HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

August 24

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

I am a proud Carleton alumnus.  If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study.  You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience.  I’m always talking up Carleton.  So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.

The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors.  Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account.  He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).

The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”.  Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense.  In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.

This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share.  You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board.  But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not.  Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s  workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance). 

What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”.  This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.

One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance.  Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions.  Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself. 

Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities).  But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here.  Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out.  Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong.   Carleton needs to re-think this policy.

So says this alum, anyway.

August 17

Measuring Teaching Quality

The Government of Ontario, in its ongoing quest to try to reform its funding formula, continues to insist that one element of the funding formula needs to relate to the issue of “teaching quality” or “quality of the undergraduate experience”.  Figuring out how to do this is of course a genuine puzzle.

There are some of course who believe that quality can only be measured in terms of inputs (i.e. funding) and not through outputs (hi, OCUFA!)  Some like the idea of sticking with existing instruments like the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE); others want to measure this through “hard numbers” on post-graduate outcomes like employment rates, average salaries and the like.  Still others are banging away at certain types of solutions involving testing of graduates; HEQCO’s Essential Adult Skills Initiative seems like an interesting experiment in this respect.

But there are obvious defects with each of these approaches.  The problem with the “let’s-measure-inputs-not-outputs” approach is that it’s bollocks.  The problem with the “hard numbers” approach is that unemployment and income among graduates are largely functions of location and program offerings (a pathetic medical school in Toronto would always do better than a kick-ass Arts school in Thunder Bay).  And while the testing approach is interesting, all that testing is a bit on the clunky side, and it’s not entirely clear how well the data from such exercises would actually help institutions improve themselves.

That leaves the old survey stalwarts like NSSE and CUSC.  These, to be honest, don’t tell us much about quality or paths to improvement.  They did when they were first introduced, 15-20 years ago, but each successive survey adds less and less.  To be honest, pretty much the only reason we still use them is because nobody wants to break up the time-series.  But that’s an argument against particular surveys rather than surveys in general.  Surveys are good because they are cheap and easily replicable.  We just need to find a better survey, one that measures quality more directly.

Here’s my suggestion.  What we really need to know is how many students are being exposed to good teaching practices and at what frequency.  We know from various types of research what good teaching practices are (e.g. Chickering & Gamson’s classic Seven Principles for Good Practice).  Why not ask students about whether they see those practices in the classroom?  Why not ask students how instructional time is used in practice (e.g. presenting content vs. discussion vs. group work), or what they are asked to do outside of class?  And not just in a general way across all classes, the way NSSE does it (which ends up resembling a kind of satisfaction measurement exercise and doesn’t give Deans or departmental chairs a whole lot to work with): why not do it for every single class a student takes, and link those responses to the students’ academic record?

Think about it: at an aggregate faculty or institutional level – which is all you would need to report publicly or to government – the results of such a survey would instantly become a credible source of data on teaching quality.  But more importantly,  they would provide institutions with incredible data on what’s going on inside their own classrooms.  Are certain teaching practices associated with elevated levels of dropping out, or with an upward shift in grades?  By tying the survey to individual student records on a class-by-class basis, you could know that from such a survey.  A Dean could ask intelligent questions about why one department in her faculty seem to be less likely to involve group work or interactive discussions than others, as well as see how that plays into student completion or choice of majors.  Or one could see how teaching patterns vary by age (are blended learning classes only the preserve of younger profs?).  Or, by matching descriptions of classes to other more satisfaction-based instruments like course evaluations, it would be possible to see whether certain modes of teaching or types of assignment result in higher or lower student satisfaction results – and whether or not the relationship between practices and satisfaction hold true across different disciplines (my guess is it wouldn’t in some cases, but there’s only one way to find out!)

So there you go: a student-record-linked survey with a focus on classroom experiences on a class-by-class could conceivably get us a system which a) provides reliable data for accountability purposes on “learning experiences” and b) provides institutions with vast amount of new, appropriately granular data which can help them improve their own performance.  And it could be done much more cheaply and less intrusively than wide-scale testing.

