HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

March 24

Representing Universities

Some light reading today, after a heavy week.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the political divide between those with higher education and those without. But I want to take you back to a time, where that political divide was made real. A time when universities actually had their own seats in Parliament, non-physical constituencies where the electors were made up entirely of alumni.

The practice of granting universities representation in Parliament seems to originate in Scotland sometime in the late 15th or early 16th centuries; certainly by the time James VI of Scotland took the Crown of England in 1603, it was well established. Upon James’ accession to the throne in London, he created Parliamentary constituencies for both Oxford and Cambridge, and gave each two seats (i.e. they were multi-member constituencies and the top two vote-getters won seats). Oxford’s church connections meant that it reliably delivered Royalist or Tory MPs, and some of the greatest names of the age represented it in Parliament, including Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon. Cambridge, on the other hand, was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and was represented at various points by two of Oliver Cromwell’s sons. Briefly, this system spread to the colonies: in the late seventeenth century William & Mary had a seat in the Virginia legislature.

As university education expanded in the UK, so too did the number of university seats. The University Dublin received a seat at Westminster in 1801 (having previously had a seat in the Irish Parliament). The Scottish universities were not given Westminster seats after the act of union but did receive seats (2 to split between the four of them) in 1868; the University of London was given a seat at the same time. Belfast and the University of Wales were given seats in 1918 as was – very temporarily as it turned out – the National University of Ireland. More interestingly, also in 1918, graduates of all other universities in England were given a combined 3 seats, meaning that in the election of that year, there were a total of 14 seats out of the 707 up for grabs (2% of the total) which were elected solely by university graduates.

There were echoes of this approach outside the UK as well. In Sweden and Finland, for instance, where “estate”-style Parliaments existed well into the nineteenth century, universities received positions in Parliament by virtue of their membership in the clerical estate. Within the British Empire, an attempt to imitate this system died a quick death in Australia (the University of Sydney had a seat in the New South Wales Parliament in one election in the 1870s), but lasted somewhat longer in India.

Elections to these seats were somewhat odd affairs. All alumni of an institution could vote in these elections, and this vote was in addition to their vote as a resident of a particular constituency (readers from British Columbia may remember something similar in that until 1993 business owners could get a second vote in municipal elections if their business was in a different district that their residence). However, to exercise the franchise, voters actually had to come to the university to vote (at some point – I can’t work out when – a postal vote option was added). To accommodate electors, polls were held over several days – usually after the general election. Campaigning was not really “done” and in fact during the voting period candidates were required to stay at least 10 miles away from the university. Of interest to Canadian electoral nerds: voting in multi-member constituencies was done by Single Transferable Vote. Civilization does not appear to have collapsed as a result.

By the twentieth century, these seats still often elected Tories, but it became the custom to elect established academic celebrities or public intellectuals as independents. But their days were numbered: when Labour finally won a majority government in 1945, it abolished all forms of plural representation, and so the last university members of Parliament exited the chamber in 1950.

Curiously, the practice still exists today in the unlikeliest of places. Ireland, which split from the UK in 1922, retained the concept of university constituencies in its Parliament (Dáil) until 1937. Under the new constitution of that year, the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland each received 3 seats in a 60-seat Senate, which they retain to this day. This makes more sense if you understand that the Senate of Ireland is one of the world’s most deeply bizarre legislative bodies, where 100% of the membership is indirectly elected through various corporatist bodies.

Bon weekend.

 

March 23

Federal Budget 2017

Morning all.  A long night last night at HESA Towers as we covered Budget 2017, which contained an exhaustingly large list of little programs (as well as a few big ones) affecting post-secondary institutions.  You can find our full budget analysis here.  My thanks to the HESA crew – Paul, Melonie, Johnathan and Jackie – for sticking it through the evening.
Just a few thoughts, from very late last night: Budget 2017 is uneven: some parts are good, others not so good.

Unequivocally, the Skills component is excellent.  The money for Indigenous peoples is a great step, as is the commitment to provide more help for mature students.  The biggest investment, on skills training, properly goes to the provinces through the existing Labour Market Transfer arrangement and the amalgamation of several of these transfers means that provinces will have more flexibility in designing new programming.  One could quibble about the lack of detail on some programs (e.g. the CSLP “pilot projects”), but that would be churlish.  And the one initiative that had the potential to be a disaster (FutureSkillsLab) has been hedged in such a way that the government can take several more months to get the essentials right (which means spending lots of time with the provinces).  Overall, the Government has done good work here, and unlike last year, their efforts cannot be derided as solely university-focused; colleges will do well out of the training provisions.

