HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

February 06

“Xenophobia”

Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”.  No, really, they have.  This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students.   But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned.  So: let’s get down to debunking this.

The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad.  Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.

It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical.  Lots of countries do it:  Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well.  But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one.  A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not.  This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction.  If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital.  This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.

It’s the same in higher education.  American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state.  Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers.  In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students.  Irritating?  Yes.  Xenophobic?  No.

International students are in the same position.  Their parents have not paid into the system.  Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves.  So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students?  And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance.  So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.

In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia.  Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students.  According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.

My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”.  What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees.  That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.

But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics.  Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy.  You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.

February 03

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education: Massification

A few months ago I was asked to give a presentation about my thoughts on the “big trends” affecting international education. I thought it might be worth setting some of these thoughts to paper (so to speak), and so, every Friday for the next few weeks I’ll be looking one major trend in internationalization, and exploring its impact on Canadian PSE.

The first and most important mega-trend is the fact that all over the world, participation in higher education is going through the roof. Mostly, that’s due to growth in Asia which now hosts 56% of the world’s students, but substantial growth has been the norm around the world since 2000.  In Asia, student numbers have nearly tripled in that period (up 184%), but they also more than doubled (albeit from lower bases) in Latin America (123%) and Africa (114%), and even in North America numbers increased by 50%. Only in Europe, where several major countries have begun seeing real drops in enrolment thanks to changing demographics (most notably the Russian Federation), has the enrolment gain been small – a mere 20%.

Tertiary Enrolments by Continent, 1999-2014:

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Source: Unesco Institute of Statistics

Now, what does this have to do with the future of international higher education?  Well, back in the day, international students were seen as “overflow” – that is, students forced abroad because there were not enough educational opportunities in their own countries. Therefore, many people thought that the massification of higher education in Asia (and particularly China) would over the long run mean a decrease in internationalization because they would have more options to choose from at home.

Clearly the last decade and a half has put that idea to bed. Global enrolments have shot up, but international enrolments have risen even faster. But as all these national systems of higher education are undergoing massification, they are also undergoing stratification. That is to say: as higher education systems get larger, the positional advantage obtained simply from attending higher education declines, and the positional advantage to attending a specific, prestigious institution rises. And while higher education places are rising quickly around the world, the number of spaces in prestigious institutions is staying relatively steady in most countries (India, which is expanding its IIT system, is a partial exception). Take China for example; over the last 20 years, the number of new undergraduate students being admitted to Chinese universities has increased from about one and a half million to six million per year. In that same time, the intake of the country’s nine most prestigious universities  (the so-called “C-9”) has increased barely at all (it currently stands at something like 50,000 per year).

Now if you’re a student in a country where there’s a very tight bottleneck at the top of the prestige ladder, what do you do if you don’t quite make it to the top? Do you settle for a second-best university in your own country?  Or do you look for a second-best university in another country, preferably one where people speak English, and preferably one which has a little bit of cachet of its own? Assuming money is not a barrier (though it often is) the answer is a no-brainer: go abroad.

So when we look ahead to the future, as we think about what might affect student flows around the world, what we need to watch is not the rise of university or college places in places like China and India, but rather the ratio of prestige spaces to total spaces. As long as that ratio keeps falling – and there’s no evidence at the moment that this process will reverse itself anytime soon – expect the demand for international education to remain high.

February 02

Manitoba’s Golden Opportunity

It’s tough to be in government these days: prolonged slow growth means it’s difficult to keep increasing spending at a rate at which citizens have become accustomed.  Instead, with rising costs and little appetite to raise taxes or fees, governing often seems to be one long exercise in nickel-and-diming.  Higher education – in most of Canada at least – has felt some of this, but in truth has been insulated more than most other parts of the public service.

But the key role of government should not simply be to find ways to cut: it should be about increasing the effectiveness of public expenditures.  And in particular, making sure public expenditures are designed in such a way as to promote and not hinder growth.  That’s why, if there was one place in Canada I wish I could be an Advanced Education Minister right now, it’s Manitoba.  Because, as I explain in a new paper HESA is releasing today, Manitoba has a boatload of poorly-performing expenditures in higher education tax credits that could be re-purposed into areas which could really help the province.

