Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

November 29

Rankings Indigestion

The easiest knock on rankings like those produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is that they only measure research, and that universities are about much more than just research. That’s absolutely true, of course, but to my mind it also reflects a general unwillingness to come to grips with what an odd, hybrid of an organization higher education really is.

Go back two hundred years and universities were nearly irrelevant as institutions. The decline of the church had robbed the academy of much of its traditional purpose. Napoleon thought universities so useless that he closed them all and created a set of grandes écoles instead. Similarly, in Germany, universities at the start of the nineteenth century were seen as so useless in contributing to national priorities that they were completely remodeled along research lines by Alexander Humboldt.

The idea of a research mission is so ingrained in our understanding of a university that it’s hard to imagine them without it – but historically, it’s a fairly recent development. In the early 1800s, nearly all scientific research was done outside universities. The spread of the German model in the nineteenth century changed that a bit, but in many ways it was only the two World Wars of the twentieth century and the persuasive arguments of Vannevar Bush that really convinced governments to (a) spend on scientific research and (b) over time, concentrate that spending in universities. Nowadays, there’s very little discovery-oriented research that doesn’t occur in universities.

In other words, over the course of the last two centuries, as part of a long-term quest to become more relevant, the university (writ large) ate science.

That has consequences. Though teaching isn’t really much of a prestige activity, and teaching has almost exclusively a local impact and local role, science wants to be global. To use a neurological metaphor, individual scientists or labs are like neurons, and they are always seeking to send out dendrites to find and link up with other related neurons, with information passing between them to create positive feedback loops. One of the things that research rankings (and the bilbliometric studies on which they are based) do, at a very high level at least, is provide some indication to scientists as to where to send out their dendrites. In that sense, they are an essential tool in the globalization of science.

In sum: rankings are useful to science, but rankings irritate universities. Given that universities gorged themselves on science and reaped major benefits as a result, it’s not unreasonable to think of rankings as a form of indigestion after a very fine meal.

November 28

Weak Arguments

I am a social scientist. I like the social sciences. I also like the humanities, even if I do find many people’s defense of the humanities to be shrill and weirdly ahistorical. So, naturally, I’m a fan of SSHRC.

What I am not a fan of, however, is some of the drivel that passes for advocacy on SSHRC’s behalf.

One argument that gets pulled out every once in awhile and which annoys me immensely is the one that says, “Social sciences and humanities have 55% of the professors but only get 15% of federal grant dollars” (or whatever the numbers happen to be this year). Sometimes this is phrased via applications, such as “1 in 3 professors/postdocs/grad students in sciences gets an NSERC grant compared to only 1 in 9 in the social sciences and humanities” (or whatever the numbers are this year).

These arguments aren’t wrong because the figures are wrong – the figures are immaterial. These arguments are wrong because they presuppose some kind cross-disciplinary equity which is neither true nor desirable.

Society is not under any obligation to give research grants to scholars. To the extent that it does, it will do so in pursuit of societal goals. Some of these will involve the social sciences and humanities, but it’s safe to say that most will not. There is no country in the world which divides research dollars equally by discipline; Canada, by and large, treats its social sciences and humanities extremely well (seriously – go check out the proportion of granting council dollars given to SSHRC disciplines in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and France and see if you still think Canada’s miserly on this front).

The idea that the underlying logic of research grant funding should be “equal treatment of scholars” rather than “spending money where society thinks it will bring greatest returns” is actually fairly offensive. It reeks of entitlement, for one thing, which is never a good start from a PR point of view.

SSHRC funds great work. Sure, there are duds, but that’s true at NSERC and CIHR, too. It’s the nature of the beast. Researchers in the social sciences and the humanities can and should make their case for funding on the social returns of their research, not on some half-baked notion of equality.

November 25

Grades, Satisfaction and Miserable Toronto Students

It’s been noted many times (here, for instance) that professors who give easy As tend to do better on course evaluations than those who don’t. But does this work at the institutional level as well?

