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Thoughts from OURA 2008

Ken Steele reflects on ideas aired at the 2008 Ontario University Registrar’s Association conference, held February 25-6 in Niagara Falls Ontario. (OURA 2008 website)

OURA conferences are always a lively combination of seasoned university administrators (the registrars) and a healthy influx of youthful enthusiasm and playfulness (thanks to the liaison and recruitment staff present). This year what also became evident is that OURA has become a combination of staff from Ontario universities, community colleges, and institutions across the country. I wouldn’t miss it, and Academica Group is happy to sponsor the event, to provide professional development and networking to the sector.

Battle Lines of Degree Recognition

(Opening Keynote by David Marshall, President, Mount Royal College)

It’s been my pleasure to consult with David Marshall and his team at MRC in Calgary over the past year, so I particularly enjoyed his opening keynote, and it had delegates talking for the rest of the day. He argued convincingly that the “battle lines” were drawn in Alberta in 2003, when the provincial government passed bill 43, allowing the 17 colleges in Alberta to ask for degree-granting privileges. Not just for applied degrees, but for “foundational university credentials.” It rapidly became clear that Alberta universities had no intention of recognizing college baccalaureates, and the debate began. Marshall feels torn, because he also knows from his time as president at Nipissing University that colleges need to transform themselves to provide an “instructionally-focused but scholarly informed” undergraduate environment.

The vital issue, Marshall emphasized, is that students should be clearly told up front whether a BA will allow them to pursue an MA or not. A two-tier degree system will ultimately hurt those who can least afford it — first-generation applicants, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, aboriginals and new Canadians. He urges institutions to make more efforts to ensure that there truly are “no dead ends” — that bridging programs or makeup courses are available to allow a college BA graduate to enter a university MA program if he wishes.

In Alberta, the provincial government wants to create a clear framework, with or without AUCC, and so they have developed 6 categories of institution, from Research Universities and Baccalaureate Universities through Community Colleges and Polytechnics to a range of “Special” and “Other” degree-granting institutions.

By coincidence, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein this week, which just reinforces the message that brilliant, capable people can often face unjust obstacles in the pursuit of their education, or in the acceptance of revolutionary ideas. As the institutions with which we entrust the country’s future innovation and prosperity, universities must do everything in their power to ensure they don’t inadvertently turn away the next genius, in any field.

Summarizing a Decade of CMSF

Norman Riddell, executive director of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, presented an impressive summary of the programs and initiatives CMSF has completed in its first mandate. (This was the day before the federal budget declared the demise of CMSF in 2009.) He emphasized that Canadian values hold firmly that we are an egalitarian country, and that equal opportunity for upward mobility demands equal access to PSE.

CMSF’s research has identified 4 types of barriers to pursuing PSE — financial barriers, certainly, but also the lack of information about PSE and funding, the lack of motivation or direction to pursue PSE, and inadequate academic preparation for PSE. These 4 barriers interact and compound one another, so providing bursary dollars is just part of CMSF’s activity.

CMSF’s bursary programs have had a significant impact on PSE student persistance, in particular. When student loans can be kept under $10,000 a year, there’s a significant uptick in student persistence. The challenge of needs-based bursaries is that they tend to favour the middle-class, because truly needy students will opt to take less costly programs, live at home, and work while in school to avoid debt — and ironically, also to reduce their perceived need.

Norman went on to describe the broad range of CMSF initiatives directed at raising awareness and motivation for high school youth, generally established by partnering with provincial governments and treating each jurisdiction differently. After a series of positive reviews by the Auditor General, the Treasury Board, and HRSDC last year, should CMSF be granted a second mandate, it would likely focus its resources even more on targeted demographics: aboriginal students, first-generation PSE students, and those from lower-income homes.

Collective Branding Efforts

Just days after Colleges Ontario admitted publicly that they were behind the “Obay” Pharmaceuticals campaign, delegates at the OURA conference were admiring the way in which the college system has worked together to raise awareness and understanding of their institutions. A series of multi-media campaigns like “Get a Real Job,” “Degrees in Demand,” and “Obay” have clearly positioning the career-focused PSE available at Ontario Colleges.