Here’s the scoop: Manitoba has two tax credits – the Education Amount Tax Credit and the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate – which are neither particularly effective nor have many defenders within the higher education sector.  The former tax credit is a hold-over from the Diefenbaker era which all provinces (except Quebec) got stuck with in their portfolios when the provinces moved from a tax-on-tax to a tax-on-income system back in 2000.  In the past 12 months, the federal government, the province of Ontario and the Government of New Brunswick have all eliminated this tax credit because it was neither progressive nor efficient, and funneled that money back to student assistance.  The latter tax credit is effectively a tuition rebate for students who stay in the province, which is batty and wasteful for number of reasons I’ve previously outlined here. In any case, it is demonstrably too small to achieve its intended goal of convincing students who would otherwise not live in the province to live in the province.  The result is this money is a windfall gain to graduates, paying them to do something they were going to do anyways.  The elimination of these two tax measures could yield approximately $67 million per year in savings which could be spent more productively elsewhere within the higher education sector.

$67 million is a lot in Manitoba higher education.  Taking that money away from unproductive tax credits could fund a whole lot of new, useful investments.  These include:

  • Adding $14 million/year to provincial student assistance fund.  Spent correctly, this would be  enough to fund an Ontario-like “free tuition” guarantee to low- and middle-class Manitobans even if tuition fees were allowed to rise by a third (which, given how low tuition is in Manitoba, is probably a not a bad idea).
  • Investing $12 million/year to increasing supports to Indigenous students and expanding community delivery of programming in or near First Nations communities
  • Supporting the expansion of work-integrated learning at Manitoba universities and colleges with the creation of a dedicated $15 million/year fund.
  • Redressing a long-standing imbalance in post-secondary spending by increasing the number of seats in non-Metro Manitoba with a $15 million/year investment.
  • Creating an $11 million/year employer-driven “quick response training fund” to make it easier for employers with expanding businesses to access bespoke training.

In sum, for the price of two badly-designed tax credits, Manitoba could make real investments in access, both in terms of financial aid and providing spaces in under-served areas, increase support to Indigenous students and communities, improve the quality of education and provide more funds for employer-led training that could help relieve skills bottlenecks for investors.  How could you pass this up?  Who wouldn’t do this?

Over to you, Manitoba.

February 01

Loving It

Back in the summer you may have heard a bit of a brouhaha about a deal signed between Colleges Ontario and McDonald’s, allowing McDonald’s management trainees to receive advanced standing in business programs at Ontario colleges.  If you read the papers, what you probably saw was a he-said/she-said story in which someone from Colleges Ontario said something like “Ontario colleges are providing advanced credit for people who have been through a MacDonald’s management training program and that’s a good thing for access” and someone from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) saying something like “Corporate education McDonald’s bad!”

This should have been an unequivocally good news story.  It is a travesty that it was not.  Here’s the real story.

McDonald’s, a company which employees around 400,000 employees directly and whose franchisees employ another 1.5 million, runs one of the largest internal corporate training programs in the world.  That’s not just the famous training center known as Hamburger University in Illinois, which is mainly for mid-management and executive development: they also have training centers in various locations around the world providing training programs for restaurant managers and crews.  While not many young employees stay at McDonald’s very long (turnover is something like 150% per year), a small fraction do stick with it to become managers.  And those that do receive a substantial education through the company in how to run a business.

Now, if you believe in the principles of prior learning recognition, you’ll recognize that this situation is a slam-dunk to create a standardized system of assessment to award credit.  Assessing prior knowledge can be a right mess; assessing knowledge gained through work experience (paid or unpaid) or in other forms of informal or non-formal learning in a way that maps on to some kind of credit or credential system is time-consuming and inexact.  But this situation is different.  With McDonald’s, there’s an actual written-down curriculum that can be used to do the curriculum mapping.  This is – comparatively – easy-peasy.

