Background

The University of Lethbridge Administration have recently indicated that they have discussed the possibility of a partnership with Navitas, an Australian educational services company, to improve the recruitment and retention of international students at the University of Lethbridge. 

The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) has created a working group to

    • research the issues involved in working with companies such as Navitas and provide this information to its membership, 
    • ensure that Members’ voices are heard both as individuals and through collegial governance organs such as GFC, Faculty, and Advisory Councils,
    • protect Members’ academic freedom and other rights under the collective agreement, and
    • ensure that any agreement, should one be concluded, is compatible with the University’s core budgetary values:
        • Our people define our University and are our greatest strength
        • High quality is central to all that we do
        • Access to our University is a foundational value

The rest of this post describes the company Navitas, how “pathways” programmes work, how they are playing out on other Canadian campuses, and some things to pay attention to this year in the event discussion with Navitas or similar companies continue.

About Navitas

Navitas has contracted with a number of Universities in Canada to provide similar services in recent years, including Ryerson, Simon Fraser, and the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba. Other universities, including UBC, and the University of Calgary are known to have considered working with the company before deciding not to. Universities currently in discussions with Navitas appear to include the University of Lethbridge, Memorial University, and Western.

The form these services take vary from country to country and university to university. In broad terms, however, Navitas offers what they describe as “Pathway” programmes:

Many students who study internationally are faced with the challenges of English as a second language, of adapting to a new culture, and a different education system. The pathway program works by recruiting students to our own colleges on university campuses. We provide the unique services that international students particularly need to succeed – small class sizes, support with English language, extra tuition time, personalised learning, assistance in settling in to a new country and culture, extensive student welfare, and sophisticated processes to identify and support at-risk learners.

A Navitas pathway program is the equivalent to the first year of a bachelor degree at one of our partner universities. Having completed a program with us, students typically enter mainstream studies at our partner university in their second year and complete their undergraduate or graduate degrees. We are extremely proud of the outcomes we achieve for our learners – 90% of Navitas students who complete the pathway program transition to the respective partner university.

Pathway programs are located on the partner university’s campus. Students use libraries, computer laboratories, recreation facilities, common areas and other general student services as well as having access to student clubs and societies. This enhances the student experience and aids retention as students integrate into campus life in that first year, making the move to second year much easier.

Problems with the Pathways approach

As the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) has pointed out, this approach can raises a number of concerns:

Pathway colleges like Navitas undermine [Western’s] core values because they

    • Privatize functions of the university
    • Rely on outsourced labour – precariously employed non-unionized instructors without academic freedom
    • Treat students as profit-generating commodities
    • Compromise admission requirements and academic standards

Discussing the specific details of the plan proposed at Western, they added

Such a partnership would constitute an outsourcing of Western’s obligations to support its international students. By so doing, it would privatize Public Sector Education. Furthermore, by hiring non-unionized instructors to teach first-year credit courses to Navitas students, it would breach UWOFA’s certificate to represent Western faculty.

    • Navitas makes money from the difference between the tuition paid by the students they recruit and the wages they pay to the instructors who teach those students
    • Navitas outsources the work of faculty. They employ contract, non-unionized staff with heavy workloads teaching on a course-by-course basis
    • Navitas instructors are not protected by faculty collective agreements; they can be paid less, have fewer or no benefits, and do not enjoy the rights of academic freedom (e.g. to teach their classes the way other academics with such collective rights do)
    • Jobs are also taken away from instructors teaching in ‘in-house’ English for Academic Purposes programs (e.g. Western English Language Centre)
    • The lack of rights and academic freedom of Navitas instructors undermines the integrity of academic work in higher education which affects us all.

And finally, on the basis of their research on Navitas, UWOFA mention three main international concerns about for-profit pathway programmes:

    • There are ongoing concerns about the quality of outsourced programs in the UK and elsewhere. Companies like Navitas rely on student fees for their profits and this creates an incentive to recruit as aggressively as possible. Staff working in private pathway colleges in the UK have reported being pressured to ensure that students pass their programs even if they have not fulfilled the program requirements.
    • Mary Anne Ansell, chair of the accreditation committee of the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes underlined the concerns about private providers, concluding that “admissions criteria and the quality of courses being offered are severely compromised.”
    • The programs allow wealthy international students who normally would not be eligible for admission into an undergraduate program to “jump the queue” by entering the university or college through the private pathway program.

Implications for the U of L

These international issues are particularly concerning for the University of Lethbridge given that they would seem to contradict directly all three of the main budgetary values established by the U of L’s Board of Governors:

    • Our people define our University and are our greatest strength
    • High quality is central to all that we do
    • Access to our University is a foundational value

Having said this, however, it is important to note that ULFA’s ongoing research suggests that the pathways programme can take different forms at different universities. At Ryerson, for example, instructors in the recently established pathways programme appear to be unionised faculty members who are protected by the Ryerson collective agreement. At the U of L, we are told, no specific partnership proposal is on the table and no decisions have been made about the form such a partnership would take, so it is possible that a programme congruent with our values could be designed.

ULFA’s meetings with the Provost’s Office

As part of our work on this file, ULFA met with the Provost’s office twice in September on September 3rd and September 28th. 

At the first meeting, initiated by the Provost’s office, ULFA was told of the discussions, their purpose, and (very preliminary) status. After this meeting ULFA assembled a working group to collect information and research on Navitas, the experience of faculty at other Canadian and International universities with their programmes, and the advice of organisations such as CAUT and CAFA. 

The second meeting, held at the request of ULFA’s Working Group, confirmed that discussions remain in a very early stage with no decisions having been taken on the form of the proposed partnership, should it go ahead. At this meeting the Provost and Vice Provost also confirmed both that they intend to consult widely on campus as part of a transparent and comprehensive process and that individual Faculty Members, ULFA, and collegial governance organisations such as GFC, Faculty Councils and Departments will have a meaningful role to play in the development of any proposal. As a result of this second meeting, ULFA and the Provosts’ office have agreed to establish regular meetings — initially on a monthly basis, but with an option to meet more frequently if required — to discuss the status and development of any Pathway programme at the U of L.

Next steps

Foreign students are an important source of revenue for Universities in Canada and Canadian Universities appear to be attractive to foreign students. As Alex Usher has suggested, however, the attraction may reside primarily in the quality of instruction by our faculty, perhaps particularly in comparison to countries with poorer records such as Australia, the US, and the UK — places where Pathways programmes are better established. The experiences of other faculty associations across the country suggest that it is important that all ULFA Members at the U of L pay close attention to the development of any Pathways programme at the U of L and work to ensure that any such programme, should one be implemented at this university, fits our core values.

Interested?

If you are interested in this issue, please contact ULFA’s administrative officer, Eva Cool (admin@ulfa.ca). Potential avenues for working on the issue include

    • Joining our working group (research, communications, leadership on the issue)
    • Organising members and leading discussion within governance organisations (GFC, Faculty Councils, Departments, Chairs and Coordinators committees)
    • Participating in town halls, mailing lists, and other internal activities
    • Writing about issues involved in international education for the broader public.