These are perilous times for universities and colleges
By Jock Finlayson
In a recent interview, outgoing UBC President Stephen Toope was interviewed touched on a number of the challenges facing Canadian universities, including rising student expectations, a growing desire by governments and employers to ensure that post-secondary graduates are “job-ready,” and heightened international competition for top-ranked faculty and graduate students.
His interview ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the same day that I happened to peruse a recent issue of BCG Perspectives, a newsletter published by the big brains at Boston Consulting Group. Prominently displayed in that issue is an article entitled “Five Trends to Watch in Higher Education.” While the article focuses on American institutions, the story it tells is also relevant to the Canadian post-secondary education sector.
What are the five key forces shaping post-secondary education, according to the Boston Consulting Group analysts?
1) Pressure on revenues: The funds flowing to universities and colleges from government sources are dwindling and may decline further in the years ahead. In the U.S. context, this reflects flat or falling enrollments at many institutions, as well as the pronounced squeeze on the budgets of most state governments since 2008. Post-secondary enrollment numbers have generally held up better in Canada, but several provinces have trimmed or frozen their general purpose grants to universities and colleges measured on an inflation-adjusted and/or per student basis. Most provinces have also adopted caps on tuition fees for domestic students.
2) A stronger focus on the economic returns to education: Students, parents and government funders are all looking more closely at the value proposition of obtaining college and university credentials, including traditional four-year university degrees. There is a desire in some quarters to reallocate available post-secondary funding to expand capacity in high-demand fields and reduce program offerings in areas where the economic payoffs are deemed to be lower. This notion influenced the direction of the B.C. government’s recently unveiled overhaul of post-secondary education and training; other provinces are following the same path.
3) Increased transparency around student outcomes: A related trend is that post-secondary institutions increasingly are being challenged to provide data on and to stand accountable for student outcomes in area such as graduation rates, work-relevant competencies learned, and the job market performance of graduates. The underlying assumption is that this kind of information can help to guide student decisions about what programs and courses to take and, from a public policy perspective, lead to a more effective use of scarce tax dollars.
4) New business and delivery models: Enabled by technology, on-line learning is growing rapidly in the post-secondary sector, often driving down unit-costs (although there are questions about quality and graduation rates for on-line programs). In addition, many jurisdictions and institutions are experimenting with innovations like three-year degrees, mixed models that combine classroom learning with work experience, and competency-based accreditation that reduces the time spent in classroom settings.
5) Globalization: Post-secondary education is one of many sectors being affected by the globalization of economic activity. In the U.S., foreign student enrollment in colleges and universities doubled in the two decades ending in 2013. The picture is similar in Canada. In addition, particularly among research universities, international competition is intensifying due to the rising mobility of talent. Some universities based in advanced economies have opened foreign campuses in emerging markets, while many others are partnering with foreign institutions to deliver programs or undertake targeted research – trends which can leverage institutional assets but also present management challenges for university administrators.
Add it all up, and it’s clear that the landscape is shifting for universities and colleges. New opportunities are emerging at the same time as traditional educational models and assumptions are under strain. It’s an exciting period for the leaders of post-secondary institutions, but also a time of uncertainty and perhaps even peril.
Jock Finlayson is Executive Vice President of the Business Council of British Columbia.