Tackling these issues is not something that can be taken lightly, but it is something that may not be as challenging as many think. In our recent data collection we polled thousands of students and staff in post secondary institutions, and combined that data with some of our culture data from the business world. The action items come out very clear, and have parallels that cross the two areas often.
Idea #1: We Are Witnessing The Bursting Of The "Bachelor Bubble"
Recently, institutions have been feeling the strain of a pandemic in a way that is leading to serious consequences. The financial struggles of institutions like Laurentian University, are not unique. In fact, many post-secondary institutions operate under heavy deficit with large lines of credit extended their way. Take this excerpt from a recent Maclean's Magazine article ("Can Canada's Universities Survive Covid?"):
"Prior to the pandemic, many administrations were battling what higher education consultant Ken Snowdon called a “perfect storm” in a 2015 report for the Canadian Association of University Business Officers on the financial sustainability of universities. The 2008 financial crisis destabilized the schools’ business model—endowments, investments and public funding all struggled as a result of the downturn. When it was over, many other pressures continued to put a squeeze on the universities, including pension deficits, salary increases, pressing maintenance needs and the reality that the Canadian population was not going to produce massive increases in enrolment numbers any time soon."
So the case isn't hard to make that the financial models aren't making sense for the schools, but what about the students who attend them? Well they are in massive debt too, with half of graduates finishing school with debt and 1 in 6 bankruptcies in Canada being student debt related. A Stats-Canada sourced report in University Affairs states the following:
"two-thirds of students who graduated with debt in 2015 still had outstanding debt in 2018. Further, the report states that during these challenging economic times recent graduates may experience difficulties finding full-time employment, “which in turn may affect their ability to repay their student debt.”
So that problem is clear, but the solution appears to be staring many of these institutions in the face, especially based on our data.
The following is a brief overview of the key data from our collection over the last couple weeks. There is a lot to work through and we are in the process of reviewing all responses.
More than 70% of those polled described the educators at their institution as disconnected, unengaged, and/or uncaring. One student shared her feelings of those her instructors below:
"The people that are supposed to be teaching us are more like another hurdle I need to overcome as opposed to someone truly interested in my success."
63% of students polled felt that their teachers and institutions were not actually invested in wellness, particularly mental health. Cole, from Calgary, shares:
"This year there was a pandemic, my father lost his job, and my professor just talks into the camera in monotone for hours. What did my school do? Direct me to the same amount of counsellors that were overbooked and overrun before the pandemic."
Student-athletes have it no better, in fact, many are feeling the impact right now more than ever. In our polling, we found that just 18% of student athlete's polled felt that their athletic department was supporting them. This anonymous athlete from Calgary shares her thoughts:
"I don't even want to play anymore. I'm doing this for the scholarship, which allows me to afford my education that is way more difficult with professors who can barely work Zoom. [My coach] has just been lying to us over and over saying that we will play games soon or implying that we should be training as hard as any other year. But all the deadlines [my coach] sets come and go and all that's changed is that the girls on the team are mentally less healthy and more injured than ever."
But the educators, and other staff, are feeling serious strain now too. Major budget cuts in multiple parts of the country, a pandemic, and huge redundancies are playing a big role. More than 50% of those polled said that they felt there were people in their institution who spent most of their time creating work to justify their position. An anonymous professor in Calgary shared this:
"I love working here and I truly feel like many people here have the students best interest in mind. But I'd be lying if I said that was true across the board. There are people at this institution making six figures who don't know a single one of their student's names. There's people coming in late and leaving early who have salaries larger than most police officers. We need a change."
Another staff member in Vancouver shared:
"I've watched people who are busy all day every day get laid off, meanwhile buildings on campus are essentially empty or half full all the time. Where's the creativity to bring in revenue from these assets?"
Institutions are financially unstable
Student debt load is rising and is likely unsustainable when it comes to wanting to help our economy recover (See this great piece in the Globe and Mail)
Students are not satisfied with their experience, before or during the pandemic.
