UNBC facing rocky road

It may be a month since anyone in Northern Health has contracted COVID-19 but that doesn't mean the virus isn't about to causes serious pain to area residents and communities.

UNBC was already hurting before the pandemic and it might be about to get much worse.

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Two faculty strikes have poisoned the relationship between professors and administration. Dates have been set later this month for arbitration on a new contract but their endless squabbling is small potatoes compared to the much bigger risks threatening UNBC's future.

Stagnant enrolment levels in a region with a declining population. 

Stiff competition for students and academics from older, more established small and mid-sized universities in B.C. and across Canada. 

Slow adaptation to rapidly changing market conditions. 

Slow, compared to some of the competition, development of online and alternative instructional methods.

And that's all before the real effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt.

UNBC has cut $3.4 million in expenses and 21 jobs in its 2020-21 budget while also passing on another two per cent increase in student tuition. That could be a preview of what's to come when UNBC is forced to continue with primarily online instruction this upcoming school year in order to meet provincial health guidelines on social distancing.

New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway has created a huge buzz in the academic world on both sides of the border with his blunt assessment of what's in store for the post-secondary sector.

"Universities should be doing what every other organization whose business model has been threatened by Covid-19 is doing: cutting costs," he wrote in a recent blog. "Usually, when I broach the subject of cost cutting, it’s as if I belched. The conversation continues as if they didn’t hear anything."

Galloway bluntly blames that deafness on "the corporatization of campuses, bloated administrations, tenure, a lack of accountability, and a god complex that we, academics, are noble when in fact we’ve been preying on the hopes and dreams of middle-class families and indebting them."

The path forward, he says, is "severely overdue cost reductions and deploying small and big tech (to) dramatically lower the cost per student of a college education." 

The largest and most prestigious universities are best positioned to make those systemic changes quickly, he argues. Unlike a school like UNBC, those schools are sitting on huge endowment funds to offer financial stability. Also unlike UNBC, they are well-positioned to use their brands to significantly increase their student population (and their revenue stream) by opening up their online course offerings, particularly at the undergraduate level. 

Where will these new students be coming from? They will be poached from smaller schools like UNBC.

From the student (and parent perspective), it's a huge win. 

People in Prince George or anywhere else in the world with a stable, high-speed Internet connection could obtain degrees from UBC, the University of Toronto or even Harvard and Stanford in the United States without leaving home and without the significant additional costs of living in the cities where those institutions are physically based.

One in 50 applicants to Stanford are accepted but if that number increases to even 10 in 50, thanks to online opportunities, it spells disaster for smaller universities, Galloway argues.

"Tier 2 and 3 schools with high tuitions are the next department stores — not long for this world," he wrote.

He even laid it out in a formula: C + E + Ex/Tuition.

"C = Certification (the lane you are put in post graduation based on the brand/school you attended, i.e., a caste system)

E = Education (learning and stuff)

Ex = Experience (fall leaves, football games, getting your heart broken, throwing up)."

And divide all that by the cost of tuition.

If experience (UNBC markets the student experience of small class sizes on a small, friendly campus in a small, friendly community with easy access to professors) is removed from the equation, the end result, Galloway wrote, are students paying tens of thousands of dollars for Zoom classes.

Not only do the big and elite universities have the flexibility to slash tuition costs and make up the different with more students, these schools can develop innovative online offerings by working with the high tech powerhouses. Imagine Google and Stanford, Facebook and Harvard, Microsoft and Princeton forming exclusive online education partnerships to offer courses and degree programs at comparable or even cheaper rates than the cost of receiving a similar education from UNBC or even UBC.

If that sounds like a vague, distant threat, Galloway points to a financial bomb ticking at American and Canadian schools, big and small, set to go off this September.

With borders closed or restricted to non-essential travel, the cash cow of international students, who form a significant portion of the in-person student body at both UNBC and CNC while paying much higher tuition fees, is about to take a huge hit.

For UNBC and CNC, that means their 2020-21 budgets may be out of date by the end of the first week of classes in September. Without government bailouts, that spells much deeper and painful spending and operational cuts will be necessary over the fall and winter, just to stay afloat.

So even if Prince George residents remain largely untouched by the actual virus over the next six to 12 months, complications arising from COVID-19 could hit the city's post-secondary institutions hard, causing further damage to an already fragile local economy.

— Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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