So what happened prior to last summer was that McDonald’s approached Colleges Ontario to try to work out such an arrangement.  Both sides had previous experience in doing something similar: McDonald’s had worked out a similar agreement in British Columbia with BCIT and Fanshawe College had led a national process to do an analogous type of curriculum mapping with the Canadian Military to allow its soldiers/veterans to count various parts of its training programs towards college credentials.  Faculty and admin representatives from all 24 colleges agreed on the parameters of the deal, then allowed a smaller technical group to work on mapping all the elements of McDonald’s coursework up to the Second Assistant Manager level of training onto the common (Ontario) college standard outcomes for the Business Administration diploma.  At the end of it, it was decided that one level was more or less equivalent to another, and so individuals who had reached Second Assistant Manager could automatically get a year’s worth of credit (there’s no partial credit for having complete some McDonald’s training: this is an all-or-nothing deal).

So what are the criticisms?  Basically, they amount to:

  1. College-level courses need to be taught by college teachers in a college atmosphere
  2. McDonald’s is a big evil corporation. Why with McDonald’s?  Why not others?
  3. Why isn’t mapping available publicly?

The first argument, taken to its logical conclusion, essentially says that PLAR is illegitimate because no knowledge derived from outside the classroom can possibly count. Presumably people who believe this also believe mapping arrangements for Armed Forces training is also a complete scandal.

The second…well, if that’s your belief, I suppose there is no shaking it.  As for why McDonald’s – it’s because they asked.  And they had a hell of a well-documented curriculum to present to Colleges Ontario.  Presumably similar deals are open to other businesses, but no one (to my knowledge) has asked.  As for the third, it’s clear why it’s not public: McDonald’s treats the curriculum of its courses as corporate intelligence – as they have every right to do – and don’t want it published for the world to see.  One could make the argument that a decision involving credits at public institutions needs to be to be fully in the public domain.  But, one, that would mean that virtually every program at Ontario university is suspect (just try finding curriculum maps or un-redacted program evaluations online and see how many are publicly available) and two, faculty co-ordinators responsible for Business Administration from all 24 institutions (all of whom are OPSEU members, incidentally) all saw the detailed curriculum in confidence and signed off on the deal, which seems like a reasonable saw-off.

In short, this is a good deal.  If we want to promote life-long learning and increase prior learning recognition, we need more of these, not less.  Bravo to everyone involved.

January 31

Hiring Decisions

One of the more thoughtful replies I received to my piece on CAUT’s politicization of university accounting pointed out that one of the reasons people didn’t trust university accounting was because they made seemingly incomprehensible decisions with respect to hiring.  How was it, my reader asked, that there was plenty of money to hire sessionals but never money to hire full-time, permanent faculty?  Isn’t that money fungible?  Why spend on one and not the other?

I can see why this might be puzzling if you’re used to seeing budget decisions in annual terms, but it’s actually fairly simple.  Yes, on an annual basis, one new assistant professor might cost the same as eight sessionals (or whatever – pick a number), but on a longer-term accounting, it’s a completely different story.

At this point I should point you to a recent piece by Carleton University’s Nick Rowe, entitled “University Budget Surpluses: Irreversible Investment and Uncertain Demand” which lays out the basic challenge in accounting for academic staff on the university’s books.  (This, by the way, is not the only Nick Rowe piece on universities you should read – everybody should read, and I mean now, his “Confessions of a Central Planner” which is the best thing ever written on university finance ever, by anyone.  Seriously, it’s genius).    I am doing a bit of violence to Rowe’s argument (which is somewhat broader than the case I am making here), but the simple version is this:

University income are uncertain – and in fact getting more uncertain all the time as universities increasingly become more dependent on market operations (i.e. money from students, both domestic and international).  That’s not the fault of anyone in the institution: that’s simply the way public policy has been moving for the past few years.  Now, if you’re a provost or a VP Finance trying to plan for a future, what’s the absolute last thing you want to do?  Add permanent costs.

Well, as Rowe points out, hiring a full-time prof is about as permanent a cost as it gets.  In fact, given the way tenure works and how collective bargaining agreements are written and the fact that retirement is increasingly a thing of the past, a new hire is pretty much the same category of investment as a new building: it’s going to be there for 40 years, minimum.  A new assistant professor should not be viewed as an $85,000 annual cost ($100K with benefits); he or she should rather be viewed as something like an extremely illiquid $6 million asset.

