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Education: a right or commodity?

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A new private for-profit university in Calgary is challenging the conventional lecture-based classroom, which has the Students' Union concerned about what it means to grant degrees for profit.

The privately owned University of Phoenix in Calgary has been open since March 2005, and caters to adult students who work full-time and want to earn business degrees. The Calgary location is the second Canadian location after Vancouver, in the chain of universities which includes more than 20 locations across the United States.

University of Calgary SU Vice-President External Jen Smith argued private universities, like the U of P, offer an education system similar to Ralph Klein's proposed "third way" for health care, allowing people with enough money to purchase and access a service which Smith considers a right.

"We feel it turns education into a commodity rather than just a basic right," said Smith.

Smith is also concerned that many for-profit universities do not have student associations like the SU, and this lack of student input can result in biased curriculum.

"It might not be as democratic because it is supporting a curriculum that is more likely to be influenced by corporations," said Smith.

U of P Campus Director Steve Hafen believes the new Calgary location provides a valuable service to working adults who want to earn a degree without quitting work to become a full-time student.

"We're not for everyone and we don't claim that we are," explained Hafen. "We're complementary to what other institutions in Calgary offer. We don't view ourselves as competitors to other institutions in Calgary."

The U of P is unique because it allows adult students to blend about one third in class time with two thirds on-line work, so they spend less time in a classroom setting. There is no semester system, and students take one class at a time for five or six weeks before switching to the next class, which is more productive for adult learners, according to Hafen.

Though the U of P doesn't have a students' union or association, Hafen added the university takes student input into account regularly.

"We survey our students on a regular basis to ensure we're meeting their needs as they go through the program," said Hafen.

U of C VP External Relations Roman Cooney does not see the U of P as competition for the U of C, since similar programs, like the Bachelor of Commerce, are at capacity and turn away hundreds of applicants each year.

Both Smith and Cooney agree the success of private universities in Calgary indicates a need for more public post-secondary seats.

"The number one issue is the need to increase overall capacity," said Cooney. "The key thing is that there must be a publicly accessible education system. It's frustrating to see so many students are being turned away."

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