Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

October 05

Conglomerate Universities and Disruptive Technologies

One thing that all these “re-inventing higher education” books flooding the market these days have in common is that they talk about universities as businesses threatened by disruptive technologies that need to re-vamp their processes in order to better cater to their customers at lower cost.

But this “universities-as-business” stuff is nonsense. Universities aren’t businesses; they’re conglomerates.

Universities have a “prepare-people-for-professions” business which dates back to the medieval period. They have a “life-of-the-mind” business which dates back to Cardinal Newman if not earlier. They have a “research, research, research” business which started in 19th century Germany and was put on steroids in 20th-century America. They have a “service to the community” business which goes back to the Morrill Act. They have a “democratization and mass teaching” business which goes back to the G.I. Bill, and they have an extension and “lifelong ;earning” business which is of murkier origin, but has really only become a major line since the 1970s (and in some ways came about as a defensive mechanism against competition from an earlier disruptive technology called “community colleges”).

Now, which of these businesses are really under threat from disruptive technologies? The lifelong learning business, certainly – disruptive technologies have been most effective at helping students who are older and more academically marginal. At the margins, it might have an effect on the mass teaching business – but to date, the evidence for this ranges between thin and non-existent.

It’s not that institutions shouldn’t be thinking about how to change their processes and bend their cost-curves, of course; there are a whole bunch of reasons why that’s both in the public interest and the interest of most institutions. But much of this “disruptive technologies as existential threat” stuff misses the point because – like all successful conglomerates – universities’ multiple businesses insulate them from the effects of radical change in any single business area.

October 04

Cool-hunting at the NBER

If you’re trying to keep abreast of the latest behavioural economics research on education, it’s worth popping in every so often at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) to check out the latest from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It’s mostly about K-12, but when it does tackle higher education, it’s unfailingly interesting.

Maybe the most interesting piece published recently is called The Effects of Student Coaching in College, by Rachel Baker and Eric Bettinger (who is, IMHO, a genius). Over a period of two years, students at a number of U.S. institutions were assigned by lottery to a program run by a company called Inside Track in which they received various forms of personal and academic coaching. (The authors have posted a fulltext version of the paper for free here.)

The results were striking: one year of coaching created an immediate increase of 12 percent in year-on-year persistence, which did not shrink in subsequent years. Coaching is a pretty intensive (and expensive) enterprise, but 12 percent is an enormous return, and compares very favourably to the results achieved by increasing student aid.

A second great paper is A Community College Instructor Like Me: Race and Ethnicity Interactions in the Classroom by Robert Fairlie, Florian Hoffman and Philip Oreopoulos. Using data from a community college where low-achieving students are quasi-randomly assigned to instructors, the authors try to work out whether minority students taught by members of their own ethnic group do better than those taught by members of other ethnic groups.

As it turns out, they do – or, at least the younger ones do (there was no role-model effect among older students). When taught by a member of their own ethnic group, non-white students closed roughly half the educational gap with white students, and the effect was even greater among black students.

It’s great research, but unlike the Bettinger piece, the policy implications are less clear-cut as the political acceptability of greater classroom segregation seems limited, even backed by results like these. And hiring more instructors of one ethnicity may lead to more classroom sorting, which could have other knock-on effects.

Both papers are great, but if you can only read one, read Baker and Bettinger – it’s a result that has the potential to seriously change the way we look at retention.

October 03

Why are Toronto Students so Friggin’ Miserable? (Part One)

Seriously, why is it that every time we do a survey for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto schools all look so weak in terms of student satisfaction? The best of the bunch – Ryerson – gets a B+, which is average for the country as a whole, but everyone else regularly gets Bs and B-minuses – or worse.

Objectively, this seems weird. U of T is by any definition a world-class university. York has the challenge of being a commuter school, but new developments to the south of Pond Road are making a difference and some of their new facilities are among the best in the country. Ryerson, now coming up on the 20th anniversary of its shift to university status, is really starting to hit its stride both in terms of research performance and the way it’s handling its physical integration into a rapidly changing downtown core.

So what’s the problem? Is it being in a big city, with all the high costs and long commutes? Hard to see how it could be. UBC, SFU, McGill and Concordia all tend to get higher satisfaction scores than any of the Toronto schools, despite being in similar big-city milieus. Is it institutional size? U of T and York may be behemoths, but that doesn’t seem to fully cut it as an answer. For one thing, it doesn’t explain the poor results at the smaller, cozier, satellite campuses.

It’s a puzzle, all right: but puzzles like that are what we at HESA live for. So we’ve started a mini-research project to explore these questions, and we’ll be sharing the results with you over the next few weeks.

