Growing the Reputation of CE at Research-Intensive Universities
Continuing Education (CE) units often struggle to adequately define their role within the larger higher education institution. Often, main campus leaders will judge the work of the CE unit exclusively by revenue and enrollments. CE leaders, however, see their mission of creating access to high-quality learning opportunities for non-traditional learners as integral to the main mission of the institution. In this Q&A, Judith Potter discusses the true role of CE at research-intensive universities, and sheds some light on how CE leaders can help senior institutional leaders understand the work they do.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some assumptions senior leaders often make about continuing education units that operate on the periphery of research-intensive universities?
Judith Potter (JP): There’s a perceived disconnect between the main mission of the institution—in terms of its focus on the research agenda and the provision of traditional education programs—and the work of continuing education.
There can be an implicit sense that continuing education activities do not have a direct impact on those two main areas. This perception may not even be deliberate, it just happens and it’s something that we as continuing education leaders deal with constantly.
Evo: From your perspective, what is the mission of continuing education?
JP: In a 21st-century institution, continuing education should be integrated into the mission of the institution so that it’s part of the continuum of what a modern university does.
In terms of what is the mission, I see it as providing access to a wide variety of high-quality learning opportunities for non-traditional audiences.
Evo: What are the metrics most commonly used to define the success of CE?
JP: The traditional metrics have been net revenue and registrations. Increasingly, CE units are paying more attention to how we describe ourselves and what kind of metrics we use; that’s certainly the case for my group here at McGill.
Identifying key partnerships, for example, communicates more than just the number of registrations that you’re touching. The impact on employers, especially in the workplace environment, says something about the accountability of the institution to its local community, and that’s especially important to institutions like McGill that focus on international reputation and ratings.
Other metrics that we’re paying more attention to are our contributions to the main mission and mandate of the university–things like international connections, partnerships and activities. For most research-intensive universities, international presence is very important so being connected to institutional international efforts and showing how what we do builds and contributes to that reputation is critical.
Evo: How did you manage to grow the CE unit from being seen as a revenue-generating unit to one that has such a rich set of metrics that really defines what it does?
JP: It’s about listening a lot, understanding the priorities of the institution and speaking to those. It’s also about telling the story; I don’t shy away from the fact that we have the capacity to raise revenue, but I always present that as very much a second-tier focus. After all, if you’re not focused on the needs of your learners and the community, then you’re not going to succeed in terms of the revenue potential.
Revenue must never be seen as a primary focus or a primary metric.
Evo: How does defining the success of CE exclusively by revenue generation impact the work that CE does?
JP: On the positive side, I would say that it keeps us sharp; it keeps us focused on making sure that our operations and processes are effective, efficient and built on good business models. There can be negative fallout from that kind of focus on revenue, though. It can lead to more of a siloed approach and increase the disconnect from the main mission of the university. It can lead to inappropriate priorities in terms of determining what you do, not based on community needs but on what’s going to b a high revenue generator. You can lose some really important connections and opportunities there.
We tend to spend more time than we used to looking for alternative revenue sources, like grants for particular projects that might have been able to garner university support in the past. We’re currently doing work with aboriginal communities, but they aren’t self-funded so we would not be able to do those without applying for government grants designed to support those kinds of activities. That means we spend more time on proposal writing, reporting and tracking than we used to.
It has probably also brought continuing education in general into the fundraising game, which up until fairly recently we weren’t directly involved in. We’ve gotten much more interested in building our own cases and getting support for projects that would be very difficult to be self-funded or in any way revenue-generating.
Evo: At elite research-intensive universities, how do CE units strengthen or benefit the rest of the institution outside of that revenue-generating role?
JP: There’s a big role to be played in terms of public accountability. This has become an area of interest for our new principal. Senior leaders industry-wide are aware that the public is asking more questions about how universities actually benefit their tax base. Creating pathways for access for people who may not have been able to benefit from elite institutions is a really important role that we play.
In the urban context, for example, we play an important role in creating opportunities for recent immigrants to get a Canadian postsecondary credential or Canadian work experience and integrate into the Canadian workplace culture. Continuing Education units are also having more of an impact on the institution’s international reputation.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the growing role of continuing education units in universities?
JP: One thing we haven’t really touched on would be connections with other academic units within the institution, supporting other faculties in a number of ways, including helping them to reach out to their communities more effectively.
It’s really important to be able to work with our internal colleagues as well as our external communities.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator