Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

November 22

Higher Salaries + Lower Workloads = More Sessionals

On Sunday night, the University of Manitoba and its faculty union hashed out a tentative deal to end a three-week strike.  No details are publicly available yet, but I think the dispute – and the likely strategies used to resolve it – are a useful way of understanding some general concepts around the economics of universities in Canada.

Directly or indirectly, institutions get their operating funds from having students sit in classrooms.  Tuition fees are directly related to credit hours and government operating grants are usually at least indirectly related to them.  One might question this in a place like Manitoba, where there is no actual funding formula and money is just handed out as a block on a historical basis, but as I showed back here the distribution of funding between Manitoba institutions actually looks almost exactly like it would if the province were using a weighted enrollment formula system like Quebec’s or Ontario’s.  So we can more or less dispense with that argument and make the simple equation “bums in seats” = revenue.

The main issues at play in the Manitoba dispute were related to salaries (faculty want more) and workload (faculty would like to limit management’s ability to increase it).  Now, if you want a big rise in pay, the university needs to find revenue to compensate.  In general, the way Canadian universities have been meeting faculty pay demands over the last six years or so is to raise enrollment, in particular international student enrollment, because it usually brings in more dollars per student.  On the whole, they’ve been reasonably successful at doing so. But the other faculty demand – maintained or reduced workloads – makes this a difficult trick to pull off.  Even if you fully accept the logic behind reducing workloads, the fact that revenue is a function of bums in seats means that faculty’s two goals are essentially incompatible.  Effectively, what is being demanded is that the university spend more and earn less.

Absent a major tuition increase, there are only two ways to square this circle.  The first, which the faculty association likes to talk about at great length is that the university can afford to do both because there are millions of dollars being salted away in various nefarious ways (which for the most part is nonsense because what on earth so senior administrators possibly have to gain by not spending money?) or, frivolously spent on fixing buildings or that old favourite “administrative bloat”.  While it’s certainly true some non-academic expenses have been rising, an awful lot of those increases have been concentrated in areas like IT and student services rather than everyone’s favourite bogeyman of “central administration”.  Undoubtedly some savings could be found in these places and diverted to faculty salaries, but they would be unlikely to do the trick entirely.  According to data from the Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC), the U of M’s entire “academic salaries” budget was just over $158 million in 2014-15; a 6.9% increase would mean an $11 million hit just in salaries plus another $2 million (roughly) in benefits.  In contrast, the entire budget for salaries in central administration is $22 million.

The second way of dealing with the problem is to allow faculty salaries to rise while simultaneously lowering the average cost of instructors.  A contradiction in terms?  Well, no.  All one has to do is hire more sessionals.  Since they are remunerated at – effectively –about a quarter of the rate of a full-time professor  it’s possible to both increase bums in seats (i.e. revenue) and keep the increase in average instructional costs to well below 6.9%.

I obviously don’t know what’s in the agreement reached Sunday night and there’s not going to be anything in the agreement which explicitly says “let’s go hire more sessionals”.  But it’s implicit in the logic of the faculty’s demands.  Universities don’t like to admit this is how they deal with faculty pay hikes because they are wary of charges of “cheapening” undergraduate education, and faculty unions don’t like to admit this is what happens because GOD FORBID their pay demands have negative externalities.  Still, both sides know exactly how this process works and neither side can claim the least bit of innocence in the process.

It’s the way the game is played.

November 21

The “Poorly Educated” and the US Election

Morning all.  Hope you’ve been well.

During the US election and its aftermath, a lot of the discussion has focused on the issue of education.  Specifically, many pollsters noted large shifts in favour of the democrats among college-educated whites and even larger shifts rightward from less-educated whites.  Trump’s statement in June that he “love(d) the poorly-educated” was in retrospect quite significant.  From this, many on the left have deduced that “education is more important than ever”, a statement which is almost perfectly calculated to feed every piece of Republican paranoia about leftist indoctrination (and hence likely to make higher education a real target in the 25 states where the Republicans control both houses and the Governor’s mansion).

But I think there’s an important caveat to the education story.  Check out the map from NYT’s excellent The Upshot, which shows in green the counties which showed the biggest democrat-to-republican shift between 2012 to 2016.


If there was an education issue at work here, it was a pretty particular one – one which seems to have manifested itself mostly around the Great Lakes.  It’s the rust-belt, more or less.  Places where the economy has been in either relative or absolute decline for 50 years or more.  It’s not about trade deals; think back to movies set in this area from the 1970s like Slapshot or Breaking Away.  When this area complains about the economy, it has little to do with Obama’s policies or even trade deals. These places were already in deep trouble long before anyone even dreamed of NAFTA. This is about communities that have been falling apart for 50 years.

