HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

June 02

Student Health (part 2)

Now you may have seen a headline recently talking about skyrocketing mental health problems among students.  Specifically, this one from the Toronto Star, which says, among other things:

A major survey of 25,164 Ontario university students by the American College Health Association showed that between 2013 and 2016, there was a 50-per-cent increase in anxiety, a 47-per-cent increase in depression and an 86-per-cent increase in substance abuse. Suicide attempts also rose 47 per cent during that period.

That’s a pretty stunning set of numbers.  What to make of them?

Part of what’s going on here is looking at the size of the increase instead of the size of the base.  If the incidence of something goes from 1% to 2% in the population, that can be accurately expressed either as “a one percentage point increase” or “IT DOUBLED!”.   The increase for the numbers on “attempted suicide in the last 12 months”, for instance, rose from 1.3% to 2.1%.  With such a tiny base, double-digit increases aren’t difficult to manufacture.

(in case you’re wondering whether these figures are a function of possible measurement error, the answer is no.  With a 40,000 student sample, the margin of error for an event that happens 1% of the time is 0.1, so a jump from 0.8% is well beyond the margin of error).

Now, the Star is correct, there is a very troubling pattern here – across all mental health issues, the results for 2016 are significantly worse than for 2013 and troublingly so.  But it’s still a mistake to rely on these figures as hard evidence for something major having changed.  As I dug into the change in figures between 2013 and 2016, I was amazed to see that in fact figures were not just worse for mental health issues, but for health and safety issues across the board.  Some examples:

  • In 2013, 53.4% of students said their health was very good or excellent, compared to just 45.3% three years later
  • The percentage of students whose Body Mass Index put them in the category of Class II Obese or higher rose from 3.15 to 4.3%, a roughly 35% increase.
  • The percentage of students with diabetes rose by nearly 40%, migraine headaches by 20%, ADHD by nearly 25%
  • Even things like incidence of using helmets when on a bicycle or motorcycle are down by a couple of percentage points each, while the percent saying they had faced trauma from the death or illness of a family member rose from 21% to 24%.

Now, when I see numbers like this, I start wondering if maybe part of the issue is an inconsistent sample base.   And, as it turns out, this is true.  Between 2013 and 2016, the institutional sample grew from 30 to 41, and the influx of new institutions changed the sample considerably.  The students surveyed in 2016 were far more likely to be urban, and less likely to have been white or straight.  They were also less likely to have been on varsity teams or fraternity/sorority members (and I suspect that last one tells you something about socio-economic background as well, but that’s perhaps an argument for another day).

We can’t tell for certain how much of the change in reported health outcomes have to do with the change in sample.  It would be interesting and helpful if someone could recalculate the 2016 data using only data from institutions which were present in the 2013 sample.  That would provide a much better baseline for looking at change over time.  But what we can say is that this isn’t a fully apples-to-apples comparison and we need to treat with caution claims that certain conditions are spreading in the student population.

To conclude, I don’t want to make this seem like a slam against the AHCA survey.  It’s great.  But it’s a snapshot of a consortium at a particular moment in time, and you have to be careful about using that data to create a time series.  It can be done – here’s an example of how I’ve done it with Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium data, which suffers from the same drawback.  Nor do I want to suggest that mental health isn’t an issue to worry about.  It’s clearly something which creates a lot of demand for services and the need to be met somehow (though whether this reflects a change in underlying conditions or a change in willingness to self-identify and seek help is unresolved and to some degree unresolvable).

Just, you know, be careful with the data.  It’s not always as straightforward as it looks.

 

June 01

Student Health (part 1)

I have been perusing a quite astonishingly detailed survey that was recently released regarding student health.  Run by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, this multi-campus exercise has been run twice now in Canada – once in 2013 and once in 2016.  Today, I’m going to look at what the 2016 results say, which are interesting in and of themselves.  Tomorrow, I’m going to look at how the data has changed since 2013 and why I think some claims about worsening student health outcomes (particularly mental health) need to be viewed with some caution.  If I get really nerdy over the weekend, I might do some Canada-US comparisons, too.

