HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

September 02

America – the Exodus

As we watch our southern neighbours slide into seemingly perpetual budget crises and many state universities undergo some brutal austerity, it’s worth thinking about the American crises’ global impacts on higher education.

Scientific talent is not distributed evenly around the world. If there’s one thing that the Shanghai rankings show, it’s how unbelievably deep the scientific talent pool is at American universities. But talent can move. Twice in the twentieth century, countries suffered major exoduses of scientific talent. In 1930s Germany, hundreds of key scholars migrated from Germany to (primarily) America, a process which not only boosted the Allied war effort enormously, but set the stage for a period of dominance of American science that has lasted for over 65 years.

Though not quite on the same scale, the 1990s saw an enormous movement of Russian scholars to new homes in Europe and America in order to escape the economic collapse and concomitant shortages of research funds. What’s about to happen in the U.S. will probably not be on quite the same scale, but you can’t expect universities in California, Illinois, Texas and elsewhere to suck up financial hits of 20 to 40% and not lose talented staff to universities who can make them a better offer. Lucky for them, a lot of OECD universities are getting smacked just as hard by austerity and thus aren’t in a position to outbid them. But that’s not quite true in Canada, Scandinavia, and Asia (where the National University of Singapore, for instance, is hiring aggressively). Here, there is the potential to accommodate refugees from American budget cuts.

The key question is: how best to take advantage of this? If you’re a truly aggressive (and strategic) school, you might take a gamble: front-load your hiring for the next few years and specifically target some promising staff at U.S. schools. Hire your next five years’ worth of profs this year and make sure 90% are from American institutions. Sure, it’ll mean short-term deficits, but hey – credit’s never been cheaper and top academic talent is the very definition of productive capital. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Memo to provosts: Carpe diem.

September 01

Strategy Matters

Here’s a key truth to understanding the future of academia: the western world hit “Peak Higher Education” sometime in 2009. That is to say, across the OECD, we are unlikely to see public funding at 2009 levels ever again. Between the current global financial crisis and its associated fiscal problems, and the challenges associated with aging societies, there will not be a return to prior levels of public support for higher education for decades to come.

Now peak higher education isn’t hitting everyone equally. Canadian institutions, for instance, are thankfully not facing the 20%+ cuts the University of California system has undergone these last few years, or the 41% decrease in funding for teaching that UK universities are in the midst of experiencing. In some parts of the country, funding might even increase slightly over the next couple of years (though rather clearly, Ontario, Quebec and the three maritime provinces won’t be among the chosen few). But overall, the sector as a whole is going to be in decline.

Which means universities and colleges have four choices:

(1) They can get better at raising resources, through fundraising, charging higher tuition, attracting more international students

(2) They can get bend their cost curves to serve students more cheaply

(3) They can try some combination of the 1 and 2, or

(4) They can shrink.

That’s it. Those are the only alternatives. There’s no silver bullet which gets an institution out of those choices.

This is going to be painful. All those tough decisions which we used to be able to avoid taking when the next round of government funding came in? We actually need to face them now. In turn, what this means is that strategic thinking and strategic planning is going to take on a much more important and central role in higher education.

That’s why we at HESA are pleased to announce the launch of our new quarterly publication, The Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor. It takes a look at how institutions all over the world are using strategy to drive quality improvements and how higher education as a whole is adapting to Peak higher Education. Managing Editor Pamela Marcucci has put together a great first issue, which is available free of charge here. We hope you enjoy it.

August 31

Why is there an “S” in STEM?

Governments love to talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. They were given prominent space in the last Canadian federal budget, and the acronym permeates U.S. educational policy discourse. It’s conventional wisdom that increasing the number of STEM graduates is essential to economic growth. You might think that the chief purpose of the modern post-secondary institution is to churn out graduates in STEM fields – and that as a corollary, arts students are some sort of vestigial leftover from a bygone era, kept around only to avoid the pain of their excision.

The full-court press to jack up STEM graduate production rates overlooks one important detail – the STEM fields are hardly a monolith, and there are some very important differences among them. Indeed, sometimes it’s unclear why these fields are grouped together at all. The issue, in large part, lies with the “S” – an undergraduate science degree is much less likely to get you a job.

Take a look at labour force status of the class of 2005 two years after graduation, courtesy of Statistics Canada’s 2007 National Graduates Survey. For comparison, we’ve left in data for the humanities – a field that is seldom lauded as the ticket to immediate success in the job market.