Worth a try, surely.

August 03

A tipping point for internationalization?

Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow.  Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated.  Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it.  Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization?  We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.

The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say.  And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing.  But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.

To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping.  None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term.  Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit.  But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.

Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable.  If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers.  But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.

Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge.  Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were.  The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country.  The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point.  In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls.  This is not good.

And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries.  The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics.  In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.”  In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech.  These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more.  These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers  will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.

Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today.  Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world.  Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom.  Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.

I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it.  But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years.  Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.

July 25

The low-wage graduate problem

The week before last, the Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) put out a report (available hereon trends on low-paid employment  in Canada from 1997 to 2014 (meaning full-time jobs occupied by 20-64 year olds where the hourly earnings are less than 66% of the national median).  It’s an interesting and not particularly sensationalist report based on Labour Force Survey public-use microdata; however one little factoid has sent many people into a tizzy.  Apparently, the percentage of people with Master’s or PhDs who are in low-wage jobs (where the hourly earnings are less than two-thirds of the national median) had jumped from 7.7% to 12.4%.  This has led to a lot of commentary about over-education, yadda yadda, from the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and so on.

This freak-out is a bit overdone. I won’t argue that the study is good news, but I think there are some things going on underneath the numbers which aren’t given enough of an airing in the media.

First of all, as CSLS explains in great detail, the two important findings are that the incidence of low-wage work in the economy has stayed more or less stable, and second, Canadians on the whole are a lot more educated than they used to be.  This leads to a compositional paradox: even though all seven levels of education saw increases in the incidence of low-wages (see Figure below), overall the fraction of Canadians with low wage jobs dropped ever-so-slightly from 27.9% in 1997 to 27.6% in 2014.

ottsyd 20160721-1

Now you have to be careful about interpretation here, particularly with respect to charges of “over-education”.  Yes, the proportion of grads in low-wage jobs is going up.  But the average wage income of university graduates is actually increasing: between 1995 and 2010, it rose by 6% after inflation.  And that’s while the number of people in the labour force with a university degree increased by 94%, and the proportion of the labour force with a university degree jumped from 19.3% to 28.7% (I would break out data on Masters/PhD specifically if I could, but public Statscan data does not separate Bachelors from higher degrees). 

What that tells us is that the economy is creating a lot more high-paying jobs which are being filled by an ever-expanding number of graduates.  But at the same time, more graduates are in low-wage jobs, which suggests that while averages are increasing, so is variance around the mean.

Another factor at work here is immigration.  Since the mid-1990s, the number of immigrants over 25 with university degrees has increased from 815,000 (23.2% of all degree holders) to 1.87 million (33% of all degree holders).  It’s not clear how many of those have graduate degrees (thanks Statscan!) but I think it’s reasonable to assume, given the way our immigration points system works, that the proportion of immigrants with advanced degrees is even higher.

The problem is that immigrants with degrees – particularly more recent immigrants – have a really hard time in the Canadian labour market, particularly at the start (see a great Statscan paper on this here).  To some extent this is rational because the degrees and the skills they confer are genuinely not compatible (see my earlier post on this), and to some extent it reflects various forms of discrimination, but that’s not the point here.  There are over one million new immigrants with degrees over the past fifteen or so years, many of them from overseas institutions.  The CSLS-inspired freak-out is about the fact that over the past 17 years the number of degree-holders has increased by 450,000 (of which 130,000 are at the Master’s/PhD level).  Simple logic suggests that most of the problem people are seeing in the CSLS data is more about our inability to integrate educated immigrants than it is about declining returns to education among domestic students.  I know the data CSLS uses doesn’t allow them to look at the results by where a degree was earned, but I’d bet serious money this is the crux of the problem.

So, you know, chill everybody.  Canadian graduates still do OK in the end.  And remember that comparisons of educational outcomes over time that don’t control for immigration need to be taken with a grain of salt.

July 14

Brexit

Morning, all.

Everyone’s writing a Brexit thinkpiece these days.  Literally, everyone.  I’m feeling left out.  So here’s mine.

