HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

August 28

Boards, Senates, and Myths of University Exceptionalism

If there is one thing that the departure of Arvind Gupta has demonstrated, it’s that there are a large number of faculty (and others) who either misunderstand or dispute the role of Boards of Governors at universities.

Here’s the deal.  Regardless of whether an organization is for-profit or not-for-profit, there is some kind of committee at the top, which usually has the word “Board” in its title – Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, whatever.  The job of this board is threefold: first, make sure the organization meets its strategic goals. Second, make sure it meets its financial goals (in for-profits, these two are pretty much identical, but in non-profits they’re different).  Third, hire and hold accountable a chief executive for getting those things done.

At this point, I hear the objections: “universities aren’t corporations, how dare you compare us to a for-profit company, etc.”  The first of these is wrong: universities most definitely are corporations.  Corporate status is key to providing the legal framework for pretty much everything universities do.  True, they aren’t for-profit entities (in our country, anyway) but for-profit/not-for-profit is irrelevant with respect to governance: you still need a body at the top of the organizational hierarchy performing those three functions.

What makes universities unique is the degree to which staff are involved in developing  strategic goals.  Both for statutory and practical reasons, this job is more or less left to Senates (or their equivalents), and their committees.  Boards formally ratify these strategy documents, and thus “own” them, but compared to other types of organizations, they are very hands-off about this part of the job.  Senates, in effect, are the source of university exceptionalism.  But there is nothing – literally nothing – that makes universities exceptional with respect to the jobs of maintaining healthy finances, and selection/oversight of the chief executive.  The Board of a university executes those functions exactly the way the board of any other organization does.

When it comes to hiring, people kind of get this.  When new Presidents are hired, no one questions the prerogative of the Board to make the decision.  And while there is sometimes grumbling about who got chosen or who didn’t get chosen, no one parades around demanding “transparency” about why candidate X got picked instead of candidate Y.  But apparently when a President leaves, many people think that the Board owes the faculty all the gory details.  Because transparency.  Because “universities are different”.

Transparency is usually to the good, of course.  But sometimes, if you’re dealing with a personnel matter, the correct way to deal with it is to say goodbye as quickly and as amicably as possible.  By and large, you don’t do that by broadcasting the circumstances of the departure to the world.  Transparency sometimes comes second to expediency, tact, and judgement.  Yet, what a lot of people at UBC seem to be saying is that Boards owe them explanations.  Because “universities are different”.

To keep this short: universities are different – but not in that way.  Regardless of the organization they serve, boards don’t owe anybody explanations about personnel decisions.  They have a responsibility to make sure the organization is fulfilling its mandate (in managerial terms: making sure it has a strategic plan, and is fulfilling it), and providing a public good.  That’s it.   What they have to make clear in a university context is whether or not a dismissal/resignation affects the strategic plan, or (especially) if there was a dispute between Board and CEO regarding the nature or direction of the strategic plan.  And the reason they have an obligation in this scenario is because of Senate’s role in creating the strategy in the first place.

Sure, faculty might want to know details.  They’re curious.  They’d like to know (or impute) the politics of the whole thing.  But there is no right to know, and saying “universities are different” – when in this respect they clearly are not – doesn’t change anything.

August 27

Theories of Change

One of the easiest things to do in policy is to advocate for policy X, so as to change effect Y.  One of the hardest things to do is to get people to explain clearly their theory of change.  That is, what are the steps by which changing X actually affects Y?

Take performance-based funding.  It’s easy to get hot for the idea that organizations can be steered by offering incentives: if you pay schools for students, they’ll raise enrolment.  If you pay them for graduates, they might spend a bit more effort and money on academic support service.  And so on.  By this theory, all you need to do to get universities to change their behaviour is to offer the right financial incentives.

But here’s the problem: that theory works a lot better for individuals than for organizations.  If what you are trying to do is force a change in organizational culture (e.g. get them to shift to a more student-centred focus), you have to remember that individuals inside an organization aren’t necessarily going to face the same incentives as the institution.  Just because an organization is incentivized doesn’t mean everyone in it is incentivized.

