Speculative Futures of Higher Education in Canada: Year 2030

Scenario thinking, or speculation, attempts to illustrate multiple possible futures that are different than the present yet still reflect, or are underpinned by, present trends (Webber, 2020). This article attempts to extrapolate the future of the Canadian higher education system for the year 2030. Speculative futures in this article are articulated with informal narratives and early indicators (Webber, 2020); meaning, trends from the 2000’s and 2010’s are explored to understand the influential factors driving the future of higher learning in Canada. In addition, this article considers institutional change, a “culturally loaded, value-laden, and socially negotiated process” (Vaughter et al., 2016, p.5), and the degree to which institutional change in the Canadian higher education system will occur by 2030. Given the influence of the global economy on social and environmental decision making and well-being (OECD, 2019), this article offers speculative futures of Canadian higher education by considering the global economy and how certain economic trends have the potential to shape the future of Canadian higher education institutions (HEi’s).

Economic challenges throughout the 2020’s instigated change in the way Canadian higher education is funded. Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020’s, a situation which resulted in years of ups and downs for education across North America (Alexander, 2020), Canadian HEi’s suffered an extreme financial hit due to intermittently low enrollment and heavy resource drain from shifting back-and-forth between campus-delivery to online-delivery (Wall Street Journal, 2020). Many smaller private colleges and universities were forced to permanently shut down due to unmanageable financial defects and an inability to adapt to the changing economic times; meanwhile, other institutions forged new paths to obtain adequate funding to remain open, primarily through corporatization of education goods and services (Antony et al., 2017). Corporatization in HEi’s led to a new breed of privatized institutions in Canada, intensifying competition for publicly funded universities and colleges to attract new students. Although government funding increased over the past two decades (e.g. 2010’s and 2020’s) in Canada (PBO, 2020), financial strain over reduced ancillary revenue, student resources, facility operations, staffing, and sustainable development has created inadequate funding for public HEi’s. Now in 2030, all surviving HEi’s have partnered with corporations to survive the ever-evolving landscape of the digital era.

In the private education sector, profit has become the primary focus of academic inquiry and guiding force for deciding what products and services to offer (Antony et al., 2017). Research funding, course offerings, staffing, and enrollment decisions are based on the bottom line rather than academic criteria (Antony et al., 2017, p.219). In fact, all aspects of learning, teaching, research, and governance reflect that of the profit-driven agenda in the private education landscape (Antony et al., 2017). Accordingly, course offerings are vocational by nature, fostering students’ abilities to adapt to an evolving global marketplace, to examine and understand local, global, and intercultural issues and develop their understanding of world views (OECD, 2019); this is all attained through the completion of diploma and certificate programs, as opposed to the traditional four-year degree programs previously offered by most public universities.

In the public sector, Canadian universities and colleges have been slow to adapt with the evolving economy (Unin, 2012). Student loan debt continued to increase throughout the 2020’s due to the scarcity of government funding (Alexander, 2020; PBO, 2020), forcing students of low socioeconomic standing to look for alternative education paths like open universities that offer little to no tuition costs for students (Reshef, 2014; University of the People, 2020). Although slower than private colleges, many public universities have also adopted the vocational approach to course and program offerings to compete with private and open institutions. Students, on a global scale, became “educational consumers” (p.224) throughout the 2010’s and 2020’s, and by 2030, largely prefer to invest in education that would directly result in workforce skills (Antony et al., 2017). Furthermore, core subjects in the humanities, liberal arts, and basic sciences are now all grossly underfunded and underappreciated (Antony et al., 2017), making way for programs in technology, engineering, and environmental sustainability to provide most of the tuition-related revenue for public institutions. In contrast to traditional education, students now must look into open source education through technologies like massive open online courses (MOOC’s) (Educause, 2019) to pursue subjects that are considered to be non-essential to the workforce.

Classrooms, both virtual and on-campus, have become more diversified than ever in the Canadian higher education system. The effects of an intensified and digitalized global market, in conjunction with record-breaking migratory activity due to affordable transport (World Bank, 2018, as cited in OECD, 2019, p.22), has increased student diversity to include more international students, cultures, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds (OECD, 2019). Throughout the 2020’s, Canadian HEi’s took action to satisfy this diversified learner population by adopting new measures that support students’ capacity to examine and understand local, global, and intercultural issues; to foster knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that encourage well-being and sustainability; and to provide positive learning experiences and opportunities to succeed for all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures (OECD, 2019).

From an institutional standpoint, all staff are subject to rigorous cultural diversity training through digitally-mediated courses, workshops, and micro-credentialing (Educause, 2019; Mallon, 2019), before and throughout their education practice, as this helps establish best practices to accommodate multicultural student populations (OECD, 2019; Provincial Health Services, 2020). Curriculum, instruction, and assessment are all adapted to include global concepts and multicultural subject matter in core courses that serve to educate all students and teachers on global affairs and cultural perspectives in relation to their field of study (OECD, 2019); this nurtures pre-existing cultural differences in an understanding and supportive way, thus encouraging students to embrace their cultural backgrounds, rather than deviate from them. In addition, many Canadian colleges and universities have partnered with institutions across the world to promote “appropriate multicultural interactions” (p.30) to not only offer international students much needed emotional support, but also prepare all students for work in a globalised economy (OECD, 2019).

To accommodate the seemingly ever-growing socioeconomic class divide (Antony et al., 2017), provincial governments, along with many Canadian HEi’s, put special initiatives in place to further support disadvantaged students to complete tertiary education. Common provisions include increased opportunity for bursaries and scholarships aimed at specific cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, privatised and government funded student loans with special rates and terms, as well as affordable childcare and early childhood education solutions (OECD, 2019). Furthermore, there is learning and program planning support for students who work full time which emphasizes effective planning of “soft factors” (p.2) which consider care for dependants, job loss or change, and other personal circumstances that may inhibit the development and practice of effective study habits (Brown et al., 2015).

Prior to enrollment, all students must complete specified coursework to prepare them for a multicultural education system. International students are met with language and multicultural communications-based coursework (OECD, 2019), while native English-speaking students must complete only the latter. Furthermore, socioeconomic backgrounds and learning preferences for all students are thoroughly investigated and accounted for during the program planning phase to ensure student success, and to mitigate attrition rates (Brown et al., 2015). Although this list of student accommodations is not exhaustive, it does reflect the efforts many HEi’s take to accommodate a growingly diverse student population, with the goal to make education in a globalised world work for everyone (OECD, 2019).

Global trends, such as the continuation of the free market, closely interact with higher education systems, whether public or private, and conversely, higher education can influence global socioeconomic and sociopolitical trends (OECD, 2019). The free market is said to be “an ethic unto itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action” (Harvey, 2005: 3). Considering this, and in relation to the Canadian higher education system, this article deems it fair to say that global economic trends will shape the direction of higher education, on a global scale, and that education provision will, to a certain degree, likely alter the direction of global economics. That said, speculative inquiry is difficult and may present falsity based on two primary points: trends may be “dead wrong” (p.14), and the relevance or importance of trends may change over time (OECD, 2019). Will the free market lead to record-breaking diversity in classrooms, and change the very nature of higher education funding? At this stage it is hard to tell, but what is certain is that societal trends, when measured through a sociological lens (Selwyn et al., 2020), may present valuable insight into the future of the Canadian higher education system.



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