Universities and colleges in Canada are facing three major challenges. First, the funding model on which they have operated for a considerable time is broken. They have depended on Provincial governments to fund base operating and capital and, even though capital projects continue, base funding for operational activity is declining in real terms.
Second, the demographics of the student body is changing. The strong political perception is that colleges and universities are predominantly “fed” by high school leavers. This is only partly the case. The majority of students in our post-secondary institutions are mature, part-time and in work. This means that they are seeking greater flexibility in their programming, are more demanding as “customers”, since they are paying a growing portion of the costs of their education, and they expect quality. They also expect transferability of courses, as they need to be increasingly mobile so as to sustain their earning capacity.
Third, technology is changing the nature of the learning process and the opportunities to learn. In Ontario, some 18,000 courses and 1,000 complete programs are available for post-secondary students fully online from Ontario institutions. In a typical year, over 500,000 course registrations in these courses (app. 55,500 full time student equivalents) register in these courses. These numbers are growing. In the US demand for conventional, classroom based education is averaging between 1.5 and 2% each year; demand for online learning is growing at 12% on average. More critically, it is now the case that student satisfaction with online learning is the same or exceeds that for classroom based learning. The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), which some are able now to parlay for credit, is also seen as an example of technology changing the game.
But what to do?
What colleges and universities are doing, by and large, is trying to keep one foot in the past (the foot is anchored by funding models, faculty agreements and attitudes) and one toe in the future. They are pursuing blended learning – encouraging and enabling faculty to make more use of technology enhanced learning as part of their teaching activities. All well and good. But this is not likely to be an effective response to the three conditions that are changing.
Here is a really radical agenda for change. These ten items have all been in discussion in my circle of friends and colleagues during the last year (and some items for considerably longer). It is time for radicalism, before the system implodes under the weight of its taken for granted assumptions:
1. Abolish admission requirements and focus instead on outcomes and quality assessment of learning. This will create a more open, equitable system. The Open University (UK) and Athabasca University (Canada) have open admission, why not all?
2. Abolish residency requirements (the requirement that a certain number of courses must be taken in the institution which offers a credential). These have been introduced in the name of “quality assurance” but are in fact attempts to secure guaranteed base of revenue from every student.
3. Massively expand prior learning assessment and work based learning agreements, so that knowledge, understanding and skills are recognized no matter where the learner acquired them.
4. Make the first two years of college or university free to residents of the Province in which they are offered – students pay a significant portion of the costs thereafter. College and university education is largely free in Finland, why not here.
5. Rather that the institution determining what and when students should learn,move to an “on demand” system for learning – students can register in any course from any institution at anytime. If the Kentucky College system can do this, why cant others?
6. Abolish tenure for university faculty and move instead to performance based contracts. Margaret Thatcher did this in the UK many years ago, why not here?
7. Massively expand guidance and learning pathway advising – help learners find the route to fulfill their passion and secure the learning they need.
8. Fund universities and colleges on the basis of agreed outcomes rather than by the Carnegie unit (a measure of how many students are registered in courses over a particular time). A college or university would receive a block grant for achieving certain social and educational expectations.
9. Treat online courses as equal to in class courses for credit, funding and staffing.
10. Use tax incentives to encourage firms to invest in training and learning and individuals to learn. Canada has a deplorable record of investment in training. If we are to compete, we need to change this fast.
I don’t expect these to be implemented in any jurisdiction – the vested interests in the status quo are so great that they inhibit system innovation – but I do expect these ten items to trigger a conversation about what education and learning is critical for Canada’s future and how we need to change what we do to enable that future.