On Education and Regulations and Innovation


Yesterday, Bitmaker Labs announced via their website that they have discontinued operating their web development program. This action is due to an ongoing investigation from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), which may have led to a cease and desist and potential fines, even prison. The MTCU regulates certain programs – including those longer than 40 hours that also cost more than $1000 – and their objective is to look out for the public interest.

Although in some ways Bitmaker Labs and HackerYou are competitors, we’ve always had a positive relationship with them. Maybe it’s because we’re the only two organizations of our kind in Canada. Maybe it’s because Matt, Tory, Andy and Will are all Ivey grads, and so am I. Or maybe it’s because we always just sort of knew that our biggest threat wasn’t each other – it was the industry that we’d chosen, and the status quo. And, as it turns out, that threat is very real.

First, I want to say that we are sad and disappointed that Bitmaker was given no option but to discontinue operations (and we’re glad it’s only temporary). We believe that Bitmaker Labs has made HackerYou a better company, by keeping us on our toes and showing us what is possible. Bitmaker Labs has done great work since they launched last fall – they are legitimately helping people and making our city and our tech and startup communities a better place. We want both HackerYou and Bitmaker Labs to continue to exist in Toronto and beyond, and we want to do whatever we can to make this happen, including working together. Ontario needs these types of programs.

Next, because there have been a lot of questions about this, I’d like to explain why HackerYou does not anticipate an investigation by the MTCU. Private Career Colleges are regulated by the MTCU in accordance with the Private Career Colleges Act. From a factsheet provided by the Ministry:

“Exemption under the Private Career Colleges Act, 2005 means that an institution is not required to be registered with the Superintendent of Private Career Colleges and/or a program offered by an institution does not require approval before being offered to the public.”

There are a number of exemptions under the act, but there are two in particular that are the easiest to work with. Programs which are less than 40 hours long are exempt, as are programs that cost less than $1000. Although we have not always been perfect, we have generally abided by the regulations and now have ensured that all of our programs fall within one of these two exemptions. Additionally, I have documentation from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities stating that we’re in the clear, based on these exemptions. It is certainly a workaround – we’ve modified our offerings solely because of the regulations. If we could offer a longer program and charge more than $1000 for it, we would. This is one of the reasons we, like Bitmaker Labs, are considering becoming a registered Private Career College, though we haven’t made that decision quite yet.

As many of you know, my team and I also run a non-profit called Ladies Learning Code (which also runs Girls Learning Code and Kids Learning Code). Again, Ladies Learning Code is not at risk because none of our programs are more than 40 hours or more than $1000. What about Girls Learning Code summer day camps? Don’t worry – programs exclusively for youth are also exempt under the Act. There are other exemptions, too. For example, organizations without a physical presence in Ontario are also not required to be registered (for those wondering about programs like those offered by Treehouse or US-based MOOCs), nor are corporate training programs (where it is a third party that pays for training, not the students themselves).

I’ve learned quite a bit about the Private Career Colleges Act over the past little while, and I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned with anyone interested. My email is heather [at] heatherpayne.ca.

Finally, I’d like to share some of my personal thoughts on education, regulations and innovation as it relates to the work that I do. First, I understand why the Ministry and the Act exist. Bitmaker Labs and HackerYou are great organizations, with solid teams who are doing good work. We may not be able to say the same thing about the next bootcamp program that pops up. And I’m sure there are lots of beauty schools and locksmith schools and truck driving schools that are run by sketchbags. These fly-by-night “career colleges” take money from students and don’t deliver the goods – that is what the MTCU is trying to protect people from. Fair enough.

That being said, while I believe in regulation for the protection of students, I find the Private Career Colleges Act anti-startup. To offer a program like the one Bitmaker Labs offers requires registration with the MTCU. It takes six to eight months, usually, and a bond (a letter of credit from a bank) is required. For a school bringing in about $1 million in revenues, the bond amount is $150,000. Suddenly, a startup is looking at a six- to eight-month process before they can even advertise (because advertising before you’re registered is not allowed), plus they have to find cash for the bond. Did I mention that they haven’t even had the chance to validate their idea? This is one of the main reasons I urge Bitmaker Labs to go through the registration process – they have traction, so in some ways, the hard work is already done.

This brings me to another issue, also related to Bitmaker’s next move – also a potential next move for us. If you become a registered Career College, will you ever truly disrupt education? At that point, you’re part of the system. You’re having students complete exams and keeping transcripts on file (but off-site, in an approved facility) for 25 years. You’re applying to have your advertisements and programs and instructors approved. You’re not updating your content as often, because each time do you it’s a huge pain in the ass. But you don’t say anything, because after all, you have to renew your registration with the MTCU annually and there’s just too much at stake. You’ll probably become a dues-paying member of the Ontario Association of Career Colleges or the National Association of Career Colleges, or both. Maybe you’ll join their board. You’ll scrutinize startups in the space who haven’t registered – can you report them for one reason or another? Anything to protect yourself and the status quo, right?

So, yes, while I am unreasonably supportive of Bitmaker Labs and want to see them back in action, I also understand where the Ministry is coming from. At the same time, Bitmaker Labs and HackerYou are doing great work, and that should count for something. Young people are getting jobs – could anything be more important than that right now? I have issues with the way the Bitmaker Labs investigation was handled (couldn’t the Ministry have allowed them to wrap up the current cohort?!) and I have issues with the system in general. I wish there was some middle ground. I am torn when it comes to the decision whether or not to register HackerYou as a Private Career College. On the one hand, it seems to be the only way to create a truly impactful business, since right now we’re limited when it comes to the length and cost of our programs. But on the other hand, I really don’t want to deal with any bullshit. And neither do our students. So another option is to just do what we’re doing (offer only programs that are exempt due to length and cost), at least until the MTCU and the Ontario Government realize that the Act and their enforcement of it are going to result in a new form of “brain drain”. If we can’t provide options here, it won’t just be our engineers and software developers who head south – Ontarians who want to learn to code may have no choice but to do the same. And maybe they won’t come back.