HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

May 05

Massification Causes Stratification

Once upon a time, higher education was small.  Really small.  Only a very few people could enter it, and the value of a degree was enormous.  Not just in terms of skills/knowledge acquired, or the credential, but also social status.  If you’re a fan of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just look at the leap in social status and life chances that Elena experiences when she makes it to the Scuola Normale in Pisa (which, by the way, I’ve not quite figured out – why didn’t her teachers route her to the Università degli Studi di Napoli?).  It alters her life in ways far beyond what university access does today.

Now at some point – the exact timing varies by country – governments decided that higher education needed to “massify”.  Partly, this was to meet the needs of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and the services that go with it (better health care and education), but in part it was also to “democratize” higher education, and make it less exclusive.

And that’s where things get tricky.  Massification can widen access to knowledge, skills and credentials.  But it cannot widen access to status.  Status is a game of “who are the cool kids” where membership must, by definition, be exclusive.  Government policy cannot make the cool kids let people into to club.  If it tries, the cool kids will change the rules of the game (read Andrew Potter & Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell for more on this).  

Two things happens in virtually every country where massification occurs. The first is a concomitant increase in graduate education.  Partly, that can be justified in the same terms as the expansion of undergraduate education – producing more specialists, more people able to teach others, etc.  But often it’s simply an arms race.  You have a degree?  Bully for you – I have two.

The second is stratification within higher education.  As governments (or non-profit private institutions in some countries) expanded the number of institutions to meet rising demand, institutions didn’t all obtain the same level of prestige.  So another way the “cool kids” game plays out is that you start to see an increasing concentration of prestige at a very few schools: Todai & Kyoto in Japan; Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan in China; Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US.  It’s now no longer if you go, it’s where you go  (if you want any nauseating details on that from the US, I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree). You’d better believe that rich parents then do what they can to make sure it’s their kid and not someone else’s who makes into those institutions.

In Canada, we don’t see this quite as much as in other countries because of a peculiarity of our higher ed system.  We don’t have national exams, and we don’t use SATs, which reduces some of the push towards exclusivity.  We also are peculiar in the sense that our top institutions are simply gargantuan.  The top three institutions in the US accept maybe 0.1% of the incoming undergraduate class; the top three institutions in Canada accept about 10% of the incoming undergraduate population (thanks to Joe Heath and his In Due Course blog for this observation).  It simply isn’t as special to be at a top institution.  But it’s worth remembering what an outlier that makes us on the international field.

In much of the developed world what we worry about is not so much access to college or undergraduate studies; we’ve more or less got that under control though obviously there’s room for improvement.  Now we’re starting to fixate on where people go: are we creating one group of (mainly rich) students going to elite, prestigious universities and another group of (mainly poorer) students going to less elite schools?

Ensuring every student goes to an equally prestigious school is an impossible task.  Government can increase access to education, skills and knowledge; it cannot increase access to prestige.  Prestige, like “cool,” is a fixed-sum thing: you have it in part to the extent that I do not.  If that weren’t true, then your mom could be cool, for God’s sake.  And as long as access to these top schools is “merit-based” and “merit” is defined as good grades, it’s difficult to imagine ways to stop wealthier families from monopolizing positions in these schools because they are better able to pass on various academic advantages to their children.  As John Rawls said, it’s only ever possible to deal with inequality imperfectly, as long as families exist.

(There actually was one government that tried to deal with this head on. The military government of Chun-Doo Hwan in South Korea  shut down the Hagwons (cram schools) in order to try to make the university entrance system fairer to poorer students.  This tactic did not survive the country’s transition to democracy.)

There is a partial answer to this problem, and that is lotteries.  Instead of allowing the minimum admissions criteria to be bid up in a competitive manner (e.g only the top 30 applicants get a place), set a minimum threshold which maybe 200 students could meet, and distribute the places by lottery.  The Dutch do this for limited-enrolment programs and it seems to work out alright. It’s difficult to imagine Harvard doing it, but one can dream.  Because it’s hard to imagine making a serious dent in stratification without more radical measures than the ones we’re currently using.

