Morning, all. August 24th. Back, as promised.
School starts shortly. The new crop of frosh were born in 1997, if you can believe that – to them, Princess Diana has never been alive, and Kyoto has always been a synonym for climate change politics (check out the Beloit Mindset List for more of these ). Stormclouds line the economic horizon. It’s going to be an interesting year.
In the US, progress on any of the big issues in higher education are likely to be in suspension as the two parties spend months figuring out who their candidates are going to be. On the Democratic side, the presumptive candidate, Hilary Clinton, has put forward an ambitious plan for higher education, which, barring an absolute sweep at the polls, has almost no chance of passing Congress. On the Republican side, no one apart from Marco Rubio seems to care much about higher education, except for Scott Walker who seems to want to use higher education as a punching bag, much as his idol Ronald Reagan did fifty years ago.
Overseas, the most consequential potential development is in the UK where – if the government is to be taken at face value – for the first time anywhere, measured quality of teaching might meaningfully affect institutional resources. In the rest of Europe, the ongoing economic slump looks set to create new problems in many countries: in Finland, where GDP contracted for the third year in a row, government funding will be down roughly 8% from where it was last year. And that’s in one of the countries that thinks of itself as being particularly pro-education. Germany, Sweden, and (maybe) Poland look like the only countries that might resist the tide.
Here in Canada, the outlook remains that post-secondary education will continue to see below-inflation increases in government funding for the foreseeable future, except in Alberta where the new provincial government intends on giving institutions a big one-time boost, which may or may not be sustainable, depending on how oil and gas prices fare. This means resources will be scarce, and in-fighting for the spoils will be fierce. And this, in turn, means a lot of governance, a lot of wailing about “corporatization” (always a good epithet when funding decisions aren’t going your way), and – inevitably, given the recent events at UBC – a lot of arguments about resource allocations, dressed up as arguments about governance.
(In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what happened there, exactly. I do, however, believe three things: i) in a corporate context, the statements by the Board of Governors and interim President on Gupta’s departure are actually quite easily interpretable, and don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination; ii) if/when the truth comes out, it’ll be a hot mess of grey zones, and some of the wilder conspiracy rhetoric about the departure will seem ludicrous; and, iii) any theory positing that Gupta was fired for a lack of “masculinity” by a Board Chair who not only spent millions of his own dollars to create a dedicated Chair on Diversity in Leadership, but also that replaced said “unmacho” President with Martha Piper of all people, has more than one prima facie credibility problem.)
But behind all this, there’s a broader truth that I think the higher education community is being very slow to acknowledge. The era of growth is over. Higher education is not a declining industry, but it is a mature one, and this changes the nature of the game. In the aughts, Canadian university income increased faster as a proportion of GDP than pretty much any country in the world (Netherlands and Russia aside). It was a rising tide that raised all boats. And I mean that literally: as a share of the economy, universities grew by half a percentage point (from 1.4% to 1.9% according to the OECD, which I think is a bit of an underestimate), which is like adding more than the value of the entire fishing industry.
But those boats stopped rising a couple of years ago. Institutions with smug strategic plans about increasing excellence need to face reality that there’s no new money with which to achieve those goals: funds for new projects are, for the most part, going to have to come out of increased efficiencies, not new money. It’s tougher sailing from here on out – permanently. Institutions are going to need to be leaner, better managed, and more focused. However, the meaning of those terms are hardly uncontested in academia.
This should make for a fun year. Looking forward to it.