Anyways.

The 2016 study was conducted at 41 public institutions across Canada.  Because it’s an American based survey, it keeps referring to all institutions as “colleges”, which is annoying.  27 of the institutions are described as “4-year” institutions (which I think we can safely say are universities), 4 are described as “2-year” institutions (community colleges) and 10 described as “other” (not sure what to make of this, but my guess would be community colleges/polytechnics that offer mostly three-year programs).  In total, 43,780 surveys were filled out (19% response rate), with a roughly 70-30 female/male split.  That’s pretty common for campus surveys, but there’s no indication that responses have been re-weighted to match actual gender splits, which is a little odd but whatever.

 

There’s a lot of data here, so I’m mostly going to let the graphs do the talking.  First, the frequency of students with various disabilities.  I was a little bit surprised that psychiatric conditions and chronic illnesses were as high as they were.

Figure 1: Prevalence of Disabilities

Figure 1 Prevalence of Disabilities

Next, issues of physical safety.  Just over 87% of respondents reported feeling safe on campus during the daytime; however, only 37% (61% of women, 27% of men, and right away you can see how the gender re-weighting issue matters) say that they feel safe on campus at night.  To be fair, this is not a specific worry about campuses: when asked about their feelings of personal safety in the surrounding community, the corresponding figures were 62% and 22%.  Students were also asked about their experiences with specific forms of violence over the past 12 months.  As one might imagine, most of the results were fairly highly gendered.

 

Figure 2: Experience of Specific Forms of Violence Over Past 12 Months, by Gender

Figure 2 Experience of Specific Forms of Violence

Next, alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.  This was an interesting question as the survey not only asked students about their own use of these substances, but also about their perception of other students’ use of them.  It turns out students vastly over-estimate the number of other students who engage with these substances.  For instance, only 11% of students smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days (plus another 4% using e-cigarettes and 3% using hookahs), but students believed that nearly 80% of students had smoked in the past month.

 

Figure 3: Real and Perceived Incidence of Smoking, Drinking and Marijuana Use over Past 30 Days

Figure 3 Real and Perceived Incidence of Smoking

Figure 4 shows the most common conditions for which students had been diagnosed with and/or received treatment for in the last twelve months.  Three of the top ten and two of the top three were mental health conditions.

Figure 4: Most Common Conditions Diagnosed/Treated in last 12 Months

Figure 4 Most Common Conditions Diagnosed

Students were also asked separately about the kinds of things that had negatively affected their academics over the previous year (defined as something which had resulted in a lower mark than they would have otherwise received).  Mental health complaints are very high on this list; much higher in fact than actual diagnoses of such conditions.  Also of note here: internet gaming was sixth among factors causing poorer marks; finances only barely snuck into the top 10 reasons, with 10.3% citing it (though elsewhere in the study over 40% said they had experienced stress or anxiety as a result of finances).

Figure 5: Most Common Conditions Cited as Having a Negative Impact on Academics

Figure 5 Most Common Conditions Cited as Having

A final, disturbing point here: 8.7% of respondents said they had intentionally self-harmed over the past twelve months, 13% had seriously contemplated suicide and 2.1% said they had actually attempted suicide.  Sobering stuff.

May 31

The Financial Landscape of Canadian Universities

I was updating some old charts on sources of university income for a presentation last week and they are kind of interesting so I thought y’all might want to have a look.

The first is the total income of Canadian universities over the past 35 years, in constant dollars.  What it shows is that total income has increased in a relatively steady fashion ever since the late 1990s (the slight spikiness of the last decade has more to do with uneven endowment income than anything else).  Total income for 2014-15 was around $35 billion, or more than double the figure of twenty years earlier, even after accounting for inflation.

Figure 1: Total Income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 1 Total Income of Cdn Unis

But of course, student numbers have increased substantially over the past two decades.  In the late 1990s, we had about 650,000 university FTEs; in 2014-15 those numbers had increased to nearly 1.1 million.  So if we calculate income on a per-student basis the gains are less impressive.

