Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

October 17

Universal co-op, Minister? You first.

Back in June here in Ontario, the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel released its final report. One of the recommendations was that every Ontario high school and university student should have at least one mandatory co-op experience (i.e., once in high school, once in university college).  In a statement in the provincial legislature, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews essentially said she liked the recommendation and would be working in the coming months to figure out how to put it into effect.

Now, I am in favour of greater experiential learning opportunities, but there are some problems with this recommendation.  The good folks at HEQCO have already written about some of these; my concern is basically that good co-op and good internships cost a lot of money.  Students in placements need to be overseen, taught, and mentored.  They need to be given tasks which are both meaningful and correspond to actual student abilities (not easy to achieve for high school students in many workplaces).  And they need to be paid – not just because it’s the law, but because business simply won’t put in the time on students unless they have skin in the game.

Simply put, the degree of culture shift required in business to provide these kinds of meaningful work-integrated learning experiences on a universal basis is massive.  Depending on the expected length of these experiences, we could be talking about increasing opportunities by anything from tenfold to fifty-fold – we’re talking between 250,000 and 300,000 students per year having to be accommodated here.  Not impossible, but not something that will happen overnight.  If the government tries to rush into this – and by rush I mean anything on a shorter timescale than a decade or so – were going to have a real mess on our hands.  Both businesses and educational institutions are going to need a lot of time to figure out how to make this work.

In this respect I would like to make a modest proposal to government: you first.

Seriously, if this is such a great idea, then the first to pioneer it should be the Government of Ontario to pioneer it.  It’s the largest employer in the province, with something like 85,000 employees (or about 1.5% of the entire provincial workforce).  If it can’t be a success at that level, why should it be a success anywhere else?

So here’s my idea.  Since the Government of Ontario represents 1.5% of the workforce, it should immediately commit to bringing in at least 1.5% of the necessary cohort on work-integrated learning experiences next year.  By my back-of-the-envelope reckoning, that’s 4,000 students or so (call it 145 students per ministry), half of which should be from high schools and half from post-secondary institutions.

Employers everywhere are going to need to know how a big, knowledge-intensive enterprise like the Government of Ontario can crafts meaningful paid experiences for that many individuals, and provides them with the necessary support, feedback and evaluation, with minimal loss of institutional productivity or adverse effects on institutional budgets.  By being a pioneer, the Government can provide invaluable real-life advice to private and para-public sector employers about how to make this program work for everyone.

No?  You don’t think it’ll happen?

Me neither.  But it would dispel a lot of cynicism about this initiative.

October 14

Stuff And Nonsense About Coding

We seem to be passing through a period of heavy stupidity with respect to “coding”.  To wit:

  1. On Wednesday our Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains, took the stage at the Public Policy Forum’s Growth Summit and mused about the importance of coding, why it should be taught in schools, and how it is “as important as reading and writing”.
  2. On Thursday , Melissa Sariffodeen, the co-founder and CEO of something called “Ladies Learning Code” managed to get an op-ed published in the Globe, saying as how “in the coming years, it will be difficult to find a single professional field or vocation untouched by increasingly sophisticated technology”, Canada needs to teach 10 million people (that is, slightly more than half the labour force) to code or “our ability to prosper socially and economically will undoubtedly be compromised”.

This is all as dumb as a bag of hammers.  We need to stop this nonsense right now.

The ubiquity of a given technology does not mean that everyone needs to be experts in its nuts and bolts.  Pretty much no job is untouched by, say, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  Yet the economy works fine without 10 million people knowing how to do preventive maintenance on electrical wiring or install a toilet.  Nearly all office jobs involve coming into contact with a ballpoint pen at some point, yet we all remain blissfully unaware of what kinds of tungsten carbide alloys make ink flow more smoothly.  We all use refrigerators, but almost none of us understand the vapor-compression cycle.  And that’s a good thing.  Ever since the stone age, we make have made economic progress through specialization.  New technologies become ubiquitous precisely BECAUSE they become so simple you don’t need to think about them a lot.

Coding is a valuable skill – for maybe 2% of the labour force.  What the rest of us need is digital literacy and proficiency.  Being able to write software is not the issue: rather, it is the ability to apply and use software productively that is the issue.  Ten million people who understand how to input data into software correctly, 10 million who can use and analyze the data software provides us: *that* is something we should shoot for.  It would have enormous effects on productivity and health (if you doubt the latter, spend some time talking to hospital administrators and their frustration with newly-trained medical staff who can work smart phone perfectly well but can’t use fill in Microsoft Access forms).  But ten million coders?  Mostly, that just pushes down wages in the tech sector.

