Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

May 15

Provincial Budgets 2017

Springtime brings with it two certainties: 1) massive, irritating weekend traffic jams in Toronto as the city grants permits to close down Yonge street for a parade to virtually any group of yahoos, thus making it impossible to go from the cities east to west ends and 2) provincial budgets.  And with that, it’s time for my annual roundup of provincial budgets (click on the year for previous analyses – 2016 2015 2014 2013.  It’s not as bad as last year but it’s still kind of depressing.

Before we jump in, I need to remind everyone about some caveats on this data.  What is being compared here is announced spending in provincial budgets from year-to-year.  But what gets allocated and what gets spent are two different things. Quebec in particular has a habit of delivering mid-year cuts to institutions; on the flip side, Nova Scotia somehow spent 15% more than budgeted on its universities.  Also, not all money goes to institutions as operating funding:  this year, Newfoundland cut operating budgets slightly but threw in a big whack of cash for capital spending at College of the North Atlantic, so technically government post-secondary spending is up there this year.

One small difference this year from previous years: the figures for Ontario exclude capital expenditures.  Anyone who has a problem with that, tell the provincial government to publish its detailed spending estimates at the same time it delivers the budget like every other damn province.

This year’s budgets are a pretty mixed bunch.  Overall, provincial allocations after inflation fell by $13 million nationally – or just about .06%.  But in individual provinces the spread was between +4% (Nova Scotia) and -7% (Saskatchewan).  Amazing but true: two of the three provinces with the biggest gains were ones in which an election was/is being held this spring.

Figure 1: 1-Year change in Provincial Transfers to Post-Secondary Institutions, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Province Budget Figure 1 Year Change Provincial Transfers


Now, this probably wouldn’t be such a big deal if it hadn’t come on the heels of a string of weak budgets for post-secondary education.  One year is neither here nor there: it’s the cumulative effect which matters.  Here’s the cumulative change over the past six years:

Figure 2: 6-year Change in Provincial Transfers to Post-Secondary Institutions, 2011-12 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 2 6 year chage in provincial transfers


Nationally, provinces are collectively providing 1% less to universities in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2017-18 than they were in 2011-12.  Apart from the NDP governments in Manitoba and Alberta, it’s really only Quebec which has bothered to keep its post-secondary funding ahead of inflation.  Out east, it’s mostly been a disaster – New Brunswick universities are down 9% over the last six years (not the end of the world because of concomitant enrolment declines), and a whopping 21% in Newfoundland.

The story is different on the student aid front, because a few provinces have made some big moves this year.  Ontario and New Brunswick have introduced their “free tuition” guarantees, thus resulting in some significant increases in SFA funding, while Quebec is spending its alternative payment bonanza from the Canada Student Loans Program changes (long story short: under the 1964 opt-out agreement which permitted the creation of the Canada Student Loans Program, every time CSLP spends more, it has to send a larger cheque to Quebec).  On the other side, there’s Newfoundland, which has cut it’s student aid budget by a whopping 78%.  This appears to be because the province is now flouting federal student aid rules and making students max out their federal loans before accessing provincial aid, rather than splitting the load 60-40 as other provinces do.

Figure 3: 1-Year change in Provincial Student Financial Aid Expenditures, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 3 1 Year change in student aid expenditures


And here’s the multi-year picture, which shows a 46% increase in student aid over the past six years, from $1.9 billion to just under $2.8 billion.  But there are huge variations across provinces.  In Ontario, aid is up 83% over six years (and OSAP now constitutes over half of all provincial student aid spending), while Saskatchewan is down by half and Newfoundland by 86%, mostly in the present year.  The one province where there is an asterisk here is Alberta, where there was a change in reporting in 2013-2014; the actual growth is probably substantially closer to zero than to the 73% shown here.

Figure 4: 6-Year change in Provincial Student Financial Aid Expenditures, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 4 6 Year Change in Provincial Student Aid

So the overall narrative is still more or less the same it’s been for the past few years.  On the whole provincial governments seem a whole lot happier spending money on students than they do on institutions.    Over the long run that’s not healthy, and needs to change.

May 12

Statistical Deceptions on Student Debt

Every couple of years, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) produces a “research paper” to provide a new “evidence-based” spin to back up its eternal demand for free tuition. Last month, they put out a new version, this one entitled The Political Economy of Student Debt in Canada. The theme this time is lightly-recycled Piketty: Canada’s main problems are inequality and rising indebtedness; if we eliminate tuition, that’ll strike a blow against both so wa-hey! The word “neoliberal” appears frequently.

