HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

November 26

Who Owns Internationalization?

One of the first things you realize when studying how institutions deal with the process of internationalization is how fragmented authority actually is in Canadian universities – to the point where you sometimes have to wonder whether anyone’s actually in charge of the whole operation.

Part of the reason for this fragmentation  is that internationalization isn’t a single activity, but rather a process that affects a whole range of other activities in which universities normally engage.  To the extent that internationalization is about research connections, it tends to get run through a VP Research office.  To the extent it’s about recruiting students, it’s typically a purpose-built unit reporting to a Provost, but functionally linked (often uncomfortably) to the Admissions office.  To the extent that it’s about attracting foreign faculty, it’s completely ad hoc, and run by departments according to their own needs.

To the extent that internationalization is about creating agreements/MOUs with institutions all over the world, well, that’s a dog’s breakfast, because these agreements don’t all deal with the same issues.  Some are about exchanges, some are about one-way student mobility (e.g., 2+2 agreements), others are about research collaboration, etc. etc.  And because these agreements are a dog’s breakfast, it’s not always clear which bit of the university is in charge.  Sometimes it’s bottom-up: faculty members can propose agreements based around their own research interests; other times it comes from a purpose-built office that may or may not take any account of researchers’ interests.

Now, it’s not quite true to say that “no one’s in charge” of internationalization, because every one of these processes has someone in charge, at least nominally.  Operationally, identifiable people are in charge of recruiting international students, dealing with international student services, etc.  But it’s very rare to see anyone knitting the work of these various processes together into a coherent whole.  That is to say, there is lots of operational authority in internationalization, but very little in the way of strategic authority over internationalization.

In many places, this – remarkably – is seen as a plus.  A lot of people in international policy think “decentralization” is a good thing per se, because operational authority should lie closer to centres of real expertise, rather than being bottled up in a single office somewhere, so that institutions can be nimble in responding to opportunities.  That’s certainly true from the perspective of operational effectiveness, but what has largely been lost is the ability of institutions to steer internationalization policy across the various areas in a common way.  Too often there is no one making sure that what’s being done in international recruitment ties in with what is being done in research collaborations, or international mobility agreements, and so forth.

Where institutional coherence is abandoned, “internationalization” can thus look a lot like an excuse for administrators to swan around the world to no obvious discernible purpose to anyone inside the organization.  This situation pushes cynicism of internationalization well above general faculty levels of skepticism about administration.

All of which is to say: high-quality internationalization requires someone to steer all the various activities in a common, self-reinforcing manner.  Institutions don’t need to create a VP of Internationalization to achieve this; in many cases, a Provost or Vice-Provost could do just as good a job, depending on institutional culture and current priorities (the occasional support of an engaged President doesn’t hurt, either). But what is needed is sustained attention from someone who has the clout to demand some policy coherence.  Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s lacking on many campuses.

November 25

Graduate Income Data Miracle on the Rideau

My friend and colleague Ross Finnie has just published a remarkable series of papers on long-term outcomes from higher education, which everyone needs to go read, stat.

What he’s done is taken 13 years of student data from the University of Ottawa and linked it to income tax data held by Statistics Canada.  That means he can track income patterns by field of study, not over the puny 6-24 month period commonly used by provincial surveys, or the new 36-month standard the National Graduate Survey now uses, but for up to 13 years out.  And guess what?  Those results are pretty good.  After only five years out, all fields of study are averaging at least $60K per year in annual income.  Income does flatten out pretty quickly after that, but by then, of course, people are earning a pretty solid middle-class existence – even the much-maligned Arts grads.

Figure 1: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Field of Study and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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One of the brilliant things about this data set is that you can not only compare across fields of study in a single cohort, but also you can compare across years for a single field of study.  Finnie’s data shows that in Math/Science, Humanities, Social Science, and Health, income pathways did not vary much between one cohort and another: a 2008 History grad had basically the same early income pathway as one from 1998.  In two other fields, though, it was a different story.  The first is Business, where the 1998 cohort clearly had it a lot better than its later counterparts; after two years out, that cohort was making $10K per year more than later ones, a lead that was then maintained for the rest of their career.  In ICT, the fate of various cohorts was even more diverse.