In the region’s glory days, it was one of the wealthiest regions of the entire globe.  And during that period, it had an unbelievably low education-to-wealth ratio; maybe the lowest of any place in the world, at any time.  Higher Education?  Who needed it, when well-playing manufacturing jobs were a dime a dozen.  Human capital was for suckers.  And that, unfortunately, is an attitude which has endured.

Times changed, of course.  Underinvestment in capital put paid to the steel industry, titanic incompetence the auto industry, while energy costs reduced the competitiveness of pretty much every other sector.  Result: de-industrialization.  There’s nothing unique about this process.  It’s happened in many places around the world Flanders, Lancashire, Eastern Germany.  What’s unique about the US rust belt is mostly how rich it was before the fall.

There was a lot of post-election commentary about how the Rust Belt’s swing to Trump was really a way of saying “we’re upset because no one listens to us” but that’s not strictly speaking true.  People listen.  It’s just that literally no one knows how to effectively reverse de-industrialization.  Americans have it worse because for a variety of reasons (most of them rooted in racism) they lack much in the way of a social safety net.  And as American scholar Toney Carnevale is fond of saying, when a country lacks social programs, education actually becomes the safety net.

But there’s a problem with that.  In declining economies, education is no guarantee of a job because hiring is low.  So the ones with education leave (to California, say, or New York) leaving the remaining population with lower average skill levels, thus making economic regeneration even harder.  People come to see education as a vehicle for personal salvation, but also potentially as an agent of community destruction because while they are creating human capital, they are also priming it for export.  I’m sure many readers in Atlantic Canada will know that feeling.

And to top it off, you have to remember that what people in the area really liked about the old days wasn’t just the middle-class jobs, but the fact that mental toil wasn’t necessary.  JD Vance, in his recent book Hillbilly Elegy (this fall’s de rigeur read for those wanting to “get” Trump voters) notes with some sorrow that the people of his home communities in Ohio and Kentucky lack much in the way of desire for self-improvement through education.  “We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study as parents,” he says. “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up”.  That awakening may happen, but it didn’t on November 8th.  In the key states that swung the election, Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” was taken up by the people with the subtext “We Want Jobs That Don’t Require College Again”.

In short: more education, on its own, won’t solve the problems of de-industrialization.  And even if that weren’t true, it’s not clear that more education is a medicine everyone wants to take.

November 11

The New WSJ/Times Higher Education Rankings

Almost the moment I hit send on my last post about rankings, the inaugural Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings of US universities hit the stands.  It didn’t make a huge splash mainly because the WSJ inexplicably decided to put the results behind their paywall (which is, you know, BANANAS) but it’s worth looking at because I think in many ways it points the way to the future of rankings in many countries.

So the main idea behind these rankings is to try to do something different from the US News & World Report (USNWR) rankings which are a lot like Maclean’s rankings (hardly a surprise since the latter was explicitly modelled on the former back in 1991).  In part, the WSJ/THE went down the same road that Money Magazine went in terms of looking at output data: graduate outcomes like earnings and indebtedness, except that they were able to exploit the huge new database of institutional-level data on these things that the Obama administration.  In addition to that, they went a little bit further and created their own student survey to get evidence about student satisfaction and engagement.

Now this last thing may seem like old hat in Canada: after all, the Globe and Mail ran a rankings based on student surveys from 2003 to 2012 (we at HESA were involved from 2006 onwards and ran the survey directly for the last couple of years).  It’s also old hat in Europe, where a high proportion of rankings depend at least in part on student surveys.  But in the US, it’s an absolute novelty.  Surveys usually require institutional co-operation, and organizing this among more than a thousand institutions simply isn’t easy:  “top” institutions would refuse to participate, just as they won’t do CLA, NSSE, AHELO or any measurement system which doesn’t privilege money.

So what the Times Higher team did was effectively what the Globe did in Canada thirteen years ago: find students online, independent of their institutions, and survey them there.  The downside is that the minimum number of responses per institution is quite low (50, compared with the 210 we used to use at the Globe); the very big upside is that students’ voices are being heard and we get some data about engagement.  The result was more or less what you’d expect from the Canadian data: smaller colleges and religious institutions tend to do extremely well on engagement measures (the top three for Engagement were Dordt College, Brigham Young and Texas Christian).

So, I give the THE/WSJ effort high marks for effort here.  Sure, there are problems with the data.  The “n” is low and the resulting number have big error margins.  The income figures are only for those who have student loans and includes both those who graduated and those who did not.  But it’s still a genuine attempt to shift rankings away from inputs and towards processes and outputs.

