Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

November 30

Canadian PMs’ Higher Education Experiences

For giggles the other night, I started looking up the educational backgrounds of various countries’ heads of government.  I’ll do the other countries tomorrow; today, I thought I’d start with Canada.  Let’s do it by the numbers.

One: The number of Canadian PMs who have held PhDs.  It was McKenzie King, who earned a PhD from Harvard for his dissertation on “Oriental Immigration to Canada”. He was against it: “Canada should remain a country for the white man”, he wrote with singular obliviousness.

Three: The number of PMs offered spots at Oxford.  But only two took them up, as Louis St. Laurent declined his Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a legal career.  It’s also the number of degrees Diefenbaker obtained from the University of Saskatchewan.  Apparently, he was the first person to achieve this feat.

Four: The number of PMs who graduated from the University of Toronto, the most of any single university.  The quad in question: Martin, Pearson, Mackenzie King, and Meighen (Harper attended, but dropped out, before doing two degrees at the University of Calgary).

Six: The number of PMs who studied abroad.  Nearly all of them were in some form of political science (King, Turner, Trudeau, Campbell), though Tupper studied medicine at Edinburgh, and Pearson studied history at Oxford.  I’m fairly sure only Australia can claim more.

Seven: Of the last nine PMs, seven have dropped out of a university program at some point.  Turner dropped out of a graduate program in Paris (after completing his Rhodes – the man was no dummy).  Both Trudeau and Campbell dropped out of doctoral degrees at LSE.  Both Mulroney and Clark dropped out of Dalhousie Law School.  Harper dropped out of U of T, before ending up at Calgary; and our current Prime Minister dropped out of an Engineering program at Polytechnique (in which he enrolled after getting degrees at McGill and UBC).  And we wonder why there’s never been a bug push in Canada on retention/completion.

Eight: The number of Prime Ministers with law degrees.  Additionally, Macdonald, Thompson, and Borden passed the bar without attending law school (we didn’t have any in the very early days), and Thompson even went on to found the Dalhousie law school from which two of our later Prime Ministers dropped out.  So that makes eleven lawyers out of 23 Prime Ministers.  Personally, I think this explains a lot about our country.

Eighteen: The number of Prime Ministers with university degrees.  Of the five who did not have one, three were the aforementioned lawyers.  The other two were Alexander Mackenzie, who apprenticed in Stonemasonry, and Mackenzie Bowell who had a teaching diploma (not a higher education credential back then) from a long-defunct Normal School in Hastings, Ontario.

Ninety-Six: The number of years since we’ve had a Prime Minister without a degree (Borden).  In the US, the equivalent figure is sixty-three (Harry Truman), whereas in England it is eighteen (John Major).

November 27

Kids These Days

I’ve had a few people ask me in recently: “what’s going on with students these days?”  Or words to that effect.  Although they don’t say so explicitly – they assume I know what they mean – what they are talking about is (in no particular order): that Atlantic article from a couple of months ago about intellectually-coddled students, the imbroglio at Yale, and the highly amusing Yogapocalyspe at the University of Ottawa.

The line people seem to have these days goes something like: “isn’t it disastrous that students seem to be so intolerant/oversensitive/whatever”?  Certainly that seems to be what Neil MacDonald means in this piece, published by the CBC on Wednesday.  But frankly, an awful lot of it is just media hype.

Take the Atlantic piece.  I mean, it’s the Atlantic for goodness sake.  They publish a variation on this article every three years, or so.  They take a half dozen incidents, mostly at Ivy League schools (maybe a couple on the west coast too, for the sake of variety), damn near all of them in humanities departments, and then claim that this is representative of the entirety of American higher education.  These articles are entertaining, of course, and they appeal to our “oh my God everything is going to hell in a handbasket” sensibilities (which we all have to some extent).  But as an accurate reflection of the state of higher education in America – let alone north of the border – it’s simply not on.  Worrying?  Maybe.  A trend?  Probably not.

