Visit Modern Campus

The President’s Lens: Gaining Insight Into Higher Ed’s Priorities

To garner the enrollment numbers they need, higher ed institutions must stay relevant with the current labor market, prioritize student wellness and promote fairness, openness and autonomy among staff.

The future of higher ed has been forever changed by the pandemic, and it’s important to keep on top of the trends popping up much faster than higher ed may be used to. Putting students at the center will be key to moving forward and reshaping the institution to be in a better position to serve their learners. In this interview, Sandy MacDonald discusses what higher ed leaders must prioritize, the challenges that lay ahead and trends on the horizon.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As you reflect on the previous year, what notable achievements or successes can you identify for either higher education as a whole or specifically your institution?

Sandy MacDonald (SMD): From a college perspective, we’re doing a good job with innovative programming. We’re making ourselves more accessible to a wider demographic and flexible with content delivery. I’m certainly seeing innovative collaborations among colleges and universities across Canada. Media portrayal of higher ed is often negative right now, but there are some good innovative things happening.

Evo: What are some key considerations that higher ed leaders should begin prioritizing?

SMD: First, we have to remain relevant and prepare students for the 21st-century labor market. They need the skills to not only survive in the market but also thrive. To provide them, we need to redefine our work and do what we say we’re going to do. Second, student wellness has become a top challenge for students. Third would be fiscal sustainability.

Evo: Are there additional challenges you’d like to highlight?

SMD: We’re seeing debate about institutions’ dependence on international students and the quality of education they’re receiving. That’s playing out across the country and impacting the housing shortage as well. When we look at fiscal sustainability, these students have obviously helped, but schools are also being criticized for bringing in too many students. So, that’s a dynamic that isn’t well understood.

Student wellness understood well either, and there’s an increasing number of students experiencing problems with anxiety and depression. These challenges can lead to problems with fiscal sustainability because, if you’re having trouble attracting and retaining domestic students and are limited in the number of international students, you’ll experience budget problems budget. There’s no two ways about it.

Evo: What’s required of higher ed leaders to overcome these obstacles?

SMD: We must ensure our institutions do what they say they’re going to and are supposed to do. If you’re a community college, you must ensure students graduate and find meaningful employment opportunities. Students aren’t solely driven by wages but growth opportunities and good working conditions.

As we continue to develop our programming, we must align that programming not only with what students want but what industry expects of these potential employees. We have to ensure our programs are relevant and provide our graduates with the competencies they need to thrive in the workplace. That’s key!

Evo: What are some trends you’re keeping an eye on?

SMD: Many of us in higher ed are concerned about AI. It can be tough to separate the noise from the message. We’re keeping a close eye on developing our policies and practices now—and whether we dedicate a program to AI. That’s a phenomenon we’re looking at because of its potential impact.

The other issue we’re looking at is how the labor market is changing. We’re seeing the introduction of more technology in industry because of the labor shortage, especially in Atlantic Canada. We’re also experiencing and will continue to experience a skills shortage. So, our industries are changing to try and accommodate that. There’s pressure to get students to industry faster, but we don’t want to compromise the quality of our graduates.

Evo: What’s some advice you would share with higher ed leaders?

SMD: Keep a close eye on external issues (i.e., labor market and government funding) and other components that drive your institution. With that, you must keep an even closer eye on your internal workings—relationships among departments and across the institution. Fairness, openness and autonomy are critical to keep working on with staff. Work-life balance is another important component that must be top of mind.

Another piece of advice I’d share is to take your work seriously but yourself not too seriously. If you’re doing the job right, then will fail at times. Not everything will work out smoothly, so you need to be open to trying new things and dealing with ambiguity.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SMD: There are four ideas that are essential to working in an institution. First, give people the autonomy to do their job as they see fit. There are standards and KPIs, yes, but generally speaking, micromanaging people won’t get the most out of them. With autonomy, they’ll work hard for you and give you their best.

Openness is the second factor. If there are changes coming down the line, you need to sit with your staff and speak to what’s happening. Third is fairness. It sounds like a playground concept, but when you talk about fairness in hiring, fairness in promotion, fairness in discipline—especially at a small institution—everyone knows everyone. So, it’s important to keep things fair. And finally, trust is crucial among colleagues and across the institution. Those four characteristics can get you on the path to a healthy culture.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.