Canada’s Top Post-Secondary Execs Answer Students’ Burning Questions: Part One

Students and senior administrators in Canadian post-secondary education might not spend a lot of time hanging out together, but the interactions between them are vital for campus culture. Earlier this year, we asked over 1,400 students how they felt about their institution’s senior administration and received a mix of responses. One thing that was clear, though, was that students who’d met and interacted with senior administrators tended to have more positive attitudes toward their school’s administration than those who didn’t.

In the spirit of dialogue, we gave these same students a chance to ask questions to presidents, VPs, department chairs and deans, registrars, and other senior administrators. Over 100 senior administrators from the Academica community provided their insight and explanation of what goes on behind the scenes at institutions. Below are some of the answers to the most popular questions (Note 1).

Q. How do you decide what a fair price is for higher education?

Questions from students around the cost of education were very common, ranging from the factors that impacted the price to the ethics of setting a tuition rate that would put the average student in substantial debt by graduation. It will come as no surprise to anyone in the campus community that tuition and fees were a point of intense debate and curiosity.

The answers were as diverse as the questions. Some administrators explained the fundamental factors of tuition - government funding, donations from alumni, and the costs of running the institution.

“The 'price' is based on the costs of delivering the programs. All colleges and universities are non-profit and receive funds primarily from grants and tuition. Tuition is capped, operating grants are shrinking and costs increasing above that. Provinces are different across Canada with respect to government investment in postsecondary education so won't be the same.”

- An Associate Dean

Many debated the difference between a morally fair tuition and a financially feasible tuition. Others spoke to their own experiences in managing tuition fees, fundraising, and scholarship or bursary options in an effort to bring down the cost of higher education.

“The word "fair" is misleading: it would be better to say "appropriate," I think. That said, there are many ways to determine it: what society can afford, for example, or what individuals can afford in light of the benefits to both; what the market will bear; what it costs to offer the necessary programming, etc. None of these will satisfy everyone!”

- Vice-President Academic and Provost

“Colleges are not expected to make a profit, so in essence the price that is paid is based on the costs that are incurred to provide the education. Some programs have higher costs than others, and that is a function of the equipment and human resources required to support the program.”

- Chief Infrastructure Officer

Q. What do you actually do, and how does it translate directly to the student?

Solving the question of ‘what does a senior administrator do’ was clearly important to the students we surveyed. With many students asking what administrators did in their daily lives and who benefited from their actions, it was clear that they were curious about how the other side of campus lives.

“Plan, develop strategy, prioritize budget allocation, coordinate teams, understand provincial, national and global higher ed trends. I also attend student and other institutional events to keep the pulse on what is happening ‘on the ground.’”

- Vice President Student Affairs

“I oversee program reviews and new program approval. I also play [a] key role in advancing community engagement activities and improving access to and support for under-represented groups.”

- Anonymous

Some students were especially curious about what a provost does:

“As a provost, in charge of the academic operations and student success services, I help to facilitate the work of people whose job it is to work on behalf of students; I try to remove obstacles to progress so that our services to students (whether academic or supporting) are of the highest quality possible.”

- Vice-President Academic and Provost

Q. How do you decide which programs are offered at each school?

Many students were curious about what drives the creation or cancellation of programs at a school. Some of these students’ questions came from their own experience on the StudentVu panel, where they have helped post-secondary schools gather the data they need to decide on the launch or cancellation of a new program.

Several administrators explained the process of introducing a new program at their institution, the requirements to have it approved by their provincial government, and the institutional and branding considerations they need to take into account when doing so.

“Senior administrators do not "decide" what programs are offered. That is done by faculties and senates. We have influence to the extent that we exercise some control over where resources go. My focus on deciding where resources go is the strategic plan that we have developed with the community and the aspirations we have defined for ourselves. The other major consideration is the preferences of students as expressed through applications for programs.”

- University president

“Our Provincial Mandate and feedback from industry.”

- College president

"We generally look at areas where job prospects are good and there is a gap in available training. Some of our training is regulated (Apprenticeship) which does not give us a choice."

– Associate Dean Administration

"The SMA (Strategic Mandate Agreement) provides some of this guidance as we declare our areas of strength to the Ministry. Outside of that, programs that continue to lead to strong KPIs related to employment for our graduates."

- CIO of a College

“Program proposals emerge from departments and faculties; they are prioritized through deans and VPs working together and communicated to government in the university's comprehensive institutional plan. Programs typically emerge where student demand meets faculty expertise, and are informed by government initiatives, market demand, and strategic planning.”

- Faculty Dean

For most senior administration respondents, the decision to launch a new program came down to provincial mandates and agreements, as well as regional job prospects and needs.

That’s it for part one of our two-part series. But be sure to keep an eye out on the Academic Forum and the Academica Top Ten for Part Two, which will appear on Monday, October 22, 2018.


1. Due to the number of respondents who opted to provide only their title or responded anonymously, we have removed all names from the responses.

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