Figure 2: Average Post-Graduation Income, Selected Cohorts of University of Ottawa Engineering/Computer Science Graduates, by Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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This is pretty stunning stuff: thanks to the dot-com bust, the first-year incomes of engineering and computer science graduates in 2004 was exactly half what it was in 2000 ($40,000 vs. $80,000).  If anyone wants to know why kids don’t flock to ICT as a career, consider uncertain returns as a fairly major reason.

Also examined is the question of income by gender:

Figure 3: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Gender and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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Two interesting things are at work with respect to gender.  The initial income gap of $10,000 in the first year after graduation gap is almost entirely a field-of-study effect: take out Engineering/Computer Science, and earnings are almost the same.  But after that, the gap widens at a pretty continuous pace for all fields of study.  It’s most pronounced in Business, where top-quartile male incomes really blow the averages out, but the pattern is the same everywhere.  Because of the way the data is collected, it’s impossible to say how much of this reflects differences in labour-market participation and hours worked, and how much of this is differences in hourly pay, but the final result – a gender gap of $20,000 to $25,000 in average earnings, regardless of field of study – is pretty striking.

Are there caveats to this data?  Sure.  It’s just one university, located in a town heavy on government and ICT work.  My guess is that elsewhere, things might not look so good in Humanities and Social Science, and ICT outcomes may be less boom-and-bust-y.  But fortunately, Ross is on this one: he is currently building a consortium of institutions across the country to replicate this process, and build a more comprehensive national picture.

Let me press this point a bit on Ross’ behalf: there is no good reason why every institution in the country should not be part of this consortium.  If your institution is not part of it, ask yourself why.  This is the most important new source of data on education Canada has had in over a decade.  Everyone should contribute to it.

 

 

Nb. One tiny quibble about the papers is that they present everything in monochrome graphic form – no tabular data.  To make the above figures, I’ve had to eyeball the data and re-enter it myself.  Apologies for any deviations from the original.

November 24

The Arts Problem(s)

There’s no polite way to say this: Canadian universities have an Arts problem.

At the heart of institutions’ looming fiscal problems is their inability to convince major customer groups (government, students) to pay the desired price for the product they’re offering.  The reason for this, mainly, is the perception that the product on offer is not value-for-money.  Part of this is due to our ludicrously opaque student aid systems, which lead students and families and politicians into thinking that net tuition is a heck of a lot higher than it actually is (see here for more on that, or here for the full report).  But part of it also has to do with the fact that people are under the impression that returns on education ain’t what they used to be.

That’s not entirely fair, of course.   The recession is responsible for most of the downturn in graduate jobs, not some sudden change in what the market “wants” in terms of skills.  And it’s not even true that returns are falling for all fields of study: some have held up relatively well in recent years.  But it is a problem in Arts.  Look what data from the annual survey of Ontario Graduates says: though employment rates remain high, the actual monetary returns are very bad at the moment – down roughly 20% in real terms over the past few years.

Figure 1: Average Income (in $2013) Two Years After Graduation, Ontario Graduating Classes from 2003-2011, Selected Disciplines

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Not surprisingly, students are voting with their feet.  Look at the pattern of applications by program in Ontario: after a series of small declines in Arts, last year saw a decline of 10%.

Figure 2: Share of Total Applications to Ontario Universities, by Selected Fields of Study, 2003-14

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The point here is that, increasingly, the perception of Arts is that they aren’t very useful.  And yes, it’s annoying that people want to reduce education to considerations of short-term employment, but it is what it is.  When we ask people to pay so much (either privately or via tax dollars), people expect results, and they aren’t seeing them.

So something has to change in the Arts; not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all of higher education, which is being tarred with the same brush.  And that something is a greater focus on employability.

Now, even saying something like that causes paroxysm among some: “I’m not going to create cannon-fodder for the knowledge economy, etc. etc.”  But as I’ve said before, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of talented academics to devise a curriculum that meets both the traditional aims of a liberal arts degree, and that places more emphasis on employability skills (what is the ability to critically appraise arguments, appreciate complex chains of causation, and clear and effective writing if not employability skills?).  Indeed, I’ve even suggested there are some good models available from fields like medicine to do exactly this.