That’s the thing about these stories, you have to keep an eye on the sample size.  Take the Yale story, for instance.  Basically, the administration, in somewhat circuitous terms, sent out an email telling students to please not wear blackface at Halloween.  One minor college official decided to make this a teachable moment, and sent out an email saying: “hey, this is Yale, should a paternalist administration really police what kids wear at Halloween?”  In some ways the email was quite a reasonable one, and if it had been sent from one administrator to another, no one would have thought anything of it.  But frankly, if you’re a college professional in this day and age, and after a year of #blacklivesmatter, if you think it’s a good idea to send out an email to hundreds of students in which it looks like you might be defending blackface in the name of free speech, you need your head examined.

And so yes, a number of students got upset.  Some of them asked for some resignations, and one or two of them were even rude and insolent to professors and administrators!  On film!  But again, how many people are we really talking about here?  Is what they said really so terrible?  I mean these students are 20 years old.  Twenty year olds say a lot of stupid stuff – the difference today is that the rest of society can hear about it and discuss it in real time.  The issues at play at Yale are important, but at the same time, from a generational zeitgeist POV it’s tempest-in-a-teacup stuff.

And then there’s the yoga thing at U of O.  It’s somewhat different in the sense that it’s not people (seen to be) over-reacting to a provocation, but rather a sheer po-faced holier-than-thou inanity by a student federation functionary.  Hilarious?  Certainly – my particular favourite being the comment that the student union was really just trying to find a way to be more inclusive of people “that feel left out in yoga-like spaces” (my suggestion: more beer, pizza, and wi-fi in yoga rooms: I know I’d feel more included).  Infuriating?  Sure – the instructor suggested changing the name of the class from “Yoga” to “mindful stretching” to deal with the cultural appropriation, only to be told there wasn’t time to get the term translated (this is U of O, after all).

But again, is this really evidence of “political correctness gone mad”?  What we have on the record are the comments of a single student union officer.  This particular student union has had a rough year, having lost two executives before the end of September. If I had a cynical mind, I’d say there’s a reasonable chance that the organization couldn’t get its act together quickly enough to offer all of its programming, and then tried to cover it up by offering up some half-baked account about cultural appropriation.  This, at least to me, seems a likelier scenario than any narrative suggesting that even a halfway significant-sized group of U of O students believe a word of this stuff.

In other words, what I think we have here are two nothingburger stories, and a specific-to-Yale story, all of which happened to break in a short period of time, and then people like Neil Macdonald came along trying to spin it into a single overarching narrative.  But remember: not all clustering is meaningful; sometimes it’s just coincidence.

So If you ask me what’s up with kids these days, I think I’d answer “they’re pretty much the same as they always were”.  And if someone tries to tell you differently, ask about their sampling strategy.

November 26

Beyond Tenure

Today, Higher Education Strategy Associates is releasing a paper called Beyond Tenure: Faculty Employment Protection at Canadian Universities (available here).

People make a lot of fuss about tenure.  They say things like “lifetime employment, now isn’t that cushy”, etc. etc.; or, on the flip side, “tenure’s absolutely essential to protect academic freedom”, heart of the university, etc. etc.  But tenure actually isn’t a guarantee of employment come what may.  Nothing prohibits a university from letting people go if the institution is in deep financial trouble, or if no one is taking courses in the particular subject in which one is tenured.

Well, nothing except for collective agreements.  If you look at the history of faculty unionization in Canada, the main catalyst for certification has tended to be job security rather than pay.  So you’d expect Canadian faculty collective agreements to have pretty strong language in terms of job protection.  But you might not expect exactly how strong that protection is, or it’s consequences.

This summer, my colleague Jonathan Williams and I sifted through the faculty agreements from all Canadian universities (to be fair, Jonathan did most of the heavy lifting).  We looked specifically at the kinds of ways faculty agreements limit the ability of universities to downsize, or re-deploy staff.  There are a number of ways to do this, including no lay-off clauses, minimum staff complements, redeployment clauses, etc.  We do lots of fun comparisons in the publication, noting which institutions have ended up negotiating which kind of approach to terminations, which institutions come close to having CAUT’s “model” contract, etc.

(On the whole, I think my favourite faculty agreement in the country is Acadia’s.  It is seemingly one of the most rigid, requiring the university to keep a minimum complement of 140 academic staff at all times.  Except if you read the annexes, this clause is in suspension for the duration of the current agreement for the simple reason that both sides acknowledge that Acadia can’t afford that many staff – at the moment, they are about 30 profs short of the target.  Yet the clause has to stay in.  Why?  Morale purposes?  It’s not entirely clear.  Pretty goofy.)