This is all fine. It’s Lobbying 101 to link your own issues to those of the ruling government’s agenda in order to increase the likelihood that they’ll get picked up. Inequality is certainly a theme of this decade, as is the constant media drumbeat of ever-rising household debt (though for reasons that pass understanding they never match up statistics about rising debt with equivalent statistics about rising assets).

But there is a problem here. To make the analogy stick you’d have to be able to prove that student debt, like household debt, is rising rapidly when in fact it’s not. Data from the National Graduates Survey (NGS) suggest that student indebtedness has been more or less stable since 2000; the more recent/timely (but less accurate) Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium data (see here and here) actually suggests it has decreased a bit since 2000. And it is certainly the case that student loan burdens – that is, the percentage of after-tax income devoted to paying student debt – has decreased substantially over the last decade and a half, due mainly to falling taxes and lower interest rates. Average student loan debt – that is, the amount of debt owed by students at the time of graduation – may in fact perhaps the one type of personal debt which isn’t increasing.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this graph in the middle of the research paper, purporting to show that student debt has increase 40% in real terms since 1999:


Where on earth does this data come from? Well, it’s not the NGS and it’s not any survey of graduating students. Rather, it’s from the once-triennial, now quadrennial Survey of Financial Security (SFS), which measures student debt in an entirely different way.

Both NGS and the CUSC try to measure the average debt at the point of graduation. NGS does it by asking graduates two years after graduation how much debt they left school with; CUSC asks students a couple of months before they graduate how much debt they have. SFS is not a survey of graduates; it’s a survey of 20,000 or so Canadian households. And when it reports debt, it does so i) by measuring outstanding debt, not debt at the time of graduation and ii) be measuring household debt, not individual debt. So if your household contains multiple individuals with student debt (whether as roommates or in a family relationship), SFS will combine the debt of all individuals. The second factor will definitely tend to inflate the amount of debt reported; the first is more ambiguous because on the one hand it is including both borrowers who graduated recently and those who graduated many years ago (which one would think would lower the average figure because the latter have been in repayment for many years), but on the other will tend to exclude those who graduated with lower debt because they will often have paid it off and hence be excluded from the statistic (thus raising average debt somewhat).

Also, because it measures outstanding debt rather than debt at graduation, it will tend to lag trends in student aid. That is, even after student debt at graduation stops rising, outstanding student debt will continue to rise as earlier cohort of (less indebted) graduates repay their loans and later cohorts of (more indebted) graduates take their place in the ranks of “those with outstanding student debt”. So it’s not really a big surprise that outstanding household student debt rose in the 2000s, because that’s the natural corollary of rising student debt at graduation in the 1990s (which, unlike rising student debt in the 2000s was actually a thing).

The point here is not that the data used is “fake”: the data itself is real. But to make their point about “rising student debt” the CFS’ report writers have used a quite different definition of student debt than that used by literally every other PSE stakeholder, indeed different to any definition of student debt CFS has ever used. And they have done so without mentioning that they have used an alternative definition. This is not an innocent oversight. The person or persons who authored this document clearly know their way around Statistics Canada data; anyone with that level of knowledge also understands that if you say “student debt has risen 40% since 1999”, people will understand that to mean “individual debt at graduation”, not “outstanding household debt amongst the entire population”. It’s a deliberate deception to further a politically convenient narrative.

Student debt, as that term is commonly understood, has not risen by 40% in real dollars since 1999. On the contrary, student debt levels are broadly stable and repayment burdens are much reduced over the past decade and a half. Using torqued, cherry-picked statistics to try to convince the public that the reverse is happening is pretty poor form.


May 11

Trade-offs in Apprenticeships

I haven’t worked on apprenticeship projects much in the last few years, but one of my current gigs has got me thinking about the area again.  And one thing that I apparently missed completely was a new (well, new to me anyway) effort to harmonize apprenticeship program sequencing nationally (details here).

Wait a minute, you say – weren’t apprenticeships always harmonized?  Isn’t that what Red Seal is all about?

Well, sort of.  Red Seal was about harmonizing outcomes.  Basically, Red Seal was an exam that journeypersons could take after completing their (provincially-governed) training which would certify them as being qualified to ply their trade right across the country.  It was optional – if you had no intention of leaving your home province there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking the exam because completion of the program was itself sufficient to allow one to practice there.  Red Seal was therefore basically a mobility tool for people who had completed apprenticeships.

