What is the hot topic in Canadian Higher Education?

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I have the pleasure of working with Melissa on her amazing PSEWEB conference in the roll of being an email instigator. Recently a discussion has been going around the advisory group on the keynote and in true committee fashion we are throwing some great thoughts out there but not helping get things done ;) My latest ramble (slightly edited) was the following list:

  • Distance education and part-time masters are only now coming to fruition (in established academic/research schools)
  • Student experience sucks, focus on ‘student success’ and overall student experience is becoming more intentional — example, creation of the Student Success office at the University of Waterloo
  • Other than uwaterloo and maybe some colleges (that have a little potential budget surplus), most schools budgets are in bad shape (are there some that aren’t? Please comment)
  • Canadian’s time spent online is higher than the US yet we don’t engage our students that way very well (or do we?)
  • Entrepreneurship is the buzz word of our Federal government and looking to education and commercial partnerships is important to all levels of government
  • A University President just became Governor General of Canada
  • Very little cuts to Canadian research and education when compared to the rest of the G20 countries
  • Grade schools are full (to busting) with kids… at least in soem parts of southern ontario, however demographics say student numbers coming from Canada may slow down (some schools have seen that) which means more focus on international recruitment. Can we even predict this?
  • Branding madness… sweet f is it irrational. A unified brand across something as diverse as a University seems to be a crusade on a visual level that runs on 5-10 yr cycles when what I think all we really need is a raised level of professionalism across all marketing and communications.

I certainly don’t claim any of those is steadfastly factual besides the Governor General being David Johnston. Any of those points above is a blog post explaining the problem in detail and a lot of them are where a raised awareness of branding and marketing in Canada’s business culture has spilled over into Post-Secondary education. From my perspective as a Past-President of one of the larger staff groups in Post-Secondary education and someone that entered the workforce right as Canadian institutions in Ontario welcomed a ‘double cohort’ of younger first year students with less high school education, I see a (one of at least a few) fundamental challenge in Higher Ed as the following:

The demands for professional organizational management and productivity along with the increasingly specialized focus of academics, renewed expectations placed on academic research being tied to commercialization, along with a long standing (but ignored) issue surrounding student experience in Canada points to Canadian (and maybe global in some respects) Post-Secondary Education being at a crossroads.

I see the marketing and web technology solutions being caught up in the turmoil but it is a big part of the solution. If an institution can deploy a strategy effectively it likely has organizational issues either sorted out or in check. I personally look to startup culture for some solutions and I see many things we could try in higher ed.

What are the hot topics though? Is it measuring the effectiveness of marketing (measuring anything in higher ed is a new thing)? Is it using marketing communications as part of a larger effort to enhance student experience? Is it international branding? Do I even have a grasp on reality with what I see as a (one of many) fundamental challenges in higher ed?

Just to throw this out there was well… I see the University of Waterloo as being in a position to be a major disruptor and really shake up Higher Ed in Canada like it did in its first 25 years with co-op, Math, Engineering, etc. We are getting the right people in the right places across both staff and faculty, all I think we need is the right President that won’t just walk in David Johnston’s foot prints but help lead us down the path that David showed us exists.

Did marketing drive the coming meltdown in higher ed?

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Seth Godin has an interesting post, The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer), where he focuses pretty strongly on the games being played in higher education to attract students and justify the huge relative increase in the cost of higher ed. Four of his five points are what everyone sees and I tend to agree. The marketing material designed to push people to apply and then (in the US) the more applications you reject the higher your rankings feeds back into the marketing material. I think that is a bit of a over-simplification of rankings but I completely agree the rankings game is one big driver of the madness in marketing.

His point on accreditation (his fifth point) has a big hole in it but there is something to this:

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I’d ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?

The access to the information might not be the value of higher education anymore but learning how to make proper sense of that information and evaluate it properly certainly is something that is very hard to learn outside of higher education. In addition to that, creating new high quality information is something academics are born to do. Certainly a lot of it is noise but nothing like the noise that I am contributing to with this blog post*. The other part, does an institution need to get bigger? Yes. But only if it is growing to build its research and commercialization activities in my mind.

For those that don’t get why we need higher ed, it comes down to who you want to rely on doing your research and driving our society in the future. Currently companies like IBM, Microsoft, Dow, 3M, etc are doing all the research in closed environments with profit as their motivation. Higher education institutions have tried to keep pace but the facilities are expensive and the space required is hard to come by for labs. Most research in higher education is open (once published) with a clear way for people to replicate the results (in Science at least). Engineers take the science, add a bit of their own, and put things together. Arts looks and how people interact with it. With marketing folks and MBAs (with the best intentions) driving the fix for the money/space problem by attracting more students the priorities of the institution appeared to have lost their way.

I agree with Seth Godin but I think a meltdown is a tad dramatic. I can see a shift back towards research and experience in Ontario at the very least. There is a recognition that the experience is what students are looking for and the research (along with commercialization of some research) is what could generate the revenue instead of tuition increases.

Like a recession, by the time you identify it you are already in the middle of it. A shift is happening, not a meltdown, but I think how much power/influence marketing folks have on the institution will diminish and the emphasis will go to the story tellers that share what value and experience really is in higher ed.

*yes there are lots of generalizations in here but I am not writing a research paper ;)