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Did Danielle Smith open the door for her donors to operate Canada's first publicly funded for-profit college?
The family that founded MaKami College Inc. donated $15K to the premier and UCP before lobbying them with a well-connected firm. Now they're a government-sanctioned Independent Academic Institution.
A month before the writ was dropped for the upcoming provincial election, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith opened up the potential for a for-profit college to receive public funding, which would be unprecedented in Canada.
But it’s not just any for-profit college — its founding family donated a combined $15,100 to Smith and the UCP, and hired a team of lobbyists, including a UCP board member, to sit down with the government immediately after Smith was sworn in as premier.
Alberta is the only province in Canada that provides grant funding to private post-secondary institutions, or Independent Academic Institutions (IAI), as they’re officially called. Until now, these IAIs have all been non-profits.
Smith’s cabinet quietly added MaKami College Inc., founded as a massage therapy school in Edmonton in 2001, to the IAI list through a March 30 Order in Council, a week after the Legislature was adjourned. The government, however, maintains it has no intention of providing MaKami with public funding.
Jon Doan, a University of Lethbridge kinesiology and physical education professor and president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA), says listing the college as an IAI is the first step towards public funding.
He said the possibility that a for-profit entity could be eligible for a “static pool” of grant funding is particularly concerning.
“They're opening the door to privatization of university and college at large,” he told The Orchard.
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Beyond massage therapy, MaKami College offers health care aide, business administration assistant, medical office assistant, master instructor and basic security training programs at one campus in Edmonton and two campuses in Calgary.
The college is, at its core, a family business.
According to corporate registry documents, MaKami College Inc. is co-directed by Vladimir Pavkovic and Marija Pavkovic-Tovissi. Family trusts for Vladimir and Marija are listed as its sole shareholders.
The company was formed in August 2020 as the result of an amalgamation between MaKami College Inc., formerly known as MaKami College of Massage & Holistic Arts Inc., and MaKami College (South) Inc. Registration for the original MaKami College Inc. includes an additional director — Dragan Pavkovic.
Ljubica Pavkovic, while not listed on the corporate registry has the title of director on her LinkedIn profile. A LinkedIn page for Zsolt Tovissi, director Marija Pavkovic-Tovissi’s spouse, identifies him as MaKami’s director of business development since 2016.
“They're opening the door to privatization of university and college at large.”
If you look at Danielle Smith’s campaign finance disclosures from the UCP leadership race, you’ll see that Pavkovic-Tovissi, who’s listed under her maiden name, donated $3,200 to Smith’s leadership campaign; Tovissi contributed an additional $2,000; and Dragan and Ljubica Pavkovic donated $4,200 each. Additionally, Vladimir Pavkovic donated $1,541.25 to the UCP in 2021.
That’s a total of $15,100 in campaign contributions from the family that runs MaKami College to the premier’s leadership campaign and her party.
MaKami College registered to lobby the Smith government on Oct. 11 — the day she was sworn in as premier — via New West Public Affairs. The lobbying firm’s CEO is Monte Solberg, the former Conservative MP for Medicine Hat.
In addition to Solberg, UCP VP of fundraising Sonia Kont, who was appointed by former premier Jason Kenney to negotiate the merger of the PC and Wildrose parties in 2017, is listed as having worked on the file.
According to the lobbyist registry, the college lobbied various government departments, including the Premier’s Office, Alberta Health and Alberta Advanced Education, on health and post-secondary education policy.
While New West Public Affairs discussed the “growth and success of MaKami College” and its “contribution to Alberta’s postsecondary ecosystem,” the lobbying firm also sought to “[i]dentify and advocate for growth opportunities for MaKami College as they pertain to programs offered, student enrolment, educational facilities and student success.”
Smith gave MaKami College a shoutout during her first press conference as premier — the same day she was sworn in and New West registered to lobby the government on the college’s behalf.
Answering a question about attracting health care professionals to Alberta, Smith said the province has “some wonderful colleges, like MaKami College, which graduates 4,000 LPNs [licensed practical nurses] and nursing aides every year. Half of them go to the United States.”
MaKami’s lobbying of Smith wasn’t its first attempt at influencing the government. New West Public Affairs, including Kont, also lobbied the UCP government on the college’s behalf on September 19, 2022, October 5, 2021, October 8, 2020, and September 26, 2020.
Political donations and lobbying are, of course, entirely legal. They are nonetheless worthy of scrutiny when there’s an appearance that these efforts could have resulted in beneficial treatment from the government.
“Everyone has the right to make personal donations in support of their local government,” MaKami College spokesperson Kamea Stacey told The Orchard in response to a detailed list of questions about the donations, lobbying and IAI designation.
It’s unclear, however, how donations to a leadership campaign or political party constitute “local government.”
Stacey said New West could have been lobbying on behalf of any client on Oct. 11, despite the lobbyist registry clearly indicating that New West lobbied Smith on behalf of MaKami College that day.
“New West has many clients. Common sense would dictate New West was possibly congratulating the new premier and making an official introduction. However, we cannot speak on their behalf,” she added.
The college’s “journey” to attain IAI status so that students can better “achieve their educational dreams,” began under the former NDP government, said Stacey.
Financial disclosures show Vladimir Pavkovic donated $800 to the NDP in 2017, but the college began lobbying the government in 2020, once the UCP were in power.