In extremely hierarchical organizations, it’s possible for management to pass incentives on to staff in various ways.  But universities are not particularly hierarchical institutions.  Outside of terrorist cells, universities are about the most loosely-coupled organizations on earth.  Some of the larger among them, to quote Kevin Carey, are more like holding companies for a group of departments, which are themselves holding companies for professors’ research interests.

So let’s get back to the example of a government that hopes to get universities to pay more attention to student success.  Say the government comes up with a funding formula that potentially allows an institution to access a couple million dollars more if it increases its graduation rate.  What happens?

Well, it’s certain that university leadership will try to grab the money.  That’s their job.  Then they’ll think about how to achieve the goal.  Pretty much every authority on retention will tell you that it is a institution-wide exercise.  The key is identifying students that are having trouble, and then making sure they get appropriate assistance, either from instructor(s), or from some kind of centralized suite of academic services.  But while it’s easy enough to invest money in new centralized services, the key to such an approach still rests on professors (some more than others) altering the way they behave in class, so as to spend more time/effort identifying strugglers early, and then doing something about it (talking to the students themselves, sending their name to a counsellor who can then contact the student and offer assistance, etc.)

The question is: how do you get the professor to make those changes?  The promise of more money to the institution is a pretty weak one.  First, while many people’s behaviour will need to change in order to get the money, not everyone’s does, so there’s a rational reason to try to free ride on the process.  Second, even if the institution does get the money, it doesn’t follow that the money will be distributed in such a way that all individual profs  benefit.  A prof’s behaviour is not incentivized in the same way as the institution’s.  And if that’s so, why would we expect the prof to alter his or her behaviour?

I’m not saying it’s impossible steer universities by using money as an incentive; I’m saying that success in doing so requires the incentives to be aligned in such a way that everyone’s behaviour down the chain is incentivized.  And in a university, where every professor is, to an extent, a free agent, that’s really hard to do.  It works where the incentive aligns with career goals or professional norms (e.g. do more research).  But when it pushes against professional norms, it’s a lot more difficult.

Fundamentally, people trying to steer system reforms need to ask themselves: how will this incentive alter what individuals on the ground actually do on a day-to-day basis?  If there’s no good answer to that question, chances are the incentive isn’t likely to work.

August 26

October 20th

Policy-making in Ottawa is like a huge river, moving in a slow stately procession, and only occasionally providing excitement if you hit some rapids.  It’s not like Washington, which – for all its vaunted “gridlock” – is actually more like an ice jam: there is a lot of pressure in the system, and things can move pretty quickly if the jam breaks somewhere.  Partly it’s because of our Westminster system, and our tradition of party discipline: there are not many independent policy actors on the hill, and hence, not many points where interest groups can exert leverage.  Add to that a relative lack of genuinely independent intellectual life in Ottawa (government and interest groups are dominated by policy analysts – Canada has no real equivalent to the Brookings Institute, or even the New America Foundation), and what you’ve got is a shop that doesn’t absorb new ideas easily.

All of which is to say that changes of government represent one of the very few times where new ideas get a hearing.  And while it’s far from assured, there’s a significant chance that there will be a new government on, or shortly after, October 19th – the Tories haven’t seen a poll putting them in majority territory in years, and it seems unlikely that either opposition party will keep them in power, either with votes or abstentions.  So October 20th is going to be the crucial date for policy entrepreneurs.

A new government comes to power with only a limited idea of what it’s going to do.  Party platforms don’t come close to covering all areas of government activity, so new ministers are winging it on most files.  Most post-secondary files come under the “winging it” category: apart from a Tory promise on tax breaks for apprenticeships, and a Liberal promise for more money for Aboriginal students, there’s been nada in the platforms so far, and as I said back here, that’s probably not going to change. Also, if there is a change of government, the new cabinet will be pretty raw: apart from Mulcair, there’s no one on the NDP front bench who’s ever held a cabinet seat at either a federal or provincial level; among Liberals, there are a dozen or so who have the “Honorable” prefix, but only Ralph Goodale, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum had substantial portfolios for any period of time.  Whether a new cabinet is red or orange, or a combination of the two, it’s actually going to be pretty green (but not Green).

