The EvoLLLution | Partnering with CE: Opportunities for the Institution
When continuing education divisions are strong, successful and engaged, the entire institution and community benefits.

Since the recession, continuing education (CE) divisions have played a critical role in creating access to higher education programming for a range of students, from those who couldn’t afford the opportunity cost of a full-time degree program to those who simply need to up-skill or re-skill to enter the workforce. However, these CE divisions tend to operate on the periphery of the institution and their true potential to impact every aspect of a college or university is minimized. Over the course of this two-part Q&A, Robert Wensveen shares his thoughts on the capacity for continuing education to support institutional growth and reflects on some of the major roadblocks standing in the way of the realization of this potential.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can a strong CE division help to support institutional growth?

Robert Wensveen (RW): Across North America, virtually every university has a strong and robust continuing education unit. It is viewed as a strength because they’re responsible for organizing all kinds of initiatives through the university such as non-credit courses and certificate programs, and CE typically is the leader in distance education. In fact, distance education for the entire institution sometimes lies within continuing education. CE divisions also do customized training, they do outreach activities, they can offer credit courses and classes that can count toward academic degrees in a wide variety of formats, including evenings, weekends, off-campus and year-round.

Leading universities have very strong continuing education units that open pathways into new markets. Generally, continuing education is a gateway to the university for those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with the university. For example, those who would not have the financial means to engage in a full-time program of study over the anticipated length of time of a typical degree can take short courses, programs and certificates through continuing education and achieve a university credential. Continuing education is very much tied to that portion of the community that cannot commit themselves to full-time, long-term academic studies.

CE also forges very strong links with the business community and establishes industry-related and specific training for employers. They play a very significant role in helping to close the skill gap in the labor market, and they’re able to do so because continuing education can be responsive to economic drivers and to industry leaders who are identifying where skills are lacking.

CE units are also typically financially self-sustaining—some are even profit generating—and this is absolutely appealing to the institution. Of course, there are risks, challenges and rewards associated with these different models; they can be anywhere from models that are heavily subsidized by the institution to models that operate on a self-sustaining “zero-based” budget to models that generate a profit for the institution. That helps to support institutional growth. CE units are rarely a financial burden on the institution.

What’s more, the efforts of the continuing education units help to build the image of the university as more in touch with the community. Our unit at the University of Calgary is probably the largest, or at least one of the largest, players when it comes to outreach and integration with the general community. We accomplish this through our marketing and through the general interest in the different types and breadth of courses and programs that we offer. We are probably one of the largest interfaces with the community. In fact, if you add up all of our teaching hours across the entire mix of courses and deliveries that we offer, we are probably second or third in terms of actual teaching hours of all the faculties within our institution. We do a great amount and a great variety of academic teaching in very different fields.

Evo: What are some of the advantages for CE leaders in building partnerships and relationships with leaders from other institutions?

RW: There are a lot of advantages to these inter-institutional collaborations, and professional associations are one of the keys in allowing those partnerships and relationships to form.

Involvement with professional associations, like the Canadian Association of University Continuing Education (CAUCE), allows CE practitioners to get together, share best practices, discuss, explore and learn about different models of delivery, different ways to deliver classroom training, different types of technologies that can be integrated in both a virtual and in a traditional classroom environment.

Professional associations also facilitate some interesting discussions about systems and processes. There are many different systems out there, and systems are always a bit of a question mark. There’s a number of questions around systems: Should a continuing education unit be integrated with main campus systems for credit? Should they not? Is it a completely different market? Does CE need something completely different? Through those relationships formed in professional associations, best practices, best systems and best processes can be identified.

These discussions allow for a collaboration of programs and sharing of ideas, so you can compare and contrast different programs across different sectors of the economy and even different parts of the country, and then you can determine if those programs could be changed or morphed to fit your local economy or marketplace. There’s the sharing and the collaboration of ideas, which is I think is another advantage to being part of these professional associations.

You can reach out to other leaders and other colleagues for advice and guidance on situations that they may have gone through that are similar to things that you might be experiencing today. There’s a knowledge base and a network there that can really help to address specific issues and challenges because they all come around to ask similar questions of their CE units at different points in time, and they’re not typically brand new questions. There’s a lot of knowledge that can be shared.

Evo: Internally, how do main campus leaders benefit from partnerships with CE?

RW: Institutional leaders, ranging from the deans and directors of faculties to senior institutional leadership, gain a number of advantages from partnerships with CE. At the base level, faculty deans can expose their units and their faculty, staff and their researchers to new markets through partnerships with continuing education.

What seems to be lacking, in my opinion, is a very close relationship with alumni. Universities and colleges are always trying to broaden their relationship with their alumni, and continuing education is the perfect mechanism to enhance and maintain relationships with these individuals through continued professional development and other types of alumni activities. Alumni associations and continuing education can play a very critical role in joining together to support alumni and to expose faculties and their research to these new student groups through ongoing professional development. Medical education is a perfect example of this theory in practice. If medical professionals do not engage in professional development, they would be risking their designations, so there’s a perfect opportunity for the university to engage an alumni base with continuing education. Our faculty of medicine has a continuing medical education unit obligated to provide professional development for doctors, medical practitioners, nurses, graduate students and so forth on an ongoing basis. Engineering is another profession with professional development requirements and it’s through CE units either locally, within the faculty or through a centralized model that professional development can take place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the first installment in a two-part Q&A series with Robert Wensveen.

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Key Takeaways

  • CE units are essential to universities building strong ties in the community and creating points of access for otherwise underserved individuals.
  • Forming inter-institutional bonds through professional associations is critical for the sharing of best practices and advice.
  • A greater focus on CE, and institution-wide improvement in the way CE is managed, can pay dividends when it comes to engaging the alumni base.