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NorQuest College, in Edmonton, Alberta, typically spends roughly $300,000 to start a new academic program, which on average takes two years from conception to launch. At a time when students and employers are seeking new programs in emerging fields at an escalating pace, and government support for the public institution has stagnated, says Norma Schneider, the college's vice president of teaching and learning, "we have to be more inventive about how we reach more students."

The situation looks much the same at Bow Valley College, 180 miles to the south in Calgary -- so much so that Laura Jo Gunter, the president there, describes NorQuest as Bow Valley's "sister." The two institutions have on occasion adopted courses from each other, with one paying the other for the rights to the curriculum. Each arrangement was a little different, requiring renegotiation along the way.

Last fall the two institutions took things to what they saw as the logical next stage: an agreement that will allow Bow Valley and NorQuest to borrow programs freely from one another, without any money changing hands. The arrangement is highly unusual -- several experts said they couldn't think of any comparable degree of collaboration -- even though the circumstances it's designed to address are found in many U.S. states as well as in the two institutions' Canadian province: limited government resources, commonality of programs and a desire to accelerate timelines for getting new things off the ground.

"We've spent the public's money to create these programs," says Schneider. "Why are we respending the public's money to do it all over again?"

Adds Gunter of Bow Valley: "You get the best education when you think about it from a system point of view. That frees you to allow for these types of collaborations, as opposed to 'my student, my money.'"

Seeds of a Partnership

Bow Valley and NorQuest are the rough equivalents of American community colleges, granting a mix of diplomas and certificates (Alberta, like most of Canada, does not offer associate degrees). While would-be students in Calgary might travel to Edmonton (or vice versa) for a university education, they generally do not do so for the vocationally oriented learning that Bow Valley and NorQuest provide. Each city needs certain programs in common -- nursing, business and the like -- but beyond that, the colleges' mix of programs are closely tied to the needs of their respective local economies. But as is true in many places these days, economic needs in urban areas like Calgary and Edmonton are aligning rather than diverging, especially around technology.

The two institutions receive a plurality (but not a majority) of their funds from the provincial government -- an amount that has been "reasonably stable through the last seven to eight years," Schneider says. But at a time when other forms of revenue (like tuition) have been frozen and certain costs -- like collective bargaining agreements with employees -- are increasing, flat funding is essentially a decrease. "Every time it's zero, we lose 3.5 percent," says Schneider.

In such a climate, the colleges look for every opportunity to do things more thoughtfully and cost-effectively. That includes the process of creating new academic programs.

Any time one of the colleges wants to start a new program, it must submit a proposal to the provincial government, which, if it approves, grants a license to offer the program. The various steps of conceiving and launching a typical diploma program -- research into student and employer demand, gaining provincial approval for the concept, and building out the curriculum -- "costs in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000," Schneider says.

In the last few years, recognizing convergence in the needs of their students and local employers, officials at Bow Valley and NorQuest began purchasing courses from each other. Then in 2017-18, they worked out a "swap" in which one institution would purchase a program curriculum from the other and pay it 10 percent of the tuition revenue from students who enrolled.

"But that was still costing money to both institutions," Schneider says. That led them to another question: "What if we had a totally free exchange?"

"Let's say they've been running a social work program in Edmonton, and we see a need for social work programs in Calgary," said Gunter, the Bow Valley president. "Instead of us starting that from scratch, we can look to a colleague who is doing it in a similar environment to say, ‘here's how we've approached it, here are the course materials.’ Our faculty will always make a course their own. But we're not spending years in development."

The adopting college will get a program "that’s already mature, ready to be deployed," says Misheck Mwaba, vice president academic (the provost equivalent) at Bow Valley.

The speeding up of the time to develop and implement programs is all the more important at a time when employers and students expect that "institutions are going to respond faster as the economy's changing," Mwaba says. "In the tech area, especially, things change extremely fast. The way we're planning it, we'll constantly communicate when changes [in a program] are being made, so that the other institution can decide whether they want to adopt it."

The Challenges of Sharing

For all the talk of cross-institutional collaboration in higher education, it remains surprisingly difficult, especially within the academic realm.

"We reinvent an awful lot of wheels in higher education," says George L. Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "This is particularly true in lower-division [courses], where uniqueness is not necessarily a function of the specialization of the professor."

"Sometimes competition can be paralyzing at first," says Schneider, the NorQuest vice president. "It helped for us when we tried to look at it through the eyes of the students. Both of us are really about trying to provide as many opportunities for as many Albertans as we can, and we have to be more inventive."

Adds Gunter: "With our resources tight, we should focus on spending where we need to spend them, not in reproducing things."

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