Figure 2: Per-student income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 2 Per student income

Income per student stayed roughly stable through the 80s and 90 at around $23,000 per student per year in constant dollars.  Income then began to rise sharply.  For most of the last decade the figure has hovered around $31,000, or about one-third higher than it was in the 1990s.

Now, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Cutbacks are everywhere, right?  So how can there be so much money in the system?  Well, a few reasons.  The main one is that there actually hasn’t been much an increase in dollars available for operating funding.  On a per-student basis, government funds are now lower than they have been at any point this century, and if research funds are removed from the equation, then they are more or less lower than they have been at any point since these records began.  What has offset this is a rise in income generated from tuition (more on that in a second) and income from other sources (which is not the same as net income, so not all of this is available to the academic enterprise).

Now, a quick peek back at figure 1 shows that the big trend of the last few years has been a decrease in government funding (the blue area) being offset by an increase in student contributions (the green area).  That’s a real trend: after a decade of student contributions sitting at around the 20% mark, they have increased in the last few years to 25%.

Figure 3: Tuition Fees as a Percentage of Total Income, Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15

May 31 Fig 3 Tuition Fees as Percentage

But before anyone goes around yelling about the evils of tuition fees, it’s worth remembering that tuition fee increases for domestic students over the past few years have been roughly inflation plus one percent.  The increases in tuition income per student, however, have been rising at about inflation plus three per cent.  How is this possible?  Simple.  International students and – to a lesser extent – increased enrolment in higher tuition programs.

This is the very simple lesson of the past half-decade.  Governments can allow public funding to erode quietly, keep domestic tuition relatively stable and institutions can make up for it all by enrolling more and more international students.  So far, it’s worked as a strategy, even if no one owns up to it actually being a conscious strategy.  But there are limits to this policy and eventually, something has to give.

It would be helpful if we started having out-loud grown-up discussions about what those limits are, and what we do when we hit them, rather than playing it all out in silence with nods and winks.  But that implies maturity among our politicians.  Based on their recent performances, I have my doubts.

May 30

The Resignation of Theresa May

London, May 4th, 2020

British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned her office today after a series of revelations that she had been in the pay of a foreign power since 2009.  Though both parties continue to deny the specifics of the story, a series of leaks from Universities Canada in the Canadian capital of Ottawa made it clear that the British politician had been receiving payments from this country’s universities for over a decade.

One Canadian higher education expert said he was not surprised by the revelations.  Said Toronto-based consultant Alex Usher, “It’s been evident for years that Theresa May was acting contrary to UK national interests, devising and implementing catastrophic immigration policies which resulted in tens of thousands of international students choosing Canadian schools instead of British ones.  It’s worth billions to Canadian universities.  Now we know why.”

Former Universities Canada staff, speaking under condition of anonymity, pinpointed the start of the operation in late 2009.  Shortly after the financial crisis of late 2008, Canadian universities became alarmed at the pressure the economic slump was likely to put on provincial education budgets.  Rather than try to put a lid on their own spending, most preferred to find new sources of revenue in order to keep spending high.  That new source was international students.

“It was kind of a no-brainer” said one source familiar with Universities Canada’s operations, on condition of anonymity.  “University Presidents could go head to head with Deans who wanted new facilities and faculty unions who wanted new hires and job security, or they could go enrol another couple of hundred students from India or the Middle East.  Which would you do?”

The problem, according to recently-obtained documents from Universities Canada, was competition.  Canadian institutions were nowhere near as accomplished at international recruitment as UK universities, and in the summer of 2009 the Canadian government had blindsided the sector by de-funding the Canadian Education Centre Network.  The question was how to overcome the competition.

Normally, Canadian attention would have focussed on Australia, traditionally the most aggressive international student recruiter.  But earlier that year news broke in Australia about racist attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.  That was potentially a boost for Canada as a destination, but there were fears that UK institutions might scoop up all these students instead.  That’s when a plan was hatched to undermine the UK as an international student demonstration.

“The pieces all just fell into place,” said the source.  “Universities Canada had a new President (Paul Davidson) who wanted to try new approaches to public policy.  And you had the Brown government in London that was self-destructing, likely to be replaced by a ridiculously inexperienced government led by David Cameron.  Subversion seemed like the obvious way to go.”

