The Only Constant is Change; The Only Consistency is Contradiction

September 8, 2017

Mark Roman
Chief Information Officer 
Simon Fraser University

As the outgoing President of the Canadian University Council of CIOs (CUCCIO), I took some time to reflect on the future of higher education and to search for emerging trends. To no one’s surprise, the most clear and obvious trend is continuous change. A stark reality of higher education is that change is constant.

However, the harder question to answer is what kinds of change can we expect? There are certainly innumerable trajectories, but I think the most consistent pattern is contradiction. Instead of a clear and linear future direction for higher education, we are faced with a series of opposing vectors.

For example:

  • Greater internationalization is making us more revenue and creating more dependence on this revenue stream. However, will this source of revenue continue? As foreign universities in countries that are our traditional sources of international students expand and improve in quality, what risks are we assuming as we become more dependent on international students to fund our universities?
  • Increased indigenization is a growing trend – it enriches the learning experience for all students, but more importantly, it is the right thing to do. Nevertheless, we have not done a good job. In many regards, these efforts have not born fruit as retention rates for First Nations students continue to lag all other segments of the student population. We cannot just put a token effort into this – it has to be pragmatic and realistic and it has to work for our indigenous youth.
  • The student is a consumer and increasingly expects to be treated as one. If we do not respect their expectations, we will lose them to organizations that will treat them as a consumer. Yet if we do treat them as a consumer we create an inner tension in the institution with faculty whose influence in the classroom may be diminished dramatically under this shift. Clearly a difficult contradiction to manage.
  • Time to completion continues to stretch out as students cannot afford to do their degree in the traditional 4 years. Moreover, culturally it has become acceptable to take 7 years to complete a 4-year degree. But governments do not want the added expense of supporting elongated completion times; they are moving towards rewarding universities for on-time degree completion. Again, two obvious yet contradictory trends.
  • This leads us to another push – the philosophy that we should be measuring learning outcomes. However, what outcomes will we reward? Higher grades? Deeper understanding? Employability? Getting a job is becoming a key learning outcome for many governments, which means more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs. Yet a large number of our current students are in arts and soft sciences, which could have a significant impact on the structure of our institutions.
  • Students want to learn at their own pace and in their own place. Virtual learning is making that possible, yet our institutions insist on physical teaching techniques and environments that have not fundamentally changed since Aristotle. The hybrid model is an inevitability, and our stakeholders are demanding we create personalized virtual learning experiences much faster than universities have the ability to pivot.
  • Provincial governments are demanding more control over universities. Increased compliance demands, salary freezes, and tuition caps are some of the tools they use. Yet at the same time, they are whittling away at our operating grants. They want more control but are not willing to pay more for it.
These are all major shifts filled with opposing and even conflicting messages. For that reason, none of these trends and directions have clear and obvious outcomes and conclusions, which makes leadership in higher education increasingly interesting. In a world of constant change, predicting the future is essential to survival. However, when all of our future patterns are moving in opposite directions, the only consistency we can expect is contradiction.
As a CIO, planning in a world of inherent contradiction requires an open mind, an agile culture, and a willingness to adapt to new realities rapidly.



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