Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

October 18

Well, That Was Interesting

The Report of the Expert Panel on R&D, that is. It’s an intriguing and well-written piece of work (kudos to Peter Nicholson), at least as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

There are three things this report does extremely well: i) it explains the mind-boggling number of tiny programs the federal government supports, ii) it graphically shows how the Scientific Research and Experimental Development program massively overshadows all other panels combined and iiI), it amusingly tells the government in no uncertain terms that the bit in their mandate about evaluating the relative effectiveness of programs was a crock because no data exists to allow such a comparison.

(Seriously – read the first three pages of chapter 5, because they set a whole new standard in expert panels rejecting the premise of their terms of reference.)

Those pieces of fabulousness aside, the panel came up with six main recommendations and a bunch of subsidiary ones, which you can find in short form here. Some of them are completely innocuous, such as “encouraging more collaboration” and “simplifying forms”; some are only mildly innocuous, like “having a national dialogue about innovation.” Some of them are neither innocuous nor radical but simply overdue, especially the recommendations on improving venture capital funding.

Others are more radical, such as the creation of a one-stop shop known as the Industrial Research and Innovation Council. The effectiveness of such bodies have to be taken somewhat on faith; single-windows have their advantages, but they depend on effective management which not all arms-length organizations have. The most intriguing proposed mandate given to this body is the creation of a national “business innovation talent strategy.” It’s a fascinating idea, which depends on a great deal of co-operation between several ministries across two levels of government plus educational institutions. There’s some potential for crashing and burning here – but potential for real innovation breakthroughs as well.

The headline recommendation, though, has to be the call to “transform” the National Research Council, though a process which skeptics might call “asset stripping.” Basically, all 17 of its institutes are to be either incorporated into a government agency, turned into a non-profit or integrated with a university or universities. University government relations offices should have a ball with that last one: let the lobbying begin!

But most amazing of all – there is nothing in the recommendations about any of the NSERC or tri-council programs that were included in the review. Not. One. Word.

How did that happen? My guess is we’ll never find out. But I’ll bet it’s a really good story.

October 17

The Future of Canadian R&D – Round One

The Mowat Institute showed some canny timing by releasing its paper, Canada’s Innovation Underperformance: Whose Policy Problem Is It?, on the Friday before the federal government’s Research and Development Review Panel reports. It was a real master-class in media management.

The report, authored by Tijs Creutzberg, doesn’t break a lot of new ground; in many ways it’s just a lit review, albeit a very nicely-written one. Basically, it argues two things: i) that our government innovation strategies are overly biased towards tax-credits and make insufficient use of direct cash support and ii) that there is too much overlap between federal and provincial policy instruments.

Though the first issue got the lion’s share of the media attention Friday, it’s actually the place where the report is thinnest. The report’s “evidence” basically consists of one graph which shows Canada as a policy outlier in its reliance on tax credits (not news if you’ve been keeping up with the OECD literature), and two paper citations on the benefits of direct subsidies over tax credits (one of which, if you bother to look it up, actually says nothing at all about the relative efficacy of direct support versus tax credits). Creutzberg may well be right about this, but on the evidence presented, it’s hard to tell.

On the second issue – that of carving more rational policy roles for the federal and provincial government – Creutzberg oozes good sense about the importance of place and regions in research, and then comes up with an eminently logical way of dividing up policy responsibilities between the two. The problem is that some of the recommendations come off sounding a tad too idealistic. However sensible it might be to get the federal government out of direct cluster-specific subsidies or for provinces to abjure sector-specific tax credits, it’s really, really hard to imagine it ever happening. Forget theories of federalism – those programs win votes, and politicians don’t give up vote-winners easily.

Untouched in Creutzberg’s paper is the issue of how all those federal billions that go to university research play into our research and innovation system. That is likely going to be the centerpiece of today’s paper from the Expert Panel. There’s a serious air of anticipation about this report; despite rumours of a divided panel not a single leak has taken place, which in Ottawa is about as rare as a Senators’ playoff run. It should be interesting.

Tune in tomorrow for more.

October 14

Teaching, Testing, Grading

In the last couple of months, some very interesting memes have started to take shape around the role of the professoriate.

Grade inflation – or grade compression as some would have it – is of course quite real. Theories for it vary; there’s the “leave-us-alone-so-we-can-do-research theory,” and also the “professors-are-spineless-in-the-face-of-demanding-students theory.” Regardless of the cause, the agent is clear: professors. They simply haven’t held a consistent standard over time, and that’s a problem.

About two months ago, the Chronicle put together a very interesting article on Western Governors University and how they’ve managed to avoid grade inflation. Simply put: they don’t let teachers grade. Rather, they leave that job to cohorts of assessors, all of whom possess at least a Master’s degree in the subject they are grading, and who are quite separate from the instructors.

This kind of makes sense: teachers are subject matter experts, but they aren’t expert assessors, so why not bring in people who are? Unlike professors, who have to put up with course evaluations, independent assessors have no incentive to skew grades.