Universities’ Canada initial scouting on the Tories led them to believe that May was the likeliest choice for Home Office minister under a new Conservative government.  “Immigration and security were clearly going to be important files for the Conservatives to shore up their right flank and they needed a steady hand at the tiller.  Osborne was clearly going to be Chancellor, Hague was a shoo-in for Foreign Secretary, whilst Gove and Duncan-Smith had pet interests in other areas.  Basically, that left May.”

Though details on the meetings remain vague, at some point Universities Canada approached May and offered a deal: substantial sums of cash in return for adopting policies guaranteed to undermine the UK as an international student destination.

“We didn’t need to encourage her to take anti-migration positions,” said the anonymous source “because that was already baked into the Tory manifesto.  All we asked her to do was implement it in the stupidest way possible, by including students in the net migration targets.  We thought it might be an outlandish ask; turned out she loved the idea and implemented it beyond our wildest dreams.”

Canada saw results quickly.  After the Tories took power in the UK 2010, Canada saw its international student numbers rise quickly.  And, as predicted, the money from these students allowed Canadian institutions to keep spending even as provincial governments limited domestic tuition increases and allowed core funding to erode.

Not all of the success was planned, though.

“We didn’t see Brexit coming” said the Universities Canada source.  “And nor, obviously, did we suspect that the subsequent Conservative leadership race would end up being the comedy festival that it was, or that May would stay in power so long.  But what was really gratifying was that May continued her pro-Canada policies even after becoming Prime Minister, thus providing Canadian universities with billions in extra cash and obviating the need for any restructuring at all.

“Agent May was the most brilliant investment Canadian universities ever made,” said Usher.  “Without her the last decade would have been a lot more painful.  Now that she’s gone and her policies discredited, things are going to get much tougher for us”.

May 29

Halifax, We Have a Problem

 

Passing through Halifax airport on Thursday, I realised that I have been remiss in not yet having covered the party platforms for tomorrow’s provincial election.   So, I set about reading the party platforms and then immediately wished I hadn’t because they’re basically a tidy encapsulation of most of what’s wrong with higher education policy in Canada.

Let’s start with the ruling Liberals.  Now, they haven’t done badly by PSE in government, especially in their last budget, which saw the sector get a 4% boost in real terms.  The only thing you can fault them for – and it’s a reasonably big fault – is that when they cut the $50 million Graduate Tax Rebate, they chose not to reinvest any of it either in students or in post-secondary more generally.

The Liberal platform promises no new money for institutions.  It does however, have an incredible grab-bag of micro-promises, all of which cost in the $1-4 million range, which is pretty small even for Nova Scotia (apparently they have learned the lesson that media coverage is proportional to the number of announcements, not the dollar value of those announcements).  They want to add an “Innovation Sandbox” to the seven that already exist, create a new provincial research agency, increase subsidies to hire master’s and doctoral graduates (as well as aboriginal, minority and disabled Nova Scotians) top up MITACS funding, eliminate tuition for apprentices when they leave work to complete technical training, expand opportunities for women and minorities in apprenticeships, increasing provincial student loans to $200/week and expanding loan forgiveness eligibility by changing the eligibility criteria from four years to graduation to five years.  Total annual cost of all that, when fully phased-in: about $13.5 million, with about three-quarters of that going to students one way or another.

Running neck and neck with the Liberals are the Progressive Conservatives, who have a much more limited set of pledges around post-secondary education.  Just three, in fact.  First, “force universities to focus on innovation and job creation” (are they not doing this already? What more are they supposed to do?); Second, roll tuition back to the Canadian average (about $900 per student); and third, reinstate the Graduate Tax Rebate that the Liberals axed.  The costing on these is tragic/hilarious.  Apparently neither of the first two promises will cost a cent – universities will have to eat the $30 million or so cost of the tuition pledge and whatever the hell it costs to meet this fantasy pledge about innovation and job creation.  And the graduate tax rebate?  $25 million – or only about half as generous as the program it’s meant to replace.  So, then, that’s a $55 million in net benefit to students, a real cut of $30 million plus to institutions.

