Quest University Canada, tucked into the Coast Mountains in Squamish, B.C., is unique in the Canadian academic world: a private, not-for-proﬁt university offering a single bachelor of arts and sciences degree. Now 15 years old, it’s a reinvention of the well-rounded curricula of American liberal arts colleges, but with dramatic differences. Class sizes are capped at 20 students, and courses are taken one at a time in intensive 3½-week blocks.
If this format seems unusual, consider that Quest regularly turns in a strong showing on the National Survey of Student Engagement, an in-depth survey that assesses how well universities follow best practices. In addition to allowing students to concentrate deeply on each course, the block plan allows professors to take students on field trips. A visual anthropology course took place in the Himalayas in India. An ancient history course allowed students to tour Turkey and Greece.
But it’s not just the block plan that’s different. The first two years of the degree, called the foundation program, is a core curriculum that introduces students to disciplines across the arts and sciences. The latter two years, called the concentration program, are student-designed; each pupil works on a single question of their choosing, such as “What’s the best way to educate a child?” Students build their own curriculum and take experiential learning blocks on or off-campus to gain hands-on experience. The process culminates in a keystone project.
Two years ago, Quest was granted creditor protection after accumulating nearly $29 million in debt. A deal with Primacorp Ventures Inc., in December 2020, brought nearly a year of financial uncertainty to an end. In the new partnership, Quest sold its land and campus buildings to Primacorp and the company leases facilities back to Quest. Primacorp, a large Canadian independent provider of private post-secondary education, also provides support in recruiting, marketing, fundraising and operational financing. Quest faculty continue to deliver programming and Quest remains a board-governed, not-for-profit university.
Enrolment dropped dramatically at Quest in the wake of its time in creditor protection and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enrolment sits at about 200 students, compared to roughly 600 in 2019.
“Quest University, along with the rest of the world, experienced the challenges of the pandemic, but I am optimistic about the future,” says Quest president George Iwama. “Our priorities are focused on increasing our enrolment and strengthening our reputation as a leading liberal arts and sciences university.”
Quest’s physical setting is stunning. The campus is 45 minutes from Whistler and an hour from Vancouver, making it a recreational haven. Students can ford streams, explore forests or camp on beaches—sometimes for class credit. Skiing, snowboarding and the Pacific Ocean are never far away. All students live in condo-style residences on campus.
Quest is expensive by Canadian standards. Annual tuition, student fees, and room and board run about $35,430 for Canadian students; however, 85 per cent of students receive scholarships or bursaries.