But if fixing the Arts was as simple as that, it probably would have happened already.  The biggest problem with Arts isn’t that the curriculum is difficult to alter, it’s that to a large extent curriculum simply doesn’t exist.  For decades, Arts faculties in North America have been headed inexorably towards a “buffet”, where if you take a few courses from column A, a few from column B, and we’ll call it a degree as long as the credit hours line-up.  Or, more bluntly, there is no curriculum, there’s just a bunch of courses.  This is completely unlike Arts faculties in the rest of the world, where course choice is more limited and degrees are much more structured.

So here’s the real issue: the preliminary work required to improve curriculum – that is, getting folks to realize there’s a curriculum in the first place – is therefore pretty massive.  And this is why it’s likely that, even though Arts needs to improve quickly to stem declining enrolments, it’s unlikely that change will actually occur quickly.

In the best of all worlds, this is a task people should have started working on years ago.  But as they say, the second-best time to start anything is now.  We should roll up our sleeves and get cracking.

November 21

Variation in Tuition in the United States

One of the things foreigners always get wrong about the American higher education system is tuition fees.  The external perception of tuition is driven by what’s happening at the famous private institutions, mainly in the country’s northeast.  But that’s not even close to being the whole story.

Figure 1: Tuition by Type of Institution, United States, 2014-15

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It is true that tuition at private non-profits is pretty high – $31,231, on average; though it goes much higher than that (one-sixth of these colleges charge over $45,000/year for tuition alone).  Of course, discounts are rife, and few actually pay the sticker price.  Net tuition and fees in this sector are actually only about $12,500.  And more to the point, only 2.7 million undergraduates (i.e. fewer than 20% of the total) attend schools in this sector.  In contrast, 6.6 million students attend public 4-year colleges, where the average sticker price is only $9,139 (avg. net tuition = $3,000), and 7.1 million attend public 2-year colleges (i.e. community colleges), where fees are just $3,347 (avg. net tuition = -$1,900).

But the differences aren’t simply by sector, they’re also geographic.  In-state tuition at 4-year publics varies widely from one state to another.  In Wyoming, tuition is $4,646; in Vermont, it’s $14,419.  There are some broad regional trends you can see in the data, but they aren’t quite as stark: in New England (i.e. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), average tuition at public four-year institutions is $11,436; in the South and Southwest, it’s about $8,300.

This often makes people stop and think: why is it that tuition in the liberal, blue-state northeast is higher, while in the conservative red-state south and Midwest it’s cheaper?  Well, the answer is that politics in the US didn’t always break down the way it does today.  Back in the 1890s when the big Land-Grant universities were starting to grow, most of today’s low-tuition states were run by governments heavily influenced by the Populist movement.

Populists were suspicious of universities because they served such an elite section of the population.  They wanted them opened up to the children of farmers, and to make sure that they taught “practical arts” as much as the liberal ones.  These being the days before student aid really existed, the way populists gave effect to this was to order institutions to keep tuition low, a tradition that in most states remains true today.

In fact, one way to predict state tuition levels in the US today is simply to look at vote totals from the 1896 election.  That was the “Cross of Gold” election, which pitted the Democratic/Populist William Jennings Bryan against the Republican William McKinley.  Figure 2, below, plots today’s in-state tuition rates against Bryan’s share of the vote in that election.

Figure 2: Current-Day In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

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Rather amazingly, there is still a relationship between political patterns of 120 years ago and tuition policy today.  It’s not a perfect fit, of course – South Carolina, in particular, was a Bryan stronghold, and yet now has tuition of nearly $12,000 – but the pattern is clearly there.

America is large, and contains multitudes.  Generalizations about its higher education system need to be treated with much caution.

November 20

Independence Day

When should a student be considered independent of his or her parents for the purpose of calculating student assistance?  It’s a tricky question, which generates different answers in different parts of the world.

Most student loan schemes require some kind of test of parental income for at least some of their clients.  In some places, it’s a way to save money – there isn’t enough to go around, so let’s prioritize the less well-off.  In other places (including Canada), it’s because there’s a recognition that education is something that families (not just the student) pay for, and so family incomes need to be taken into account.