But our main focus is on what are called “exigency clauses”: the processes through which a university can attempt to reduce staff complement in a financial emergency.  And what tortured processes these are.  Committees get created to determine the exigency’s severity.  Then, institutions are required to take certain steps before even considering laying-off faculty; in a few cases, firing all the contract staff first (now there’s some solidarity!), or selling off buildings and other assets (the case at Brock, Concordia, Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent, Queen’s, StFX, and Wilfrid Laurier).  Even if all that is satisfied, then the university still has to provide a layoff notice period (median length: 12 months), and then there is a requirement for severance pay on top of that (median length: 12 months).  The upshot of all this is that it is a rare institution where management can get away with spending less than 2 years’ worth of salary on a professor that eventually is released.

Now, this is really just faculty unions doing what unions are supposed to do: raising the price of layoffs so that management will find other ways to save money.  But in a business where labour costs take up 75% of all income, being too effective at this game can cause real problems for institutions’ ability to manage costs.  And that’s kind of where universities are now.  The rules in collective agreements are so restrictive in terms of reducing staff numbers in case of exigency that, in effect, the only realistic option available to management is to freeze hiring and reduce numbers by attrition.  This is basically tantamount to saying that universities are incapable of shrinking strategically: their future shape will be determined by the current age profile of the faculty, and nothing else.

And remember: none of this has anything to do with tenure, academic freedom, or anything else.  It’s all on top of tenure, purely about job protection in the face of economic uncertainty.  Nice if you can get it, but as Nova Scotia’s Bill 100 shows, if unions get too successful at this, governments can and will intervene to provide universities ways to circumvent collective agreements in extremis.  And perhaps more to the point, if firing someone is this difficult, then maybe – just maybe – institutions will become less eager to hire professors in the first place.  For those wondering why casualization and increasing use of sessionals is a thing, you’ve got your answer right here.

I hope you all enjoy reading the document, and feel free to let me know what you think.

November 25

The 2015 OECD Education at a Glance

So the OECD’s Education at a Glance was published yesterday.  It’s taken a couple of months longer than usual because of the need to convert  into the new International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) system.  No, don’t ask; it’s better not to know.

I won’t say there’s a whole lot new in this issue that will be of interest to PSE-types.  One point of note is that Statscan has – for no obvious or stated reason – substantially restated Canadian expenditure on tertiary educational institutions, downwards.  In last year’s edition, you may recall that they claimed 2011 spending was 2.8% of GDP, which I thought was a tad high (I couldn’t get it to go over 2.43%).  They are now saying that last year was in fact 2.6% of GDP, and this year is 2.5%.  That still puts Canada well ahead of most countries, and more than 50% ahead of the OECD average.

Figure 1: Selected OECD Countries’ Spending on Tertiary Education as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product














Next, the shift to the ISCED system has produced a slight change to the way attainment data is presented.  Basically, they make it easier to tease-out different levels of attainment above the bachelor’s level; but this makes no difference for Canada, because we can’t actually measure these things.  The problem is our Labor Force Survey, which has a very vague and sketchy set of responses on educational attainment (basically, you can only answer “college” or “university” on attainment, so our college numbers include all sorts of weird private short course programs, and our university numbers make no distinction between types of degrees).  Still, for what it’s worth, here’s how attainment rates for young Canadians (age 25-34) stack up against other countries.

Figure 2: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2012














Those of you familiar with the “Canada’s number 1” rhetoric that accompanied previous EAG releases may do a double-take at this graph.  Yes, certainly, Canada is still close to the top if you include all of post-secondary education.  But it used to be that we were also at – or close to – the top on university education, as well; now, we’re actually below the OECD average.  What the heck is going on?

Well, it helps to look back a decade or so to see what the picture looked like then.

Figure 3: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2003














Much of what has changed is the way this data is presented.  First, the old 5A/5B excluded attainment at the doctoral level, which the new system does not.  Since European countries tend to have slightly higher doctoral degree award rates than we do, this cuts the difference a bit.  A bigger issue is that fact that post-Bologna, a lot of European countries simply did away with short-cycle degrees from polytechnics and fachochschule, and re-classified them as university degrees.  Finland thus went from a system with 23% attainment at 5A (university) level, and 17% at 5B (college or polytechnic) level, to a system that is now simply 40% degree level, or above.  In other words, tertiary attainment rates are exactly the same in Finland as they were a decade ago, but credentials have simply been re-labelled.  Something similar also happened in Germany.

