Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

September 20

The 160 Student Solution

Here’s an important question. Why do we care about how many classes a professor teaches?

Virtually every university collective agreement has some kind of minimum or average or desirable teaching load – 2+3, 2+2, etc. It doesn’t really matter since so many professors are buying their way out of these anyway and going down to one class a term. Regardless, though, the unit of analysis here is the course.

This makes absolutely no sense. Universities don’t get paid based on how many courses they teach. They get paid by how many students they teach. And the term “course” isn’t exactly homogenous. It includes tutorials, small seminars, regular classrooms and enormous 500-student affairs. And the price professors pay to get out of teaching a class is more or less the same no matter how many students are enrolled in it.

Let me suggest the following: let’s get rid of course-based workloads and adopt student-number workloads instead. Why not say that every professor has to teach a minimum of 160 student half-courses (e.g., one half course of 160 students or 4 half courses of 40 students each) per year? And, equally, that when professors want to get out of a course, the payment to do so must be proportional to the number of student half-courses being abandoned.

The benefits of this go far beyond standardizing workloads. It would prevent proliferations of small niche courses and send signals to deans and department heads about when to stop hiring (no department head will want to hire if it cannibalizes student numbers that existing professors need to hit in order to get paid). And it would put a cap on the number of students being taught by sessionals.

In fact, just looking at Statistics Canada’s FTE numbers in the CAUT Almanac, assuming that every full-time students takes five courses per term, it seems that there are a little over 8.7 million half-courses being delivered at Canadian universities. If every institution adopted the 160 student rule, then the country’s 38,300 full-time academic staff would be able to teach a minimum of 6.1 million half-courses – or very nearly three-quarters of the total.

Think about it: adopting a minimum student standard has benefits for workload standardization, cost control and decreasing reliance on sessionals. With tighter budgets on the way in most of Canada, it’s an idea whose time might be now.

September 19

International Student Recruitment: Not as Good as We Think We Are

One of the most startling things about Canada’s recent success in attracting international students is how easy it has all been. Australia and the U.K. took decades to build up their position in international higher education, and in the former case it took decades of government-backed investment in developing overseas networks. Our recent extraordinary spurt of growth in international higher education – particularly in the Indian market – came in the space of about five years in a comparatively uncoordinated way.

So are Canadians just brilliant at this stuff or are there other factors at work?

I’d argue for the latter. Consider that in recent years the Americans have been imposing ludicrous visa regimes, the U.K. has been making menacing noises about rejecting international students and Australia’s image has been tarnished by events that have highlighted problems of racism and student security. We’ve therefore reaped the benefits without making any serious investments ourselves. We didn’t hit a triple; we were born on third base.

But this situation isn’t going to last forever. Universities around the developed world are heading for big trouble financially, and they are all going to be spending more time trying to tap the foreign student market. And in the developing world, institutions are improving all the time and improving their value position vis-à-vis our own. Competition is going to increase, and it’s not clear how well placed we are to win.

At HESA, we’ve developed the Global Student Survey to examine the views of students in various exporting countries about education in general and international education in particular. Our India survey, available for purchase as of today, shows some of the obvious vulnerabilities that Canadian institutions have, and the value proposition and the rising competition from Indian institutions are clearly there.

More importantly, our national brand in education is a problem. We rank well behind the U.S. and U.K. as a destination in Indian students’ minds, and even Singapore and the U.A.E. peg above us in some categories. And whereas Indian students describe American, British and Singaporean higher education in terms that are generic synonyms for excellence, Canada gets described like this:

phrases Indian students associate with Canada


Forget the temporarily rosy enrolment statistics: we have a problem here. We ignore it at our peril.

September 16

What the U.K. Tuition Fight Tells Us About Universities

The U.K. is a great country when it comes to higher education innovation – good or bad, they’re not afraid to take new policy ideas to their logical conclusion. Their most recent move – allowing tuition fees to rise up to £9000 – is a case in point, and it is already providing some valuable lessons with respect to the essential dilemmas of higher education policy.

The government clearly thought that this kind of “big bang” deregulation of tuition would create real price competition – some institutions would go the high-fees/high quality route, while others would try take a more value-oriented tack. But they fundamentally misunderstood two things about universities.

The first is that universities don’t care about market share. Unlike most industries, no player in this industry aspires to teach more than a tiny fraction of students. As a result, there’s no one in a position to play the “low-cost, high-volume” role that, say, Wal-Mart does in retailing. They’re all niche players.

The second is that though universities aren’t competing for market share, they are competing for something else – prestige. And prestige, unfortunately, tends to be correlated with expenditures, which in turn are correlated with revenue.

So, when someone asks universities to compete, what they’re essentially doing is setting off an arms race for revenue. And if you do that at the same time as you liberalize fees, what inevitably happens is that there will be a race to the top of the tuition scale, with no one able or willing to play the role of low-cost, high-volume provider that plays such an important role for market discipline in other industries. You can offset the effects somewhat through student aid, but as long as prestige is the metric by which institutions measure their success, nothing – nothing – can be done to alter the basic dynamic.

