by Brian Lee Crowley

University students are about to get a lot more powerful. But it’s not going to be the political power they’ve tried, largely ineffectually, to marshal against tuition fee hikes and reforms to loan and bursary programs.


What’s going to make them powerful is three things: their growing numbers, their ability to move increasingly freely across borders, and the internet.


Already 2 million students are studying outside their home country, and these international students are currently paying about $30-billion a year in tuition fees. The international post-secondary education market is growing by about seven percent a year. In the next 20 years, the number of people seeking post-secondary education in Asia alone is expected to grow by 70 million.


Almost all universities are beginning to compete globally for talent and money. They’re hungry for these students, who are often the best the world has to offer and bring more money with them than cash-strapped governments are ready to provide. To attract them, universities are going to have to recruit the best faculty in the world and be more responsive to what students want. Otherwise, students, and their fees, will slip away to more responsive accountable institutions.


Basically, students the world over don’t have to accept underperforming institutions any more. Not only are they able to escape the dead hand of complacent administrations and self-serving faculty unions, but increasingly they will not even have to leave their own country to do so. They will be able to have access to some of the best education in the world simply through a computer and the internet.


That’s why the powers that be in the university establishment are desperately lobbying governments to restrict the new emergence of new points of access to university education, such as private universities, or institutions from other countries trying to set up shop here. But there is no plausible way for government to prevent it. Here at home governments may succeed in stopping bricks-and-mortar institutions setting up on our territory, but there is no way in the world for them to regulate a private transaction in which students pay an institution in another country that delivers its education via the internet, in exchange for which the institution grants a degree which may carry the income enhancing brand of a major international school.


Technophobe snobs who sniff at this prospect and who do not believe that quality education can be delivered outside traditional classrooms remind me of those in the early part of the 20th century who believed that no one would be interested in listening to recorded music; people spouted a lot of romantic nonsense about the mystical connection formed between live musicians and their audience. Recorded music in fact allowed vast audiences to hear the very best musicians in the world cheaply and at a time that was convenient for them, and in so doing put out of business many second rate musicians while making millionaires of the Barenboims and Heifitzs and Springsteens of the world.


If you think the university world is immune to this, you must also still be waiting for the blacksmithing market to pick up while clinging stubbornly to your shares in the manufacturers of slide rules.


Not only will the rising generation be much more comfortable than you or I in e-learning, but they will be much less moved by the misty-eyed romantic nostalgia so many older people attach to their foggy memories of undergraduate beer parties and mate-hunting rituals. Not only will the defection of our top students from local brick-and-mortar institutions be an ever-present threat, but electronic means of delivery makes it possible for star teachers to reach much larger audiences, thus increasing both their income and their prestige.


This inescapable competition for both students and faculty can only lead to greater accountability for results. Not before time. For too long universities have been insulated from the consequences of their decisions in terms of salary, workload, course offerings and responsiveness to students.


In the brave new university world, great incomes will go to the top teachers, who will then draw the top students in a mutually reinforcing pattern. International students will become the only source of real income growth for universities. Recently Oxford announced plans to cut the number of places reserved for British students, because their tuition fees are capped by government. Their places will now go to graduate and foreign students, who will pay the going international rates for first class education. Other universities will follow, for their very survival is at stake.


As former Ontario premier Bob Rae said in a speech in Halifax this week, we should not lament these changes, but celebrate them. Only if our universities are freed to pursue excellence, with government money concentrated on low-income students, can they avoid long-term decline and, ultimately, irrelevance.


Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank based in Halifax. You can reach him through e-mail at [email protected]