Hi all. Hope you all had a restful set of holidays.
At the start of a new decade, it is fashionable to look ahead at what will happen in one’s sector. Personally, I think that life is going to change in ways we can’t imagine over the next ten years, so getting too specific is a fool’s errand. What I would like to do instead is talk about what the big challenges are going to be.
The first big challenge is that provincial support to institutions, which has been slowly eroding for a decade or so, isn’t going to increase any time soon. I think there’s a reasonable chance it will in the 2030s, when millennials’ kids start turning 18 (if that sounds odd, remember the oldest millennials are about 40) and they start voting accordingly. But until then, no.
And this isn’t just an issue of Canada not having any seriously pro-PSE premiers for the last ten years or so. We used to: in the 00s, there was Dalton McGuinty in Ontario, Gordon Campbell in BC, Ed Stelmach in Alberta and Danny Williams in Newfoundland, who all poured billions into Canadian post-secondary education. In the 10s, Teresa May probably did more financially for Canadian institutions than any premier. It’s also a reflection of the fact that general provincial finances are deteriorating and heading into permanent deficit, mainly because of rising health care costs, which are only going to be exacerbated if ideas like pharmacare are pursued.
So that leads to big challenge number two, which is the growing fiscal power of the federal government. Lots of people will want to paint that as a positive, but the problem is that in the absence of any new provincial money, it may seriously de-stabilize our universities. If the money goes – as it currently does – mostly into research, it will serve to tilt institutional priorities further away from undergraduate teaching than they are already. Worse: if history is any guide, the federal government will try to blow as much of it on boutique programs rather than basic research, which will create even more structural problems.
Now, if federal dollars go into something different – higher transfers to provinces, for instance, or into a planned system of transfers for capital – then there is a possibility of a better future. But that would require the different partners in Canadian federalism to actually work together in a productive, adult manner. In my lifetime, that’s been rare enough that I’m not going to hold my breath on this one.
Now of course, some may pooh-pooh the idea of universities and colleges in financial trouble. Heck, we’ll just move to the go-to strategy of the last decade: import more international students! But the days of easy growth in this area are mostly over. The Johnson government in the UK has eased post-study visa requirements, which seems likely to make UK a more attractive destination (at least until the swivel-eyed loons who dominate the Conservative party wake up to the fact that leaving the EU is going to alter the composition of immigration, not stop it). And looming demographic changes mean American universities are struggling with domestic enrolment, and they will almost certainly reach for the same remedy Canadian ones did when our demographic challenges started eight years ago. The real trouble doesn’t start until the latter half of the decade, but after 2026 US colleges are going to be looking to replace between 1 and 2 million domestic students. And you’d better believe they’re going to look to international markets for those. So even if, like me, you don’t believe the international student market is a “bubble”, you’d better believe that competition for those students is going to intensify. There’s no reason to believe Canadian universities and colleges – whose great successes in the international student market have largely been the product of spectacular own-goals by other competitors – are necessarily going to prosper in those conditions.
All of this suggests that over the next decade there will be a premium on cost-control and finding ways to make money which do not involve international students. This means, among other things, that institutions will be doing a lot more work figuring out program-level average and (especially) marginal costs to see how to make programs more cost-effective, and that there will be a lot more work done to work out how to deliver new bespoke programmes (such as micro-credentials) to market more quickly.
The safe money, therefore, is on our institutions becoming more market-dependent and more business-savvy than they presently are. The only exception, I think, is with respect to rural colleges. Gradually, it’s going to become clearer to governments that one of the things really holding back economic development outside the big cities is the relative lack of skilled labour. I suspect this will eventually result in greater public investment in colleges which provide distributed instruction across sparsely populated areas (e.g. Assiniboine College in Manitoba, or Confederation College in Ontario). Or at least I hope that’s the case, because if not rural Canada really is in a lot of trouble.