1) Brexit isn’t a foregone conclusion.  Yes, Leave won 52% of a non-binding referendum based on a pack of lies about the results of future negotiations that would make the PQ blush.  But the UK government has yet to invoke Article 50, the clause in the EU constitution that signals a 2-year countdown to departure, and will certainly not do so until a new PM is chosen.They may not do so until after the French and German elections next year, and as the realities of negotiating a divorce sink in they may never do so (and – irony of ironies, there are not enough trade lawyers in the UK to negotiate such deals, so they are having to import them ) .  Even if they do start negotiations, the final settlement may be so far from the Leave fairytale that there would almost certainly be a huge demand for a second referendum before ratification.  So all this handwringing may be for naught.

2) Even if Brexit doesn’t happen, this episode can cause a lot of damage.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Erasmus student mobility program yet, but with racist incidents up 500% since the vote, you can bet there will fewer European students thinking London is a place they’ll feel secure.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Horizon 2020 European research scheme yet, but multi-national scientific teams have been pulling UK researchers’ names from their proposals in anticipation of Brexit.  And the idea that the UK will make up for the drop in funding?  Good luck with that.  Paradoxically, the longer the uncertainty about Brexit, the less likely the UK will actually pull the trigger; but conversely, the longer they wait, the greater the damage will be.

3) What will happen to International student flows?  Now this is where it gets tricky.  A lot of the focus right now is on EU students, and the fear that they won’t come to the UK because they will have to pay international student fees instead of domestic ones.  But domestic fees are already pretty high (and in humanities and social sciences are set well above the cost of delivery). If universities want to keep those students they could always grant concessionary fees to EU students and keep them paying exactly what they’re paying right now.  No, I think the real issue with EU students has to do with whether students still think the UK is a place they want to spend a part of their lives.  Lots of them now go assuming they can stay and work there: no more.  But it’s not clear that countries like Canada or Australia would be able to pick up on this loss.  If the point of going to London was because it was a “destination” rather than simply a chance to learn English, it’s not obvious that Melbourne or Toronto would be a satisfactory second choice.

It’s the same with non-EU students: you might think that there would be a lot of non-EU students who might be dissuaded from going either because of increasing incidence of racism or because London was no longer a way into the EU.  Since the Tories took power it’s been increasingly difficult for graduating students to immigrate anyway, so it’s unlikely to be the latter: Teresa May’s immigration saw that lot off years ago.  But the racism/intolerance thing?  That’s a vulnerability.

4) Can Canadian universities and colleges cash in on this?  Yes. Advertise a lot in Asian markets where UK currently does well.  Emphasize security and multiculturalism.  Talk about possibilities for immigration.  And do it fast, because odds are the Aussies are already there doing it.

Hope you’re all having a good summer.

June 16

Ciao for Now

So, this is my last blog for the academic year.  For the next couple of months, I may blog occasionally if something interesting happens (but to be honest it would have to be exceptionally interesting to get me writing); you can expect normal service to resume a week or two before Labour Day.

What to make of this past year?  At a campus level, I think the main story is about governance.  Partly it is a question of good governance procedures: a number of institutions are frankly behind the times when it comes to basic principles of openness (those of us who use institutional data could have told you about universities’ default setting on openness years ago, but whatevs).  That’s irritating but fixable.  What’s new is the claim from some quarters that universities are irredeemable until Board compositions are fixed so that Boards no longer have external appointees in the majority.

What people seem to have forgotten is that the alternative to external board majorities is direct micro-management by government.  The entire point of external Board majorities is to reassure government that faculty foxes are not guarding the henhouse of public funds.   They are the shield with which universities protect their autonomy vis-à-vis governments.  If they disappear, government would essentially have no choice but to micromanage institutional budgets and then we might as well become Malaysia or Romania.   Could external board members be chosen with greater care and given more training?  Sure.  Could they be replaced?  Nuh-uh.  But this simple political truth seems to elude many – so I expect more clashes along this faultline next year, too.

