One of the delights of working in international higher education is that while higher education is pretty much isomorphic the world over, it’s not entirely so. There’s not so much variation that expertise isn’t transferable, but not so little that you can’t be learn something new by appreciating another country’s system. One are of particular interest is student accommodations and student services.
In North America we take it for granted that student services and residence are a responsibility of institutions – who else would do it? But there are at least two answers to that the private sector could do it, or a public corporation not associated with a particular institution could do it.
If you hang out near universities for any length of time in Australia, for instance, you’ll see plenty of private-sector solutions for student housing. Companies build cheap, small-ish dorms (50-100 occupants) near universities, and rent them to students. Which university? Doesn’t matter. So long as you’re a student, they’ll rent you a small single apartment. It’s nothing special – IKEA to the max – but for someone looking for something cheap and full of fellow students, it makes a lot of sense.
(Some – but by no means all – of the companies building and operating student residences seem to be international in scope. I met and chatted with representatives of one such company at NAFSA in Denver earlier this year and for the life of me I cannot figure out how this makes sense. Every country has its own laws and building codes so where would economies of scale accrue? Still, apparently someone thinks there’s money to be made in this business.)
In Europe, however, there is a different approach: national student services companies. In Germany, Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW), a government-funded non-profit, is responsible for a network of student residences scattered across the country an addition to canteens and counseling services at a number of universities. In France, a similarly-organized CNOUS is responsible for residences alongside things like student exchanges. DSW also provides certain other services for students like Legal Aid and assistance in obtaining student financial assistance (DSW in some ways seems to think of itself at least partially as a protector/champion of student rights somewhat in opposition to the universities and government). The important thing here is that residence is not tied to enrollment in a particular university. At a given residence in Munich or Berlin you might find students from one of a number of local institutions.
Now, you can see some real advantages to this. First, an organization which specializes in student services might be more effective in performing it than one that sometimes views it as tangential to the “main” mission (say, at your average research university). Second, it might be cheaper and more efficient. In Montreal, why duplicate housing services across UQAM, McGill and Concordia, all of which are within five stops of each other on the city’s Green Line? Why not stick them all together?
But what’s possible in Europe isn’t always possible in North America. Until fairly recently in Europe, universities were much more creatures of government than North American ones ever were – having a different state agency take over part of the system was no big deal (hell, Max Planck and CNRS took over most of the research mission so why not student services?) In North America, institutions (some of them, anyway) think of student services as part of their value proposition, an element on which they compete with other institutions. Until very recently, that notion of inter-institutional “competition” was mostly absent from the European way of thinking.
In truth, the real reason most universities in North America wold be loath to take a European route is that residences matter for alumni donations. Research on this is pretty clear: the shine people take to their university is closely related to the strength of the attachments they form while there. And though residences aren’t the only place students form attachments, they’re high up the list. Take residences away from the institutional experiences, and your appeal to alumni is going to be a lot weaker.
But it’s an interesting model to ponder nonetheless. Makes you think about what the true “boundaries” of a university really are.