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Imagining the future of Canadian post-secondary education


It wouldn’t be an anniversary celebration without a look ahead. For this we asked higher-education adviser Alex Usher to imagine some of the major trends and events that might influence Canadian universities in the 21st century. In a twist of perspective, he catapults himself into the year 2034 and looks back over the intervening 25 years since University Affairs celebrated its 50th anniversary.

On this, the 75th anniversary of University Affairs magazine, I’ve been asked to look back at some of the key trends that have affected higher education since the start of the 21st century, in particular, those that buffeted the sector between 2010 and 2030. Though it seems hard to remember now, the period leading up to 2010 was one of relative affluence for Canadian higher education. Provincial funding to institutions was growing by at least seven percent a year – faster than spending on health or K-12 education. Enrolments were climbing at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Funding to the three research granting councils was at an all-time high, and there was a construction boom in university research facilities.

Then came the recession of 2008-10. At first, the main threat came from reduced income from endowment funds, hit hard by the fall in equity prices, and the increased liabilities on pension funds. But in the end, these proved to be relatively minor, both compared to the belt-tightening at top American schools (much more badly damaged by tumbling stock markets) and compared to what happened next.

Trend #1: Government cuts

As in previous recessions, temporary government spending, designed to ward off the worst of the downturn, proved hard to eliminate. By 2013, accumulated debt levels for federal and provincial governments were soaring. In the short run this allowed universities to postpone the hard financial decisions needed to stay afloat. But, as the recovery finally took hold and governments began to realize not only the scale of their debts but also the profound financial implications of the aging society, most public spending outside of health was put to the knife. Postsecondary education was not spared.

Over the next few years, the sector faced cuts of 10 to 20 percent in real terms, though it was much worse in the Maritimes and central Canada than in the west and Newfoundland, where commodity prices helped to bolster provincial finances.

Responses to this staggering loss of resources varied. In Quebec, the cutbacks triggered the end of the low-tuition policy – it was no longer possible to pretend that the provincial subsidies to institutions were adequate to finance a respectable system of higher education. But everywhere else, provinces tried to hold the line on tuition. By now, with such widespread access to PSE, governments feared angering middle-class parents by demanding higher fees for their children at a time when taxes were rising to allow society to take care of their parents.

Strapped for cash, universities turned to what they thought would be an easy way to make money: student recruitment overseas. But by 2015, the world of international education had changed, and Canadian institutions discovered how far behind the times they had fallen.

Trend #2: The Global University

The period 2010-15 is now known as the start of the era of the global university. In the previous decade, some schools had experimented with setting up single campuses abroad, in East Asia or the Gulf states. But now, major British and North American universities were setting up multiple campuses around the world. Johns Hopkins had campuses in eight countries, while Texas A&M and Cornell had six each. These foreign campuses weren’t designed to make money by providing education on-site, but rather to serve as loss-leader flagships to raise brand awareness. The real money was in attracting students to the high-priced home campus or to online education done in partnership with local third parties.

This five-year period was significant in another way too. It marked a shift in Asia towards a European model of organizing higher education. Although the Bologna process was still far from complete even in Europe, all regions outside North America had come to believe in three key ideas that originated there:

• Qualifications in higher education need to be based on something more rigorous than the collection of a certain number of course credits based on faculty-contact hours.

• External quality assurance had to be taken seriously, partly because the impartial external standards it enforced were the only practical way of solving problems related to credential recognition and credit mobility.

• Each discipline needed explicit and broadly accepted outcomes for conferring a degree, both to make graduate-school admissions easier and to send useful signals to the labour market.

Once these principles became globally accepted, then countries that hadn’t adopted them suddenly became second- or third-choice destinations for international students.

That’s precisely where Canadian universities found themselves. They had ignored the lessons of Bologna, when they weren’t aggressively opposing them. Institutional mistrust of government, and mutual mistrust between the federal and provincial levels of government, had stymied the development of a national quality-assurance system. And sheer inertia had stalled any changes to credit definitions or adoption of a European-style process for common degree outcomes across institutions.

Moreover, few Canadian institutions had made serious investments in a presence abroad (let alone set up campuses) and almost none had experience in promoting themselves abroad in a way that could challenge the American, British and Australian universities that dominated the market. So, what many universities had thought of as their “Plan B” in the event of government cutbacks – foreign student recruitment – turned out not to be viable.

This realization dawned at about the same time that government books came back into balance. But far from signalling a return to expansive government investment in higher education, institutions were under even more pressure as the weight of demographic change and the costs of an aging society began to be felt. It was the extinction of this last hope for a return to the glory days of government largesse that ignited the real revolution in Canadian higher education.

Trend #3: Standardized undergraduate education

Reducing costs at the undergraduate level was job one. Hiring for tenure-track positions to teach undergraduates almost ground to a halt. Instead, teaching was done as much as possible by adjunct faculty. To save more money, adjuncts were asked to teach versions of courses that were already public domain, like those offered by MIT’s OpenCourseWare. These could be enhanced by various types of e-learning integrated into the classroom experience, but since designing online courses was expensive, institutions had to band together to pay for it.

Thus the undergraduate experience grew more standardized across institutions. Traditionalists decried this trend, but in truth it was an overdue reaction to the vast increase in participation since the mid-1990s. As a bonus, it made credit transfer easier, which led to more student mobility.

