Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 09

How to Prepare for a Punch in the Mouth

Universities and colleges love their strategic plans.  Plans beget task lists.  Task lists beget work agendas.  Work agendas beget Targets.  Targets beget Annual Evaluations.  And all of it provides a serene sense of control: a belief that we can control the future simply by planning our future work flows.

The thing is, it’s mostly nonsense.

To see why, consider Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless.  But planning is indispensable”.  Or boxer Mike Tyson, who once said “everybody’s got a plan… until they get punched in the mouth”.

There are a lot of punches in the mouth lurking out there.  What happens when you build your strategic plan on providing teacher training, and then the government changes the funding formula?  That’s a punch in the mouth.  Build out your law faculty just as the industry shifts and student demand tumbles?  Also a punch in the mouth.  Give out a 2% faculty raise just before the government decides to impose a 7% cut?  You’d better believe that’s a punch in the mouth.  And no strategic plan protects you from that.

But if strategic plans are bunk, strategic planning still makes a great deal of sense.  As Lawrence Freedman says in his rather excellent Strategy: A History, strategy is about employing whatever resources are available to achieve the best outcome.  As resources change, so do strategic options.  Hence Eisenhower’s comment about the importance of planning, even in the absence of plans.  As situations change, it’s important to think through new ways of getting to the desired objective or – if resources get scarce enough – to entirely redefine the objectives.  The best strategies are thus ones that are open-ended.  This is why plans – things that attempt to set the future in stone – can sometimes be the antithesis of good strategy, especially in turbulent times.

All you really need to guide an organization is: 1) a sense of where you want to go, 2) some ideas about how to get there, and 3) a set of metrics to know whether you’re getting there.  The real problem most universities have is being able to articulate where they want to go.  Partly, this is because institutions often describe goals in mindless and nebulous ways (e.g. “we will achieve excellence”).  But it’s also partly because many professors have almost no interest in the collective success of a university, seeing it merely as an administrative platform for their own research interests.  Colleges, which have a much more inclusive sense of institutional purpose, have an enormous advantage over universities in this respect, which makes their plans and their strategy much more cohesive.

In short: planning is important to keep a sense of direction.  But plans?  They take up a lot of time and are often out-of-date by the time they are implemented.  More of the former and less of the latter, please.

October 08

The War Between Universities and Disciplines

From the outside, universities look like a single united entity, with many administrative subdivisions – kind of the organizational equivalent of the United States.  However, the closer political analogy is actually early 1990s Yugoslavia: at a very basic level, universities are the sites of permanent civil wars between central authorities and the disciplines whose interests they purportedly serve.

Disciplines – which, except for law and theology, mostly started their existence outside universities – allowed themselves to be subsumed within universities over the course of the early 20th century.  They did so for administrative reasons, not intellectual ones; bref, it seemed like a good bargain because universities offered a way for disciplines to obtain much larger amounts of money than they could get on their own.  Governments (and to a lesser degree, philanthropists) found it easier to do business with universities than with, say, random groups of anthropologists or chemists.  Similarly, banding together within a university made it easier for disciplines to attract the ever-growing number of students and, with them, their tuition dollars.  The deal was that the anthropologists and chemists would lend their prestige to universities, and in return the university would take care of raising the money necessary to meet academics’ need for space, students, and steady pay cheques.  The idea that the university had any corporate interests that superseded those of the disciplines at an intellectual level was simply a non-starter: disciplinary interests would remain supreme.  As far as academics were concerned that was – and is – the deal.

Thus, there is little that drives academics crazier than the idea that a university might deign to choose between the various disciplines when it dispenses cash.  If an institution, in response to an external threat (e.g. a loss of government funding), says something like, “hey, you know what?  We should stop spending so much money on programs that lose money, and redistribute it to programs that might attract more outside money”, they are immediately pilloried by academics because who the hell gave the university the right to decide which disciplines are more valuable than others?  When you hear people bemoaning universities acting “corporately”, this is usually what they’re on about.

This attitude, which seems so normal to academics, provokes absolute bewilderment from the outside world (particularly governments and philanthropists), who believe universities are a single corporate entity.  But they’re not.  As ex-University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins said, universities are a collection of warring professional fiefdoms, connected by a common steam plant.  A more recent formulation, from the excellent New America Foundation analyst Kevin Carey, is that the modern university is just a holding company for a group of departments, which in turn are holding companies for a group of individual faculty research interests.  In other words, Yugoslavia.

