New UBC residence for Vantage College students

As students at the University of British Columbia begin moving into dorm rooms around campus, some of them will be settling into the newly opened, almost-finished Orchard Commons, two towers with spectacular views on some of the best real estate on campus.

Orchard Commons is open to both domestic and foreign UBC students in a range of programs. But it was not planned that way. The university intended the residence to house students and classes at its new Vantage College, a first-year program for foreign undergrads who meet the university’s academic requirements but not quite its English-language ones.

The opening of Orchard Commons this fall reflects the adjusted expectations for a program that was supposed to have a cohort of 1,000 students by this year but instead will end up hosting a class of about 350.

When it was announced, some students and faculty questioned the calibre of the program’s academics and its potential for exclusivity, given the high cost and the fact that Canadian students cannot apply.

Vantage is one of many pathway programs offered at universities across Canada, aimed at allowing foreign students who lack English-language skills to get up to par with standards, while attracting lucrative foreign tuition dollars.

UBC’s Vantage was established as an in-house project of the university. Students who go through the college get a UBC transcript, take UBC classes with UBC professors, but with extra language help. After the first year, Vantage’s goal, like with other pathway programs, is to ensure students are able to continue their UBC studies along with the rest of the student population.

When opened in 2014, the college was expected to snowball from 300 students in its first year, to 600 in its second to 1,000 this year. Enrolment this semester is only about a third of that.

But Joanne Fox, principal of Vantage College, is not fazed by the numbers. She says she is not even sure where the initial targets came from.

“This is a new model, so I don’t know if anyone knew where or how this would grow and we’ve really learned a lot from launching,” she said in an interview.

The school’s former principal, James Ridge (now a city manager in Burlington, Ont.), also said he did not know how the school’s future enrolment was devised. He and Ms. Fox referred to the projections as “aspirations.”

They say the numbers are not really what matters.

With increases in tuition fees tightly controlled by provincial governments, universities have come to rely on international tuition fees to generate revenue to keep quality and research up.

A diverse and cosmopolitan campus is also seen as a plus.

The B.C. government has capped increases in domestic tuition at a maximum of two per cent a year. But international tuition fees have climbed precipitously, with rates rising by 37 per cent over three years, starting in 2015.

Tuition at Vantage College for 2017-2018 will be $37,950, compared to $5,000 to $17,000 this year for domestic students, depending on their program. Vantage students pay about the same as other foreign students on a per-month basis, but they attend classes longer – 11 months of the year. Class sizes are smaller and Vantage offers those who are struggling extra language support.

As well as English classes, language training is incorporated into all the classes. The goal, Ms. Fox says, is to teach English in the context that students will use it.

Critics say some pathway programs could be misguided cash-grabs that offer back-door entry to coveted university programs through lower standards, bump out local students, and are available only to the super-rich.

When the college launched, Anne Kessler was the vice-president academic on UBC’s student society from October, 2013, until April, 2015, and a student representative on UBC’s Senate. Her main concern was whether the Vantage students would succeed when they went into the regular programs.

“Our really big concern was about the student experience they were having and how much they were going to be really ready for going from a really small setting with really supportive infrastructure and small classes and all of their friends in the same classes to the rest of the university,” she said in an interview.

“And whether their level of English was going to be ready to face the same academic pressures as everyone else writing in academic English after only a year.”

Ms. Kessler said she was also concerned when Vantage College increased the number of courses it offers before the school had determined what it was doing was sound.

“They hadn’t really proved they were doing well by students in terms of the transition to second year, and yet they were adding this additional layer … they hadn’t kind of earned that trust to do.”

Ms. Fox says that 70 per cent of Vantage students from the first cohort progressed to the second year of their degrees and that 80 per cent from the second cohort advanced. That compares to other international students, 85 to 90 per cent of whom go on to second year.

No data exist on how students do beyond their second year because the first Vantage cohort began in 2014 and will be entering their third year of studies only this fall.

“I know there is a public perception that the university is catering to foreign students at the expense of local students, but that isn’t actually true.” said William Dunford, an associate professor at UBC’s engineering department who sits on senate, which he added exists to uphold the academic integrity of the university.

Dr. Dunford said the university is monitoring the students who are going through the college. He says if a problem emerges the university will have to act on it, but “so far, so good.”

But he said it is regrettable that Vantage admits only foreign students.

“What I think is a pity is that we can’t allow Canadian students who want to pay to go to Vantage College to do so as well, because there are certainly Canadian students who are deficient in English, but they are excluded,” he said.

“It’s provincial government policy.”

Ms. Kessler says Vantage is one of a number of initiatives the university has undertaken to increase its revenues, which she attributes to a need caused by a lack of government funding for local students.

“I know Vantage students were offsetting the fact that I only paid $5000 in tuition, and the university, in my mind, would absolutely raise domestic tuition if they were allowed to.”

By MEGAN DOLSKI, THE GLOBE AND MAIL