September 15

The Manitoba Election

Just to show we’re not irretrievably Ontario-centric, we’ll be doing short snapshots of party platforms in all provinces with elections this fall.

First up, my home province of Manitoba.

Choices are stark in the only province to have shot its way into confederation: in the last 11 elections, only one has resulted in a minority government and only one resulted in the Conservatives and New Democrats combined receiving less than 85% of the seats. It’s one or the other (which if nothing else is handy to keep this note below 350 words). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NDP is going big on PSE; holding tuition to inflation, promising 5% annual increases in operating grants to institutions, and increasing student financial aid (the wording in the platform is vague enough to encompass both need- and merit-based grants, but given the party’s recent history, it would be surprising if it were not the former). It’s not a particularly inspiring or visionary platform – more sort of status quo plus a couple of percentage points. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than most Canadian institutions can expect over the next few years.

The Tories have rolled out a number of specific-yet-vague policies. They want to make sure higher education is “focused on the market,” say they will “support University College of the North to encourage additional training opportunities for Northerners” and “ensure that there is a credit transfer system.” All of which is well and good, but rather beg the question, “How, exactly?”

Intriguingly, the Tories have matched the NDP on holding tuition to inflation. But they’ve not said anything about grants to institutions. Which isn’t surprising since they’re talking about closing a $500 million budget gap plus reducing a raft of taxes. That inevitably means spending cuts, and while post-secondary education might be spared, it’s nevertheless unlikely a Macfayden government would provide institutions with anything like the annual increases the NDP are promising. Seems Canada’s becoming more European by the day: freezing prices commands universal political support but ensuring strong funding to institutions doesn’t. It’s time institutions began paying attention.


September 14

Data Point of the Week: StatsCan Gets it Wrong in the EAG

So, as noted yesterday, the OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG) statfest – all 495 pages of it – was just released. Now it’s our turn to dissect some of what’s in there.

Of most immediate interest was chart B5.3, which shows the relative size of public subsidies for higher education as a percentage of public expenditures on education. It’s an odd measure, because having a high percentage could mean either that a country has very high subsidies (e.g., Norway, Sweden) or very low public expenditures (e.g., Chile), but no matter. I’ve reproduced some of the key data from that chart below.


(No, I’m not entirely clear what “transfers to other entities” means, either. I’m assuming it’s Canada Education Savings Grants, but I’m not positive.)

Anyways, this makes Canada looks chintzy, right? But hang on: there are some serious problems with the data.

In 2008, Canada spent around $22 billion on transfers to institutions. For the chart above to be right would imply that Canadian spending on “subsidies” (i.e., student aid) was in the $3.5 – 4 billion range. But that’s not actually true – if you take all the various forms of aid into account, the actual figure for 2008 is actually closer to $8 billion.

What could cause such a discrepancy? Here’s what I’m pretty sure happened:

1) StatsCan didn’t include tax credits in the numbers. Presumably this is because they don’t fit the definition of a loan or a grant, though in reality these measures are a $2 billion subsidy to households. In fairness, the U.S. – the only other country that uses education tax credits to any significant degree – didn’t include it either, but it’s a much bigger deal here in Canada.

2) StatsCan didn’t include any provincial loans, grants or remission either. They have form on this, having done the same thing in the 2009 EAG. Basically, because StatsCan doesn’t have any instrument for collecting data on provincial aid programs, it essentially assumes that such things must not exist. (Pssst! Guys! Next time, ask CMEC for its HESA-produced database of provincial aid statistics going back to 1992!) So, what happens when you add all that in (note: U.S. data also adjusted)?


Not so chintzy after all.

September 13

HESA in the News

You’ve read our report on the state of e-learning in Canada. Now read the coverage – take a look at HESA in the news:

September 13

Education at a Glance

By the time you read this, the first headlines should be coming through from Paris on the 2011 version of OECD’s annual publication, Education at a Glance (EAG). We’ll be taking a deeper look at some of the statistics tomorrow and over the coming weeks, but today I wanted to offer some thoughts on the product itself.

Over the 16 years since EAG was first published, it has had a considerable effect on policy-making around the world. By drawing direct comparisons between national systems, OECD has kick-started an entire policy sub-culture around benchmarking national outcomes. Canada, however, has had difficulty taking advantage of this explosion of comparative data, because of the difficulty adapting our education data – which is designed for our own policy purposes – to the somewhat abstract categories that OECD uses to make data from such varied countries comparable.

There’s been a lot of hysteria over this last point over the years. Back when the Canadian Council on Learning was still around (ok, they technically still exist, but have you seen what they’ve been putting out since their funding got nuked?) the annual EAG release would reliably be accompanied with anguished wails from CCL, going on about how Statistics Canada’s inability to produce comparable data was depriving the country of much of this benchmarking goodness and turning us into some third world backwater.

Slowly, however, Statistics Canada has been getting better at this, so tomorrow’s EAG may have more Canada in it that have previous editions. But just remember as you read the press coverage that there are an awful lot of caveats and simplifications that go into EAG in order to make vastly different education systems comparable. For instance, population educational attainment – a measure on which Canada traditionally does very well – is calculated based on labour force survey questionnaires which use different questions in different countries. So is Canada really the best educated country, or do we just have slack labour force survey questions?

