The University of British Columbia's business faculty is getting ready to offer courses in public-private partnerships as Canada's education system struggles to balance taxpayer and corporate interests.
UBC's Sauder School of Business plans to offer a five- to six-week MBA course on public-private partnerships (P3s), modules on P3s in undergraduate courses and intensive one- or two-day executive training sessions, says Tom Ross, director of Sauder's Phelps Centre for the Study of Government and Business.
If all goes according to plan - and Infrastructure Canada kicks in $500,000 in federal funding over three years as expected - UBC will start offering P3 instruction in the fall of 2006.
"What we really want to do is give (students) an objective perspective on the costs and benefits of using P3 services," says Ross.
|Bayne Stanley, Business Edge|
|Tom Ross of UBC's Sauder School of Business says P3 courses will give students a better understanding of the process.|
Courses on P3s add another dimension to increasingly complex relationships between governments, corporations and learning institutions.
As university and college instructors grapple with corporate influences tied to funding for courses, research, buildings and learning aids, teacher unions in Ontario and B.C. want to ban commercial activity in high schools - while Alberta teachers support it.
Meanwhile, high school business teachers say students are not getting the early instruction they need to become entrepreneurs.
UBC became interested in the study of P3s after the governing B.C. Liberals promised during their first term in office to use the funding models for major infrastructure projects. It now offers a civil engineering course on P3s, but Ross says he's not aware of any other Canadian business schools that provide them.
"There's no end of people offering the government advice on P3, but many of them (have) vested interests," says Ross, adding companies support them but unions reject them.
Ross says the aim is to show students when, and when not, to use P3s. In recent years, governments have displayed more willingness to use P3s to construct bridges, highways, hospitals, power projects and other major infrastructure, including learning institutions.
"P3s are important, so giving courses is a good idea," says Sandford Borins, a professor of public management in the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business.
Borins co-authored a book on the toll Highway 407 outside Toronto, to which the former Ontario provincial government granted a private consortium a 99-year lease. After gaining office, the Liberals sought to change the deal; the dispute is now before the courts. He says the UBC offerings will help to clarify the definition of a P3, which is loose and ambiguous, and get people thinking about such partnerships.
Robert Helsley, Sauder's associate dean of faculty and research, says P3s are becoming more and more common - and increasingly important to Western economies - but people know little about them.
"The questions are: What are the issues for both sides of the relationship?" says Helsley.
Ottawa-based P3 Advisors, a private firm that offers P3-related consulting services, will also conduct applied research related to best practices as part of the UBC P3 program and all documents will be made public, says Ross.
Such research is a thorny subject for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents 48,000 university and college academic staff members across Canada.
CAUT is calling for post-secondary institutions to adopt clear rules or guidelines on the publication of research funded by private corporations.
"There should be full disclosure," says Dave Robinson, CAUT's associate executive director, from his Ottawa office. "That's the risk that a business (operator) takes when he approaches a public body."
Robinson says many university-corporation partnerships work well.
However, they run into problems when companies subject research to confidentiality rules and place restrictions on the publication of findings in order to protect trade secrets.
CAUT wants schools to adopt a policy of no restrictions beyond the minimum amount of time required to take out a patent.
Noting some researchers have faced lawsuits over publication of negative results, Robinson says post-secondary institutions have to ensure that corporate involvement in universities and colleges does not undermine the schools' public nature. Companies must realize that research trials may fail and accept that unsuccessful or embarrassing results may be published, he says.
UBC's Helsley says CAUT's concerns apply primarily to high-tech and biotech companies, where intellectual properties developed at universities are spun off into private companies.
"(Research confidentiality) has not been an issue here," says Helsley, adding most of the Sauder school's investigations are government-funded. "We certainly treat all research in the public domain."
CAUT is also concerned about increasing private-sector involvement in university governance. Robinson says universities have long welcomed executives' placement on boards of governors, because doing so bolstered fund-raising efforts.
In the past 15 years, the former co-opt style of management has shifted to a corporate-style management, which coincided with cutbacks in government funding. "In many ways, I think, it was not a successful transition," says Robinson.
Since 1990, he says, there have been two or three strikes per year at universities and colleges, and 80 to 90 per cent of faculties have unionized.
Meanwhile, preliminary survey findings released last month by the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF) show commercial activities are increasing in elementary and high schools across Canada - because of inadequate government funding.
"In a nutshell, it's a disturbing trend of commercial activity of alternative funding sources in Canadian schools," says federation president Winston Carter of Ottawa.
