HESA’s One Thought to Start Your Day [11 June 2015]: Universities: It’s Not All About You

Universities: It’s Not All About You
June 11, 2015, Alex Usher
I just finished reading quite a good little book, Universities and Regional Development, edited by (among others) OISE’s Glen Jones. Analytically, it’s useful for a couple of reasons: first, it gets beyond universities as single-entity black boxes when it comes to engaging with external stakeholders; also, it does a good job of emphasizing history and path-dependence as under-analyzed variables in explaining change (or lack thereof) in higher education.

One thing that struck me, however, was the tone of some of these pieces. It’s possible that I’m imagining some of this, but I identified an undercurrent running throughout a few of the articles: having explained how particular university initiatives failed as a result of “historical particularities”, or by ignoring “institutions’ entrepreneurial architecture”, the argument just seemed to end. The implication here being that, to ensure smoother outcomes in the future, everybody needs to adjust to the particularities of higher education institutions.

The question most policy-makers would ask here is: “why”? Why should everyone else adapt to universities, rather than universities adapt to the needs of government and other stakeholders? It’s a question that too many people inside the higher education bubble can’t even grasp, let alone answer. The idea that other people’s agendas sometimes matter doesn’t get much of a hearing in higher ed.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, it has to do with a post the other day on the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA)’s blog. Signed by “Graeme” (presumably Graeme Stewart, OCUFA’s comms manager), it asks why all the speakers at big higher ed conference panels (presumably excluding those at OCUFA’s own conferences) are all cut from the same cloth – namely, why are they “single-mindedly practical”, but inside-the-box, thinkers? Where are the radicals opposed to “technocratic, metrics-obsessed discourse”, he asks? Why aren’t they being heard from?

Fair question, but I think the answer is pretty simple. The critical higher education scholars have a lot of useful things to say (particularly around gender), but frankly they add almost nothing to the debate when it comes to issues of finance and accountability, which are what most conference panels are designed to discuss. Among the “alternative voices” in higher education, there is an astounding reluctance to acknowledge the fact that Canada spends more than pretty much any other country on higher education, a near-complete absence of serious discussion about the underlying reasons for cost-inflation in the sector (indeed, there instead seems to be a preference for wholly phantasmagoric discussions about fund accounting), and a general attitude that the only thing that matters when it comes to money is: MOAR! MOAR!! MOAR!!!

As for accountability, “sod off and leave us alone” covers way more of the discussion spectrum than it should. Measure outputs? Report on them? Heaven forfend such metrics-obsessed behaviour.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. American critical scholars such as Chris Newfield or Robert Samuels actually do talk about finances, and the latter at least is prepared to see huge cost reductions in universities through a shift in focus from research to teaching. You can agree or disagree with that solution, but at least it’s an acknowledgement that cost (as opposed to price) is a problem – something I have yet to see in Canada.

Too often, what we hear from the “critical scholars” crowd is: “how can we make life better/prevent life from getting worse for people working in higher education?” While there are lots of important topics in this area – the issue of sessionals comes to mind – it’s still a remarkably self-centred discussion. It’s not about what higher education can, or should, do for society and the economy, it’s what everybody else should do to make academia a happy place.

It’s fine for OCUFA to want to broaden the discussion on higher education. But it’s terminally self-serving to suggest that this goal is achieved simply by including more people who will emphasize universities’ particularist nature. Listening more attentively to what external stakeholders think of universities – good or ill – would surely be a more rewarding path.

The ACU campaign: The World Beyond 2015 – Is Higher Education Ready

The Millennium Development Goals expire at the end of 2015. CSSHE has been invited by Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) to provide a submission towards defining a new set of international targets and a shared vision for higher education.

We have been asked to respond to the following six key questions:


  1. Why does the Post-2015 agenda matter for higher education?
  2. How are universities already addressing local, national, and international issues?
  3. How can universities prepare to respond to the Post-2015 agenda?
  4. What partnerships should universities establish to achieve their objectives?
  5. How can universities champion their contributions to wider society?
  6. How relevant and realistic are the Post-2015 goals likely to be?


Your engagement in the conversation matters to us. Please tell us what you think via the CSSHE BLOG. The CSSHE BLOG will be open until February 28, 2015. CSSHE welcomes your comments, they will be used to inform the CSSHE submission to ACU.

You can find out more and browse the submissions ACU has received so far at www.acu.ac.uk/beyond-2015.

Anne Charles
President, The Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education

Canadian researchers in Higher Education, the Student Experience, Student Success and Student Affairs

The Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) is currently preparing their research agenda.
There is an opportunity to help add an international (or more importantly Canadian) voice to these discussion.

If you or your colleagues have research interests situated broadly in these areas please connect with Chad Nuttall (contact info below).
Chad will be happy to discuss with anyone and pass that the information on to the chair of the ACUHO-I research committee.

Please share broadly.