The analogy here is one with personal finances: say you were being paid $100,000 per year and you’re debating whether to buy a house or keep renting.  Then someone came along and said: listen, we’re going to pay you $80,000 and pay you a bonus of between $10,000 and $25,000 per year.  In all likelihood, this means you’ll end up right about at $100,000, but there’s a non-trivial chance that your pay may fall below that level.  Quick: are you now more likely to take on the responsibility of a mortgage?  Or do you stick with renting?  Not everyone will have the same answer here, but certainly most would consider the latter to be the “safer” option.

In any case: institutional policy on temporary vs. permanent hires is probably not a gauge of miserliness or what have you.  A more accurate analysis would suggest that such policies are actually a function of institutional confidence in future revenues.  Where institutions feel good about the future, they will make full-time hires; where they are less confident temps will be hired more often.  That’s not something anyone ever says out loud, for obvious reasons, but it is nevertheless a perfectly sensible long-term planning perspective.  No conspiracy theories about university budgeting practices required.

January 30

Truth and Reconciliation

Last week, the University of Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee released its final report, which sets out the institution’s response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. This seems like a good time to update my previous coverage on this.

First, I should say that on the whole I have been impressed by the response of the country’s universities and colleges to the TRC. I think there has been a commendable level of commitment shown by institutional leaders in trying to respond, as bet they can, to Justice (now Senator) Sinclair’s report. For the most part, institutions are getting better at creating and maintaining indigenous spaces, but that’s a fairly low-impact commitment. Many are saying the right things about trying to hire more indigenous staff, both academic and non-academic, though it will take years to see whether or not this actually comes to anything.

(Small quibble about some TRC related plans, including Toronto’s: though there are a lot of action lists, the documents are often weak in terms of spelling out who is in charge of ensuring commitments will be met or how the institution will follow up on its commitments. That’s not to say institutions aren’t planning on following up or that no one is in charge, but one would have thought that where building trust with First Nations is at stake the issue of accountability might have been given a bit more prominence).

But one area that has really got me thinking is the issue of curriculum change. The TRC report was quite specific about what it wanted in terms of curricular change. It wanted Medical and Nursing schools to “require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal Rights and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human-rights and anti-racism”.

For other fields of study, the TRC request was not for specific courses but for something more general. It asked for social workers to be “properly educated and trained about the history and impacts of residential schools” and the “potential for Aboriginal communities and families to provide more appropriate solutions to family healing”. It asked that Education faculties to be given proper funding so as to be able to “educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” And finally it asked that Schools of Journalism provide education for their students on Indigenous peoples’ history, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the UN Declaration, treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”

I don’t think these differences in wording were accidental. In some fields of study, Sinclair wanted general change, but for Nursing, Medicine and Law he wanted specific courses introduced and he wanted them to be mandatory. Interestingly, the University of Toronto decided not to accept this call to action literally (in fairness, it is not the only institution to have taken this stance). The Faculties of Medicine and Nursing said they would integrate Indigenous content more widely across the curriculum so that it was “equivalent to” a full course. In Law, the proposed solution is to integrate content on Aboriginal Title and the Indigenous legal tradition into its mandatory intro classes and have it taught by an Indigenous scholar.

One could make a case for both either the “single course” or the “change across the curriculum” approach. The argument for change across the curriculum is that it is deeper and more lasting, and that a single course can be seen as a bit tokenistic. The argument for a single course is that you can actually count it and see whether it is being done or not. Also, the “integrating material across the curriculum” thing probably works well where you have a lot of Indigenous scholars developing and delivering the content; however, since most universities don’t have that, one is entitled to wonder a little bit about the effectiveness of this strategy.

By raising this issue, I don’t mean to criticize the U of T. The main point of TRC was to get Canadian institutions to embrace change in the cause of reconciliation, and U of T has certainly done that. But I for one would really like to hear what Indigenous scholars think about this issue: which methods do they think would be best, and in what circumstances? I think it’s a discussion from which we could all benefit.