May 04

Diverse Sacrifices, Diverse Rewards, Diverse Policies

One of the trickiest things about developing smart higher education policy is that its clients are unbelievably diverse: privileged private-school educated 18 year-olds, first-generation students, working adults, etc.  And the returns to education are equally diverse: strong for Bachelors’ and Master’s Degrees but less so for Doctorates, often strong in professionally-oriented fields and less so in Arts (at least in the first few years).  Coming up with reasonable pricing and student aid policies that can be generally accepted as fair across in the face of all this diversity is a very tricky job indeed.

The first part of this was brought home to me recently when we saw the results of some research  conducted by British Columbia on mature students across Canada.  One of the questions asked was “what’s the biggest sacrifice you have had to make to go back to school”?  The sheer range of answers we got was astonishing.  At one end, there were answers like “I had to give up my gym/yoga membership”, or “I had to give up quinoa” (a high proportion of these, it should be said, came from British Columbia).  The most common response was that people’s social lives were negatively affected because they could no longer afford to eat out with friends.

But at the other end of the spectrum there were some pretty horrific responses.  People who had to pull their kids out of sports teams.  People choosing between rent and food, or rent and medicine.  People who had had spells of homelessness.   All told, the results showed that the several thousand student-aid receiving mature students surveyed, just short of ten percent had experienced a significant form of food or housing precariousness while being a student.

Simply put, there are students who really have very little need of extra help, and there are students who need a lot more help than they currently receive.  This is precisely why the kind of system towards which Canada’s student aid programs are evolving is a good thing: we are withdrawing support from better-off students and concentrating it among worse-off students.  Could we do better?   Sure.  In particular we could do more for the people I call “involuntary students” – people in their 30s or 40s who have cars and houses but who suddenly lose their job and need to re-train.  But the point is, we need more targeted aid, not less.  One-size fits all policies are unhelpful.

It is the same with respect to returns to education.  It is a simple slogan to say that education must be free, that education must not be commoditized.  But it is also a simplistic one.  Low prices (net or sticker) can make a difference in terms of attracting low-income students.  But they also provide huge windfall benefits to students in fields with above-average returns, and it’s really hard to argue that there is any kind of public policy rationale for pricing a public service in such a way that some students (say, in ECE programs) see a very low private return and other students (say, in Dentistry programs) see a very high private return.  There is a way to square this circle: it’s to charge different amounts based on the field of study, and deal with the negative effects of higher fees through income-targeted grants.  Although not all of Canada looks like this, it is more or less the way the system currently works in Ontario. 

The point here is simply this: higher education is not a simple field.  It has many purposes, many clients, many outcomes.  To make it work properly, the policies and regulations which govern it need to be sensitive to this diversity.  Any higher education policy which you can put on a button or a bumper-sticker is therefore likely to be either wrong or wasteful.  

May 03

Disturbing Portents for the Liberal Innovation Policy

Allow me to draw everyone’s attention to a piece last week in the Huffington Post called “How the Liberal Party Plans to Innovate the Way We Innovate”.  The piece was written by a Liberal-connected PR/GR flack named Greg MacNeil who works at “public affairs” (read: lobbying) firm Ensight Canada.

MacNeil starts by asserting that “following Budget 2016, it is clear that when it comes to the innovation agenda, the government’s intentions are substantive”, which is nonsense: the budget simply introduced a price-tag ($800 million for some tech clusters) and some placeholders.  He goes on to state: “the challenge in the past has always been that the various funding and program buckets have been siloed across government. The Liberals are changing that. This new one-window approach will make it easier for organizations to navigate the system and access the information and funding they need. The government believes that this approach can help expand the pre-existing innovation sector in Canada and subsequently grow jobs and investment.”

Question: Does anyone actually believe that the problem with innovation in Canada is that there is no one-stop shop for federal funding?  That the reason firms don’t spend their own money to innovate is because it’s not easy enough to suck money out of the federal bureaucracy?