Chad Nuttall
Director-at-Large, CSSHE

Director, Student Housing & Residence Life
University of Toronto Mississauga

Higher Education in Other Countries – Broadening Our Horizons

University of LlubljanaI attended the 10th International Workshop on Higher Education Reform (HER) hosted by the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Education, Oct. 2-4. This is a small conference that moves around each year – last year it was in Pittsburgh, previous locations include Berlin, Vancouver, Shanghai, and Mexico City. One of the chief instigators of this series of conferences is long time CSSHE member and former board member Hans Schuetze. Here is a photo of the main conference venue, the rectorate of the University of Llubljana.
It looks a bit fancier than the often utilitarian buildings on Canadian campuses. And the inside is also a bit fancier – here is Hans sitting under a very fance chandelier as he listens to one of the keynote presentations.
Hans at conference

The participants in these Higher Education Reform (HER) conferences come from universities and colleges all over the world. Talking to them during the sessions and the breaks is an education in itself, and tends to broaden one’s conception of what higher education systems are like in places that are very different from Canada and the nearby United States. Even places that don’t seem so different, such as Austria and Germany, operate their HE systems in ways that are quite different from ours. During one of the many interesting presentations at the conference CSSHE board member Lesley Andres, along with Hans Pechar, described how the academic career track – from graduate student to full professor – differs considerably in Austria and Germany, as compared to the pattern in North America that we are more familiar with. The pattern in North America seems to lead to more satisfying academic careers, maybe because our systems are to a lesser extent the result of historical baggage.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was from South Africa, where the historical baggage from a colonial legacy is one of the many problems that academics have to cope with. Conversations with conference attendees from other parts of Africa reinforced the conclusion that here in North America academics have to deal only with “first world problems,” which seem relatively minor compared to those faced by academics (and other educators) elsewhere.
I’m sure that many members of the CSSHE have more experience with higher education in other countries than I do. One such internationalist is Rhonda Friesen from the University of Manitoba, a CSSHE board member who has led the creation of a new CSSHE affinity group focused on International Higher Education. Just last week the CSSHE board approved this new affinity group. It will, no doubt, be meeting at the CSSHE conference next May at Brock University. If you are already involved in international higher education, or just want to broaden your horizons, be sure to attend.

by Walter Archer, Ph.D.

Me and Obama

I took a great deal of interest in President Barak Obama’s speech this last week in upstate New York. It was a major announcement of his reforms for higher education, and he cited a few initiatives that he thought were worth commendation. Among them was “Open SUNY”: a system wide effort to link the initiatives of the 64 or so institutions to provide degree completion and online learning and PLAR and other benefits resulting from more synergy among the campuses.

To the average Canadian involved in higher education this would look like a mash up of BC Campus (and similar provincial networks like Contact North), TRU Open Learning (spawn of the old Open Learning Agency and its BC Educational Credit Bank), the BC PLA Network, the Canadian Virtual University, and so on. Which likely explains my tenuous claim that Open SUNY is my legacy of 4 wonderful years at SUNY: I think I was largely responsible, working with others, in planting the seeds and then fleshing out what an agency like Open SUNY could do. Historians of higher education in the US will one day support this claim and will either praise or blame me, or get it all completely wrong.

Obama’s overall concerns are with the rising tuition for higher education, especially in the public sector (while state funding has collapsed of course, thus passing the burden to the student) plus low completion rates (58% of full time students entering in 2004 graduated with a 4 year degree after 6 years) and high default rates for student loans.

Not surprisingly, most of the higher education business has not responded very nicely. And the critics are likely not impressed with Obama’s list of exemplars of innovation, which focus on competency based learning, MOOCs (a false step there I think) and so on. My favorites are Southern New Hampshire’s University’s “College for America” and Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning.

He also promotes a rating system for colleges that do a good job (according to whatever indicators they come up with) and that are rewarded accordingly. I think the intention is solid, but this is ripe for institutions to game the system, and for sharp divisions to occur between institutions which score well in said game, and others which (for many complex reasons) do not show up so well and which likely need more resources, not less.

I guarantee that these divisions will align with and reinforce the existing social and economic class system. My previous institution, Empire State College, is an amazing place: radical, alternative and innovative, serving those who have all sorts of barriers. But if you start counting its success as you would that of my current institution, KPU, it would look embarrassing. Education (or for that matter, life) is too complicated for a simple scorecard that fails to account for the wide range of communities and learners and their needs.

Others have done a much better job than I can of commenting on all this, and there is the usual mobbing of higher education by those who routinely cite Clayton Christensen (have they not read anything else?) and predict the end of the world as we know it. But I can make a few observations.

  • Open SUNY is still largely imaginary, but the potential is huge. One forgets that New York State alone has close to 20 million people, and, despite the extensive public and private systems, many face the usual barriers that those of us in open, distance and adult learning face: location, money, previous bad experiences or no family tradition in further education, not wanting (or needing) to start from scratch, not wanting (or needing) to follow precisely pre-determined curricula that may or may not be relevant to their needs and interests.
  • Although I have problems with some of the proposals Obama has come up with, I am once again amazed at the level of engagement and boldness of US politicians as they try to deal with enormous issues. Much as I love Canada and its largely solid higher education system, I simply cannot imagine any Canadian politician, federal or provincial, speaking as eloquently or as forcefully about higher education as does Obama, and I saw the same from state and federal politicians of all stripes. It all supports my overall impression that when the US does something well, it excels, and when it messes up, it does so with terrible impacts. In Canada meanwhile we muddle along with our platitudes and occasional soft criticism, and maybe that is best. However, we have hardly any major radical and alternative educational institutions any more, and although we seem to lead the way sometimes, our innovations get diluted by the rankings game, by elitism, and by the inherent conservatism of Canadian higher education.
  • Having said that, I am encouraged by the work going on in BC right now, and I want KPU to think about suspending the usual mind-numbing rules and paradigms that we have wallowed into and to try some really bold initiatives to better meet the needs of those learners we currently do not reach.

by Alan Davis, PhD