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Public-Private Partnerships: great for colleges, students, immigration, GDP, and even PGWP — but a challenge for education regulators!

Current Rule and Structure

Both Ontario and B.C., the two provinces with the lion’s share of registered private career colleges (PCCs), are currently reviewing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). B.C. seems to be following Ontario’s lead, and paying close attention to the Ontario Auditor-General’s report in so doing.

In Ontario, the Public College-Private Partnerships: Minister’s Binding Policy Directive issued by the Minister under the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, 2002 allows Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges to enter into contractual arrangements with a third party (including registered private career colleges) for the delivery of college programs in Canada leading to an Ontario College credential (diploma or certificate).

Post-Graduate Work Permits (PGWP)

The students enrolled in such programs are typically students of the public institution, making them eligible for Post-Graduate Work Permits (“PGWP”). This is a huge deal, as it weighs into a student’s decision-making process to study in Canada, to begin with. While education is regulated provincially with its own brand of regulation in each jurisdiction, private institutions in Canada’s largest provinces are not allowed to offer or advertise PGWP’s. PPP arrangements are a game-changer because they create a pathway for an “international student” before that student has ever left her/his home country.

PCCs who meet the ISP designation criteria can accept international students, but cannot hold out the prospect of a PGWP. “Prospect” because ultimately it is Canada’s immigration authorities who decide whether a student studied “at” an eligible institution to be granted a PGWP.

The Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (“PGWPP”) and its parameters are administered by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (“IRCC”), with the federal government as the sole decision-maker for this initiative. The establishment of criteria for the program is entirely at the discretion of IRCC.

Why PPPs Work

Public colleges are responsible for oversight of their PCC partners, and after representing an increasing number of PCCs in these arrangements (and even “contractors” who are program deliverers to public institutions but not technically PPP partners), I contend that these arrangements work very well. I see no evidence that student complaints within a PPP structure eclipse those of the PCC sector on average. Nor have I seen any evidence presented by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (Ontario) or the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training (B.C.) that these structures are lacking academic integrity or shy on learning outcomes.

There are admittedly some gaps in the legislation and those must be addressed in order to attain certainty for students, and business certainty for higher education institutions. Under the current policy and regulatory framework in Ontario for example, a non-Ontario institution arguably has no authorization to offer their credentials to students studying in Ontario.

Arguably, because the spirit of the Agreement on Internal Trade supports inter-provincial trade where that trade yields a net trade benefit to Canada and the provinces. And because provinces themselves have jurisdiction over what credentials their host institutions (public or private) can issue and under what circumstances. If a province outside of Ontario wishes to allow its institutions to issue a credential based on some set of advanced standing criteria (related to training in Ontario), why should it not be allowed to?

The Private Training Act (B.C.) also provides little guidance when it comes to understanding inter-provincial PPP arrangements. The province’s Education Quality Assurance regulator is keeping a close eye on how it can police inter-provincial quality assurance, but it is a challenging issue for regulators.
Perhaps regulators are struggling with the inevitable: education is borderless.

The writer believes education regulators should not restrict PPP arrangements merely because they are inter-provincial versus intra-provincial in nature. Rather, they should ask whether the arrangements in question promote Canada’s immigration policy, a net trade benefit, and the dire need for a future tax base in the wake of post-COVID deficit repayment and an ageing labour force!

PPPs address revenue erosion issues at public sector colleges through the consideration that PCCs pay them for standards-based oversight. The plight of Sudbury’s Laurentian University, which became the first publicly funded school to seek protection under Canada’s Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, has set off alarm bells at several smaller public educational institutions who worry about their very survival in the longer term. Soon after Laurentian’s filing, Statistics Canada estimated that Canada’s universities could have lost as much as $2.5 billion in revenue between them in the first full academic year after COVID-19 struck.

Smaller regional colleges based in more remote locations across the country have also used PPPs to extend their reach through affiliations with private institutions in larger centres, such as Toronto.

Where PPP arrangements are liberalized, students may in turn have a clearer pathway to a PGWP, and to become Canadian citizens. With the caveat, of course, that citizenship cannot be the rationale for study, with program integrity taking a back-seat.

Canada has been constrained enough in “exporting” its education product to international students, relative to other countries like Australia and the US. Canada does not have a federal Department of Education owing to the fact that education is constitutionally a provincial undertaking. Isn’t it time that public and private institutions worked together to “grow the pie”, versus the creation of artificial, protectionist internal trade barriers which promote the hoarding of smaller metaphorical slices? Currently, we don’t need external competition to compromise our ability to sell our education product to international students. Our constitutional framework has done that for us.

Develop Rules, Not Constraints

Canada’s education regulators understandably struggle to regulate PPPs.

Though each agreement differs, the endgame for a PPP structure in all provinces is to provide students with a pathway to PGWP.

Regulators should be building consumer-protection focused rules around these arrangements versus prohibiting or limiting them. After all, the purpose of the Private Career Colleges Act, 2005, the Private Training Act, and all other enabling legislation across the country is consumer protection. That means student protection. Versus artificial internal trade barriers.

I remind regulators that the proliferation of distance learning was a foregone conclusion long before COVID, and that regulators also had to put meaningful parameters and Policy directives around new delivery methods. Like technology itself, higher education is anything but static.

With 1.2 million new entrants projected to arrive in the country over the next three years, graduates of PPP programs will be an important part of the federal government’s plan to boost our dwindling tax base and provide the next generation of personal support workers, truck drivers and paramedics.

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