Published on 2016/06/29
The EvoLLLution | A Tale of Two Silos: Universities and Colleges
By creating more formalized partnerships between two-year colleges and four-year universities, higher education leaders from across the postsecondary sector can take the necessary steps to improving access and outcomes for their students.

Today I attended a university graduation, representing my college while walking in a processional behind two colleagues from a different college. En route, three former graduates from our respective colleges, shook our hands and thanked us for helping them get to this university graduation goal.

Who would have thought the two long-time silos of Postsecondary Education (PSE) in Canada would have so much in common? Well, the students we both serve.

Graduation is the culmination and elucidation of a changed PSE landscape. It makes clear a tale of two silos, and would appear to be the story of shrinking “height” and possibly one of building a permanent tunnel between them. Higher education in Canada is becoming a collage of students that are “yours, mine and ours” characterized by innovative, inter-institutional collaborations. This is a breath of fresh air compared to the traditional 20th-century competition between colleges and universities that meant “never the twain shall meet.”

I work in both systems, as VP Academic and Student Success in the college system, while also serving as an adjunct professor leading a cohort specialization in a university. I love PSE and I love both silos I belong to and work with. However, the two silos have a known and quantifiable difference. Both contribute in different ways to what society needs: education and skills training.

What does each do well? What can each silo learn from the other? And where will these lead?

Let’s start with universities, which have been around for much longer. These institutions are steeped in tradition, driving discovery research and existing as a place for deeper thought, more in-depth expertise and innovation in what we know. Colleges have a short 50-year history in Canada. During this time, they have established themselves as community based, flexible in programming design, and responsive to industry needs.

Universities recruit undergrads into a culture of knowledge to support growth and development of highly qualified personnel. The learning is generally theoretical, sometimes abstract, but always validated. Colleges, on the other hand, provide direct education-to-labor market pathways. The education is not only designed to meet the educational needs of the local economy, but also has industry input imbedded in program design, delivery and maintenance.

Designed to be an answer to labor force development, colleges are structured, deliver programs, and provide education differently than universities. Approaches are practical, require more class time, and try to simulate the work world. Universities were the answer to building new knowledge, developing theory and questioning status quo. The pedagogies have been different, with colleges generally focused upon experiential learning, while universities traditionally deliver in a transmission-based learning pedagogy. The ability for either silo to adapt to changing teaching modalities is often a question.

Universities do a great job of representing the culture of education: student life, student politics and overall socialization to the world holistically. Colleges have more recently become better at examining and improving the student experience by recognizing that while the student is being prepped for the labor market, they do have a life.

As the 21st-century marches steadily on, these differences become more apparent, but what is also blatantly obvious to my colleagues in both silos is the situation cannot remain the way it has traditionally been. And it is changing, dramatically. The two silos are taking stock of each other, learning as they go, and moving best practices ahead in parallel lines.

In a global economy, being nimble and responding to change will be the hallmark of those PSE institutions that survive and thrive, regardless of which set of silos they stand beside. Universities and colleges both recognize this fact. Colleges’ ability to respond to local economic employment drivers tends to be more agile then a university. This is one distinct advantage, but both silos have to be equally good at this to meet the needs of our learners. In the 21st-century economy, the ability to respond to information half-life is critical. Universities are far better at understanding the half-life of information in both the “what” and “how” of information development. They have been in the business of generating new knowledge for hundreds of years. Colleges have not. However, if one silo is better at creating new knowledge, while the other is nimbler—better able to mobilize knowledge. Does this sound like potential opportunity?

I am part of a Board of Directors mandated to develop online learning at a provincial level, with both silos equally represented at the Board table. Often there is open admiration for what the other silo can achieve, for example: the ability of colleges to mandate quality assurance in curriculum development, or the ability of universities to bring expertise to that same development.

Coming back to the present and the graduation I am thoroughly enjoying, I realize the common denominator, force majeur or primary driver for the reducing of PSE silos are the students themselves. As there is no longer, necessarily, a linear pathway from high school to the labor market, students need to be mobile, to transfer between silos, and return numerous times over the course of their career. This is the influencer on interactions between the two silos. I know my college offers joint programming with a university partner, has joint programming partnerships with other colleges, and joint agreements on international education recruitment and delivery. Recently, a university partner asked if they could have graduates that resided closer to our college receive their degrees at our graduation. We made it happen, because it worked for the students!

New models of shared delivery continue to be explored. The two silos have not been completely torn down, but they don’t stand as tall as they once did. As I watch our student cross the stage, see their excitement and feel their joy, I am reminded the two silos have much to offer each other, and the exciting outcome is what we can do for students.

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