But the actual point of a university, the reason for its existence beyond sheer administrative convenience, is that it serves the advancement of knowledge by getting the disciplines to act together to tackle problems in ways they would not do so independently.  And that means that the university’s raison d’etre is, in fact, to continually make choices on resource allocation across disciplines, to the areas that make the most sense, both financially and intellectually.

Yet there exists within universities a substantial and determined constituency that claims it is immoral for institutions to make such choices.  Much of the incoherence, idiocy, and sheer weenieness of university “strategy” documents come from senior managers trying to square this circle: appearing to make choices, while acting in deference to the autonomous disciplinary republics, to avoid actually making any.

In short, strong disciplines are necessary and important to insure academic quality.  But letting them run the university is madness.

October 07

Do the Poor Really Pay More?

There’s a trope out there that goes something like this: “Loans are unfair because interest on the loans means that needy students pay more in total to go to school than students who don’t need a loan“.  If it were true, this would indeed be problematic.  But the thing is, for the most part, it’s not.

Let’s follow two hypothetical students: Claudia and Eveline.  Claudia can manage to pay $25,000 for her four years of tuition, upfront; Eveline cannot, and she borrows $25K from Canada Student Loans and her provincial student aid program over four years.  Assume that inflation is a constant 2%, and that interest during the repayment period is 6.25% (over the last few years, real interest rates have floated between 400 and 450 basis points above inflation).

Student loans carry zero interest during the in-study period.  This means students actually make money while they’re borrowing because inflation eats away at the value of the loan before they’re required to pay it back.  In Eveline’s case, she effectively makes $1,125 between the September she starts and graduation day.

Then, of course, things start to work in the other direction.  Assuming Eveline takes eight years to pay off her student loan, she ends up making $4,321 in interest payments (figure is net of inflation).  Take away the $1,125 that Eveline “made” during the in-study period and the net interest cost comes to $3,196.

If that were the end of the story, the people who claim loans are “unfair” would be right; we would be discriminating against the poor.  But that’s not the end of the story because people who get loans usually also get grants.

If you’re an independent student making less than $38K per year and you apply for aid, you are nailed-on for an extra $2,000 per year – that’s $8,000 over the course of a degree.  Ditto if you’re a dependent student and your parents make less than $38K.  If you’re a dependent student and your parents make less than (roughly) $76K, you’re nailed-on for another $800/month – or exactly $3,200 over four years, which wipes out the interest cost of the loan.  Plus, of course, you get 15% of all interest paid as a tax credit – which means you actually come out ahead by a few hundred dollars.

Are there borrowers who don’t come out ahead?  Yes.  Those who borrowed but had family income high enough that they didn’t qualify for the middle-income grant likely wouldn’t receive a grant to offset the loan interest amount.  Borrowers who take more than eight years might end up with higher interest charges not covered by their grants (and possible remission).  There are enough variables here that it’s hard to say how many people this might include.  But remember – the base population that doesn’t get sufficient offsetting grants consists of dependent students with family incomes over $80K, that’s *maybe* 20% of all borrowers (and not the poorest 20% by any means).  Or to put it another way: probably something like 80% of borrowers are receiving more in subsidies than they pay in real interest over the life of their loan.

That’s a good thing – an outcome of our generous, if opaque, student aid system.  We should acknowledge it, celebrate it, and most of all get the usual suspects who adore this talking point to shut up about it.

October 06

Remembering the Axworthy Green Paper

It was 20 years ago today that then-Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy presented the findings from his long-awaited “Green Paper” on social security to the House of Commons (the paper itself was released the day before, on October 5, 1994).  The back-drop:  Lucien Bouchard was leader of the opposition, Jacques Parizeau was the new Premier of Quebec, and we were on track for a referendum the following year.  Unemployment was over 10 percent; for youth, it was 20 percent.  Our basket-case status led to a run on the currency; the price of defending it was sky-high interest rates.  Interest payments on the federal debt were eating-up close to a third of the federal budget, so citizens were paying $1 for about 70 cents worth of services, and feeling pretty ornery about it. 

Basically, we were screwed.

By late summer it was clear that the Liberals were going to take an axe to pretty much everything in the next budget.  Where PSE was concerned, the day was looming when cash transfers would drop to zero and Established Programs Financing (the CHST was yet to be created) would become a tax-point-only affair.  It was at this juncture that HRDC minister Lloyd Axworthy decided there was no time like the present to start talking about re-designing Canada’s social security system, including student assistance.  This was either extraordinarily brave or face-palmingly stupid, depending on your point of view.

