The Changing World of Post-Secondary Education

  • June 30, 2014

By Jock Finlayson

Outgoing UBC President Stephen Toope was interviewed for a story appearing in the Globe and Mail on June 27. In the interview, Dr. Toope touched on a number of challenges facing Canadian universities, including rising student expectations, governments’ interest in ensuring that post-secondary graduates are “job-ready,” and heightened international competition for top-ranked faculty and graduate students.

The Globe story appeared on the same day that I happened to read a recent issue of BCG Perspectives, a newsletter published by the big brains at the Boston Consulting Group. Prominently displayed in that issue is an article entitled “Five Trends to Watch in Higher Education.” While the article focuses on American institutions, the story it tells is relevant to the Canadian post-secondary education sector and echoes in many respects the themes touched on by Dr. Toope.

What are the five key forces shaping post-secondary education, according to the Boston Consulting Group analysts?

  1. Pressure on revenues: The funds flowing to universities and colleges from government sources are under downward pressure and may decline further in the years ahead. In the US context, this reflects flat and falling enrollments at many institutions – mainly state universities and colleges – as well as a multi-year squeeze on the budgets of a large number of US state governments. Here in Canada, enrollments generally continue to rise, but most provincial governments have frozen grants to universities and colleges, with some – including BC – trimming the public funding available to operate post-secondary institutions.
  2. A stronger focus on the economic returns to education: Students, parents and government policy-makers are all looking more closely at the value proposition of obtaining college and university credentials, including traditional four-year university degrees. There is a desire in some circles to reallocate available post-secondary funding to expand capacity in high-demand fields and reduce program offerings in areas where the economic payoffs are deemed to be lower. This notion has influenced the planned overhaul of government support for post-secondary education recently announced by the BC government.
  3. Increased transparency around student outcomes: A related trend is that post-secondary institutions increasingly are being challenged to provide data on and to stand accountable for outcomes in areas such as student graduation rates, work-relevant competencies learned, and the job market performance of graduates.
  4. New business and delivery models: Enabled by technology, on-line learning is growing rapidly in the post-secondary sector, often driving down unit-costs (although there are questions about quality and graduation rates for those involved in on-line learning). In addition, many jurisdictions and institutions are adopting three-year degrees, mixed models that combine classroom learning with work experience, and competency-based accreditation that reduces the time students spend in classroom settings.
  5. Globalization: Post-secondary education is one of many sectors being affected by the globalization of economic activity. Foreign student enrollment in American colleges and universities doubled in the two decades ending in 2013. The picture is similar in Canada. In addition, among research universities international competition is intensifying due to the growing mobility of talent. Some universities based in developed economies have opened foreign campuses, while many others are partnering with foreign institutions to deliver programs or undertake targeted research – trends which can present significant management challenges for university administrators.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that the landscape is shifting for universities and colleges in Canada and most other western countries. New opportunities are emerging at the same time as long-established educational models, assumptions and delivery platforms are under strain. It’s an exciting period for the leaders of post-secondary institutions, but also a time of uncertainty and perhaps even peril.