While reclassification explains part of the change, it doesn’t explain it all.  Some countries are genuinely seeing much bigger increases in university attainment than we are.  There is South Korea, where attainment rates ballooned from 47% of all 25-34 year olds in 2003, to 68% in just a decade (30% to 45% at the university level alone), as well as Australia, where university attainment has gone from 25% to 38%.

Those are some quite amazing numbers.  Makes you wonder why we can’t do that, as well.

November 24

Class Size, Teaching Loads, and that Curious CUDO Data Redux

You may recall that last week I posted some curious data from CUDO, which suggested that the ratio of undergraduate “classes” (we’re not entirely sure what this means) to full-time professors in Ontario was an amazingly-low 2.4 to 1.  Three quick follow-ups to that piece.

1.  In the previous post, I offered space on the blog to anyone involved with CUDO who could clear up the mystery of why undergraduate teaching loads appeared to be so low.  No one has taken me up this offer.  Poor show, but it’s not too late; I hereby repeat the offer in the hope that someone will step forward with something convincing.

2.  I had a couple of people – both in Arts faculties at different medium-sized non-U15 Ontario universities – try to explain the 2.4 number as follows: teaching loads *are* in fact 4 courses per year (2/2), they said.  It’s just that once you count sabbaticals, maternity leaves, high enrolment (profs sometimes get a reduced load if one of their classes is particularly large), leaves for administrative duty, and “buyouts” (i.e. a prof pays to have a sessional teach the class so he/she can do research), you come down to around 2.5.

This is sort of fascinating.  I mean, if this were generally true, it essentially means that universities are managing their staff on the assumption that 35-40% of staff resources are theoretically available for teaching.  Now, obviously all industries overstaff to some extent: sickleaves and maternity happen everywhere.  But 40%?  That sounds extremely high.  It does not speak particularly well of an institution that gets its money primarily for the purpose of teaching.  Again, it would be useful if someone in an institution could confirm/deny, but it’s a heck of a stat.

3.  Turns out there’s actually a way to check this, because at least one university – give it up for Carleton, everyone – actually makes statistics about sessional professors public!  Like, on their website, for everyone to seeMirabile dictu.

Anyways, what Carleton says is that in 2014-15, 1,397 “course sections” were taught by contract or retired faculty, which translates into 756.3 “credits”.  At the same time, the university says it has 850 academic staff (actually, 878, but I’m excluding the librarians here).  Assuming they are all meant to teach 2/2, this would be 3,400 “classes” per year.  Now, it’s not entirely clear to me whether the definition of “classes” is closer to “credits” or “course sections”; I kind of think it is somewhere in between.  If it’s the former, then contract/retired faculty are teaching 22.2% of all undergraduate classes; if it’s the latter, then it’s 41.1%.  That’s a wide range, but probably about right.  And since Carleton is a pretty typical Canadian university, my guess is these numbers roughly hold throughout the system.

However, what this doesn’t tell you is what percentage of credit hours are taught by sessionals – if the undergraduate classes taught by these academics are larger, on average, than those taught by full-timers, then the proportion will be even higher than this.  I’ve had numerous conversations with people in a position to know who indicate that in many Ontario Arts faculties, the percentage of undergraduate credit hours taught by sessional faculty is roughly 50%. Elsewhere, of course, mileage may vary, but my guess is that with the possible exception of the Atlantic, this is the case pretty much everywhere.

I could be wrong, of course.  As with my CUDO offer, anyone who wants to step forward with actual data to show how I am wrong is welcome to take over the blog for a couple of days to present the evidence.

November 23

The Nature of Universities: Multicultural Edition

I find myself increasingly annoyed with particular a line of rhetoric that academics sometimes use when they want to make a point.  “The university is not a corporation”, they say, “it is a community of scholars dedicated to the truth – if it is not that it is nothing.” You know, the Steffan Collini-types.

