Asking student leaders in Alberta to comment on DeVry's recent program accreditation is like walking up to a big box labeled "Pandora" and carelessly flinging the lid away.
Members of student government from the Universities of Calgary and Alberta as well as Mount Royal College responded with varying degrees of furor to the recent decision by Alberta Learning that enabled a private, for-profit technological institution to grant university degrees. Some seemed to feel this decision was the first on the road to privatized education. Others feel it may not be so bad.
"In recent years, pressure on universities to provide the market with qualified individuals within the information technologies field has been growing," pointed out University of Calgary Students' Union vice president academic Mark Hoekstra. "The move to give DeVry programs degree [status]will quite possibly lower the pressure on universities to adapt their academic programs to satisfy the market. This has the potential to strengthen the university's place and mandate within our society."
Hoekstra's counterpart at the University of Alberta agreed. "When Klein implemented all his funding cuts in the early '90s, one of the benefits was that it forced each institution to say, 'in what areas do we really want to excel?'" stated U of A SU VP Academic Chris Saunders. "It forced the institutions to focus and they've been able to prosper. I think that most institutions recognize that there is a need for this type of service but it lies outside their areas of excellence."
Other student officials at the University of Calgary had concerns about the possibilities that DeVry's accreditation presents.
"We're upset because it's just the beginning of privatization," said U of C SU VP External Duncan Wojtaszek. "The government has turned to the private sector to solve a problem that we think underfunding has caused. I think that public institutions are more than capable of providing what Albertans need from the post-secondary institutions. We're concerned that this is a trend, that the government is going to continue to look to the private sector to make up for the mistakes that it has made in the public sector." Erin Ludwig, VP Academic for Mount Royal College cited a different set of concerns unique to the college student population.
"It will hurt colleges and technical institutes more than universities."she declared. "The programs offered by DeVry and by other private institutions looking for accreditation right now are very similar to those offered by those offered by MRC and SAIT. Because the Alberta government has a history of not wanting to duplicate programs in a city, this opens the door for our underfunding or lack of technology to be able to support the programs."
With the election approaching, all four stated that the potential privatization of education would likely figure in their respective action plans for the campaigns. Plans include requests for student representation on the Private Colleges Accreditation Board, who recommended DeVry's accreditation, as well as some form of reassurance from the government that the public education sector will not be undermined in any way.