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Margin Notes

University forecast: Cloudy with a chance of …?

Historian Alan MacEachern and consultant Alex Usher offer some insightful and provocative predictions for universities in the future.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | OCT 06 2009

University Affairs magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary this month with a fantastic suite of feature stories, also posted online here on our website (see the revolving features display on our home page or click through to the features page).

All of the articles are well worth a read, but I wanted to point your attention to two in particular: the insightful, beautifully written essay by historian Alan MacEachern (“A far different place”), which takes us back to momentous events of the 1950s and then forward from there; and the provocative predictions of Alex Usher (“Back to the future”), who imagines the trajectory of universities from now until our 75th anniversary in 2034.

Alan is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario and was the author of our highly popular “Academic Alphabet” column. Alex is a well-known consultant in the postsecondary field with the Educational Policy Institute.

What is intriguing about the two essays is that they come to somewhat similar conclusions, but from different trajectories. Alan’s ends on a cautionary note that the great boom in university expansion over the past 50 years will likely not continue and we’ll need to prepare for that. “The context,” he writes, “has utterly changed, both because the universities have already experienced that half-century of growth and may simply be incapable of sustaining growth indefinitely, and because of demographics.”

He continues:

Even in the unlikely chance that the recent recession ends up being just a blip in a long period of economic growth, Canadian universities should get used to the idea that enrolment rates and even absolute enrolment numbers may not always move in an upward direction. … In the 21st century [universities] face the task of adapting to the possibility – and perhaps even, at some point, the preferability – of no growth.

Alex, our futurologist, has a different take, but it too is cautionary, if not downright pessimistic. His prediction, written as though looking back from the future, is thus:

By 2013, accumulated debt levels for federal and provincial governments were soaring. In the short run this allowed universities to postpone the hard financial decisions needed to stay afloat. But, as the recovery finally took hold and governments began to realize not only the scale of their debts but also the profound financial implications of the aging society, most public spending outside of health was put to the knife. Postsecondary education was not spared.

I must say that most of the predictions I’ve read recently about the plight of universities over the next decade or so are not encouraging. Read, for instance, these painful predictions for one particular university, University of Windsor, but which could be applied to others I’m sure.

I won’t venture my own guesses for the future, except to say that I’m quite certain that the traditional university as we know it will continue to exist in the next few decades – but not every university will continue to resemble the traditional university. Okay, that’s not exactly a bold prediction. What’s yours?

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Alan MacEachern / May 13, 2010 at 15:58

    Alan:

    I still can’t figure out if you are a “believer” in climate change (or should I say “global warming” or whatever Al Gore calls it this week) or a sane student of politics/common sense/sanity.

    Please tell me you are a debunker.

    Kindest regards,

    Your namesake Alan MacEachern
    Deerfield Beach, FL