January 27

A Slice of Canadian Higher Education History

There are a few gems scattered through Statistics Canada’s archives. Digging around their site the other day, I came across a fantastic trove of documents published by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (as StatsCan used to be called) called Higher Education in Canada. The earliest number in this series dates from 1938, and is available here. I urge you to read the whole thing, because it’s a hoot. But let me just focus in on a couple of points in this document worth pondering.

The first point of interest is the enrolment statistics (see page 65 of the PDF, 63 of the document). It won’t of course surprise anyone to know that enrolment at universities was a lot smaller in 1937-38 than it is today (33,600 undergraduates then, 970,000 or so now), or that colleges were non-existent back then. What is a bit striking is the large number of students being taught in universities who were “pre-matriculation” (i.e. high school students). Nearly one-third of all students in universities in 1937-38 had this “pre-matric” status. Now, two-thirds of these were in Quebec, where the “colleges classiques” tended to blur the line between secondary and post-secondary (and, in their new guise as CEGEPs, still kind of do). But outside of British Columbia, all universities had at least some pre-matric, which would have made these institutions quite different from modern ones.

The second point of interest is the section on entrance requirements at various universities (page 12-13 of the PDF, p. 10-11 of the document). With the exception of UNB, every Canadian university east of the Ottawa River required Latin or Greek in order to enter university, as did Queens, Western and McMaster. Elsewhere, Latin was an alternative to Mathematics (U of T), or an alternative to a modern language (usually French or German). What’s interesting here is not so much the decline in salience of classical languages, but the decline in salience of any foreign language. In 1938, it was impossible to gain admission to a Canadian university without first matriculating in a second language, and at a majority of them a third language was required as well. I hear a lot of blah blah about internationalization on Canadian campuses, but 80 years on there are no Canadian universities which require graduates to learn a second language, let alone set this as a condition of entry. An area, clearly, where we have gone backwards.

The third and final bit to enjoy is the section on tuition fees (page 13), which I reproduce here:

ottsyd-20170126

*$1 in 1937-38 = $13.95 in 2016
**$1 in 1928-29 = $16.26 in 2016

Be a bit careful in comparing across years here: because of deflation, $100 in 1928 was worth $85 in 1937 and so institutions which kept prices stable in fact saw a rise in income in real terms. There are a bunch of interesting stories here, including the fact that institutions had very different pricing strategies in the depression. Some (e.g. McGill, Saskatchewan, Acadia) increased tuition while others (mostly Catholic institutions like the Quebec seminaries and St. Dunstan’s) either held the line or reduced costs. Also mildly amusing is the fact that McGill’s tuition for in-province students is almost unchanged since 1937-38 (one can imagine the slogan: “McGill – we’ve been this cheap since the Rape of Nanking!”).

The more interesting point here is that if you go back to the 1920s, not all Canadian universities were receiving stable and recurrent operating grants from provincial governments (of note: nowhere in this digest of university statistics is government funding even mentioned). Nationally, in 1935, all universities combined received $5.4 million from provincial governments – and U of T accounted for about a quarter of that. For every dollar in fees universities received from students, they received $1.22 from government. So when you see that universities were for the most part charging around $125 per students in 1937-38, what that means is that total operating funding per student was maybe $275, or a shade under $4500 per student in today’s dollars. That’s about one-fifth of today’s operating income per student.

While most of that extra per-student income has gone towards making institutions more capital-intensive (scientific facilities in general were pretty scarce in the 1930s), there’s no question that the financial position of academics had improved. If you take a quick gander at page 15, which shows the distribution of professorial salaries, you’ll see that average annual salaries for associate profs was just below $3500, while those for full professors was probably in the $4200 range. Even after for inflation, that means academic salaries were less than half what they are today. Indeed, one of the reasons tenure was so valued back then was that job security made up for the not-stellar pay. Times change.

In any case, explore this document on your own: many hours (well, minutes anyway) of fun to be had here.

