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Reflections on Non-Traditional Higher Ed in Canada (Part Two): Supporting Collegiality and Community

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on Non-Traditional Higher Ed in Canada (Part Two): Supporting Collegiality and Community
Continuing education units cannot succeed in isolation. By drawing on the examples, best practices and lessons learned from colleagues, leaders can position their divisions for significant, sustainable growth.

Continuing education divisions vary from institution to institution across the country and while there are many differences between them, there are even more similarities that bind them together. Over the course of this two-part interview series, three non-traditional division leaders from universities across Canada share their insights on some of the commonalities and differences that make this space so unique. In the first installment, Ian Allen, Heather McRae and Carolyn Young discussed the critical importance of relationships between non-traditional divisions and main campus.

In the conclusion of this two-part interview, Allen, McRae and Young explore some of the challenges facing Canadian continuing education divisions, and discuss the role of associations like the Canadian Association of University Continuing Education (CAUCE) in fostering non-traditional innovation throughout the country.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In Part One of this interview, you all reflected on some of the features that set your divisions and universities apart, and identified the unique challenges that your teams have encountered over the years. After listening to your colleagues’ responses, what stood out to each of you as something you’d like to incorporate into the operation of your own division?

Carolyn Young (CY): I would love it if our department didn’t have to pay rent, like the College of Extended Learning at UNB. One of the realities for Western Continuing Studies is that we pay rent, both for our space in downtown London and in Trois-Pistoles. In fact, we’re paying current commercial market rates at our London facility. That’s always a big hit to our budget, and I’m aware that many of my colleagues across Canada have similar models. But, like UNB, we operate under a cost recovery model. Paying for space puts quite a lot of pressure on us.

One of the things that I also like about UNB is it has an established history within the university and is recognized as an institutional priority. The university seems to have a very strong stake in the success of the College of Extended Learning, and you can see that in the diversity of its programming. I also noticed that MacEwan similarly recognizes its School of Continuing Studies as an institutional priority, which empowers it to engage in opportunities for innovation.

Being able to go out and connect, both with the community and internationally, is something that I would really like to see at Western Continuing Studies.

Ian Allen (IA): There is a lot of onus on whoever is heading a continuing education unit to push the agenda to make sure that it is an institutional priority. Having said that, the importance of continuing education is somewhat dependent on the upper echelon of leadership at any particular institution. I’m very fortunate that both my VP Academic and the President have a lot of time for continuing studies. We get a lot of support from both offices in that regard.

However, with that recognition comes a fair bit of responsibility. We need to ensure that we are creating an interesting mix of programs that are relevant to a variety of credit and professional audiences. We need to make sure that we’re living up to our end of the bargain, which is to contribute to the net return for the institution.

From my perspective, things like stackable credentials are not something that we’ve had a lot of success with, but these things take time. We’re certainly pushing in that regard, and the relationships we’ve created with faculties and university leadership are crucial to our success. If you don’t have buy-in, an idea isn’t going to go anywhere. We need to make them see the benefit of building a partnership with us. We need to make them understand what a continuing education unit can do for them. They’re the owners of the intellectual property, but we can make that content accessible to a much wider audience.

Heather McRae (HM): Like UNB, we don’t have to pay rent at MacEwan, which is a really good thing. We have a conservatory of music within the school, which includes 40 studio halls, an endless number of concerts halls and over 100 pianos. That takes up a lot of space, and we certainly wouldn’t want to have to pay rent! So, it’s a good thing that that is supported by the university.

In terms of UNB, one of the things that I have often looked to Ian for guidance is the development of online courses: How to establish the supports needed for online programming, and how to differentiate my operation from the countless others around the country. As I am located in the same city as an entirely online university, I really do need to be able to be clear about defining our niche market within online program delivery.

I love the description of the diplomas that Carolyn shared in terms of their emphasis on the workforce. Those are the kinds of things that I’m hoping to build at MacEwan, particularly around the technology sector.

Evo: What kinds of challenges do you see standing in the way of these broad innovations taking place at your organizations?