Now, the Globe op-ed by a tech-sector entrepreneur probably looking for some government grants to expand her tech training business I can deal with.  Sariffodeen, as someone who teaches coding, is mostly talking her own book.  But Minister Bains?  That’s much more serious.  OK, we can all be thankful that as a federal minister he has no actual say over anything involving an actual education system.  Saying coding is “as important as reading and writing” is fatuous nonsense.  It’s the kind of thing you say when your fondest wish in life is to be admired by tech executives.  Reading and writing are foundational skills for literally anything in life.  Coding is a way for specialized experts to make software so the rest of us don’t have to.

Should we have more opportunities to learn how to code?  Sure.  Should we aim for much deeper knowledge ability to manipulate and use data/information?  Golly, yes.  Teach 10M people to code?  Treat coding as equivalent to reading and writing?  Get a grip.  No serious person should utter those words.

October 13

Pedagogical Change: Why Waterloo and not McMaster?

In the field of higher education, Canada has two genuine claims to having been (at least at one-time) at the forefront of innovation: co-op education, which primarily stems from Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, and Problem-based Learning as practiced at McMaster’s School of Medicine.   This is a big deal: most universities never pioneer innovative pedagogical techniques, and here Canada has two of them.  Yet only one of these universities really gets credit for it.  Waterloo is known nationally (and to some degree internationally) for its’ pedagogy, and McMaster…isn’t.  Not really.  And understanding why is key to understanding how innovation spreads (or doesn’t) in higher education.

So, let’s start with McMaster.  Shortly after the School of Medicine was founded in the mid-1960s, the staff there decide to adopt a pedagogy that had been experimented with at Case Western in the 1950s. Namely, switching from a system of more or less rote system of learning information to a system with a much greater emphasis on problem-solving skills.  What McMaster added to the Case Western system was a focus on tutorials and small-group learning.  Within the world of medical education this method was a smash success, spreading over the space of three decades to fifty-odd medical schools in North America, Europe and Australia.  In a couple of instances, it even jumped the disciplinary boundary into fields like business education and architecture. Significantly, it never made the jump to any other part of the institution at McMaster itself.  And though PBL still exists, McMaster is no longer really thought of as the leader.

Now, compare that to Waterloo, an institution that began life as a satellite campus of the (then) University of Western Ontario, teaching engineering to serve tire-making factories in the region.  The professors at Waterloo were intrigued by the model of co-op education that had been developed at the University of Cincinnati in the United States and wanted to introduce it at Waterloo College.  Western’s Engineering faculty thought this was simply too déclassé an idea for a real university and said no.  Since the Government of Ontario was in the business of setting up new universities at that time, Waterloo College essentially flipped Western off and started their own university, with co-op as a kind of founding mission.   Within Waterloo co-op spread to all its faculties, including Arts and last I heard was placing over 17,000 student per year in co-op programs.  Co-op is now  the norm in Canadian Engineering schools, and people all over the world recognize Waterloo as the pre-eminent institution in co-op education.

So what’s the difference?  Why did co-op at Waterloo turn out one way and PBL at McMaster another?

I think the simplest take on it is this: Waterloo had co-op embedded in its DNA.  The school’s trimester schedule, which was a necessary complement to co-op, was adopted across the institution.  Professors are hired based on their willingness to work in the trimester system and their willingness to update classes frequently based on feedback from students on how in-touch curricula really are with industry practices.  It’s not isolated to one faculty, or to the senior administration: the whole institution really is invested in it.  Compare that to McMaster, where no other faculty (so far as I can tell) ever really took the idea of PBL seriously. Even the School of Medicine itself wasn’t founded on PBL principles.   It was a success, for a time.  But it wasn’t in the DNA.

There is an important lesson here.  Universities, even when presented with fabulous ideas for reform, are very reluctant to change on a systematic basis.  It’s not that individual professors never do anything new; it’s that systemic change requires everyone going in a more or less similar direction at the same time, that that is very difficult for institutions to achieve.  It’s why real university reform often happens not by getting universities to change but by setting up new institutions.  Napoleon knew this: it was why he shut down universities and created the Grandes Écoles.  It’s why in the United States it took a new institution like Johns Hopkins to pioneer the PhD, or why it took the arrival of ANU in Australia to really make universities take research and graduate work seriously.