January 26

An Amazing Statscan Skills Study

I’ve been hard on Statscan lately because of their mostly-inexcusable data collection practices.  But every once in awhile the organization redeems itself.  This week, that redemption takes the form of an Analytical Studies Branch research paper by Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank entitled Do Postsecondary Graduates Land High-Skilled Jobs?  The implications of this paper are pretty significant, but also nuanced and susceptible to over-interpretation.  So let’s go over in detail what this paper’s about.

The key question Frenette & Frank are answering is “what kinds of skills are required in the jobs in which recent graduates (defined operationally here as Canadians aged 25-34 with post-secondary credentials) find themselves”.  This is not, to be clear, an attempt to measure what skills these students possess; rather it is an attempt to see what skills their jobs require.  Two different things.  People might end up in jobs requiring skills they don’t have; alternatively, they may end up in jobs which demand fewer skills than the ones they possess.  Keep that definition in mind as you read.

The data source Frenette & Frank use is something called the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which was developed by the US Department of Labour.  Basically, they spend ages interviewing employees, employers, and occupational analysts to work out skill levels typically required in hundreds of different occupations.  For the purpose of this paper, the skills analyzed and rated include reading, writing, math, science, problem solving, social, technical operation, technical design and analysis and resource management (i.e. management of money and people).  They then take all that data and transpose it onto Canadian occupational definitions.  So now they can assign skill levels to nine different dimensions of skills to each Canadian occupation.  Then they use National Household Survey data (yes, yes, I know), to look at post-secondary graduates and what kind of occupations they have.  On the basis of this, at the level of the individual, they can link highest credential received to the skills required in their occupation.  Multiply that over a couple of million Canadians and Frenette and Frank have themselves one heck of a database.

So, the first swing at analysis is to look at occupational skill requirements by level of education.   With only a couple of exceptions – technical operations being the most obvious one – these more or less all rise according to the level of education. The other really amusing exception is that apparently PhDs do not occupy/are not offered jobs which require management skills.  But it’s when they get away from level of education and move to field of study that things get really interesting.  To what extent are graduates from various fields of study employed in jobs that require,  for instance, high levels of reading comprehension or writing ability?  I reproduce Frenette & Frank’s results below.

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Yep.  You read that right.  Higher reading comprehension skill requirements are for jobs occupied by Engineers.  Humanities?  Not so much.

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It’s pretty much the same story with writing, though business types tend to do better on that measure.

ottsyd-20170125-3

…and critical thinking rounds out the set.

So what’s going on here?  How is it that that humanities (“We teach people to think!“) get such weak scores and “mere” professional degrees like business and engineering do so well?  Well, let’s be careful about interpretation.  These charts are not saying that BEng and BCom grads are necessarily better than BA grads at reading, writing and critical thinking, though one shouldn’t rule that out.  They’re saying that BEng and BCom grads get jobs with higher reading, writing and critical thinking requirements than do BAs.  Arguably, it’s a measure of underemployment rather than a measure of skill.  I’m not sure I personally would argue that, but it is at least arguable.

But whatever field of study you’re from, there’s a lot of food for thought here.  If reading and writing are such a big deal for BEngs, should universities wanting to give their BEngs a job boost spend more time giving them communication skills?  If you’re in social sciences or humanities, what implications do these results have for curriculum design?

I know if I were a university President, these are the kinds of questions I’d be asking my deans after reading this report.

January 25

The Science Policy Review

So, any day now, the report of the Government of Canada’s Science Policy review should be appearing.  What is that, you ask?  Good question.

“Science policy” is one of those tricky terms.  Sometimes it can mean science as a way of making policy (like when someone claims they want all policy to be “evidence-based); sometimes it’s about policy for or about Science, and the rules and regulations under which it is funded.  This particular Science policy review, chaired by former U of T President David Naylor is a bit narrower; as the mandate letter and key questions show, this review is fundamentally about funding.   In fact, three sets of questions about funding: funding of fundamental research, funding of facilities/equipment, and funding of “platform technologies” (which is irritating innovation policy jargon which makes a lot more senses in IT than in the rest of science, but whatever).

For the first two sets of questions, there’s a heavy tilt towards fitness of purpose of existing funding agencies.  The review’s emphasis is not so much “are we spending enough money” (that’s a political decision) but rather “does the way we spend money make sense”.  For example, one might well ask “does a country of 35 million people and fewer than 100 universities actually need three granting councils, plus CFI, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, Brain Canada, Genome Canada, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund… you get the idea.