Not everyone goes along with this logic.  In some parts of Europe – Scandinavia in particular – the age of independence is 18.  Everybody, regardless of their family income, is considered equally wealthy (or equally poor, depending on how you look at it), and therefore automatically has access to grants and a fairly generous set of loans (about 85% of Swedish students opt to take the loan).  This approach makes more sense from an equity point of view in Scandinavia than it does here, because of smaller disparities in family income, but that’s not really why they do it.  Rather, the policy fairly explicitly is about making young people independent of their parents by giving them financial aid.  Which, to put it mildly, isn’t a goal most Canadians associate with student aid.

The question for most countries with respect to independence is when to end it.  In Australia, it’s essentially when you turn 25.  In the US, you’re independent if you’re 24 or over, if you’re a graduate student, if you’re a veteran (or are on active duty in the reserves or national guard), if you’ve ever been in foster care, or if you have children.  Quebec has no age limit, per se: if you’ve ever been married, ever spent two years in the labour force without going to school, or have finished 90 university-level credits (which effectively means “in graduate school”), or are seven years out from finishing your last period in full-time studies you’re considered independent.

The rest of Canada has a threefold test – like Quebec, it has the 24-month labour market test and the married test, but otherwise, the requirement to become independent is simply to be more than 4 years out of secondary school.  In practice that means independence at 22, which is pretty much the lowest age for any country that makes the dependence/independence distinction.

Why does Canada have such convoluted rules that don’t invoke a specific age?  Basically, it’s the quality provisions (i.e. section 15) of the Charter, which says you can’t discriminate by (among other things) age, unless you have a really good reason to do so.  Now, in the Gosselin decision, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that governments could in fact explicitly discriminate on age in social programs (the case involved a Quebec policy that provided lower welfare rates to people under 30).  But the student aid rules date from before Gosselin, and have never been subsequently re-written or simplified.  And, near as I can tell, Justice Department lawyers aren’t convinced that the existing rules would pass muster, even post Gosselin.

Hence the ludicrous rules on the Canada Student Grant, which basically guarantee a $2,000 grant to anyone with “family income” of under (roughly) $40,000, but where “family” for independent students basically consists of the student’s own income.  In practice, this means the CSG is a universal grant for independent students.  Which is nuts – and also a major reason why CSL program expenditures are rising so quickly.

If we were a little tougher on independent undergraduate students (many of whose parents are relatively well-off), we could probably spend more money on deserving, poorer undergraduates.  It’s a trade-off we should think about making.

November 19

The Canada Post-Secondary Education Act

History lesson: Back in 1864, Canada West (i.e. Ontario) was getting hot under the collar about a little thing called representation by population.  Since the Durham Report, the two Canadas had been governed under a system that gave both Upper and Lower Canada a veto over legislation.  This had made sense when the two colonies were roughly the same size, but now that Canada West was growing faster, it seemed like a bad deal.

The solution to this problem was called federalism: two orders of government, with different sets of powers.  And Quebec was totally cool with rep-by-pop at the federal level, provided – and this is key – that Education remain a provincial responsibility.  Because on no account was Quebec going to let Protestant Anglophone Ontarians get their stinking dirty hands on their Francophone, Catholic school system, period.  In other words, the bargain on which our nation rests is that education shall never be a federal responsibility.

So why is there a Canada Post-Secondary Education Act, a private member’s bill, under consideration in Ottawa?

The short answer is, because NDP PSE critics always sponsor one, and have done for the last three Parliaments, at least.  And the reason they do so is that they’re in hock to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), who drafted a model Act something like 30 years ago, and keep lobbying for its adoption.  Why CAUT thinks it’s such a hot idea is a mystery.  Partly, I suspect, it’s because many of its members belong to the shade of Anglophone political opinion that somehow believes “federal govt = important govt”, and important questions need to be dealt with by the important level of government.  More pragmatically, I suppose, it’s because Ottawa-based interest groups like CAUT always prefer constitutional interpretations that involve shifting the action to Ottawa.