CY: This isn’t unique to Western, but a real challenge that any continuing education unit faces involves its relationship with faculties. Faculties are very keen to grow enrollment, especially with the likelihood of serious cutbacks in higher education budgets from the provincial government in Ontario. We’re not the only ones facing this challenge around competition from the faculties, and that may impact whether or not the faculties would consider partnering with us.

At Western Continuing Studies, we are a small team. All in, we’re 12 people, so for me, a more unique challenge pertains to resourcing. We are working very hard, using frugal innovation, to meet demands for new, workforce-relevant programming, but there hasn’t been any significant investment in our department. We’re just really relying on what we have in our reserve after our expenses. That’s not a whole lot of money.

IA: I’d just like to build on something that Carolyn said. A continuing education unit is very diverse and requires the skills and attributes of many different personalities—from developers to web designers to support staff who are looking after students regarding PLA or credit advising. We bring a very mixed bag of skills to the table.

However, one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is you can’t be all things to all people. It’s important to be picky about what you decide to take on. To Carolyn’s point, I really believe that my staff are some of the hardest working people on campus. But you’ve got to be smart in terms of where you allocate your resources, and make sure that you take care of your people. They’re the backbone of your organization, and you want to make sure that whatever you’re choosing to do fits with the overall mission or mandate of your institution. You need to be able to focus on your mission and develop new programming, but you have to do so in such a way that you’re not burning everybody out within a year or two.

HM: In the very short time that the School of Continuing Education at MacEwan has been up and running, we’ve had some spectacular successes. But they’ve also led to high expectations from the university. Now we’re trying to manage those expectations, particularly given some of the changes that we’re going to be facing. Some of those challenges are external to the university: Changes in legislation; capped tuition fees; and changes in the types of programs that lead to opportunities for work permits for international students. All of these things are impacting what we can do and how we can do them. So, it’s something that we have to be constantly aware of, and communicate those changes to others. That’s part of the managing expectations as well.

Evo: How important is your involvement in CAUCE to staying abreast of what’s happening in the Canadian postsecondary space?

IA: CAUCE, both as an organization and in terms of the relationships it helps us build, is paramount to our success. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve reached out to folks across the country to learn about new innovations in online learning and development. The various committees they’re involved in is such an important resource for learning about best practices, success stories and failures. You want to make sure that CE units can live on the edge between the real world and the world of academia. That is a space where there’s a lot of opportunity for success, but there’s also room for a lot of things to go sideways.

So, for me and for my organization, I don’t know what we’d do if CAUCE no longer existed. It’s a great place to connect with like minds, so that you know that you’re not in this world all by yourself.

HM: CAUCE is a lifeline for me. It’s been an amazing networking operation and I’ve been able to encourage others in my organization to participate in CAUCE committees and projects. Friendships develop across the country. You learn about new ideas and approaches, and, as Ian said, you share the good and the bad. That’s helpful in terms of learning about different institutional priorities, where to watch for potential pitfalls, and what to look for in terms of opportunities and trends.

I’ve spoken to my colleagues across the country about different kinds of technology applications that we could use in Edmonton. The opportunity to share and openly discuss some of the challenges and opportunities in such initiatives is something that I really value. I certainly think that it’s made a difference in my career.

CY: I am going to reiterate exactly what Ian and Heather said: CAUCE is a lifeline. It has been essential to Western Continuing Studies, and I think if you really want to understand best practices and innovation, you’re not going to learn it by isolating yourself within your own institution. You have to be part of a national association to really understand what people are doing in the space.

To give you a very specific example, I drew on the CAUCE network when we were looking for a new student information system. I sent out a group email and got great information from my colleagues about what they were using and how they were using it. So, I know CAUCE has helped me directly and I’m very grateful for it.

As executives, we need to have a national voice. There’s so much literature about continuous learning coming out right now from government and employers, and it’s all about the importance of upscaling and reskilling. And so, we have an important role to not only convey what we do now, but what we can do for this country in the future. The diversity of programming—whether it’s French immersion, professional development, Indigenous programming—has never been more relevant and in this time of change. It will only become more important. We have excellent potential as a great resource for our federal government around developing new policies for lifelong learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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