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Education tycoon buys University Canada West

He plans to go global with struggling Victoria institution

University Canada West, a private Victoria institution that has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and failed to attract enough students since it opened in 2005, has quietly been sold for an undisclosed sum.

"I keep a low profile about my business," explained new owner Peter Chung, 55. "It's not my nature to show off, and besides this is a private company."

Chung is executive chairman of a giant Canadian educational conglomerate called the Eminata Group. Based in Vancouver, the company has annual revenues of about $50 million and owns 30 education centres across Canada, including CDI College -- with locations in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec -- as well as Vancouver Career College and PCU College of Holistic Medicine.

Chung, who grew up in Los Angeles and is the son of a South Korean preacher, declined to give the exact purchase price, but said the deal was far in excess of $10 million and involves assuming all the debts of UCW and its shareholders.

The institution was valued in 2006 at $30 million, said UCW founder and president David Strong, who added the institution was privately owned by a company whose 67 shareholders were 95 per cent in favour of the sale, which closed two weeks ago.

The deal has been percolating since August and there were six potential buyers. "We decided to sell because the banks were getting itchy ... and we could see the world financial situation changing. Mr. Chung is a man of integrity and sincerity, and we thought we needed to put the university on a more secure footing."

Chung said he has no plans to sell any of the school's 1.2 hectares near the corner of Hillside and Blanshard streets, held in a 99-year lease, but hinted at major changes. In an interview following Saturday's convocation ceremonies, he said there is something wrong with the ratio of the school's 150 students and 100 full- and part-time teachers.

"That's too many teachers. We can operate this business better, but we are still evaluating. ... Obviously change is necessary."

The university has been losing $300,000 a month, and Chung's company has sent letters to UCW's creditors offering 50 cents on the dollar for outstanding debts. "We said, if it goes bankrupt you get nothing, so 50 cents is better for both," he said.

Focus on Women magazine owner and editor Leslie Campbell said yesterday that UCW has owed her $3,000 for four months. "I was shocked by the letter because we can't afford to take that kind of loss ... and you can't treat people like that here, and hope to continue in business." She said she has since been promised full payment.

Chung said his company will combine its strength in operations and marketing with Strong's vision and "quality of education." He also plans to go global, with up to 700 students from around the world.

The businessman stressed he is not in the business of bailing out schools or bargain hunting, but spotted underused potential in the institution.

Photography department head Tony Bounsall said the school desperately needs an influx of new cash, energy, and interest. "There's been a kind of detachment here, like fruit left to rot on a tree. David Strong is a good man, but other people in other positions at UCW have worked against the better interests of the college."

Victoria College of Art and Design director Peter Such agrees. He was hired in May to try to rescue the art school after it merged with UCW and then had a crash in enrolment.

"There has been a serious lack of consultation and transparency," Such said. "I'm looking forward to working with some competent management professionals."

Academic vice-president Robert Rogerson said faculty are naturally nervous, but few work there fulltime.

"We want to get on with the job of building enrolment," he said. "In our first year we had five graduates in the MBA program. Last year there were 15, and this year 45 in the MBA and B.Com. programs.

"Our biggest challenge is the high cost of recruiting. We spent a million dollars last year, but Eminata invests $10 million a year. It has economies of scale."