You can see the CAUT version of the bill here, and you can see the NDP version of the bill – which is substantially different – here.  In some ways it’s a harmless enough bill.  Basically, it suggests that PSE transfers to provinces be conditional on a bunch of things that, for the most part, provinces already do.  But there are two extremely silly elements in the NDP version of the bill, which suggest whoever drafted it hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking through potential consequences.

The first is the stipulation that all post-secondary education in the receiving provinces must be “publicly administered”, that is “provided on a public and not-for-profit basis”.  That definition makes complete sense for community colleges, but less so for everyone else.  What happens to religious schools like Redeemer or Trinity Western?  What happens to foreign providers licensed to operate here (e.g. Charles Sturt in Ontario)?  What happens to the hundreds of licensed private vocational colleges and language schools?  Hell, what happens to union-run apprenticeship trades training organizations?  Add all that up, and you’re well over a hundred thousand students suddenly without a home.

The second is the exemption of the Act’s provisions on the grounds of the “unique nature of (its) jurisdiction”.  I’m sure this makes for good politics within the NDP caucus, where a large number are likely supporters of sovereigntist parties provincially, but it’s legal nonsense.  Sure, Quebec might be the reason education is a provincial responsibility, but constitutionally all provinces are equal, and none are more equal than others.

All of this is a footnote of course: private members bills rarely get to the floor of the house, and even if the present one did it would be voted down.  But for a party that may have a share of government after the next election, it’s a disappointingly amateur effort.

November 18

Origins

Higher education is a tradition-driven industry.  It’s frankly useless to try and deduce very much about national higher education systems based on public/private split, funding systems, methods of student selection, etc.  If you really want to understand what a country’s university system looks like, go find a history of the country’s first institutions.  That’s where you’ll find all the answers.

Within each country, the first university (or perhaps two or three) tends to act as a “model”, which the rest of the system tries to emulate.  So in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge were the model for later institutions; in the US, it was Harvard; in Uganda it was Makerere, etc. etc.  Canada is actually one of the few countries where this isn’t true. You could make an argument that McGill and Toronto (the oldest English-language universities in Lower and Upper Canada, respectively) played this role, but you’d have to ignore places like Laval and UNB for it to work.  Tricky.

Now among these model institutions, there are basically only three “origin stories” out there.  In Europe, most of the early universities began as communities of scholars who banded together out of necessity.  And though they often sought protection under the state’s wing (at Bologna, they did so in order to weaken the collective bargaining power of students), they still saw themselves as the university, and viewed things like the right to elect a President as an essential component of university life.  Thus, in Europe, the way a university “ought” to be run involves a great deal of collective faculty authority.  This privilege is guarded jealously, even at the price of lower levels of funding and fiscal autonomy.

In Anglophone settler societies, the first universities tended to be created by small communities, which banded together and created their own institutions (often mediated through the offices of the church).  That is, the community’s will came first, and the professors came second.  This gave rise to a system where professors had considerably less power, and the board of governors comparatively more.  The Board expressed that power at a day-to-day level by installing a strong president to keep the faculty in line.  But even though public education became the norm in all of these countries, the tradition of endowing institutions with strong external boards and powerful Presidents remain.

(There are some exceptions to this rule.  At the University of Melbourne, for instance, the governing board just ran the place directly for 80 years, waiting until the early 1930s to hire a full-time Vice-Chancellor. Hard to believe the place survived, frankly.)

In Asia and Africa, the earliest universities were creatures of the state.  In these countries, there is a considerable tradition of strong state direction, even in private universities.  A phrase one hears frequently in these countries when discussing university autonomy is: “there is only one university – the Ministry of Education” (meaning that little variation is tolerated, regardless of the legal status of the institution).  In Taiwan for instance, even though most institutions are private rather than public, Taiwan National is still the model (ditto Tokyo University and Japan, or Seoul National University and Korea).  As in anglophone settler countries, there is a tradition of a strong President, but in these countries their role is more about executing government orders.

(Latin America is probably a fourth model – based on a weird mix of strong church, weak state, and a chaotic private sector – but I don’t know Latin American origin stories well enough to fit them into this framework.  Mea culpa, and I’ll get back to you on that one.)