An aside here: universities and colleges have not got what they asked for on Work-Integrated Learning, but I think the government has done the right thing by putting all its eggs in the MITACS basket.  Effectively, the government has said it is happy to play a role in Work-Integrated Learning, but only for graduate students, where the outcomes are tied to other policy goals around innovation.  Undergraduate students?  College students?  No thanks, that’s a provincial responsibility.  That’s both shrewd and respectful of provincial turf.

The Innovation section is not great, but the thinking on display is a lot better than it has been for most of the last 12 months.  The government still confuses growth policy with innovation policy, but at least it has realized that innovation is mostly about firms.  There are all sorts of justifiable trepidation about government “picking winners,” and no doubt regional jealousies will play an outsized and unwarranted role in the final set of decisions, but you know, baby steps.

Where the budget really falls down is on Science.  Between the unconscionable stalling on the publication of David Naylor’s report on Fundamental Science and now the funding freeze – not to mention the ongoing fiasco at CIHR – the nation’s academic scientists are going to be at war for funding.  Any goodwill the government fostered from last year’s bump of council funding is almost certainly gone.  For a government that prides itself on being pro-science, they have a big communications challenge ahead of them for the next 12 months, even if they do intend to make big investments in the area next year, as some have suggested.

On the whole, there is more to like in this budget than not.  Students in particular will be happy.  But the government has squandered an enormous amount of goodwill among scientists.  Expect a lot of sniping from this quarter: and it’ll be aimed not just at government but at the university administrators.  Universities Canada’s decision to not criticize the government, even a little, over the granting council snub will almost certainly not play well in laboratories across the country.  Stay tuned.

2017 Budget Commentary

March 22

The Next Big Skills Policy Agenda

So today is budget day.  If the papers are anything to go by, there’s something big-ish in there about “skills” which will no doubt be presented as some massive benefit to the country’s middle class (and those trying to join it). I have difficulty imagining what might be announced since most skills policies are in the hands of the provinces.  But what I do know is that skills policy is an area long overdue a makeover.

The labour force is aging.  Any new burst of productivity – essential for rising incomes – is going to have to come from older workers, not newer ones.  Part of that is going to have to come from firms making greater capital investments – that is, better machines and IT infrastructure for workers to use.  But part of it is going to have to come from more intensive and continuous skills upgrading on the part of workers’ themselves.  And this is a problem, because historically Canada has been uniquely bad at achieving a culture of skills upgrading.  Go back year after year, report after report, and it’s the same story: where continuous upgrading is concerned, it tends to be concentrated among people who already have high levels of skills.  Those that have get, those that do not, do not.

Part of the problem here is funding.  That’s why we sometimes see government get interested in handing money either to individuals or to firms (for example, the Canada Jobs Grant) to subsidize training.  But I’d argue that money is at best a partial barrier to more training.  A larger barrier is time.  And a lot of existing institutional practices are as much a hindrance as a help in this regard.

Workers don’t have a lot of spare time.  They have jobs, kids, parents, families: all of which make time a scarce resource.  We don’t normally think of time as something governments can control, but they actually do have a couple of policy levers they could pull, if they wanted to.  First, they could create incentives or entitlements to time-off for the purpose of training/re-training.  This idea was mooted 35 years ago in the Macdonald Commission report as a “Time Bank” – every year, workers would accrue a certain amount of time off specifically for the purpose of training.  It would no doubt be a colossally unpopular move among employers, but is still probably something worth considering (and might not create that much dissension provided it was fairly applied across all workplaces and didn’t create free-rider problems).

But the other way to make more time available to people is to radically re-consider the nature of the credentials being sought.  Universities, God Bless ‘em, have never seen a labour market problem they couldn’t design a 1- or 2-year Master’s Degree to solve.  The problem is a) not everyone wants to do a year of full-time study (or the part-time equivalent over a longer period of time) and b) who really wants to wait until next September to get started if you just got laid off last week?

From an adult learners’ perspective, the best thing in the world would be credentials that are both shorter and continuously available.  The latter can be solved to some extent simply by throwing money at it.  Continuous intake is relatively easy if you have more instructors to teach more classes at different times of the year.  Putting a greater fraction of classes online could conceivably bring some economies of scale that would assist in the process.