There was a frisson of excitement last year when the UK decided to fold all their granting councils into One Big Council – might our Science Review recommend something similar?  Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that fewer councils means lest paperwork and more coherence (the reasons usually given in favour of rationalization), because policies and agendas can survive institutional mergers.  And as a colleague of mine who used to be quite high up in a central agency once said to me: the reason all these agencies proliferated in the first place was that politicians got frustrated with the traditional granting councils and wanted something more responsive.  Paring them back doesn’t necessarily solve the problem – it just re-sets the clock until the next time politicians get itchy.

This itchiness could happen sooner than you think.  Even as the government has been asking Naylor and his expert panel to come up with a more rational scheme of science management A couple of weeks ago it emerged that one of the ideas the Liberals had decided to test in their regular pre-budget focus group work was the idea of spending mega-millions (billions?) on a scientific “Moonshot”: that is, a huge focused effort on one goal or technology such as  – and I quote – driverless cars, unmanned aircraft, or “a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space designed to help people connect to the internet in remote areas or in a crisis situation”.  Seriously.  If any of you thought supporting big science projects over broad-based basic science was a Tory thing, I’m afraid you were sorely mistaken.

Anyways, back to the review.  There’s probably room for the review to provide greater coherence on “big science” and science infrastructure – Nassif Ghoussoub of UBC has provided some useful suggestions here.  There may be some room for reduction in the number of granting agencies (though – bureaucratic turf protection ahoy!) and definitely room to get the councils – especially CIHR – to back off on the idea that every piece of funded research needs to have an end-use in mind (I’d be truly shocked if Naylor didn’t beat the crap out of that particular drum in his final report).

But the problem is that the real challenges in Canadian Science are much more intractable.  Universities hired a lot of new staff in the last fifteen years, both in order to improve their research output and to deal with all those new undergraduates we’ve been letting in.  This leads to more competition.  Meanwhile, government funding has declined somewhat since 2008 – even after that nice little unexpected boost the feds gave the councils last budget.  At the same time, granting councils – most of all CIHR – have been increasing the average size of awards.  Which is great if you can get a grant; the problem is that with stagnant budgets the absolute number of grants is falling.  So what do rational individual researchers do with more competition for fewer awards?  They submit more applications to increase their chances of getting an award.  Except that this drives down acceptance rates still further – on current trends, we’ll be below 10% before too long.

Again, this isn’t just a Canadian phenomenon – we’re seeing similar results in a number of countries.  The only solution (bar more funding, which isn’t really in the Review’s remit) is to give out a larger number of smaller awards.  But this runs directly contrary to the prevailing political wind, which seems to be about making fewer, bigger awards: Canada Excellence Research Chairs (there’s rumours of a new round!), CFREF, Moonshots, whatever.  You can make a case for all those programs but the question is one of opportunity costs.  CFREF might be brilliant at focusing institutional resources on a particular problem and acting as anchors for new tech/business clusters: but is it a better use of money than seeding money widely to researchers through the usual peer-review mechanism?  (for the record, I think CFREF makes infinitely more sense than CERCs or Moonshots, but am a bit more agnostic on CFERF vs. granting councils).

Or, to be more brutal: should we have moonshots and CFREF and a 10% acceptance rate on council competitions, or no moonshots or CFREF and a 20% acceptance rate?  We’ve avoided public discussion on these kinds of trade-offs for too long.  Hopefully, Naylor’s review will bring us the more pointed debate this topic needs.

January 24

Budget Fun at the University of Ottawa

Back in early December, the Ottawa Citizen reported on a controversy at the University of Ottawa.  Basically, the story was that the University is facing a $20 million budget shortfall, the administration is consulting re: how to cut its budget and some people are very upset with some of the proposed solutions.

Of course, cutbacks anywhere, anytime, are unacceptable to someone in the institution.  The library, for instance, is being asked to contemplate a cut of $2 million).  “A source” told the Citizen that such a cut would “decimate its holdings and – horror of horrors – “severely damage its reputation”.

