While thinking about 'sustainability' of Higher Education programs, one has to keep in mind certain lessons learnt in commercialization of universities around the world. More often than not, the commercial profits have failed to live up to the expectations. Examples are investments in athletics, commercial companies founded by faculty and so on. Even assuming that these ventures could bring in some profits, it is most likely that public universities might face equivalent cuts from federal or other such public funding, leaving the overall budget unchanged. It is also arguable whether universities ought to be doing fundamental research or producing commercially viable patents. While in the short run, the latter seems like an attractive option, in the long run, society could be poorer without basic research.
Also, one needs to evaluate the strategies to achieve sustainability carefully. We need to guard against issues such as:
1. Dilution of entry standards in order to increase the student intake and hence the fee revenue
2. Grade inflation
3. Higher tolerance level for violations of academic norms
All of this would erode the prestige that is associated with the quality program labels and consequently the sustainability of such programs as well.
That should give us a clue as to how one should think about financial and institutional sustainability of academic programs. Much of it (viz., both financial and institutional sustainability) is based on reputation. The process starts with a stable organizational structure, where there is complete transparency, mutual trust and respect among the partner institutions.
A 'stable' organizational structure needs to be complemented by a strong core faculty, who are capable of evolving a good curriculum, which needs to constantly evolve. One also needs to carefully look at the value addition that the partners bring in. Topical themes, and attractive cultures, in turn attract better quality applicants from all around the globe
That is also a point where the symbiotic relation with the Associated Members (AM) comes into play. A good set of associated members would be able to bring in the much needed reality check to the program. More importantly, cultivation of long term relations with associated members, alumni and other potential employers bring in the next important element of sustainability of an academic program, viz., employability of its graduates.
However, the role of such third parties or even the criterion of employability would not be the same across all programs. For example, the relation and the role, and the criteria which one might use could be very different if we are talking about a program focused on basic research, as opposed to the applied one that I am talking about.
To summarize, financial and institutional sustainability of an academic program depends on:
1. an organizational structure that has built-in transparency and trust
2. Strong faculty
3. Constantly evolving curriculum
4. Synergetic relation with carefully chosen associated members
5. Strong alumni network
6. Employability in case of applied programs
The first component is the admissions process. One needs to fine tune the tuition fee component in such a way that we do not lose out on academically good but financially not so rich students, and yet not compromise the quality by admitting financially rich, but academically not so good students. Thankfully, it is possible to achieve this fine balance, given the presence of reasonably large pool of decent students, particularly from Asia, Australia and Latin America who desire a European degree, and who can afford to pay. However, the level of tuition fee as well as post-degree internship as well as employability options would be important to attract such students. Here is where associated members as well as alumni network can play a big role by instituting thesis prizes, internships and job placements. The tuition fee also needs to be in two or three slabs and they need to be coupled with full and partial waivers in order to achieve the trade-off between quality and fee revenue.
The second component is the support, either in-kind and/or direct, from the partner institutions themselves. Often the salary component of faculty, lecture room facilities and all other such indirect costs are met by the partners themselves. It is important to note that these indirect costs, particularly faculty salary, are a major component of the total expenditures. Perhaps for the long term viability of a program, this in-kind contribution from the partner institutions might slowly be reduced through generation of higher tuition fee income
The third component is the additional monetary support one could raise from other sources. One could look to tap third country government fellowships and sponsorships. The sponsorships could come from various user agencies including government and semi-government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and potential employers. Such sponsorships would of course impose certain constraints on the program content - it needs to be relevant to the potential sponsors. Business schools often solve this problem by offering two separate programs, one aimed at regular students and another geared towards employed people. This might be difficult to replicate in other subject fields, and also in a program that emphasizes mobility.
The fourth component is bank finances. Perhaps one could borrow money from commercial banks in order to attend the programs. Then, it is important to reach out to the banks in order to create awareness about these programs. Outreach and targeted advertisements toward the creation of program label in countries outside of Europe will then be an essential component.
The fifth component is that of creation of corpus funds. One could build one's own corpus through various means - contributions from national governments, private donors, alumni and so on. However, this subsumes a reasonably long history of a program. Also, it might be difficult to create separate corpus for an academic program, which would be one of many programs within a university, and might create internal problems. Also, given that by definition more than one institution is involved in setting up the program, it could be tedious for the consortium to maintain the corpus, given different national regulations governing such corpus.
At the end of it all, one needs to constantly remember that the success of an academic program lies ultimately in its objective and neutral teaching and research. The integrity of the program is of utmost importance. Preservation of such objectivity, neutrality and integrity of our academic programs goes way beyond academia to the very foundations of our independent societies. These thoughts have to be uppermost in our minds when we think about financial and institutional sustainability, particularly while designing strategies for the former kind of sustainability. Hence, in designing sustainable academic programs, one needs to carefully delineate the tangible as well as intangible benefits and costs associated with those strategies, with the priority towards maintenance of highest academic standards.
He is PhD in Economics from Indian Institute of Science. He has been working as Professor in Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research for the past 23 years and is known for expertise in statistical modeling, microeconomics and many more.