Staff are frustrated and seeing a need for change
11 Action Items
Here are 11 key recommendations based on the data we found. Some are easier to implement than others, but all will make a significant impact on social, emotional, and financial health of post secondary institutions.
Institute High Levels of Cross Training: Training staff and educators across areas of post secondary education in order to increase staff engagement, accountability, and efficiencies. This doesn't mean having people do tasks outside their job description, but the amount of siloing in universities and colleges is definitely contributing to some of the culture AND financial problems.
Abolish Tenure: Okay, so this one may not be totally realistic. However, it's time to put more limits and criteria on this. In today's world, allowing somebody to stay in a position without true checks and balances doesn't make sense. More regular student satisfaction checks, alignment with learning outcomes, etc must be created.
Diversify Offerings: The polytechnic model truly is the way of the future. If you're continuing to build brick and mortar buildings but not expanding high quality online learning, certificate programs, and diploma programs while still offering degrees...you're essentially Blockbuster and the people who do those things are Netflix. The government should also be making it very easy for institutions to be Netflix because more Blockbusters don't help the economy at all.
Sell Some Buildings or Get Creative With Usage: At the very least rent them out and use them for multiple purposes more often. Convert some to apartments, not residences...apartments. There's a difference because apartments can help bring the community to the campus more (which matters), while also offering housing to students.
Invest In Student Experience & Wellness: Enrolment is the key to financial stability. Enrolment doesn't come form tenured researchers and beautiful buildings. It comes from a bad ass student experience that includes athletic offerings, introduction to self care courses as mandatory classes, forward thinking learning tools, etc. Beyond that, review the grading model and whether you need group projects and tests to evaluate students these days. There's way better options!
Take A Hard Look At Spending Not Directly Impacting Student Experience: Word travels fast, it's time to build something people are excited about and that is going to require cost reduction somewhere. Re-assign or reduce staff in areas that don't lead to great word of mouth and experience results. Hint: This DOESN'T mean cut a bunch of admin support positions. Student's feel that most of all quite often. Be strategic. This probably means looking at salaries of non-instructional faculty, administration, and other areas first.
Eliminate Mandatory Textbooks: Give me one good reason why you still need a mandatory text.
Have Less Meetings: Just stop it. They are massive efficiency killers and they were identified as a waste of time by 41% of employees polled. Don't have recurring meetings, book them when needed and keep them brief (max 45 minutes).
Increase Placements/Practicums: Yes, they need to be coordinated and that's a great place for re-assignment of some staff. But certain programs already use them (nursing, social work, etc), so the model is there and proven valuable. It's time to start utilizing these valuable learning opportunities to set your programs apart from others increasing ACTUAL LEARNING, decreases faculty load, leads to employment opportunities, AND WE ALL END UP NEEDING TO LEARN ON THE JOB ANYWAY. At the very least, give the students some real world experience while they pay tens of thousands of dollars.
Make Mental Health First Aid Mandatory For All Instructors, Staff, and Coaches: This may be the most important one because we are hearing a ton of disconnect, lack of true empathy, and compassion in the feedback from students (and student athletes). I'm frankly shocked that the coaching organizations haven't made this mandatory yet based on requirements for other courses like First Aid. You're telling me that it's more important I know how to splint a broken leg than respond to someone who tells me they're suicidal? C'mon, you can't have these titles if you're not going to connect to the people you serve. Full stop.
Don't Assume Privatization Solves Problems: Privatization of educational institutions creates massive challenges and can easily lead to mass exodus of students to better learning options remotely or in other countries. If our product is already struggling, charging more and de-regulating probably won't make it better.
The purpose of this first idea is to lay some groundwork for the overlap of how our educational institutions are struggling which is, not coincidentally, connected to economic and workforce challenges.
In Part 2, the connection between the culture of these institutions and overall workforce culture is made in order to allow the connection to making significant positive impact on both these areas in Part 3.
I am an alumni of Laurentian University (mentioned in the article) and may have coached or taught students/athletes in the polling from my time working at institutions in Ontario and Alberta, however the anonymous results prevent me from being able to identify this.