But the bigger problem is reducing the length of credentials.  In theory, there is a pretty clear way forward, which are called “stackable credentials”.  Many institutions use some variant of this: thirty credits equals a certificate and once you bunch three certificates together you get an applied degree, or something along those lines.  But even the notion of thirty credits can be kind of off-putting if what you think you need is just a minor skills upgrade. What is needed is a trusted provider (which usually means a non-profit provider) to come up with a way to come up with smaller-duration credentials which actually convey to employers a sense of competency/mastery in particular fields, and which could also combine over time (i.e. “stack”) into more traditional credentials like diplomas and degrees.

What’s the government role in this?  Well, the problem is really one of co-ordination.  Individual campuses can experiment with short credentials or competency-based credentials all they like: if employers don’t understand the credentials, they will be worthless.  What is needed is collective action – someone has to corral institutions to work together to create new credential standards, and someone needs to corral business to talk about what feature they would find most useful in new, shorter credentials.

That may sound like a job for somebody like the Business-Higher Education Roundtable.  But frankly, some coercion is called for here.  My guess is if BHER floated this you’d probably get a few Polytechnics showing up to play (because it’s the kind of thing they do) and no one else.  But government has the muscle and dollars to make this happen a heck of a lot more quickly and efficiently.

Now, note I say “government” and not “the Government of Canada”.  It would be better all around if provincial governments, who constitutionally are the ones in charge in this area, took the lead.  But one could argue that the feds – provide they stay the hell away from directly funding institutions or getting too far into the curriculum weeds themselves – could at least nudge the key players towards the table.

Bottom line: if we want higher labour productivity we have to get much more serious about creating opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills.  Since the key pressure point for skills upgrading is time, we need to create new, shorter pathways to meaningful credentials.  That means shorter, stackable credentials.  These will need to be designed by employers and institutions together, but the quickest way to start this program runs through governments.  And there’s no time like the present to get started.

March 21

Worst Higher Education Article of the Decade (So Far)

Stop the presses.  I have found the worst education article of the decade so far.  It is by Don & Alex Tapscott, and it is called The Blockchain Revolution and Higher Education.

How dumb is it?  Solar-powered flashlight dumb.  Tripping over a cordless phone dumb.

The problem is that because it’s Don Tapscott and he is – for reasons that are completely beyond me – treated as some kind of national gem, no one ever calls him on his deep wrongness when it comes to education (remember the time  he dramatically announced that in the third week of January 2013 was the week universities changed forever?), so the likelihood is that some people may take this article seriously.  And this would be a terrible mistake because it is nonsense.

A little background.  A blockchain is a distributed database which is both secure and decentralized – something which has interesting applications in finance, electronic money (eg. bitcoin) and contracts.  Some also claim it will have a huge effect on creative industries because it solves a host of intellectual property issues, but this is more speculative, and it requires a whole lot of legal and policy changes, which at this point are pretty speculative.

But databases, no matter how funky and tech-y they are, don’t have many educational uses.  Imagine for a second we are back in 1981 and someone wrote an article about how Higher Education was about to go through a Lotus 1-2-3 Revolution.  They’d probably have been dismissed as fantastical dreamers.  Those were better days: sadly, no one will think of doing this to the Tapscotts.

Now, if you can get past the start of the article where the authors claim the internet hasn’t actually changed how companies do business (yes really) you will come to the claim that bitcoin will revolutionize education in four ways., to wit: student records, pedagogy, student debt and “the meta-university”.  The heart of the argument here is that blockchain is going to create a sea change in records management.  Now, student records are admittedly still fairly clunky.  And it’s possible (as I noted back here) that in a decade or so that people will come up with universal CVs that will standardize and revolutionize the way people describe credentials and achievements.  And it’s even possible that once that happens people will be able to record those certificates and achievements on blockchain.  But then…so what?  Blockchain’s main advantage is that records can’t be altered, which means it could be a great way of dealing with fraudulent records.  But that’s not really that big of a deal.  It begs the question, for those of us not in the habit of producing fraudulent records, what exactly are the benefits of blockchain?

Well, according to the Taspcotts, it basically comes down to the idea that blockchain could let you record competencies and skills in a reliable way, thus changing the way universities work completely.  Huge, massive, changes.  And once everyone knows reliably what skills and competencies you have, most of the machinery around universities disappears and higher education becomes just one big worldwide open-learning park, and those people who can demonstrate through blockchain that they have certain skills and competencies will be paid to teach others the same things and poof! No more student debt.

Honestly, I’m not making this up.  This is their claim.

