Faculty, students fight to hold post-secondary privatization at bay

Australian company Navitas doubled its footprint in Canada during the COVID pandemic.

Faculty and students at public universities across Canada are warning of a renewed push by multinational for-profit education provider Navitas, which they say is making dangerous inroads in post-secondary education.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, union representatives got wind of new university partnerships with Navitas, an Australian company with a checkered past in Canada. The company’s business model is to recruit international students to Canada who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for admission. Navitas then charges these students fees running into the tens of thousands of dollars for language and introductory courses, and the promise of entering into a Canadian university.

And after a 14-year hiatus, Navitas is once again expanding operations in Canada, launching partnerships with Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario.

Now, Navitas is the target of resistance from critics who say the privatized model of student recruitment and education threatens academic independence, encourages precarious labour, establishes a “pay-to-play” model of education, aggravates racism against international students, and furthers the corporatization of post-secondary education.

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In 2006, Navitas made its first foray into Canada, partnering with Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. to open Fraser International College, the first pathway program of its kind in Canada for international students. 

Fraser International College leases buildings on SFU’S main campus and pays out 30 percent of its gross revenue to the university.

Under a similar arrangement with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Navitas opened the International College of Manitoba two years later. But this time, Nativas’ arrival was met with significant controversy. Initially, members of the University of Manitoba’s senate were caught off guard by news of the partnership. The university refused to disclose details of the deal, though some later came to light after freedom of information requests in 2008 and 2009 forced the disclosure of the contract

The little we do know about these contracts is that they are extremely lucrative for Canadian universities. During the first decade of its partnership, the University of Manitoba received more than $18 million in royalties from Navitas. Between 2008 and 2016 the university generated an additional $47 million in tuition fees from students who transferred from the program.

After the first two Navitas schools were opened in Canada, partnership explorations with other post-secondary institutions, including Carleton University in Ottawa and Dalhousie University in Halifax, went nowhere—in part due to opposition from faculty and students.

In a 2010 open letter, Dalhousie’s faculty association urged university administrators to abandon negotiations with Navitas. “Instead of putting our reputation in the hands of a profit-driven corporation like Navitas, we should be working together to foster and support in-house programs that are taught by our faculty and taught to our standards,” reads the letter.

Navitas might have stopped growing, but it continued to make millions enrolling international students in Canada. In 2019 the company was acquired by Australian private equity firm BGH Capital, which has since made Navitas’ international university admissions model its bread and butter. 

Navitas has partnerships with universities around the world. Photo: navitas.com

In August 2020 Ryerson University—now TMU—announced a partnership with Navitas. Like its counterparts in Burnaby and Winnipeg, Ryerson University International College brings students to Canada who otherwise could not qualify for admission to TMU. 

Students are enrolled in what Navitas calls “pathway programs,” in which they are taught English language skills and put through two to five semesters of study—at a cost of up to $50,000 in tuition fees alone—in order to gain eligibility for entry into second year studies at TMU.

In March 2021 the company announced its fourth Canadian partnership when it inked a 10-year deal with Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ont. 

Austerity at the root

Former Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) President James Compton says universities’ interest in partnerships with private companies like Navitas is linked to the decades-long trend of decreased public funding of universities and the correlated corporatization of post-secondary institutions. 

“I think some universities see companies like Navitas as a low cost way to increase recruitment of international students without doing it in-house,” he says. 

In 1982, government funding accounted for nearly 83 percent of Canadian universities’ operating revenues. By 2012, that figure had fallen to just under 55 percent. Universities are increasingly dependent on revenue from international students, who pay roughly five times more in tuition fees than Canadians and permanent residents.

In 2019, government funding as a percentage of Ontario universities’ operating revenues had been reduced to 24 percent. That same year, the Doug Ford government implemented a 10 percent reduction in tuition fees below the previous year’s levels and implemented a tuition freeze through to 2023. 

But Ford’s policy doesn’t apply to international students, and last month TMU announced a five percent tuition fee increase for international students. TMU cites its partnership with Navitas as part of its response to funding cuts.

The Navitas partnership model will “further corporatize our post-secondary education system and reserve education for those who are most economically privileged,” Canadian Federation of Students National Deputy Chairperson Nicole Brayiannis said in December 2020.

At Ryerson University International College, Navitas charges international students tens of thousands of dollars to help them gain entry to Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo: ryersonicu.ca

Brayiannis cites deceptive practices, a lack of representation and support for students, and the threat of further post-secondary privatization as primary concerns around Navitas’s expansion in Canada.

“We’ve learned that students risk spending thousands of dollars with Navitas, only to discover that at the end of their pathway program they still do not meet the admission requirements for their desired program,” she said in 2020. Students are also explicitly excluded from student representation or any form of university resource support, according to Brayiannis, since the Navitas colleges function independently of their affiliated universities.

Founded in 1994, Navitas now claims to be “one of the world’s leading global education providers” with more than 30 university partnerships in 10 different countries. According to its last publicly available annual financial filings, in 2018 Navitas reported more $45.5 million in after-tax net profits according to today’s exchange rates.

Compton says the CAUT has opposed Navitas’ expansion in Canada on the principles of “support for public education, advocacy for fair labour conditions, support for quality learning for students, and the defense of the academic mission of the university.”