Question: Does the phrase “innovation sector”, and the implication that innovation isn’t something that happens right across the economy, give you the screaming heebie-jeebies?  Could there possibly be a stronger signal that the government thinks of innovation only in terms of new product innovation?

More from MacNeil: “This innovation strategy will also play a major role in Canada’s multilateral and bilateral relations. Until now, Canada has been one of only a few G7 countries without a specific innovation strategy in place. Many other western countries not only have innovation strategies, but are regularly updating them on an annual basis”

Question: “one of only a few”…out of seven.  Doesn’t sound particularly out of the ordinary to me.  And why on earth does this matter to our foreign relations?  If we’d at any point wanted to put more money and effort into international scientific collaborations, we’d have done so by changing rules on council funding, not developing strategic plans.

MacNeil: “By coordinating these efforts, the government hopes that it will be better positioned to take on serious global issues impacting Canada and our allies in areas like climate change, the arctic and cancer research. Further, it could afford us an opportunity to invest in areas where we would be true pioneers, like quantum computing, as opposed to competing in areas that are already dominated by foreign countries.”

Wait – allies?  Are we only collaborating with NATO countries now?  “Invest in areas where we could be true pioneers as opposed to competing in areas already dominated by foreign countries”?  Interesting approach to industrial policy I suppose – but how does collaborating with other countries give us an advantage in blue ocean sectors?  By definition, wouldn’t our partners get a leg up in these areas, too? 

There is so much to question in this little tract: like, why is an external GR flack trial-ballooning innovation policy ideas on behalf of Liberal Ministers?  Why would anyone think a little bureaucratic rationalization would have an effect on innovation levels in the economy?  Do the Liberals really think that Canadians cannot successfully innovate and compete in areas where companies in foreign countries already work – that we can only “win” if no one is competing against us?  Do they have even the slightest sense that innovation is about more than new inventions?  And why – oh dear God why – does anyone think it is acceptable to write an entire article about innovation policy without ever using the words “firm” or “company” once?

If this really is the basis for the new Liberal innovation plan, we all ought to be very worried indeed.

May 02

What’s Going On With College Graduates in Ontario?

I see that Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have just written a new book  called Dream Factories: Why Universities Won’t Solve The Youth Jobs Crisis.  I haven’t read it yet, but judging by the title I’d assume that it makes pretty much the same argument Coates made back in this 2015 paper  for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which in effect was “fewer university students, more tradespeople!” (my critique of this paper is here)

With the fall in commodity prices, it’s an odd time to be making claims like this (remember when we had a Skills Gap?  When’s the last time you heard that phrase?).  There’s no evidence based on wages data that trades-related occupations are experiencing greater growth that those in the rest of the economy – since 2007, wages in these occupations have grown at exactly the same rate as the overall economy.  True, occupations in the natural resource sector did experience higher-than-average growth between 2010 and 2014, but unsurprisingly they underperformed the rest of the economy in 2015.  (see figure 1).  More to the point, perhaps, these jobs aren’t a particularly large sector of the economy – if you exclude the mostly seasonal agricultural harvesting category, Canada only has about 265,000 workers in this field.  That’s less than 1.5% of total employment.

Figure 1: Real Wage Increases by Occupation, Canada, 2007-2015, 2007=100

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Source: CANSIM

More generally, though, the assumption of Coates and those like him is that in the “new” post-crisis  economy college graduates have qualitatively different (and better) outcomes than university graduates, too.  But a quick look at the actual data suggests this isn’t the case.  Figure 2 shows employment rates 6-months out of college graduates in Ontario over the past decade.  Turns out college graduates have experience more or less the same labour market as university students: an almighty fall post-Lehmann brothers and no improvement thereafter.

Figure 2: Employment Rates of College Graduates, Ontario, 2005-2015

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Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

The decline in employment rates can’t really be described as a regional phenomenon, either.  There is not a single college which can boast better employment rates today than it had in 2008: most have seen their rates fall by between 4 and 7 percentage points.  The worst performer is Centennial College, where employment rates have fallen by 13 percentage points; one wonders whether Centennial’s performance has something to do with the very rapid growth in the number of international students it has started accepting in the last decade.