The upshot of the Axworthy student aid proposals – articulated in the general social security “Green Paper” of October 1994, and in a subsequent student aid “White Paper” in November – had its roots in some ideas that had been percolating 25 years earlier during Pearson’s second-term, when Tom Kent was the Liberals’ Policy guru.  Instead of sending money to the provinces to support higher education, why not give that money to students, either through scholarships or – this was the new bit, based on Ottawa’s straightened circumstances – loans.  And of course, this being the early 1990s, these were going to be income-contingent repayment (ICR) loans.

ICRs were all the rage in the early 90s.  Australia and Sweden had recently introduced them (Bill Clinton was in the midst of doing the same in the US), and in the former case, at least, they had permitted the introduction of fees that had made institutions better off, and permitted a major increase in university capacity – and all without negatively affecting access.  But of course, since it involved higher fees, the usual suspects in Canada had an aneurism, which led to an autumn of student protests.  Students and PSE institutions united, arguing that they wanted federal funding to go through institutions, not students.

The reforms died with a whimper – with little third-party support, the reforms basically died on the night of the 1995 budget, when transfers to provinces were slashed with no concomitant change in the loan programs.  But in the medium-term, the Liberals actually ended up accidentally enacting much of the Axworthy agenda.  Student Loans became substantially income-contingent through the improvement of Interest Relief (which later evolved into today’s Repayment Assistance Program), and transfers to students to pay for higher fees increased substantially through education tax credits, grants, and educations savings programs.  In fact, by the early 2000s, the feds had more or less replaced a couple of billion in transfers to provinces with an equal-sized set of transfers to individuals without anyone (including possibly themselves) really noticing.

The Green Paper was one of the great might-have-beens in Canadian social policy.  But because it’s remembered (not entirely correctly) as a failure, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything that ambitious in social policy ever again.  Shame.

October 03


I went on a bit of a bender this summer reading histories of Canadian universities, and I really enjoyed them all.  Hugh Johnston’ Radical Campus, a history of Simon Fraser’s frankly batty early years was probably the most interesting, but I also quite enjoyed histories from Manitoba, Carleton, and Bishop’s.

But I wanted to tell you my absolute favourite story from my summer reading, which concerns the creation of the Atlantic Veterinary College. It comes from the pages of that institution’s official history, entitled Pets, Professors and Politicians, by Marian Bruce.

Dial back to 1973.  It’s decided that the Maritimes needs its own Veterinary School.  With inter-provincial cooperation being in vogue, all provinces agree to jointly fund one – and the feds even agreed to put up the initial capital costs.  But where to put it?  And who should decide?  Well, the short-stick went to the newly created Maritime Provinces Higher Education Council (MPHEC), who duly created an expert committee to evaluate various sites.  Eventually, they decided to award it to the recently-created University of Prince Edward Island.

At this point all hell broke loose.  UPEI faculty were aghast at the idea of – sniff! – *vocational* education at their little liberal arts college, and promptly went into a decade-long snit.  Joining them in said snit was the government of Nova Scotia, who, it turned out, only agreed to jointly-fund the project because they expected MPHEC to pick the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro (recently absorbed by Dalhousie) as the site.  When that didn’t happen, it found excuses not to pay up. This in turn stalled the federal contribution for capital construction, since they wouldn’t fund unless all parties were playing nicely.

It took until 1983 for all the disputes to be settled and the signing ceremony to be held.  It was to be a big deal for the whole island.  So it was a bit disconcerting when, the night before the ceremony, the Premier’s Chief of Staff received a phone call from the Deputy Minister of Agriculture in Ottawa.  He bore news that the Minister wasn’t coming unless they changed the School’s name.

The name “Atlantic Veterinary School” was pretty straightforward, as these things go.  But the federal Minster – the unforgettable Eugene Whelan – was very intrigued with possibility that the school could contribute to aquatic farming, and aqua-culture generally.  And he had his heart set on a different name.

“What does he want us to call it?” asked the Chief of Staff.

“Atlantic Veterinary and Aquamarine College” said the Deputy.

The Chief of Staff thought about this.  “Isn’t Aquamarine a colour?”  The Deputy agreed that this was the case, but that the Minister was intransigent.