It becomes quickly apparent that one of the STEM fields is not like the others. Graduates in the physical and life sciences have extremely low employment. Barely half of them have a full-time job, only two-thirds are employed at all, and almost a quarter are not in the labour force – two years after graduating. Moreover, they have the highest rate of unemployment (11%). Students in engineering or math and computer science, by contrast, have full-time employment rates of around 80% and employment rates around 85%, with unemployment under 8%. Based on short-term employment outcomes, the sciences have little in common with the other three. It makes you wonder: if “TEM” sounded half as good as “STEM,” would we be so quick to lump in the sciences with the rest?

Of course, the sciences still offer great value to their students and society – even if that value doesn’t pay off as employment in the short term. And should science’s showing on these graphs make it feel lonely, there’s another field that might be its friend. As the data shows, a science student’s employment prospects are rather similar to those of a humanities graduate. And that’s something we shouldn’t hide behind an acronym.

August 30

Anticipating Demographic Shifts

I was in Regina last week speaking to the university’s senior management team about challenges in Canadian post-secondary education, when someone asked a really intriguing question.

“Given the changing demographics of Canada, with fewer traditional-aged students, are there any examples of good practice of universities altering their programming serving non-traditional students instead”?

I have to admit, I was stumped.

You’d think, for instance, that maritime universities, who have been facing demographic decline for quite some time, would have some experience of this, but they don’t, really. Think about it: when Memorial started hurting for students because of Newfoundland’s awful demographics, the main response was to lower tuition fees and begin raiding other nearby provinces for traditional-aged students. In the rest of the maritimes, they’ve been sucking traditional-aged students out of Ontario for a couple of decades now, and the primary solution to any shortfall now is to go looking for traditional-aged students in other parts of the world.

From Statistics Canada

There have, admittedly, been some advances recently in attracting non-traditional-aged students in Northern Ontario and the Prairies – specifically, Aboriginal students, who tend to arrive at university in their mid- to late-20s (often after having had children). But even here, what they are doing for the most part is trying to put in as many supports as possible so that they can be taught as if they were traditional, full-time students. One might conclude that universities are going to great lengths to avoid re-engineering themselves to serve older populations.

Taking demographics seriously means that some universities are going to have to move towards much more modular delivery of courses, more e-learning alternatives, and more evening courses. There are pockets of this, of course, but it hardly constitutes a major trend. Generally speaking, community colleges and polytechnics have been doing much better on this front than universities.

As the demographic shift continues, what happens if governments conclude that they should put more resources on lifelong learning and less on traditional-aged students? That possibility may open up some big opportunities for those institutions (mostly colleges) who have already invested heavily in this kind of delivery, and leave those institutions (mostly universities) who have not politically quite vulnerable.

August 29

Market Opportunities – A Blue Ocean Strategy in Doctoral Education

The economics of higher education are pointing inexorably towards a two-tier faculty system; one in which research is rewarded, and one in which teaching is rewarded. If this wasn’t plain over the last fifteen years or so, it certainly should be by now.

So why haven’t Ph.D. programs shifted to adapt to this reality? If we’re looking at a future where there are at least as many graduates whose careers will depend upon their pedagogical prowess as upon research excellence, why aren’t their programs that cater to people heading down that career path?

The answer, of course, is because teaching remains a low-prestige endeavour and universities tend not to deliberately choose lower-prestige paths when they are already on a higher one. But that doesn’t preclude newer graduate programs from heading down this route. If I were president of a young, growing, mid-size university that was just starting to build significant doctoral programs (e.g., Lethbridge, University of Winnipeg, University of Northern British Columbia), I’d be sorely tempted to to follow this pathway.

Think about it: if you’ve got no chance of duking it out with the big boys and girls of the U-15 for major research dollars, why not create your own strategy and your own market? Target people who want to teach. Provide them not just with doctoral-level training but also with a full set of courses in pedagogical theory. For bonus marks, make sure they understand how pedagogy works in e-learning and give them the skills to develop their own course-ware. It would give students an enormous advantage in landing a job.

We’re all used to colleges advertising their success rates in placing their graduates. Given how coming budget cuts are likely to make it even more difficult to land academic jobs, we shouldn’t be surprised if grad schools soon start adopting that same strategy. The institution that gets out in front on a teaching-oriented Ph.D. will likely do exceedingly well on that metric.

