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Arthur Coren, President, University Canada West

After a public relations rough patch, University Canada West is now smooth sailing with enrolments tripling thanks to an ownership overhaul and investment in student services. President and Vice-Chancellor Arthur Coren shares his secret to student recruitment and the realities of private universities in Canada.

The PIE: Tell me how you got into the industry?

University Canada West

We are probably looking at about 80% of on-campus students are international right now

AC: Prior to coming into education I was working in the private sector. My last job before this was doing education outreach for Northern Telecom. I was also vice president for Canadian Centre for Creative Technology where we used to do a lot of outreach programs for students. But if you had asked me at 30 if I was ever going to be in education, I would have asked you what you were drinking.

At the tender age of 37 I got into education, I started teaching marketing for a polytechnic university. I guess it has been close to 20 years I have been in education now. I joined UCW in 2012, basically as a rescue mission. They had gone through a lot of problems in the press in the previous ownership and we came in to do a turnaround.

The PIE: How has that turnaround of UCW gone?

AC: The first two years were very challenging because the previous ownership, we will just say they had a business and ethical practice that we didn’t exactly agree with, so by the time we joined the GUS group, the university had seen a fair amount of problems.

If you had asked me at 30 if I was ever going to be in education, I would have asked you what you were drinking

When I came we managed to staunch most of the problematic news publicity and bad relations. The previous ownership was under the opinion you could run a university the same way you could run a career college, that you could market degrees the same way you could market a 12 week bookkeeping course, or a 26 week dental hygienist course.

The best thing that ever happened to this university was its affiliation with Global University Systems. In the past two years the university has seen a real renaissance, enrolments have probably tripled, students are much happier, we have an extraordinary faculty, we have new programs coming on.

The PIE: Tell me about being a private university in Canada.

AC: Canada has very few private universities, if you look at the US half are private in one respect of another. In Canada it is probably less than 5%.

In Vancouver we are one of two home grown British Columbian universities, University Canada West and Quest University. Other than that most of the other privates come from out of province or out of country, so it can be a bit daunting at times.

The PIE: How many of your students are international?

AC: For the on-campus students we are probably looking at about 80% international right now. The study permit terms say they have to be full time in a course and they are very limited for what they can take for online courses. So, for on-campus you see many more international students, online very few.

The PIE: Has that changed since you have been at the helm? Was it a much more domestic university when you started?

AC: We have certainly seen an increase in terms of the international students, for a lot of reasons. Canada is a very attractive destination, it is seen as a gold standard education so lots of people prefer Canada or America as a destination compared to the UK. We have certainly benefitted from that. Canada also is an attractive place for immigration, so some folks want to come there, get the work permit for afterwards, work for a few years and consider immigrating.

We are very much a Canadian institution and we want to support national goals

You tend to see a little bit of a different profile in our online students. They are typically in their mid-30s, are employed in Canada, so they are a Canadian or a permanent resident, and they are taking one or two courses at a time so they can get a promotion or an increase in pay. About half of our students study online.

The PIE: Do you have a reputation then as an international university?

AC: No more than other British Columbia universities.

The PIE: Really? Even though 80% international is so high?

AC: Eighty per cent on campus certainly gives us a very international profile, that is one thing that we are really trying to accentuate. On the other hand for Canada’s 150th birthday this year we have dropped our MBA tuitions by about a third for domestic students, Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Part of that is because we are very much a Canadian institution and we want to support national goals but also we want to try to attract more domestic students to come in, so that international students truly have the experience of being next to more Canadian students.

The PIE: Tell me about helping students get into the job market, how do you do that?

AC: We have got a career services advisor that will help students in terms of preparing their resumes, starting to build contacts with them, identifying internship opportunities and also when the students are preparing to graduate, they will help them scout out potential opportunities. Many of our professors are connected in industry so they will hear about job opportunities too. We are very much a business orientated university, our slogan is business orientated teaching intensive university, so that means our focus is on business and we really specialise in teaching, although our faculty also does research.

Interestingly enough a lot of our students already have job opportunities lined up, many of our international students that come over have been offered better career opportunities for when they return to their home country.

The PIE: Has the election of President Trump had any impact on enrolment applications for your institution, and more widely in Canada, according to your experience?

AC: A number of Canadian universities are seeing an increase in interest and a corresponding increase in the number of applications they are receiving. UCW is experiencing this as well, particularly in regions affected by the travel ban. There are still many students seeking a quality North American education, but unfortunately, the travel ban and the political climate have instilled concerns about the US as a destination. Universities Canada also indicates there has been a surge in interest in researchers considering a move to Canada after the election in the US and Brexit in the UK

Many of our international students that come over have been offered better career opportunities for when they return to their home country

The PIE: Where are your biggest source countries?

AC: You know, Canada in general has got its big ten, so you see China and India leading for most Canadian institutions. We are very fortunate to draw from across Europe as well, South America is becoming bigger for us. We now have recruiters recently working in areas like Ukraine and Turkey.

The PIE: A lot of people are looking at Canada and Australia as the two golden geese at the moment, what do you think of the competition between the US, UK, Canada, Australia?

AC: Canada is very much trying to get all its pieces aligned, to get its act together. For example Canada does not have a national minister of education, so Canada’s advanced education is the responsibility of the individual provinces. There is the Canadian Ministers of Education Council, which is sort of a national coordinator, but they really talk more about common issues.

Then our foreign affairs department is trying to get more students as well, but Canada has not been as sophisticated as some countries like Australia or perhaps Britain in terms of that national education policy. Now that said, the government did have a goal to increase the number of international students coming in, that was a national goal and a provincial goal. But, we could do a heck of a lot better in terms of marketing. At most fairs, you either see something coordinated by a provincial group like BCCIE or a group of universities just going out there to recruit.

AB: What’s your biggest single secret to recruiting successfully?

AC: Wow, I wish there were secrets. It really is hard work and a lot of listening to students. We will turn students away or refer them to other institutions if our program isn’t right for them, because what we want is not numbers but students that are going to come into the programs, persist and be successful. So I think if there is any secret for recruiting it’s the fact that our retention has really been very strong in the past couple of years. We are making sure we are the right fit for students and then when they come in they are getting the support.

The PIE: What do you make of the obsession with rankings?

AC: Rankings are always going to be an issue. When I go to China it is one of the first things I am asked, “Where do you rank?”. Well it is just not that simple. For us, the most powerful thing that we have is our alumni and our employed graduates, because it doesn’t matter if the school ranks number one or number one hundred, if your goal is to be happy or employed, raise a family, contribute to society, we can help you get there.

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