The fact that we are having trouble figuring out skills and competencies outside narrow professional frameworks?  Irrelevant.  The fact that badges and other such newfangled credentials aren’t really being embraced by employers because they are often finicky and vague)?  Irrelevant.  The fact that you still need institutions to actually manage the learning process and institutions to measure outcomes (they do not, I acknowledge, need to be the same institutions)?  Irrelevant.  The fact that not having blockchain is no barrier to people paying students to teach other skills and yet no one does it because that’s not really how education works and blockchain changes nothing in that respect?  Irrelevant.

Is higher education over bureaucratized, insufficiently innovative, in need of a jolt?  Sure.  But a piece of code doesn’t fix all that.  There are lots of other problems – often genuine political problems – which have to be solved before the alleged minor blockchain revolution can happen.  And just because it can happen doesn’t mean it will.  The kind of higher education system the Tapscotts seem to want is a type which – to quote Tressie McMillan Cottom – really only appeals to free-ranging autodidacts.  For other learners, the kind of institutions the Tapscotts want is a deeply alienating one.  But techno-fetishist windbags never let issues as small as “what customers want” get in the way of a good fantasy.

In sum: Worst. Higher Ed Article. Ever.  Or pretty close to it.  A pretty much textbook case of how you can be a tech guru while understanding literally nothing of how the world works.

 

March 20

There is no Fourth Industrial Revolution

I am seeing an increasing number of otherwise thoughtful people in Canadian university and research circles going around talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.  They need to stop.

There is no such thing as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  It is a catch-phrase made us by Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum (the Davos folks), which he developed in an eponymous book released in late 2015.  I read it.  It’s dreadful.  Seriously, seriously awful.  No redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

The argument lies in the same kind of shallow “Digital! Clean Tech!  Woo!” analysis that seems to animate Navdeep Bains, our Minister for pro-IT Industrial Policy.  Essentially what it comes down to is that after a long China-driven commodities super-cycle, everyone is interested in more knowledge-intensive industries.  And a bunch of these seem to be (emphasis on seem) to be on the tipping point of some interesting transformations that might have deep economic ramifications: autonomous vehicles, AI, nanotech, quantum computing, materials science, energy storage, etc.  But all of this does not a revolution make.

Generally, economic historians posit that there was one starting in Northern England built around textiles in the eighteenth century, one around mechanical mass production starting in and around Detroit in the early 20th century, and – maybe, this is still disputed – one based around computers and information technology starting in the 1960s/70s/80s (depending on who is telling the story).    The question is really whether all these new technologies that Schwab is so excited about are really new or just extensions of the It revolution of the late twentieth century.  Schwab claims it is because of three factors: “velocity” (change is happening more quickly), “breadth and depth” (some handwaving about “unprecedented paradigm shifts”) and “systems impact” (something about transformation across industries that also looks like a lot of handwaving).  But as several articles noted at the time (see here, here and here), this is fundamentally unconvincing.  All of these new showy technologies are children of the information revolution, and there’s no sign of any radical break in the economy or the pace of technological change that would make us think that there’s been some “revolutionary” break.  Is change occurring?  Of course.  But change has been occurring for decades, even centuries, sometimes at a much faster pace than today.

Now, sure, some might point to the huge amounts of money now being poured into alleged growth industries, like “Clean Tech” (or the “Green Economy” as its sometimes called).  Our Minster for Shaking Hands with Tech Executives, for instance, likes to talk about Clean Tech being a “$3 trillion industry”.  But a lot of that has to do with creative re-labelling of existing economic activities.  So, for instance, one major study which hyped the value of this economy includes in its definition of green tech large swathes of the construction industry (energy efficiency!), the automobile industry (lower emissions!), sewage collection (it’s about waste!)….you get the picture.  Important?  Yes.  But improvements in these areas are mostly about slow transformation of the economy, not some kind of big break with the past. Not, in other words, revolutionary.

And of course, a lot of the hype about these new technologies is just that: hype.  Everyone is talking about driverless automobiles, but there’s no certainty that the legal issues surrounding them will allow them on the road in major numbers for at least a decade (who is at fault if a driverless car gets into an accident?  Who will insure cars if there is ambiguity about this?)  AI sounds like a huge market, but a lot of it has to do with re-classifying what used to be called “software” as AI.  Nanotechnology has been the tech of the future for at least 15 years; biotech for 30.  Etc, etc.  There’s lots of groovy science out there, but turning it into industrial or consumer products at scale is tricky and doesn’t come quickly.  And because modern capitalism isn’t patient, that means a lot of money for product development is going into things which fundamentally don’t raise productivity.  As Peter Thiel once said, “we dreamed of flying cars, we got 140 characters”.

