Published on 2012/08/17
Higher education institutions need to work with their continuing education units in order to transform traditional academic programs and delivery models into something more suitable to today’s educational climate. Photo by Corepics.

Nowadays there is a shadow over post-secondary education in Canada. Most people who work and teach at universities feel the pressure: insufficient institutional funds, over-crowded classrooms, difficulties with students’ transitions to university and—more seriously—to the workforce after graduation, questions about the relevance of academic research and teaching, and many other issues and problems that reflect a growing disconnect between the university and its many constituencies. And, alarmingly, the situation is likely to get significantly worse in the coming decade. One section of the university, however, is in a position to show what can be done in lean times.

Continuing education units, once held up by institutions as critical to universities’ connections with their communities, have also faced difficulties in the last decade. Financial shortfalls have meant that traditional academic pursuits of research, teaching and graduate supervision have been funded at the expense of less central functions. The continuing education enterprise has often responded by generating a greater share of its own funding. This, in turn, has made these units more engaged, more pro-active and much more market savvy than the much more conservative disciplinary-based departments. In the long run, this process of compulsory self-reliance and entrepreneurship might well end up serving both the continuing education sector and the universities as a whole extremely well.

Academic entrepreneurship has typically not flourished in the Canadian academy. The most high profile practitioners—business schools—are often flush with cash and contacts, but have trouble being fully accepted on campus. Continuing education units, in contrast, have campus-wide responsibilities, are able to draw on expertise wherever they find it at the university, and have community-wide outreach capabilities. Moreover, these units have, of necessity, developed the market awareness and cost-recovery mentality that must inevitably become the hallmark of the university system as a whole.

If continuing education divisions were wise, they would carefully but aggressively integrate their operations across campus as widely as possible. If the universities as a whole were equally wise, they would be reaching out to the continuing education units for advice, guidance and educational partnerships.

Continuing education units have some of the best, if not the best, off-campus connections, market-based programming, and entrepreneurial cultures within contemporary Canadian universities. The national university system urgently needs a healthy dose of these same elements. If Canadian universities do not learn how to communicate with their local and regional audiences, if their programming is not more responsive to local economic opportunities and challenges—and if cost-recovery, fee-for-service programming is not expanded dramatically—the traditional university functions will soon find themselves short of cash and largely detached from the citizenry.

At present (at least in my experience at Canadian universities) continuing education divisions have allowed themselves to become too separate from the rest of the academic enterprise. This is perhaps by necessity, as they are often the only units on campus that have to fund a large portion of their salaries and expenses from “profitable” course, workshop, training and program activities. They do, nonetheless, hold a crucial key to the revitalization of the Canadian university system.

Where traditional academic departments can be aloof and inwardly focused, continuing education reaches out. Where the academy, in general, runs with an entitlement mindset, continuing education has learned to flourish through entrepreneurship and responsiveness. Where universities are slow moving, programmatically conservative and largely unresponsive to a fast changing economic and social reality, the successful continuing education divisions are fast-acting, creative and attentive to market needs.

The biggest question, however, is how to ensure that mutual learning and mutual respect emerge in the coming years. When the base budget cuts came to many continuing education units in Canada, the traditional departments rarely rushed to their defense. Now, as the traditional departments feel the budget squeeze and worry how to bridge the relevance gap, it is hardly surprising that the continuing education enterprise does not see it as its responsibility to rush to help.

Both sides of the divide need to appreciate that the pace and direction of societal change around post-secondary education is going to bring them closer and closer together. The client-based department of the university is going to want more and more of their academic programming in continuing education-type packages. Career-ready training is rapidly taking over from traditional academic preparation.

The university world is shifting. Continuing education, having been pushed to the margins of the academy and forced substantially to fend for itself, will be drawn increasingly into the middle of the campus. After all, the institution needs its expertise, community awareness and academic entrepreneurship in order to attract students, public support and government investment. It appears likely that the university will have to adjust significantly to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

Continuing education units can and must play a lead role in outlining the possibilities, processes and pedagogy of working with people where they are, rather than assuming students will simply adapt to campus realities. Done properly, the next decade can see the expansion of continuing education and the transformation of traditional academic programs and delivery models. Done poorly, both the continuing education units and the universities themselves will suffer severely.

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Readers Comments

Bill Myers 2012/08/17 at 12:23 pm

Reflecting on this piece, it seems like a lot of the discord between continuing education and main campus units comes from fundamental misunderstandings of the role each must play, and almost a personal grudge held by each towards the other.

Is that grudge real, or is it used to make the discord a little more understandable?

Ravi Narayan 2012/08/20 at 4:35 pm

I think what gets me the most is that, as you say, despite the deep roots CE units have in local communities, main campuses still refuse to bring CE into their program planning and advancement efforts. CE Units are still seen as a side-project.

Do you think it’s going to take CE administrators forcing their way into the center for this to change, or do you think it will be main campus administrators seeing no other course of action?

Personally, I think it’s going to take some courage from CE administrators to state their claim as vital pieces of the university machinery before anything is done.

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