“All students are tuition dollars”: U of L exploring partnership with a private company to bring more international students to campus amidst austerity

Liam Devitt

The University of Lethbridge’s administration has been exploring a potential partnership with for-profit Australian company Navitas to establish a “pathway college” that would bring additional international students to the U of L. Pathway programs ideally provide students who do not have necessary academic competency (including English-language proficiency) in order to directly enter the University with focused programming for one to two years that allows them to build up the skills needed in order to succeed in a Canadian university environment.

International students pay much more in tuition fees than domestic students, making them a hot commodity among universities. At the U of L, a domestic student pays $4,974 for a year of classes, whereas an international student pays $17,526 for the same–about three-and-a-half times as much.

With the Kenney government’s austerity approach to funding post-secondary education, Alberta’s universities have to make up a revenue shortfall, and increasing numbers of international students could be a part of that. Partnering with a company like Navitas could promise to bring more international students than the University could recruit on its own. Currently, the amount of international students at the University sits at about 4 per cent. The University is looking to hit a target of around 15 per cent.

However, many faculty, university community organizations and students have been very critical of the proposal. Many see this as the beginning of the privatization of post-secondary, perhaps potentially exploitative of international students, and some have called into question the business case for the proposal. 

The University of Lethbridge Students’ Union (ULSU), the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) and the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) have formed a working group to address these concerns and consolidate information on the proposed partnership.

Various faculty members and departments have written letters to the administration, voicing their concerns and/or opposition to the proposal. The Campus Womens Centre and the Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group have invited the university community to sign an open letter to the administration in opposition to the proposal.

The Meliorist spoke to university administration, faculty, and international students about this proposal.

The proposal

While nothing has been agreed to formally between the University and Navitas, there is a consultation document that outlines the basic structure of the proposal, based on previous partnerships with Canadian universities. Navitas has operated with Simon Fraser University since 2006, and with the University of Manitoba since 2007, and they just inked a deal with Ryerson University this summer.

Navitas’ Logo (Navitas)

The proposal is for a 10-year deal that comes up for review and renewal at the end of the 10-year term. Navitas provides all working capital for the project, including course instructors and student supports, while the University provides the U of L branding, academic oversight on course material and admissions standards as well as space at the Calgary Campus for the college to be housed.

Diagram from Navitas consultation document illustrating the proposed pathway for “pathway college” students

Students come from secondary school in their home countries, and then take either one or two years at the pathway college depending on their education level. Once that is completed, they enter the University as second-year students.

One of the things that makes this proposal attractive to the University is that it is a relatively low-risk venture. Indeed, the University does not put up any financial stake. Instead, Navitas keeps the tuition fees from the students that are at the pathway college, and the University gets a larger amount of international students coming to Lethbridge once they are finished with the pathway college, and then their tuition goes to the U of L. 

The University also gets a royalty payment from Navitas in exchange for the academic support that the University provides in helping create course content.

When asked what this partnership would bring in financially, Michelle Helstein, Vice-Provost could not provide exact numbers but stressed that the U of L would only enter into the partnership if it made financial sense.

Privatization or partnership?

The proposal with Navitas very clearly has a transfer of University duties, (namely educating and recruiting international students,) to a for-profit private company that would be profiting off of such a transfer. 

However, Helstein, shied away from using the word ‘privatization,’ instead calling it a “public-private partnership,” stressing the component of university oversight.

Dan O’Donnell, ULFA’s Acting President, questioned if calling the Navitas proposal a public-private partnership is really applicable. “A public-private partnership normally means, for example, building and operating a toll road for the province; providing a service to a public entity that would be too expensive to them to provide. […] If, anything, I would say [the Navitas proposal is] a public-private partnership, in the sense that we’re providing the service to a private corporation rather than the other way around.” 

O’Donnell noted that many of his members have expressed concerns about privatizing a part of a public university, and have questioned if the University has entirely thought this through. The Navitas proposal could be seen as a private corporation selling access to something funded by the public as a public good.

If, anything, I would say [the Navitas proposal is] a public-private partnership, in the sense that we’re providing the service to a private corporation rather than the other way around.

Dan O’Donnell, ULFA Acting President

Some are also worried about ‘scope creep’; the notion that once a portion of services are privatized, it’s easier to justify more of this. At other universities, Navitas offers a similar pathway program for students entering master’s degree programs. Graduate Students Association President Lauren Zink raised this concern to The Meliorist.

As of now, no graduate-level pathway programs for the U of L have been proposed. 

“Pay-to-play” or accessibility?

Critics of the Navitas proposal that The Meliorist spoke to had strong words for the ethical implications of the partnership. Jerimy Cunningham is one of the coordinators of the joint working group and a Professor in the Anthropology department, as well as a strong critic of the Navitas proposal.

“On one hand, it’s the Felicity Huffman scandal expanded into a corporation,” Cunningham told The Meliorist. “And so the corporation does a pay-for-play scheme that allows students that haven’t necessarily made the grade but who have the money to pay–it gives them a backdoor into the institution.” 

