregulation was a complete failure from a public policy perspective. We have to take a 180 degree turn here or risk our international reputation again here."

Watson found problems throughout the industry, but agreed it was particularly acute among English schools, which were deregulated as part of the 2003-2004 changes.

"ESL schools are unregulated and I share the view of almost everyone I spoke to outside the ESL industry, that these schools should be brought under PCTIA," he writes. "Their primary market is international students and the current lack of student protection and quality standards poses a risk to students and to the B.C. education brand."

Since 2004 a number of schools have become high profile failures, including Kingston College and Lansbridge University. Both were owned by Vancouver businessman Michael Lo. The Liberal donor and organizer was at one point the chair of the PCTIA's quality assurance committee.

Coell: 'Few schools' with problems

Minister Coell was unavailable for an interview, but in a short e-mail response he says, "The government does not feel the fact that a very few schools have had problems would justify returning to rigid one-size-fits-all regulation."

The ministry will create a quality assurance program, according to an announcement issued with the release of the report, but participation will be voluntary.

Accreditation with the PCTIA is also voluntary, and some 60 per cent of the schools have chosen not to accredit, Watson's report notes.

Watson makes recommendations in 13 areas (see sidebar), several of which the government has so far failed to act upon.

Meeting several of the recommendations will require writing new legislation, says Williams. He refused to say whether that legislation is on its way. "Certainly our policy people are engaged at looking at this document."

PCTIA registrar Jim Wright was unavailable to speak with The Tyee, according to a spokesperson who said in an e-mail: "The report was written for the minister, and at this time PCTIA has no comment to make."

Oversight overhaul urged

A former PPSEC board member says the PCTIA needs representatives on its board who aren't in the business of running schools.

"I think it's a really hard thing to be a regulatory body when the entire board is made up of representatives from the industry who have a self interest," says Norma Strachan, the executive director of the Association of Service Providers for Employability and Career Training. "It's conflictual. The internal conflict has to be humungous. There needs to be some middle ground where there's input from a number of sectors."

The NDP's Fleming criticizes Coell for failing to protect the industry. "His response so far has been completely timid and misses the point," he says. He characterized the response as "absolutely pathetic" and "Goofy half steps that are based on voluntary compliance."

He adds, "The very few who are unscrupulous operators just read that and smile because they know it's business as usual."

In recent years hundreds of students have been defrauded of large amounts of money, he adds, but Coell did nothing to fix the complaint process or give them any recourse besides going to court. "That's the kind of stuff that travels pretty far pretty fast in the blogosphere."

Fleming says he plans to revive and rewrite a private member's bill he introduced last year in an attempt to offer more protection to students at private schools. "To me regulation isn't onerous," he says. "It's important. It actually ensures a quality agenda is in place. It's something that should be good for business."

Related Tyee stories:

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