Obviously, we’ll start by taking a deeper look more at the issues like campus size and characteristics. But we’ll also be focusing on the more intriguing possibility that the nature of the student body itself is to blame. With the help of our regular online survey panel, we’ll be testing the proposition that the reason Toronto schools do badly in satisfaction surveys is because Toronto students are just crankier than students elsewhere.

If we’re right, Toronto schools will be able to adjust their results for regional crankiness, and everybody else will feel the kind of smugness they do every time the Leafs miss the playoffs. That’s about as win-win as it gets.

We hope you’ll enjoy the series. Meantime – feel free to send us your own theories.

September 30

Differentiating University Missions (Part Five)

Our conference, Stepford Universities? Differentiation of Mission in the New Higher Education Landscape, wrapped up yesterday, and there were a lot of very interesting ideas floating around. To end the week, I’ll just touch on a couple of them.

Clearly, part of the problem we have in discussing a touchy issue like this is one of vocabulary. As panelist Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology says, we haven’t got the language to talk about this issue in a nuanced way. So, “differentiation” – which is really a process rather than an end goal – has actually come to mean a lot of different things to different people, which confuses the debate.

Council of Ontario Universities President Bonnie Patterson made the point that perhaps the real issue isn’t that institutions need to have different missions in terms of research, teaching and service – maybe what they really need are different profiles to make sure that there are some gains to specialization. I happen to think that’s a great idea anyway: as dollars become scarce and institutions need to sharpen their messages about who they are and what they stand for to governments and potential students (especially international ones) alike.

But maybe the most intriguing discussion came at the very end, when we talked about the forces within academia that push for homogenization – in particular, the demand to perform ever more research. One participant in the final panel (where we handed the reins over to conference participants themselves) made the point that university presidents themselves – appointed by boards who are deliberately kept away from the minutiae of academic life, and who have a natural desire to “make a mark” – have, as a class of individuals, had a lot to do with the rush to research.

It’s a very valid point, but I think there’s something deeper going on, too. For all the protestations that “lots of faculty don’t like the rush to research” and would prefer a more teaching-focussed approach, there’s been remarkably little push-back from faculty themselves over the years. My suspicion is that until a real movement within faculty groups emerges to counter this, very little other than draconian government intervention is going to get institutions to snap out of the collective Stepford trance towards greater research-intensiveness.

And, to prove this point, the University of Calgary came out with a new strategic plan yesterday. Their big strategic goal is… wait for it… to become more research-intensive! Plus ça change…

Thanks to all who attended the conference and have a great weekend!

— Alex Usher

September 29

Differentiating University Missions (Part Four)

One way or another, the underlying argument for differentiation is essentially the story of Adam Smith’s pin maker – that there are increasing returns to specialization. What those increasing returns are, exactly, is a matter of some dispute. For Harvey Weingarten, the increasing returns are essentially “more quality” – that is, for any given quantity of dollars we’ll see a higher return in terms of better research, better teaching, etc. He doesn’t really think you can save much money because of the politics.

Ian Clark and his co-authors of the book Academic Transformations, on the other hand, phrase their argument explicitly on the issue of finances – basically, that as resources become more scarce, there is a public policy case for a making institutions more specialized because it will result in a cheaper system.

Now, in both cases, the pro-diversification advocates are basing their argument on increases in productivity. The difference is essentially one of phrasing: one is about saying we can do more with the same, the other saying we can do the same with less. Politically, the former is a lot more palatable; given where we are fiscally, the latter is probably more realistic.

The strongest opposition that Weingarten’s piece encountered was from the provincial faculty association, OCUFA, which published its own piece on differentiation shortly after in response to the piece Weingarten wrote with Fiona Deller. Oddly enough, OCUFA’s response was actually more of a refutation Clark et al’s piece than it was of the Weingarten-Deller one. It seems as though the fact that Clark and co. received some HEQCO funding for their work meant that OCUFA viewed the two sets of arguments as identical even though they aren’t (quite).

Essentially, therefore, the argument against differentiation so far has boiled down to: “no, because it might mean less public money.” But it’s not as though the significant increases in per student funding has necessarily delivered big increases in quality – a point which OUSA executive director Sam Andrey made very forcefully at our conference yesterday. Empirically, saying that the alternative to differentiation is more funding just isn’t very convincing.

But there’s another possible argument against mission differentiation: namely, that it delivers a lot less than promised. As COU’s Bonnie Patterson suggested, it may be that the way forward isn’t so much about differentiation of mission in terms of the research and teaching function as it about differentiation of profile and areas of effective specialization. More on that tomorrow.

