Colleges as corporations

Which is more surprising – that community colleges struggle in a highly competitive environment, or that I’m just starting to understand why?  After five years of working around these institutions, their way of doing things is making more sense to me.

In the 45 years since provincial legislation brought them into being, everything has changed around them.  Despite this, they have somehow managed to fulfill their mandates and strive to meet future demands.

In the beginning, each of the new colleges had a loosely defined catchment area, providing nearby families with a postsecondary alternative to universities.  They had brand new purpose-built facilities and provincially mandated programs and standards, tied to Ontario’s labour economy.

The catchment areas are no longer defined by the proximity of students to “their” college, except in the isolated regional colleges where travel poses a barrier.  Now colleges differentiate themselves more on the basis of program specialization (George Brown in hospitality, or Centennial in transportation, for example).  Students interested in unique program offerings or industry specific equipment and facilities, crisscross the old boundaries to attend the institution of their choice.  This is especially true in the Greater Toronto Area, where there are five colleges and four universities inside the city limits, and more within commuting distance.

Back then, access to postsecondary education wasn’t nearly as accessible as today.  Students lacking the means or the marks for a university education needed an alternative way to expand their employment options.  Creation of a parallel system of colleges or polytechnic institutes gave them a choice.

By 2013, universities and colleges have become platforms linked by bridging and ladder programs.  So advanced is this linkage, some urban colleges are targeting university campuses and industry for new students as aggressively as they recruit in high schools.  Increasingly students don’t choose to attend college OR university, they choose college AND university.

Those bright new facilities have aged over the decades until a large portion of them are in need of repair or replacement.  But replacement with what?  And replacement how?

The original purpose of these buildings is no longer relevant in many cases.  Learning environments have evolved over the years to reflect best practice in education.  There is also the problem of specialized lab, studio, and shop space required to bring training up to industry standards.  And finally, there is the question of who will pay for it all, especially when competitive pressures drive college administrators to seek improvements beyond what the government alone will fund?

Related to this infrastructure challenge is the premise that colleges should be training the work force of the future.  It’s as valid an objective today as it was in 1965, but it’s a lot harder to fulfill in 2013 because the pace of change in technology has accelerated.  The whole economy is affected, especially in industries where innovation drives employment growth.  As product life cycles shorten, as production methods and materials change more rapidly, as design and management methods adapt to keep pace, colleges have to change what they teach, how they teach, and where they teach, if they are to remain relevant and competitive.

The design and quality of these facilities has to improve as well because students can always choose to attend a competing college.  So, colleges have to service students in ways they didn’t regard as essential before.  Like a university, a college has to have a social and service centre for students.  It has to have a well-equipped and attractive library.  A large, modern athletic centre is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity if you want to keep good students and faculty.  Amenities like these are central to the experience offered on traditional university campuses, but the government’s founding vision for colleges was more utilitarian.

Adding to the challenges facing the system, college enrollment has grown into the hundreds of thousands across the system, yet the amount of funding for each student has gone down dramatically.  Colleges need more space, better facilities, they need constant program renewal, and must compete for students, public and private sector funding, industry partners, real estate, and prestige – and they have to do it with less money per student for a lot more students.

Here in the NetGain shop, we talk often about how community colleges, as corporations, must adapt to achieve what’s required of them.  That seems to imply a negative perspective, given their strong record of service to their students and the provincial economy.  But it’s fair to ask, “If you wanted to design a corporation to succeed in an intensely competitive educational marketplace, would you use an Ontario community college as your model?” 

Of course not.  Community colleges are designed, from their board of regents down to their unionized custodians, to administer and deliver educational programs under the oversight and control of a provincial government ministry.  Despite some significant changes over the past decade, their structures, systems, policies, and procedures make it difficult for colleges to develop and execute competitive strategies with the same agility as their private sector counterparts.

Back to the question about design, what would you build into a corporation to help it overcome the challenges faced by today’s colleges?  First, you’d have to admit that education and administration are necessary but insufficient for competitive success.  More than ever before, colleges depend on marketing, financial management, government relations, and fund raising to maintain relevance and build capacity.  These skills, which have little to do with education and administration, are dependent for their value on even higher level corporate practices such as strategic planning and organizational development.

To put this in perspective, imagine how Nike would be faring if the company’s prime attributes were shoemaking and bookkeeping, or how Rogers built a telecom empire when, as some customers would argue, they never learned to administer or deliver satisfactory cell phone service.  All joking aside, they focus on strategy and execution, aggressive, intelligent marketing, and constant improvement of the corporation itself.

Translated into the college world, corporate performance, not academic or administrative excellence, can make the difference between winners and losers in the Ontario community college system as it stands today.  What does this mean for the institutions that comprise this system, and the resourceful people who lead them?

If I’m right, advantage goes to those who invest in rapid acquisition of expertise in non-educational corporate functions.

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