A quick note: the OTTSYD will be on brief hiatus next week, as I’ll be in Japan and won’t have regular access to my computer. Not to worry, though, we’ll pick back up on the 18th.
Anyways: I was asked recently what I thought was the most important challenge for post-secondary education in Canada at the moment. Resisting (barely) the flip answer “money”, I eventually settled on the allied concept of “learning how to promote economic growth and prosperity”.
Now, I know this theme is anathema to many in universities, who prefer to think of institutions as places to promote the pursuit of truth, beauty, etc. Without wishing to dispute the importance of these goals, the pursuit of economic growth is simply a matter of self-interest. Universities and colleges are not getting more money from tuition any time soon, largely because the perception of costs has drifted a long way from the actual net costs. And as we saw earlier this week, there’s no new money coming from government this year, or any time in the near future. The culprits? A mix of adverse demographic trends and persistent slow economic growth.
Universities and colleges can’t do much about demographic change – they could be slightly less zealous about condom distribution during O-week, I suppose, but the pay-off is pretty long-term – but they can probably do something about economic growth. In theory, PSE institutions can help themselves by working-out how to catalyze prosperity. The problem is that universities, in particular, may not actually want to make the necessary changes to make this happen.
Let’s start by agreeing that we don’t actually know what specific higher education policies would maximize prosperity. There’s this assumption that whatever we do now must be improving things, so let’s just continue on with only incremental changes. But we actually have no idea if we’re teaching the right mix of skills, or competencies, or degrees to maximize growth. We don’t know whether institutions can do more for growth by focusing on a few highly-qualified personnel (mostly PhDs), or by providing better education to a mass of students unlikely to go past the Bachelor’s level. We don’t know what amount or types of experiential learning might be optimal. And while obviously it would be better all around if we understood these things, one still has to ask the question: if we knew the answer, would our institutions actually change as a result? Or would internal resistance to things like more co-op, or a greater focus on undergraduate education (or whatever) stop them from doing the “right” thing?
It’s a similar case with research. Say we had a better idea about how different types of research impacted short-, medium- and long-term growth, and we could say with some precision that re-jigging the system to be more/less focused on basic research, or more less/focused on (say) Life Sciences would likely result in larger economic payouts. We don’t have any such idea of course – you’d think someone would have cracked some of this by now, but they haven’t – but if they had, would anyone whose research specialty/style not among the “correct” categories voluntarily change their research programs to help promote economic prosperity? My guess is they’d sooner spend a lot of time contesting the economic research.
So there’s a choice here for institutions: continue doing what they are doing and worry about declining resources, or change things up to focus more on economic dynamism, and reaping rewards of higher income? This is a discussion worth having sooner rather than later.