These aren’t just historical curios.  Origins constrain people’s mental conceptions of what a university is and what it can be.  Although rankings and other forces are pushing people towards a Global Standard Model of a university, the continued strength of regional traditions ensure that these transitions will not be frictionless.

November 17

Affordability

If I could ban one word from higher education discussions, it’s “affordability”.  It’s a word without precision, and, particularly when used as a synonym for “accessibility”, it’s downright misleading and harmful.

The worst is when someone uses the raw price of a good – in this case tuition – to indicate “affordability”; as in: “tuition went up 5% last year, and that makes it less affordable”.  This is simply asinine.  When the price of milk or gas goes up, we don’t wring our hands about the “affordability” of milk or gas.  We don’t do this for two reasons.  The first is that “affordability”, as a concept, is a ratio and not a point. It’s a function not just of price, but of available resources.  If people were serious when talking about affordability, they would be talking about it in terms of fractions, not prices.

(This of course raises a question – what should we use as a denominator?  When I talk affordability, I tend to use mean or median family income, because nearly all students entering post-secondary education for the first time are drawing on family resources to do so.  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tends to use much smaller numbers as a denominator, like whatever the minimum wage happens to be.  I get where they’re coming from on this – many students, as they get older, pick up more of the burden of their education costs [though they also tend to earn significantly more than minimum wage].  My number will tend make the fraction fairly small.  Their number will make it look large.  Who’s right?  It depends; to some extent, we both are.)

Which brings us to the second issue: there are people for whom a night out at the movies is affordable, and others for whom it is not.  For some people a Mercedes S-500 is affordable, for others (most of us) it’s not.  Demand curves slope downward, and affordability matters at the margin, not the average.  Most people are simply not affected by an increase in price.  Even in the largest tuition increase in history – the English tuition hike of 2012, where tuition rose by nearly $9,000 – the net effect on applications was only about 5%.  To the extent that affordability affects accessibility, the issue is always about how it affects student at the margin, not how it affects the average student.

That’s why student aid is important.  Student aid helps the students at the margin (or at least it does so everywhere outside Ontario, where “needy” has been re-defined by a vote-grubbing government as anyone with income under $160,000).  Having grants offsetting higher costs is precisely the way affordability concerns should be dealt with – provided you think that affordability is an access issue.

The problem is, for most people the question of affordability is about almost anything other than accessibility.  For most, it’s about making sure that whoever is paying for tuition has more money in their pocket to have a better “quality of life”.   Parents – you deserve that second vacation each year rather than paying tuition!  Students – you should have smaller loan repayments on your way to being the upper-middle class of tomorrow!

Affordability – as a ratio – is thus an important concept in the way we design student aid to help students at the margin.  But the way most people try to explain the concept, and the purposes for which they deploy the concept, are either wrong or disingenuous.  We need to talk a lot more about access and a lot less about affordability.

November 13

Preparing Students for the Workforce

There’s a line I hear every once in awhile from profs (mainly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) saying something to the effect of: their job is not to prepare students for the world of work; rather, they want to prepare students’ minds to be critical thinkers or better citizens, or something like that.  Actually, it’s usually phrased less delicately, like: “I’m not preparing kids to be cannon fodder for the knowledge economy”; “I don’t give a damn what employers think, I only care about my students”, etc., etc.

Now, this is admirable, in a way.  Universities certainly shouldn’t be training people for specific jobs (and to be fair, I don’t think there are that many people arguing this).  Even where universities are offering professional education, as a rule they should be training people for diverse careers in a profession, not a particular job.

But in a way, it’s also kind of a silly position to take, for two reasons:

First: It’s not either/or.  The insistence that education either has to be “for” the labour market or “for” personal betterment/critical thinking is laughable.  For instance, most of the skills that matter for the humanities – the ability to critically appraise documents and arguments, appreciating complex chains of causation, writing clearly and effectively – are also pretty important in the world of work.  Surely it is not beyond the wit of universities to design programs fit for multiple purposes.  So why is there such a tendency within the academy to strut and preen and claim that never the two shall be one?

Second: If you really do want to put the student first, then employability skills need to be front and centre.  Getting better jobs is really why students are there – and that’s been the case for a very long time.

