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How to support the high-cost, higher ed model in Canada

At Halifax symposium, some suggest that cost-cutting might be needed during tough times.

BY HELEN MURPHY | NOV 16 2011

Universities don’t have many places to turn these days as delivery costs rise and governments look to cut costs. So maybe they should turn inward.

As Mount Allison President Robert Campbell said during the Academica Summit, held in Halifax in mid-November, it’s time to accept that higher education in Canada is a high-cost model. And, he continued, that’s okay, as long as Canadians make the policy decisions and nurture the business models that recognize and support our high-quality product. Institution presidents participating in the one-day conference had no shortage of ideas and suggestions on how to respond to emerging trends and new realities by getting their respective houses in order.

The Academica Summit was a cross-sector higher education symposium, with events taking place in both Halifax and Vancouver, that attracted senior administrators from colleges, polytechnics and universities to share perspectives and insights on enrolment, marketing and leadership issues, with a special emphasis on institutional strategy.

Pointing to the “high wage, high tax” model of Sweden, Dr. Campbell said one option for governments is to make decisions that lead to high productivity and yield good-paying jobs and high taxes that can support a high-cost system. Another possibility is to charge students what the institutions’ higher education “product” is worth. “We have a Volvo product, not a Walmart product,” said Dr. Campbell.

He also recommended removing many non-core functions, such as student aid services and deferred maintenance, from institutions’ operating budgets, so they can “focus tuition and government dollars on our core business.”

He suggested that this kind of rationalization could involve institutions collaborating on aspects of operations. Mount Allison, for its part, would be happy to handle other institutions’ computer operations, he offered.

Marilyn Luscombe, president and chief executive of New Brunswick Community College, echoed those sentiments. “We will never have the resources we need,” she said, lending her support for the idea of shared services.

Dalhousie University President Tom Travers advocated getting more control over costs, be it through technological innovations or new collaborations. While acknowledging there are times when contracting out non-core functions is a good idea, Dr. Travers said experience has shown him that contractors sometimes find that they can’t, in fact, do the job cheaper and better.

In the end, institutions have to look at how they are organized internally for the production of knowledge. For some institutions, having full-time faculty doing both teaching and research may not be the best model, said Dr. Travers.

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