Nationally, the story of the year was pretty simple.  For many years now, post-secondary education has been winning at the federal level and losing at the provincial level.  This dichotomy intensified this year as a new government came to power in Ottawa which was not only open to dropping more money on the sector, but also actually willing to listen to the sector’s priorities before dropping said cash (both novel and welcome).  There’s no obvious reason why this story will change next year.  And while everyone for the moment is focused on the Innovation Policy Review (which I’m fairly sure will end up being industrial policy focused on IT and cleantech rather than actual innovation policy, but hope springs eternal), the real sleeper story for next fall is the Science Policy review and the possibility that some of our science-funding granting bodies may be merged.  This is welcome in principle, but the resulting turf wars should be epic.  Stay tuned.

On student aid, the mostly calamitous Ontario government got one thing deeply right with its revamp of student aid.  This particular type of “targeted universalism” is so smart that almost everyone is going to have to copy it soon.  But as New Brunswick’s misadventures in policy imitation  have shown, sometimes it’s better to slow down and have a think before jumping into things.  (To New Brunswick’s credit, their new Minister is re-thinking the policy and it’s expected the rougher edges of the policy will be smoothed off: good on the government for its willingness to take a second look) My guess: we’ll see at least one and maybe two more provinces adopt an Ontario-like system by next year – and that’s very good news.

In closing, I want to thank everyone for continuing to read this blog (even those of you who hate-read it) and especially those who write in to challenge me on what I’ve written.  I know I get things wrong all the time; I’m always grateful when people take the time to explain the error of my ways.  If you’re in Toronto this summer: let me buy you a beer.  And if not: just drop me a line anyway to let me know what you think of the blog and what I should be doing more/less of.  Feedback always welcome.

Have a great summer and see you all in late August.

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

Often, I think, I am seen as a bit of a downer on Canada.  It goes with the territory: my role in Canadian higher education is i) “the guy who knows what’s going on in other countries and ii) “the guy who pokes the bear”.  So frequently I ending up writing blogs saying why isn’t Canada doing X or wouldn’t it be great if we were more like Y, and people get the impression I’m down on the North.

Not true.  I think we have a pretty good system, one most of the world would envy if we could ever stop admiring our minute inter-provincial differences and explain our system properly.  Among OECD countries, we’re always in the top third of pretty much any higher education metric you want to use.  Never at the very top, but reasonably close.  It’s just that it’s not cheap, is all.  We’re never going to win any prizes for efficiency; countries like Israel, the Netherlands and Australia perform far better on those metrics.

But there is one area in which Canada does a fantastic job and doesn’t even realise it.  And that is the extent to which it has a strong culture of work-oriented higher education which is matched by few other countries.

Let’s start with our colleges and polytechnics, which for the most part deliver labour market-oriented professional education at a level known by UNESCO and OECD as “Type 5B” (bachelor’s degree programs are called “Type A”).  Among OECD countries only Japan and Korea do a greater proportion of young people have this kind of education.

Figure 1: Level 5 (post-secondary education) Attainment Rates of 25-34 year olds, Select OECD Countries

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We sometimes hear complaints from colleges and polytechnics about not getting enough respect, but the fact is, Canada has arguably the best-funded and most successful non-university post-secondary education system in the world.  We should say it, and celebrate it.

What about the university system, you say?  Well, the University of Cincinnati may have invented co-op education, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the University of Waterloo perfected it.  Last time I checked, they were arranging over 17,000 co-op experiences for students every year.  And institutions across the country have adopted the idea as well.  Personally, I think that’s a result of competition from our excellent college sector: it keeps universities on their toes.

 

And OK, it’s easy to scoff at university claims that 40% of students get some kind of work-integrated learning experience because so many of them are so short-term and of not-particularly high quality, and because at least a few universities seem to care more about classifying as things as possible as “experiential” than actually creating more such experiences: but so what?  The fact that we’re having the debate at all suggests we are on the right track.  And that’s a sight better than most other countries I could name.

