Western halts negotiations with Navitas following faculty mobilization

Dr. Marianne A. Larsen

The university administration is halting negotiations with Navitas Ltd. to develop a private pathway college for international students, responding to faculty members’ collective opposition to the partnership.

Last spring and fall, Faculty Councils in Arts & Humanities; Education; Music; Science; Social Science; and FIMS overwhelmingly passed the following motion against outsourcing first-year international undergraduate teaching to a university preparation and pathway for-profit company:

 ‘The Faculty of XXX does not support the outsourcing of the crucial work of teaching first-year international undergraduates at Western to a private, for-profit international ‘pathway’ college such as Navitas.’

Faculty members used the procedures of collegial governance as an opportunity to collectively organize at our university. Crucially, it appears that faculty mobilization against the deal has led to a pause in negotiations between Western and Navitas. At the January 2021 meeting of Senate, the administration announced that the Navitas file had been closed.

About the Deal

In 2019, Western entered into negotiations with the company Navitas University Preparation and Pathways Programs to open a private pathway college for international students. Such an initiative would involve recruiting international students, who would not otherwise be eligible for entry to a Western undergraduate program. Those students would then be provided with academic language and their first-year undergraduate courses to prepare them for entry to a Western program.

While pathway programs and colleges can be public –ie. provided by the university -- there are a number of private providers such as Navitas. As a for-profit enterprise, Navitas, headquartered in Australia, is responsible to its shareholders. In 2018, its after-tax profit was $19.5 million (Cdn). Navitas was bought out by the consortium BGH Capital in 2019. After the corporate takeover, following demands by BGH, Navitas began to focus on university partnership (UP), its most lucrative division. The UP divisions now form the largest part of Navitas’s business. Currently, they have 36 partnerships (down from 42 in 2018) with universities in Australasia, Europe, and North America.

In Canada, Simon Fraser University (SFU) entered into an agreement with Navitas in 2006 and established the Fraser International College (FIC). In 2007, the University of Manitoba (UM) entered an agreement with Navitas, establishing the International College of Manitoba (ICM). And in the spring of 2020, Ryerson University signed a 10-year agreement with Navitas. In 2012, the company generated more than $40 million in revenue from its Canadian operations.

As a part of discussions with Navitas about the potential partnership, Western senior administration visited other Navitas Colleges in Canada and hosted Navitas representatives on campus. Western’s President, Dr. Alan Shepard, assured faculty that any decision to partner with Navitas would go through all the regular university decision-making bodies and promised there would be a full debate at Senate before any decisions were made. That was welcome news. Collectively, UWO faculty have joined together to oppose the Navitas partnership. UWOFA has come out strongly in its opposition to this for-profit partnership. You can read UWOFA’s full statement here.

What the research tells us

Here are some of the key points about what the research tells us about Navitas and other private pathway providers (PPPs).

First, negotiations to develop partnerships between PPPs and universities are often done rapidly, shrouded in secrecy, and without meaningful input from local stakeholders. At SFU, negotiations in 2006 around the Navitas partnership were contentious with much opposition from students and faculty. And at UM, there was a "secret brokering of the deal" without any notice to the university Senate, Board of Governors or Faculty Association. Ryerson’s experience was similar. One Ryerson Faculty Association member who attended the April 2020 Senate meeting, where the motion to approve the Navitas partnership was passed, commented: “Ryerson's Administration orchestrated a flawed proposal to be passed at a late night, virtual Senate meeting, with almost no discussion or debate. This process allowed little room for collegial discussion and decision making” (email sent to Ryerson’s faculty union).

Second, the research shows us that PPPs create a two-tier workforce in higher education. PPPs hire their own faculty to teach their students and maintain ownership of course materials. Courses in these programs are “taught by faculty who have little or no experience teaching international students with developing English proficiency and who may be neither willing or able to provide the cultural and linguistic support which those students need” (Quoted in Winkle, 2014). Pathway college instructors are not unionized and thus not protected by faculty collective agreements. They are a part of the growing numbers of unprotected, precarious labour in higher education. Their labour is undervalued and perceived as less scholarly. Lastly, there is evidence of anti-union clauses in some contracts that Navitas employees are forbidden from engaging in labour action.

Third, PPPs exploit international students. Their recruitment strategies are questionable. Navitas works with local (eg. Asian) student recruitment agents who are incentivized by Navitas to recruit students, as they take a cut of the tuition dollars, in addition to charging students directly. There is also evidence of a lack of transparency and misleading claims from recruitment agents about opportunities to work and gain citizenship in Canada, guarantees to progress to degree programs, etc.

PPPs view international students as commodities.  For example, the ICM 2020/21 fees and charges for Navitas students, for two years of programming, were approximately $100,000 per student. A former Navitas senior manager summed up the situation clearly: “In 2008 this was a great place to work … From 2011/2012 this started to change. When asked [the company] always stated that the goal was to educate the very best we could and the dollars will follow…Now the goal is to maximize every cent out of every student. Remove things from courses and add them as additional items...at a price of course. [italics added for emphasis]

Staff working in private pathway colleges report being pressured to ensure that students pass their programs (through grade inflation) even if they have not fulfilled the program requirements. This has led to concerns that pathway programs provide a backdoor through which otherwise unqualified students gain entry to university programs; and pressure on the university to support these students who might not have the academic skills to succeed in their academic programs.

Advocates of the partnership claim that Navitas will diversify our international student population. This is a weak claim. There is no published evidence to suggest that they have had success in diversifying the international student body beyond Asia. A review of the SFU-Navitas partnership questioned whether FIC was helping to diversify the campus given that three-quarters of its students were from China and Hong Kong.

Up until last fall, Western’s administration had been vague in public discussions about the status of Navitas negotiations. Clarity was found at the January 15, 2021 Senate meeting when Senator Jane Toswell asked the question, “Given that a majority of Western's Faculty Councils, which are decision-making bodies whose constitutions are approved by Senate and whose decisions are binding, have now rejected any connection with Navitas, can we please confirm that the university's negotiations with this firm and others with its method of approach are at an end?” The response was that for the foreseeable future Western has decided to abandon talks with Navitas. It appears that the collective voice of faculty influenced that decision. What is important is that faculty continue to push back against for-profit initiatives such as this, which operate to undermine the work of Western faculty and exploit international students. There are many more inclusive ways that we can increase, diversify and support our international student body, and these ought to be the focus of any new internationalization initiative at Western.


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Dr. Marianne A. Larsen is a professor emerita.