Now, that was fine when most apprentices started and completed their training in one province.  But during the resource boom, there was an explosion of apprentices who began training in one province and then moved and wanted to complete training in another.  This created problems because although Red Seal had long since harmonized apprenticeship training outcomes, each province got to those outcomes in quite different ways.  Within the same trade, the number of required hours/weeks of training varied from one province to another, and the sequencing was different.  Something that an electrician learned at level 1 in Alberta wasn’t taught until level 3 in Ontario, something that made things complicated if, for instance, an apprentice level 2 electrician got laid off in Windsor and wanted to try his/her luck in Alberta.

As I say, I’ve been out of this file awhile but what seems to have happened is that the provincial directors of apprenticeship seem to have got together and actually co-ordinated things like training sequencing, number of weeks of in-class training, etc, and this is what they refer to as “harmonization”.  According to that federal website, this harmonization initiative is about halfway done – i.e about half the Red Seal trades were harmonized in 2016 and 2017 and the rest will be rolled out in stages over the next couple of years.

So, a triumph for the Canadian apprenticeship system?  Well, not so fast.

Not all trades programs are apprenticeship programs, but the curriculum still has to line up because everyone wants graduates of pre-employment trades programs to be able to become apprentices in that area.  So what that means is that national harmonization of apprenticeship programs in effect means nationalization of the entire trades curriculum.  And what that means is the effectiveness of all those local industry committees that every community college program has suddenly just got a lot less effective, because significant curriculum changes now have to be negotiated among ten provincial directors of apprenticeships.

Traditionally, those committees have been a point of pride in Canada because they have given trades programs the ability to respond quickly to business needs.  Now, their effectiveness has been traded away in the name not of journeyperson mobility but of apprentice mobility, which was a thing in the resource boom but maybe not so much in the bust.  Is that a smart trade-off?  I suspect the answer varies quite a bit by trade, and yet solution this is being applied uniformly across Red Seal Trades.

We are told “industry” asked for this change, but I really wonder who was part of the consultation.  I can certainly believe that big industry with training efforts in many different provinces asked for it.  I can believe that extractive industries asked for it.  I have a harder time believing that smaller and medium enterprises asked for it because it substantially lowers their ability to affect curriculum and to some degree lowers the values of apprentices to them.

Silver linings have clouds, basically.  And centralized curricula have trade-offs.

May 10

Why Education in IT Fields is Different

A couple of years ago, an American academic by the name of James Bessen wrote a fascinating book called Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth.  (It’s brilliant.  Read it).  It’s an examination of what happened to wages and productivity over the course of the industrial revolution, particularly in the crucial cotton mill industry.  And the answer, it turns out, is that despite all the investment in capital which permitted vast jumps in labour productivity, in fact wages didn’t rise that much at all.  Like, for about fifty years.

Sound familiar?

What Bessen does in this book is to try to get to grips with what happens to skills during a technological revolution.  And the basic problem is that while the revolution is going on, while new machines are being installed, it is really difficult to invest in skills.  It’s not simply that technology changes quickly and so one has to continually retrain (thus lowering returns to any specific bit of training); it’s also that technology is implemented in very non-standard ways, so that (for instance) the looms at one mill are set up completely differently from the looms at another and workers have to learn new sets of skills every time they switch employers.  Human capital was highly firm-specific.

The upshot of all this: In fields where technologies are volatile and skills are highly non-standardized, the only way to reliably increase skills levels is through “learning by doing”.  There’s simply no way to learn the skills in advance.  That meant that workers had lower levels bargaining power because they couldn’t necessarily use the skills acquired at one job at another.  It also meant that, not to put too fine a point on it, that formal education becomes much less important compared to “learning by doing”.

The equivalent industry today is Information Technology.  Changes in the industry happen so quickly that it’s difficult for institutions to provide relevant training; it’s still to a large extent a “learning by doing” field.  Yet, oddly, the preoccupation among governments and universities is: “how do we make more tech graduates”?

