Two university students are crying foul after the University Canada West, a private post-secondary institution, shut down its degree programs in Victoria just days after they paid for classes.
"There was never any hint about this school closing," said Josey Reynolds, 18. "Nobody's helping us or saying anything to us. They are not answering my phone calls. I have no idea what is going on with my money."
"To me, its just totally unethical to sign up people for a two-year degree and not follow through," said Ricki Petersen, 25.
University Canada West (UCW), one of the first private, for-profit schools to get university accreditation in British Columbia, opened its main campus in Victoria in 2005 to much fanfare. UCW promoted its small classes, lower entrance requirements and fast-track degrees — and charged a premium for tuition.
"It's just that saying, you know, if it's too good to be true it probably is," Petersen said. "I fell for something that just sounded so good."
Reynolds and Petersen, who started in the fall of 2010, were among two dozen students enrolled in accelerated-degree programs. Both financed their studies with taxpayer-backed student loans.
"It was so easy to get a loan through this school," Petersen said. "They just said, 'Here's the form.' I filled it out and boom — approved. 'Here's your money.'"
Announcement after withdrawal deadline
Their third semester started at the end of January; the last day to drop classes without financial penalty was Feb. 7.
The next day, UCW announced by email that the Victoria degree programs were being wound down for business reasons, and the students could transfer to the Vancouver campus or finish their studies online.
The email, dated Feb. 8, read in part, "it is evident that the greatest potential for UCW's growth is on-ground in the greater Vancouver area and online."
Both students said they can't afford to move to Vancouver and don't want to study online.
"I'm sorry, but it's really hard to drop your life and everything just so this school can move and save their money," Reynolds said.
"I just feel misled and lied to — and you know, I've wasted this time," said Petersen.
Credit transfer uncertain
Both students would like to transfer to Camosun College in Victoria, but that institution has told them their UCW courses will have to be assessed before their credits can be accepted.
In addition, Camosun's faculty association recently reported students are being turned away because the facility is operating at 103 per cent student capacity.
"We were always told our credits are fully transferable," said Reynolds, who is worried now the courses she completed in the fall will be worthless.
"[UCW] has a grand total of $6,165 from me, and now I owe student loans. Because I was forced to drop out, that's going on my [student loan] record," Reynolds said.
"In September of 2010, they shouldn't have ever been doing enrolments," Petersen said. "You are setting people up for such a huge disappointment."
Reynolds is also upset about losing a $10,000 scholarship UCW promised her when she enrolled. She said she comes from a low-income household - and was the first person in her family to go to university.
"I was ecstatic I got a scholarship! That means a lot to somebody like me," she said. "UCW told me the money wouldn't be applied until my last two years, but I don't understand that, because I was only in a two-year program."
Corporation promises help
University Canada West is owned by Eminata Group, which calls itself the "largest private provider of post-secondary education in Canada." Eminata says it has 12,000 students enrolled in degree and diploma courses at various institutions.
"We didn't enrol students thinking we weren't going to complete at that particular site," spokesman Royden Trainor told CBC News. "We've had no concerns expressed from the vast majority of students."
Trainor said funds paid to UCW for Victoria courses this semester will be credited back to their loans, but the students will not be refunded for courses already completed.
"We're working out program plans, transferability — and sometimes refunds," Trainor said.
When asked why Eminata didn't allow current students to finish their programs before ending them, Trainor said, "We are always enrolling students. It would be irresponsible to drag out a process once we knew the decision was going to be made."
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As a result of CBC News inquires, Trainor promised Petersen and Reynolds will get whatever assistance they need to transfer to another institution.
"We will follow up with contacting them directly," Trainor said. "We will do right by the students. We will do what it takes to support them in either their transferability of their credits — whatever we need to do to help them with that."
However, four days after he made that commitment, Reynolds said she still hadn't been contacted by anyone from Eminata or UCW.
NDP MLA Rob Fleming, whose constituency office is around the corner from the Victoria campus, said he heard complaints even before the recent changes were announced.
"There have been a number of problems," Fleming said, adding that his concern about private education in B.C. is that there is no public body for students to turn to with their complaints.
"There is no accountability," Fleming said. "What we have is a patchwork of voluntary codes and self-regulating industry associations, basically. We do not have public tribunals that help the students."
Loans in default
According to the Student Aid BC website, 30 per cent of UCW students defaulted on their government-backed loans in 2009. That compares with a default rate of 3.7% at the University of British Columbia and 4.7% at the University of Victoria.
"It's public money and you know government is aware of some significant mounting problems in this [private post-secondary] sector now," Fleming said.
He said students usually can't pay their loans if they aren't able to finish their programs or if they can't get a job in their field once they graduate.
Trainor insisted UCW is filling a void in B.C. for students who can't get into traditional universities.
"The reality is that University Canada West is the fastest growing university in the British Columbia by far — probably the fastest growing in Canada. It is enormously successful," Trainor said.
"They are providing a desperate need for higher education."
Petersen and Reynolds don't understand why such a successful institution had to cut off their studies prematurely.
"Honestly! Finish our degrees already!" Petersen said. "If they had wanted to they could have. They have enough money. Why not? Because they want to make more money."