Now, if you’re in the business of selling policy ideas, green cabinets are the best kind.  They have little allegiance to the status quo, are interested in new ideas, and cynicism hasn’t yet set in: they will never be more open to new ideas than they are at the start of a new government.  But – and this is the important bit – they have to be new ideas.  New governments may want to replace old policies, but they won’t do it by re-adopting even older ones.  There has to be an element of progress involved.

In higher education, there aren’t a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound.  On student aid and transfers, frankly, they’ve done little that opposition parties wouldn’t have done themselves.  Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it’s small ball from a government perspective.  Where a big re-think is needed is on research.  Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: “bring back the status quo ante”.  That’s a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn’t excite new ministers.  If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.

October 20th is fast approaching.  And this kind of window rarely opens twice.  Time to get cracking on some new approaches.

(corrected from the original and the version that went out via email to reflect the fact that the election is on the 19th, not the 18th.  That was a bad goof on my part – sorry)

August 25

Oil and Universities

As the price of oil continues to plummet, just a few thoughts on the financial implications for universities.

In provinces that are oil importers, the effect is likely net positive, slightly.  Economic growth should be a little bit above trend, inflation will fall a bit, and those factors will make it easier for provincial governments to balance budgets this year, without turning to cuts.

In provinces that are exporters, an oil price drop will likely affect the budget in two ways.  The first is through reductions in royalty payments, and the second is through a decline in general tax receipts, as a result of a generalized economic slowdown.  On the flip side, as oil price decreases, so too does the Canadian dollar – which means that the price of oil in Canadian dollars actually isn’t decreasing as fast.  How these play out in Canada’s three major oil-producing provinces all depends somewhat on a variety of economic factors, so here’s a quick look at various the provincial budgets’ sensitivity to oil prices, and how current prices play out.

Effect of Current Oil Prices on Current (2015-6) Year Budgets, Major Canadian Oil-Producing Provinces

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, the takeaway from the table: if oil prices remain as-is for the fiscal year as a whole, the effect is equivalent to a loss of 1.6% of total expenses in Saskatchewan, 4.4% in Alberta, and 5.4% in Newfoundland.  Now that’s a very rough estimate – it’s not taking account of the fact that falling oil prices are, to some degree, offset by a falling Canadian dollar (which would make the effect less severe), but it’s also not taking account of the fact that “total budget expenses” includes – in Newfoundland – quite a bit of debt payments as well, so the effect relative to program spending is understated.  And in any case, what happens this year is peanuts compared to what will happen next year.  This year’s provincial budgets assumed that oil would rebound to about the $80 range in 2016; at the moment, 12-month futures prices are running in the $50-55 range, so the impact of oil prices next year will be about double what you see in Table 1.

Even in Alberta, $4 billion is a lot of money.  At the moment, the betting seems to be that the new NDP government is willing to do a lot of borrowing to cover the shortfall, so in the short-term this may not matter much.  In Newfoundland, where the deficit is already over $1 billion, and net debt is over $10 billion, the ability to borrow may be more limited.  That almost certainly means program cuts in Newfoundland; in Alberta, it will make even existing promises from the incoming government hard to meet.

What about overseas?  Well, it’s worth a ponder how the drop in oil prices is going to affect higher education in the Gulf States.  All of them have big social welfare bills (the price for maintaining the monarchy), but they have varying abilities to maintain this spending in the face of low oil revenues.  Bahrain and Oman are already pretty close to the financial breaking-point, while the Kuwaitis and Saudis have big enough financial cushions to ride out a two-or-three year slump, but after that it gets harder to see how they will avoid significant cutbacks.  Qatar looks pretty safe, come what may; within the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s cushion is much better than those of the other Emirates, including Dubai.  The real worry for Canadian institutions is that there’s no guarantee that the King Abdullah Scholarship Program – which funds a large number of Saudi students in Canada – will continue to be funded at anything like current levels.

Bottom line: in this country, higher education is to no small degree dependent on the price of oil.  A long-term drop in prices will affect institutions negatively.  Planning and Government Relations offices take note.

August 24

Welcome Back

Morning, all.  August 24th.  Back, as promised.

School starts shortly.  The new crop of frosh were born in 1997, if you can believe that – to them, Princess Diana has never been alive, and Kyoto has always been a synonym for climate change politics (check out the Beloit Mindset List for more of these ).  Stormclouds line the economic horizon.  It’s going to be an interesting year.