And even if some of these do manage to make it to market, there are some real questions about how much they will change living standards.  If you’re in any way inclined to call yourself a techno-optimist, I really urge you to read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and fall of American Growth, which painstakingly reconstructs the last 150 years of American economic history (it works equally well for Canada, though), and suggests both that a) the high growth rates of the mid-twentieth century were a one-off, never to return and b) that most of the major changes to the workplace due to the It revolution have already happened.

So in any case, if you’re tempted to try to join the Davos buzzword crowd and throw the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” into a conversation, just don’t.  In a few years, when that term has been properly consigned to the dustbin of history, you’ll thank me

March 17

Lower Ed

It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.

Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.

What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.

As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.

The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?

The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.

Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.

McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?

Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.

 

March 16

Good Innovation Policy

Yesterday, we looked at what actually constitutes Innovation Policy. Today, I want to talk about what an ideal innovation policy would look like. I apologize in advance for the length of the post.

So, the first ingredient in innovation policy is skills. But this term needs to be understood in some specific ways. It certainly means having a large number of what are called “Highly Qualified Personnel”, which usually but not always means PhDs, across many fields. Part of the deal with innovation is that generating new ideas means having people who are at the cutting edge of science, engineering and social science. In turn, this means spending reasonably big on scientific research because otherwise the good grad students will go elsewhere.

That’s the easy bit. The trickier bit is developing an education system that supports diffusion of new ideas. Innovation is not just about developing new products; it’s about making firms (and public bodies, too) more efficient through the adoption of new technologies and processes. The problem is literally no one knows how to do this. Is it about having a strong secondary school system with high standards? Probably. Can’t hurt, anyway. Does it mean very high levels of university participation? Not clear: Switzerland seems to do very well without this; but arguably it works for Korea and Finland. Does it mean high levels of technical education? Possibly: seems to work for Switzerland and Germany. But Canada has pretty much the highest levels of non-university higher education in the world and it doesn’t seem to work as well for us. So is it something about skills mixes? Does more STEM education (or, God forbid, “training coders”) help you become more innovative? Not really. The US, which despite everything is still seen as an innovation leader, has the lowest rates of STEM graduation (as a proportion of total degrees awarded) in the G7; Italy and France do far better.

So is it something in the way people are educated, something in the pedagogy? Maybe. Is it something non-cognitive, something cultural? Probably. But no one really knows how to change this. That doesn’t mean experiments in skills for innovation are doomed to failure, it’s just to acknowledge that there is a substantial amount of groping around in the dark here. A good innovation policy would acknowledge this. So it would have money set aside for real experimentation in education and training, much like the FutureSkills Lab proposal, albeit with the crucial proviso that in a federal state you really need both levels of government working co-operatively and consultatively (not – repeat NOT – unilaterally) to make this work. And if there’s an area where we should start, it’s in our business schools – we need to better understand why we have a dearth of managers with the skills to boost exports and manage growth.

OK, so that’s education. What next? Rules and Incentives. Barriers to market entry need to be dismantled, cartels smashed: anything that increases competition or reduces barriers to new products getting to market should – barring some reasonable measures around product safety – be adopted. If you want to know why serious innovation policy types laugh at the current Liberal government, it’s due to their total lack of interest in doing anything in these areas while simultaneously proclaiming to be “pro-innovation”. A country which cannot dismantle a dairy cartel cannot be considered an Innovation Nation. Also: let companies get big. There is no earthly reason why Canada taxes big businesses more than small ones. It’s a terrible idea. There are others, but those are the big ones.

The third big one is funding: how do we make sure funds get to innovative new companies?  This is a tough one, not just because of the potential for rent-seeking, but also because it’s genuinely hard to pick winning companies and/or get banks to change policies to lend to younger, more speculative ventures.  The consensus in the Innovation policy world is that Israel seems to do this pretty well, but exporting models like this isn’t easy.  I’m absolutely no expert in the area and so won’t comment further, but just know this is a big issue and any effective Innovation Policy needs to address it.

The fourth and final area is what is often called “innovation ecosystems”. Now this is a slightly fraught term because frankly it can be used to justify pretty much any old thing, and a lot of it is junk.  But the basic insight is this: innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. Firms’ ability to create innovative processes and products depends on their access to finance, talent, and knowledge, (sometimes but not always universities), and their interactions with other firms and with customers. To some degree, this is aided by proximity, which is why people get excited about the role of geographical clusters in innovation.  But to reduce it to proximity is overly reductionist, innovation is not simply a matter of co-location. Networks matter, but not all networks are local.