The problem?  It’s still the same institutions coming in at the top.  Stanford, MIT. Columbia, Penn, Yale…heck, you don’t even hit a public institution (Michigan) until 24th position.  Even when you add all this process and outcome stuff, it’s still the rich schools that dominate.  And the reason for this is pretty simple: rich universities can stay relatively small (giving them an advantage on engagement) and take their pick of students who then tend to have better outcomes.  Just because you’re not weighting resources at 100% of the ranking doesn’t mean you’re not weighting items strongly correlated to resources at 100%.

Is there a way around this?  Yes, two, but neither is particularly easy.  The first is to use some seriously contrarian indicators.  The annual Washington Monthly rankings  does this, measuring things like percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, student participation in community service, etc.  The other way to do this is to use indicators similar to those used by THE/WSJ, but to normalize them based on inputs like income and incoming SATs.  The latter is relatively easy to do in the sense that the data already (mostly) exists in the public, but frankly there’s no market.  Sure, wonks might like to know about which institutions perform best on some kind of value-added measure, but parents are profoundly uninterested in this.  Given a choice between sending their kids to a school that efficiently gets kids from the 25th percentile up to the 75th percentile and sending their kid to a school with top students and lots of resources, finances permitting they’re going to take the latter every time.  In other words, this is a problem, but it’s a problem much bigger than these particular rankings.

My biggest quibble with these rankings?  WSJ inexplicably put them behind a paywall, which did much to kill the buzz.  After a lag of three weeks, THE made them public too, but too little too late.  A missed opportunity.  But still, they point the way to the future, because a growing number of national-level rankings are starting to pay attention to outcomes (American rankings remarkably are not pioneers here: in fact, the Bulgarian National Rankings  got there several years ago, and with much better data).  Unfortunately, because these kinds of outcomes data are not available everywhere and are not entirely compatible even where they are, we aren’t going to see these data sources inform international rankings any time soon.  Which is why, mark my words, literally all the interesting work in rankings over the next couple of years is going to happen in national rankings, not international ones.

November 10

Measuring Innovation

Yesterday, I described how the key sources of institutional prestige were beginning to shift away from pure research & publication towards research & collaboration with industry.  Or, to put it another way, the kudos now come not from solely doing research, but rather in participating in the process of turning discoveries into meaningful and commercially viable products.  Innovation, in other words (though that term is not unproblematic).  But while we all have a pretty good grasp on the various ways to measure research output, figuring out how to measure an institutions’ performance in terms of innovation is a bit trickier.  So today I want to look at a couple of emerging attempts to do just that.

First out of the gate in this area is Reuters, which has already published two editions of a “top 100 innovative universities” list.  The top three won’t surprise anyone (Stanford, MIT, Harvard) but the next three – Texas, Washington and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology – might:  it’s a sign at least that some non-traditional indicators are being put in the mix. (Obligatory CanCon section: UBC 50th, Toronto 57th and that’s all she wrote.)

So what is Reuters actually measuring?  Mostly, it’s patents.  Patents filed, Success rates of patents filed, percentage of patents for which coverage was sought in all three of the main patent offices (US, Europe, japan), patent citations, patent citation impact…you get the idea.  It’s a pretty one-dimensional view of innovation.  The bibliometric bits are slightly more interesting – percent of articles co-written with industry partners, citations in articles originating in industry – but that maybe gets you to one and a half dimensions, tops.

Meanwhile, the THE may be inching towards an innovation ranking.  Last year, it released a set of four “innovation indicators”, but only published the top 15 in each indicator (and included some institutions not usually thought of as universities in the list, such as “Wright-Patterson Airforce Base”, the Scripps Research Institute” and the “Danish Cancer Society”) which suggests this was a pretty quick rip-and-grab from the Scopus database rather than a long, thoughtful detailed inquiry into the subject.  Two of the four indicators, “resources from industry” and “industry contribution” (i.e. resources from industry as a percentage of total research budget), are based on data from the THE’s annual survey of institutions and while they may be reasonable indicators of innovation, for reasons I pointed out back here, you should intensely distrust the data.  The other two indicators are both bibliometric:  “patent citations” and “industry collaboration” (i.e. co-authorships).  On the whole, THE’s effort is slightly better than Reuters’, but is still quite narrow.