Asked whether the college was aware of Kont’s position with the UCP, Stacey said Kont wasn’t MaKami’s contact at the firm. “New West has a large team, but we do not have a relationship with all of them.”
Any suggestion that the premier is providing preferential treatment to a well-connected donor is “not based in facts,” Stacey said.
“MaKami College employs hundreds of people and has thousands of students annually. We are a non-partisan, educational institution. Suggesting otherwise would be false.”
The Orchard reached out to the premier’s office for comment. On the morning of April 28, acting spokesperson Colin Aitchison said he’d look into it. He didn’t respond before the provincial election campaign kicked off on May 1.
IAIs are essentially post-secondary charter schools. They’re private entities that receive public funding, but, according to the Government of Alberta website, lack the governance structures and “accountability requirements” of public institutions.
Unlike public post-secondary schools, IAI governance boards aren’t appointed by, or accountable to, the government and their mandate statements don’t require government approval. They receive operational funding, but not maintenance or capital funds.
These schools are Concordia University of Edmonton, Burman University in Lacombe, Ambrose University in Calgary, The King’s University in Edmonton, St. Mary’s University in Calgary, and now MaKami College. All but MaKami are not-for-profit.
That’s not to say the other IAIs aren’t raking in the dough. Concordia purchased a historical mansion for $1.75 million in August 2021, much to the dismay of the school’s faculty association, who went on strike, in part for better wages, in January 2022.
But using public funds to pad the profits of a for-profit corporation is a whole other ballgame, whether it’s in health care or education, says Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute.
“We shouldn't be using taxpayer funds to subsidize profit margins. We should be using taxpayer funds to provide services,” he told The Orchard.
The addition of MaKami to the IAI list, despite its potential ramifications, has garnered zero press coverage. Acuña wrote an April 21 blog post about it on Parkland’s website and CAFA issued an April 24 news release on the topic.
The only recent news articles I could find about MaKami were a March 2022 advertorial in the Calgary Sun and a July 2018 Edmonton Journal story on the school moving its Edmonton campus into an old Sears store. A February 2021 CBC News story about efforts to have massage therapists recognized as an officially regulated profession in Alberta included an interview with a MaKami grad.
Doan of CAFA said it’s troubling that there’s been no public debate about adding MaKami to the list of IAIs.
“The motivation, the background and the need that MaKami fills that's not already addressed in the sector, has not been identified,” Doan noted.
MaKami offers programming available at other colleges in the province, but its tuition fees are remarkably higher for the same credentials.
According to spokesperson Stacey, MaKami specializes in “assisting students with physical, mental and socio-economical barriers [emphasis mine] to achieve their educational dreams.”
Acuña says that government funding could serve to reduce MaKami’s tuition fees and bring them in line with comparable programs elsewhere, but it’s unclear why that would be necessary.
“It's not [government’s] responsibility to use public funds to level the playing field. We've got well-established public institutions in this province that offer these programs that have been cut to the bone,” he said.
The government introduced a 2% cap on tuition fee increases in its 2023 budget beginning in the 2024/25 school year. It also increased operational funding by a measly $15 million after three years of cuts.
IAIs walked away relatively unscathed from these cuts, according to reporting from Janet French at the CBC.
From 2019 to 2022, the University of Alberta lost 20% of its funding while the University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge each lost 12%. The five IAIs, by contrast, each lost 2% of their funding.
A publicly funded for-profit corporation would by its very nature be further insulated from cuts, with its access to private funding.
The government denies adding MaKami to the IAI list means public funds are going to flow to the for-profit post-secondary school.
Sam Blackett, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education, told The Orchard that “Makami [sic] College will not receive provincial grant funding nor are they being considered for grant funding.”
If that’s the case, MaKami would be the only school on the IAI list not to receive grant funding.
Blackett said the purpose of categorizing MaKami as an IAI is to provide “the opportunity to expand enrolment and reduce regulatory red tape, helping Alberta better address critical skilled labour shortages.”
He added that IAI status allows the college to expand its program offerings without having to apply through traditional licensing bodies.
MaKami spokesperson Stacey offered a different rationale. She said the college wants to obtain the government’s assistance in “creating strategic partnerships to foster better outcomes for students with learning challenges.”
IAI designation provides “additional opportunities for our students such as transfer credits and further involvement with research projects,” she added.
According to Acuña, the government’s rationale makes no sense.
He questions why MaKami needs the government’s assistance for enrolment growth, considering its enrolment is “growing by leaps and bounds in the last few years, from a one-location massage therapy school to a three-location school covering all sorts of programming.”
The notion that adding a school to the IAI list reduces red tape is “just ridiculous,” Acuña said. The government is simply shifting the red tape of program approval from licensing bodies to itself.
“It's not a reduction of the process and paperwork they have to do. It's just moving it from one venue to another,” he said.
Even if the government has no intention of providing operational funds to MaKami, adding the school to the list of IAIs opens up the possibility that a future government could use its power to subsidize the company’s profit margins.
And even if the ministry’s rationale is accurate, at the very least, the optics of the premier providing the admitted benefits of IAI status after receiving donations from the school’s directors and being lobbied on their behalf are poor.
Edited by Stephen Magusiak