The thing is, it’s not 100% clear the industry even wants more graduates.  It just wants more skills.  If you look at how community colleges and polytechnics interact with the IT industry, it’s often through the creation of single courses which are designed in response to very specific skill needs.  And what’s interesting is that – in the local labour market at least – employers treat these single courses as more or less equivalent to a certificate of competency in a particular field.  That means that these college IT courses these are true “microcredentials” in the sense that they are short, potentially stackable, and have recognized labour market value.  Or at least they do if the individual has some demonstrable work experience in the field as well (so-called coding “bootcamps” attempt to replicate this with varying degrees of success, though since they are usually starting with people from outside the industry, it’s not as clear that the credentials they offer are viewed the same way by industry).

Now, when ed-tech evangelists go around talking about how the world in future is going to be all about competency-based badges, you can kind of see where they are coming from because that’s kind of the way the world already works – if you’re in IT.  The problem is most people are not in IT.  Most employers do not recognize individual skills the same way, in part because work gets divided into tasks in a somewhat different way in IT than it does in most other industries.  You’re never going to get to a point in Nursing (to take a random example) where someone gets hired because they took a specific course on opioid dosages.  There is simply no labour-market value to disaggregating a nursing credential, so why bother?

And so the lesson here is this: IT work is a pretty specific type of work in which much store is put in learning-by-doing and formal credentials like degrees and diplomas are to some degree replaceable by micro-credentials.  But most of the world of work doesn’t work that way.  And as a result, it’s important not to over-generalize future trends in education based on what happens to work in IT.  It’s sui generis.

Let tech be tech.  And let everything else be everything else.  Applying tech “solutions” to non-tech “problems” isn’t likely to end well.

May 09

Conservative Leadership Platform Analysis

So, I just read through all the thirteen leadership candidates’ websites, looking for their thoughts on all the stuff this blog cares about: post-secondary education, skills, science, innovation, youth, etc.

The things I do for you people.

Actually, it was a pretty quick exercise because it turns out almost no one in the Tory leadership race places much importance on post-secondary education, skills, innovation, youth.  They seem to care a lot about taxes, and immigration (and to a lesser extent guns), but for a party that was in government less than two years ago, the Conservative candidates seem to have remarkably little appreciation for the things that actually drive a modern economy.  Anyways, briefly, here is what the candidates say about the issues this blog cares about.

 Chris Alexander (Former Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, ex-MP Ajax-Pickering): No specific platform on higher education, but the topic does come up frequently in his policies.  Expanding educational exports to Asia is priority.  He says he wants 400,000 new international students/year by 2020 and 500,000 per year by 2023 (I’m pretty sure he does not actually mean “new” as in new visa applications every year, I think that’s total in the country at any one time).  He also wants to spend money on new National Centres of Excellence and Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research for the digital economy as well as invest more in research related to art and design (I assume OCAD’s Robert Luke has something to do with that one).  He also has a general pledge to incentivize PSE institutions to collaborate more with “incubators accelerators and companies of all sizes”, whatever that means.

Maxime Bernier (Former Minister of industry, Foreign Affairs, and Min. of State for Small Business, MP for Beauce)The main point of interest in the Bernier platform is the rise in the personal tax exemption to $15,000 per year, which will have favourable impacts for many students.  Under his health platform, Bernier indicates he wants the federal government to vacate the health field and transfer tax points to the provinces; though he does not say so explicitly, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the same would apply to the transfer of funds to provinces for post-secondary education under the Canada Social Transfer.

Steven Blaney (Former Minister of Public Safety, MP Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis): Nothing at all.

Michael Chong (Former Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Sport, MP Wellington-Halton Hills):  Nothing at all.

Kellie Leitch (Former Minister of Labour and the Status of Women, MP Simcoe-Grey): Nothing at all.

Pierre Lemieux (Former MP Glengarry-Prescott-Russell): Nothing at all.  Are you seeing a pattern yet?

Deepak Obhrai (MP Calgary Forest Lawn)Nothing at all.

 Erin O’Toole: (Former Minister of Veterans Affairs, MP Durham): O’Toole is the only candidate with anything even vaguely resembling plans for science and Innovation in the form of a scheme to extend the notion of “flow-through shares” –a tax gimmick heavily used in resource industries to defray development expenses – to new life-sciences and tech companies as well.  More intriguing is O’Toole’s “Generation Kick-Start” platform, which promises everyone who completes a degree, diploma or apprenticeship with an extra $100,000 of personal exemptions (i.e. $15K in reduced taxes) to be used before they turn 30.  That goes up to $300,000 if their credential in an area where skills are in “short supply” (definition vague but seems to include engineers, coders and “skilled tradespeople” even though 3 years into the oil slump the latter wouldn’t really qualify as “in demand”).  The latter half of the proposal is goofy, but the basic idea has a lot of merit.

