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A new private university in British Columbia is one small step closer to a sod-turning: it has secured some sod.

PU doesnt yet have the provinces permission to grant degrees. But in September 2000 former UBC president David Strangway announced that his Howe Sound Education Foundation had agreed to buy a 115 hectare site north of the Squamish town centre provided Strangway can raise the $2 million needed to close the deal.

Sewing up the deal is critical to a project that turns on revenue drawn from redeveloping land around the still-unnamed campus site, know as Private University.

Originally, Strangway had lined up a 405-hectare donation from a real estate corporation. That plan feel through when Amon Lands Ltd. backed out in December 1999 (sparing the public forgone tax revenue that Amons tax deduction would have meant). While Strangway said it was only a temporary setback, it was a far-reaching financial blow for his scheme a scheme critics see as a teetering house of cards.

Now that PU has to pay for its land, it will be even harder to raise the estimated $60 million in development profits that are reportedly needed to cover just half the schemes cost. User fees upwards of $30,000 will help pay back a mortgage for the other half of the $120 million estimated cost for the private, not-for-profit university.

The town of Squamish will play a key role in pumping up the value of the land by guaranteeing zoning concessions favourable to potential developers. In addition to this indirect public subsidy, the town has agreed to undisclosed property tax exemptions and will take on a $5 million loan for municipal services to a planned campus housing development.

Squamish district council minutes also show that Strangway managed to squeeze another $80,000 out of the public coffers $40,000 to help pay for negotiating the land deal, another $23,000 when the deal is secured, and $17,000 to renovate an old library in the municipal hall to house the universitys office.

Any university that doesnt subscribe to the highest standard of quality and has degree-granting powers could cause problems in Canada. If somebody can buy a PhD, then not only is it buyer beware, its hirer beware I dont think a for-profit university could offer the type of outstanding programs and education we provide for our students here. Besides I dont think its right for institutions to make a profit from an essential service like education.

Nipissing University president Dave Marshall
(North Bay Nugget, 21 Dec. 2000)

While Strangway insists PU wont have any public financial support and wont drain other resources, these public subsidies show that right from the start the project is propped up by the public on several fronts. As with Ontarios private university law, critics fear public universities will be forced to compete with PU for faculty, students, donors and public funds in the form of student loans, research grants, tax expenditures, and use of publicly-supported resources such as libraries.

Whether Strangway gets the provincial go-ahead to grant degrees or not, observers say hell plough ahead with Private University even if it means offering degrees that are conferred in the United States or elsewhere. The bigger question is why pursue such a far-fetched and high-priced project, when the time, energy and resources could be devoted to bolstering and strengthening the public post-secondary system.