Cunningham then went on to compare this scheme to other privatization schemes, such as the Kenney government’s exploration of privatizing more of the public healthcare system.

Michelle Helstein countered that the Navitas program is in part, about ensuring accessibility, a key priority of the university.

But this opportunity may not be as cut and dry as one might think.

Sandhya Sunuwar, an international student at the U of L from Nepal, and Vice-President of Communications for the International Students’ Association (ISA) complicated the notion of rich families buying their way into the university: “The influx of international students through organizations like Navitas enables some people to believe that the international students are paying their way into the university; this is not the case as for most of the international students, their family obtains a lot of debt to gather the international student fees.”

In recent years, the middle classes in China, India and other Asian countries have been booming, and a ‘Western’ education is becoming a more attainable way of getting extra prestige in an increasingly competitive labour market.

This raises the question of whether it is an ethical decision for the University to try and balance the books on tuition revenue from what could be the indebted families of international students. 

The University already has a program, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), that does some of the same things Navitas would, in providing English language education to a level that would prepare students for university. Sunuwar asked why the University could not simply expand this program and recruit international students in-house.

To a similar question that The Meliorist asked, Helstein responded that the U of L simply does not have the financial resources at the moment to invest in international student recruitment and internationalization, and Navitas represents a path to increase international student enrollment without putting the University at financial risk.

Calgary conundrum

The proposed pathway college would be housed at the U of L’s satellite campus at Bow Valley College in downtown Calgary, a two-hour drive from Lethbridge. Currently, the campus’ offerings are centred around providing business degrees for adult learners through night classes. One of the attractions of housing the Navitas college in Calgary is that the Navitas program could use the space during the day that would otherwise be empty, and have access to a larger academic labour pool than Lethbridge.

Critics of the proposal have argued that since students will be spending 1-2 years living in Calgary, a much more multicultural and metropolitan city than Lethbridge, building up connections and putting down roots, that there will be little enticing them to move 200 kilometres down the road to a very different city. Some suggest that students will then simply transfer to the University of Calgary or Mount Royal University and get their degree there, while Navitas pockets their tuition and the U of L does not get its promised students. This may call into question the promised 92 per cent rate of students going on to graduate.

Helstein responds by acknowledging that there could be some attrition through this: “Will there be a little bit more bleed to other institutions? Potentially. But again, that’s what’s good for those students, and in the meantime, even a smaller number of those students are still growing our international student population.”

Student representation

The ULSU raised the point of student representation in the proposal. As currently stands, it is unclear if Navitas students will be members of the ULSU. If they are not, ULSU President Jonathan Diaz worries, they will not have access to the advocacy and other services that the ULSU provides.

Helstein noted that no Navitas deal is the same, and if the proposal goes forward, having the Navitas college students as associate members of the ULSU is something that the University is amenable to.

“Cash cows”

Sunuwar, in her letter to the ISA membership, went hard on the University’s proposal, calling out the University for treating “international students as “cash cows” rather than a valuable asset.” Sunuwar’s letter argued that the Navitas proposal only further divides international and domestic students, and does not take into account the struggles that international students face, like much higher tuition and racism.

The Meliorist also spoke to Kathryn DeLucia and Nicolas Crespo, both international students, and both critical of the Navitas proposal. DeLucia is the Co-Coordinator of the Campus Womens Centre, and Crespo is the International Student Representative to the ULSU General Assembly.

“There are some additional services for international students, but I don’t see them as worth 60 per cent (sic) more in [tuition] cost,” said DeLucia, while praising the hard work of the International Centre in helping international students, especially during the ongoing pandemic, in which international students were not eligible for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB). However, she believes they are cash-strapped, like many departments in the University, limiting their ability to help all international students.

DeLucia questioned why the University is considering this partnership to recruit more international students when they are having trouble providing services to the international students that already attend the university.

Crespo was at first receptive to the idea of the Navitas partnership, as it would bring more international students to the university, enhancing, diversifying and internationalizing the campus. However, as he delved deeper into the proposal, he became very opposed to it, specifically expressing opposition to Navitas’ recruiting model, which the University has little oversight. Crespo thinks that these recruiters, working on the U of L’s behalf, could seriously damage the reputation of the University abroad, harming any future effort to recruit international students.

Student deception

Navitas colleges, as a part of the deal with the host university, are allowed to use the host university’s branding. For example, the website of Fraser International College, which has a partnership with Simon Fraser University, looks very similar to Simon Fraser’s main website. This concerns many, as students may be misled by this marketing that they are attending the host university, but they are instead attending the Navitas college. This possible deception may impact the reputation of the University.

The Fraser International College website closely mimics SFU’s main website, despite being a different entity

The Globe and Mail reported in 2010 that Navitas worked with Chinese firm Aoji, which charged prospective students thousands of dollars to take English courses at their Beijing campus, with students under the assumption that they would then go to Canada and take normal courses at the universities to which they had been promised acceptance. Instead, some of them end up at Navitas colleges, paying thousands of dollars for a non-credit English course.