In fact one of the most obvious gaps in Canadian government policy thinking around innovation is the role of transnational networks in innovation. This simply makes sense: not many production/value chains are located within a single country any more. Among mid-sized countries, the ones that have done best in exploiting new technologies have been those that have worked out niches in global value chains. This has practical implications for policy. Canada may be good at Artificial Intelligence (whatever that means these days), but it’s probably never going to develop many companies that are going to be global players. So the goal of policy should really be to figure out how Canada can develop companies that can thrive as partners to other, larger companies or networks located outside Canada. Think about the automotive industry: Canadian attempts to have full-fledged automobile companies have been disastrous (Bricklin!) but we do pretty well in autoparts (Magna).

I’m not saying it is easy to develop government interventions that foster these kind of connection. But it is easy enough to get rid of rules that inhibit collaboration. For instance, there are rules in tri-council funding which impede collaboration with foreign scholars (and I’m not just talking about making foreign scholars fill in the Canadian Common CV). These rules actually get in the way of long-term partnerships and foreign source of income, like the US National Institute of Health (NIH). And in turn, that restricts knowledge generation in Canada – knowledge that might flow into new products or processes.

To summarize: innovation is a fairly diffuse idea, and our knowledge about how to promote it is patchy at best.  But what we do know is that it is a very multi-dimensional process.  It is certainly not just about hi tech industries.  Equally certainly, it is not just about knowledge generation.  Universities may have been conditioned to think that all research = innovation (in retrospect, the name “CFI” probably was not the most felicitous name choice), but that’s not true either.  It only becomes innovation when it leads to tangible change, which requires knowledge to be adopted outside the institution.

That’s not to say higher education has no role in innovation; the provision of skills and the generation of knowledge are both an important part of the puzzle: so more money for basic research, doctoral studies are definitely in order, as are fewer barriers to international research collaboration.  But so too is a lot of reflection on what makes individual people – particularly those who end up as business leaders – better problem-solvers and innovators.  If universities really want to be part of the solution, they need to be thinking about how pedagogies need to change, not just how other people can write them bigger cheques.  Some do, of course, but it’s far from central to the discourse.  That needs to change.

March 15

What Is Innovation/Innovation Policy, Anyway?

I write and tweet a lot about innovation policy, mainly with respect to my frustration with our current government’s two-dimensional views on the subject.  I’ve been meaning to write a piece on how to do innovation policy right, but based on a number of conversations I’ve had with folks, I think it’s important first to deal with the question of: “what is innovation” and “what is innovation policy”? Because frankly these terms are getting slung around with such abandon that they appear to have lost all meaning and many people are simply dismissing the policy area as a large waste of time.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to sympathize with this point of view.  This week in a Vancouver Sun op-ed, UBC President Santa Ono described innovation as “a never-ending exchange between the realities of today and the potential of tomorrow.”  To which I think most people would respond with a heathy “you what, mate?”

More helpfully, Ono also included in his article the OECD definition of Innovation: “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations.”  Even apart from any methodological difficulties in tracking this, it is still a bit tricky as a definition.  For instance, not everything which is new is beneficial or adds value. Crystal Pepsi comes to mind here.

But more broadly, the best way to think of innovation as a policy goal is: can a country/province/whatever become a place where people can put new ideas into practice easily and quickly.  It doesn’t have to be a “new product” (although Canadian governments sometimes act like this is what it means); it can also be a new process.  And it need not be strictly in the commercial sphere; innovation in the public sector is important, too.

Or, at a broader level, how can we be more like Estonia and less like Greece?

Now, as you can imagine, this is tricky because no one actually knows how to be more like Estonia (or Denmark, or Finland – pick a Nordic-ish country).  We can sort of describe what makes them the way they are, but there is no road map to getting from here to there.  But basically the critical questions are:

  1. How do we get ideas to generate and circulate faster?  (This goes back to the Paul Romer question I posed back here).
  2. How do we get people to turn ideas into practical ideas to create new/improved products and processes?
  3. How do we ensure that new products and processes do not get stamped down simply for reasons of inertia or protecting vested interests?

Some of these issues lend themselves to direct government spending.  Some of them are about regulations and incentives, which governments can also change.  And finally, some of them are issues of culture (institutional and otherwise) which is an altogether trickier terrain.

