Some B.C. universities leasing spaces on their campuses to private Chinese high schools to boost revenue

Douglas Quan

Looking to boost revenues and create a pipeline of future international students, some B.C. universities are turning to a novel — and controversial — idea: letting Chinese companies open private high schools on their campuses.

So far, two schools — Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, which operates in several Vancouver suburbs — have agreed to lease campus spaces for such schools. A third, the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, is in talks to do the same.

Some faculty members and students are upset publicly funded campuses are giving up space to private corporations and worry about the optics of letting underage students onto their grounds. They also say university administrators are not doing enough consultations.

“There’s been a lot of concern … about whether any of this has been thought through,” says Stephen Rader, president of the UNBC faculty association.

Dan Ryan, UNBC’s provost, said a high school could be in place as soon as September 2018, offering B.C. or International Baccalaureate curricula, as well as some Chinese courses. Enrollment would start at 50 to 75 students and could grow to 200.

International students make up about 10 per cent of the campus. Administrators want to double that and the high school would create a “smooth pathway,” Ryan said.

UNBC officials say discussions are ongoing and have not publicly identified the company they are talking to. But the National Post has learned it is an organization that has been running dual Chinese-Canadian curricula schools under the Concord College of Sino-Canada banner for 20 years.

UNBC’s president, Daniel Weeks, was at its Beijing campus recently to announce a $1.2-million scholarship program for international students.

Meanwhile, Kwantlen’s governing board voted in late March to proceed with a high school for its Richmond campus. The plan is to open a school for up to 100 students in Grades 10 to 12 in September.

Kwantlen is partnering with Maple Leaf Educational Systems, the first and largest school system in China to offer a blend of B.C. and Chinese curricula.

Kwantlen administrators say the partnership will enhance the university’s “branding and name awareness” in China and bring in about $400,000 over three years.

But ahead of the vote, Kwantlen’s faculty association wrote to the board saying the deal could be “to the potential detriment of the university’s reputation.”

Critics worry the company — which went public in 2014 and raked in $160 million last year — puts profits ahead of students. They’re also peeved a private, for-profit company — which will charge $18,000 in tuition in 2017-18 — gets to use their facilities.

“I don’t feel it’s appropriate … to be leasing out classrooms and office space to a multimillion-dollar overseas corporation when there are urgent needs in the community,” said Paul Edwards, a Kwantlen English instructor.

The presence of high school students could also make the university “less prestigious,” members of the biology department wrote to the board.

I don’t feel it’s appropriate … to be leasing out classrooms and office space to a multimillion-dollar overseas corporation

Maple Leaf came under scrutiny in 2012 when the Vancouver Sun reported allegations Maple Leaf teachers in China were pressured to inflate grades.

“I was told my marks needed to improve because students couldn’t get access to the universities they wanted,” said Jim Williams, who taught at a Maple Leaf school in Dalian for two years, and now teaches in Abbotsford, B.C.

B.C.’s ministry of education, which has certified more than 40 offshore schools, including Maple Leaf schools, said stricter oversight and inspections were introduced in 2013.

Dawn Sutherland, president of Maple Leaf Education North America, called the allegations overblown.

“Our schools are being developed not because we want to make a profit, but because there’s an investment in the students and in the education,” Sutherland said.

While most students attending Maple Leaf’s Canadian schools will be from China initially, the plan is to open enrolment to Canadians, as well as students from other countries, she said.

Sutherland said Maple Leaf’s first Canadian school, on the campus of Thompson Rivers University, has been hugely successful since it opened in September with 60 students in Grades 10 to 12, employing four B.C.-certified teachers (who teach English, math, science and the humanities) and one Chinese teacher (who teaches Mandarin and social studies).

The students, who wear uniforms, have adjusted well and are either billeted in the community or living in student housing, she said. Many Grade 12 students have applied for entry to TRU in the fall and, if admitted, will pay the higher foreign student rate.

But the university’s faculty association is still unhappy campus spaces are being used by high schoolers.

“We have seen (Maple Leaf) students using many publicly funded facilities, including the library, the gym, outdoor recreational areas, cafeteria facilities and science labs,” Tom Friedman, the association’s president, said in an email.

He said the campus was never fully consulted, nor was the deal with Maple Leaf put to the board of governors for a vote.

Matt Milovick, Thompson Rivers’ vice-president of finance, confirmed the deal was mentioned only informally to the board because it was deemed an “operational matter.”

“This is within management‘s purview to make these kinds of decisions.”

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