A standard undergraduate curriculum, especially in arts and science, opened up market opportunities for those willing to buck the trend. Some institutions, especially in the Maritimes, were well-placed to offer old-style liberal arts degrees to those who wanted them, but first they had to free themselves from government restrictions on tuition levels. This led to the first examples of institutions leaving the public sector to rely solely on tuition and private support (a side effect was increased prestige for Quest University, a school that had adopted this model from the start). A few large institutions went part way down this path, introducing internal “honours colleges” for high-achieving undergrads.

The next key task was to rebuild Canada’s standing internationally and regain market share. Given how far Canada had fallen, this was equivalent to an Apollo program. But by 2020, a basic agreement among governments, universities and stakeholders had been reached on a framework to ensure common credit and degree standards, on a process for harmonizing degree outcomes at the discipline level, and a pan-Canadian system of external quality assurance.

Still, more needed to be done. By this time, international education was as much about bringing the institution to students as it was about bringing students to the institution.

Trend #4: The offshore University of Canada

While a couple of G-5 universities belatedly began setting up campuses abroad, many other institutions concluded that the risks of operating abroad in a catch-up situation required a more radical solution. Hence, the creation of the University of Canada, a collective effort of two dozen institutions that within three years had established campuses in India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.

Others tried partnering with foreign institutions to deliver their credentials abroad. This was a tough and perilous route, made easier now that Canadian institutions had some experience of educational quality assessment and control systems. Similarly, a crash program to promote the creation of e-learning materials that could be used for distance education abroad (funded by the federal government) had mixed results internationally, but the exercise did have the benefit of improving institutions’ e-learning efforts at home. Once again, the interplay between the drive for external markets and the need for internal cost-savings had mutually beneficial effects.

The final part of the equation was changing language and culture. Though it was always tricky for a bilingual nation to promote itself as an educational destination for people whose primary desire was to speak English, Canada eventually found the courage to do so and began advertising accordingly. But it was Canada’s ability to harness local community connections in China, India and the Middle East, in Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic, that really turned the tide. Institutions in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in particular benefited from this shift.

Trend #5: Problem-solving universities

All of this generated enough cash to fund the strategic changes that began to form the basis of a renaissance in Canadian higher education based on graduate studies and research, whose relentless rise in importance within the academy was completely unimpeded by the financial crisis. Though money was scarce in the decade after 2010, Canadian institutions were almost able to hold their own in global hiring markets; U.S. competition was weakened by that country’s public finance crisis (the big private universities’ ability to hire was crippled for nearly a decade because of endowment losses in 2008). More positively, the enormous infrastructure investments of the century’s opening decade, notably from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Alberta and Ontario governments, meant that world-class laboratory facilities remained a major draw for top researchers.

At the centre of the renaissance was a newfound willingness by research institutions to be more strategic in their hiring. Recognizing that they could not be all things to all people, they chose an institution-wide focus on issues of global importance that could connect them to scientific and public-policy debates the world over. Prairie universities, in particular, became known for their strengths in studying food, water and energy – not just the scientific aspects, but also how these resources affected communities, economies and polities. Across the country, other institutions began picking their issues and combining them into cross-institutional themes: a “Pacific University” in B.C., a “Université de la francophonie” in Quebec, a “University of Aging” in Ontario. The meme of the “interdisciplinary problem-solving university” was a powerful one that attracted both researchers and funding. And it helped encourage a return to public funding in large amounts in the mid-2020s.

By 2030, Canadian universities had regained the ground they had lost in the 2010s. It was a long, sometimes painful journey. Not every university survived the transition. Those that tried to avoid tough strategic choices or sought refuge in the tried-and-true methods of the late 20th century came off quite badly. The most successful institutions were the ones that managed to control their financial base, made difficult choices about areas of expertise and were outward-facing, risk-taking, technology-smart and quality-focussed. For them, a new world of opportunity waited at the other end.

Alex Usher is the vice-president, research, and director for Canada of the Educational Policy Institute.

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  1. Tommy Vorst / November 13, 2009 at 17:07

    Delightfully optimistic. As a Canadian PhD student at an Aotearoa New Zealand university researching Korean teachers of English, I’m proof that globalisation is already firmly entrenched in academia. Indeed, some of the teachers I work with have studied in Australia & Ireland, and others have gone on to the USA. The hosting Korean university has a partnership degree with a mid-sized american uni, and itself has a campus in Shanghai as well as its 3 Korean centres. NYU has its own campus in Tokyo. So trend #2 is even a few years late in its “prediction.”

    Thanks for the visionary read, Alex. I’ll carry it with me when I start interviewing for positions next year.

  2. Catherine Soplet / July 17, 2010 at 10:13

    Offering a tool which might help to fast track Mr. Usher’s predictions.

    In spring 2008, a schools-based outreach to a high-SRI indexed “at risk” low-income newcomer population benchmarked ongoing positive outcomes for literacy scores and diploma-requisite community hours — 2of8 indicators of the Ontario government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

    In spring 2010, the 2-year outcomes were featured in a Toronto Star article and the link made to the idea for a universal peer-tutoring program, the idea for “Citizen Apprenticeship” to be funded by Citizenship & Immigration Canada as part of their Multiculturalism Directorate responsiblities to expedite settlement. You can read the article here:–should-students-helping-students-lead-to-free-tuition

    In 2010-11, grant approval is pending to replicate the project in two additional identified priority neighbourhoods. It is hoped that preliminary data to show prosperity upticks will generate by June 2011 in advance of the Ontario provincial election.

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