Figure 3: Change in Employment Rates 2008-2015

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Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

So what’s going on here?  Is there something that’s changed in college teaching?  Is it falling behind the times?  Well, not according to employers.  Satisfaction rates among employers stayed rock-solid over the period where employment rates fell; and although there has been a slight decline  in the last couple of years, the percentage saying they are satisfied or very satisfied remains over 90%.  Graduate satisfaction fell a bit during the late 00s when employment rates fell, but they too remain very close to where they were pre-crisis.

Figure 4: Employer & Student Satisfaction Rates for College Graduates, Ontario, 2005-2015

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Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

My point here is not that colleges are “bad” or universities are “better”.  Rather, my point is that if you measure the success of any part of the post-secondary system exclusively by employment rates, then you’re basically hostage to economic cycles.  Some parts of the cycle might make you look good and others might look bad; regardless, it’s largely out of your hands. So, maybe we should stop focusing so much on this.  And we should definitely stop pretending colleges and universities are different in this respect.

April 29

Free Harvard Fair Harvard

Harvard has a unique Governance structure.  Basically, it has two boards and no Senate.  One of the two boards – the Board of Overseers – is composed entirely of Harvard alumni.  It has thirty members and the membership turns over a bit each year with annual elections.  This year’s annual election is a bit of a doozy.

Back in January, an alumni and businessman by the name of Ron Unz submitted a slate of candidates – which included consumer activist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader – on a “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” platform.  His double-barreled manifesto, as its name implies, is to get Harvard first use some of its vast endowment to reduce tuition and second to move to a system of race-blind admissions.

What should we make of this?

Well, the first demand is ludicrous.  75% of Harvard graduates end up with no debt, either because they come from wealth and can afford the fees or have income sufficiently low that they received something close to a full ride (technically, Harvard doesn’t give a full-ride in the sense that a student will be expected to work a few hours a week no matter what, but it’s awfully close).   In practice, for a family of 3 with no assets outside of housing and retirement funds, income needs to be about $150,000/year before the aid package drops below the level of tuition (you can play with Harvard’s net price calculator here.  Pretty clearly then, making Harvard “free” genuinely would only benefit those with very high family income.  And frankly why would anyone want to do that?

The second demand is trickier.  The slate is making quite a bit of hay out of data that Asian-American students are being discriminated against in the application process.  Unz himself wrote quite a fierce piece on this in 2012, which suggested that as far as Ivy League admissions are concerned, Asians are the “new Jews” – a reference to the fact that Ivies imposed much higher entrance requirements on Jews than gentiles prior to WWII so that the former did not swamp the latter and drive away all those nice WASPs to whom the Ivies were in fact beholden for fund raising (this story is told in excellent detail in Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which is a history of admissions and the concept of merit at Ivy League schools).  Unz in effect argues – and it is difficult to disagree with him, based on the evidence – that increasingly the group that is “paying” for affirmative action (that is, policies which give Black and Hispanic students preferential access to spots at Ivy League schools) is Asian-Americans, not whites.

There’s no doubt that Unz’s narrative is troubling (though it should be noted not all his claims appear to be factually correct).  That said, his solution here is effectively to end affirmative action.  Given the extent to which Harvard graduates dominate public life in the United States, ending affirmative action would have an enormous effect on the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to access some of the upper corridors of American society.  Add that to the fact that Unz has in the past funded groups with some fairly unpleasant white supremacist associations, as well as sponsoring ballot initiatives against bilingual education, and you can see why some people think that behind Unz’ pre-occupation with fairness for Asian-Americans lie some much nastier anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudices.

The presence of the Unz slate has prompted the formation of an opposing “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard” slate, which is vigorously defending the current admissions system.   The balloting is by mail, and results will be announced on May 26th.  The results will be closely watched, particularly in a Presidential election year.  If Harvard’s own alumni – a group which you’d think would be in the tank for the Democrats – votes against affirmative action and for spending more endowment money on the richest of the rich, it will cause some interesting ripples in the campaign.  For that reason, I think it’s quite unlikely to come about, but then again I wouldn’t have guessed Ralph Nader would ally himself with this set of ideas, either.