The problem is that the ways in which universities support innovation in an economic sense are really tough to measure.  One might think that counting spin-offs would be possible, but the definition of a spin-off might vary quite a bit from place to place (and it’s tough to know if you’ve caught 100% of said activity).  Co-working space (that is space where firms and institutions interact) would be another way to measure things, but it’s also very difficult to capture.  Economic activity in university tech parks is another, but not all economic activity in tech parks are necessarily university- or even science-based (this is an issue in China and many developing countries as well).  The number of students engaged in firm-based work-integrated learning (WIL) activities would be great but a) there is no common international definition of WIL and b) almost no one measures this anyway.  Income from patent licensing is easily obtainable in some countries but not others.

What you’d really want, frankly, is a summary of unvarnished opinions about the quality of industry partnerships with the businesses themselves, perhaps weighted by the size of the businesses involved (an 8 out of 10 at Yale probably means more than a 9 out of 10 at Bowling Green State).  We can get these at a national level through the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness survey, but not at an institutional level, which is presumably more important.  And that’s to say nothing of the value of finding ways to measure the various ways in which institutions support innovation in ways other than through industry collaboration.

Anyways, these problems are not insoluble.  They just take imagination and work.  If I were in charge of metrics in Ontario, say, I could think of many ways – some quantitative, some qualitative – that we might use to evaluate this.  Not many of them would translate easily into international comparisons.  For that to happen would require a genuine international common data set to emerge.  That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, but that’s no reason to throw up our hands.  It would be unimaginably bad if, at the outset of an era where institutions are judged on their ability to be economic collaborators, we allow patent counts to become the standard way of measuring success.  It’s vitally important that thoughtful people in higher education put some thought into this topic.

November 09

A Second Thought About Half-Way Through A Pretty Awful Day

Forgive the intrusion.  But our neighbour to the South electing a quasi-fascist narcissist isn’t an every day occasion.  There are some significant short-term consequences for Canadian higher education, and I thought I would just quickly enumerate them so that debate and preparation can begin.

First, the chances of a recession in the next couple of years just shot up quite a bit.  Tearing up NAFTA also means tearing up the FTA: there will be a pause in business investment while everyone works out what on earth the new rules are going to be.  Other forms of protectionist legislation, even if not aimed at us, has the potential to wreak serious havoc as well.  Unlike previous recessions, interest rate cuts cannot be part of our policy arsenal as they are already near-zero.  To some people’s minds, that calls for massive Keynesian borrowing-and-spending.  But as we’ve already seen with the first round of Trudeau spending, it’s not at all clear that the intended multiplier effects work very well in a small open economy.  Long story short: provincial governments were never likely to be flush enough to grants serious relief to universities and colleges any time soon, but yesterday’s vote made such prospects even more remote.

Second, the forecast demand for Canada as an international education destination just went Through. The. Roof.  Already earlier this week, the annual i-barometer global survey of education agents named Canada the #1 “hot” destination for students.  But now, with a President-elect who degrades women, despises Hispanic and Muslims and openly consorts with anti-semites, there’s going to be a huge diversion of interest away from the United States and (since the UK has already hung out a huge “Sod Off” sign on its window), this diversion is be headed towards exactly three places: New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.  One recent study suggested fully 65% of international students would be less likely to study in the US if Trump were elected.  Even if that over-states the case by a factor of two, we’re talking about a couple of hundred thousand internationally mobile students up for grabs.  Not to mention the almost-certain increase in the number of Americans heading North.

That has a couple of implications.  The main one is that Canadian universities are about to get more pricing power:  No more being the discount end of North American higher education.  But we have to up our game significantly.  We have to have real presence – not just agents – in major export markets.  And we have to up the student experience international students receive as well.   There are significant opportunities here: but also some potential significant costs.  There’s no time like now to have a really thorough debate about internationalization on our campuses.

Third, while I have been impressed by how by some prominent Americans (Jonathan Chait, Lin-Manuel Miranda) are coming out strongly this AM saying (correctly) “Screw moving to Canada, we need to stay and fight”, the fact of the matter is there are going to be a lot of faculty wanting to head north and a lot fewer of our own professors wanting to head south.  Universities will have a much better set of potential hires in front of them for the next couple of years.  This is great news: but we should try not to squander this opportunity the way we squandered the post-2008 rush north.  We can and should use the opportunity to poach selectively; but perhaps not break the bank on salaries while doing so.

(Also: I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be hearing about brain drain and the loss of talent to the US for awhile, so it’s an opportunity as well to re-calibrate some of our arguments about education and the labour market).

So the net effect here for Canadian institutions over the medium-term: less government money, more opportunities in international education, and thicker academic labour markets.  On balance, it’s probably more good news than bad, provided we act deliberately and rapidly while ensuring that these moves have wide buy-ins on our campuses.