Now, I know some of you are going to say “but Germany! Switzerland! Apprentices!”.  And there are some admirable things about those systems (though, as I have said before), Canadians deeply misunderstand what it is apprenticeships in Germany actually do).  Namely, they aren’t post-secondary in nature (note how low Germany’s Type B score is in the figure above); rather, they’re part of the secondary system and in many ways are designed to keep people out of the post-secondary system.  It’s hard to compare out system to theirs.

So, in sum: could we do more on experiential and work-integrated learning?  Of course we could (and should).  But stop and smell the roses: compared to most places, we do a pretty good job on this stuff.  And we should acknowledge that to ourselves even if, in true Canadian fashion, we’re a little reluctant to say so to anyone else.

June 14

Affordability of Higher Education in Canada and the United States

About a decade ago, my colleague Kim Steele and I did a comparison of the affordability of public higher education in all ten Canadian provinces and fifty US states. In general, Canadian provinces did not do well; yes, Canada has lower costs for students, but its student aid system is less generous and – this is worth remembering – Americans are wealthier than we are. And so, once you adjust costs and net costs for family purchasing power, it turned out there was a substantial affordability gap in Americans’ favour.However, things have changed a lot in the intervening decade. Tuition has increased at a faster pace in the US than in Canada, and while both countries have made improvements in student aid, the gap in median household incomes has narrowed substantially due to the severity of the recession in the US. And so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought it would be fun to re-run some of those comparisons. We’ll be publishing our full 60-jurisdiction report in the fall but it seemed like it would be fun to give you some top-level comparisons right now.

First, a brief methodological note on this comparison. We take six different measures of cost (see table below) and divide each of them by each nation’s median household income. We do this because affordability by definition is a function of a household’s ability to pay – simply comparing costs, which on their own are meaningless.

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Most of this data is easily available from various official sources (email me if you’re curious).  The exception is living costs because while Canada occasionally produces student income/expenditure surveys (we at HESA have done a few of these), Americans simply don’t.  Not on a national basis, anyways.  When you hear American student aid analysts talk about “cost of attendance”, what they’re referring to are institutional estimates of costs to live on- or off-campus which form the basis of student aid need assessment.  Sometimes these estimates make sense, sometimes they are batshit crazy (do read the New America Foundation’s recent series on this issue, available here. Regardless, they’re the only data we have.

In our 2006 paper, we used US figures for on-campus housing and in Canada we used results from an Ekos survey for living expenses.  Here’s how affordability stacked up then:

Figure 1: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2002-03 
fig1

American tuition and living costs were both 15-20% higher than Canadian ones, but once adjusted for household income they were roughly the same – education costs in both countries came out to 11% of median household income and total costs were 23-24%. Where the Americans had a real advantage was in loans: the ubiquity of loans meant that Americans were much less credit-constrained than Canadians and had to dig into their pockets much less in the short term. Result: on the most inclusive measures of affordability, Americans looked better than we did in 2002-03.

Now on to a more recent comparison, after a recession and many policy changes on both sides of the border. We’ve refined the US living cost data by using a weighted average of on-campus and off-campus housing costs, and to make the Canadian data more comparable we’ve chosen to use CSLP living cost estimates for Canada rather than actual survey data (nationally, the two are within 5% of one another, so it’s not a big change in practice). Here’s how the data looks for 2013-14:

Figure 2: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2013-14

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What happened? How does Canada now look so much more affordable? Well, not much on the income side; in fact US median household income grew slightly faster on the American side. But tuition grew a lot faster in the US than it did in Canada. So, interestingly, did American students’ living costs; in 2003 they were 18% higher than in Canada; now they are 86% higher. To some extent, the increase in US living costs is due to our methodological change of including off-campus housing costs. That said, US cost of attendance is truly rising quickly for reasons which are not entirely clear.

