"A degree is a public good, not a commodity"

When DeVry Institute of Technology was granted the right to grant university baccalaureates in three degree programs, it became the first institution in Alberta not recognized as a university to hold this privilege.

In the weeks passed since then, members of the academic community have stressed a fine philosophical difference between a university and a vocational institute–in particular a for-profit institute–which they feel must be recognized.

"A degree is supposed to be a public good, not a commodity," stated University of Calgary Students’ Union president Toby White. "That’s why governments are involved with universities and universities are public institutions; so the public can have input to how the university operates. So the purpose of a degree is not just for the student, it’s for society. When you have an institution like DeVry which is not responsible to the public at all, they might still be providing a quality service to the student, but they’re not in anyway providing a service to society."

DeVry president John Ballheim counters, pointing out that DeVry provides hundreds of businesses and institutes with well-trained, competent and effective employees.  He readily agrees that DeVry is not a university and has no intent of ever being involved in traditionally university-dominated areas such as research. Ballheim adds that in the long term, DeVry’s goals would not be served by changing its curriculum to one closer to that of a university. "We’re a teaching institution," said Ballheim. "It would be counter-productive for us to do that."

While some may be relieved to know that there will be no competition between DeVry and the university in terms of educational mandates, others take issue with DeVry’s profit objective.

"The criteria for success in both research and education are not defined in terms of profit at all," declared U of C Faculty Association president John Baker.

"The goals of a university make no reference to the profit motive at all.  When a university is devoted to making profit for the shareholders in the university, it’s not making profit for the citizenry at large. If DeVry is not a university, then why should they be giving university degrees?"

U of C acting Academic Vice president Dr. Jim Frideres agreed, though he warned that a similar profit-motivated future may not be so far away for Alberta universities.

"I don’t think that’s where universities should be headed.  Our business is teaching students and carrying out research," he said. "But, there is a general under-funding of post-secondary institutions in Canada and there is a view from the provincial government that universities need to become more self-sufficient. And you can only become self-sufficient if you are making a profit."

According to Ballheim, being a profit-based institution does not prevent DeVry from producing effective, motivated and well-trained individuals who are assets to the business industry. Regardless of the quality of education DeVry provides, White thinks the issue is whether DeVry should be able to grant university degrees.

"I just don’t know if the education that comes from a private corporation can be classified as a degree," he mused. "The purpose of DeVry is to earn money for the company and its shareholders. They will structure the way they teach and the way they provide that service to students in order to maximize that profit. There’s nothing wrong with that in terms of being a company, but I don’t know that a university degree can be developed with those same goals in mind."