But beyond the simple dollars and cents of it all, there are deeper issues.  A monster has become President of the United States.  Misery is going to fall upon the American people for the next two years if not four: on Blacks, immigrants, women, LGBTQs.  We all know people down there, know what they must be feeling today, and our hearts ache for them.  We need to show solidarity with them whenever we can.  But we also need to be vigilant here in Canada.  We are not immune to nativism and intolerance.

Last night around 11 PM Dalhousie President Richard Florizone tweeted “When voices of intolerance are loudest don’t be despondent – be emboldened, and even more committed to values of diversity & inclusion.” And that’s exactly right.   We have to work – and work hard – at these things and for fairness, every day.  In the end, that kind hard work is all that ever makes a difference.

November 09

Shifting Sources of Prestige

The currency of academia is prestige.  Professors try to increase theirs by publishing better and better papers, giving talks at conferences and so on.  Becoming more prestigious means offers to co-author with a more illustrious class of academics, increasing the chance of book deals at better university presses, etc.  And at the institutional level, universities become more prestigious by being able to attract and nurture a more prestigious group of professors, something which is done by lavishing them with higher salaries, more research funds, better equipment, better graduate students (and to a lesser degree undergraduate students too).  All this has been clear for a long time.

In any given field, we might know which ten or twenty people are at the top globally – Nobel Prize winners for instance (speaking of which, this Freakonomics podcast on How to Win a Nobel Prize is hugely informative and entertaining on the how the Swedish committees decide who really is “top of the field”).  But after that it is pretty hazy: one’s list of the top twenty health researchers who have yet to win the Nobel for Medicine probably depends a lot on what sub-field you’re in and how you evaluate the last decade’s relative progress in various other subfields.  Same with universities before rankings came along.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Toronto, McGill and UBC are the top three in Canada.  But after that it gets fuzzy.  If you were in Medicine, you might think number four was McMaster; in Engineering Waterloo and in Arts Montreal or Alberta.

Then along came large bibliometric databases, and shortly thereafter, rankings.  And then we knew how to measure prestige.  We did it by measuring publications, citations, and whatnot: the more, the better.  Universities began managing towards this metric, which built on longstanding trends in most disciplines towards more demanding publication requirements for tenure (the first known use of the phrase “publish or perish” dates from 1942).  Want prestige?  Research. Publish.  Repeat.

But I get the real sense that this starting to change, for universities if not individual professors.  I can’t provide much strong evidence here: you won’t see the change in the usual rankings because they are hardwired for old definitions of prestige.  Nevertheless, if you look around at which universities are “hot”, and receive the acclaim, it’s not necessarily the ones who are doing the publishing; rather, it’s the ones that are actively contributing to the dynamism of their local economies.  MIT’s gradual overtaking of Harvard is one example of this.  But so too is the fuss over institutions like SUNY Albany and its associated nanotech cluster, Akron and its Advanced materials cluster.  In Canada, the obvious example is Waterloo but even here in Toronto, Ryerson has become a “hot” university in part because of its focus on interacting with business in a couple of key areas such as tech (albeit in quite a different way from Waterloo).

To be clear, it’s not a case of publishing v. working with industry.  Generally speaking, companies like to know that the people they are working with are in fact at the front of their fields; no publishing, no partnership.  But it’s more of a general orientation: increasingly, the prestigious universities are the ones who not only have a concentration of science and engineering talent, but also have a sufficiently outward focus to act as an anchoring institution to one or more industrial clusters.

What’s interesting about this trend is that it has some clear winners and losers.   To even have a hope of working in an industrial centre, you need to be in a mid-size city which already has some industry (even if, as in Akron’s case, it’s down in the dumps).  That works for Canada, because (Queen’s excepted) nearly all our big and prestigious universities are in mid-sized or large cities.  In the US, however, it’s more difficult.  Their universities are often older, built in a time where people believed universities were better-off situated away from the “sinful” cities.  And so you have big, huge research institutions in places like Champaign, Illinois or Columbia Missouri which are going to struggle in this new environment (even places like Madison and Ann Arbour are far enough away from big cities to make thing problematic).  Basically, the Morrill Act is now imposing some pretty serious legacy costs on American higher education.

Part of the reason this shift hasn’t been more widely acknowledged is that bibliometrics are a whole lot easier to measure than economic value (and are valued more in tenure discussions).  But some people are starting to have a go at this problem, too.  More on this tomorrow.

November 08

Why I Do This Stuff

It’s Election Day in the America.  It’s a day that always make me think about how I got into this business.