It’s hard to tell directly because all institutions essentially grade on the same curve. But we can get at it indirectly by looking at the gap between high school and university grades, which does vary significantly – at more selective institutions, students see a drop; at less selective ones their grades tend to get better.

For this analysis we use self-reported data on grades. Now, we know that skeptics say that this is bad methodology because asking students to self-report on grades is like asking men on a dating site to report on their height or income – all three tend to rise in the telling. But what we’re looking at here is change in reported grades. As long as any exaggeration is consistent across time, the exaggerations should cancel each other out. For math-heads, this can be expressed as:

Onwards to look at our sample from the Globe and Mail. We start by arranging the changes in reported grades between high school and university in bands and looking at average satisfaction in each band. It turns out that there is very little change in satisfaction levels unless students see a very large drop in marks (13% or worse).

Figure 1: Satisfaction by Change in Grades from High School to University

Loyal readers will know where this is going. Guess which city has an abnormally high proportion of students whose grades drop precipitously once they get to university?

Figure 2: Percentage of Students with a Drop in Grades of 13% or Worse

How big a difference does this make to satisfaction? Well, check out the differences in satisfaction between students with large grade drops versus others at Toronto institutions; at Mississauga, the difference between students whose grades have fallen a long way and others is greater than one standard deviation.

Figure 3: Average Satisfaction, Students with Large Mark Drop-Offs vs. Others, Toronto

Oddly, when we look at the five institutions elsewhere in Canada with the most students experiencing large drops in marks, we don’t see anything like the same drop in satisfaction, to wit:

Figure 4: Average Satisfaction, Students with Large Mark Drop-Offs vs. Others, Not Toronto

It’s not quite a story about big fish from little ponds getting shocked by the jump to a larger pool. It’s that big fish from Toronto ponds are both likelier to feel a shock and that they feel a whole a lot worse about the jump that fish elsewhere. A simple case of Torontonians’ elevated sense of entitlement? Maybe. Or maybe Toronto is just a more ruthless environment, with higher social penalties for poor performance.

November 24

Beyond Co-op (Part Two)

Yesterday, I wrote about the results of our study on work-integrated learning, where we reported on the results of a survey asking students to tell us how much they thought their various jobs helped them in terms of reinforcing concepts learned in class, obtaining workplace skills and career preparation. In particular, I emphasized that while co-op programs came more or less top of the pack on these measures, two other types of employment were found capable of delivering very similar kinds of results and that some important policy implications followed from this.

The first of these employment types were summer jobs where students indicated that their field of study was the only or the best possible field for the job they held. These jobs, on average, were rated by students as being slightly better than co-op placements in terms of reinforcing learning and career preparation.

This poses a bit of a challenge to the idea of work-integrated learning, because it suggests that, provided they can get study-related jobs in the first place, students are capable of doing the integration of working and learning on their own. Co-op, in other words, may be a superlative way of getting students into study-related temporary jobs, but it’s not as clear that the institution has much role in actually helping students make sense of their work experiences.

The second type of work that had surprisingly good results in our survey were RAships and academic fieldwork. These aren’t always described as being “work-integrated learning” because they can be seen as too theoretical and don’t involve outside employers (i.e., the “real life” elements that are sometimes thought of as being key to the success of programs like co-op). Yet their benefits are of a similar order of magnitude.

What’s important about this is that it opens up the possibility for more co-op like experiences in fields of study where co-op has had difficulty taking root. Co-op isn’t simple to implement – even if it’s only implemented superficially, it requires a wholesale reorganization of the academic calendar that few institutions are willing to implement. But RAships and academic fieldwork don’t require the same kind of disruption and can be implemented across more or less all fields of study.

Co-op is too good an idea to keep it restricted – as it too often is – to just a few fields of study. If institutions can, at relatively low cost, provide more students co-op-like benefits by making RAships more widely available, it must be worth a try, no?