In the US, progress on any of the big issues in higher education are likely to be in suspension as the two parties spend months figuring out who their candidates are going to be.  On the Democratic side, the presumptive candidate, Hilary Clinton, has put forward an ambitious plan for higher education, which, barring an absolute sweep at the polls, has almost no chance of passing Congress.  On the Republican side, no one apart from Marco Rubio seems to care much about higher education, except for Scott Walker who seems to want to use higher education as a punching bag, much as his idol Ronald Reagan did fifty years ago.

Overseas, the most consequential potential development is in the UK where – if the government is to be taken at face value – for the first time anywhere, measured quality of teaching might meaningfully affect institutional resources. In the rest of Europe, the ongoing economic slump looks set to create new problems in many countries: in Finland, where GDP contracted for the third year in a row, government funding will be down roughly 8% from where it was last year.  And that’s in one of the countries that thinks of itself as being particularly pro-education.  Germany, Sweden, and (maybe) Poland look like the only countries that might resist the tide.

Here in Canada, the outlook remains that post-secondary education will continue to see below-inflation increases in government funding for the foreseeable future, except in Alberta where the new provincial government intends on giving institutions a big one-time boost, which may or may not be sustainable, depending on how oil and gas prices fare.  This means resources will be scarce, and in-fighting for the spoils will be fierce.  And this, in turn, means a lot of governance, a lot of wailing about “corporatization” (always a good epithet when funding decisions aren’t going your way), and – inevitably, given the recent events at UBC – a lot of arguments about resource allocations, dressed up as arguments about governance.

(In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what happened there, exactly.  I do, however, believe three things: i) in a corporate context, the statements by the Board of Governors and interim President on Gupta’s departure are actually quite easily interpretable, and don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination; ii) if/when the truth comes out, it’ll be a hot mess of grey zones, and some of the wilder conspiracy rhetoric about the departure will seem ludicrous; and, iii) any theory positing that Gupta was fired for a lack of “masculinity” by a Board Chair who not only spent millions of his own dollars to create a dedicated Chair on Diversity in Leadership, but also that replaced said “unmacho” President with Martha Piper of all people, has more than one prima facie credibility problem.)

But behind all this, there’s a broader truth that I think the higher education community is being very slow to acknowledge.  The era of growth is over.  Higher education is not a declining industry, but it is a mature one, and this changes the nature of the game.  In the aughts, Canadian university income increased faster as a proportion of GDP than pretty much any country in the world (Netherlands and Russia aside).  It was a rising tide that raised all boats.   And I mean that literally: as a share of the economy, universities grew by half a percentage point (from 1.4% to 1.9% according to the OECD, which I think is a bit of an underestimate), which is like adding more than the value of the entire fishing industry.

But those boats stopped rising a couple of years ago.  Institutions with smug strategic plans about increasing excellence need to face reality that there’s no new money with which to achieve those goals: funds for new projects are, for the most part, going to have to come out of increased efficiencies, not new money.  It’s tougher sailing from here on out – permanently.  Institutions are going to need to be leaner, better managed, and more focused.  However, the meaning of those terms are hardly uncontested in academia.

This should make for a fun year.  Looking forward to it.

August 19

Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

UBC’s  Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.  Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something.  Finished?  Ok, on we go.

The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon?  Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom.  Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s.  It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer.   The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts.  Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour.  That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.

So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept.  In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing.  She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism.  Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure.  Under anyone else’s?  Not so clear.

(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”.  One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)

Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident.  Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did.  His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure.  But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote?  That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.  

Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded.  I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story.  She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members.  If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part.  But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”

To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified.  The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review.  It wasn’t scholarly.  It wasn’t made in a classroom setting.  She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done.  But protected under academic freedom?  CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.

August 12

Summer Updates from Abroad (3): An Intriguing American Student Aid Debate

Why do we give people student loans and grants?  Is it to help them get knowledge, or just credentials?  That question is subject to much debate in Washington right now.  At issue is whether student assistance helps or hinders innovation in higher education; at stake are potentially billions of dollars in public funding.