Now, Whelan did eventually relent and come to the signing – albeit about 5 hours late.  During those five hours, the Nova Scotia University Presidents seized their chance to cable their Minister (who of course was stuck in Charlottetown with the delay) with a final plea – it wasn’t too late, they said, to renege on the inter-provincial funding agreement and spend that money on Nova Scotia universities instead.

Honestly, I think this story has everything you need to understand higher education in Canada: pointless inter-provincial bickering, pointless interference from Ottawa, and pointless snobbery from humanities professors.  What is not pointless in all of this is the college itself, which has grown and thrived for more than 30 years now, and is a major scientific centre on the country’s east coast.  Mazel’tov, guys.

October 02

Too Big to Fail?

Here’s a serious question: are universities too big to fail?  And if so, what are the consequences of that?

If we had a fully public system, with tight government oversight on budgets, and no deficit spending – sort of like what much of continental Europe has – this wouldn’t be an issue.  By definition, public institutions couldn’t fail (though presumably a government would be free to close an institution should it wish to do so).   But the existence of institutional financial autonomy changes things.  Who, ultimately, bears the responsibility for an institution’s finances?  What happens if things go wrong?

One of the interesting things about the very market-driven reforms in both Australia and England is the assumption that universities are, at the end of the day, on their own.  They can have their freedom – especially to raise fees – but the flip side is that no one’s going to bail them out, either.  That might sound a little crazy to Canadians, who tend to think of campuses as next to immortal, but the fact is they’re not.  If people don’t attend universities, they go under.  It happens all the time with international campuses (think of Waterloo’s venture in the Emirates), and there’s a long history of private universities going under in the US (think Antioch College’s 2008 flame-out).  Even in Canada, we’ve had closures (or rather, closures thinly disguised as mergers – Augustana College in Alberta being the most obvious).

The Canadian view here reflects a very deep ambivalence on the part of governments about the role of markets in higher education.  By and large, governments love it – LOVE IT! – when entrepreneurial universities make money through licensing, or get foreign students to cough up cash for courses, because that means institutions are less likely to come banging on government’s door for money.  They are significantly less enthusiastic about universities getting local students to cough up money for courses, because that means parents come banging on their doors.  And they are positively allergic to the idea that a campus might lose serious money doing something entrepreneurial – or worse, try to cut services in order to make ends meet.

As a result, Canadian governments laud entrepreneurial universities in public, but stifle them in private.  And the reason for this is that governments are unwilling to risk the public opprobrium that would come from a major campus closure.  At the end of the day, governments know they would be forced to step in because universities really are too big to fail.

Only one province is actually honest about the implication of this: British Columbia.  There, precisely because the government feels ultimately responsible for institutional survival, institutions do not have the freedom either to build their own buildings (even if they raise their own cash) or to negotiate independently with staff (the province insists that settlements meet specific public-sector-wide guidelines).  My guess is that over time, most Canadian governments will converge on the BC model because institutions are, in fact, too big to fail, and as a people, we’re scared of failure. But that policy is not without cost: making universities safe can also make it more difficult for them to excel.

It would be great if one day we had a debate where we talked honestly about the pros and cons of institutional autonomy and markets in higher education, instead fumbling around addressing symptoms rather than causes, and dealing in slogans rather than empirics.  But that wouldn’t be very Canadian, would it?

October 01

A Venn Diagram About Skills Gaps

Short and sweet today, folks, as I know you’re all busy.

We’ve done a lot of research over the years at HESA Towers.  We read up on what employers want – and we also do studies that look at how recent graduates fare in the labour market, and what they wish they’d had more of while in university.  And pretty much, without exception, regardless of field of study, those two sources agree on what students need to be better-prepared for the labour market.
















So, want to give your grads a boost in the labour market?  Figure out how to give them those basic business skills.  Experiential learning is probably the most effective way to do it, but there are other ways, as well, both inside and outside the classroom.

It’s that simple.  Well, not simple at all really.  But at least the problem is well-defined.

September 30

The Problem with Global Reputation Rankings

I was in Athens this past June, at an EU-sponsored conference on rankings, which included a very intriguing discussion about the use of reputation indicators that I thought I would share with you.

