Recently I was asked about what I thought the big upcoming challenges – beyond the regular budget stuff – were for universities and colleges. From the shortest-term to the longest-term, my answer was:
Not Getting Ahead of the Metrics Game. A perennial topic, but no less important for that. In every recession, governments re-double their efforts to manage the system through metrics. The odds are very strong that government-designed metrics are going to be goofy in the extreme (anyone remember KPIs based on student loan default rates?). If institutions sit back and say “quantitative metrics are bad,” governments will impose metrics anyway. Institutions need to engage with metrics and come up with their own good performance measures before they get less useful ones imposed on them.
Internationalization Backfires. Right now, everyone assumes that funding holes can be plugged with international students. How long do you think it will be before the nasty cries of cries of “foreigners are keeping Canadians out of Canadian universities” begin? Will it start when the percentage of foreign students hits 15%? 20%? 30%? Nobody knows, but there has to be an upper-bound. Intriguingly, U.S. public flagship institutions – who after decades of ignoring the undergraduate market are suddenly going gangbusters on international recruitment – seem to be tacitly settling on somewhere between 15-20%. A lot of big Canadian schools are already close to or above that.
The Switch from Jobs to Productivity. As the labour force shrinks, so too will unemployment. While jobs for youth is a big deal now, it won’t be too long before tightening labour markets mean that jobs will be chasing youth, not the other way around. Two consequences: one, the opportunity cost of PSE will rise, making it harder to attract domestic students and two, no one is going to care about how many of your graduates get jobs. Rather, they will focus on the much crunchier question of whether your graduates help improve productivity and competitiveness and so help pay for our welfare state. How will that be measured? Interesting question.
The Research Model Breaks. Government invests in curiosity-driven university research because they think it has a trickle-down effect which leads to more generalized productivity gains. Yet the actual evidence in favour of that proposition isn’t exceptionally good. Even in the U.S., this belief only dates back to the early 1970s – and can anyone really say that productivity gains from science are better now than they were in the much more centralized research ecosystem of the 1940s, 50s and 60s? And what happens if productivity-obsessed governments conclude a new model is therefore needed?
Only the first of these is imminent; but the rest aren’t far over the horizon. Forewarned is forearmed.