Q: What is the situation for post-secondary education institutions right now?

A: With the current demographic trends in Canada it is clear that fewer Canadian students will be available as a market for post-secondary institutions. Some institutions have seen the impact of that trend this year either through slower than expected growth or actual declines in enrolment.

The focus on attracting international students will have to be expanded if the institutions are to continue to exist at their current sizes.

If marketing fails to deliver expanded enrolments, there are considerable opportunities for downsizing and efficiencies. In Atlantic Canada in particular we have a large number of post-secondary institutions in absolute terms and an even larger number on a per capita basis.

Our population just can’t sustain the full costs of all these institutions. I would agree with the new president of Mount Allison University that redundant and money-losing programs have to be eliminated.

In particular, there are opportunities for streamlining undergraduate course offerings and there are multiple opportunities for collaboration in the offering of joint degrees at all levels or cross-institutional recognition of credits. In fact, this effort is already underway – consider as just one example the partnership being formed between UNB Saint John and Dalhousie University in the training of physicians.

Q: What do post-secondary education institutions need to do to secure their futures?

A: They have to operate as a business in accordance with their business model. They need to review their program offerings and eliminate those that represent a drain on their institution, particularly where that program can be offered more effectively elsewhere.

They need to aggressively pursue alternative models of funding that do not depend on government largesse or government ability to pay. This places them too squarely at the mercy of the political winds. They must also focus on cost control and matching product to price. If they deliver a high quality product at a high price, students will buy it.

Q: What can government do to help post-secondary education?

A: First, government must never forget that the primary beneficiary of a higher education is the student. Recent data suggests an undergraduate degree offers the potential to earn an extra half million dollars over your working life, a master’s degree a full three-quarters of a million. Students must bear their fair share of this investment. Think about it, with an average debt of around $25,000, $500,000 represents a 2000 per cent return.

Second, recognizing that society is a significant, if secondary, beneficiary of post-secondary education, government will continue to invest in it.

In doing so, it has to stay focused on the student and less on the institutions. When looking at the question of tuition fees and student debt, the argument is around access and the level to which higher tuitions and other associated costs act as a deterrent to students from all socio-economic groups and backgrounds.

By focusing the majority of post-secondary education spending on the students in the form of grants or other portable vouchers the government could achieve multiple favourable results.

It would empower the students and make post-secondary institutions even more accountable to those students. It would create a stronger competitive environment where post-secondary institutions would be even more creative in matching their costs to the product they deliver. It would make the exercise of responding to specific special needs more direct and transparent.

A significant risk of this student-centred approach is the potential inflationary impact on tuitions. Governments can mitigate this potential by avoiding placing geographical or other inflationary limits on the student funding.

Vouchers or grants that can only be used in New Brunswick institutions, for instance, would only serve to drive up N.B. tuitions and do nothing to secure access for rural or low-income students who generally face the largest risk of being excluded and could get just as good an education at a Nova Scotia or Maine university, perhaps for half the price.

Finally, government should not turn universities into the next level of public education. They should be truly arm’s length institutions run on a for-profit, not-for-profit or charitable basis as their business case and objectives dictate.

That means direct transfers to post-secondary institutions, if they are to be made at all, should be made on the same basis as the government justifies grants to other business. What economic impact is being delivered for the investment made?

Generally speaking it would be far better to make broad changes impacting all industries and allow the post-secondary institutions to take advantage of those efforts: lower taxes, less red tape, improved infrastructure (road, air, communications).

Failing that, industry-wide changes are also a better option than one of direct subsidization: improving the existing preferential tax treatment for post-secondary institutions or the preferential treatment for investment in post-secondary education by individuals or corporations.

Q: What kind of role do you see the private sector having in the future of post-secondary education?

A: The private sector is already playing a significant role in post-secondary education today as a benefactor and counsellor.

That role will not change and will likely even expand. Private investors have traditionally given large capital grants or endowments for “chairs” in various avenues of academic exploration.

With governments facing rising costs across the board, the field for that type of investment is much larger.

The private sector also serves on the Board of Governors and in focus group type efforts with institutions providing both regular and ad hoc advice on an as-needed basis and across a wide range of topics.

These include corporate governance, fiscal and asset management, the state of the economy today and the job opportunities for tomorrow.

Post-secondary institutions have become very adept at leveraging connections with the private sector and will continue to do so in order to target their offerings and make the education they offer immediately relevant to the workplace and therefore very attractive to the potential clients – the students.

The private sector in the form of training institutions, private colleges and now private universities will continue to expand and take up market share, particularly if the traditional post-secondary institutions struggle with this transition.

If Mt. A or U de M can’t find a way to deliver a product students want at a price they can afford, someone else will.

Q: How do think post-secondary education will look in the future?

A: We will see the return to a more private sector-oriented approach with more private institutions, more targeted collaboration and more aggressive competition, more specialization, and an increased focus on cost control and value-added propositions.

We will also see increased use of remote teaching to expand the market share and the product offering.

We are already seeing institutions like Berkeley posting slides and lecture notes and actual recorded lectures themselves online.

This technology offers an answer to all three core challenges facing post-secondary institutions – rising costs, falling enrolment and declining numbers of instructors.