Not all rankings have reputational indicators; the Shanghai (ARWU) rankings, for instance, eschew them completely.  But QS and Times Higher Education (THE) rankings both weight them pretty highly (50% for QS, 35% for THE).  But this data isn’t entirely transparent.  THE, who release their World University Rankings tomorrow,  hides the actual reputational survey results for teaching and research by combining each of them with some other indicators (THE has 13 indicators, but it only shows 5 composite scores).  The reasons for doing this are largely commercial; if, each September, THE actually showed all the results individually, they wouldn’t be able to reassemble the indicators in a different way to have an entirely separate “Reputation Rankings” release six months later (with concomitant advertising and event sales) using exactly the same data.  Also, its data collection partner, Thomson Reuters, wouldn’t be able to sell the data back to institutions as part of its Global Institutional Profiles Project.

Now, I get it, rankers have to cover their (often substantial) costs somehow, and this re-sale of hidden data is one way to do it (disclosure: we at HESA did this with our Measuring Academic Research in Canada ranking.  But given the impact that rankings have for universities, there is an obligation to get this data right.  And the problem is that neither QS nor THE publish enough information about their reputation survey to make a real judgement about the quality of their data – and in particular about the reliability of the “reputation” voting.

We know that the THE allows survey recipients to nominate up to 30 institutions as being “the best in the world” for research and teaching, respectively (15 from one’s home continent, and 15 worldwide); the QS allows 40 (20 from one’s own country, 20 world-wide).  But we have no real idea about how many people are actually ticking the boxes on each university.

In any case, an analyst at an English university recently reverse-engineered the published data for UK universities to work out voting totals.  The resulting estimate is that, among institutions in the 150-200 range of the THE rankings, the average number of votes obtained for either research or teaching is in the range of 30-to-40, at best.  Which is astonishing, really.  Given that reputation counts for one third of an institution’s total score, it means there is enormous scope for year-to-year variations  – get 40 one year and 30 the next, and significant swings in ordinal rankings could result.  It also makes a complete mockery of the “Top Under 50” rankings, where 85% of institutions rank well below the top 200 in the main rankings, and therefore are likely only garnering a couple of votes apiece.  If true, this is a serious methodological problem.

For commercial reasons, it’s impossible to expect the THE to completely open the kimono on its data.  But given the ridiculous amount of influence its rankings have, it would be irresponsible of it – especially since it is allegedly a journalistic enterprise – not to at least allow some third party to inspect its data and give users a better sense of its reliability.  To do otherwise reduces the THE’s ranking exercise to sham social science.

September 29

Differentiation and Branding From the Student Perspective

One question that always comes up (or should come up, anyway) in discussions of university branding and positioning is: “how different is our institution, really”?  Well, for a few years, when we ran the Globe and Mail Canadian University Report survey, we used to ask students questions that would allow us to see how different students thought their university was.  The results were… interesting.

We asked students to locate their institution on an 11-point double-ended scale.  Did they think their institution was more focussed on graduate students or undergraduates?  Was it focussed on a couple of key fields of study, or more spread out?  Focussed on global issues or local ones?  Was it open to new ideas, or cautious about them? Did students have to be self-sufficient, or was the institution a nurturing one?  Was the curriculum more theoretical or applied? Was the student body homogeneous or diverse?  And, broadly, was it professor-centred or student-centred?  We could then plot their answers on a spidergram to show how institutions differed from one another.  What we found was an interesting degree of clustering, which allowed us to make specific categorizations of institutions.

The most definable groups of institutions were what we called the Liberal Arts schools – mostly small schools where students described their institution as undergrad-focussed, very nurturing, and not focussed on a particular field of study.  This includes the usual suspects at Acadia, Mt. Allison. St. FX, but also the religious schools (e.g. Redeemer, Trinity Western), the Western Colleges (Brescia, Huron, King’s) and Guelph (but not Trent).  The other big clustering of schools were what we called the “graduate-focussed schools”.  This was basically the U-15, minus McGill, U of T St. George (though the other U of T campuses qualified), Waterloo, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, but including Carleton, SFU and Concordia.  These two groups position themselves on the spidergram as follows:

Figure 1: Positioning Results for “Graduate” and “Liberal Arts” Schools














Note: The further a line is to the edge of the spidergram, the more the value tends towards the first word in the axis description (e.g. “graduate” rather than “undergraduate”).

There were a number of individual schools that had very distinct profiles.  Waterloo, for instance, looks entirely unlike every other institution. Students there are much more likely to describe their institution as open to change (a trait which is significantly correlated with student satisfaction), and much more likely to describe their institution as being “focussed” on a few key areas.  OCAD University was by far the most likely to be described as having an applied curriculum and a student-centred program.  McGIll and Toronto (St. George) had weirdly identical results (i.e. their students described them in *exactly* the same terms), describing them as being much more global, much more graduate focussed, and much more sink-or-swim (i.e. NOT nurturing) than other schools.