April 28

Two Theories About University Governance

I recently had a chat with a colleague about a piece I wrote a few years ago called “Time for a New Duff-Berdahl”.  And over the course of the conversation we came up with two theories about university governance in Canada (and elsewhere I suppose).

Theory #1 is that we have a governance problem because we have lost the culture of informal engagement within universities.  Back when universities were smaller, and when faculty spent a whole heck of a lot more time on campus, they would sit and talk together in coffee lounges.  There were also faculty clubs where Deans, and vice-presidents were easily accessible.  Basically, there were a lot of places you could have low-stakes discussions about the direction of the university outside of formal bodies like Senate and Board, and that was to the good for four reasons.  One, people knew each other better and that reduced the tendency towards demonization of opponents; two, low-stakes discussions (as opposed to formal ones in decision-making bodies) tend to lead to a more open exchange of ideas and hopefully coming to a little bit more common ground; three, in practice a whole lot more people got to participate in these discussions and as a result; four, institutional culture was more cohesive and so there was a lot less petulant foot-stamping all around.

What follows from theory #1 is that somehow, we have to find ways to re-create that kind of engagement.  It’s a tricky one because you can’t just re-open all those faculty clubs that were shut in the 90s, and you can’t force people to spend more time on campus because God only knows the fuss that would create and you can’t go out directly and do something like an “engagement exercise” because faculty would smell a rat and you can’t hold town halls because “OMG More Meetings”?  But presumably some creative types could imagine ways to create a little more common culture in the name of creating a better shared campus culture.

Theory #2 accepts the basic premise of Theory #1 – not enough shared culture – but basically says any attempt to try and reform it is doomed to failure.  As research has taken on a prominent role in our universities, the culture of academia has made academics care a whole lot more about their discipline than their university.  More to the point, profs are much more likely to be collaborating with colleagues at other universities than inside their own.  So, frankly, why should they care about better institutional governance?

It’s a collective action problem, really.  Pretty much everyone cares about shared, collegial governance, but almost no one cares enough to put in the hours necessary to make it work.  So profs in effect outsource the tough work to administrators, who they find irritating in many ways, but not quite irritating enough to make profs do the work on their own.  For good measure they unionize, which is arguably a way of outsourcing the task of sticking it to administrators when something goes wrong.  Hedging, you see.  And so, effectively in the name of professorial convenience, you get an administration/union dynamic which dominates what used to be a Board/Senate dynamic.

Yet what I found interesting about what has happened at UBC over the last four months is that when faculty decided to start engaging with university governance (which I wrote about back here), they didn’t do so primarily through their faculty union (not that UBCFA was indifferent, just that it was not always taking the lead).  Come crisis time, faculty sometimes still have the old collective-governance instinct.  The question is: is there a way to make that ethos come through even in the absence of a crisis?  Theory #1 says there is, theory #2 says Good Luck With That.

Curious what you readers think: have a go in the comments section, I’d be interested to hear your views.

 

April 27

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (2)

This is part 2 of a two-parter on how Canadian universities spend their money.  All the stuff about what data I’m using, caveats thereto, etc., are available in yesterday’s post.  If you missed yesterday, go catch up here.

First, two small mea culpas from yesterday.  First, due to a cut/paste error, part of the data on student services that went out yesterday was slightly off, but has now been corrected on the website.  Second, I neglected to mention that the student services figures included money from operating budgets for grants and bursaries, which accounts for some of the wide differences between institutions.  Sorry.

OK, onwards.  Let’s focus first on the two spending categories we didn’t take a look at yesterday; namely, “Administration” (meaning, mostly, central administration) and “External Relations” (meaning mostly government relations and fund raising).  This is shown below in table 1.