Navitas’ controversial record in Canada doesn’t stop there. CBC Manitoba reported in 2012 on students at the University of Manitoba’s Navitas college, speaking with a student, Nabeel Fakhur, who said he was misled by recruiters. He thought he was attending the University of Manitoba, not the Navitas college. He also said the recruiter misled him with promises of Canadian citizenship and working in Canada. 

“All students, and this is going to sound really crass, but all students are tuition dollars. Whether you’re a domestic student or an international student”

Michelle Helstein, Vice-Provost

Fakhur left the Navitas college, being told he was now qualified to study at the U of M and tried to enroll directly into the university. The Navitas college refused to refund him the money for the year at the college he would have taken otherwise, amounting to about $7000.

When asked if this program is exploitative, Helstein responded in the negative: “It’s only exploitative if we don’t actually give them a pathway to a degree program.”

“All students, and this is going to sound really crass, but all students are tuition dollars. Whether you’re a domestic student or an international student,” said Helstein. 

She went on to say that some of the additional funds accrued from Navitas could be distributed to student services, and specifically funding services for international students.

Internationalization and structural racism

The University has pitched this as a way to effectively internationalize the university at no financial risk. But some are skeptical of that premise.

Glenda Bonifacio, Chair of and Professor in Women and Gender Studies, critiques the proposal’s relationship to structural racism. To Bonifacio, internationalization, one of the buzzwords that the University is using to promote this partnership, should be a holistic approach that must be embedded in every aspect of the university, and it goes beyond just having international students on campus.

Speaking of the proposal’s use of the Calgary Campus, Bonifacio said “In other words, we’ve created a structure that separates them before they become part of us; before they are integrated to the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge […] By doing that, we reproduce the idea and stereotype of international students. Even if you may not be an international student but you look like an international student, because you are Asian, because you are not white. This kind of racialization occurs, and it’s kind of difficult to separate from.”

Bonifacio went on to compare this program to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. She argued that international students, like temporary foreign workers, see a future here in Canada, and Canadian society treats them as additional temporary labour or additional tuition revenue, rather than as people who have aspirations, that as Bonifacio says, “are not temporary.”

The letter written to the university administration by the Support Network for Academics of Colour Plus (SNAC+), a collective of academics (of which Bonifacio is a part) working for racial justice, equity and inclusion on campus expands on this. They write: “By recruiting from one particular type of international student body, [the Navitas deal] risks reducing the value and contribution of international students to monetary value only.”

The Meliorist, with the permission of SNAC+, has decided to reprint this letter in the public interest.

Precarious labour

One of the major concerns raised regarding this project is the involvement of precariously employed sessional instructors to deliver the Navitas courses. These instructors, as it stands in the proposal right now, would not be under the collective agreement that the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) has with the University. This would likely mean less pay, no provisions for academic freedoms, and no support from the faculty union.

Dan O’Donnell, ULFA’s Acting President, raised concerns about whether or not Navitas instructors would be included in the collective agreement, noting it as a key ULFA priority.

O’Donnell was careful to note that ULFA members have a variety of views, with some members opposing the proposal, and some supporting it. Regardless, he emphasized that if this proposal is to go forward, that ULFA is looking to make sure that academic freedom, students and student services are protected, and that the Navitas college students have the skills necessary to succeed at the U of L. 

Further, the reliance on precarious labour is one of the reasons that the Calgary Campus is being considered for the site of the college. The U of L does not have the same pool of graduate students and unemployed or precariously employed Ph.D.’s that Navitas requires for its business model to work. However, Calgary does.

Many faculty members, including O’Donnell, Cunningham and Coburn see this reliance on precarious labour as incredibly problematic. 

No choice but to privatize?

“We only have so many things we can do when we’re trying to meet a budget,” said Helstein. She further said that while increasing tuition and downsizing the University are options, they would be destructive. 

However, growing enrollment through programs like Navitas is an option. She continued: “And we can disagree with [these financial circumstances], we can be disheartened by them, we can continue to advocate against them, but we still need to find solutions.”

Many faculty disagree that Navitas is part of the solution. 

O’Donnell questions if this proposal makes business sense. Even though the proposal may have a relatively low financial risk, it poses a strong risk to the university’s reputation. Further, he thinks that these students may require more support once they are at the U of L, then putting an additional burden on student services. 

Bonifacio points to the English for Academic Purposes bridging program as something to be expanded before the University turns to private corporations.

Craig Coburn, Professor and Chair of Geography, led an effort among department heads in the Faculty of Arts and Science to write letters in opposition to the proposal to the administration. Coburn told The Meliorist: “These are moves that are being forced on the University by the provincial government. I do not believe that in my heart of hearts, any member of senior administration wants this to happen.”

Formal negotiations with Navitas have not begun, and there has been no suggestion as to when they may begin. However, the consultation period is ongoing.

Conflict of interest disclosure: The author of this story is a board member of the Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group, which co-signed an open letter in opposition to the Navitas proposal. The author recused themselves from the vote to sign the open letter to avoid a conflict of interest working on this story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *