The Kingston controversy: Self-regulation run amok

Investigative reporting by the Vancouver Sun is shining an uncomfortably bright light on BC's private, for-profit, post-secondary institutions. For more than a week, readers have learned about the questionable practices of Kingston College, including its degree-granting connection to American University in London (AUL) which is not an accredited university. In fact, AUL was recently fined over $20,000 by a London court for misleading students.

The Vancouver Sun stories struck a raw nerve in Victoria as well. It turns out the head of Kingston College, Mr. Michael Lo, has close ties to the BC Liberals. He was on the Premier's Chinese Community Advisory Committee. He was also a BC Liberal party organizer, working on the Chinese community outreach committee. His companies were also major contributors to the BC Liberals donating close to $61,000.

More shocking still, Mr. Lo was also appointed to the Private Career Training Institute Agency (PCTIA). The agency was created in 2003 by the BC Liberals as a "self-regulating" authority for private trainers in BC. As a Board member of PCTIA, he chaired the committee in charge of "quality assurance".

The provincial government has quickly moved into damage control. Mr. Lo stepped down from the Board of PCTIA. He also resigned as a member of the BC Liberal party. Government auditors have been dispatched to review the activities at Kingston. The most recent news indicates that senior administrators at Kingston had been ignoring many of the standard practices required of private post-secondary institutions and have also ignored directives from government to stop granting degrees connected to AUL.

At the centre of this controversy are the questionable and ineffectively regulated practices of some private post-secondary institutions. They charge exorbitant fees-Kingston charged as much as $15,000 for a two-year degree-and it now appears some of the so-called degrees may not be worth the paper they are written on. The revelations are a serious blow to the credibility of PCTIA and a major setback for students caught in this web of suspect credentials.

What assurances do British Columbians have that students are protected from these questionable degree-granting institutes? Very little, unfortunately. The PCTIA Board is dominated by the very organizations it was established to regulate. To call it a conflict of interest is, at best, an understatement. "Self-regulation" may be good news for private college owners and investors, but it is proving to be a disaster for students on the receiving end of costly and suspect credentials.

In classroom settings, instructors often refer to "teachable moments" when students are able to see vivid demonstrations of important principles. The Kingston College controversy is a teachable moment in how not to construct post-secondary education policy in our province.

The provincial government's inclination to adopt a market model for critical public services-like health care and education-may be lucrative for investors, but it is the public that is the ultimate loser. Just ask the students at Kingston how well the market model of "self-regulation" has worked to protect their interests.

The provincial government has just appointed former Cabinet Minster Geoff Plant to review post-secondary education policies. His review-Campus 2020-may want to pause a moment and consider how the problems at Kingston College were allowed to go unnoticed and unchecked for so long. It's a teachable moment that should not be ignored.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.