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Margin Notes

The future of universities is all doom and gloom

But Canada seems strangely immune – so far.


There is an ever-expanding body of reporting that has been dubbed “the crisis literature” in higher education. I’ve commented before on how apocalyptic some of the prognostications are for the future of universities.

An example of this doom-and-gloom analysis is a recent report out of Australia. The university system Down Under is quite similar to our own here in Canada so it’s interesting to see what’s being said. Its conclusions could presumably apply to Canadian universities.

The 30-page report, prepared by the international consulting firm Ernst & Young, is entitled, The University of the future: A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change. The report’s author, Justin Bokor, executive director in Ernst & Young’s education division, states baldly: “There’s not a single Australian university that can survive to 2025 with its current business model.” He continues: “We’ve seen fundamental structural changes to industries including media, retail and entertainment in recent years – higher education is next.”

The report explains that the dominant university model in Australia (and, he might have added, in Canada) – a “broad-based teaching and research institution, supported by a large asset base and a large, predominantly in-house back office” – will prove unviable in all but a few cases. At a minimum, “incumbent universities will need to significantly streamline their operations” while also “incorporating new teaching and learning delivery mechanisms.”

Mr. Bokor says that “government funding is tight and is going to be tighter still in the next couple of political cycles” – a statement one might easily hear in Canada. Universities, he says, “While they are not exactly businesses, they will have to run like businesses. They need to be lean and mean.”

The report notes, apparently without irony, that, “Exciting times are ahead.”

The report identifies the main drivers of change it says will bring about this transformation of higher education (I’m cribbing here from University World News, which has a good summary of the report). These drivers are:

  • The democratization of knowledge as a consequence of massive expansion of online resources (think MOOCs).
  • The contestability of markets and funding as a direct consequence of declining public investment and the adoption of market design policies to fund and regulate higher education.
  • Digital technologies changing the way courses are delivered.
  • Global mobility of students and staff.
  • Integration with industry to differentiate programs (through work-integrated learning) and to support and fund applied research.

Not everyone is buying the argument. In Campus Review (subscription required), Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon, education critic for the Green Party, described the report as “over the top” and “all doom and gloom.” She acknowledged that the report made some valid points, but was concerned with what she saw as a push by Ernst & Young for more involvement of the private sector in universities. “The report is fashioned to smooth the entry of private sector providers at the expense of a robust and equitable public university sector,” she says. “‘Market contestability’ and ‘competition’ are buzz words designed to paint increased funding cuts to public universities as inevitable and the private sector as the saviour of universities.”

The U.S. and Canada

Nowhere is the higher-ed crisis literature more vocal than in the U.S., where many experts also are predicting profound changes for universities. It’s hard to overstate the unease felt south of the border. According to a recent survey sponsored by Time magazine and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 89 percent of U.S. adults and 96 percent of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly four in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.”

Here in Canada, we’ve been mostly immune from the doom and gloom, so far. (A few commentators such as Don Tapscott of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto echoes some of the doomsday themes, but somewhat less apocalyptically.) I wonder why that is so.

That’s not to say that universities in Canada don’t face enormous challenges – although what those are depend on who you talk to – but there seems to be little sense of an impending crisis.

This might be in part because we have fairly little involvement of the private sector in universities in Canada, apart from charitable donations/sponsorships and industry-university research collaboration. There are a few, generally small, mainly faith-based, private colleges and universities, but that’s about it. This is quite different from the U.S., where many of the elite universities are private and the largest online education provider is owned by a for-profit corporation.

It may be that entrepreneurs look at the current situation in Canada, with its bias towards a robust publicly funded system – and seemingly little public interest in changing that – and just don’t see much prospect for profits. And I suspect it’s the prospect of big profits by those who would gain them that is pushing a lot of the doomsday scenarios. Anyway, it’s a theory.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Melonie / November 6, 2012 at 09:51

    Hi Leo, thanks for linking to my post on MOOCs. That rhetoric has been meshed fully with the “crisis” stuff now, and when you add in the last point about profits, I think the picture becomes clearer. All futurologists have a stake in a particular kind of future. If they can frame the problem, they can propose the solution that best works for them 😉

    I also wanted to be self-centred and add in my other post about the never-ending end of higher ed:


  2. Tam / November 18, 2012 at 20:59

    In the STEM areas there seems an extremely myopic view that the research must produce something of immediate economic value or at least be leaning that way strongly. Perhaps not in all instances but it seems a trend. The problem is that the basic research undertakings, which of course do not always have immediate financial application and outcomes, are weakened. What politicians, their supporters (more on the right side of the political spectrum) and perhaps some of private corporations don’t seem to realize is that the basic research endeavour is what offers the assortment of “lego blocks” of knowledge. The universities also bear the burden the risk (through their public funding) that private companies would just not be willing to bear. This, if you will, allows the private sector to take less risk, and connect the dots of knowledge/application/further specific development for profit.
    That’s the way it seems to me anyway.