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In January 2000, the first students logged on to their classes at Unexus, a company billing itself as the worlds first private, online university. Based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the corporation quotes its tuition fees in US dollars and delivers its masters of business administration courses entirely over the internet.

Still in its infancy, Unexus hadnt had much time to do any branding before a trademark dispute with a rival online university corporation forced the name change from Unexus to Lansbridge University.

Lansbridge owner the Learnsoft Corporation took the opportunity to undergo a bit of a makeover, pasting some virtual ivy on its hitherto bare walls. Lansbridge has adopted a regal-looking coat of arms and its very own Latin motto. An agreement with the Boston-based Arthur B. Little School of Management added some further credibility and degree-granting ability to the company.

Last June, the provincial government passed legislation that will allow this corporation and others like it to call themselves universities and grant degrees all thats needed are the regulations. Furthering the cozy relationship, a provincial department of education official sits on Lansbridges advisory board.

The tuition fees for a regular MBA are $18,000, while those for the online executive MBA program are $28,000. But they arent paying for classrooms or face-to-face contact with instructors. Support for the 70 students enrolled at Lansbridge is virtual, delivered by email or phone. Learnsoft president and CEO Michael Gaffney has boasted that his institution isnt unionized and has no tenure provisions.

As Gaffney told The Globe and Mail, Were not here for charity or for the public good. Our investors are looking for a return and we have to deliver high-quality programs that meet their demands.

Lansbridge is looking for partnerships in the US, India and right here in Canada. In the fall of 2000, students at Ottawas Carleton University learned the university is studying a proposal to supply computer science course content to Lansbridges web site.

Were in for a fast ride down a slippery slope if they do this. It starts off small but then it gets out of control quickly. Once youre on the privatization track its hard to get out, says Faizil Moosa, an undergraduate student representative on Carletons board of governors and a fourth year commerce student.

This allows [Lansbridge] to associate themselves with another real university. So were not just selling them Carletons intellectual property, were selling them the credibility they cant earn themselves.

He fears more of the same under Ontarios private university law. Universities will be pitted against each other even more than they are now for dollars.