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Interview / Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton

Interview / Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton

Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton is a biology professor at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA). The Association and its members are opposing the school’s proposed partnership with Navitas, a for-profit education provider for international students.

When did UWO first announce interest in partnering with Navitas?

It is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but I first heard of Navitas last January when I was vice-president of the union. The president at the time and I were asked to meet with Navitas executives and instructed to keep it confidential. We didn't. We brought it back to our executive committee, and a concerned faculty member raised the alarm at Senate that month. Doing so took the administration by surprise.

Why do you oppose Navitas?

They would establish a for-profit college on our campus. The people they hire would not be members of UWOFA, so they wouldn't have the protections that our members have under our collective agreement, meaning no academic freedom or the job security that contract faculty members have here. Navitas would admit students who do not meet our entrance standards. Also, we are concerned that there's going to be lots of pressure on these teachers to relax their academic standards.

What would be the consequences?

It's not fair to other students if there's a “pay-to-play” scenario where some students can jump the queue simply because they can afford an exorbitant international commission, and it doesn't serve the second and third year cohorts well after Navitas students are integrated into Western's main campus. It does a disservice to international students as well. We question the ethics of recruiting people in this way.

Is there anything good about Navitas?

There are good arguments to be made for increasing international enrolment for financial reasons and ideally to provide a more cosmopolitan campus. UWOFA is not opposed to increasing international enrolment, but we would prefer the administration explore other models that recruit international students in ethical ways — students who are better qualified, who meet our academic standards and are educated by our own faculty members to our own standards. One of the things that the administration likes about Navitas, and I don't disagree, is that they promise to diversify the country of origin of the students. I do think that other models, like Vantage College at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where they recruit international students who are qualified, and are educated by UBC faculty members, is another way of achieving the same thing.

How is UWOFA organizing on the issue?

We repeatedly messaged our membership about what a deal with Navitas would mean and our reasons for opposing it. A Senate resolution was passed that the academic portion of any such deal would have to be approved at our University Senate, so there is that level of collegial oversight. Right now, supposedly the University administration is still doing their due diligence and no final contract with Navitas has been signed. Meanwhile, we escalated efforts to institute a series of grassroots initiatives: at faculty councils, members will put a motion on the floor indicating that the members of faculty council oppose the outsourcing of educating international students to Navitas or any other private pathway provider. We've had great success with four such resolutions, all overwhelmingly rejecting the possibility of a deal.

What is the power in these actions?

Universities don't run democratically, so a decision on Navitas is not exactly up to rank and file faculty, but if a deal is pushed through, administrators would do so against the express will of most of the faculty members. We have strongly signaled our opposition and it's a good exercise in collegial self-governance. I like to think that we'll sway the administration, and if we make it clear enough I hope the vote will not come to Senate.

Why would UWO move in the direction of outsourcing to private for-profit organizations?

The underlying problem is the erosion of public financial support for post-secondary institutions, and so we remain wary and are standing by on the Navitas decision. We expect the question to come to the Senate this year, but we're doing everything we can to get it off the table before it even comes to that by expressing our opinions, educating the faculty and educating students. As an academic labour union, we value robust, publicly-funded post-secondary education. As a matter of principle, we push back against efforts to privatize it.

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