Finally, we have the NDP platform.  The Dexter government pretty much made an unmitigated hash of the post-secondary file: cuts to institutional budgets, commissioning a visionary report on the future of the University System in the province and then more or less ignoring the results, etc.  But they have a fresh new set of proposals they’d like you to believe in.  It’s a three-parter: first, requiring PSE institutions to have policies on sexual violence; second, reduce tuition fees by 10% over four years and third, eliminate tuition at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) altogether, a policy which faithful readers know I think makes a lot of sense).  Unlike the Tories, they seem to have more or less costed this correctly.   $38 million a year at full phase-in for the cut to university fees is a bit low because it seems to be based on 2014-15 fee income, but if you assume international students are exempted it will work just fine.  $36 million to get rid of fees at NSCC is about dead on, too.  The half-million for institutions to adopt policies about sexual assault is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll let that one go.  Total: $74.5 million, of which $74 million goes to students.

For those keeping count, that makes for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $140 million in total promises to students, and as near as $0 as makes no odds to universities and colleges (or negative $30 million, depending on how you count the Tory pledge).  Now, it’s not that any of these parties are actually going to freeze funding for four years.  More likely, you’ll see post-secondary spending rise more or less in line with nominal GDP growth, or a bit slower.  But that, as we all know, does not cover increases in running costs, which – since it’s a labour-intensive operation, naturally run consistently above inflation.

So whatever way this goes, we’re talking cuts at institutions to (in part) make PSE cheaper for students.

You can see how this will play out.  Universities, faced with cuts, will ask to raise fees. Politicians will grandstand and say: “Look at all the cuts you’re making.  Why should students pay more and receive less?  ”.  Institutional heads will then have to decide whether to tear their hair out in frustration or just go and recruit a boatload more international students to make up the difference.  No prizes for seeing how this will go.

This is not just a Nova Scotia phenomenon, of course.  More or less every provincial government has been doing this “feed-the-students, starve-the-institutions” for the last six years.    There’s no earthly rationale for this approach other than vote-buying.  It’s short-sighted, and needs to stop.

As for which party has the best policies?  Well, scratch the Tories.  I like the vision in the free community college pledge in the NDP platform, but a) distrust the execution because of the Dexter government’s record and b) I think at some point, we have to say no to vote-buying via giveaways to students.  So go with the Liberals.  Yeah, their platform is small, incremental and uninspiring.  But it’s the only one restrained enough to think there might be some money left over for investments in quality higher education.

May 26

Lessons from the Rise of Tax Credits

I’m feeling low on creativity today, so I’m going to go to that old stand-by: telling war stories. And specifically, I’m going to go back and trace the rise of tax credits in the Canadian higher education system and what that tells us about policy-making in Canada.

Tax benefits for education go back to the late 1950s. There was pressure at the time to create a “national system of scholarships”, but this clearly was going to cause problems in Quebec. But Prime Minister Diefenbaker, on the advice of Ted Rogers and with the assistance of Brian Mulroney, found a way around this which was acceptable to Quebec: namely, by making tuition fees tax deductible. Lesson #1: the federal government in part views tax expenditures as a way to get around troublesome provinces.

These tax deductions for tuition and a monthly “education amount” were turned into tax credits in a general tax reform introduced in 1988 by then-Finance Minister Michael Wilson (which is still arguably the greatest thing any Conservative finance minister has done in my lifetime). The tuition credit did not include ancillary fees and the monthly amount was $60/month. And there it stayed until 1996.

Budget 1996 was not a happy time in Canadian history. As far as most people were concerned, we were in year 6 of a recession (a real one, where unemployment hit double digits and a third of the island of Montreal was on social assistance/EI, not like the past few years). The stomach-churning Quebec referendum night was less than four months in the past. The country was broke, and the logic of Paul Martin’s epoch-defining 1995 Budget meant that fiscal room for anything new was just about zero. Yet the government wanted to show that the federal government could still be relevant, particularly around youth unemployment, which was a concern at the time. So what did they do?