Every three years, since 1998, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) has been asking freshman why they decided to attend university.  The top two answers have always been “to get a better job” or “to train for a specific job or career”.  The next two answers have always been “to get a good general education” and “to gain knowledge in a certain field” (See?  Students don’t think it’s either/or).  The humanities aren’t exempt from this: 76% of students in these fields say “getting a good job” is “very important” to them.

Figure 1: Importance of Various Factors in First-Year Canadian Students’ Decision to Attend University, 1998-2013 (Percentage Indicating Each Factor is “Very Important”)

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Now, if you actually drill down to what the single most important factor is, the results are even starker.  In 2013, fully 68% picked “getting a good job” or “preparing for a career” as the most important reason to attend university; only 16% picked “increasing knowledge in a specific field” or “getting a good general education”.  That’s not new, either: in 2001 it was 65% and 16%, respectively.

So while it’s legitimate to want to ignore the views of employers (especially in an era when employers are getting simultaneously pushier about wanting job-ready graduates, and stingier with the training dollars), it’s not legitimate to say that higher education shouldn’t be concerned with employability and the labour market.

It’s not for the companies – it’s for the students.  It’s what they want.  It’s what they think they’re paying for.  It’s what they deserve.

November 12

An Update from Australia

Back in our spring (their fall), the Government of Australia announced a new university funding policy, which consisted of:

  • Cutting per-student public funding by about 20%; but,
  • Subsequently allowing funding to rise along with enrolments (this is known in Australia as “demand-driven funding”);
  • Simultaneously de-regulating all tuition; and,
  • Allowing the interest rate on student loans to rise from equal to inflation to equal to the government’s 10-year bond rate (i.e. actually placing a real interest rate on the loan).

Understandably, students opposed the idea, while high-prestige universities loved it.  Other universities were less keen, but figured student dollars are more reliable than government dollars, and so mostly backed the reforms (albeit without much enthusiasm).  The opposition Labour Party opposed the policy and made some substantive critiques of it here, but offered no counter-proposal other than the status quo, which isn’t great for universities either.

From the start, the potential hitch to this plan has been that, while the Liberal/National coalition has a solid majority in the House, the balance of power in the Senate is held by the Palmer United Party (imagine Ford Nation run by a successful self-made businessman rather than a crack-head with the impulse control of a five-year old), and the Motoring Enthusiast Party (yes, really).  That doesn’t matter so much in terms of implementing spending cuts – Australia sets caps on spending, but the government of the day is free to spend less without parliamentary approval – but it does matter for tuition where policy changes require an Act of Parliament.  And so there has always been the possibility that if the budget legislation stalls, government funding to institutions could be cut without institutions being able to raise fees to compensate.

Many insiders (mainly from within universities themselves) have suggested that if the government ditched the interest rate policy, the hard feelings of recalcitrant VCs and disappointed students would be smoothed over enough to allow the policy through.  However, Clive Palmer has, to date, been adamant that he’s in favour of free fees, and no fiddling around with interest rates is going to change his mind.  And while he’s been known to make deals on other issues (notably climate change), he’s not left himself much room for deal-making.

The government will avoid putting the proposals to a Senate vote if there’s a chance of them being rejected.  With the House soon breaking for Christmas, it’s looking likelier than ever that a vote won’t take place until 2015, leaving institutions in a bit of a tizzy.  The big universities wanted the deal done months ago so they could announce their new fee structure (to date, Western Australia is the only institution brave/crazy enough to do so), and start reaping the rewards of a big fee increase; now, they have virtually no basis on which to do any budgeting because they have literally no idea what their income will look like in 2016.

All of which makes deciphering what the policy will look like in practice an exercise in pure theory.  Without some idea of institutional pricing strategy, there’s no way to model the program’s effects.  With no model to work from, it’s anyone’s guess  as to how this will play out – a state of affairs that sits just fine with the doom-mongers and headline-writers who enjoy talking about $100,000 degrees.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably put my money against deregulation becoming law in 2015.   But Aussies tend to give their governments second terms even if they are a complete shambles (see: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard), and a new government might have a better mandate to push this through come 2016.

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