Table 1: Per-Student Expenditure, Selected Categories of Non-Academic Activity

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A couple of obvious points here:

  • Compared to the spending categories we looked at yesterday, the gaps between 75th and 25th percentile are smaller (in other areas, the gap was usually 2:1; in these categories it is closer to 3:2).  This suggests that on the whole, institutional spending patterns vary less in these central admin functions that they do in areas like libraries and ICT.
  • On the other hand, the institutions at the top and bottom of the range seem to be much more outliers.  At the high-cost end, there are probably two things going on.   First, some tasks are pretty common and have to be done no matter what the size of the university, so small institutions  tend to look expensive on a per-student basis (for example: a $400,000 p.a President at a school with 40,000 students is $10/student; a $200,000 p.a President at a university with 2,000 students is $100/student).  Second, recall that the “central administration” category does vary a bit from school-to-school, and so some of this may be about oddities in reporting.
  • Most of the schools that spend small on “external relations” are part of the UQ system.   Basically, when you’re so close to being 100% government-funded and controlled, you don’t lobby or look for external money, hence your costs go down.

Figure 2 puts together all the data from the different expenditure categories.

Table 2: Per-Student Expenditure, all non-academic categories

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Three major points here:

  • The per-student costs at very small universities is really stratospheric.  Universities clearly have some fixed base costs that require large student numbers in order to make them bearable.  From a public policy perspective, that either makes it important to ensure institutions are a minimum size, or that funding formulas provide a base amount for fixed costs in addition to per-student funding.
  • Keeping a rein on non-academic costs matters.  The difference in costs between an institution at the 75th percentile of overall non-academic costs and a 25th percentile institution is $2,950 or pretty close to half a year’s worth of average tuition at a Canadian university.  That’s a lot of money which could be used for other purposes (or cut in order to provide cheaper education, though that wouldn’t be my choice.
  • Actually, it’s even more than that.  If an institution could emulate the spending of the 25th percentile institution in each individual category – that is, a library cost like UQAM’s ($509/student), an ICT cost like Carleton’s ($508/student), physical plant costs like Laval’s ($1,331/student), Student Services costs like Winnipeg’s ($958/student), administration costs like St. Thomas’ ($1,604/student) and external relations’ costs like Manitoba’s ($285/student), you’d have total non-academic costs of just $5,195 – that is, $3,800 less than the 75th percentile institution and $2,200 less than the median one.

But of course, one might protest: does anyone really want to be in the 25th percentile of spending on this stuff?  Don’t great universities spend a lot of money on this stuff?  Isn’t spending more money on things like Libraries and ICTs a sign of quality?

Well, maybe.  To some extent, you get what you pay for.  But welcome to the central paradox of university management: you can’t simultaneously demand prudence and excellence if the only indicator of greatness is how much money you spend.  It’s why outcome metrics matter; and why those who oppose them, in the end, simply promote waste.

April 26

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (1)

Just for giggles the other day, I took a look at Canadian university expenditures in 2013-14 using (as usual) the CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey.  I looked at operating expenditures by category.  Then I normalized them per FTE student.  And I got some very weird results which I thought I would share with y’all.

What I am going to do in this series is show you the results for the main categories of expenditure which are “non-academic”.  I am not going to look at the categories known as “instruction and non-sponsored research” or “non-credit instruction”, because those vary significantly according to the mix of disciplines offered at an institution.  Instead, today I am going to restrict myself just to the categories “Library”, “Computing”, “Physical plant”, and “Student Services”; tomorrow I will  look at the more complicated cases of “Administration” (meaning central administration), and “External Relations” (meaning both government/public affairs and fundraising/alumni relations).

(btw – the data is from 2011-12 because we haven’t updated our PSIS file lately.  The numbers presented here are a bit dated, but the basic picture hasn’t changed.)

The following table shows the key elements of the comparison.  The intriguing thing here is that institutions actually seem to have very different patterns of spending.  In all four categories, the difference in per-student spending between an institution at the 75th percentile is twice what it is at the 25th percentile.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that institutions are using different strategies of non-academic spending to meet their mission – it’s not clear that these spending variations are occurring in a conscious manner – but it is certainly true that institutions are exhibiting quite different patterns of spending.

