Private university review under scrutiny

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014 6:00 pm
Les Leyne 

The case of a Victoria private university student who felt she was left hanging after a shutdown was served up this week, with a handful of potentially embarrassing political tidbits on the side.

The student was among those shut out when University Canada West shut down its Victoria campus in 2011, one day after a tuition refund deadline passed. The political angles stem from the owners of the school – the Eminata Group, a Liberal-friendly company that has prompted some embarrassment for Premier Christy Clark’s government in the recent past.

NDP MLA David Eby cited the case of a woman who took out a $7,000 student loan to take business classes. The campus at the former Blanshard Elementary School was abruptly shut down three years ago.

“Eminata told her and the public that Eminata would do right by the students, that they would get a refund. But that was a lie,” he said. The university offered to continue their classes in Vancouver, or help them transfer elsewhere. That didn’t work out for the woman, who is no longer pursuing studies.
Eby demanded to know why Eminata can continue to use the official designation “university” after conducting itself that way.

Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk deflected the question, citing his recent closure of the self-regulating board that oversees private colleges as proof the government is concerned about the quality of education.

But the NDP has Eminata in its sights for other reasons. Eby said they are “ripping off” B.C. students, and the chair and founder has a poor track record in California, where he was shut down for student-loan fraud. UCW caters to overseas students, and Eby said newspapers in India have run warnings about the institution.

He also cited lawsuits in which there was testimony about Eminata misleading students about loans and job-placement statistics. It has all been public for a year, and he asked if the ministry had investigated to see if the school should be legally allowed to call itself a university.

Virk said the government made the courageous decision to shut down the industry-led board that regulates the field. It will eventually be taken over by his ministry to ensure quality.

The last time Eminata was raised in the legislature, it cost former cabinet minister Harry Bloy his job. He was found to have shared a reporter’s emailed questions to government about Eminata’s business practices with company officials, and Clark accepted his resignation.

The school’s founder, Peter Chung, is a Liberal donor. NDP MLA Shane Simpson also noted that business leader Gwyn Morgan, a close adviser to Clark, was also involved with the company. When Eminata bought UCW from its founder, David Strong, Morgan loaned it $500,000.

“Now, in court documents ... he says they stiffed him for the full amount plus interest,” said Simpson. Morgan was recently named the volunteer chairman of a revamped Industry Training Authority.
NDP MLA Leonard Krog also noted Eminata was one of the corporate sponsors of the celebration following the swearing-in of Clark’s new cabinet last year. Instead of investigating Eminata, Krog said the Liberals sold the company access to the premier and cabinet for $5,000.

Virk said Wednesday that Eminata’s designation as a university is up for review this August as part of a standard process. That’s a fairly extensive exercise that could take several months.
UCW president Dr. Arthur Coren, appointed in 2012, said the institution has rebuilt its reputation over the last 18 months after getting “dragged into” the controversy about Bloy’s dealings.

It serves about 400 happy students, online and in person in downtown Vancouver, he said. He said he has no record of any complaints from the former Victoria student.

It submits annual reports to the government and will present a full case for maintaining its designation.Virk’s generalized response was that rebuilding the regulatory agency and taking authority away from industry shows the government is serious. But the result of the review of UCW’s university designation will be closely watched.

Les Leyne covers the legislature for the Victoria Times Colonist.