They upped the education tax credit to $80/month.

I know that sounds meagre. Trust me, in the context of February 1996, this was a moderately big deal. But it was the 1959 logic at work again. Need to show the feds can do something about an issue that matters to Canadians but is mostly in provincial control? Use the tax system!

Then in December 1996, the Finance Department’s pre-budget polling (which in those days was always, always, always done by Earnscliffe) numbers came in and they showed – totally unexpectedly – that education was suddenly the number two issue for Canadian voters. Terrie O’Leary, Paul Martin’s formidable chief of staff, immediately went to the office of Don Drummond (now Chief Economist at TD, then the ADM at Finance in charge of the budget). The conversation, the best I can reconstruct it from a couple of different sources, went like this:

O’Leary: I want something on education in the budget.

Drummond: (Acutely aware that the budget date was only about ten weeks away and it’s desperately late to start screwing around with it at this point): Not unless you want a replay of the Scientific Tax Credits fiasco.

O’Leary:  <A string of choice expletives to the general effect of “don’t talk back to me”>.

Well, of course Drummond needn’t have worried because when it doubt: tax credits!  The vehicle was already there, so they just juiced it. The $80/month education amount jumped in stages to $200/month, a smaller credit was added from part-time students, and the definition of tuition tax credits was expanded to include ancillary fees. Bonus: unlike the changes to Canada Student Loans and the Millennium Scholarships which were announced in the following year’s budget, there was no tedious negotiations with provinces. Lesson #2: tax credits are sometimes a tool of choice because they’re easy and quick to implement.

Then of course, the economy improved and Paul Martin started getting generous. In the fall 2000 mini-budget which preceded that year’s election (the Stockwell Day election, in case you’ve erased that period from your memory), he doubled the value of the education amount to $400/month for full time students and $120/month for part-timers.  Why? Well, in the preceding election, the Liberals had promised that any surplus money (and we started running surpluses in 1998), would go 50% to new programs and 50% to “debt reduction and tax cuts” (relative proportions not specified). It finally occurred to the Liberals that under this regime tax credits were gold, because depending on one’s choice of definition, tax credits could be counted as an expenditure or as a tax cut. And yes, they counted these as both, to suit the occasion. Lesson #3: tax credits are attractive because the communications around them are flexible.

That was more or less the high point of education tax credits in Canada. After that, they started to gradually fall out of favour. Quebec (2012) and Ontario (2016) have both abolished their credits, and Budget 2016 saw the feds abandon them in favour of higher grants. I suspect they will disappear from the provincial level over the coming decade.

But the point I want you to take here is not that government was misguided about tax credits back then and is smarter now. Apart from a couple of zealots in the Finance Department who prattle on about tax treatment of human capital, no one in the 1990s genuinely thought that tax credits were a particularly good tool to get money to students. What they had over other more direct means of support was convenience, simplicity, and the ability to be implemented completely independently of what a bunch of tiresome provinces think. In the late 1990s – the High Era of Competitive Federalism – that stuff mattered a lot more than it does today. If those conditions ever return, it would be easy enough to see how tax credits as a funding mechanism could return, too.

 

May 25

Big Moves in U.S. Higher Education

The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities.  The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about.  I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.

Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t easy to explain.  Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history.  Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way.  So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.

There are two ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY).  Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige.  What’s not to like?

Two things, really.  The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this.  It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact.  For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct.  It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven

Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown.  There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this.  But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too.  No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.

The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year.  Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.

The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world.  Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs.  There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses.  And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff.  It’s a smart move all around.

You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that?  Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global?  Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”.  But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities.  There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.

Americans just have more chutzpah, period.  We could use more of it up here.

 

May 24

The Rock

No, not Dwayne Johnson (though You’re Welcome is indeed a great song).   I’m talking about Newfoundland (and Labrador), where the Minister of Advanced Education, Gerry Byrne, has decided to pick a fight with Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).

Why, you ask?  Good question.