One could take this further. Not only are professors not experts at grading, but they aren’t necessarily experts at devising tests, either. Solution? Step forward Arnold Kling of George Mason University who recommends improving testing by having outside professionals taking a professor’s lecture notes and course readings and fashioning a test on the basis of them.

Are there good reasons to try these ideas? On grading, the gains might be on quality rather than cost. Informally, TAs do a lot of the grading in large classrooms anyways so it’s not as if we aren’t already quasi-outsourcing this stuff. But the TAs have no more expertise than professors in terms of assessment, so professionalizing the whole thing might be beneficial. On testing, you might not get cost advantage unless you had some economies of scale (i.e., you’d need multiple participating institutions to make it worthwhile), though again there may be quality advantages.

Of course, to get any cost savings at all on either of these, you’d need to get professors to explicitly trade their testing and marking responsibilities in these areas for greater class loads. Have them teach three courses a term instead of two, but do less in each of them. It’s hard to say if anyone would bite on that one; but given coming funding crunches, it might be worth somebody at least trial-ballooning these ideas during their next collective bargaining round.

October 13

Why the “Great Disruption” is Bogus

So apparently Inigral CEO Michael Staton – who by and large is a sensible guy – has been talking up this idea about higher education being about to undergo a “Great Disruption.” Why he thinks this is the case isn’t clear – he spends most of his Inside Higher Ed article explaining why higher education isn’t, contra some of higher education’s weirder critics, in a bubble, but he does think everyone needs to spend a lot of money adapting to it right now.

This is what’s known as “talking your own book.” We consultants all do it to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right. And in this case, I happen to think Staton’s dead wrong.
The best analogy I can think of here is the frenzy over the “Death of Distance” in the mid-1990s. You may recall that there was briefly an intellectual fad for thinking that the “information superhighway” (younger readers: yes, some people really called it that) would render place irrelevant, allow people to work and collaborate from wherever they were and render large urban conglomerations ever less relevant.

Some of that occurred, of course, but as it turned out place started to matter more than ever. We like talking to people all over the world on the Internet, but we like physically working with and learning from others in the flesh.

And so it is for higher education. Obviously, technological change is having a very big effect on the way we store, use and relate to information. At the margin, we can improve undergraduate learning outcomes using technology, though as we pointed out in a study a few weeks ago, we need to get a lot better at integrating the technology.

But is this stuff going to replace a traditional undergraduate degree for the 18-24 crowd (which is, after all, still the core business of just about every university in the world)? Absolutely not. Students and their parents think it’s as important as ever to get their education in the flesh. There is no reason at all to think that this is going to change, and every reason to believe that parents will continue to pay top dollar for a developmental experience which is deeply based in intensive human contact.

As I noted last week, one university business line (adult professional education) is vulnerable to new technologies. Everything else, for the foreseeable future, is going to be remarkably insensitive to technological change. Period.

October 12

Enough About National Goals, Already

In any discussion of Canadian post-secondary education, you know you’re about to approach an impasse when someone starts blaming some real or imagined ill on the lack of “national goals” or the absence of a federal ministry of higher education.

Honestly, who cares? The lack of a Department of Education until the Carter administration didn’t stop the U.S. from creating one of the world’s great PSE systems. Our lack of one hasn’t prevented us from having world-class research funding or one of the most accessible systems of higher education globally.

But that hasn’t stopped the Canadian Council on Learning from devoting its valedictory report to the subject of – yes, you guessed it – how terrible it is that Canada has no national goals in education.

Once it became clear that CCL, a federally-funded entity, was not going to have the support of co-operation of the provinces (due in no small measure to CEO Paul Cappon’s own behavior – he secretly worked with the feds to set up the Council while still working for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada) it was always going to struggle to find a role or a niche. The council decided early on that banging the drum for “national goals” (which is partially but not entirely code for “more federal involvement”) was going to be it.

From then on, virtually any problem one could name in higher education was henceforth a problem of national goals. CCL had a hammer, and every problem was a nail. Just read the CCL report and see. Immigrant skills not meeting labour market demand? That’s a result of not having national goals in PSE. StatsCan unable to make its data comparable with the OECD’s? National goals, again. The rather more sensible propositions that poor immigration policy or lack of imagination at StatsCan could be the issue doesn’t even enter the picture.

The report baselessly asserts that more national action could reduce the male-female attainment gap, or improve apprenticeship completion rates. It is even more baselessly asserted that Canada has no quality assurance agencies in PSE when in fact seven of ten provinces do have one with an eighth (Saskatchewan) about to bring one in.

It’s the same kind of magical thinking used by Quebec separatists. The nature of the actual problem barely matters: once we have achieved separatism/adopted national policy goals in PSE, those problems will disappear. From an organization that once aspired to thought leadership in the field, it’s a disappointingly simplistic and ahistorical approach.

October 11

Two Memes About Science

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of two very interesting memes about science, both of which have the potential to radically re-shape higher education.