Left to themselves, universities will always tend to be conservative, fearful and change-averse.  History shows that new institutions pursuing new missions with all their might and leading by example can, eventually, drive real change.

October 12

The Fractured Chinese Higher Education Market

We often casually refer to China as being a single higher education market, but that’s really not true.  It’s probably more accurate to say that it is 32 different markets (34 if you want to include Macau and Hong Kong), one for each of the 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 major municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin).  That’s not just because most higher education funding is local rather than national; it’s also because student mobility is significantly restricted, especially among top universities.

Let’s start with economics.  Broadly speaking, the coastal provinces  Inner Mongolia are fairly rich (on par with Greece and the Baltics by GDP per capita), the middle provinces such as Hubei, Heinan and Shanxi have GDP/capita roughly half that of coastal ones, and then further west GDP per capita drops by another 50% when you get to Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu.  It’s not quite as simple as that – Anhui and Jangxi are close to the coast but relatively poor, Xianjing is as far west as you can go and yet is part of the middle-band, Shanghai and Beijing are relatively wealthy, etc.  But the rule of thumb is: coastal provinces are rich, inner provinces are poor.

This matters to higher education for a couple of reasons, the main one being that for the most part, higher education is funded provincially.  There are, however, a few dozen universities which are primarily  administered and  funded from Beijing, most of which report to the Ministry of Education but some to other ministries (e.g. the Telecoms Ministry or the Army).  The 38 research-intensive “985” universities (so named because the policy which governs them dates from May 1998) receive massive amounts of central government funding. The 110-odd “211” universities (apparently a reference to having 100 21st Century universities…21-1(00)…no, I don’t get it either) also get some central funding despite being largely dependent on local funding.

The second reason this matters is that these “top-tier” universities (especially the 985s) are unevenly distributed around the country.  Beijing has seven of them, Shanghai 4, and Tianjin and Chongqing another 3 between them – meaning that nearly half of the top universities are in just four cities.  Indeed, fourteen provinces and regions have no 985 universities at all, and Tibet has neither a 211 nor a 985 university.  That wouldn’t be a major issue if it weren’t for a second important factor: student mobility in china is strictly limited.

Because universities are mostly funded locally, the local government gets to determine the number of spots at each university.  Unsurprisingly, poorer provinces have fewer spots than richer ones.  Which means cut-offs have to be higher; and since every state has control of its own gaokao exam, it’s become the case that different provinces have different levels of gaokao difficulty (there is a helpful service which compares them all and ranks them on difficulty – for the last couple of years it has been Jiangsu).

But despite regional differences in the difficulty  of the gaokao, universities treat all the provincial scores as equal.  This matters enormously because each province reserves spaces for local students – and limits spaces for out-of-province students.  Pretty much everyone in the country wants to get into one of the top Beijing universities, and yet these policies keep these institutions largely the preserve of locals.  Which is absolutely fine for the privileged few who live in Beijing (mainly public servants and party apparatchiks) but not so good for anyone else.  A student from Jiangsu not only takes a tougher gaokao than one from Beijing, but s/he has to obtain a much higher score in order to get into Tsinghua or Peking.  It’s considered a truism in those schools that the students from outside Beijing are of a much higher calibre than the locals.

This problem isn’t going away any time soon.  As Damian Ma and William Adams say in their excellent book In Line Behind a Billion People, this policy of reserving little educational plums for Beijing parents is one of those things that keeps the elite population behind the regime: in a democratic system there is simply no way that benefits would be concentrated this tightly (their chapter on education is called “Give me Equality: But Not Until After My Son Gets Into Tsinghua”).  So even as the central government tries to open spaces at top-tier (i.e. 985 or 211) universities for people from provinces where top-tier universities are scarce or non-existent, they are doing their level best not to put that burden anywhere other than Beijing or Shanghai.  This year, most of the growth in spaces for students from the western provinces fell on Hubei and Jiangsu, much to the anger of local residents who feared their own children would lose out as a result.

There is a lesson here for people interested in recruiting students in China, and it is this: ignore the coastal provinces.  Find the provinces with the hardest gaokaos and the fewest 985/211 institutions (Jiangxi is not a bad place to start).  There are a lot of frustrated families there.  Go talk to them.  They will be more price-conscious than the students on the coasts, but they will also probably be of higher quality.