Figure 2: Positioning Results for OCAD University, University of Waterloo and McGill/University of Toronto (St. George)














Now, here’s the important bit.  The results from every other school in the country, from Trent to Saint Mary’s, to Fraser Valley, to Saskatchewan and Manitoba – were basically one big lump.  None of these institutions really stood out in any way – basically, students just described these places as “school”.  None had any real distinguishing characteristics on which you could build a sensible brand.  If they had a colour, they would be beige.

If you view higher education as one more social service where the goal is provide a uniform product to students everywhere, this is a good thing.  But if you think universities should be distinct entities, catering to varying niche tastes that evolve over time, it’s a pretty depressing picture.

September 26

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa

A couple of weeks ago, I promised I would tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the entirely Maori-run polytechnic with over 35,000 students.  So here it is.

The 1970s saw significant Aboriginal cultural revivals in many parts of the world.  Aboriginal higher education – or at least the access of aboriginal peoples to mainstream higher education – was a significant part of that.  In Canada, the struggle was mostly about gaining a foothold in mainstream institutions; in the United States, the focus was much more on creating aboriginal-controlled institutions, known as tribal colleges and universities.  In New Zealand, the Maori journey in higher education was similar to the US in that it involved creating their own separate institutions, and then later seeking recognition for them.  The result was a class of institutions called “Wānangas” (a term that roughly equates with “knowledge”).

The first Wānanga (Te Wānanga o Raukawa) focused mostly on language and culture, and had relatively small enrolments (still under 1,000).  The second, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, was more focussed on skill acquisition – mainly Maori arts and crafts, but also with courses in tourism and computer skills.  They were a fairly marginal institution, too, until they caught a big break in the late 1980s when the Education Act was being re-written.  At the time, New Zealand’s governing Labour Party was putting the country through a major free-market revolution.  In education, that meant caring more about outcomes and outputs than about the provider’s pedigree.  It was also a time when the government was making concerted efforts to improve relations between Maori and Pakeha, and treat the Treaty of Waitangi with some respect.  And so, when it came time to write the Act, they decided to give Wānanga status as a fourth official type of tertiary education, alongside universities, polytechnics, and privates.  That guaranteed them some annual funding, but because the government was in financial straits, there was no money available for capital.                                

That’s where things got interesting.  Part of the whole return to the Treaty of Waitangi involved creating a Treaty Tribunal to adjudicate cases where Maori felt that public policy were not in keeping with the terms of the treaty.  Te Wānanga o Aotearoa decided to challenge the capital funding policy, arguing that they were a recognized form of education but had been unable to benefit, as others had, from public capital spending.  The tribunal agreed with them, handing the Wānanga what looked to be a whopping cash settlement.  Cannily, however, they played a long game and negotiated a reduced settlement on capital in exchange for a straight per-student funding agreement with – and this is crucial – no cap on numbers.

It was at this point that all manner of fun broke loose.  The funding deal allowed Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to indulge all its most entrepreneurial instincts, and the school went from having 1,000 students in 1998 to having 65,000 students in 2002.  This involved a lot of institutional change in terms of widening the scope of the types of programs it offered, and it involved a lot of community delivery – at one point they had over 300 teaching sites.  Its ability to attract significant numbers of non-Maori students – particularly recent immigrants – was another important factor.

But it also involved cutting some corners.  In 2005, the Auditor-General came down hard on the school, suggesting (basically) that while Te Wānanga o Aotearoa may have done wonders in expanding access, it would have been nice if they had kept some actual receipts for their spending.  The resultant tighter enforcement rules drove down enrolments to roughly 30,000, where they remain today.  In the short-term, that caused a bit of a financial crisis, as well as layoffs.  But in the longer term it probably made the organization stronger, and it remains by far the world’s largest aboriginal-controlled institution of higher education, delivering thousands of recognized tertiary credentials each year, including some at the Bachelor’s level.

The Wānanga model is not one we’ve adopted in Canada, but for those leaders in government and aboriginal organizations seeking to expand educational opportunities for aboriginal Canadians, there are a lot of important lessons to be drawn from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa’s experience.  We should pay heed to them.

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