Two things here.  First, a modern university actually is demonstrably a corporation, which is indeed a very good thing for everyone who likes to get a steady paycheque.  I’ll come back to that issue in another blog post relatively soon, but what I want to get at here is this whole notion of the “university-as-truth-seeking- community-of-scholars” thing, because it’s really only true in some parts of the world, and even there it’s not 100% true.

Let’s start with Europe.  There, the first “universitas” (the word means “a whole” in Latin), was not a universitas of scholars, but rather of students.  Back in Bologna in the 11th century, students basically formed a union in order to bargain collectively both with Bolognese landlords (town-gown relations being a fairly important thing at the time) and with professors (over fees and professors’ responsibility to show up to class on time – things have turned around a bit on that one).  Gradually, scholars themselves started to band together, and often fought with civic or, more often, ecclesiastical patrons about the right to self-organize.  And there were certainly occasions when professors themselves founded a university on their own (Cambridge, for instance).  This is one of the reasons why, until quite recently, in much of Europe the governing boards of universities were entirely internal to the university, and did not include non-academics. So, close to 100% true here.

But it was a different story in North America.  Here, universities were set up by local communities, and governing boards and Presidents were put in place before academics were hired.  Unlike Europe, therefore, in North America professors have always been employees of universities.  True, after WWII, they obtained a lot of the trappings of self-governing communities of scholars, but that’s not how they started out, and they remain to a considerable degree under the control of boards, which are either made up of state appointees or a self-perpetuating group of local worthies.  So mostly true here, if not quite as much as in Europe.

Now, consider some different traditions.  If you go back to the earliest precursors of higher education in Asia and the Middle East, the “community of scholars seeking the truth thing” is fairly hard to discern.  The scholars at the Imperial Academies of China, for instance (which I wrote about back here), were concerned more about imparting the minutiae of Confucian ideology to future civil servants than they were about opening up these ideas to scrutiny.  The great medieval Islamic universities like Al-Azhar are basically madrassas, and certainly by the late 10th century and the “closure of the door of ijtihad”, there wasn’t a whole lot of new thinking going on; the belief was that everything useful with respect to the Qu’ran and the Sunna had already been learned, and so it was simply a matter of preserving this wisdom for future generations.  The great Indian “university” of Nalanda taught a broader set of courses (including very applied stuff like archery) and was more open to discussion, but it was still a community of priests rather than a community of scholars.

And those traditions continue today, to some extent.  In many parts of the world, universities main functions were – and are – to provide career-oriented instruction and to perpetuate official ideologies.  In Communist China, universities are very definitely under the control of the Party (if not the State), and the search for “the Truth” is necessarily somewhat circumscribed.  Does that mean Chinese universities don’t deserve to be called universities?  Similarly, were there no universities in Russia between 1918 and 1992?  What about the many universities in the oil states of the Gulf?  In none of these places would universities appear to meet the description that Western idealists claim is the bare minimum; does this mean there are no “real” universities there, either?  I bet there are a lot of people in those countries who, while wishing for more academic freedom like their western colleagues, would nonetheless bristle at the claim that their universities – and hence their scholarship – is any less real than ours.

There are good historical reasons why western universities look the way they do, and we are not wrong to treasure them.  But maybe, if we are going to use universalizing rhetoric about what universities are, we should have the decency to test the validity of our generalizations.

November 20

Quick Takes on Student Aid Around the World

Three quick hits:

Islamic Student Loans in the UK.  Loans and Muslim students are always a hot topic.  That’s partly because there are a number of Muslim students who don’t like the idea of loans with interest (not very many, but enough to be noticeable), and partly because certain soi-disant “progressive” white kids like to use Muslims’ reticence about interest as an excuse to argue that loans are effectively racist, and therefore should all be replaced by grants (yes, really).  So it’s interesting to note that buried in all the hoopla of the recent UK Green paper on higher education is a firm commitment from the UK government that it will move ahead with offering Shariah-compliant loans, making it the first non-majority Muslim country to do so (Malaysia has had them for some time).

Now this isn’t wholly surprising; the government indicated about a year ago that it was headed in this direction, after a series of public consultations on the matter.  The results of that consultation are here, and anyone interested in student aid should read from about page 6 on, because it goes into some useful detail about how to design Shariah-compliant loans that are neither more nor less generous than “mainstream” loans.  In the end, it recommends a “takaful” system, which is basically a co-operative lending fund in which participants mutually insure each others’ liabilities (n.b., for true student aid nerds: the mutuality aspect actually makes this system somewhat resemble the Yale Tuition Postponement option, which I described back here).