November 23

Beyond Co-op (Part One)

One perennial topic of interest in Canadian higher education (particularly during recessions) is the subject of Work-Integrated Learning – that is, work experience which is organized by an educational institution and which is incorporated into a student’s educational programme. Today, HESA is releasing a paper by Miriam Kramer and me on how students’ work experiences stack up in terms of learning outcomes that contain some interesting results.

We asked a little over 2,100 students about a variety of work experiences: summer jobs, part-time in-school work, volunteer positions, TAships, RAships, co-ops and various forms of what we call “internships” (which includes practicums, placements, etc.). Specifically, we asked them how much each of the of these experiences might have helped them in terms of reinforcing concepts learned in class, obtaining workplace skills and preparing students for future work. Our goal here was to avoid simply measuring the benefits of programs like co-ops and internships, because it’s pretty clear that there is educational value in all forms of work; what’s important is rather to look at the value-added of such programs.

What we found was that in terms of obtaining workplace skills, students reported gaining them more or less equally across all types of jobs – there was no special benefit to work-integrated learning programs. On the other hand, when it comes to reinforcing concepts learned in class and preparing students for future work, there is a clear hierarchy among types of work. Not surprisingly, summer and in-school work were seen as being at the bottom, with co-ops and internships at the top.

That academic programs which mix class-room learning and “real-world” jobs fare best on these measures isn’t a surprise, but two of our other findings were. The first was that research assistantships/academic fieldwork were rated almost as highly as co-ops in terms of reinforcing academic concepts and career preparation. The second was that while summer jobs as a whole rated pretty lousy on those metrics, for the one in six students who said their field of study was the only or best possible one for the summer job they held, the results were indistinguishable from those of co-op programs.

In other words, while co-op is indeed pretty cool, it is possible to replicate co-op’s successes through other means. The high scores received by RAships suggest that placement in “real world” jobs are not key to co-op’s success, and the fact that some types of summer jobs can do the same suggests that co-op’s successes don’t depend solely on the mediation of an institution.

Give the paper a read today. More on the policy implications tomorrow.

November 22

The New AUCC

Reading through a couple of recent AUCC initiatives – notably: the “five commitments”and its new brochure on the value of universities, it occurred to me how much AUCC’s focus seems to have changed in the last few years. Though it hasn’t really been remarked upon, there seems to be a slow but dramatic shift in the way higher education lobbying occurs in Ottawa.

As late as 2000, AUCC still had an unrivalled lobbying presence in Ottawa. Individual institutions were starting to beef up their own government relations offices, but for the most part these concentrated on local issues and left Ottawa to AUCC. Over the past decade, though, the rise of the U-15 (formerly the G-13 and the G-10) has altered the landscape. Most if not all of these institutions decided that they needed to have their own lobbying presence in the capital. This didn’t mean having their own lobbying offices there, but it does mean their upgraded GR departments now spend a lot more time on calls and flights to Ottawa than they used to.

The apotheosis of this trend is the fact that the U-15 is now engaged in a search for a full-time president and is looking for someone of VP or even presidential rank to fill the spot. You don’t do that unless you’re looking to upgrade your lobbying capability.

This means that Canada is about to head down the route of having multiple and overlapping groups representing the higher education sector. That’s hardly unprecedented or even negative; both the U.S. and the U.K. do something similar (ACE and UUK represent the broad sector, but a series of smaller organizations such as AASCU and NAICU, or the Russell Group and Million+, represent specific groupings). But it does change the nature of AUCC’s role.

In a sense the change started two years ago, when the organization hired Paul Davidson. Basically, having spent 14 years run by former mandarins (Claire Morris and Robert Giroux) whose stock-in-trade was behind-the-scenes access to government officials, AUCC hired someone whose strengths lay much more in public advocacy. In that respect, it’s notable, for instance, how the “five points” and the brochure both seem to be aimed at influencers outside government.

