Vice-President, Academic and Research

Emerging Trends Workshop

Summary Notes
Presentation on “Exciting Times for Canadian Higher Education – Emerging Trends 2011” by Ken Steele, Saint Mary’s University, February 3, 2011
Prepared by Andy Seaman, Project Manager for Saint Mary’s University Academic Plan Renewal

EmergingTrendsImageThe broad theme of Steele's presentation was change and its effects on universities. The areas of change discussed in the presentation can be grouped under four headings: demographics, financial circumstances, attitudes, and education delivery. Responding to change overlaps with education delivery and includes strategies for marketing and retention. Looking even deeper into the causes of change, two of the more profound causes have to do with the advance of the cyber civilization and the effects of the world financial crisis of 2008-09.

With regard to demographics, Mr. Steele quoted David K. Foot, from Boom, Bust & Echo, as saying that “demographics explains 2/3 of everything”. Until very recently, the 18-22 year old age group has driven enrolment gains, but this is changing. At the moment, this age group is exceeded only slightly by the 40-45 group in Canadian population, but it is predicted that by 2031, it will have shrunk to less than the number of citizens in any age group between 40 and 70 (in other words, the number of 21 year olds will be less than the number of 51 year olds, etc.). Broken down by province, only Quebec and Ontario are predicting population growth, and in the Maritimes, it is expected that the 18-22 group will shrink by ¼.  Undergraduate enrolment in the Maritimes peaked at about 64,500 in 2003-4, and is steadily declining into the 50,000s. Recruitment of international students, on the other hand, is on the increase, the top contributing countries, in order of numbers, being China, US, France, India, and Malaysia, with China India representing the greatest recent gains. Within the Maritimes, a significant shift in registrations has occurred as a result of Memorial University having kept its tuition to less than half of other universities, with the result that it is now attracting 1200 students from other Maritime provinces. An increasing proportion of students are now “commuter students”. SMU figures about 43%, exceeded in the Maritimes only by UCB at 50%. The majority of students are effectively part time, in that, even if they are not officially part-time, they have jobs that occupy a large proportion of their time. The amount of time spent studying is in reality only about ½ what universities say is necessary. The general result is increased completion times and potentially lowered standards. A significant number of students are requesting compressed programs, so as to reduce lost-income times, even “super-courses” offered in total emersion, short period format.

Economically, the situation is bad for Canadian Universities as a result of falling government support, huge losses in endowments due to the market crash, and strict caps on tuition enforced by both government policy and student concerns over any increases in tuition. In terms of dollar values adjusted for inflation, the real value of government support has dropped from $18,000/FTE/yr in 1980 to $10,000, while tuition revenues have risen very little in real value. In short, universities are poorer than they were 30 years ago, when they had a $2,000/FTE advantage over American universities, compared to a current $8,000 disadvantage. This latter fact is largely due to much higher American tuition rates. Things are much worse in the UK, however, where 75% cuts to higher education are being contemplated, with tuition rates climbing as high as 10,000 pounds,  placing as many as 40 universities in jeopardy. Mr. Steele quoted UNB President Campbell as saying that we must have discussions about doing less with less.

Attitudes of students with regard to their own expectations, and of society with regard to universities, are changing also. Mr. Steele provided a portrait of the Millennial Student (educated in the 21st century), as special (having high expectations), sheltered (expecting safety and guarantees), confident, team-oriented, conventional (in having a deep trust in authority), pressured (to excel), and as being achievers in athletics, academics, and altruism (perhaps as expressed in community spirit). These characteristics can be very positive, but Mr. Steele quoted James Antony in Ivory Tower Blues as seeing them as a “coddled” generation: “The coddling model infantilizes young people leading them to seek popularity and expect to be treated as special --  precarious forms of ego-inflation which result in escalating anger, anxiety and depression …”  These students have greatly increased expectations, such as a wireless campus, on-line periodicals, one-stop service centers, on-line registration and payment, on-line preview of residence roommates, handheld data collection, 24 hour chat lines, personalized view-books, personalized university programs. Parents of these “millennials” tend to be overprotective, creating challenges for educators.

In researching reasons for students dropping out of a particular university, Academica Group has identified these seven responses as most cited, in order of frequency: career goals changed, did not like the program, felt unconnected to the university community, personal/family issues, transferred to another university, uncertain about the value of post secondary education, and marks too low.

The attitude of society towards universities is also changing, and varies from a tendency to bypass universities altogether in the pursuit of specialized education, to a tendency to see universities as virtually sacred. Mr. Steele referred to Jeff Rybak’s book What’s Wrong With University in suggesting that universities are the new “churches” of our society. They are seen as offering economic salvation in the sense of employability, and the student basically just has to attend --  and may sleep in the pews.

The biggest change in education delivery results from the development of on-line resources. This falls roughly into three categories: sources, on-line support for courses, and on-line courses and programs as such. Books and periodicals of all kinds, including textbooks, are available on-line, and the advent of “the bookless library” looms. Many courses now use extensive on-line support systems even if they are still centered in the classroom. But courses offered entirely on line have increased enormously in popularity to the extent of the on-line university.  Probably the biggest growth area in North American education is in the area of privatized on-line universities, which represent a major source of competition. Mr. Steele sees a trend that he calls “disintermediation”. Increasingly, “education” is being offered on-line without reference to any university at all, with a proliferation of “diplomas”, or “certificates” being offered by private sources. The lecture, as a mode of information delivery, is becoming a thing of the past, except when it is professionally produced as a media presentation. Students can watch such “events” on-line from the comfort of their rooms, and the classroom instead has become a place for interaction.  The professor of today may rely on such professionally produced resources, and act primarily as a facilitator and evaluator.

These considerations present many challenges for marketing the modern university. Mr. Steele posed a number of questions:

  • To what extent should Saint Mary’s University cater to the expectations of the millennial student? 
  • Is a major component of the student body in years to come going to be drawn from the ballooning 40-70 year old population? 
  • How big a role should on-line programs and degrees play in delivery of university programs? 
  • Should Saint Mary’s University capitalize more on the “sacred university” image, emphasizing “secure” credentials as opposed to “fly-by-night” certificates? 
  • How does Saint Mary’s University effectively “digitize” its environment so as to keep pace with technological advances? 
  • Should Saint Mary’s University offer more compressed programs and courses? 
  • Can Saint Mary’s University risk raising tuition, or should it follow the Memorial University route? 
  • In what ways can Saint Mary’s University differentiate itself?
  • How does Saint Mary’s University balance the need for a recognizable identity with the responsibility to offer sound, general education? 
  • How can Saint Mary’s University capitalize on the growing foreign market, particularly in India and the UK?
  • With regard to retention, what can Saint Mary’s University do to improve registration convenience, scheduling, success coaching and success monitoring, faculty accessibility, personalized learning techniques? 
  • Should Saint Mary’s University follow the trend of offering guarantees, i.e. “join us and we will make sure you graduate -- join us and we will make sure you get a job”?

Mr. Steele concluded with the following rallying cry:  “Boldly go. Be vigilant. Be nimble, creative, innovative and flexible. Be responsive to emerging markets. Find your focus. Dare to be different.”