 Rick Peterson: (A BC Investment Advisor of Some Sort): Nothing at all.

Lisa Raitt (Former Minister of Natural Resources, Labour, and Transportation, MP Milton). Like Maxime Bernier proposal, Raitt proposes to raise the basic tax exemption to 15K.  She also wants to increase the (totally useless) apprenticeship and completion grant up to $4,000.

 Andrew Saxton (ex-MP, North Vancouver)Saxton’s policy pages are – to put it mildly – light on detail.  However, he says he does want to invest in “skills training to ensure Canadian skills are matched with Canadian jobs” (whatever that means).  Also, having lived in Switzerland for some time, he advocates a Swiss-style apprenticeship program which extends into industries like banking, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Andrew Scheer (Former Speaker of the House of Commons, MP Regina-Qu’appelle) Scheer’s money proposals in education are limited to a pledge that parents of students attending independent schools a tax deduction of up to $4000 tuition annually per child, and a tax credit of $1,000 (i.e. a $150 reduction in taxes) to parents who choose to homeschool their child.  In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”.  He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP.  Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.

Brad Trost (ex-MP Saskatoon-University): Nothing apart from a pledge for tax support to private education and homeschooling identical to Scheer’s.

And that’s the lot.  I think it’s fair to say that the field’s appreciation for the role of knowledge and skills in the modern economy is pretty weak.   Maybe dangerously so.  Still, if you are voting in this election and you think PSE and skills are important, your best bet is probably Chris Alexander; if you want to raise youth living standards, vote for O’Toole followed perhaps by Maxime Bernier or Lisa Raitt.

(And yes, I know the percentage of Conservative voters motivated by those two sets of issues are vanishingly small, but I only have this one shtick, so cut me some slack).


May 08

Naylor Report, Part II

Morning all.  Sorry about the service interruption.  Nice to be back.

So, I promised you some more thoughts about the Fundamental Science Review.  Now that I’ve lot of time to think about it, I think I’m actually surprised by what it doesn’t say, says and how many questions remain open.

What’s best about the report?  The history and most of the analysis are pretty good.  I think a few specific recommendations (if adopted) might actually be a pretty big deal – in particular the one saying that the granting councils should stop any programs forcing researchers to come up with matching funding, mainly because it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

What’s so-so about it?  The money stuff for a start.  As I noted in my last blog post, I don’t really think you can justify a claim to more money based on “proportion of higher ed investment research coming from federal government”.  I’m more sympathetic to the argument that there needs to be more funds, especially for early career researchers, but as noted back here it’s hard to argue simultaneously that institutions should have unfettered rights to hire researchers but that the federal government should be pick up responsibility for their career progression.

The report doesn’t even bother, really, to make the case that more money on basic research means more innovation and economic growth.  Rather, it simply states it, as if it were a fact (it’s not).  This is the research community trying to annex the term “innovation” rather than co-exist with it.  Maybe that works in today’s political environment; I’m not sure it improves overall policy-making.  In some ways, I think it would have been preferable to just say: we need so many millions because that’s what it takes to do the kind of first-class science we’re capable of.  It might not have been politic, but it would have had the advantage of clarity.

…and the Governance stuff?  The report backs two big changes in governance.  One is a Four Agency Co-ordinating Board for the three councils plus the Canada Foundation for Innovation (which we might as well now call the fourth council, provided it gets an annual budget as recommended here), to ensure greater cross-council coherence in policy and programs.  The second is the creation of a National Advisory Committee on Research and Innovation (NACRI) to replace the current Science, Technology and Innovation Council and do a great deal else besides.

The Co-ordinating committee idea makes sense: there are some areas where there would be clear benefits to greater policy coherence.  But setting up a forum to reconcile interests is not the same thing as actually bridging differences.  There are reasons – not very good ones, perhaps, but reasons nonetheless – why councils don’t spontaneously co-ordinate their actions; setting up a committee is a step towards getting them to do so, but success in this endeavour requires sustained good will which will not necessarily be forthcoming.