The first is from Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist famed for having invested early in Facebook. Yes, he often comes off as a self-promoting jerk, but a recent speech he made on the subject of the slowdown in the development of technology (and the associated National Review article) is very much worth reading. Riffing off Tyler Cowen’s recent e-book The Great Stagnation, Thiel argues that innovation is stalling, and that technology investments are no longer resulting in improvements in living standards. It’s more of a narrative argument than an empirical one, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.

The other big new meme comes from the Special Report in this week’s issue of the Economist. In it, Martin Giles makes the argument that technology is increasingly being driven not by research trickling down from universities and government laboratories but rather from individual firms working in consumer technology.

Ever since Vannevar Bush wrote Science: the Endless Frontier right after World War II, the idea that government investment in inquiry-driven, university-hosted science would drive the scientific progress that would ensure permanent economic prosperity has been the bedrock of higher education funding policy in America (and later, much of the OECD as well, including Canada). Thiel’s and Giles’s arguments both challenge this idea. Basically, they both posit that science à la Bush isn’t working – that development is no longer reliant on research (Giles) and that development isn’t delivering much anyway (Thiel).

If either of them are right – and it’s not a settled issue, obviously – some very profound questions arise. Most notably: why fund university research, or at least, why fund it to the degree and in the manner we presently do? It’s a question more and more people in Ottawa are asking anyway, given the relatively meager commercialization outputs of over a decade of unprecedented S & T spending through programs like the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Coincidentally, the Expert Panel reviewing federal R&D spending is expected to report next Monday. I hear that all has not been smooth among the panelists and that they may not be presenting a unanimous report.

Looks like science policy in Canada is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

October 07

New Markets

Let’s say you’re an institution interested in moving into new international markets. India’s been done to death, coastal China’s saturated and the Europeans aren’t interested in coming to North America. So what do you do? You look for new markets – preferably ones with weak post-secondary systems, rising family incomes, and yet to be seriously exploited by foreign recruiters.

Here’s the three we’d pick right now:

1) Indonesia. Two hundred million people, an Asian tiger, and yet arguably one of the weakest higher education systems in the entire world. Universitas Indonesia isn’t bad as south-east Asian flagship universities go, but with the country only spending 0.3% of GDP on higher education, most of the HE system is a wild west of poorly-regulated private institutions. It’s a potential bonanza.

2) Russian Federation. The Putin comeback seems to be cycling to a close. Almost a third of Russians between 25 and 39 now say they’d like to emigrate – and higher education abroad can certainly help. Russia has pickings intellectually: there is an enormous amount of talent in math, science and computer science. For the moment, Russians prefer to head to Europe, but as that continent’s prospects darken, they might give Canada a look – if anyone in Canada were to bother with the Russian market, that is.

3) Italy. Italy might not fit the traditional definition of a new market for higher education, but make no mistake – young Italians want out of their gerontocratic society. Unlike students from developing countries, their secondary education tends to be similar to our own, meaning they have fewer adjustment issues and higher success rates. In the south at least, there will be many with family ties in Canada, a factor which has been of immense importance to Canadian institutions in bringing Indian students to our shores. And – not to be sneezed at – a far greater proportion of Italians are able to afford our fees. There’s literally a world of opportunity in higher education – at least for these who want to strike out on their own a bit.

October 06

Interest on Student Loans – Time to Go Dutch

News out of the U.S. suggests that one possible casualty of that country’s budget crisis is the in-school interest subsidy on student loans. Since Canadian governments almost always end up copying the Americans on student aid eventually (see: income-based grants, rules on institutional designation, workforce-related loan forgiveness, etc.), this seems like a good time for Canada to review its own policies on student loan interest.

Some countries, like Germany and many developing countries, charge no interest at all on student loans (Newfoundland and Labrador eliminated interest on provincial student loans in its 2009 budget). This is a wastefully expensive way to run a student loan system (effectively, once interest rates are considered, it is paying students to borrow) and does a poor job of targeting public money to those who need it most. Other countries, like Australia, charge students inflation but no real interest – this is somewhat less wasteful but still not brilliant. Countries such as the Netherlands are charging students a rate based on the cost of government borrowing – that is, they aren’t subsidizing loans, but they’re providing it to students at a rate substantially below par. Then there are countries which charge students something close to a market rate, and use the “profit” to cover losses from defaults.

The U.S. and Canada are the only countries that try to mix different approaches – unbelievably cheap loans (i.e., full interest subsidies) while students are in school, and market-like rates when borrowers are in repayment. From a policy perspective this makes almost no sense whatsoever as the biggest subsidies go to people who borrow a lot, but who repay quickly. In a system where 20% of borrowers repay within two years (largely thanks to hefty gifts from family members), it’s hard to say that this is an effective way to spend money.

For about what we’re paying now, we could move to a Dutch scheme where we charge students the government rate of borrowing throughout their loans. It would increase student debt at graduation, but also make that significantly easier to pay back. The big winners would be people with low post-graduate incomes that require many years to pay back their debts; the big losers would be people who get family members to pay off their debts after graduation.

Which group would you rather got our tax dollars?

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.

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