The creation of a Telus-specific master's degree in business administration at the University of Victoria has wound the corporatization of Canadian universities up a notch. Alternatively, it has modernized on-the-job training while bringing a public institution to "the edge of" -- as UVic's slogan goes -- exclusivity with access to private technology. It depends on who you ask.
In July, the telecommunication giant and B.C.'s capital city university announced that the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business will offer Telus employees -- and only Telus employees -- the chance to enrol in a two-year MBA program customized to the company's specifications. If the program starting in October works in its first year, it will be extended to Telus business customers. There are no plans to open enrolment to the wider student body.
"It's a way to expand our market in terms of the [master's of business administration] program," said Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School. "It's also the opportunity to work with a leading technology company, and... better understand how to use some of their technology, which we haven't used before."
Spokespersons for both Telus and UVic said the program's development and execution come at no cost to the public purse. Telus is hiring UVic faculty to instruct the course for extra income, and supplying some senior Telus executives to deliver guest lectures. Classes will be off-campus in a space that Telus is renting.
UVic said that it will maintain academic control of the program, including requiring Telus employees to meet the university's standard entrance criteria.
But to Claire Polster, sociology professor at the University of Regina, it's just another step in a creeping privatization of public universities "that's happening without the public's consent, and increasingly without the public's knowledge."
Reversing a trend
Employers in the much-vaunted "information economy" have an interest in highly-educated employees who bring them more expertise and better outcomes. So you might think that businesses would have an incentive to support employees' professional development or training that directly relates to their work.
But Canadian employers' spending on employee training has been going down, not up. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canadian employers spent 42 per cent less on training their employees in 2013 than they did 20 years earlier.
It may be related that Canadians also lag behind similar countries when it comes to employee participation in training. The most recent data, from 2009, shows roughly one-third of working Canadians 25 to 64 years old participated in some form of work-related informal education or training that year. That's above the average for Organization for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries. But it still puts Canada in 10th place behind many western European countries and the United States.
Dan Pontefract wants to change this state of affairs. Pontefract is chief "envisione"' at Telus Transformation Office, a spin-off from Telus's mobility arm that aims to make on-the-job training more engaging, effective and evidently profitable, too. The unit takes credit for transforming Telus's on-the-job training and work culture, but is also available for hire. It's responsible for the Telus-UVic MBA.
After inviting bids from nine Canadian universities, Pontefract said Telus picked UVic because its program made room for "this sense of community, this sense of giving, this sense of purpose, alongside the need to... deliver on its profitability revenue target."
Built on UVic's regular MBA curriculum, the custom degree will also include Telus-related lessons and projects. Instead of day or night classes on a weekly basis during a one- or two-year program, Telus employees will attend classes in six two-week periods over two years. Classes will be offered both in person and via distance learning, to accommodate work schedules. The final two weeks will take place at a yet-to-be-determined Telus International location.
The program caps an educational relationship between the University of Victoria and Telus that has been growing since 2010, with the university providing the telecommunications giant with shorter, non-degree executive education programs and helping run corporate leadership forums.
"We're the first to admit that we look to good partners to help us deliver on our organizational goals," Pontefract said.
The new partnership offers the business school a chance to experiment with what it calls "blended learning" -- delivering lectures both in person and by distance, a relatively recent format for it.
There are "less tangible" benefits, too, said business school dean Klein. "The faculty get a deeper understanding from a leading edge technology company: what are the key issues they're facing?" he said.
For the university, Klein said, working with corporations like Telus is "how to ensure our educational programs are strongly aligned with the needs of the business world."
But University of Regina's Polster sees what investors might call a poison pill for the public in the deal.
A co-author of A Penny For Your Thoughts, a collection of academic essays on post-secondary corporate influence published last spring, Polster worries that such arrangements will lock universities vying for private dollars or better access to tech into confidentiality requirements that limit benefits for other students.
"Should universities be making deals to access privatized technology, which only reinforces the need for these kinds of relationships, because [then] knowledge isn't freely available?" she asked. She is also concerned that strings may be attached to any knowledge or technologies the university acquires during its relationship with Telus.
Then there is the money. Telus is paying UVic, but neither side will provide details. "It's a confidential contract between us and Telus. I would say it more than covers the cost of actually delivering the program," UVic's Klein said.
The dean said the partnership isn't something he felt pressure from UVic's administration to pursue. But it is no secret that all British Columbian universities are looking for ways to make up budgets buffeted by a $50-million cut in provincial post-secondary funding between 2014 and 2017, and a two per cent annual cap in allowable tuition fee increases.
Post-secondary education "is a public resource that is paid for by the public," Polster said. While Telus is picking up the tab for the customization, its program is built on the foundation of a publicly funded curriculum and university structure. "So the costs are being socialized," Polster said, "but the benefits are increasingly being privatized."
For its part, Pontefract said, Telus doesn't have the time or the money to offer this kind of training itself. And even if it did, the result still would not carry the reputation value of real university accreditation.
Polster doesn't understand why the corporation couldn't achieve the same end by having employees enrol in a regular MBA program paired with Telus's own on-the-job training. One answer might be schedules: UVic's regular MBA program wouldn't allow Telus employees the same flexibility for balancing work and studying schedules.
Klein said he understands the suspicion a corporate-public university partnership creates, but he said the corporation has no undue influence over faculty or administration.
"It's our curriculum, we have control over who's admitted into the program, we control the standards for progression and graduation," he said. "To me, it's around maintaining our sense of academic integrity, and as long as we can do that, then I don't think it's an issue."
That may prove harder than Klein, his campus administrators, or their corporate clients expect. While UVic has experienced little media bluster over its partnership with Telus, there's been great interest in an ongoing issue at the University of British Columbia. After the university president stepped down earlier this summer, a business school professor alleged the chair of UBC's board of governors violated her academic freedom when he called her out for her blog post on the resignation.
The chair, whose $2-million donation to the business school created the professor's position, denies the allegations and has stepped aside as chair while an investigation is conducted. A final report on the incident is expected in early October.
Maybe there is no such thing as a "free lunch" when universities and corporations become entwined.
But is that good or bad? It depends on who you ask.
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