NACRI is a different story.  Two points here.  The first is that it is pretty clear that NACRI is designed to try to insulate the councils and the investigator-driven research they fund from politicians’ bright ideas about how to run scientific research.  Inshallah, but if politicians want to meddle – and the last two decades seem to show they want to do it a lot – then they’re going to meddle, NACRI or no.  Second, the NACRI as designed here is somewhat heavier on the “R” than on the “I”.  My impression is that as with some of the funding arguments, this is an attempt to hijack the Innovation agenda in Research’s favour.  I think a lot of people are OK with this because they’d prefer the emphasis to be on science and research rather than innovation but I’m not sure we’re doing long-term policy-making in the area any favours by not being explicit about this rationale.

What’s missing?  The report somewhat surprisingly punted what I expected to be a major issue: namely, the government’s increasing tendency over time to fund science outside the framework of the councils in such programs as the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF).  While the text of the report makes clear the authors’ have some reservations about these programs, the recommendations are limited to a “you should review that, sometime soon”.  This is too bad, because phasing out these kinds of programs would be an obvious way to pay for increase investigator-driven funding (though as Nassif Ghoussoub points out here  it’s not necessarily a quick solution because funds are already committed for several years in advance).  The report therefore seems to suggest that though it deplores past trends away from investigator-driven funding, it doesn’t want to see these recent initiatives defunded, which might be seen in government as “having your cake and eating it too”.

What will the long-term impact of the report be? Hard to say: much depends on how much of this the government actually takes up, and it will be some months before we know that.  But I think the way the report was commissioned may have some unintended adverse consequences.  Specifically, I think the fact that this review was set up in such a way as to exclude consideration of applied research – while perfectly understandable – is going to contribute to the latter being something of a political orphan for the foreseeable future.  Similarly, the fact that the report was done in isolation from the broader development of Innovation policy might seem like a blessing given the general ham-fistedness surrounding the Innovation file, in the end I wonder if the end result won’t be an effective division of policy, with research being something the feds pay universities do and innovation something they pay firms to do.  That’s basically the right division, of course, but what goes missing are vital questions about how to make the two mutually reinforcing.

Bottom line: it’s a good report.  But even if the government fully embraces the recommendations, there are still years of messy but important work ahead.

April 18

Naylor Report, Take 1

People are asking why I haven’t talked about the Naylor Report (aka the Review of Fundamental Science) yet.  The answer, briefly, is i) I’m swamped ii) there’s a lot to talk about in there and iii) I want to have some time to think it over.  But I did have some thoughts about chapter 3, where I think there is either an inadvertent error or the authors are trying to pull a fast one (and if it’s the latter I apologize for narking on them).  So I thought I would start there.

The main message of chapter 3 is that the government of Canada is not spending enough on inquiry-driven research in universities (this was not, incidentally, a question the Government of Canada asked of the review panel, but the panel answered it anyway).  One of the ways that the panel argues this point is that while Canada has among the world’s highest levels of Research and Development in the higher education sector – known as HERD if you’re in the R&D policy nerdocracy – most of the money for this comes from higher education institutions themselves and not the federal government.  This, that say, is internationally anomalous and a reason why the federal government should spend more money.

Here’s the graph they use to make this point:

Naylor Report

Hmm.  Hmmmmm.

So, there are really two problems here.  The first is that HERD can be calculated differently in different countries for completely rational reasons.  Let me give you the example of Canada vs. the US.  In Canada, the higher education portion of the contribution to HERD is composed of two things: i) aggregate faculty salaries times the proportion of time profs spend on research (Statscan occasionally does surveys on this – I’ll come back to it in a moment) plus ii) some imputation about unrecovered research overhead.  In the US, it’s just the latter.  Why?  Because the way the US collects data on HERD, the only faculty costs they capture are the chunks taken out of federal research grants.  Remember, in the US, profs are only paid 9 months per year and at least in the R&D accounts, that’s *all* teaching.  Only the pieces of research grant they take out as summer salary gets recorded as R&D expenditure (and also hence as a government-sponsored cost rather than a higher education-sponsored one).

But there’s a bigger issue here.  If one wants to argue that what matters is the ratio of federal portion of HERD to the higher-education portion of HERD, then it’s worth remembering what’s going on in the denominator.  Aggregate salaries are the first component.  The second component is research intensity, as measured through surveys.  This appears to be going up over time.  In 2000, Statscan did a survey which seemed to show the average prof spending somewhere between 30-35% of their time on research. A more recent survey shows that this has risen to 42%.  I am not sure if this latest co-efficient has been factored into the most recent HERD data, but when it does, it will show a major jump in higher education “spending” (or “investment”, if you prefer) on research, despite nothing really having changed at all (possibly it has been and it is what explains the bump seen in expenditures in 2012-13)

What the panel ends up arguing is for federal funding to run more closely in tune with higher education’s own “spending”.  But in practice what this means is: every time profs get a raise, federal funding would have to rise to keep pace.  Every time profs decide – for whatever reasons – to spend more time on research, federal funds should rise to keep pace.  And no doubt that would be awesome for all concerned, but come on.  Treasury Board would have conniptions if someone tried to sell that as a funding mechanism.