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So, a variety of thoughts here:

  • The universities with the lowest-spend in Libraries are all small-ish, new-ish (post-1992) institutions; those with the highest spending are more of a mix.
  • Athabasca and RRU near the top of the ICT spending charts is not a surprise; what is a little weird is seeing Université du Québec en Outaouais in top spot.  Also, why is U of T near the bottom?  ICT is one of those fields in the FIUC survey which is prone to bad comparisons (some institutions stick a lot of the salary costs related to ICT in their central admin numbers or occasionally in their faculty expenditures, if staff are based in the faculty – a quirk of the way the data is compiled), so it might be that.  On the other hand, expenditures on ICT might just scale a lot better.
  • The student services numbers are fascinating: 4 of the 5 top-spending institutions are in Nova Scotia; 4 of the 5 lowest-spending institutions (and 7 of the top 10) are in Quebec.
  • The physical plant numbers are the hardest to interpret because in a sense these are in some ways legacies.  NSCAD owns some historic properties with high upkeep and doesn’t have a lot of students and so has high per-student costs.  Kwantlen is a relatively new institution and therefore doesn’t need to spend a lot on upkeep (or heat – institutions in the lower mainland have a big cost advantage because of the climate)

There are a couple of ways to look at these numbers overall.  There’s the competitive-bidding aspect: some will look at these numbers and say “why isn’t our institution spending that much?  Gotta keep up with the Joneses!”  But there’s an efficiency angle, too.  Those institutions spending at the 75th quartile and above – what are they getting for their money that other institutions are not?

Maybe the most interesting case is Libraries.  A lot of big Ontario universities have very low library costs: Guelph $473/student, Waterloo $591, McMaster $688, Ottawa $723, Western $749, all of which are below the national average.  You might think the big difference is in the collections budget – and it’s true those are lower, in part because there is a lot more collections-sharing between institutions in Ontario than is possible in places like Saskatoon or St. John’s, which don’t have nearby neighbours.  But the biggest single cost in Libraries is salaries, which makes up 45-65% of any university library’s budget (higher in Quebec).  The real difference between these institutions is therefore staffing.  So do users notice the difference?  If so, which users and how is the difference felt?

More tomorrow.

 

April 25

Who Should Sit on Boards of Governors?

Western Canada seems to be ground zero for talking about Board composition these days.  Take, for example, folks at UBC getting upset that government appointments to the Board of Governors lack a certain diversity (i.e. they all come either from old Vancouver money or the tech sector).  The Government of Alberta has decided to not automatically re-appoint any Board members whose terms are up for renewal (this actually is not something specific to universities – it’s part of a more general effort of De-Baathification of all provincial boards which have been stacked with appointees by a single party for the last 44 years). 

This raises the question: what should a Board of Governors look like?

Governing Boards in North America have a pretty simple history.  The first universities were set up by groups of local worthies (which usually included a lot of the local merchant class) to provide liberal education, mainly to train teachers and clergy.  Those universities were very small – the President was often the only professor, though he may have had a couple of assistants to help with tutorials and recitations.  Tuition was not enough to keep these institutions funded, so there were regular contributions from the local worthies.  Since the President was spending their money, they had a real interest in making sure the President was hewing closely to their views on education.  Boards of Governors were therefore primarily instruments of accountability, a way of ensuring that Presidents (and, as the schools got bigger, his employees) did not get too far out line.

Now, as governments started to take over the funding of universities, the importance of local worthies’ money diminished.  But the principle of “the payer calls the tune” remained in most places.  At public universities, Governing Boards still payed the same role, but their members were named by governments, not local committees.  Boards weren’t necessarily partisan, but appointments certainly tended to follow the party in power (this is still the case pretty much across Western Canada).  The argument at UBC is essentially that the Board looks too much like the party in power and not enough like “the province as a whole”.  This is an accurate observation, but difficult to see how in practice how this could ever be changed; on the whole, governments tend not to divest themselves of patronage opportunities.