MUN is in a position somewhat like the one the University of Alberta faced a couple of years ago, only worse.  Up to about 2012, a decade of hydrocarbon-fueled provincial budgets made MUN a pretty fun place.  The provincial government drenched the institution in money, which allowed it not only to keep tuition low (this year, $2,759 vs. Canadian average of $6,373), but also allow MUN to receive over $40,000 per FTE student, higher than the average in any other province (note this is not to say that MUN’s income per student was higher than that of any other Canadian institution.  It wasn’t.  But it made the top ten).

But of course, we all know the oil boom party came to a halt a few years ago.  Since then, it’s been cut, cut, cut – as I noted back here last week, provincial spending on post-secondary education has fallen by a remarkable 21% over the last six years). Some may want to accuse the provincial government of savagery in its cuts, but to be honest I’m not sure what choice they had.  Outside of OPEC countries, few jurisdictions’ budgets were as geared to the price of oil as Newfoundland’s, so when the price started to fall, across-the-board cuts were pretty much inevitable and there wasn’t much prospect of higher education being spared much pain.

So, MUN had to face cuts.  But the problem with cutting budgets at a university is a little thing called tenure.  Salaries of tenured faculty eat up about 30% of most Canadian universities’ budgets.  Throw in benefits and you’re up to around 40%.  If someone tells you to cut 20% the budget, but 40% of the budget is essentially untouchable, that means the rest of the budget has to be cut by about one-third.  And I don’t care what business you’re in, that stings.

But wait a minute, you say.  Doesn’t Newfoundland have the country’s lowest tuition, both for domestic ($2,759 vs. national average of $6,373) and international ($9,360 vs. $23,589) students?  Actually, aren’t international students only paying about 40% of the cost of their education?  After all, students there can afford a fee increase: only Manitoba has a smaller percentage of students receiving student aid.  There must be some flexibility there, right?

Well, as it turns out, no.  That would of course be the right thing to do, but the government doesn’t want to take the blame for raising tuition for middle-class students (though it doesn’t seem to have a problem cutting student aid to the poorest by 78%).  It flirted with allowing MUN to raise fees last year, but the university could see through that trap and refused.  This year, it ran out of room to manoeuvre and so proposed a set of fee increases which fell harder on out-of-province and international students than they did on domestic ones.  Cue grumbling about administrative waste, inefficiency, and high administrative salaries, not just from the usual suspects internally but from the Minister himself, who clearly wants to pose as a defender of students against the mean old administrators.  First, he says, MUN needs to wring out every bit of efficiency possible out of current structure – to that end, he says, the university needs to go back to “zero-based budgeting”.

Now, I don’t know any specifics about MUN, but it’s a fair guess that after ten years of having a firehose of money pointed at them by the provincial government, the institution had probably grown flabby in some areas.  It would be against human nature if it hadn’t.   But here’s the thing about university overspending: when it happens, it’s like blowing up a balloon.  The extra funds don’t cluster in one area, they are spread pretty evenly throughout the institution; like a balloon, the institution looks the same only bigger.  Did you really need to hire six people in student services instead of five?  Did you really need that extra tenure line in economics?  Could our profs maybe make 5% less than those at Dalhousie rather than exactly the same?  So fair play to the Minister – there are almost certainly efficiency gains to be had.

But note that most of the “extra costs” listed above are salary costs.  That’s normal because most universities spend 70%+  of their money on salaries.  And a lot of these salaries are covered by collective bargaining agreements which are pretty tightly worded to prevent job losses   How do you zero-base budget in that environment?  You can’t.  At best you wait for people to retire and then restructure around those who are left.  The Minister knows all of this perfectly well and that the idea of zero-based budgeting in this context is as dumb as a bag of hammers, yet for some reason he pretends otherwise.

It’s not that MUN doesn’t need to keep a lid on costs and restructure.  It does, and is already doing it.  But without breaking collective agreements (is that what the minister wants?  he should say so), cuts of this magnitude are very difficult to implement.  What MUN needs is some breathing space, something that a rise in fees would provide.  The Minister should stop trying to pick fights with the university, and try working constructively with it to mitigate the problems that the 21% cut his government’s cuts have created.