Some Navitas critics have pointed to the University of British Columbia’s success in creating its own pathway program instead of outsourcing recruitment and teaching to private, for-profit companies.

UBC Vantage College “offers specially-designed pathway programs for international students, which support the transition from high school to second-year university,” the institution’s website says, revealing an almost identical modus operandi to Navitas’ programs. “The Vantage One programs are intended for academically strong international students whose English language proficiency does not yet meet the requirements for direct entry programs at UBC.”

The UBC program was developed with input from the university’s student union, and the courses are developed and taught by the university’s own faculty and approved by the university’s senate.

Days after Navitas’s deal with Wilfrid Laurier was announced last year, CAUT sounded the alarm bells again. Faculty were asked to be proactive in organizing against further expansion.

“CAUT opposes the outsourcing and privatization of the recruitment and education of international students as it undermines the integrity of academic work and the quality of education,” Executive Director David Robinson wrote in a memo to the union’s membership.

Faculty fight back 

When faculty at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London learned in early 2020 that their university was in talks with Navitas, the faculty association mobilized its members to resist any partnership without faculty approval. 

A senate resolution was later passed stating “that the academic portion of any such deal would have to be approved at our University Senate,” then-UWO faculty association president Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton said in November 2020

Through the spring, summer and fall, six of 11 faculty councils passed a motion stating they do “not support the outsourcing of the crucial work of teaching first-year international undergraduates at Western to a private, for-profit international ‘pathway’ college such as Navitas.” At a January meeting of the senate, strong opposition from faculty was clear, and administrators halted the negotiations. 

At the same time, in Alberta, faculty at the University of Lethbridge were involved in a similar fight to pressure the administration to drop talks with Navitas. 

The Support Network for Academics of Colour Plus (SNAC+) argued in a December 2020 letter to senior administrators that creating private sector competition for the university’s existing international student recruitment could compound discrimination racialized scholars already face.

“The Navitas ‘pathway program’ exacerbates every challenge which employees at the University of Lethbridge already strain to mitigate for international students, while producing new structural inequities for students, staff and faculty alike,” wrote SNAC+. A partnership with Navitas, they said, would undermine the university’s efforts to address structural racism. 

On the east coast, faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador (MUNL) learned that senior administrators in St. John’s had engaged with Navitas early in the pandemic. 

Emails released through an access to information request and reviewed by The Breach reveal that MUNL officials were liaising with the provincial government on behalf of Navitas to help the company clear regulatory hurdles in order to qualify as a designated learning institution.

The faculty union’s members are “very concerned about the possibility of Memorial outsourcing a core function of the University—first-year teaching of international students—to Navitas, a private, for-profit transnational corporation,” said Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador Faculty Association President Josh Lepawsky. 

“Navitas is owned by a private equity firm, and their primary responsibility is to their shareholders,” Lepawsky said in an interview. “We think it is deplorable to treat international students as a resource to be mined for revenue to patch over gaping holes blown into the province’s only university by sustained and brutal cuts to its operating grant.”

Amid pushback from the faculty association and the lecturer’s union, MUNL halted talks with Navitas last November. Any further exploration of a pathway program has, for the moment, been kept at bay. 

In the course of reporting this story, The Breach emailed Navitas to request an interview. The company did not respond.

Standing up against secretive, million dollar deals

MacDougall-Shackleton described talks between Navitas and her university as “somewhat shrouded in mystery.” She was invited into confidential discussions involving the company and the university president, but declined to attend. 

After she shared the news with her fellow union executives, they brought the issue straight to the senate, catching the school’s administration off guard. The faculty began to mobilize right away.

Following Navitas’s contract renewal with the University of Manitoba in 2019, then-CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith took aim at the outsourcing scheme. 

“The extraction model of education followed by these for-profit entities strikes me as redolent of colonialism, extracting value from the desire of international students for quality education, and the dedication of those committed to teaching them,” she said in her December 2019 president’s message.

Though the potential for a Navitas partnership with Memorial University was eventually brought to the senate in December 2020, talks between the university and the company remained a secret for five months.

While Navitas has brought additional students and revenues to its partner institutions, the tradeoffs aren’t worth it, critics say.

“The underlying problem is the erosion of public financial support for post-secondary institutions,” said MacDougall-Shackleton.

With that declining support comes the need for new revenue streams, like “corporate partnerships, donations and international students who are charged much higher tuition fees,” said Compton.

A 2020 report from a Canadian research and consulting firm notes that the more than tripling of international student enrolment numbers since 2008, combined with the growing gap between domestic and international student fees, have made international students “a prime source of money for Canadian colleges and universities.”

“Navitas solidifies precarious working conditions within post-secondary education and promotes the ideology that any student who can foot the bill, can get an education,” said Brayiannis of the Canadian Federation of Students. 

In March 2021, following the University of Western Ontario faculty’s success in defeating the planned partnership, MacDougall-Shackleton noted the critical role of faculty organizing.

“This is a powerful lesson that collective action and membership mobilization play key roles in the collegial governance of the university, beyond the context of bargaining a collective agreement,” she said.

This is a co-publication with The Breach, where this story was first published on June 1.

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