Yesterday I outlined why a major private university has never emerged in Canada. But I also suggested that it wasn’t impossible one might pop up in the future if it were backed by someone with sufficiently deep pockets and an eye for strategy. Here is what I mean by this:
For a private university to be a success, it needs to be getting thousands of students. Say 4,000 or so. It’s not impossible to operate below that level, but it’s precarious. Ask Bishop’s.
And that’s tough. Getting people to commit to a university before it has any visible sign of success (such as well-employed graduates) is extremely difficult when there are quite prestigious institutions available nearby, as is the case nearly everywhere in Canada. Ask Quest.
Any new university is likely to take a few years to catch on; and yet it must be able to put out a quality product during that time. Hence the need for deep pockets. But there also needs to be a real value proposition for a new institution: a reason to go there rather than a regular university. England’s Buckingham University and Australia’s Bond University (both private universities which have managed to clear the 4,000 student mark) did this by offering accelerated degrees that allowed a student to graduate more quickly. That might also work here, but let me suggest a couple of other ways that might work too.
The first possibility is to create a university which can compete with big public universities on price. There are a couple of ways of doing this, but basically it means re-thinking the structure of an institution. One popular route these days is to do away with departments (which are an utter cost sink and the source of pretty much any cost-inflating idea a university can come up with) and leave faculties as the only level of administration. Combine this structure with a human-resource strategy which combines a few well-rewarded big names with a mostly casual staff, and there’s the possibility of creating an institution which is cost-effective while still carrying enough prestige to attract students. In the United States, two new universities have been built along more or less this model in the past decade (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and University of Minnesota Rochester), although neither has gone quite as far as Professor Vance Fried and his prescriptions in a well-known 2008 paper which purported to offer “Ivy-like” education for below $7,500 per student. In Ontario, back a few years ago when for some reason the government thought it was going to build three new universities, a similar idea was proposed by Centennial College plus Maureen Mancuso and Alastair Summerlee of Guelph University. The proposal was technically ineligible and the competition for new campuses never happened anyway because (whoops) the number of 18 year-olds started declining in 2013 (and who could possibly have foreseen that at any time since 1995?). But nevertheless I think it shows there’s at least some appetite to head down this route, and that it would be possible to go down this route for at least Arts, Sciences and Business.
The second possibility would take the opposite route. If Canada has an available niche, it’s in luxurious, prestigious liberal arts colleges (yes, there is the U4 League, but none of them could be described as luxurious – indeed provincial funding models leave these kinds of universities pretty stretched). So why not try to charge top dollar for a Liberal Arts school with big names? This has been the approach of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London for the past four years and – regulatory niggles aside – it seems to be doing reasonably well. Now I know what you’re thinking: who wants to pay for Liberal Arts degrees, unemployment, baristas, etc. But the fact is, as institutions like Middlebury, Bryn Mawr and indeed NCH show, provided the level of instruction is good and the student-teacher ratio small, there are lots of people prepared to pay for that kind of education. Maybe not 4,000 people for year, but if the fees are high enough, a university can survive at somewhat smaller numbers.
So yes, the potential for a private university is there. What’s missing so far is ambition and money. One day, someone will fill that gap. It’s just a question of when.