August 28

HESA in the Montreal Gazette

On Saturday, the Montreal Gazette’s Karen Seidman talked to HESA President Alex Usher and others about student engagement in campus life:

Alex Usher is the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto think-tank that helps universities and governments measure and improve education strategies, and he doesn’t believe the learning experience changes much for commuter students.

“A lot of the research showing that commuter campuses have higher dropout rates comes out of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not necessarily true in Canada.”

And while he “respects” the fact that American research shows students have more success if they’re involved in university life, he doesn’t believe the negative impacts are anywhere near as bad as that research shows.

“You have to keep in mind that the big commuter schools in the U.S. tend to get more students who are less academically inclined,” he said. “Our schools may look like big American commuter schools, but they still retain their students.”

For example, 90 per cent of students in Canada who start a four-year degree are still in school or have graduated within five years.

 

 

August 26

Trust

It’s a big day at HESA, as it’s release day for our final report on the Consultation on the Expansion of Degree-granting in Saskatchewan that we’ve been working on for a few months (available here). I can’t tell you what it says before it comes out – but I would like to talk about one of the key themes of the report: trust.

If you issue degrees, people need to be able to trust that the degree means something. In particular, students need to know that a degree from a given institution will be seen as a mark of quality by employers; otherwise, the degree is worthless. Worldwide, the function of quality assurance agencies – third-parties giving seals of approval either to individual programs or to institutions generally (either by looking directly at quality or by looking at an institution’s internal quality control mechanisms) – is to assure the public that degrees are trustworthy.

In Canada, many people have looked askance at these bodies, seeing them as unnecessary bureaucratic intrusions. “We never needed these before,” people grumble. “Why do we need them now?”

To an extent, the grumblers have a point. Trust is usually earned through relationships. People in, say, Fredericton, trust UNB not because some agency tells them to trust it but because it’s been granting degrees for going on 200 years now; they’ve seen the graduates and can gauge the quality for themselves. This is true across most universities in Canada; they’re old, solid and hardly fly-by-night and people know who they are. And there tend not to be more than four in any given urban area, so pretty much everyone knows someone who went to school “X” and can thus gauge an institution’s quality directly.

But what happens when you let new players, like private universities or community colleges, into the degree-granting game? What happens when universities start having to look abroad for students? How can employers in Canada trust new players? How can employers in Turkey or Vietnam trust any Canadian university they’ve never heard of?

Canada was able to get away without quality assurance for so long mainly because our system of giving a relatively small number of large public universities a monopoly over degree-granting was well-suited to engendering trust – especially when 90% of their students were local. But open up degree-provision, or widen the scope of your student base, and suddenly trust isn’t automatic anymore. You need a third-party to give a seal of approval to replace the trust that used to come naturally.

Quality assurance isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. But it isn’t the frivolous, makework bureaucracy the grumblers criticize, either. Rather, it’s a rational response to changing patterns in the provision and consumption of higher education.

August 25

Why Angela Merkel Matters to the University of Windsor

I was interested to see the coverage in the Windsor Star of President Alan Wildeman’s recent note to staff about the 2012-2013 budget.

The Star focused on the gap between $12 million increase in new costs and the $6 million increase in revenue as a reason for a coming round of tuition hikes. To me, though, this misses the real story:  namely, crappy pension fund returns.

Windsor, like many Ontario universities, is in a bit of a pickle about staff pensions.  The fundamental assumption behind defined-benefit pensions in the 1990s and 2000s was that one could expect pension-funds invested in the market to make serious money.  This meant that one didn’t need to fully pay for one’s pension obligations – the magic of economic growth and compounding interest would do part of the work for you.

But the Dow has been going sideways for a decade now and bonds yields are tinier than Brazilian bikinis – meaning that most pension funds haven’t been meeting their targets.  At Windsor the gap between pension plan liabilities and the current market value of pension plan assets is about $50 million (could be worse: at U of T it’s $1 billion), meaning it has a “going concern” solvency issue which needs to be addressed by a $5 million annual payment starting this year.

There’s most of your tuition increase right there.

To put the pension problem another way, as you can see in UWindsor’s admirably concise and transparent budget documentation, institutional pension spending has had to rise by 78% over the past four years and now takes up almost 8% of institutional spending.  Just to put that into perspective, the library only makes up 5% of spending. To put it yet another way, over the past four years the university has essentially has to reallocate a sum larger than the school’s entire IT budget just to deal with the pensions issue.