(Regular readers of this column may recall some data on library statistics I published earlier this year.  A quick check here suggests that even with these cuts, library expenditures per student at Ottawa would still be ahead of the not-reputationally-challenged-last-I-heard Queen’s, and that University of Ottawa has over the past ten years increased its collections budget by 50%. Even with the proposed cuts, it would still have the largest net increase in funding of any research university library in the country since 2004.  It would be surprising, to say the least, if any real reputational damage ensued from this.

How did Ottawa get into this position in the first place?  Here’s what a university spox told the Citizen: “The University of Ottawa is one of many Ontario universities facing financial challenges.  This is due in part to a permanent reduction in revenues from the provincial government of two per cent (over 2012-2013 levels) in government grants per registered students, resulting in decreased funding … At the same time, the university’s expenditures, especially those related to salaries, benefits, and special payments for pension plans continue to grow.”

OK, so let’s parse this.  Government has actually increased funding since 2012-13, not decreased.  Not by much, admittedly, but it has increased.  And the funding formula hasn’t changed.  So if “dollars per student” are down, it’s because  a) the University is admitting more students outside the formula (i.e. international students), or b) it’s new enrolments are disproportionately enrolled in “cheap” subjects like Arts and business, rather than expensive ones like medicine –  and that’s bringing down the ratio of “basic income units” (Ontario government jargon for “weighted student units” in an enrolment-driven funding formula) to actual students. The third option is that c) other universities have chosen to grow faster than University of Ottawa, thus dropping its share of system-wide BIUs slightly.  I have no idea which of these is true – I’m fairly confident both “a” and “b” are true but am not sure about “c”, but in any case those are institutional policy decisions, not government ones.  Blaming the government for them isn’t really kosher.

The government could of course, be blamed for not putting more money in the system as a whole.  But look – this province had a $17 billion deficit no so long ago.  The 2010 provincial budget was crystal clear that between 2010 and 2016, total program funding was only going to increase by $5 billion (about 4.4%). In fact, universities as a whole did better than this: they got an increase of about 6% in nominal terms (yes, still a decrease in real terms but actually better than anticipated).  The University of Ottawa  got an increase of about 5% in that period.

Would life be easier if government wrote bigger checks? Sure.  But everyone has had plenty of warning that government assistance wasn’t going to be increasing very much.  The real question is: given that everyone knew this, why were university expenditures allowed to grow so much?

Well, let’s go back to the summer of 2013, when the university was negotiating a new contract with the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO).  Remember, at this point, everyone had known for more than three years that government wasn’t coming through with new money anytime soon.  And yet the institution conceded this astonishing deal.  The APUO’s summary of the deal is here, but the two key bits were:

  • A guaranteed increase in academic/librarian staff complement of 4% (from 1250 to 1311).
  • An increase in pay of 11.5% on top of PTR  over four years (but really three since the deal was backdated to 2012).

The result: between 2010 and 2016, the period in which government said “sorry guys, no more money”, aggregate expenditures on academic staff salaries – the biggest single line-item in the institution’s budget – increased by 29.4%.

Did I mention that the Faculty Union responsible for this $50 million rise in costs has launched a grievance re: the cuts?  No?  Well, now you know.

Of course, that’s not the only reason the university is in trouble.  While U of O made valiant efforts to increase its revenues in other ways (revenue from investments increased, and revenue from fees rose almost 45%, thanks in part to higher fees but equally if not more to increased international student enrolment), it wasn’t exactly doing much to curb expenditures in non-salary items either.  Sure, academic staff wages were increasing at close to 5% per year throughout this period, but other operating costs were rising at a little over 4%.  Bluntly: strong cost controls are not in place.  There’s blame to go around here.

It may seem like I am picking on the University of Ottawa, but trust me: I could tell a story like this about virtually any university in the country.  Governments are not ponying up for higher education the way they used to.  Student fees – international student fees especially – have made up some but not all of the gap.  Faculty unions are demanding pay increases in excess of institutional income growth and by and large they are getting them.  And cost controls in other areas of spending are little more effective.

Something has to give.

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