Back in 1992, I was trying to stay out of a godawful job market by doing a Q-year in Economics at McGill (ended disastrously: don’t ask).  On November 2nd, I was sitting with some friends in the Shatner Building reading a New York Times story about the celebrations being planned in Little Rock for the next evening.  It was clearly going to be the biggest party in North America that week.  So we decided to go.

Some local car rental company had unwisely signed a deal with the student’s union offering any club a 3-day rental for $150, so seven of us (mostly from The Tribune) jumped into a Chevy Astrovan at 5 o’clock Monday afternoon and drove 23 hours straight from Montreal to Little Rock.  We had a good time while there (I managed to blag my way into a temporary press pass which – with a little help from a local laminating shop – became my ticket to hang out in the basement of the Excelsior Hotel following Wolf Blitzer around listening to him bullshit with other reporters).  But for me, the real event of that trip happened the next morning.

We left Little Rock at midnight, needing to get home so some of us could take midterms on Thursday. At about 7AM, we pulled into a McDonald’s near Champaign, Illinois.  By this time, none of us had really bathed or slept properly in about 48 hours and six of the seven of us were smokers (a fairly representative percentage in Montreal in the early 90s), so there was a kind of blue haze that followed us out of the van as we trudged into a nearly-empty restaurant for some coffee and McMuffins.

“You all look like crap,” said the woman behind the counter (note: she did not say “crap”, she used a different word).  We gave her the back story on our trek, and told her that we were coming back from Little Rock.

Somewhat to our bemusement, the woman began to cry.  “You saw the President?”  At first I thought this was just an exaggerated expression of royal-like deference American sometimes display towards the Commander-in-Chief.  But no.  She recovered slightly and said “Mr. Clinton is our President and my boy is going to go to college”.

So that was it.  Amidst all the back and forth of the campaign: Gennifer Flowers, The Comeback Kid, Ross Perot jumping in, Sister Souljah, Double Bubba, Ross Perot leaving, Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle’s spelling ability, Ross Perot coming back in again, “it’s the economy, stupid”….the main thing this woman had keyed in on was that Clinton was determined to expand access through a “Domestic G.I. Bill” higher education by letting all students either a) borrow via an income-contingent loan or b) do national service  (that never quite happened, though Clinton did manage to introduce both an income-contingent loan repayment option and Americorps).

The fact that we’d been near the man who was going to make this happen was just a bit overwhelming for her.  And that made a big impression on me.  Among those who have degrees, there’s often a world-weary cynical pose about higher education “not being worth it” – devalued degrees, crippling student debt, etc.  But to a family who’s never had someone attend post-secondary, and that moment when they realise they can go is something magical.  They’re not foolish enough to think that going to university or college means but they do know for sure – rightly – that going to higher education is by far the best way to get step up to the middle class.  And if you aren’t already in the middle class, that’s a Big Deal.  Something worth devoting a career to, anyway.

And that – in part – is how a visit to an Illinois McDonald’s 24 years ago got me studying student aid and from there, higher education generally.  And why every four years I think about that morning, and that woman, and wonder whether her son succeeded in college or not.  I really wonder.

November 07

Student Living Standards

Last month, a group called Meal Exchange, an inter-university student anti-hunger group, in collaboration with the Ryerson School of Social Work, published an interesting paper called Hungry for Knowledge: Assessing the Prevalence of Student Food Insecurity on Five Canadian Campuses.  People are mostly drawing the wrong conclusions from it, but it’s worth examining nonetheless.

Meal Exchange surveyed 4500 students at five campus across Canada using a battery of questions on food purchase & consumption identical to those used in Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey.  These questions, and the percentage answering “yes” to each are shown below.


Question % Yes
I/we worried whether my/our food would run out before I got money to buy more 37.7%
The food that I/we bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to buy more 28.4%
I/we couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals 44.4%
I/we regularly relied on a few low-cost foods in order to avoid running out of money to buy food 58.0%
I skipped meals because there wasn’t enough money to buy food 27.4%
I/we did not eat for the whole day because there was not enough money to buy food 11.0%


On the basis of these questions, the authors ascribe each respondent a food security score.  If they answered positively to one or fewer of the six questions they are considered “food secure”, from 2-4 they are “moderately food insecure” and 5 or more means “food insecure”.  This is similar to the method Statistics Canada uses for its calculations of food security.  Based on these results, Meal Exchange determined that 61% of students were food insecure, 8.3% had severe food insecure and 30.7% had “moderate food insecurity”.

Now, the most important thing to note here is that the survey sample isn’t even vaguely scientific.  Students were recruited “via social media advertising, institutional survey committees, student associations, university health promotion departments and paper fliers distributed across Canada” – or, in simpler terms, “anyone they could find”.  Even the authors concede this may overstate the number of food insecure students. But leave that aside for a moment. Assume the numbers are right.  What do they mean?