October 11

Hillary’s Higher Education Plans

Barring some sort of catastrophe, it now seems pretty clear that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th President of the United States.  There is a reasonable chance (51.6% in Monday’s FiveThirtyEight forecast) that the Democrats could regain the Senate and an outside chance that they could also regain the House.   Those odds probably change a bit in the Democrats’ favour once some post-grope polls come out later this week, but the basic outline of a post-November 7 world – Hillary in charge, with a split Congress – is now pretty clear.  What does it mean for higher education?

Well, you wouldn’t know it from any of the debates – we’ve now gone 270 minutes without a single second being spent on education – but higher education is a major plank in Hillary’s platform.  But her policies on higher education have evolved somewhat over the course of the campaign, mostly because her primary opponent Bernie Sanders’ success with millennials convinced her she needed a big, expensive, youth-oriented policy, and higher education (apparently) is it.

Hillary’s plan, release just prior to the July convention and known as “The New College Compact” consists of two pillars.  The first involves creating a system of “free tuition” at public universities for students from families with under $125,000 by 2021 (it would start at $85,000 in 2017 and rise by $10K each year thereafter) .  On the fact of it, this is a bit like what the Ontario Liberals and the Chilean socialists have developed, only more generous (i.e., using a higher cut-off point).  But the costing on this plan is – to put it mildly – hazy.  Her costing documents speak of spending $450 billion over ten years, but the tuition take from 4-year public alone is north of $55 billion, and that’s not including either the cost of 2-year colleges or the extra costs that would accrue if free tuition induced hundreds of thousands of students from private colleges to switch into the public system (the New America Foundation has correctly warned that not including funding for system growth could well result in a reduction of access for lower-income and minority students as middle-class students switching from privates could push out less-prepared lower-income kids from a fixed number of spaces).

The problem here is that the US (like Canada) is a federal system, with education a responsibility of the states.  The federal government can promising anything it likes about tuition, but at the end of the day it is states who have the final say.  The best the feds can do is work out a system of carrots and sticks to entice the states into a program.  The wording of the plan seems to imply that states who want to get reduce tuition will sign up for grants from Washington in return for meeting certain conditions – one of them being pouring more money of their own into their systems.  But the progress of Obamacare, which required considerably less from states but has only brough two-third of states on board so far, should give everyone pause.  On top of that, of course, the President alone can’t appropriate funds unilaterally.  Congress would need to be on-side as well, and the Democrats are still a long way from being able to make that happen.  Which is why most higher education analysts in the US seem to assume that the plan is more talk than action: a rhetorical statement which can attract voters rather than a plan likely to be implemented.

The second part of the Clinton plan involves a three-month moratorium on student loan repayment allowing all borrowers – including those in repayment – to re-finance their loans at a lower rate.  There is a fair amount of scepticism about how effective this measure might be.  As Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University (possibly the shrewdest US student loans pundit out there), wrote in The Conversation a couple of months ago, the most-indebted graduates tend not to be the ones with the high default rates because default is most commonly associated with dropouts and hence lower levels of debt, and also because over 40% of borrowers in the US are now in income-based plans and so changing the level of interest will have minimal effects on repayments.  In other words, it will be a big income transfer to younger Americans, but not necessarily one that will do much to increase access or reduce defaults.

So after the election, what we can probably expect is a situation quite similar to what we had prior to 2014: a President and a Senate with a desire to make college more affordable (though not necessarily in particularly efficient ways), with a House implacably opposed and states offering indifferent support.  But a catastrophic Republican result in the House – which remains a possibility following this weekend’s stampede of defections – might result in some very rapid and drastic policy changes from the new administration.

Stay tuned for November 8th. 

October 07

Microcosmographia Academica

Many years ago – I think it was when I first got elected to student council – my grandfather gave me a copy of a 1908 satirical book on academic politics called the Microcosmographia Academica (available online here) by F. M. Cornford. Addressed to “the aspiring academic politician”, it is still very much worth a read today, especially if you’ve just been elected to Senate or have taken on some significant administrative duties. Not all of it ages well (bits of it are unintelligible unless you have a firm grasp of late nineteenth century academic reforms in the UK), but much of it is absolutely timeless.

Consider the problem of how we select professors:

A lecturer [i.e. a junior-rank professor – AU] is a sound scholar who is chosen to teach on the grounds that he was once able to learn.