Let’s rewind a bit here: student aid in the US is governed by something that goes by the name of “Title IV” (meaning, essentially, chapter IV of the Higher Education Act, as amended from time-to-time).  The very first section of title IV states that student loans can only be given to students at “eligible institutions”, which means (among other things) that the institution has to be post-secondary, has to award degrees, has to be accredited, etc.  All sensible things to protect both consumers and the public purse.

The problem is, what if a new form of education pops up that is valuable, but doesn’t meet these tests?

There’s been a lot of focus recently on a variety of different types of programs called “just-in-time” education, the buzzword du jour that refers to code academies/bootcamps, and the like.  These academies – private educational establishments that often skirt the legal edges of provision of vocational education – are seen in many quarters as being incredibly valuable.  Coders are in short supply, and these bootcamps provide short (usually 8-12 weeks) courses that allow students to get the basics, and apply for jobs.  Some of them also provide training in entrepreneurship, and have mentors on-site to help with start-ups.  Stories about graduates quickly getting well-paying jobs abound, and given the long-standing worries about the youth labour market, a lot of people want to see these things expand further.

But these organizations aren’t charities.  A 12-week course in New York or San Francisco will run a student five figures, and not everyone has that kind of scratch on hand.  Hence, the desire in some quarters to see student loans extended to this sector.

Now you can see the argument here: why are we prevented from giving public support to institutions that provide skills rather than credentials?  Why are we stifling potentially beneficial innovation?  On the other hand, you can also see the opposite argument: who runs these schools, who regulates them, what are their credentials as educators, and what kinds of cranks and shysters will flood into the sector if you start letting students pay for this education using public money rather than their own?

The cranks and shysters problem is a perennial one in American higher education.  Even the vaunted GI Bill attracted them.  Though it’s more famous for putting ex-servicemen though college, the Bill also dealt with vocational training, leading to some rather dubious circumstances; Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, in their excellent account of the Bill, have a hilarious anecdote about veterans signing up at a school that offered three-month courses in chicken sexing, because they could get their living expenses covered while doing a (sorry, can’t resist) bird course.

Quite simply, when you hand over a lot of your education system to the private sector, *and* you choose to allow students to use public money, you either have to have some very good regulators, or you have to tolerate the fact that there are going to be some dubious folks trying to make a fast buck out of the situation.  As the Harkin Report on for-profit education, and Suzanne Metzler’s excellent book Degrees of Inequality have made clear, that’s exactly what happened in the 00’s when he Department of Education’s rules were too lax.

At the moment, the Obama administration’s preferred solution seems to be to try to get these academies to nestle themselves within existing universities and colleges.  There are some advantages here: universities would love to have these kinds of spaces to help students gain tech/entrepreneurial skills, the academies would gain access to more secure revenue, and the government would be assured of some oversight on quality.  From the perspective of people worried about cost-inflation in higher education, though, this might be a disaster.  Universities would undoubtedly pay for this by charging even higher fees to all students; instead of academies being a force outside the system, competing with universities, and forcing them to get better at producing better employment incomes, they’d be joining the Beast instead.

Complicated stuff.  Personally, I’m glad the Americans go through these debates, so the rest of us can learn from them without actually having to do the difficult and politically dangerous work of experimentation ourselves.

August 04

Summer Updates from Abroad (2): The UK Teaching Excellence Framework

The weirdest – but also possibly most globally consequential – story from this year’s higher education silly season comes from England.  It’s about something called a “Teaching Excellence Framework”.

Now, news of nationally-specific higher education accountability mechanisms don’t often travel.  Because, honestly, who cares?  It’s enough trouble keeping track of accountability arrangements in one’s own country.  But there are few in academia, anywhere, who have not heard about the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (or its nearly-indistinguishable predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise).  There is scarcely a living British academic who has travelled abroad in the last two decades without regaling foreign colleagues with tales of this legendary process, usually using words like “vast”, “bureaucratic”, “walls full of filing cabinets”, etc.  So news that the country may be looking at creating a second such framework, related to teaching, is sure to strike many as some sort of Orwellian joke.

But no, this government is serious.  It’s fair to say that the government was somewhat disappointed that its de-regulation of tuition fees did not force institutions to focus more on teaching quality.  With the market having failed in that task, they seem to be retreating to good old-fashioned regulation, mixed with financial incentives.