Well, in some ways they arguably understate the issue.  Something like 40% of undergraduates live at home with their parents.  It is unlikely that very many of them are experiencing food insecurity.  The problem, such as it is, is concentrated in the 60% or so of students who live away from home.  That implies that something close to 2/3 of students living away from home are, broadly-speaking, food-insecure.

If that sounds a bit off to you, it’s probably because in fact the definition of “moderate” food insecurity is pretty expansive.  If you answer yes to the questions not eating balanced meals and relying on low-cost food (e.g. pasta, ramen), that makes you “food insecure” according to the study.  And while that might make sense for the majority of Canadians, it’s trickier for students.  For most of them simply leaving home means they have less access to nutritious food because mom and dad aren’t doing the shopping anymore.  That doesn’t actually mean they are malnourished or “can barely afford to eat” (as this quite disastrous Vice headline implied.  “Moderate food insecurity” as Statistics Canada defines it is basically just another way of measuring low-income status and doesn’t indicate hunger in a sense most people would recognize.

The fact that most students are low-income isn’t (or shouldn’t be) news. Check out the Canada Student Loans Program’s monthly living allowances:  these differ by province, but range between $968 (New Brunswick) and $1,408 (British Columbia) per month.  Now compare these amounts to the various Statscan measures of low-income status.  There’s the Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO), which is $1,420 per month in cities between 100-500K population and $1,680 for larger cities; the Low-Income Measure (LIM), which is about $1,737 per month, and the Market-based Measure (MBM) which varies by city, but tends to run between about $1,600 and $1,800.  Take any measure of student expenditure you want, there simply aren’t that many students living on their own who are spending more than that.  They’re low-income.  Period.

And Canadians for the most part are OK with that.  Our income-support programs are not designed to take people out of low-income status.  And with respect to students specifically (traditional-aged ones anyway), we don’t really believe they deserve to be particularly comfortable.  Call it “paying your dues” or whatever, but our view of how students are supposed to live is pretty ingrained.  They’re supposed to be studying so they should live simply; they’ll make money (good money, for the most part) soon enough.  And for a significant proportion of students – not all by any means, but a healthy percentage – there is a certain “Common People” aspect to their poverty: “if you called your dad he could stop it all” – J. Cocker.  Though they are living away from home, many have the option of improving their standard of living and food security simply by moving back in with their parents.  For these students, government intervention beyond what is already available is for the most part simply not required.

Now, predictably, the usual suspects are pushing the idea that 39% of students are “food insecure” (that is, they are combining the “severe” and “moderately” categories and calling them all “insecure”).  But that’s just the usual chicanery one expects from lobby groups: saying 40% are food insecure makes it sound like there’s some kind of major public health crisis rather than the same old story about students having low incomes.  And that’s a shame because the real story isn’t the re-packaging of low-income as food insecure – it’s the 8% of respondents who have severe food insecurity.

Even if that number is on the high side (and my guess based on our previous research on this subject we’ve conducted at HESA  is that it’s not wildly out of line), it’s still very worrying.  There really are students – mostly older, many with families – who don’t eat for 24 hours at a time, who really do have to choose between spending on food and spending on medicine or shelter, and don’t have other family resources to fall back on.  We don’t do a good job of identifying these students, and we clearly don’t do a very good job of supporting them.  These are the ones we really need to help, and urgently so.

Bref, ignore the sensational headlines suggesting widespread hunger.  Focus on the smaller but more important numbers which really do indicate that we have a problem.

November 04

Offshore Medical Schools

One of the most interesting (to me, anyways) facets of international higher education is the phenomenon of international medical schools.

In North America, we associate these exclusively with medical schools in the Caribbean.  These mainly for-profit institutions have little research capacity and mainly teach students who are unable to get into mainstream domestic institution (they were most famously satirized in Doonesbury, when the famously dissolute Duke went to Port-au-Prince to open the Baby Doc School of Offshore Medicine in Port-au-Prince).  There’s St. George’s University in Grenada (whose residents famously needed rescuing by Marines in 1983), the Medical University of the Americas in Nevis, Caribbean Medical University in Curacao.  The one which advertises most aggressively in Canada, is Ross University, located in Dominica, which is owned by DeVry.

Most people get sniffy when they hear about this.  Typical American neo-liberal set-up, they say.  But the thing is this kind of offshore arrangement is increasingly common around the world.  For instance, Germans have a whole range of offshore medical school options.  It’s just that they are located in Hungary rather than the Caribbean.  Seeing the excess demand for medical school places in Germany, a clutch of Hungarian universities – public universities, mind – began offering medical programs in German and English to some success.