September 28

Differentiating University Missions (Part Three)

Here’s an important question. Why don’t Canadian governments act as if outputs matter when it comes to funding universities and colleges?

There’s nowhere in Canada where the overwhelming majority of operating funding isn’t essentially determined by enrolments (OK, you get goofy exceptions like Nova Scotia where the funding formula is based on what enrolment was in 2003, but apart from that…). But this creates no incentives other than to try increase market share, which essentially is a zero-sum game. It’s also really dull.

If we want to shake things up and get institutions to pursue differentiation, we need to go in a radically different direction. And in this respect, I’m a big proponent of the methods of the X Prize Foundation. Put a carrot out there big enough for institutions to pursue and institutions will change their behavior.

Interested in emphasizing good teaching? Why not offer $50 million annually to the institution that comes top on teaching quality in the next Globe and Mail satisfaction exercise? I guarantee that dozens of institutions will snap to it in terms of emphasizing teaching.

(Yes, yes, I know it’s an imperfect measure of teaching. But do it once and it’s an absolutely certainty that institutions will come up with a better measurement method the next year, so why not, you know?)

One could do the same kind of thing in terms of all sorts of outputs. The institution with the greatest impact on local economies? $40 million every five years. The institution that does the most to improve graduate employability? $80 million every five years. The amounts don’t actually matter that much, as long as they are big enough to drive institutional behaviour.

Where quantitative data can’t quite provide a definitive answer, adjudication can be done entirely by academics themselves (though preferably ones from out-of-province or from other countries) – by all means, let’s keep the principle of peer review. If nothing else, it will make institutions pay attention to their own outputs a lot more assiduously, which would be a good in and of itself.

As we saw yesterday, academia left to itself won’t provide diversity. You can try to tie institutions down to particular missions, but that’s likely to meet with resistance. So why not put down the stick and try some carrots instead? Considering how badly we’ve done at incentivizing diversity to date, the downside seems pretty minimal.

September 27

Differentiating University Missions (Part Two)

One of the things that distinguishes Canadian universities from those virtually anywhere else is the unparalleled freedom they have to determine their own mission. In most countries – including our neighbours to the south, I should underline – the final say over public institutions belongs with government. As one of our American-born staffers once explained to a compatriot “the difference is that up here, public universities get funding from the government, and then they tell government to kiss off.” Our institutions have freedoms that are largely reserved for private institutions in most countries.

At one level, of course, this is all to the good. It’s generally accepted that decentralization of authority in education leads to more innovation and responsiveness. What’s intriguing, though, is that despite all this freedom, there’s a remarkable unanimity among institutions about which direction they’d like to be heading: more graduate students, more research intensity and a more globalized posture.

Obviously, this can’t be explained by free institutions looking for market opportunities. It would be ludicrous to suggest that there aren’t communities looking for universities that specialize in undergraduate teaching and that have strong regional development mandates.

What it does suggest, though, is two things: a) there are other, deeper tendencies in academia which are pushing in the opposite direction and b) governments don’t make other missions sufficiently attractive financially.

The deeper tendency is fairly obvious; the professoriate – which owns our universities in all but name – spends the better part of a decade in training being trained to do research and would, given the choice, prefer their professional lives to revolve more around research than teaching. Professionally, great researchers are valued over great teachers. Left to their own devices, this is what they’d prefer to be doing. Hence the trend towards institutional isomorphism.

So the role of government – assuming it doesn’t want all universities to look the same – is to create a system that encourages institutions to act in diverse ways. Assuming tuition is capped and institutions can’t make money out of good teaching by charging for it, government only has two choices. One is that it can use regulatory power to set out different missions for institutions (which is essentially what happens in the U.S., and is also more or less what was advocated by HEQCO’s Harvey Weingarten and Fiona Deller in their paper The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector).

The other is that government can use a variety of financial carrots to incentivize different types of behavior. More on that tomorrow.

September 26

Differentiating University Missions (Part One)

This week, HESA is hosting a conference in Toronto on the subject of Differentiation of University Missions. We’re focusing on this because we think there are a host of factors both inside and outside academia that are pushing institutions towards isomorphism. In a word, there’s a danger that institutions are becoming clones of one another, robotically following the same script – rather like the placid ladies of Stepford.

There are obviously a lot of facets to this issue, but broadly, I think we can point to three factors which (in no particular order) dovetail with one another to put pressure on institutions to homogenize themselves:

1) Government Incentives.  In most countries, governments don’t really incentivize institutions to behave differently from one another.  In Canada, we present almost no incentives for institutions to do anything other than publish more and accept more students. Given the current array of subsidies, where is the incentive for institutions to pursue excellence in teaching, or to do a superb job in regional development?