The idea – and, at the moment, it’s still just a pretty rough idea – is rather simple: institutions should be rated on the quality of their teaching.  But there are two catches: first, how do you measure it?  And second, what are the rewards for doing well?

The first of these seems to be up in the air.  Although the government has committed to the principle of assessing teaching at the institutional level, it genuinely seems to have not thought through in the least how it intends to achieve this.  There are a lot of options here: one could simply look at use of resources and presence of qualifications: student/teacher ratios, number of profs who have actually sought teaching qualifications, etc.  One could go the survey route, and ask students how they feel about teaching; one could also go the peer assessment route, and have profs rate each others’ teaching.  Or there’s the “learning gain” model, used by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which was part of the AHELO system (from which, by the way, the UK has now officially withdrawn).  Of course, everyone knows that most of these measurements are either untested, or can be gamed, so there’s some fear that what the government really wants to do is to rely on – what might generously be called – lowest-common denominator statistics; namely, employment and income data.

Why might they want to do something this bell-ended, when everyone knows income is tied most closely to fields of study?  Well, the clue is in the rewards.  British universities have – as universities do – recently been clamouring for more money.  But according to this government, there is no more money to be had; in fact, at about the same time they announced the new excellence framework, they also announced a £150 million cut to the basic teaching grant, spread over two years.  So the proposed reward for good teaching is the ability to charge higher fees (so much for de-regulation… ) But as I explained a couple weeks backraising tuition doesn’t help much because, thanks to high debt and a generous loan forgiveness system, somewhere between 60 and 80% of any extra charges at the margin will end up on the public books circa 2048, anyway. 

But… if you only increase tuition at schools where income is the highest, the likelihood is that you will get a higher proportion of graduates earning enough to pay back their loans, over time.  And hence less money will need to be forgiven.  And hence this might not actually cost so much.  Which is why there is an incentive for government to do the wrong thing here.

Still, on the off-chance the government gets this initiative at least partially right, the impact could be global.  Governments all over the world are trying to get institutions to pay more attention to teaching; expect a lot of imitators if the results of this exercise look even half-promising.  Stay tuned.

July 22

Summer Updates from Abroad (1): England’s Demented Student Loans Policies

You’ll recall that the UK had an election in early May in which the Conservative Party, contrary to most polling, won a majority of seats, and thus was able to form a government without need for a coalition.  On July 8, the new government delivered its first budget, which contained a lot of policies that – to put it mildly – had not exactly been fully outlined to the electorate eight weeks earlier. In student aid, what that meant was the outright abolition of maintenance grants, and their replacement with student loans of slightly higher value.

Rewind a little bit here for some history: before 1992, the UK was a free-tuition, all-grant system.  In that year a student loan program was set up because the government felt it couldn’t continue to increase maintenance grants.  In 1998, means-tested tuition of up to £1,000 was introduced, and maintenance grants were abolished in favour of an all-loans system.  After 2006, when tuition was effectively hiked to £3,000, maintenance grants of up to £2,900 were re-introduced, alongside loans for fees, and maintenance loans of up to (roughly) £4,000 pounds (amounts were indexed).  The maintenance loan and grant system remained unchanged when fees were effectively raised to £9,000 in 2012 – that is, unchanged until now.

With means-tested grants being replaced by loans, and those loans being placed on top of the £27,000 (C$54,000) in fees that a three-year degree will bring, there are a lot of lurid headlines (like this one) about how the poorest students are now facing the largest debts – possibly over £52,000 (C$104,000) at the end of their education.  That figure is, strictly speaking, accurate – but it doesn’t quite capture the weirdness of what’s going on.

As I explained back here, there’s a certain fantasy element to student loans in England.  Repayment occurs in strict income-contingent fashion, with no payments on the first £21,000 (C$42,000) of income, and 9% of any income on top of that.  At the end of thirty years, any outstanding balance will be forgiven.  This creates some odd incentives: if you expect to pay back your loan at some point, there is a reason to accelerate payment because the loans are (barely) interest-bearing; on the other hand, if you don’t think the minimum payments will end up repaying your loan, there’s absolutely no incentive to try to repay the loan, since it will eventually be forgiven anyway.  In essence, for people in the latter group, these aren’t loans, but rather a 9% surtax on income over £21,000, which stays in place for 30 years.

