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When Gov't Cut Red Tape, Life Got Sticky for Many

Libs proud of loosened regs for private colleges, other industries. Costs too high, say critics.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

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

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Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell: "Very few schools have had problems."

Deirdre Bell says she likes her job training race horses for Hastings Park, but there was a time she thought she might work in health care. She even registered for training as a medical lab assistant at a private college that she says never delivered what it promised.

Despite having complained to the school, the provincial regulator, the ombudsman and a legion of government officials, she and her mother are still waiting for an acknowledgment that what happened was wrong.

"Nothing was really worked out," said Bell, speaking some five years after enrolling at the school. Even suing, which led to an out-of-court settlement, brought little satisfaction. "I don't think anything was worked out by going to court."

It's an increasingly common story in B.C., where the Liberal government turned regulation of the private post-secondary education sector over to an industry board, even as the province expanded the scope of what the institutions could do.

As they have for many other industries in B.C., including forestry, corporate securities and cosmetology, the BC Liberals proudly announced their deregulation efforts would save red tape (see sidebar).

Bell said she would like to forget about her painful private college detour and get on with her life. "It was just really a bad experience," she said. "I've totally moved on and my mom hasn't."

'I want acknowledgment'

Her mother, Ella Bell, is a retired school teacher who lives in the Fraser Valley. She has become a fierce advocate not just for her daughter -- and in fact Deirdre was reimbursed $7,000 for her tuition fees and won a $5,000 out-of-court settlement -- but for changing the system.

"They would never admit that Stenberg College had done anything wrong," she said. "From the very start the officials at the department of advanced education said if you're not satisfied with the answers, go to the Better Business Bureau or to court."

That made little sense to her. If something is wrong in an industry that was in the past regulated by the government, then public officials should do what they can to fix it, she said. While she and her daughter had the tenacity and the resources to pursue their case through the legal system, many students do not. In many cases the students are young, in Canada temporarily to learn English, or both.

"I want acknowledgment of what happened and consideration of the implications following there from," said Ella Bell. Despite all her communication with politicians, she said, "I've never got anything from them beyond, 'everything possible has been done for you.'"

Deirdre Bell had been in the class at Stenberg College for about six weeks when it became clear that the college would not be able to fulfill a promise to have a practicum for her at an approved laboratory, according to a summary of what happened sent by her mother. Completing a practicum was a necessary part of becoming qualified and being able to find a job in the field.

At least a quarter of the students withdrew, Bell said.

Calls to Stenberg were not returned by posting time. According to the school's website, "Over 96 per cent of our graduates are working in their field of study within six months of graduation."

'Government does not care'

The Bells complained to the body that accredits the schools, but the complaint was dismissed because the fees had already been repaid. "No reference whatsoever was made to the standards of 'accreditation' under the law," wrote Ella Bell. "Neither was any explanation offered as to how an 'accredited' institution could fail to fulfill a contract, yet commit no offence under 'accreditation.'"

She took it up with her MLA, Rich Coleman, her daughter's MLA, John Les, and various government officials. None seemed interested in pursuing the matter, she said.

"Meanwhile, I had accumulated a lot of evidence against Stenberg College and we proceeded to Small Claims Court," she wrote. "After one day in court, Stenberg College settled out of court."

She went back to the ministry with that result, she said, but still got no response. She pressed the ministry to look into the Private Career Training Institutions Agency, but in July 2007 received "a lawyer's letter... bidding me be silent on the matter and informing me that they would communicate no further with me."

The case is entirely about the principle, she said. "The system is an abomination as it stands and the government does not care," she wrote. "I have spent a considerable amount of money and great time and energy in trying to elicit an answer from the government."

She has pushed it to the point where her communications to government officials now get responses from the legislature's security detail, a development she attributes to her saying at one point, not seriously, that maybe she needed to spray paint "answer me" on Les' office so she'd get heard.

Report found problems

The government is aware of the problems they created, but has so far failed to fix them.

As a result of former attorney general Geoff Plant's Campus 2020 report, Gordon Campbell's government appointed former B.C. Institute of Technology president John Watson to review the Private Career Training Institutes Act.

What he found, the Tyee reported in February 2008, was damning. The Liberals de-regulation had put a billion-dollar-a-year industry at risk, he said.

"The actions of a small number of institutions are reflecting poorly on the sector as a whole," he wrote. "Both students and B.C.'s education brand would be well served with enhancements in student protection, increased institutional accountability and effective quality assurance."

He added, "It now appears that deregulation, particularly in the context of ESL institutions, has facilitated a decline in quality control. This must be reversed." Watson's 13 recommendations included:

Minor changes made

Following the release of Watson's report, the government added a student to the PCTIA's board and promised to create a new quality assurance program, but undermined it by making participation voluntary. A year ago changes were made to the Private Career Training Institutions Act as part of a miscellaneous statutes act that added language about "basic education standards," consumer protection and conditions for refunds to students.

However, the government ignored Watson's most far-reaching recommendations and 15 months later still has not acted on them. The PCTIA board, for instance, remains dominated by the owners and operators of private schools, not people representing the public interest.

"I don't think anyone's satisfied with what the Liberals have done to date," said Rob Fleming, an incumbent NDP MLA running in Victoria-Swan Lake. He has raised numerous concerns about the private post-secondary industry as the opposition's advanced education critic.

Fleming pointed out that under rules introduced in 2004, the PCTIA will only reimburse students if the school they are at closes. There is no longer any protection for students who are the victims of fraud or false advertising, he said. "If an institution is continually ripping off students there's no avenue for a claim against them."

Telling students to take schools to court is no solution, he said.

"That's putting a huge onus on the students," he said. "What they really need is the ministry to provide oversight... That's what used to happen."

The government has made some changes, he allowed, but the PCTIA remains industry driven. "They did the bare minimum to acknowledge they've made a debacle over private career training in B.C.... They felt some pressure to at least appear they were acting."

Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell was unavailable for an interview. When Watson's report came out, Coell's staff provided the following statement: "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."

For Bell's part, she believes the problems are widespread. If a government agency is going to register and accredit schools it gives them the appearance of legitimacy, she said. When something goes wrong, the government should have a better response than leaving people to fight their way through the court system.

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