The demise of a private university has led to the expansion of a public university to Squamish, with the provincial government picking up most of the tab.
Capilano University has received $48 million from the province to help purchase the former Quest University campus in Squamish for a total of $63.2 million following the closure of the private institution in April 2023.
Post-Secondary Education Minister Selina Robinson announced the funding Wednesday (Aug. 16).
Capilano University purchased the 18-acre property including 12,234 square-metres of existing university infrastructure from Primacorp, a real estate, investment management and health care company. Located in Vancouver, Primacorp had previously billed itself as Canada’s largest provider of private post-secondary education.
Primacorp started to circulate a public posting for the property shortly after the university declared on Feb. 23 that it would close indefinitely at the end of April citing finances. Primacorp had previously paid $43 million for the land and university buildings after Quest filed for financial protection. Under the agreement with Primacrop, Quest leased its former property, with Primacrop providing various recruitment and marketing services.
While Quest University had started with great hopes in advertising itself as a liberal-arts-science-oriented alternative to traditional public universities, the small institution with a student body of 200 at the time of its closure generated no shortage of headlines in Squamish, even before Primacorp arrived in Oct. 2020. They included internal disputes spilling into the courts and disagreement with the Town of Squamish over development charges.
But the idea of a post-secondary institution in a community the size of Squamish (just under 24,000, 2021 census) located between Whistler and North Vancouver in the growing Sea-to-Sky region and the nearby Sunshine Coast also always had its supporters.
Robinson pointed to the region’s growth in justifying the public investment, while deferring questions about the university’s past.
“There were a private institution that had their own challenges…but any questions specific to Quest, you’ll have to talk with the folks at Quest in order to understand what went wrong,” Robinson said.
She also said the province did its due diligence.
“We’re always interested in making sure that the investments that we make benefit the public and that’s why we have this institution here that is going to provide educational opportunities for the people of the corridor and that’s the value proposition that we have here in purchasing the site.”
Robinson said the previous owner approached Capilano University to see if had an interest in purchasing it.
“So that’s why when Capilano University approached us for the opportunity for the existing site that was sitting empty, it made sense for the province to make sure that we had post-secondary education opportunities for people (who are looking for flexibility),” Robinson said.
What the province described as a “turn-key ready campus” includes an academic building, library, cafeteria, recreational and athletic facilities, an all-weather sports field and two large parking lots.
Capilano University has long planned to expand its presence in Squamish, having entered into a March 2022 purchase agreement to develop a campus at the Oceanfront Squamish development. The term of that agreement ended in spring 2023 and when the Quest University property became available for purchase in February 2023, Capilano University shifted its focus. Capilano will explore options for operating a new 74-space child care centre on the campus and potentially offer housing for students, with Squamish having one of B.C.’s tightest housing markets.
Capilano University President Paul Dangerfield thanked the provincial government for the support and promised that his university would deliver what he called a “valuable, relevant and distinct” university experience to the community and the region.
“We look forward to working with the Squamish Nation and our community partners to innovate lands and place-based learning approaches into our academic programming, learning opportunities and creative research activities,” he added.
The university said in a release that planning for the campus is underway with details on programming and other offerings available later.
Starting spring 2024, the new campus will serve students studying early childhood care and education (ECCE) and literacy programming, followed by arts, science and business programs, as well as outdoor recreation and programming with the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations in September 2024.
The new campus will serve about 100 students when it opens in spring 2024 with more than 380 expected to attend in later years.