It’s the end of the year for us at HESA Towers today (at least as far as blogging goes). I know in the Scottish tradition, you’re supposed to use the end of the year for memories, but I kind of prefer the Japanese tradition of Bonenkai, or “forget-the-year”: basically, wipe out as many brain cells with alcohol and start the new year fresh.
So, with that in mind, let’s look forward to 2018. What should we expect?
Well, I think the first three months are going to be All About Fundamental Research. Will the Liberals give the scientific community what they want in terms of more dollars? The tea leaves are mixed. On the plus side, the economy has done better than expected this year, meaning there is money available. And on the whole it seems like the Science Minister is favourably inclined to the request. On the other hand, the Finance Department seems indifferent to the idea (mainly because, I think, nobody’s buying the “spend $Bs on science à a miracle occurs àInnovationpalooza!” story any more and universities have yet to work out alternative narratives even though some of us have helpfully suggested some). And I’m not sure the scientific community has necessarily helped its case by making its case 100% around additional money rather than suggesting some re-purposing of existing investments. And there’s lots of other priorities. Right now, I don’t see any strong signals one way or the other, which means I think the safe bet is there’s something on Fundamental Science on the budget but it’s probably not 100% of what was asked for.
Where provincial budgets are concerned, I am in the dark, but let’s put it this way: with a minority government in BC and elections looming in both Ontario and Quebec, this should be the best year this decade for higher education. I know it’s a low bar, but still. And if it’s not, then the sector has some serious problems.
One problem that may be easing is that of labour cost pressure. My sense is that over the last year or so, there have been a number of strikes or negotiated settlements in which money either wasn’t the issue, or institutions held firm on major initiatives which would have increased costs. Maybe everyone is starting to “get” the fact that there really aren’t big pots of money in the system available for salaries. As the economist Herb Stein said “if something can’t go on forever, it won’t”. Perhaps this is what the end of this cost-inflation cycle looks like.
My second-most fearless prediction for 2018 is that the feds are going to botch the “Future Skills Lab” thing. Badly. It’s a constant mystery how everyone can say “hey, you know what, we need a CIHI for education/skills” and the feds can say “yeah, absolutely” and then proceed to build something which ignores the entire reason CIHI works, namely, provincial ownership and buy-in. It’s like a superpower or something. If massive, debilitating gaps in conceptual understandings of federalism were superpowers.
But here’s my top prediction: no matter what kind of financial pressures the system is under, no matter how many bad media takes on higher education there are, and no matter how many disagreements there are about how to run colleges and universities, we’ll still have one of the best post-secondary systems in the world – one of the most accessible, one of the highest-quality, and filled with dedicated teachers and researchers who will do more than their jobs require, day-in, day-out.
Can we get better? Sure. And we should. But we’ve got a lot to be thankful for, and there aren’t many countries who wouldn’t trade places with us in a heartbeat.
And of course, I’ll be around to keep writing about it. As usual, your thoughts and comments about the blog are always welcome.
Happy holidays, and bonne année.