None of which is to say federal funding on inquiry-driven research shouldn’t rise.  Just to say that using data on university-funded HERD might not be a super-solid base from which to argue that point

April 12

Access: A Canadian Success Story

Statscan put out a very important little paper on access to post-secondary education on Monday.  It got almost zero coverage despite conclusively putting to bed a number of myths about fees and participation, so I’m going to rectify that by explaining it to y’all in minute detail.

To understand this piece, you need to know something about a neat little Statscan tool called the Longitudinal Administrative Database (LAD).  Every time someone files an income tax form for the first time, LAD randomly selects one in five of them and follows them for their entire lifetime.  If at the time someone first files a tax return they have the same address as someone who is already in the LAD (and who is the right age to have a kid submitting a tax form for the first time), one can make a link between a parent and child.  In other words, for roughly 4% of the population, LAD has data on both the individual and the parent, which allows some intergenerational analysis.  Now, because we have tax credits for post-secondary education (PSE), tax data allows us to know who went to post-secondary education and who did not (it can’t tell us what type of institution they attended, but we know that they did attend PSE).  And with LAD’s backward link to parents, it means we can measure attendance by parental income.

Got that?  Good.  Let’s begin.

The paper starts by looking at national trends in PSE participation (i.e. university and college combined) amongst 19 year-olds since 2001, by family income quintile.  Nationally, participation rates rose by just over 20%, from 52.6% to 63.8%.  They also rose for every quintile.  Even for youth the lowest income quintile, participation is now very close to 50%.

 Figure 1: PSE enrolment rates by Income Quintile, Canada 2001-2014

PSE by Income Quintile

This positive national story about rates by income quintile is somewhat offset by a more complex set of results for participation rates by region.  In the 6 eastern provinces, participation rate rose on average by 13.6 percentage points; in the four western provinces, it rose by just 2.8 percentage points (and in Saskatchewan it actually fell slightly).  The easy answer here is that it’s about the resource boom, but if that were the case, you’d expect to see a similar pattern in Newfoundland, and a difference within the west between Manitoba and the others.  In fact, neither is true: Manitoba is slightly below the western average and Newfoundland had the country’s highest PSE participation growth rate.

 Figure 2: PSE Participation rates by region, 2002-2014

PSE by region

(actually, my favourite part of figure 2 is data showing that 19 year-old Quebecers – who mostly attend free CEGEPs, have a lower part rate than 19 year-old Ontarians who pay significant fees, albeit with benefit of a good student aid system.)

But maybe the most interesting data here is with respect to the closing of the gap between the top and bottom income quintile.  Figure 3 shows the ratio of participation rates of students from the bottom quintile (Q1) to those from the top quintile (Q5), indexed to the ratio as it existed in 2001, for Canada and selected provinces.  So a larger number means Q1 students are becoming more likely to attend PSE relative to Q5s and a smaller number means they are becoming less likely.  Nationally, the gap has narrowed by about 15%, but the interesting story is actually at the provincial level.

Figure 3: Ratio of Q1 participation rates to Q5 participation rates, Canada and selected provinces, 2001-2014

Q1 to Q5 participation rates

At the top end, what we find is that Newfoundland and Ontario are the provinces where the gap between rich and poor has narrowed the most.  Given that one of these provinces has the country’s highest tuition and the other the lowest, I think we can safely rule out tuition, on its own, as a plausible independent variable (especially as Quebec, the country’s other low-tuition province, posted no change over the period in question).  At the bottom end, we have the very puzzling case of Saskatchewan, where inequality appears to have got drastically worse over the past decade or so.  And again, though it’s tempting to reach for a resource boom explanation, nothing similar happened in Alberta so that’s not an obvious culprit.

Anyways, here’s why this work is important.  For decades, the usual suspects (the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives) have blazed with self-righteousness about the effects of higher tuition and higher debts (debt actually hasn’t increased that much in real terms since 2000, but whatever).  But it turns out there are no such effects.  Over a decade of tuition continuing to increase slowly and average debts among those who borrow of over $25,000 and it turns out not only did participation rates increase, but participation rates of the poorest quintile rose fastest of all.