But meanwhile, as public universities acquired an ever-increasing appetite for prestige and money, they looked to Board members to have other skills.  The first was an ability to raise funds, which tends to make them seek out people exactly like the old local worthies (if you need to ask a rich person to donate money, it helps if the person doing the asking is another rich person who has already donated).  But other needs are important, too: Boards need members with enough knowledge to oversee the increasingly complicated property and financial deals on which universities are embarking, enough judgment to understand how the university should deal with major sources of financial risk, etc.

So here’s the trick.  You need boards whose members collectively have the ability both to cheerlead and fundraise for an institution, provide it with specialized knowledge and talent whilst simultaneously holding its senior management (via the President) to account generally on behalf of the both the democratically-elected government of the day and the general citizenry.

Simple?  Not by a long shot.  And what makes it more complicated is that no one has the luxury of composing an entire board to get an adequate mix of talents.  That’s not just because most Canadian boards have a variety of elected positions in addition to those either selected by governments (in most of western Canada) or by the institution itself (more common in eastern Canada), but because Board membership turns over slowly and so the mix of talents (and hence the gaps in needed talent) are constantly changing.

So with respect to the Alberta New Democrats’ attempt to make big changes on the province’s university boards, there is both opportunity and danger.  Opportunity because the policy of not automatically renewing anyone’s term means they can change board composition quickly if they think something is amiss; danger because there’s a worry about jettisoning too many people with specific, needed skills in a bid to make the new boards “look like” the province (or “act as NDP agents”, as the case may be). 

Basically, boards are tricky.  Getting them right is a serious, delicate business.

April 22

Keeping Some Perspective

Much yelping in the twittersphere this week over a story in The Independent re: Edinburgh University.  To wit:

“Edinburgh University has come under fire for planning to introduce a new monitoring policy to check where employees are when they are out of the office.

Campus staff are now required to tell university management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or more – a rule that until recently only applied to international staff in accordance with Home Office policy.

Under the new rules, all schools and departments at the university have been asked to put in place “sensible and proportionate arrangements” to monitor staff whether they are on leave, working from home, working on campus or away from the university…”

Now, this pretty clearly is a solution in search of a problem.  Professors are professionals.  They’re on-campus when they need to be (classes, meetings) and the rest of the time, frankly who cares?  As long as they are producing in terms of research (admittedly, this assumes expectations about research production are clear and unambiguous, which is not always the case) and they are available by phone/email, there is no problem.  Creative, productive people work wherever they feel most productive.  Everybody gets that, even Edinburgh.

The University isn’t saying “you must be on campus all the time”; it’s saying “hey let us know when you’re not on campus”.  And they’re probably not using it to track people hour by hour; more likely they just want to root out the odd Professor Piercemuller trying to work at an overly long distance.  But the fact is a) the university is requiring people to take an irritating minute out of the day to write to tell them someone where they are and b) the policy will make everyone feel as if they might be being monitored.  What problem could Edinburgh have that was serious enough to wish to irritate staff to that extent?

On the other hand, it is important to keep things in perspective.  In literally any other line of work, letting the boss know where you are is not optional but expected.  The fact that this is not the case in universities speaks to the fact that Professors have achieved a kind of magical status of acting like freelancers while still drawing a steady paycheck.

Now, I sometimes wonder if everyone in academia understands how unbelievably privileged this arrangement really is.  For instance, when I see people on the internet conclude that what Edinburgh is doing “violates academic freedom” or that having to tell your employer where you are is tantamount to acting “under the shadow of the police”, my thoughts are basically “get a grip”.

Edinburgh’s decision affects professors’ privileges, not their rights.  It doesn’t seem to be a very good decision – seems to me the downside to staff morale and institutional culture likely outweighs.  But the quickest way for academics to get tarred as being out of touch elitists is to start ranting about how something that is 100% normal for 99% of the population is the forerunner of jackbooted fascism.

Check your privilege, as the kids say.  There’s nothing wrong with opposing irritating and officious management decisions: just, you know, keep it in perspective.

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