After a decade-long winning streak, higher education is starting to face a more skeptical reception in Ottawa. What seems to be happening is that AUCC’s role is to play defence for the sector by mobilizing public support on behalf of the sector as a whole. Meanwhile, the U-15 get to keep playing a more offensive role, lobbying for more specific policies, mainly in research.

Where that leaves the rest of the sector is anyone’s guess.

November 21

Try a New Market, For Once

Time for a pop quiz. Name a developing Asian nation that:

– Had GDP growth of over 5% most years since 1995
– Has a population over two-thirds of which speaks English
– Has a secondary school attainment rate of almost 90%
– Has a seriously underdeveloped higher education system
– Has been sending an average of over 15,000 people to Canada as immigrants each year since 2001

The answer is important because, let’s face it, a country like that has to be worth some time serious time and energy as far as recruiting international students, right? In fact, it sounds like Nirvana. There must be hundreds of recruiters there right now, mustn’t there?

For those of you who think this quiz is pointless because the answer is “India” and there are already thousands of recruiters there already, you are 100% wrong. Back of the class, please.

The answer is the Philippines. It’s not quite an Asian tiger but its GDP-per-capita is substantially higher than India’s and its secondary school system isn’t anything to sneeze at. Moreover, unlike India, Filipinos are used to paying lots of money for higher education (given the country’s underdeveloped public higher education sector, private higher education with its attendant fees is the norm).

 So why aren’t Canadian recruiters falling over themselves to go to the Philippines? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it’s because of the two countries’ relative size. Maybe, it’s because of the kinds of stereotypes associated with immigrants from both countries (India is often associated with scientists and PhDs; the Philippines tend to be thought of in terms of nurses and domestic employees).

But maybe, also (say it softly), Canadian institutions have trouble doing things that are even a little bit contrarian. When’s the last time you heard of Canadian recruiters going somewhere that was virgin territory? More often than not, we’re following a few years behind trails already blazed by Australians and others.

Which is too bad, frankly. Once the U.K. and Australia fix their visa issues (something they are well on their way to doing), Canadian institutions won’t be able to count on a seemingly limitless stream of Indian students anymore. They might just need to start developing some new markets rather than go to the same well over and over again. The Philippines might be an interesting place to start.

November 18

Can You Build Your Way to Happiness?

With a half dozen universities currently planning upgrades to their athletics facilities, it’s worth asking the question: what’s the impact of these things on student satisfaction?

(Yes…we know…satisfaction isn’t everything. But it’s not nothing, either. And it has the singular value of being measurable, so…onwards!)

We have two recent case studies here. In 2009, Queen’s completed a new $230 million athletics complex, while in 2010, Trent completed an $18 million renovation to its own athletics building. What kind of effects did these renos have on satisfaction?

On our nine-point satisfaction scale, Queen’s saw a 3.4-point jump in satisfaction with Athletics facilities after completion of the new building; Trent saw a 2.3-point bump after its renovations were done. Clearly, it’s not dollars alone that push satisfaction – Trent got 0.126 points of satisfaction per million dollars spent, while Queen’s only got 0.015, which is an order of magnitude of difference.

But that’s just satisfaction with facilities. What about overall satisfaction with recreational and athletic programs themselves? It turns out these see a bump, too, but it’s not as large: the bump is about 1.7 (out of 9) at Queen’s and 1.3 at Trent.

Let’s take this still further. Satisfaction with athletic buildings and facilities is one of a number of buildings and facilities questions we ask. How much satisfaction “flows through” to overall satisfaction with buildings and facilities?

Answer: Not much. While both universities see an increase in overall satisfaction with buildings and facilities, Queens’ increase is small (about 0.22) and not out of line with the increase that Queen’s saw the previous year. Trent does have an anomalous bump of 0.30, which is more than one would expect from statistical noise.

Finally, let’s ask the big question – do these investments have a clear impact on overall satisfaction with the educational experience at these schools?