And – here’s the kicker – different provincial strategies on tuition appear to have had diddly-squat to do with it.  So the entire argument the so-called progressives make in favour of lower tuition is simply out the window.  That doesn’t mean they will change their position, of course.  They will continue to talk about the need to eliminate student debt because it is creating inequality (it’s actually the reverse, but whatever).  But of course, this make the free-tuition position even sillier.  If the problem is simply student debt, then why advocate a policy in which over half your dollars go to people who have no debt?

It’s the Ontario result in particular that matters: it proves that a high-tuition/high-aid policy is compatible with a substantial widening of access.  And that’s good news for anyone who wants smart funding policies in higher education.

April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.


Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph


The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

April 07

CEU and Academic Freedom

Let me tell you about this university in Europe. It’s a small, private institution in which specializes in the humanities and social sciences. It’s run on western lines, and is one of the best institutions in the country for research. And now the Government is trying to shut it down, mainly because it finds the institution politically troublesome.

Think I’m talking about Central European University (CEU) in Budapest? Well, I’m not. I’m talking about the European University of Saint Petersburg (EUSP), which has had its license to operate revoked mainly because of its program of studies on gender and LGBTQ issues. And I’m kind of interested in why we focus on one and not the other.

First, let’s get down to brass tacks about what’s going on at Central European University (CEU). This Budapest-based institution, founded by George Soros 25 years ago during the transition away from socialism, is a gem in the region. No fields of study were more corrupted by four decades of communist rule than the Social Sciences, and CEU has done a stellar job not just in becoming a top-notch institution in its own right, but in becoming a bastion of free thought in the region.

The Hungarian government, which not to put too fine a point on it is run by a bunch of nationalist ruffians, has decided to try to restrict CEU’s operations by legislating a set of provisions which in theory apply to all universities but in practice apply only to CEU. The most important of these provisions basically says that institutions which offer foreign-accredited degrees (CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which handles most accreditation of overseas institutions) have to have a campus in their “home country” in order to be able to operate in Hungary and be subject to a formal bilateral agreement between the “home” government and the Hungarian one (CEU does business on the basis of an international agreement, but it’s between Hungary and the State of New York, not the USA). There is, as CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff (yes, him) says, simply no benefit to CEU to do this: it is simply a tactic to raise CEU’s cost of doing business.

So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is not an attack on academic freedom the way we would use that term in the west. We’re not talking about chilling individual scholars here. The ruling Hungarian coalition couldn’t care less what gets taught at CEU: what bothers them is that the institution exists to support liberalism and pluralism. What we’re talking about is something much broader than just academic freedom; it’s about weakening independent institutions in an illiberal state. It’s also about anti-semitism (the right wing in Hungary routinely refer to CEU as “Soros University” so as to remind everyone of the institution’s Jewish founder). Yet somehow, the rallying cry is “academic freedom”, when plain old freedom and liberalism would be much more accurate.

I wonder why we don’t hear cries for academic freedom for EUSP, where in fact the academic angle – the university’ research program in gender and queer studies being targeted by a homophobic state – is much more clear cut. Is it because we reckon Russia is beyond salvation and Hungary is not? That would certainly explain our anemic reaction to increasing restrictions on academic freedom in China (where criticism of government is fine, but criticism of the Communist Party is likely to end extremely badly). It would explain why Turkey has faced essentially no academic consequences (boycotts, etc) for its ongoing purge of academic leaders.

I don’t mean to play the whole “why-do-we-grieve-bombings-in-Paris-but-not-Beirut” game. I get it, some places matter more in the collective imagination than others. But I actually think that CEU’s decision to portray this as an academic freedom issue rather that one of freedom tout court plays a role here. We can get behind calls for academic freedom (particularly when they are articulated by English-speaking academics) because academic freedom is something that is everywhere and always being tested around the edges (yeah, McGill, I’m looking at you). But calls for just plain old “freedom”? or “Liberalism”? The academy seems to get po-mo ickies about those.

Frankly, we need to get less squeamish about this. Academic freedom as we know it in the west does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of underlying societal commitment to pluralism and liberalism. If we only try to defend the niche freedom without defending the underlying values, we will fail.

So, by all means, let’s support CEU. But let’s not do it just for academic freedom. Let’s do it for better reasons.

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