Marketing a single degree offering at a school where tuition is five times that of UBC is one of many challenges for Squamish university
By Glen Korstrom
Tue Aug 7, 2012 12:01am PST
Squamish’s Quest University has rapidly increased enrolment and started building the first of five new residences – but many challenges remain for Canada’s first independent, non-profit, secular university.
Atop those challenges: how to raise its profile and convince prospective students that an education at Quest is worth annual tuition of $27,000 – more than five times the approximately $5,100 paid by students at Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia. Another challenge is how the registered charity can break even without relying on private donations and endowments to cover some operational costs. Increasing class sizes and slashing scholarships are not options, because the institution values quality education and accessibility, Quest president David Helfand told Business in Vancouver.
The 425-student institution has an average class size of 15, and about 80% of its students get some form of scholarship.
Former UBC president David Strangway founded Quest and in May 2002 convinced the B.C. legislature to give the institution official university status. Strangway then encouraged an unidentified benefactor to provide a $1.7 million loan so Quest could buy a 240-acre property that Squamish council rezoned to allow the university to sell up to 960 units of market housing. Donations followed. They included tens of millions in 2005 from the Stewart and Marilyn Blusson Foundation, which helped the university cover $100 million in construction costs. The campus opened in 2007.
Given the complexity of starting a university from scratch, operational glitches were inevitable.
In an effort to reduce reliance on financial gifts, Quest hired CIBT Education Group Inc. in August 2008 to review its cost structure and considered having CIBT manage the school.
Former CIBT executive Dean Duperron became Quest’s president for a month, but Duperron told BIV his ideas for improving efficiency met resistance.
“They had more of an academia approach. We would have provided a business approach. They had the resources to continue on the path that they chose. It’s just that people were hoping that they would not run through as much cash as they were.”
Duperron praised the academic excellence of the university’s faculty, all of whom have PhDs. Savings, he said, could have come from streamlining the institution’s scholarship system. Because virtually all Quest’s students are awarded at least a partial scholarship, Duperron said the university employs staff to administer those grants. So he said it could save money by cutting those employees and reducing scholarships. Duperron added that Quest could also save money by using its real estate more efficiently, which would lower lease costs. But Helfand, who followed Duperron as president, bristled at those suggestions. He said staff don’t needlessly push paper and lease costs can’t be cut at dorms that are now at capacity.
“For the past four years, we have closed each fiscal year with a small surplus over budget.”
Helfand added that a donor has agreed to cover startup costs until 2015. Corporate donations are welcome, but the school will not change its curriculum to suit a donor’s requirements. Its flush coffers, however, have allowed Helfand to focus on Quest’s distinctive education. The school offers only one degree: a bachelor of arts and science. All students take the same 16 courses in the first two years. There are no departments, and students don’t major in any subject area. Each course is taught sequentially for one month so students can immerse themselves in a single subject. After two years, students are asked to pose a question that they spend the next two years answering. Because the school issues only one degree, its graduates often face challenges in a job market that places a premium on the wide range of degrees offered by bigger post-secondary facilities.
Earlier this year, Quest’s education was rated No. 1 in Canada by Maclean’s Magazine, which used Indiana University research on such criteria as interaction between faculty and students – but not academic success.
The ranking was separate from Maclean’s annual rankings of Canadian universities, which made no mention of Quest. •