Answer: No – or, at least, not enough to stand out amidst all of the other factors that affect students’ satisfaction from year to year. Both schools actually saw small decreases in overall satisfaction in the years that the projects are completed.

In sum, it doesn’t seem like you can build your way to student satisfaction: students can’t be bought quite that easily. It would be interesting to have a counter-factual to Queen’s in order to find out what happens if you stick with an old, run-down athletics building and spend $230 million on decreasing class sizes or improving pedagogy instead. Our guess is the effect would be much more dramatic.

Maybe one day we’ll get a chance to try that out.

Alex Usher and Jason Rogers

November 17

Kids in the House

One of the big memes in student affairs these days is the increasing dependence of students on their parents. Sometimes, this is blamed on parents’ over-protectiveness, sometimes on students’ reluctance to grow up, but regardless, it seems a point of general agreement.

We can’t say much about long-term trends, but thanks to our regular CanEd Student Research Panel, we can provide a more nuanced portrait of these students. A few months ago, we asked panel members who lived at home about their parents’ on-going involvement in their lives. Specifically, we asked them what kinds of household activities their parents still did on their behalf. The results are shown in the figure below.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 81% of students reported that their parents often or always shopped for their groceries, 71% of students’ parents paid their household bills and 65% had their meals cooked for them by their parents. Female students were slightly more likely than males to report that their parents conducted household chores for them, with the exception of grocery shopping, where males were more likely to rely on parents than were females. Allophones and scholarship recipients were also more likely than other types of students to report that their parents conducted household chores for them.

In the absence of historical data on this subject, we have to wonder how university students would have answered these questions five, ten and twenty years ago. Are students increasingly dependent on their parents, or are things pretty much the way they’ve always been? And if they are increasingly dependent, is that just a function of changing demographics (i.e., more students from cultures where living with parents into adulthood is more common), or a more general phenomenon of delayed adulthood?

Let us know what you think.

Miriam Kramer and Alex Usher

One Thought to Start Your Day takes requests! Is there a topic you want to see addressed, or some data that makes you curious? We can help. Got any ideas for questions to put to our CanEd Student Research Panel? Drop us a note and we’ll see what we can do for you.

November 16

Helicopter Parents: Grounded?

We’ve all seen stories about “helicopter parents,” parents who hover over their children even after they enrol in university. But most of these stories are American in origin and tend to be anecdotal in nature. What’s the reality in Canada?

A few months ago, we asked our regular CanEd Student Research Panel what kind of on-going involvement their parents had in their lives. Did their parents help them with their homework or help them select courses or extracurricular activities? Had they helped them find a job, or (helicopter alert!) helped them contest a grade? The figure shows the results.

By some distance, the area in which parents gave the most assistance was finding a job, with runners up in assistance with school work, discussing a problem with a professor or administrator, and suggesting extra-curricular activities. Only 3% of students said their parents had behaved in that most helicopter-ish of ways by contesting a grade for them.

Female students were more likely to report having parental involvement in all of the categories compared to male students, and parental education was positively correlated with all categories as well. On academic matters, such as getting help with schoolwork and course selection, parental involvement increased with parental level of education. Anglophone parents were more likely to assist with schoolwork compared to other parents; allophone parents (many of whom are immigrants) were more likely to assist with course selection. Regarding choosing a career path or finding a job, allophone parents were more likely to be involved in choosing a career path, but substantially less likely to be involved with finding a job compared to Anglophone and Francophone parents.

Clearly, helicopter parents are not the norm among Canadian university students. So why do we hear so much about them? For one, they make a great news story. As well, it is possible that even a small percentage of meddling parents can affect institutional work patterns: at a campus of 30,000 students, if 3% of students’ parents call about their children’s grades, that’s 900 parental calls, or at least two calls a day, into the offices of Deans and Student Affairs. If that’s up from 2% a few years ago, that’s an extra 300 calls. That’s certainly enough to cause stories of helicopter parents to circulate, even if they aren’t in fact all that common.

Miriam Kramer and Alex Usher

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