Replace “learn” with “conduct competent research” and the statement is as true today as it ever was. Similarly, it turns out that the basis for academic snobbery hasn’t changed very much in the last century or so:

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it.  If you should write a book be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called “brilliant” and forfeit all respect.

But the core of the book is an adumbration of ways in which things do not get done in universities. Referring to committees, Cornford says:

…we have succeeded in minimising the dangerous feeling by the means of never allowing anyone to act without first consulting at least twenty other people who are accustomed to regard him with well-founded suspicion…it is clear, moreover, that twenty independent persons, each of whom has a reason for not doing a certain thing and no one of whom will compromise with any other, constitutes a most effective check on the rashness of individuals.

Cornford notes that there is only ever one argument to do something: that it is the right thing to do. All other arguments are arguments not to do something. These he enumerates with great relish: the Principle of the Wedge (“do not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future”), the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, Giving the Present System a Fair Trial, etc. But he is also very good at explaining how to accept something in principle while obstructing it in practice. To wit:

Another argument is that the machinery for effecting the proposed object already exists. This should be urged in cases where the existing machinery has never worked and is now so rusty there is no chance of its being set in motion.

And of course, he deals with political discourse in a university, specifically with respect to Jobs:

These fall into two classes: My Jobs, and Your Jobs. My jobs are public-spirited proposals which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

Non-academic positions still get spoken of this way all the time.

It’s a short piece – not more than a half-hour’s read. It’s worth the time. Enjoy.

October 06

Does the Canada Student Loans Program Make Money?

You’ll remember a couple of weeks ago I took the Ontario NDP to task for an absurd meme about the provincial government “profiting” from student loans. But it occurred to me later than though there is no way the charge sticks against the provincial government, it arguably might about the federal government’s Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP), which both borrows more cheaply and lends more dearly than the provincial government. So I decided to find out.

The data I am using in this blog comes from the latest CSLP Actuarial Report, which was published in 2012 (and hence presumably written in 2011). This is done periodically by the Chief Actuary of Canada (the same guy who makes sure the Canada Pension Plan is solvent). I suspect a lot of his data after 2011-12 is off because of the large jump in loan program usage after Ontario introduced the 30% tuition rebate midway through that year. The Actuary also assumed interest rates were going to rise throughout the decade (they haven’t), and more controversially, assumed enrollments would fall substantially over the same period (which they have in certain regions but not nationally). So to avoid these and other issues, I am simply going to use the 2011-12 projections, which have the least doubt about them as they are the least contaminated by dubious projections.

Here’s a quick summary of the estimated cost of the program: In-school (Class A) interest – that is, the interest government pays on student loans while students are in school and hence paying no interest – is $128 Million (which is *tiny* considering that there are 400,000 borrowers per year – credit here to prolonged slow growth and the lowest interest rates in living memory). The Repayment Assistance Program, which subsidizes repayments for low-income borrowers in repayment, is another $169 Million. Then on top of that is the provision for bad debt. Based on long-term trends, the government puts aside 12.4% of every dollar lent on the assumption some people will default. That, plus the interest on the loans left outstanding comes to $376.2 million. Grand total: $673.2 million.

(There are also $650-odd million in grants plus $280 or so million in alternative payments to Quebec, Nunavut and NWT and $140 M in administration fees, which brings the total cost to a little over $1.7 billion or so, but put that aside for the moment.)

So to go back to our example from last week, the question is whether or not CSLP meets the Elizabeth Warren test for “profiting from students”: that is, does net income from the interest paid by students more than cover the cost of interest subsidies and defaults? Income from loans comes from the spread between the rate at which the government of Canada borrows (currently hovering around 1% on ten-year bonds) and the rate at which it lends to students (prime +2.5%, or currently 5.2%). The rates were slightly different in in 2011-12 but the 420 basis point spread has stayed pretty consistent. Which is a whole lotta basis points – it’s over three times the spread Ontario gets on its loans – and quite a lot of room in which to “make money”.

A lot, but not quite enough. The projection for revenue on interest paid for 2011-12 was $521.4 million. The cost of borrowing was $166 million, meaning that “net” revenue – that is, earning on the spread between loan costs and loan revenues – was $355 million. So the huge spread the federal government has on student loans more or less covers the cost of defaults, but still leaves the government’s Consolidated Revenue Fund to pay nearly $300 million for loan costs such as Class A interest and RAP, not to speak of another billion or so for the Canada Student Grants, the alternative payments and administration.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that student loan programs are expensive. Even if you charge stonkingly high rates of interest with huge spreads, loan losses from defaults and interest subsidies will eat those up and more. There are no profits to be seen here.