We were also shown sneak previews of campaigns being developed by Bang Marketing in Montreal for Canadian universities collectively, for use in international recruitment. Headlines like “Imagine inventing the next Blackberry” emphasize Canada’s technology achievements, while “The world is my playground. I study in Canada,” and “Knowledge without Boundaries” seem to build on Canada’s reputation as welcoming to international students. (Sorry, naturally these concepts don’t appear to be available online yet.)

OURA Developments

OURA’s annual report described a number of new initiatives worth mention, including:

Proposed Common Scholarship Application: OURA committees are working to develop a proposed single online application that would allow students to apply for multiple scholarships and bursaries at multiple institutions in Ontario. This seems like a great, student-centred idea that will eliminate needless paperwork and bureaucracy. Hopefully the Council of Academic Vice Presidents and Council of Presidents will endorse it.

Reviewing the travelling UIP road show: The collective “University Information Program” roadshow, which sees representatives from all Ontario universities undertake 8 weeks of coordinated travel to high schools across the province, has been largely unchanged since it was established decades ago. OURA is planning a thorough review of the UIP this year, in the face of “modern technologies, changing demographics and escalating costs.”

Launch of e-INFO: The collective catalogue of program offerings at Ontario universities was been taken online in the Fall of 2007, replacing the hardcopy resource that had been sent to high schools for many years. The new eINFO features expanded functionality for students and guidance counsellors. You can check it out at

10 Most Successful Recruitment Strategies

Jim Black, a US strategic enrolment management consultant, emphasized the importance of coordinated relationship building with prospective students. He compared recruitment to commercial marketing, in which it takes 48 touchpoints to influence consumer behaviour. Every contact with prospective students — from whatever office on campus — needs to be prompt, professional, relevant, and in keeping with your institution’s core values or brand. “Mismanaged moments of truth” allow students to cut you off their short list.

Jim observed that although the US is experiencing a demographic boom, there has also been a huge migration downward of students, from 4-year private colleges to 4-year public universities, from 4-year public universities to 2-year community colleges, and it’s largely been because of rising tuition.  The University of Phoenix Online has grown to be the largest university in the world because it offers impeccable convenience and customer service — make an inquiry on their website and you’ll get an automatic email back immediately, and a phone call WITHIN AN HOUR trying to set up an appointment for you with an advisor. Kettering University has generated millions of page views through viral marketing, thanks to amusing animated videos featuring “Stickman” — Kettering . Take a look — you can imagine how controversial these were with faculty and the board of governors.

The Mercer Report (Not that Mercer)

Peter Mercer, formerly at UWO, is currently president of Ramapo College, a small public liberal arts college in New Jersey. (And yes, he is from Newfoundland, and all Mercers from Newfoundland are related.) In his keynote address to the OURA conference, he shared his insights into the current prevailing public mood in the US and Canada. In the US, Peter sees increasing xenophobia, pessimistic self-doubt, and skepticism about the value of public PSE. By contrast, Canadians are optimistic about their economy (perhaps unwisely), increasingly diverse, but like the US face increasing regulation. In Canada, there seems to be growing skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education.

Peter offered some advice about maintaining public support for public PSE. First off, he says, the only public support that really matters is financial support. To get it, appeals to sentiment, tradition or idealism are ineffective — you need to make an economic argument based on labour market needs or national economic competitiveness. To gain support from politicians, you need to connect your concerns with a large voting block — not students, but their parents.

The US Department of Education’s Spellings Report seems to indicate an intention on the part of the US federal government to create an overall strategic direction for undergraduate education, to shift accreditation to national outcome measures instead of regional accreditors, particularly as related to workplace outcomes, and the establishment of a national database of key performance indicators to allow parents and students to sort and rank institutions.

My favourite quote from Peter’s presentation was: “as the watering hole gets smaller, the animals begin to look at one another differently.” Does that describe the future of inter-institutional colleagiality in Canada?

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