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The rise of the house of Usher: Standardisation and the decline of the value proposition in post-sec

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

-Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”

I was at a meeting of university people last fall. I no longer remember if it was a meeting of Faculty Association representatives, or local university administrators, members of our General Faculties Council (what in other provinces is called a senate), or something else. The important thing is that it was people who care about both their university and the university sector more generally.

We were talking, as people in the sector do, about government cutbacks and how our different universities are responding. This is a particular issue in Alberta, where the provinces universities have seen their budgets cut by 25% over the last three years.

And so I made a joke. I leaned in to the other people in the meeting, dropped my voice, and said, “I don’t know if I should say this, but at my university, we think we have this figured out: foreign students and microcredentials, that’s where the money is.” Everybody laughed and the meeting went on.

This is not a hilarious joke, even if you are in Post Secondary Education. But if you aren’t in PSE, it might not make any sense at all. “Foreign students and microcredentials”? What’s so funny about that?

The answer is that it isn’t the foreign students and microcredentials; it is that my university’s secret financial strategy to differentiate itself financially from the rest of the sector is to pursue both. Because every university in Canada is doing the same thing: pretty much every university in the country has identified increasing foreign enrolment and developing “microcredentials” (a term that can mean pretty much anything at the moment) as the best way to improve their finances in the face of government cutbacks and domestic tuition freezes. To the degree that this was in any way humorous to a PSE audience, it was the fact that my university’s “secret” policy was being pursued by everybody else’s.

This should worry us. It is never a good sign when most or all the players in a particular market are pursuing essentially the same strategy. Or as ChatGPT put it

If everyone in a market pursues the same strategies, it can lead to market saturation and increased competition, making it harder for individual companies to differentiate themselves and stand out. This can lead to lower profits and reduced growth opportunities for companies, which can ultimately limit the overall growth and development of the market. Additionally, if everyone is following the same strategies, it can create a lack of diversity and innovation in the market, which can stifle progress and make the market more vulnerable to external shocks.

(By the way, this seems to me to be a good use-case for ChatGPT: creating anodyne consensus statements about what “they” say. Kind of cool to be able to finally cite “they” directly).

In the case of Canadian PSE, we can already see signs of this. Although the trouble at Laurentian was caused mostly by simply appalling leadership and terrible oversight, one factor behind their bankruptcy was the shock caused by a sudden drop in Saudi students as part of a diplomatic row between Canada and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, nobody can look at the numbers at Cape Breton University (almost 70% foreign enrolment) and not think there may be way too many foreign egg(head)s in a single, small island university basket.

(Chart from Alex Usher, "Cape Breton. Yet again.")

The same is true of microcredentials. These can mean different things to different people, but basically fall into two types: badges, which certify a skill acquired in the process of doing some other activity (e.g. research in doing a history course) or short, focussed courses, which help people (particularly professionals) acquire a skill or knowledge quickly: historical analysis for originalist U.S. Supreme court judges, for example; or more reasonably, “Trauma-informed care” or “Personal Financial Planning” (both actual microcredentials at the U of L).

What concerns me about this is the lack of differentiation. While some universities will pursue these to a greater degree than others (hello, CBU), and others will pursue them better than others (ultimately, one assumes, somebody will come up with a viable, scalable, and generalisable approach to microcredentials in Canada) the fact that everybody is pursuing them (and largely, it seems, out of desperation) is scary. Are all universities in Canada equally well-suited to supporting large percentages of foreign students? The answer, I think, is probably not: CBU’s foreign student percentages would be far less scary to me if they were at the U of T, McGill, or UBC, since those are universities that seem to me to be more likely organically well-known and attractive to overseas students (and hence less likely to collapse suddenly — though even then I’d still be worried about exposure to international diplomatic issues.

Likewise, some universities may be better suited to microcredentials than others — my guesses would be universities that already have a strong commitment to professional training (such as former colleges and currently teaching-focussed universities like Grant McEwan and Mount Royal), as well as universities with access to large numbers of potential up-training professionals (e.g. universities around Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto), or, in very specialised areas, places like the U of L, which can provide additional training to large numbers of regional professional specialisations (e.g. agriculture, nursing, geriatrics) or build on academic specialisations that are easily packaged for similar markets (e.g. new media, perhaps some forms of engineering).

In this latter case what concerns me is not so much the idea of short courses — I quite like the idea of courses lying somewhere between the University extension and full degree programmes and can see how my disciplines could participate.

Rather it is the lack of standardisation. Even at the U of L, there is currently no standardisation in how they are paid for at the instructor end and, I believe, organised bureaucratically across faculties. As a casual observer, I also don’t see any national standards allowing them to be easily transferred from one institution to another. A lot of work is going into something that I’m not sure the industry really knows how to handle at the moment — when one of the strengths of the North American university system for the last century has been exactly the standardisation of things like “the course,” “the grade” (in terms of systems, at least, if not quality or amount of work), and “the degree.” I can see smaller universities like the U of L getting quite burned when these things are finally standardised. Unless we become true market leaders in the area — something we are far behind on and hence unlikely to do — we will, in the end, be forced to adopt whatever system is developed by larger and more prominent institutions (which, indeed, is in a sense what happened with the 3 credit course system).

But this brings me back to the joke. The humour, remember, lay in the fact that every university was pursuing the same strategy, not in the strategies themselves. I’m worried because, especially in the case of Universities like the U of L, herding can lead to smaller and regional universities forgetting what makes them unique — the “value proposition” they offer their home communities. If we are not careful, then “foreign students and microcredentials” rapidly becomes a one-size fits all solution. Universities (or perhaps better said, university administrations and boards) focus their energy on doing better at what everybody is doing and not making the case for what it is they do that is special — or if not always special, at least appropriate for their communities.

With the pressure of government cuts over the last three years, we’ve seen a lot of this at the U of L (though it is important to remember that these cuts have not be so great that we are have not run surpluses or exceeded at times our policy on cash reserves). In that time, we’ve gone from a university that understood itself to have a mission — to be a small, public, university that combined international quality research with a liberal arts focus — to one that seems to understand itself now primarily in terms of size. As faculties have been forced to cut and as budgets (and especially hiring) have been centralised, the university no longer seems to be building towards a purpose-based vision. The main downsizing tool in terms of faculty size appears to have been retirements: departments are not being given replacements for faculty who leave, no matter how crucial they were to the delivery of programmes. The thinking seems to be that if a lot of people retire in, say, Biology, then the U of L will simply have a smaller biology programme.

These are not problems that can be solved by foreign students and microcredentials. While both might bring in some extra money and while both might even be intrinsically good ideas, there is little reason to believe that either will save the U of L: there is no reason to believe that we will be national or even regional leaders in either foreign enrolments or microcredentials and lots of reason to be afraid that an over-reliance on either could bring much greater risk that that faced by other universities in markets more congenial to both.

Above all, however, the danger is that in pursuing the herd, we forget what actually makes (or made) us different: our actual value proposition. For years, the U of L had been building a reputation as a smaller research institution. An institution that was well grounded in its surrounding community (though local enrolment was always a little disappointing) and that offered a clearly differentiated educational product from competitors in its nearby large market (i.e. Calgary). What worries my about our current direction is that we seem no longer to be stressing what used to be important about us: a small, research-active university, that provides a solid, broad-based education to undergraduates and graduate students in a liberal arts context.

I wonder if there is still not some potential in that.

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