I said four years ago that the Government of Canada should consider offering Shariah-compliant loans.  Now that the UK government, in conjunction with Islamic banking experts, has done the heavy lifting on this, it’s time to pick up that torch.

How Difficult is it to go Full Australian?  Many people admire Australia’s HECS system (or HELP.  Or HECS-HELP.  It’s all a bit confusing because they keep changing the name).  No fees required at time of enrolment.  No real interest on the “contribution” (let’s not call it a loan).  No repayments required until the borrower is making $50K/year.  Repayment tied to income after that.  And from a convenience point of view, the idea that collection is handled through payroll witholding is pretty sweet.

It’s a system that of late has attracted a lot of attention in the US, especially because its own income-based relief program (which is HECS-ish in the way that our own Repayment Assistance Program is) would work a whole lot better if relief was automatic, which effectively would require a payroll withholding system.  But making HECS work is actually pretty complicated.  It requires a certain type of tax system, as well as practices in tax collection, and they don’t necessarily translate well. The trade-offs required to do this – some of which would apply here in Canada too – were well explained in a recent New America Foundation paper called Promise and Compromise: A Closer Look at Payroll Withholding for Federal Student Loans.  It’s a useful reminder of how tough some of the practical issues in student loan collection really are, and how going “full Australian” is much more difficult than casual admirers appreciate.

Malaysia Gets Tough on Loan Defaulters.  Really Tough.  For years, Malaysia’s loan system, the PTPTN (which longtime readers may recall has it’s own quite excellent anthem, available here) has been a disaster where repayment is concerned.  When I was there four years ago, I worked out that the agency was barely recouping a third of its money on an NPV basis.  More recent investigations by local researchers come to similar conclusions.

The government has gradually been tightening the system, mostly by starting to squeeze out private higher education providers (quite numerous in Malaysia).  But now it has decided to get tough by actually imposing a travel ban on people in student loans arrears.  The ban apparently applies to about 600,000 Malays, or about 2% of the country’s population.  This is actually somewhat more draconian than Kenya’s practice of refusing to renew the passport of anyone in arrears on their loans.  Interestingly, all student loans in Malaysia are required to have a guarantor (usually parents), but the government actually thinks a travel ban on the kids is politically more palatable than asking parents to make good on their guarantee.  Which of course makes you wonder what the guarantee was for in the first place.

Have a good weekend.

November 19

Stories Arts Faculties Tell Themselves

Here at HESA towers, we’ve been doing some work on how students make decisions about choosing a university (if you’re interested: the Student Decisions Project was a multi-wave, qualitative, year-long longitudinal study that tracked several hundred Grade 12 students as they went through the PSE research, application, and enrolment process.  We also took a more targeted qualitative look, specifically at Arts, with the national Prospective Arts Students Survey).  We’ve been trying to do the same for colleges, but it’s a much trickier demographic to survey.

In both studies, one of the questions we asked is what students really want from their education.

Now at one level, this question is kind of trite.  We know from 15 years of surveys from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium that students go to university: i) to get better jobs; ii) because they like learning about a particular field; and also, iii) to make friends, and enjoy the “university experience”.

Where it gets a little trickier, however, is when you break this down by particular fields of study.  With most faculties, there tends to be a positive reason to attend.  However, when it comes to Arts, enrolment is often seen as a fall-back option – it’s something you do if you don’t have concrete goals, or if you can’t do anything else.  Now, Arts faculties tend to take the positive here, and spin this as students wanting to “find themselves”. But in deploying this bit of spin, Arts faculties often end up heading in the wrong direction.

One of the problems here is that the notion of students “finding themselves” (not a term students themselves use) is not as straightforward as many think. Broadly, there are three possible definitions.  The first situates “finding yourself” in academic terms: by exploring a lot of different academic options, a student finds something that interests her/him, and becomes academically engaged.  This is one of the reasons that Arts faculties are built around a smorgasbord model, which lets students “taste” as many things as possible, and hence “discover” themselves.