October 05

A Brief History of Exams

Written exams are such a major part of our schools and universities that we forget sometimes that they are not actually native to the western system of education.  How did they become so ubiquitous?  Well here’s the story:

Originally, the Western tradition eschewed exams.  Universities offered places based on recommendations.  If one could impress one’s teachers for a few years, one might be invited to audition for right to be granted a degree. In medieval universities, for instance, one obtained a degree once one was capable of giving lectures or credibly argue a particular position in a debate format (the disputatio).  This was more or less the case right through until the 17th century.  This was completely different from how it was done in China.  There, ferociously difficult examinations for entry into the Imperial Civil Service had been the norm since the first century AD (give or take a couple of centuries of inter-dynastic interregnums due to societal collapse, civil wars, etc).  To help students through these exams, “academies” were created, which, with a bit of squinting, can be seen as forerunners of today’s universities (for more on early Chinese higher education see here).

In the late 16th century, a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci was sent to China and eventually rose to a very senior position within the order.  He was very impressed by the competitive and meritocratic nature of the Chinese examination system, and described it in glowing terms to his superiors in Rome.  Being a pedagogically-minded order, the Jesuits themselves adopted written examinations in order to make their own system tougher and more competitive.  In the 18th century, absolutist reformers trying to create meritocratic civil services (as opposed to ones run by aristocratic place-holders) decided to put the Jesuits’ “Chinese” system to work.  Starting in Prussia, then spreading around Europe over the following century, bureaucrats now had to pass examinations.  As more and more people tried to apply to the civil service, the universities – which were mainly prep schools for the civil service – became more crowded and gradually introduced their own entrance examinations as well.  The first of these was the German Abitur, which is still the qualification required to enter university.

The question of who set these exams – the education ministries in charge of secondary education?  the universities themselves? – was answered different ways in different countries.  In the United States, the Ivies maintained their own exams well into the twentieth century.  To keep out the riff-raff they would do things like test for ability in Greek – a subject not taught at public schools.  As universities began to expand the range of their intakes, they started to see problems with exams based on curricula and started looking for something that would measure potential regardless of which state or school they came from.  This led them to consider psychometric examinations instead, and hence the SAT was born.

Psychometric testing never really caught on outside the US (thought Sweden uses a variant of it).  Generally speaking, the dominant form of testing around the world remains a high-stakes test at the end of secondary school: the gaokao in China, the Korean suneung and the Japanese center are the most famous of these, but most of Europe and Africa operate on some variant of this (albeit without causing the same level of commotion and stress because European university systems are less hierarchically stratified than East Asian ones).  In many of the post-Soviet countries, university entrance exams were a source of lucre.  A prestige institution could set its own exam, and rake off money from students either through preparatory classes or by requesting bribes to pass.  The establishment of national university entrance exams in these countries were thus as much as an anti-graft measure as a pro-merit measure.

Many parts of the world – but particularly Asian countries – are seeing the downsides of basing so much on a single set of exams, and are trying in various ways to try to de-emphasize testing as a means of distinguishing between students, both because they are seen as overly stressful to youth and because the results have been time and again to reinforce class privilege.  The problem with the latter is that no one has yet come up with alternative measures of academic prowess or potential which are significantly less correlated with privilege; and exam results, whatever their faults, do provide transparency in results, and hence a greater appearance of fairness.

In short: there’s lots wrong with high-stakes exams, but they aren’t going anywhere soon.

October 04

Authentic Academic Eyes

It’s a reasonably common occurrence for academics to diss non-academic professional staff.  “They’re taking over”.  “They’re not like us”.  “They’re ruining the university”.  Book-length whinges (not very good ones, mind) have been written about this.

These whinges usually combine two distinct arguments.  The first has to do with the mere existence of some non-academic positions, who often act as the interface between the academic institution and the market (think research services, alumni/advancement, recruitment, marketing and – God forbid – branding).  That these positions exist at all is often seen as some kind of neo-liberal front to the ideal of a university.  The second has to do with the behaviour and attitudes of the people who staff these positions, which are often seen as alien or inimical to academic values.  The former view is a noisier and more virulent one among faculty; the latter quieter but more widespread.