Governments can address the skills part of this through education.  Funding more doctoral students, attracting more top profs, etc. leads to more Highly Qualified Personnel and hence generating more ideas at the frontier of science.  Funding of basic science also plays a role here.  Governments can change the nature of secondary and undergraduate of education in ways that might make workers more likely to be problem-solvers, idea generators and early adopters of other people’s new ideas/technology.  It can incentivize entrepreneurialism through tax policy and to some extent through grants and – maybe, the jury’s still out – education as well.  But culture plays a big role here and credible ideas for how to shift this are thin on the ground (though I think we can all probably agree that a strategy of having Ministers go around encouraging people to “take risks” and “think outside the box” has, to put it politely, a low probability of success).

As for the third part, not squashing new products…obviously regulatory and competition policy really plays a role.  But again, part of it is cultural, and takes place inside firms and other institutions, areas where policy does not easily reach.  Take the medical products industry: how do you combine a culture of looking after patient safety with a culture of encouraging innovation (which by definition means making mistakes on the way to success)?  Or how do you get companies to pursue innovations which may make existing profitable product lines less profitable?

Evidently, this is complicated stuff.  In some ways it is easier to step back and say what Innovation Policy is not.  It is not Science Policy, which is about deciding how to invest in basic research – though Science Policy affects Innovation Policy for obvious reasons.  It is not Growth Policy, which is about finding the highest rates of economic growth in the short term, because Innovation Policy is in the end much more concerned with developing ideas which will matter 10-20 years out than what will boost growth right now.  It is definitely not Industrial Policy, because it is about economy-wide pre-conditions for industry, not about picking winning industries because they seem to be “hot”.

(I have recently been informed that the Ministry of Innovation actually includes my daily blog posts in its media monitoring.  If whoever is in charge of this operation could mark up that last section IN HUGE RED INK before slipping a copy to Minister Bains, that’d be awesome.  Thanks.)

So that’s my take on the meaning of innovation and innovation policy.  Tomorrow: what an ideal policy looks like.

March 14

The Free Tuition Impulse

A few weeks ago I presented yet more evidence about why free tuition was mostly a subsidy for the rich and was unlikely, on its own, to do very much with respect to equalizing access (scroll through here and here if you really want to read me on this subject, though I imagine most of you are pretty familiar with my spiel by now). Someone asked me: “why don’t people like the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) get this?  Surely they can read the evidence, why would they persist in touting a solution which is manifestly regressive”?

There are two possible answers to this question.  One is that in fact they have not read the evidence.  It exists, and they know it exists, but just haven’t read it.  As long as they don’t read the work which falsifies their notions, they can continue to hold these notions. To  paraphrase Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to read something, when his salary depends upon his not reading it”.

I actually got confirmation of this the other day on Twitter.  I was trying to get CCPA’s chief economist David MacDonald to explain why CCPA holds diametrically opposed positions on universal electricity subsidies (bad because they go disproportionately to the rich) and PSE subsidies (awesome, because they benefit the poor – which actually they don’t always, but that’s their story and they are sticking to it).  Basically, his two lines of defense were “it’s a public good” and “it doesn’t matter if most benefits go to rich because if we make education cheaper more poor students will go”.  The first, even if you assume he meant “there are positive externalities to higher education spending” (which is true) rather than “it fits economists’ description of a public good” (utterly false), is not a 100% sensible rationale as it arguably also applies to electricity to some degree (i.e. “there are positive externalities to people not freezing to death in their homes”).  But the second is ridiculous.  We know for a fact that tuition levels have almost nothing to do with access rates in part because targeted student aid actually works.  So I pushed him on it.  “Have you really read nothing about access problems in zero-tuition jurisdictions?  I asked.  Have you never looked at the rather substantive literature on finances and access”?  No reply.  Which, I think, tells you what you need to know.  People like David MacDonald and the CCPA simply do not want to know.  But that’s only half an answer: why don’t they want to know?  If they know that free tuition is ineffective as a remedy and regressive in distributional outcomes, why support it?  What other agenda is at play?

Well, a few years ago, when I was at a small event on Chile looking at the issue of tuition, I finally came to understand this problem.  A colleague and I were asking our Chilean counterparts: why do you want to make tuition free?  You must know it will make very little difference in access to higher education.  To which one of our counterparts replied:  the point is to get rid of the market.  The market must not decide in higher education.”

And so it is in Canada, I think.  The anti-tuition people are not fundamentally pro-access (though that is how they rationalize their position), so much as they are pro-state.  I suspect it’s partly due to a left-ideological stance which generally favours greater state involvement across the economy, but also partly to a naïve view about what would happen inside universities if the need to satisfy the market ever disappeared.  Such as: that public money would magically replace private money and continue to grow at a pace vastly outstripping inflation forever after.  Such as: nasty private sector Board member would be replaced by bureaucrats or more sympathetic public appointments or – better yet – make academics a majority on governing boards.   And magically, contrary to every bit of evidence from continental Europe, government running 100% publicly-funded universities would be less intrusive and meddling in institutional affairs than they currently are.