(On the whole, of course, German students prefer doing their studies in a German-speaking country.  For quite some years their favorite tactic was to enroll at the University of Vienna, which like all universities in Austria is open access, and places were awarded in a first-come first-serve rather than a competitive basis.  This would result in line-up outside the registrar’s office starting a week to ten days before registration day.  Many of the locals found this quite irritating, as they not unreasonably thought the University should mostly be educating Austrians rather than Germans, and they tried to close access to medicine to non-nationals. However, because of EU rules on freedom of movement and national treatment, the European Commission told the Austrians that first-come-first-serve for Austrians meant first-come-first-serve for all EU nationals.  Last I heard this has gone to the European Court.  Meanwhile, Hungarian schools are cashing in.)

There are other examples of this.  In Malaysia, for instance, public medical schools tend to cater mainly to ethnic Malays.  The Chinese community has organized itself in such a way as to create local alternatives (e.g. Taylor’s University School of Medicine), but the Tamil community has tended to go the offshore route, heading in the thousands towards medical schools in Ukraine and Western Russia (e.g. Kursk State Medical University).

You can deny people admission to expensive higher education programs.  But helping students denied entry to a program is the very definition of a market opportunity.  Some institution, somewhere, is going to try to meet that need.  It just isn’t always going to be in the paces you think.  But in medicine at least, it creates some of the world’s more unlikely international student flows.

November 03

The European Way of Student Services

One of the delights of working in international higher education is that while higher education is pretty much isomorphic the world over, it’s not entirely so. There’s not so much variation that expertise isn’t transferable, but not so little that you can’t be learn something new by appreciating another country’s system.  One are of particular interest is student accommodations and student services.

In North America we take it for granted that student services and residence are a responsibility of institutions – who else would do it?  But there are at least two answers to that the private sector could do it, or a public corporation not associated with a particular institution could do it.

If you hang out near universities for any length of time in Australia, for instance, you’ll see plenty of private-sector solutions for student housing. Companies build cheap, small-ish dorms (50-100 occupants) near universities, and rent them to students.  Which university?  Doesn’t matter.  So long as you’re a student, they’ll rent you a small single apartment.  It’s nothing special – IKEA to the max – but for someone looking for something cheap and full of fellow students, it makes a lot of sense.

(Some – but by no means all – of the companies building and operating student residences seem to be international in scope.  I met and chatted with representatives of one such company at NAFSA in Denver earlier this year and for the life of me I cannot figure out how this makes sense.  Every country has its own laws and building codes so where would economies of scale accrue? Still, apparently someone thinks there’s money to be made in this business.)

In Europe, however, there is a different approach: national student services companies.  In Germany, Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW), a government-funded non-profit, is responsible for a network of student residences scattered across the country an addition to canteens and counseling services at a number of universities.  In France, a similarly-organized CNOUS is responsible for residences alongside things like student exchanges. DSW also provides certain other services for students like Legal Aid and assistance in obtaining student financial assistance (DSW in some ways seems to think of itself at least partially as a protector/champion of student rights somewhat in opposition to the universities and government).  The important thing here is that residence is not tied to enrollment in a particular university.  At a given residence in Munich or Berlin you might find students from one of a number of local institutions.

Now, you can see some real advantages to this.  First, an organization which specializes in student services might be more effective in performing it than one that sometimes views it as tangential to the “main” mission (say, at your average research university).  Second, it might be cheaper and more efficient. In Montreal, why duplicate housing services across UQAM, McGill and Concordia, all of which are within five stops of each other on the city’s Green Line?  Why not stick them all together?

But what’s possible in Europe isn’t always possible in North America.  Until fairly recently in Europe, universities were much more creatures of government than North American ones ever were – having a different state agency take over part of the system was no big deal (hell, Max Planck and CNRS took over most of the research mission so why not student services?) In North America, institutions (some of them, anyway) think of student services as part of their value proposition, an element on which they compete with other institutions.  Until very recently, that notion of inter-institutional “competition” was mostly absent from the European way of thinking.

In truth, the real reason most universities in North America wold be loath to take a European route is that residences matter for alumni donations. Research on this is pretty clear: the shine people take to their university is closely related to the strength of the attachments they form while there.  And though residences aren’t the only place students form attachments, they’re high up the list.  Take residences away from the institutional experiences, and your appeal to alumni is going to be a lot weaker.

But it’s an interesting model to ponder nonetheless.  Makes you think about what the true “boundaries” of a university really are.

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