Permanent Scarcity and Permanent Crisis

The new normal in higher ed?

March 24, 2016

The people who work at colleges and universities now find themselves operating in one of two modes: permanent scarcity or permanent crisis.

Scarcity and crisis are the new higher ed normal.

Permanent Scarcity:

Colleges and universities operating under a regime of permanent scarcity can (and I argue usually do) offer an excellent experience to students. In fact, it is the effort to offer a continuously improving bundled educational experience that creates the conditions of scarcity. 

In an increasingly competitive and resource-stretched environment, it is imperative to offer a quality of education that can attract and retain students, as well as build on reputations around leadership in knowledge creation, teaching, and learning.

The causes of postsecondary permanent scarcity are complex and diverse.  Some of these causes include:

  • Competitive shifts, as previously local institutions now compete nationally (and increasingly internationally) for students, faculty, research dollars, brand awareness, and status.
  • Cost pressures, as the costs to run institutions (due to everything from increased health care bills to the need to offer more student services to stay competitive) grows faster than the ability of schools to raise prices.
  • Demographic and economic shifts, as the numbers graduating high school students (particularly in certain regions) that can afford higher education constricts - and the need to serve non-traditional students grows.
  • Technological shifts, as every college and university is now a 24/7/365 enterprise - and as students bring demands and expectations from other domains (such as the consumer world) to their campuses.

Permanent scarcities play out in numerous ways in the daily lived experience of people working in higher education:

  • The need to do more with less - as the demands for services, programs, and initiatives in each unit outpaces the resources available to meet these demands.
  • The necessity of constantly navigating change, as traditional methods, practices, and norms are increasingly inadequate to meet the new competitive and funding realities.
  • The challenge of getting the work done where there are not enough people to do the work, and where jobs that were once done by two people are not done by one.
  • The need to compete (often fiercely) within the institution for a piece of existing resources -  in order to meet the growing demands on the unit, division, school etc.

Permanent Crisis:

Permanent crisis is a different, and much worse, reality for many postsecondary institutions. 

Permanent crisis, unlike permanent scarcity, is not a condition that leads to better experiences (and outcomes) for students. 

Schools operating in permanent crisis mode will also burn out faculty and staff - and will make any large scale change efforts to emerge from the crisis exceedingly difficult.

Factors that have contributed to schools being in a state of permanent crisis include:

  • Wholesale state disinvestment from public postsecondary education.
  • Significant drops in other forms of public support, such as funding for research.
  • A mismatch in the fixed costs and size of the institution (or the individual school) against the new funding and market realities.
  • An inability to take the steps necessary to both carve out an educational niche, and play to the strengths of the institution, in order to improve quality to attract enough tuition paying students.

Working at an institution in the throes of a permanent crisis is exhausting and demoralizing.  Some of these daily lived experiences include:

  • A lack of security, as no job is safe from budget cutting and downsizing.
  • An absence of autonomy, respect, and adequate compensation - as schools (foolishly) go for short term costs savings in the form of adjuncts and other non-secure faculty in order to save money.
  • A politicized and stressful environment, as everyone is focused on protecting their own divisions/department/school and their own positions - rather than on collectively finding a way out of the permanent crisis.

If both permanent scarcity and permanent crisis or the new higher ed normal, then perhaps we need to change how we think of our higher ed careers.  Entrepreneurism, flexibility, a comfort with risk, and the ability to thrive in an environment of insecurity and change are increasingly important attributes for a successful postsecondary career.

Those that will most succeed will be higher ed leaders who are able to create new resources, new services, and new opportunities - rather than rely on existing structures and resources.

Certainly, high degrees of resilience and fortitude are necessary to navigate a new higher ed normal of permanent scarcities and permanent crises.

How can leaders at the intersection of learning and technology best lead in organizations of permanent scarcity and permanent crisis?

Does permanent scarcity or permanent crisis describe the school that you work?

What do you think are the causes for these two conditions, and what is it like for you to operate in that environment?



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