2) The Preferences of the Professoriate.  Let’s not kid ourselves; nobody is happier about the increasing research-intensitiveness of Canadian universities than academics themselves. When middling universities tell their staff they have to teach less in order to keep up with the big boys and girls of Canadian academia, who complains, exactly?

3) The Prestige Race. I’m not entirely convinced this third reason is actually conceptually separate from the second; however, some very smart people who I respect a great deal (like conference guest Ellen Hazelkorn) do, so it seems apposite to include it. Basically this argument is that the pull of major rankings systems – especially the big international ones like the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings – have queered the definition of excellence to the point where institutions have no choice but to privilege their research missions of over all other.

What can we do about this? What other models are there out there to encourage diversity? Who gets to decide what missions institutions can or can’t have? These are the questions we’ll be dealing with this week, both at out conference and in this blog. Feel free to join in the discussion.

September 23

SSHRC and its Mission

There was a great story by the Globe’s James Bradshaw in July on the fate of the $17.5 Million of SSHRC’s budget that was set aside by the Government of Canada for “business-related degrees” in the 2009 federal budget that didn’t get the attention it deserved on account of coming out too close to the Canada Day weekend. Basically, it revolved around Rotman’s Roger Martin’s assertion that the program was an “abject failure” because it went to almost everyone except MBA students.

What apparently eluded the scheme’s proponents was the fact that the “R” in SSHRC actually standards for “research.”  And since MBAs tend not to do a lot of primary research, most of that money – not unreasonably – went to students doing “business-related” research in a variety of other fields.

What’s most interesting to me about Bradshaw’s story – apart from the obvious stuff about how the same community that whined about the PMO “directing” SSHRC to put aside a new pot of money for (horrors) business had no qualms at all about accepting PMO-directed money when it came under the label of the “digital economy” – is how the scheme’s authors (including Martin) came to think their original plan was a good idea.

Martin, apparently, was under the impression that SSHRC operates as a giant slush fund for grad students, and the story implies that what Martin thought he was getting with the 2009 budget was a pot of money that MBA students could use to offset their ever-heftier tuition fees. It’s easy to scoff at the naivete of this view, but it’s easy enough to see where he might have got this impression; directly or indirectly, something like two-thirds of SSHRC’s budget ends up with graduate students.

It makes you wonder: is SSHRC’s primary purpose to relieve institutions of the burden of funding all those social science graduate students? If institutions had to fund their own graduate students, would we have anything like as many graduates students in the arts as we do?  Have we implicitly federalized the Social Sciences and Humanities, and if so, what should the implications of this be?

September 22

By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

There are two ways of thinking about student unions. You can think of them as being (a) populated by idealists, who only want education for all, or you can think of them as (b) actual unions, prioritizing wins (financial and otherwise) for their members – who, let’s recall, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than society as a whole – ahead of any other cause.

With that in mind, let’s look at the some recent public statements from the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter.

March 2011 – The Canadian Federation of Students says it is “disappointed” that the Ontario budget included measures to improve access by increasing spaces rather than reduce tuition fees for students who are already in post-secondary.

September 2011 – The Ontario Liberal party announces it will reduce tuition fees by thirty percent for every student from a family earning less than $160,000 per year. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says it would prefer a solution that spent more money to include families earning over $160,000 as well (who, last we checked, weren’t having problems accessing PSE).

Both incidents seem to lend themselves to the interpretation that the CFS cares only about money for all of its members. This is, of course, an entirely fair and reasonable position for a union to take.

But then, a new piece of evidence arrives that really makes you wonder:

September 2011 – CFS-O issues its party platform report card for the Ontario election. The NDP platform, which freezes tuition fees and eliminates interest on student loans, gets a B+ for affordability. The Liberal platform, which provides tuition rebates of 30% for 85% all of students, but allows base tuition to continue to creep upwards, gets a B. The report card helpfully points out that the Liberal tuition promise would cost $430 million annually, while the NDP interest elimination and tuition freeze would cost $110 million.

Even from the crude analytical perspective of “how much students get,” this makes zero sense. The only students who would be better off under the NDP proposals would be those from households with over $160,000. And while the NDP proposal does contain the holy grail of “freezing tuition,” the Liberal proposal hands students almost a billion more dollars over four years than the NDP one does.

That’s an awful lot of money to punt for the right to say that tuition is frozen, and isn’t consistent with our earlier theory about being their being solely concerned with financial wins. Rather, it suggests deep confusion about the difference between means and ends.

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