Published on 2012/11/30

Proliferation of Higher Education Institutions Positive for the Industry

Despite the emergence of poorer-quality institutions with the growth of the higher education industry, the competition means that most institutions are improving their quality and efficiency while the market will correct and “shake out” the lesser institutions.

The list of private post-secondary institutions in British Columbia has more than 350 entries. These range from private colleges and branch campuses of American institutions to hairdressing schools and theological schools. In the Internet age, the combination of a mass proliferation of training institutes in Canada and access to international training opportunities has given Canadians an amazing array of educational and training opportunities. A simple question arises: is the expansion of education and training institutes a good thing for Canada?

Consider, first, the negative aspects. Given the growing number of institutions, quality control has become a serious issue. Unscrupulous organizations capitalize on student naïveté and enthusiasm. The growing debate—and scandal—in the U.S. around the recruiting practices and unfulfilled promises of private, for-profit universities and colleges sends a sharp warning. A minority of programs have high fees, weak curricula, poor connections to the workforce or professional organizations, and dubious standards.

Quality control mechanisms at the provincial level are often complex, poorly understood by consumers, and largely obliterated by the advent of Internet delivery systems, which allow shady providers to set up in less vigilant jurisdictions.

Conversely, of course, the market has the potential to work through these problems—albeit at considerable cost to the students who err in making their program selection. Over time, poor quality operators should be forced out of the sector, although there will always be providers eager to prey on the uninformed and ill-prepared. Government regulations can help, aided in no small measure by media and professional supervision. Exposure of poor operators has the potential to be an effective means of shaping student enrollment and the financial viability of educational institutions.

For public institutions, the rise of private post-secondary offerings is both a relief and a danger. The proliferation of educational offerings reduces the pressure on public institutions to be all things to all people. Thirty years ago, when public providers dominated the field, save for a handful of correspondence-based institutions, consumers put a lot of pressure on colleges and universities to respond to local and individual needs. Now, students can now find a credit or non-credit training program in almost any field of study online. Those in major cities can find dozens of local businesses offering programs of wide-ranging cost and quality. The advent of massive on-line courses, of course, takes this competitive environment to the heart of the university enterprise. It is not clear how universities will respond to this more comprehensive challenge.

From a societal point of view, the availability of many different educational opportunities—of widely varying quality, delivery styles, price points, and connections to the world of work—is a promising development. The proliferation of programs is particularly well-suited to the quickly changing and globalized economy, allowing displaced workers or improperly trained students to retool and restart their careers. Given the many challenges faced by laid-off workers, who need to get back into the workforce quickly, the short courses and learner-controlled offerings can be very advantageous.

Importantly, however, very few private sector programs focus on the specialized, high-demand, high technology programs; these are left for public institutions, largely because they are very expensive and not easily scalable. Most private sector offerings focus on low-cost business and personal development programs. This is a major gap in the rapidly expanding private system and is not likely to addressed by the growing number of private and public institutions competing for students and tuition revenue. The private sector, it turns out, is really not interested in tackling all of the needs—even the most important ones—in the workplace and economy.

The challenges occasioned by this increasingly complicated educational environment are multi-fold:

1. The quality issue is paramount. Whether private or public, online or face to face, programs must be vetted and evaluated, both by government regulators and by the marketplace.

2. The post-secondary system requires a more public and readily accessible reporting system—perhaps like the Maclean’s annual university ranking—that provides a focus for national discussion and student evaluation of these programs.

3. The system, public and/or private, has to figure out how to connect to the high-end scientific and technological fields. This is where the great workplace demand is to be found. The current offerings are concentrated in crowded, low-tech areas. The opportunities are great; the current program development emphasis is minimal.

4. National and provincial governments should figure out how to evaluate and encourage/discourage (depending on their quality and utility) foreign companies and institutions seeking to offer programs in Canada. The income tax system, for example, can be used constructively to direct students toward selected foreign programs of high quality and strong workplace need and away from weak or questionable offerings.

5. There is an enormous need to connect short-course offerings to the high technology economy. The over-emphasis on soft-skills and the absence of a solid emphasis on technical and scientific skills means that Canadians students and workers do not have adequate access to new economy jobs. Figuring out how to provide these programs in a cost-effective manner is a major challenge for the sector.

6. Public institutions will face questions similar to those directed at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: should publicly-supported units compete with private sector operators? In other words, should public institutions focus on the less-economical areas (like science and technology training) and stop operating in the same space as private firms? The answer, most certainly, must be that public institutions should operate in the whole educational space, if only to permit brand development and the inevitable cross-subsidization that is part of comprehensive programming.

7. Much more education of consumers is required. Less sophisticated students, including the many international students exploring Canadian opportunities, are vulnerable to aggressive marketing, up-selling, and unscrupulous recruiting activities. Real diversity in post-secondary education is still fairly new. Less vigilant consumers do not always discriminate between new and old, public and private, colleges, institutes and universities, et cetera. There is a lot of money at stake in this sector and it is vital that consumers have a better sense of programs, courses, and institutions.

Consumers and students benefit in many ways from diversity and competition in educational programs. The variety, quality, and delivery methods of offerings has greatly expanded since only a few decades ago. As the economy and the world continues to shift, the opportunity to enroll in market-sensitive or high interest programs is a huge advantage. Private operators function in highly competitive spaces; for institutional reasons, public institutions are also being forced to operate on a more commercial, competitive basis in their continuing education offerings. The system will shake out over time. Winners and losers will emerge, institutes will open and close, and students will have to adjust to an increasingly complex post-secondary environment.

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Readers Comments

Mitchell Young 2012/11/30 at 9:47 am

I think it would be hard to crack down on and eradicate all the dubious for-profit institutions that are popping up.

A more realistic strategy is informing our consumers and potential students, with official quality reports on these institutions; with reputable guides such as Macleans; with greater awareness of the truth about these institutions, their quality, their reputations, to counteract the agressive and not always truthful marketing campaigns that many of these institutions run. Step one is empowering our citizenry, and once this is achieved, they will determine which offerings are available in higher ed by what they demand and what they refuse.

Belinda Chang 2012/12/02 at 8:16 pm

I agree that there are huge gaps in job skills in science and technology– hard skills. I believe this is a place where the government should step into help fill this gap, offering subsidies, perhaps to students and perhaps to providers, who pursue education in these fields, to provide the motivation to fill this gap. This may result in higher quality private training opportunities, and employees with new skills and new job prospects.

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