But that’s not the only possible definition of “finding oneself”.  There is another option, in which students essentially view PSE as a cooling out period where they can “find” what they want to do, in a vocational sense.  Yes, they are taking courses, but since they recognize that Arts courses don’t lead directly to employment, they are more or less marking time while they discover how to make their way in the employment world, and think about how and where they want to live.  Then there is a third, slightly different take, in which students view “finding themselves” as the process by which they acquire transversal skills, and the skills of personal effectiveness needed to be successful adults.  School is something they do while they are learning these skills, often for little reason other than that going to school is something they have always done, and in many cases are expected to do.

Though all of these interpretations of “finding yourself” have some currency among students, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the one about “finding yourself” being a voyage of academic discovery is, in fact, the least frequently mentioned by incoming students.  Now, maybe they come around to this view later on, but it is not high on the list of reasons they attend in the first place.  To the extent that they have specific academic interests as a reason for enrolling in Arts, they tend to be just that: specific – they want to study Drama, or History, or whatever.

Which raises two questions: if this is true, what’s the benefit of Arts faculties maintaining such a wide breadth of requirements?  And second, why aren’t Arts faculties explicitly building-in more transversal skills elements into their programs?  Presumably, there would be a significant advantage in terms of recruitment for doing so.  Someone should give it a whirl.

November 18

The Radical Implications of David Turpin’s Installation Speech

David Turpin was installed as President at the University of Alberta earlier this week.  His inaugural speech was good.  Very good.  Read a shortened version of it here.

(Full disclosure: I spoke at a leadership function at the University of Alberta in August, for which I received a fee.  The University has also recently purchased two of our syndicated research products.  Make of that what you wish.)

The speech starts out with what I would call some standard defences of the university, which any president would give: we seek truth and knowledge, we innovate, and we create jobs, yadda yadda.  Where it gets interesting is where he starts his appeal to the provincial government.  Let me quote what I think are the key bits:

“Our task continues to be to ask unexpected questions, seek truth and knowledge, and help society define, understand and frame its challenges. Our goal for the future is to find new and innovative ways to mobilize our excellence in research and teaching to help municipal, provincial, national and international communities address these challenges.”

Note: the truth/knowledge tasks “continue”, but now we’re adding a “goal” of mobilizing the university’s talents to address “challenges”.  And these are not just abstract challenges.  Turpin gets very, very specific here:

To our municipal partners: We will work with you to address your major goals on poverty reduction, homelessness, downtown revitalization, infrastructure renewal and transportation.

To our provincial partners: We will work with you to strengthen a post-secondary education system that serves the needs of all Alberta’s learners. We will provide our students the educational experience they need to seed, fuel and drive social, cultural and economic diversification. We will advance social justice, leading reconciliation with our First Nations and protection for minorities. We will conduct research to sustainably develop Alberta’s wealth of natural resources and improve Albertans’ health and wellness.

These are really specific promises.  If I’m a municipal or provincial official, what I hear from this is “Cool! U of A is going to be my think tank!  It’s going to put expertise at my disposal in areas like poverty reduction and economic diversification”.  That may or may not be Turpin’s intent, but it’s what they will hear.  And that’s well beyond the traditional role of a university in Canada, and in some ways beyond even some of the “state service” commitments that exist in US Land Grant institutions.  Sure, ever since von Humboldt, universities have been there to serve and strengthen the state, but I think the way Turpin is articulating this is genuinely new.

Now, no doubt the University has enormous resources to help achieve all of these things.  But those resources are mostly faculty members and grad students.  And while the university can ask them nicely to help folks at city hall/the legislature when they come calling, the question is: what’s in it for the profs and grad students to drop what they’re doing and go help the city/province (especially if they feel they have better things to do)?  Is the expectation that staff will do this out of a collective desire to contribute to their communities, or will incentives be put in place?

This goes deep to the heart of a university’s research mission.  At research universities like U of A, tenure and promotion is based mostly on publication records, and time is supposed to be spent 40-40-20 on teaching, research, and service.  But if your provost walks down the hall and says “hey, I just met with a couple of MLAs, and they’re hoping they can borrow your expertise for a couple of weeks”, do those expectations now change?  Will tenure/promotion committees actually take into account work done for government as equivalent to work done for an academic publication?