Depending on whose estimates you’re using, it turns out that anywhere from 60 to 80% of present-day students are not expected to repay their loans (the range exists because, frankly, predicting repayment rates 30-years out is a bit tricky, and depends a lot on initial assumptions).  As a matter of logic then, if you load more debt onto these people by replacing grants with loans, it simply isn’t going to be repaid – it’s going to wind up as forgiven debt sometime in the late 2040s.  True, very poor students who end up among the wealthiest quartile of graduates will end up paying more, but for the most part this is just an accounting trick: the government is lending money to students now with the full intention of forgiving most it (with interest) in thirty years time.

Here’s the central dilemma: under the English loan system, raising student contributions is almost impossible unless you either change the repayment threshold, or you change the repayment rate.  The problem is the Tories initially promised they wouldn’t do either of these things, so now they’re “examining” the weasel option of raising real contributions over time by de-indexing the £21,000 threshold.  That will bring in more money, but it doesn’t change the reality that, in the main, this is just exchanging grants now, for loan forgiveness later.

A decent accounting scheme or auditor-general wouldn’t allow it.

For those want to know more, here’s the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ take on the budget changes; more reasonably, have a look at the excellent Andrew McGettigan’s summary thereof.

July 16

Student Debt in Canada: Sorry, Still no Crisis

If you’re in the looking-at-student-debt business in Canada, your data sources are limited.  Provinces could publish their debt figures annually, but they don’t.  Canada Student Loans does publish its debt numbers annually, but it includes nothing on provincial debt, so it’s not very useful.  Statistics Canada surveys graduating students every five years, but only three years out from graduation, so the most recent data we have from that source is now five years old.  Kinda sucks.

But there is one other source of data, at least for university graduates.  That’s the triennial survey of graduating students from the Canadian University Survey Consortium, which just released its report on their 2015 data (Hey, Statscan!  17,000 responses, and a turnaround time of under four months!).  This gives us a chance to see what’s been going on the last few years by comparing the 2102 and 2015 results.

Before I get into the results, a small caveat about the data.  As its name implies, the consortium doesn’t have a fixed membership, and so comparability of results between surveys isn’t perfect.  In 2012, 37 institutions participated (n= 15,111 students), and 34 in 2015 (n=18,114).  Twenty-nine institutions did both surveys, but there was some churn.  In terms of student numbers, the 2015 survey is biased slightly more heavily towards the Atlantic (17% vs. 13%), and less heavily towards Ontario (39% vs. 42%).  Since the latter has been seeing lower average student debt of late because of its 30% tuition rebate program, one would expect a slight bias towards higher debt numbers in the 2015 survey.  In both periods, the survey sample as a whole is overweight in the Atlantic, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and underweight in Quebec and Ontario.

Onwards.  Here’s what happened to student debt incidence:

Figure 1: Percentage of Graduating Students With Debt, By Type of Debt

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Not to beat around the bush: incidence is down.  By four percentage points for family debt, three each for private bank debt and government debt, and a whopping nine percent for “any debt” (and, recall, this is with a population shift that is slightly more likely to have debt). For a three-year period, that’s a simply massive change, and one heading in the right direction.

Now, how about average debt levels?

Figure 2: Average Debt Levels (Among Those with Debt), by Source of Debt, in $2015

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Here, we have trends going in different directions.  Students are borrowing substantially less from family (for what that’s worth: in all likelihood, a substantial portion of these get forgiven), and marginally less from banks.  But government borrowing is up 6% in real dollars, which more than offsets those changes.  That’s a change for the worse, but it’s at least partially a product of a shifting survey base (my guess is that this accounts for about a quarter of this change).  CUSC does not release data by region, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that the big increases will be found in Alberta, BC, and the Maritimes.

In other words, we’re mostly seeing a continuation of trends that NGS has been showing for a decade now: average debt is rising slightly, but debt incidence is falling (while enrolments are rising, which is counter-intuitive).

Takeaway: As inconvenient as this may be for the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd, there is still no student debt crisis.

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