I was in Regina last week speaking to the university’s senior management team about challenges in Canadian post-secondary education, when someone asked a really intriguing question.
“Given the changing demographics of Canada, with fewer traditional-aged students, are there any examples of good practice of universities altering their programming serving non-traditional students instead”?
I have to admit, I was stumped.
You’d think, for instance, that maritime universities, who have been facing demographic decline for quite some time, would have some experience of this, but they don’t, really. Think about it: when Memorial started hurting for students because of Newfoundland’s awful demographics, the main response was to lower tuition fees and begin raiding other nearby provinces for traditional-aged students. In the rest of the maritimes, they’ve been sucking traditional-aged students out of Ontario for a couple of decades now, and the primary solution to any shortfall now is to go looking for traditional-aged students in other parts of the world.
From Statistics Canada
There have, admittedly, been some advances recently in attracting non-traditional-aged students in Northern Ontario and the Prairies – specifically, Aboriginal students, who tend to arrive at university in their mid- to late-20s (often after having had children). But even here, what they are doing for the most part is trying to put in as many supports as possible so that they can be taught as if they were traditional, full-time students. One might conclude that universities are going to great lengths to avoid re-engineering themselves to serve older populations.
Taking demographics seriously means that some universities are going to have to move towards much more modular delivery of courses, more e-learning alternatives, and more evening courses. There are pockets of this, of course, but it hardly constitutes a major trend. Generally speaking, community colleges and polytechnics have been doing much better on this front than universities.
As the demographic shift continues, what happens if governments conclude that they should put more resources on lifelong learning and less on traditional-aged students? That possibility may open up some big opportunities for those institutions (mostly colleges) who have already invested heavily in this kind of delivery, and leave those institutions (mostly universities) who have not politically quite vulnerable.
It’s a big day at HESA, as it’s release day for our final report on the Consultation on the Expansion of Degree-granting in Saskatchewan that we’ve been working on for a few months (available here). I can’t tell you what it says before it comes out – but I would like to talk about one of the key themes of the report: trust.
If you issue degrees, people need to be able to trust that the degree means something. In particular, students need to know that a degree from a given institution will be seen as a mark of quality by employers; otherwise, the degree is worthless. Worldwide, the function of quality assurance agencies – third-parties giving seals of approval either to individual programs or to institutions generally (either by looking directly at quality or by looking at an institution’s internal quality control mechanisms) – is to assure the public that degrees are trustworthy.
In Canada, many people have looked askance at these bodies, seeing them as unnecessary bureaucratic intrusions. “We never needed these before,” people grumble. “Why do we need them now?”
To an extent, the grumblers have a point. Trust is usually earned through relationships. People in, say, Fredericton, trust UNB not because some agency tells them to trust it but because it’s been granting degrees for going on 200 years now; they’ve seen the graduates and can gauge the quality for themselves. This is true across most universities in Canada; they’re old, solid and hardly fly-by-night and people know who they are. And there tend not to be more than four in any given urban area, so pretty much everyone knows someone who went to school “X” and can thus gauge an institution’s quality directly.
But what happens when you let new players, like private universities or community colleges, into the degree-granting game? What happens when universities start having to look abroad for students? How can employers in Canada trust new players? How can employers in Turkey or Vietnam trust any Canadian university they’ve never heard of?
Canada was able to get away without quality assurance for so long mainly because our system of giving a relatively small number of large public universities a monopoly over degree-granting was well-suited to engendering trust – especially when 90% of their students were local. But open up degree-provision, or widen the scope of your student base, and suddenly trust isn’t automatic anymore. You need a third-party to give a seal of approval to replace the trust that used to come naturally.
Quality assurance isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. But it isn’t the frivolous, makework bureaucracy the grumblers criticize, either. Rather, it’s a rational response to changing patterns in the provision and consumption of higher education.