(For those of you not native to academe, it may seem amazing that research done for public policy, something that changes the way government makes decisions in a certain area, is not rated as highly for tenure/promotion as publishing things in journals that on average are read by a handful of people.  It is amazing, yes.  But true more often than not.)

If the answer to those questions is no, then I don’t think this initiative will go far.  But if the answer is yes, then Turpin is literally talking about a new kind of university, one that is prepared to sacrifice at least some of the prestige associated with being a “world-class university” with a laser-like focus on publication outputs, in order to contribute to its community in very concrete ways.  It’s not a reduction in research intensity, but it is a different type of research intensity.

The risk, of course, is that this new type of intensity won’t come with as many dollars attached.  I hope that’s not the case.  But in any event, this could be quite an exciting experiment.  One definitely worth keeping an eye on.

November 17

Curious Data on Teaching Loads in Ontario

Back in 2006, university Presidents got so mad at Maclean’s that they stopped providing data to the publication.  Recognizing that this might create the impression that they had something to hide, they developed something called “Common University Dataset Ontario” (CUDO) to provide the public with a number of important quantitative descriptors of each university.  In theory, this data is of better quality and more reliable than the stuff they used to give Maclean’s.

One of the data elements in CUDO has to do with teaching and class size.  There’s a table for each university, which shows the distribution of class sizes in each “year” (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th): below 30, 31-60, 61-90, 91-150, 151-250, and over 250.  The table is done twice, once including just “classes”, and another with slightly different cut-points that include “subsections”, as well (things like laboratories and course sections).  I was picking through this data when I realised it could be used to take a crude look at teaching loads because the same CUDO data also provides a handy number of full-time professors at each institution.  Basically, instead of looking at the distribution of classes, all you have to do is add up the actual number of undergraduate classes offered, divide it by the number of professors, and you get the number of courses per professor.  That’s not a teaching load per se, because many courses are taught by sessionals, and hell will freeze over before institutions release data on that subject. Thus, any “courses per professor” data that can be derived from this exercise is going to overstate the amount of undergradaute teaching being done by full-time profs.

Below is a list of Ontario universities, arranged in ascending order of the number of undergraduate courses per full-time professor.  It also shows the number of courses per professor if all subsections are also included.  Of course, in most cases, at most institutions, subsections are not handled by full-time professors but some are; and so assuming the underlying numbers are real, a “true” measure of courses per professors would be somewhere in between the two.  And remember, these are classes per year, not per term.

Classes Per Professor, Ontario, 2013


















Yes, you’re reading that right.  According to universities’ own data, on average, professors are teaching just under two and a half classes per year, or a little over one course per semester.  At Toronto, McMaster, and Windsor, the average is less than one course per semester.  If you include subsections, the figure rises to three courses per semester, but of course as we know subsections aren’t usually led by professors.   And, let me just say this again, because we are not accounting for classes taught by sessionals, these are all overstatements of course loads.

Now these would be pretty scandalous numbers if they were measuring something real.  But I think it’s pretty clear that they are not.  Teaching loads at Nipissing are not five times higher than they are at Windsor; they are not three and a half times higher at Guelph than at Toronto.  They’re just not.  And nor is the use of sessional faculty quite so different from one institution to another as to produce these anomalies.  The only other explanation is that there is something wrong with the data.

The problem is: this is a pretty simple ratio; it’s just professors and classes.  The numbers of professors reported by each institution look about right to me, so there must be something odd about the way that most institutions – Trent, Lakehead, Guelph, and Nipissing perhaps excepted – are counting classes.  To put that another way, although it’s labelled “common data”, it probably isn’t.  Certainly, I know of at least one university where the class-size data used within the institution explicitly rejects the CUDO definitions (that is, they produce one set of figures for CUDO and another for internal use because senior management thinks the CUDO definitions are nonsense).

Basically, you have to pick an interpretation here: either teaching loads are much, much lower than we thought, or there is something seriously wrong with the CUDO data used to show class sizes.  For what it’s worth, my money is on it being more column B than column A.  But that’s scarcely better: if there is a problem with this data, what other CUDO data might be similarly problematic?  What’s the point of CUDO if the data is not in fact common?

It would be good if someone associated with the CUDO project could clear this up.  If anyone wants to try, I can give them this space for a day to offer a response.  But it had better be good, because this data is deeply, deeply weird.

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