- Just some of the programs offered at Carleton
For a country as large a Canada it’s amazing what a fetish we make of smallness – with students packed into large institutions, there are economies of scale in terms of teaching and student services (admittedly, these economies are then splurged on research, but that’s a separate issue). But when it comes to attracting students, we try to hide bigness. Schools like to talk about how they “feel like” a small school, or give attention to students “as if it were” a small school.
This is a dumb idea for two reasons. First, it’s nonsense. Big schools can’t give a small school feel – they simply aren’t built to do so and it actually harms a university’s credibility and brand to pretend to be something they are not. That’s not to say big schools can’t give students a bit more of a human touch – the opposite of small administration needn’t be Borg-like administration – but raising expectations too high never does anyone any good.
Second, the attempt to play up smallness actually covers up big schools’ one enormous strength, and that is choice. Students love choice; if you look (as we do) at a lot of student surveys what becomes clear is that the most substantial critique students have of small schools is that they are, well, too small. As in, “limited.” Which isn’t something you can say about multiversities with a dozen or more faculties and 20,000 or more students.
Big means choice. Big means more options. Big means more opportunities. Big means not living for four years in a small community where everyone knows what you’re doing. One of the country’s comprehensive universities (my choices would be Ryerson, or Carleton, or perhaps Laval) needs to stand up in a strong marketing campaign and say “Proud to Be Big.” Not only would they stand out from the crowd, they’d be doing all other large-ish universities a service as well.
As we watch our southern neighbours slide into seemingly perpetual budget crises and many state universities undergo some brutal austerity, it’s worth thinking about the American crises’ global impacts on higher education.
Scientific talent is not distributed evenly around the world. If there’s one thing that the Shanghai rankings show, it’s how unbelievably deep the scientific talent pool is at American universities. But talent can move. Twice in the twentieth century, countries suffered major exoduses of scientific talent. In 1930s Germany, hundreds of key scholars migrated from Germany to (primarily) America, a process which not only boosted the Allied war effort enormously, but set the stage for a period of dominance of American science that has lasted for over 65 years.
Though not quite on the same scale, the 1990s saw an enormous movement of Russian scholars to new homes in Europe and America in order to escape the economic collapse and concomitant shortages of research funds. What’s about to happen in the U.S. will probably not be on quite the same scale, but you can’t expect universities in California, Illinois, Texas and elsewhere to suck up financial hits of 20 to 40% and not lose talented staff to universities who can make them a better offer. Lucky for them, a lot of OECD universities are getting smacked just as hard by austerity and thus aren’t in a position to outbid them. But that’s not quite true in Canada, Scandinavia, and Asia (where the National University of Singapore, for instance, is hiring aggressively). Here, there is the potential to accommodate refugees from American budget cuts.
The key question is: how best to take advantage of this? If you’re a truly aggressive (and strategic) school, you might take a gamble: front-load your hiring for the next few years and specifically target some promising staff at U.S. schools. Hire your next five years’ worth of profs this year and make sure 90% are from American institutions. Sure, it’ll mean short-term deficits, but hey – credit’s never been cheaper and top academic talent is the very definition of productive capital. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Memo to provosts: Carpe diem.
About two-and-a-half years ago I (along with my colleague Ryan Dunn) wrote a piece called On the Brink, which considered the then-looming recession and its effects on universities. Looking back on it now, I think we were mostly correct, with two exceptions.
First, I think we overestimated most governments’ desire to stay out of the red. Clearly, as a country, we may not have learned the lessons of the early 1990s as well as we might: governments have proven more willing to borrow – and more willing to keep spending high, including on higher education – than we expected. That’s been good for universities and colleges so far, though the prospect of large and swift cuts may have been delayed, not avoided.
Second, we overestimated the likelihood that governments would turn to tuition fees as a way to supplement revenue in the manner they did in the 1990s. Governments are choosing to couch this in the language of “preserving accessibility,” though the research on accessibility suggests tuition caps do considerably less than is asked of them: basically, every piece of serious research on the subject conducted during the last decade has suggested that modest tuition increases have little effect on accessibility. Nevertheless, university is such a common factor of middle class life that raising fees is considered a tax hike on the middle class, and has similar political consequences. We see this phenomenon at work in many U.S. states as well as Canadian provinces.
This attitude encourages governments to think of universities essentially as utilities. For institutions that had their sights set on something more – “world-classness,” say – this is a significant, long-term, strategic problem, if and when government funding tapers off. For research-intensive institutions, it may even be the defining problem of the next decade.