By Brian Flemming

When I entered Saint Mary’s University 50 years ago, in the fall of 1955, Canadian universities were quite different than they are today. SMU then had about 400 students, all male. It was a confessional, private institution that received no government grants.

Saint Mary’s was then one of about three dozen private universities in Canada and six in Nova Scotia. Today, there are 76 universities in Canada and nine here. All get government money annually. All are secular. There are no private universities.

What happened along the way? How did Canadian universities switch from a private to a public culture in 50 short years? Why, unlike the United States, did Canada not keep at least one private university, like Yale or Harvard?

Kelvin Ogilvie, the controversial former president of Acadia University, a top-flight scientist who recognizes, and abhors, a monoculture when he sees one examines the question of why Canada has no private universities in a recent paper for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), posted at .

In “From Public U to Private U” Ogilvie claims “returning an existing Canadian university to private status is not only possible [but] may happen by accident in one or more circumstances.” Indeed, he predicts a major attitudinal shift when the new, private “Sea to Sky University” in British Columbia opens in September, 2006.

Ogilvie thinks change will largely be driven by higher tuition fees. Once (private) tuition money accounts for more of universities’ income than (public) government money, the idea that government should have “a right only to a minority role” will gain traction, he says.
Some Nova Scotia univerities already get less than 50 per cent of their gross revenues from the public purse. Indeed, in this province, where government grants to universities are lower per student than elsewhere in Canada, the moment of fiscal truth arrived several years ago.

So, how does Ogilvie think universities’ addiction to government grants can be cured? “One direct route would be an infusion to the endowment of $300-500 million or more,” he says. But “the more likely alternative would be to raise tuition levels to the $10,000-13,000 level…”, a move that “would likely be rewarded in both the marketplace and philanthropic circles.”

When Ogilvie looked at various regional candidates for privatization, he overlooked the one Nova Scotia university that would be best equipped to make the leap: the University of King’s College, Canada’s oldest university. Despite its close connection with Dalhousie, King’s is an independent institution with about 1000 students. It has its own Board of Governors and administration.

Pulling it from the government teat would mean King’s would have to find about $2-3 million new dollars annually. A $50 million increase in its endowment fund — already one of the highest per student in Canada — would allow tuition fees to remain at current levels. Increased fees would lower the need for an immediate large increase in the endowment fund.

King’s already led the way towards privatization when it built its New Academic Building (NAB). The NAB was the first university building to be built in Nova Scotia in decades without a penny of public money.

Many of the same donors who gave to the NAB — plus new ones — would, I believe, flock to an appeal for endowment money to allow King’s to cut the government cord. Indeed, the Nova Scotia government might even bridge the move by loaning the money to get King’s to the private side. It would save taxpayer money in the long run.

About half the students at King’s come from Ontario, many from private schools where tuition fees are double what King’s charges. These students and their families would pay those Ontario rates here. With higher fees and a better endowment, King’s could craft Harvard-like scholarships and bursaries to close the “needs gap”.

Faculty salaries would move higher in the new private dispensation, thus allowing King’s to continue to attract and retain the best and brightest to teach the university’s unique “niche” liberal arts curriculum.

More than many post-secondary institutions in Canada, King’s has already shown its ability to adapt to huge historic change, most recently when it moved to its current model about three decades ago.

It’s time for King’s — and other Canadian universities — to go back to the future and think seriously of going private. Ogilvie’s paper will form an important part of the inevitable debate.

Let the games begin.

Brian Flemming is the past Chairman of the Board of Governors of the University of King’s College and holds an honorary degree from King’s.