To repeat: this isn’t Windsor’s problem alone.  Pretty much every university with a defined benefits pension scheme is going through something similar.  And it could get a lot worse: if Eurozone bank problems cause credit markets seize up again this fall, equity markets will take another Lehman-like beating and university  pension funds will be headed for serious solvency problems that will require more than cosmetic tuition fee increases to solve.

So when you see all those stories about Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Euro bailouts, don’t think of them as a foreign issue.  Think of them as being possibly the cause of the next big Canadian university financial crisis.

 

August 24

Data Point of the Week: Comparing Academic Salaries

If there’s one subject we write about that gets people riled up, it’s academic salaries in Canada and the U.S. It’s a complicated issue – so let’s look at concrete examples at three of the better-paying Canadian institutions (Trent, Calgary and McMaster) and three prestigious American universities (Dartmouth, Washington and Berkeley).

If you just look at baseline salaries for two sets of institutions, you see some pretty big differences as shown in Figure 1, below. The gap is bigger for associate professors than for full professors, but either way, Canadian professors appear to be making out a lot better than American ones.

Figure 1: Unadjusted Average Base Salaries at Selected Institutions, in Thousands of Dollars.

But this isn’t quite the whole story. Our professors get a 12-month salary, and receive the same pay no matter what they do in the summer months. In the U.S., however, pay is on a nine-month basis – in the summer, many profs are working on research and drawing a separate income from their research grant. Different funders have slightly different rules about how much salary professors can take, but the basic rule of thumb – based on National Science Foundation (NSF) rules that came into effect in 2009 – is that they can take another two months’ worth of salary (i.e., 2/9 of their regular annual pay).

How does that affect average compensation in the U.S.? NSF data seems to indicate that about two-thirds of all professors at research universities hold grants. So, multiplying that out, average compensation across all faculty would look like this:

Figure 2: Adjusted Average Base Salaries at Selected Institutions, in Thousands of Dollars.

At the associate professor level, there is still an advantage to being in Canada – Trent, for instance, still has better salaries than Berkeley. But because promotion carries greater rewards in the U.S., the advantage reverses for full professors. There, all three Canadian universities have higher salaries than the University of Washington, but lower than those at Dartmouth and Berkeley.

If we only looked at research-active faculty, the numbers would look even better for the U.S. than they do in Figure 2. On the other hand, if we look at research-inactive faculty, the accurate comparison is Figure 1.

Another way of putting all this is that for older, research-active faculty, Canadian institutions may still face a bit of a compensation gap. For younger (i.e., associate professor rank) research-active faculty, Canada is the better bet; even Trent  outspends Berkeley. But where Canada really kicks tail is in research-inactive faculty, where faculty at our three selected universities have a collective compensation advantage of almost 25% for associate professors and 10% for full professors.

Which raises an interesting question: given the choice, is that the category in which we really want to have an advantage?

August 23

Some Tropes We’d Like to Bury

It’s back-to-school time, which inevitably means we’re about to get a raft of journalists dubbing various things as “trends” (step forward, the Ottawa Citizen). Here are three that we should just ditch right now:

(1) Rising Costs Mean More Students are Working. Wrong, at least if we’re talking about the last ten years. In the mid-80s, the student in-school employment rate jumped from about 30% to 40%, where it stayed through to the end of the 1990s, when it jumped another few points to just over 45%. It has stayed there ever since.

(2) Rising Costs Mean Students are Working Longer Hours. Wrong again. Average working hours have bounced back and forth between 16 and 17 hours per week ever since 1997. There is absolutely no change at all over the past fifteen years.

The bottom line here is: recession? What recession? The student labour market doesn’t move in tune with the economy. It’s rock solid, with trend lines so flat you could shoot pool on them, regardless of the state of the economy. What seems to move it are large increases in participation; when the system goes through a major expansion (as it did in the first half of the 80s and again at the end of the 90s), it takes on a new group of students who – for whatever reason – are less likely to work.

(3) Rising Costs Mean Education is Less Affordable. The standard story will note that tuition and fees are currently running a little under $6,000, whereas in 2000 it was about $4,500. Hey! That’s a 33% increase! Must be a crisis!

Well, no. As we pointed out a couple of years ago, there have been some considerable increases in tax credits as well. And, of course, family incomes have been rising, too. Just looking quickly at data from the last decade, it seems that real net tuition (i.e., after tax credits) has increased by about 19% since 2000. Over the same period, average after-tax family income for two-parent families with children has risen by 16%.

In other words, net tuition as a percentage of family income has increased by 3% over a decade. Not much of a headline, is it?

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