 

May 23

Information vs Guidance

I’ve been working a lot lately on two big projects that touch on the issue of secondary school guidance.  The first is a large project for the European Commission on admission systems across Europe and the second is one of HESA’s own projects looking at how students in their junior year of high school process information about post-secondary education (the latter is a product for sale – drop us a line at info@higheredstrategy.com if you’re an institution interested in insights in how to get on students’ radar before they hit grade 12).  And one of the things that I’ve realised is how deeply difficult it is to present information to students in a way that it is meaningful to them.

Oh, we hand out information all right.  Masses of it.  We give students so much information it’s like drinking from a fire-hose.  It’s usually accurate, mostly consistent (though nothing – nothing – drives students crazier than discovering that information on a student’s catalogue is different from the information on the website, which happens all too frequently).   But that’s really not enough.

Here’s what we don’t do: we don’t provide data to students in a way that makes it easy for them to search what they want.  Information is provided solely by institutions themselves and students have to go search out data on an institution-by-institution basis.  We have nothing like France’s Admission Post-bac system which – while not without its faults as an admissions portal – actually does simplify an otherwise horrifically complicated admissions system by putting institutional information in a single spot.  We have nothing like the state-level guides in Australia where students in their graduating year can get info on all institutions in a single book.

We don’t make it simple to try to learn about their choices.  Institutions have every reason not to do this – their whole set-up in term of providing information to students is based on a philosophy of LOOK AT ME PAY NO ATTENTION TO THOSE OTHERS (though I kind of wonder what would happen to an institution that tried the “compare us now” approach used by Progressive Insurance).  Government has chosen not to play a role, preferring to leave it to institutions.  And third parties have given them things like rankings, and other statistical information which adults think they should know and care about but by and large don’t.

What students want – what they really, really want – is not more information.  They want guidance.  They want someone who is knowledgeable about that information AND who knows and appreciates their own tastes, abilities and interests and render it meaningful to them.  Yes, Queen’s is my local university and it’s pretty prestigious, but will fit in?  Sure, nursing pays well, but will I get bored (and which schools are best for nursing)?  I want to do Engineering, but it seems like a lot of work – can I actually handle it?  And if so, would it be better to go to a big school with lots of supports or to my local institution?

But this is precisely what guidance functions in secondary schools don’t deliver on a consistent basis.  Too often, their role is that of a really slow version of the internet – a centralized place to get all the individual view-books and brochures.  They don’t know individual students well enough to provide real, contextualized guidance, so that task falls upon favoured teachers and – more often – students own families.

Well, so what, you say.  What’s wrong with making students do a little leg-work on their own, and asking family and friends for guidance?  Well, the problem with this is cultural capital starts to play a really big role.  While guidance is helpful for everyone, the students who have the least idea of what to expect in post-secondary education, the ones most in need of guidance, are precisely the ones whose families have the least experience in post-secondary.  So if guidance fails, you get a Matthew Effect, with the already-advantaged receiving another leg-up.

(Secondary complaint: it is astonishing, if you believe students, how little guidance counselors want to talk to students about government student financial assistance.  On the other hand, they seem quite prepared to peddle stale chestnuts about how easy it is to get institutional aid because “millions of dollars go unclaimed every year because people don’t apply”.  I cringed every time I heard this.)

The way forward here is probably not to increase the number of guidance counselors to make it easier for them to know individual students.  The fact is, they will never get as close to students as will senior-year teachers.  Better, probably, to let those teachers do the advising (after some training, of course) and then build in time and rewards appropriately.

But it requires investment.  We have to stop preferring the provision of information over guidance because it’s cheap.  Good decisions require good guidance.  Skimp on it in schools serving richer areas if we must, but when it comes to serving low-income students it’s a false economy.

 

May 19

Free Tuition, Sea of Japan Edition

To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition.  This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.

So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy?  Two things.  First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success.  Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things.  Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.

But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian.  Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces.  Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine.  And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.

A couple of points here.  First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale.  As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong).  High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s.  Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.

The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities.  Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult.  Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?

There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees.  This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge.  In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada).  But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.

If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done.  But we’ll see.  Two stories to watch, for sure.

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