Some policy measures have kicked in to offset these rises. Grant dollars per student in the US have risen by over 170% in the past decade, and loans per student have risen 64%. Both these figures far outstrip the equivalent figures in Canada. But it’s not enough to close the widening cost gap. On the most inclusive measure of affordability – out-of-pocket costs after tax expenditures – Canadian families must spend 11.9% of median household income (compared to 13.1% a decade ago) while Americans must spend 20.8%, up from just 9.7% a decade ago.

Plenty of food for thought – on both sides of the border.

June 13

A Marginally Less Mediocre Set of Provincial Budgets

So, it’s that time of year when I bring you the round-up of what’s happened in provincial budgets over the past few months. Usually, when I do this, I look both at student financial aid and transfers to institutions; this time, I’m going to skip the student financial aid stuff because there’s essentially no change (rock steady since 2013 at around $2.35 billion in constant dollar terms).

One thing that happens a lot when you look closely at budget estimates is that it’s surprising how often what’s actually in the budgets doesn’t actually match how they are described in news reports. For instance, this year it was widely reported that post-secondary institutions in Newfoundland got the chop – but according to budget papers their operating budgets are essentially unchanged from last year (though capital budgets have been cut by $5 million). On the other end, the Alberta NDP was widely applauded for major new investments in higher education but as near as I can tell, this year’s operating transfers are only 3% (in real dollars) ahead of where they were two years ago (though capital funding is way up). That doesn’t mean that the alternative narratives are wrong; I’m looking at big-picture all-inclusive province-wide transfer data; there are other ways of slicing the data which get you quite different results. But its’ worth keeping in mind that the pictures that governments and institutions see are not always the same.

Anyways, here are the year-on-year changes in provincial PSE budgets, in constant dollars:

Figure 1: Year-on-year change in inflation-adjusted transfers to post-secondary institutions, 2015-16 to 2016-17, by province

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Four provinces saw a decline in both real and nominal dollars: Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Of these, two (NL, SK) saw cuts land disproportionately on the capital side. In New Brunswick, a couple of weeks after the budget, the government announced a one-off increase in funding from some weird new innovation/growth slush-fund-y kind of thing which generally has me a bit perplexed; however, because these comparisons are for reasons of comparability budget-to-budget, I have not included this here (they will presumably show up in higher baselines in next year’s comparison. British Columbia and Nova Scotia both increased expenditures, but by slightly less than inflation.

Quebec’s budget increase was slightly (0.18%) larger than inflation. Ontario’s increase was 0.8% but this was entirely due to a bump in capital spending – if we focused on operating dollars alone Ontario would show a slight decline. Manitoba’s new Progressive Conservative government increased spending on higher education of 1.75%; that’s slightly less than what the departing New Democrats had promised but still second-best in the country (don’t get comfortable; the budget cuts are coming next year). Alberta saw a stonking increase of nearly 11% in real dollars but roughly two-thirds of the growth in spending there comes from higher capital expenditures; like the federal government, Alberta has gone big on campus construction as a recession-antidote. With respect to the rest of the increase, some of it actually seems to stem from measures adopted in the previous fiscal year but only actually spent in this fiscal (Alberta, recall, had a weird budget cycle last year which saw the budget only adopted in October).

So the good news is that there was an increase in government expenditures nationally, but how big an increase is a matter of interpretation. If you include capital spending (as I do here), then nationally we had an increase of $375 million, or a just under 1.6%. However, very little of that is going into capital expenditures; take out the changes as one can discern in capital funding (not all provinces break it out clearly in their estimates) then the increase falls to less than $100 million, or less than half of a percentage point.

Over the last five years, what we see is a 3.1% decline in total transfers to institutions, as shown below:

Figure 2: Total Provincial Transfers to Post-secondary Institutions, 2011-12 to 2016-17, in constant 2016$

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Now, it’s important to keep these numbers in perspective. There are a lot of countries where institutions have got hit a lot worse. And of course, our institutions are able to offset losses in public funding by raising tuition (a bit), adding students and taking in more full-fee paying international student – paths not always open to institutions elsewhere.

But on the other hand, bear in mind that system-wide our costs are rising by 3% a year after inflation. Something, eventually, is going to have to give.

June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.

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