Once you realize that the free tuition argument is really a government vs. market argument and not a “how do we best equalize opportunities argument”, it becomes perfectly clear why evidence on the efficacy of tuition in promoting access doesn’t faze the usual suspects.  They don’t actually care about access.  They care about resisting the market.   The access stuff is just sheep’s clothing.

March 13

Tea Leaves on the Rideau

Last Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau set the date for the federal budget for next Wednesday (March 22) and naturally people are wondering: what goodies are in store?  Without being privy to any inside information, here’s my take on where we are going.

At the press conference announcing the budget date, Minister Morneau dropped some important hints.  The biggest one is that, contrary to what had been heavily promoted for the past year, this budget will not be an “Innovation Budget”, but will represent a “downpayment” on an Innovation Budget.  From this we should probably deduce two things.  One: the feds are broke.  Well, maybe not broke, but certainly unwilling to increase borrowing in the face of a $30 billion deficit, slow growth and adverse demographic trends.  Two: the government has – THANK GOD – attained enough self-awareness to discern that does not really know what it’s doing on this file.  I noted back here that the Finance Minister’s Economic Council was flatly in opposition to the Innovation Ministry’s ideas about innovation clusters, and it probably came to the conclusion that making big budget commitments in the face of such disagreement was untenable.

To be clear: I am thrilled with this outcome.  Yes, it’s too bad the feds seem to have wasted a year on this file.  But far better to take a sober second look at the issue and make smart policy rather than to charge forward in order to meet an artificial deadline.  I also take it as a favourable sign that the government has brought Ivey Professor Mike Moffatt – co-author of a large recent piece on Innovation Policy by Canada 2020 – into the ministry on a temporary basis. For one thing, he actually understands what innovation policy means outside the tech sector, a concept which has been missing from ministry discourse since the minute Minister Bains was appointed.

(Many of you have been asking to me on twitter to explain what the hell the terms “Innovation” and “Innovation Policy” actually mean.  Sit tight: we’ll work on that one this week.)

There were also hints from the Minister that this would be a “skills” budget, a sentiment which has left many puzzled.  A year ago, the big issue for the near term was supposed to be the renegotiation of Ottawa’s Labour Market Development Agreements with the provinces, which mostly hasn’t happened. Since then there have been no major policy initiative apart from that.  There has been – via the consultations on Innovation policy – something of an understanding that skills are a big part of the innovation problem, but government thinking doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond “more coders”! as a result.  (At a rough approximation, this government’s skills policy is more or less the same as the last ones, only if you just take out all the references to welding and insert the coding instead).

The worry here is that the “big initiative” will in fact be the implementation of the horrifically-named “FutureSkills Lab” promoted by Dominic Barton, chair of Morneau’s Economic Advisory committee (which I described back here).  If that’s the case, we may be about to view the first really big policy disaster of the Trudeau era.  First of all, no one is going to buy FutureSkills – essentially a kind of policy laboratory – as something which will help Canadians in anything other than the long term.  Second of all, the feds have yet to discuss the idea meaningfully with the provinces and without their buy-in, this initiative will be Dead on Arrival, just as the Canadian Council on Learning was.

To be clear: I don’t think this is going to be the “big initiative”.  I don’t think the Liberals are that stupid.  But I guess we’ll see.

What about Science?  Here, the news is not good.  You may recall that the Government of Canada commissioned a Fundamental Science Review, and asked by the inimitable David Naylor to run it.  Naylor, as requested, submitted the report to the Minister of Science in December.  The Government of Canada has yet to publish it and refuses to answer questions about when it might be published.  Why?  It seems transparently obvious that the government found some of the findings inconvenient, and would prefer to bury it until after the budget.  Maybe the report suggested the system needed more money (which would have been beyond the committee’s remit since it was only asked to comment on the management of the system, not the size).  Maybe the report suggested that certain science bodies which the government has already decided to fund were redundant.  Either way, the government seems to have decided the budget will be easier to spin if we haven’t all first read Naylor’s report.  I have a hard time imagining how this could a harbinger of good news.

In sum: don’t bank on anything big in this budget.  In fact, brace yourself for at least one major piece of goofiness.  Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen, but best to be prepared.

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