Caveat lector.

September 12

The Newfoundland Strategy

There was an interesting study out last month from a group of scholars at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), led by Education Professor and Canadian Higher Education über-blogger Dale Kirby, called Matriculating Eastward . With MUN’s out-of-province student numbers skyrocketing in recent years (intake from the other Atlantic provinces has risen fivefold since 2002), the report used both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the reasons that out-of-province students chose Memorial as their place of study.

Not surprisingly, cost emerges as the number one factor – with fees having dropped over 35% in real terms over the last decade, MUN has become the region’s low-cost education destination. But number two on the list was interesting – availability of program of choice. It’s a hint at least that cost on its own might not be enough to make a school a “destination” – it still needs a degree of comprehensiveness and reputation for quality capacity in order for people to want to go there in the first place.

The study unsurprisingly concludes that keeping MUN a low-cost environment is key to its remaining competitive for out-of-province students. But that’s not something the university can decide on its own – MUN’s tuition is a function of provincial government largesse. And the province’s return on investment for massively subsidizing out-of-province students depends to a large degree on whether or not they choose to stay in the province after graduation. Here, the study’s results are less encouraging – migrant students’ willingness to consider staying in the province after graduation is not much better than “neutral” (3.3 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is “strongly agree”).

It’s an argument at least in favour of a two-tier tuition scheme, with one rate for home students and another for immigrants who are (arguably) just subsidy-shopping. As long as oil revenues stay healthy, it’s hard to see Newfoundland changing course. But if budget cuts ever loom, there’s every chance for Newfoundland could imitate Quebec and make visiting students pay in order to maintain locals’ privileges.

September 09

Why so Dismally Ahistorical?

If there is one thing that drives me nuts about defenders of the humanities, it’s their insistence on nailing their argument to an appeal to “historic values” which simply don’t exist.

Take a recent essay pro-Liberal Arts essay in the National Post by Simon Fraser University professor Patrick Keeney, who writes, for instance, that liberal education is an “ideal that goes back to the Greeks.” That simply isn’t correct. Liberal education is a medieval invention – and it wasn’t all that liberal in a modern sense either, consisting then of astronomy, music, geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic and grammar. Socrates, if you’ll recall your philosophy 101, kept getting his butt kicked in the marketplace by the sophists, who taught skills that were actually lucrative. Plato may not have liked the sophists – they were of course among the many Athenians who opposed his proto-fascist plans for the place – and painted them in a negative light for all eternity but there’s no question whose services Greeks actually preferred.

Then there’s the predictable yarn about how the historic mission of universities is being “bulldozed in the name of… economic pragmatism” as universities turn into mere “vocational schools.” Leaving aside the scorn for vocational education, this commonly held assumption is similarly at odds with the historical record. The earliest university faculties were entirely professional – law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, religion at Paris, and so on. Universities founded on liberal education principles were relatively rare until nineteenth century America – a time and place in which universities were arguably at their most elitist.

And then there’s the gall of arguing that governments that are to blame for convincing people that universities ought to have a professional focus. Universities have succeeded at attracting public funds by arguing that they can best create job-ready graduates. That’s always been the trade-off for public funding. There was never an era when governments sough to invest billions so every third teenager in our society can take four years to develop a life of the mind.

As the focus and function of the university continues to evolve, it’s essential that the public discourse about the role of higher education ground itself in accuracy. It shouldn’t be too much to ask defenders of disciplines in the humanities (which includes the discipline of history) who seek – in their professional lives – to uncover truth to actually get their facts right.

To put it another way, if there has been, as Keeney argues, “a widespread drift away from the arts and humanities and toward professional, applied and vocational study,” it is nothing more than a return to the university’s roots.

September 08

Blended Learning Has a Long Way to Go

Here’s the key fact you need to know about HESA’s new report on the State of E-learning in Canada: as the intensity of availability of e-learning resources increase, students become less satisfied, and less likely to say they feel they are learning a lot.

Contrary to the rantings of technophiles, students don’t behave much like “digital natives.” They still far prefer to do their readings on paper rather than on a screen, for instance. They really don’t seem to have a lot of time for dynamic e-learning resources like interactive discussion forums, and they don’t think there is any comparison between courses you take in person and those you watch even occasionally on a screen – the former wins hands down.

The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period. Particularly in the humanities, there’s an aura of eros around the teacher-as-guru that e-learning enthusiasts just don’t seem to take into account.

But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right. It might just be that the technology, and the way in which we integrate it with the curriculum, just isn’t that good. Just because students aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean universities can’t underwhelm them.

For the moment, students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue. What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.

Work done by the National Center for Academic Transformation has shown how intelligent course redesign can improve learning outcomes and reduce costs, and with budget crises looming across much of the country, this isn’t something any institution can sensibly ignore. But it will require institutions to pay a lot more attention to implementation and to continually measure and monitor results to find out what works and what doesn’t.

That’s a big task, but it’s one HESA will be working on for years to come.

Extra note: those of you in Ontario looking for deeper commentary on the Liberals’ Big Idea regarding tuition grants, visit my Globe and Mail blog.

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