The CTF, an umbrella group for provincial and territorial teacher unions, is calling for education to be completely funded by taxpayers. Carter says private-sector involvement makes it easier for provincial and territorial governments to avoid funding schools.
Education ministers have already voiced plans to set up an education fund, similar to one now in place for health care. Ontario Teachers Federation president Jim McQueen says individual schools are being required to raise more money - and companies have an "ulterior motive.”
They want to capture customers at a young age and keep them for life.
"I don't think (commercial activity) should be allowed (in schools) at all," says McQueen. "I think it should be prohibited."
Teachers tell McQueen they would rather support commercial interests than let programs die, but he says they must say no or else the problem will escalate.
Irene Lanzinger, vice-president of the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), echoes the CTF's call for complete government funding. But Dennis Theobald, political affairs officer for the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), says there's room for corporate participation in schools.
"Business should not be held out of our schools," says Theobald. "That would be pointless and self-defeating."
The ATA has developed a comprehensive policy on partnerships. Among the key requirements: Partnerships must be based on sound educational principles and identify an educational purpose, not a commercial motive, and they must not influence curriculum. Student and teacher participation must be voluntary, partnerships should not promote exclusive or restrictive arrangements and companies should not get tax breaks.
"We think there's good opportunities for companies in schools, but we try to put some fences around what is (beneficial to students) and what isn't," says Theobald.
According to the CTF survey of 3,100 schools, conducted over the 2004-05 academic year, schools raised an average of $15,700 while 28 per cent of elementary schools and 54 per cent of secondary schools had advertising on venues ranging from scoreboards to school signs to gym equipment. Coke and Pepsi, which had exclusive marketing agreements with 56 per cent of high schools and 19 per cent of elementary schools, were the most prominent corporations in learning centres.
"We shouldn't be selling kids' health in order to get money for our programs," says BCTF's Lanzinger, referring to the soft drinks' lack of nutritional qualities.
However, educators also say high school students who dream of becoming entrepreneurs are not getting the formal training they need to study business at higher levels. They blame tough post-secondary admission requirements, standardized provincial testing and the fact most business courses do not count toward university and college entrance, compelling students to take unrelated courses to get into university commerce schools and business programs.
"Now, we're noticing that kids are very financially illiterate," says Peter Noah, president of the B.C. Business Education Association (BCBEA), which represents high school business teachers across the province.
"Some kids don't know the difference between a debit card and a credit card," adds Noah, who teaches business courses at David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver. "They didn't know they had to pay (a credit card purchase) back."
Noah would like more business courses to be required for post-secondary entrance. But, he says, the BCBEA, a provincial specialist association within the BCTF, is frustrated because, according to union protocol, it is not allowed to talk directly to the education minister - and union leaders have other priorities.
Lanzinger, the BCTF's first vice-president, says students already have enough requirements and must receive a broad, general education.
"We can't require everything in high school," says Lanzinger. "We can't prepare kids to go into everything in university because if we did that, they wouldn't have any choice."
Lanzinger says business teachers don't deal directly with the education minister because they weren't elected to speak for all B.C. teachers - and BCTF executives were. "That's simple democracy," says Lanzinger. "It's not a protocol - it's just about who gets elected."
OTF president McQueen says students have faced more and more restrictions on electives in recent years. The more opportunities students have to tailor programs to their interests, the better off they'll be, he says.
"I think we need to recognize that (the) education (system) has a broader range of responsibilities than just providing arithmetic, reading, writing and the odd science course," adds the ATA's Theobald.
Jan Bell-Irving, president of Junior Achievement of British Columbia (JABC), says students need to learn from executives who can mentor them and share real-world experiences.
Junior Achievement Canada, of which JABC is a member, offers extracurricular business programs to students from Grades 5 to 12. The programs include business basics, financial literacy, long-term economic benefits of staying in school, investment strategy, entrepreneurship and management.
JABC depends on private companies for 95 per cent of its $1-million annual budget and all instructors.
JABC instructs 25,000 youngsters annually, but only reaches 11 per cent of the student population. Bell-Irving partly blames her group for the low participation, adding it could reach more students if it had more money and volunteers. She suggests more business courses need to be part of the provincial curriculum. "We fill a gap," she says.
However, Sauder's Helsley says students shouldn't study business in high school and should focus instead on core subjects such as English, math and science. "Business is a skill that you can pick up at many points in life," notes Helsley.
(Monte Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)