- 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.
One of the most startling things about Canada’s recent success in attracting international students is how easy it has all been. Australia and the U.K. took decades to build up their position in international higher education, and in the former case it took decades of government-backed investment in developing overseas networks. Our recent extraordinary spurt of growth in international higher education – particularly in the Indian market – came in the space of about five years in a comparatively uncoordinated way.
So are Canadians just brilliant at this stuff or are there other factors at work?
I’d argue for the latter. Consider that in recent years the Americans have been imposing ludicrous visa regimes, the U.K. has been making menacing noises about rejecting international students and Australia’s image has been tarnished by events that have highlighted problems of racism and student security. We’ve therefore reaped the benefits without making any serious investments ourselves. We didn’t hit a triple; we were born on third base.
But this situation isn’t going to last forever. Universities around the developed world are heading for big trouble financially, and they are all going to be spending more time trying to tap the foreign student market. And in the developing world, institutions are improving all the time and improving their value position vis-à-vis our own. Competition is going to increase, and it’s not clear how well placed we are to win.
At HESA, we’ve developed the Global Student Survey to examine the views of students in various exporting countries about education in general and international education in particular. Our India survey, available for purchase as of today, shows some of the obvious vulnerabilities that Canadian institutions have, and the value proposition and the rising competition from Indian institutions are clearly there.
More importantly, our national brand in education is a problem. We rank well behind the U.S. and U.K. as a destination in Indian students’ minds, and even Singapore and the U.A.E. peg above us in some categories. And whereas Indian students describe American, British and Singaporean higher education in terms that are generic synonyms for excellence, Canada gets described like this:
Forget the temporarily rosy enrolment statistics: we have a problem here. We ignore it at our peril.
The economics of higher education are pointing inexorably towards a two-tier faculty system; one in which research is rewarded, and one in which teaching is rewarded. If this wasn’t plain over the last fifteen years or so, it certainly should be by now.
So why haven’t Ph.D. programs shifted to adapt to this reality? If we’re looking at a future where there are at least as many graduates whose careers will depend upon their pedagogical prowess as upon research excellence, why aren’t their programs that cater to people heading down that career path?
The answer, of course, is because teaching remains a low-prestige endeavour and universities tend not to deliberately choose lower-prestige paths when they are already on a higher one. But that doesn’t preclude newer graduate programs from heading down this route. If I were president of a young, growing, mid-size university that was just starting to build significant doctoral programs (e.g., Lethbridge, University of Winnipeg, University of Northern British Columbia), I’d be sorely tempted to to follow this pathway.
Think about it: if you’ve got no chance of duking it out with the big boys and girls of the U-15 for major research dollars, why not create your own strategy and your own market? Target people who want to teach. Provide them not just with doctoral-level training but also with a full set of courses in pedagogical theory. For bonus marks, make sure they understand how pedagogy works in e-learning and give them the skills to develop their own course-ware. It would give students an enormous advantage in landing a job.
We’re all used to colleges advertising their success rates in placing their graduates. Given how coming budget cuts are likely to make it even more difficult to land academic jobs, we shouldn’t be surprised if grad schools soon start adopting that same strategy. The institution that gets out in front on a teaching-oriented Ph.D. will likely do exceedingly well on that metric.