The distinction was brought home to me in a recent online conversation I had with a senior faculty member whose university marketing people had just made some howler or other. If I recall correctly, it was a marketing tagline along the lines of “At University of X, we don’t just teach Y, we live it”, with some people wondering why any university would use a phrase that even vaguely sounded like teaching was a second-best activity.  The faculty member said to me “obviously, no set of academic eyes ever laid sight upon that before it went out”.


I don’t think there are many profs that genuinely question that  there is a need for having masses of non-academic employees doing that interaction-with-the-outside-world stuff and “selling” the institution and its merits.  Most people understand that If those people weren’t out there bringing in the money, academics wouldn’t be able to do their thing.  And these are in fact professional services: they aren’t jobs academics could do themselves even if they were inclined to do so.  So it’s not a matter of “taking back” responsibilities which once were academic and now are not: one might regret the need for quite so many of these positions, but a job’s got to get done, the right people should be hired to do it.

But what is aggravating beyond all get out is when people in these positions don’t get the product they are selling.  When, in the process of selling the institution, language is used which actually works at cross-purposes to the values of the institution in question.

So while virtually no one wants to put profs in charge of marketing efforts, institutions should make it a point to ensure everything that goes out bearing your institution’s name has had a set of “academic eyes” on it.  Get academic input on marketing campaigns before they start.  Not to obtain creative direction or, God forbid, to do wordsmithing (that way madness lies), but simply to ensure that what is said in the institution’s name is said in a tone that doesn’t do violence to the academic mission.  It could save everyone a lot of potential embarrassment.

October 03

Peas in a Pod

A few weeks ago, there was an absolutely hysterical story on CBC about a Fraser Institute report on carbon taxes.  You can read the article for yourself, but the argument was basically this: carbon taxes are bad because they would have a disproportionate effect on people in lower income brackets.

Assuming you believe the Fraser Institute actually gives a rat’s hairy behind about people in lower income brackets, this is not an entirely stupid point; multiple studies in the US have come to this conclusion. But it depends quite a bit on the design of the tax: if you use part of the revenue to fund lump-sum transfers to poorer families to offset the effects of the tax, one can actually develop a tax which is relatively progressive (see this paper from Resources for the Future for some simulations on the incidence of different types of carbon taxes).  So yes, if you design a bad carbon tax, it probably will have regressive effects.  But design a good one and you’re off to the races.

You may at this point be asking yourself “why is Alex droning on about carbon taxes in what is ostensibly a higher education blog”?  Fair question. And the answer is: because the Fraser Institute’s argument about carbon taxes is EXACTLY the same as the CFS/CAUT/Usual suspects on the left argument against tuition.  Fees are seen as regressive because they represent a higher proportion of family income to the poor than the rich (see here for example)

Now, if we believe that CFS and the usual suspects on one side and the Fraser Institute on the other both actually believe their own argument, then we have a possibility of some radical political re-alignment in Canada.  The hard left should oppose carbon taxes, the hard right should oppose tuition fees – after all, who would want to hurt the poor?

But, as you may suspect, that isn’t the whole story.  In precisely the same way that the Fraser Institute assumes away any sensible attempt to hold the poor harmless for a carbon tax through rebates or transfers, the usual suspects on the left completely ignore grants and scholarships as an offset to tuition fees, and so exaggerate – and occasionally entirely misrepresent – the actual distributional impact of net tuition.  One of the reasons I was so pleased last year about the Government of Ontario’s decision to make net tuition “free” for low income students was not so much because it improved students’ welfare (net tuition was already less than zero for many thousands of students), but precisely because it makes this rhetorical BS harder to maintain.

Anyway, even if students grants or energy tax rebates didn’t exist, objecting to putting a price on something because any non-zero price “impacts the poor more than the rich” is insane.  You could object to every product in a market economy that way: beer, popcorn, baby formula, pistachios – they all “impact the poor more than the rich”.  The point is to raise incomes at the bottom to help people purchase more goods at less of a burden, not get rid of the price mechanism.  You’d think that a right-wing pro-market think-tank might actually grasp that.

But then of course, said right-wing think tank does understand this.  Their argument is an argument of convenience and not conviction.  In the service of defeating carbon taxes, no argument is too stupid to make.  As is the case for the usual suspects and their hatred of tuition.  Peas in a pod.

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