Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

October 05

A Brief History of Exams

Written exams are such a major part of our schools and universities that we forget sometimes that they are not actually native to the western system of education.  How did they become so ubiquitous?  Well here’s the story:

Originally, the Western tradition eschewed exams.  Universities offered places based on recommendations.  If one could impress one’s teachers for a few years, one might be invited to audition for right to be granted a degree. In medieval universities, for instance, one obtained a degree once one was capable of giving lectures or credibly argue a particular position in a debate format (the disputatio).  This was more or less the case right through until the 17th century.  This was completely different from how it was done in China.  There, ferociously difficult examinations for entry into the Imperial Civil Service had been the norm since the first century AD (give or take a couple of centuries of inter-dynastic interregnums due to societal collapse, civil wars, etc).  To help students through these exams, “academies” were created, which, with a bit of squinting, can be seen as forerunners of today’s universities (for more on early Chinese higher education see here).

In the late 16th century, a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci was sent to China and eventually rose to a very senior position within the order.  He was very impressed by the competitive and meritocratic nature of the Chinese examination system, and described it in glowing terms to his superiors in Rome.  Being a pedagogically-minded order, the Jesuits themselves adopted written examinations in order to make their own system tougher and more competitive.  In the 18th century, absolutist reformers trying to create meritocratic civil services (as opposed to ones run by aristocratic place-holders) decided to put the Jesuits’ “Chinese” system to work.  Starting in Prussia, then spreading around Europe over the following century, bureaucrats now had to pass examinations.  As more and more people tried to apply to the civil service, the universities – which were mainly prep schools for the civil service – became more crowded and gradually introduced their own entrance examinations as well.  The first of these was the German Abitur, which is still the qualification required to enter university.

The question of who set these exams – the education ministries in charge of secondary education?  the universities themselves? – was answered different ways in different countries.  In the United States, the Ivies maintained their own exams well into the twentieth century.  To keep out the riff-raff they would do things like test for ability in Greek – a subject not taught at public schools.  As universities began to expand the range of their intakes, they started to see problems with exams based on curricula and started looking for something that would measure potential regardless of which state or school they came from.  This led them to consider psychometric examinations instead, and hence the SAT was born.

Psychometric testing never really caught on outside the US (thought Sweden uses a variant of it).  Generally speaking, the dominant form of testing around the world remains a high-stakes test at the end of secondary school: the gaokao in China, the Korean suneung and the Japanese center are the most famous of these, but most of Europe and Africa operate on some variant of this (albeit without causing the same level of commotion and stress because European university systems are less hierarchically stratified than East Asian ones).  In many of the post-Soviet countries, university entrance exams were a source of lucre.  A prestige institution could set its own exam, and rake off money from students either through preparatory classes or by requesting bribes to pass.  The establishment of national university entrance exams in these countries were thus as much as an anti-graft measure as a pro-merit measure.

Many parts of the world – but particularly Asian countries – are seeing the downsides of basing so much on a single set of exams, and are trying in various ways to try to de-emphasize testing as a means of distinguishing between students, both because they are seen as overly stressful to youth and because the results have been time and again to reinforce class privilege.  The problem with the latter is that no one has yet come up with alternative measures of academic prowess or potential which are significantly less correlated with privilege; and exam results, whatever their faults, do provide transparency in results, and hence a greater appearance of fairness.

In short: there’s lots wrong with high-stakes exams, but they aren’t going anywhere soon.

October 04

Authentic Academic Eyes

It’s a reasonably common occurrence for academics to diss non-academic professional staff.  “They’re taking over”.  “They’re not like us”.  “They’re ruining the university”.  Book-length whinges (not very good ones, mind) have been written about this.

These whinges usually combine two distinct arguments.  The first has to do with the mere existence of some non-academic positions, who often act as the interface between the academic institution and the market (think research services, alumni/advancement, recruitment, marketing and – God forbid – branding).  That these positions exist at all is often seen as some kind of neo-liberal front to the ideal of a university.  The second has to do with the behaviour and attitudes of the people who staff these positions, which are often seen as alien or inimical to academic values.  The former view is a noisier and more virulent one among faculty; the latter quieter but more widespread.

The distinction was brought home to me in a recent online conversation I had with a senior faculty member whose university marketing people had just made some howler or other. If I recall correctly, it was a marketing tagline along the lines of “At University of X, we don’t just teach Y, we live it”, with some people wondering why any university would use a phrase that even vaguely sounded like teaching was a second-best activity.  The faculty member said to me “obviously, no set of academic eyes ever laid sight upon that before it went out”.


I don’t think there are many profs that genuinely question that  there is a need for having masses of non-academic employees doing that interaction-with-the-outside-world stuff and “selling” the institution and its merits.  Most people understand that If those people weren’t out there bringing in the money, academics wouldn’t be able to do their thing.  And these are in fact professional services: they aren’t jobs academics could do themselves even if they were inclined to do so.  So it’s not a matter of “taking back” responsibilities which once were academic and now are not: one might regret the need for quite so many of these positions, but a job’s got to get done, the right people should be hired to do it.

But what is aggravating beyond all get out is when people in these positions don’t get the product they are selling.  When, in the process of selling the institution, language is used which actually works at cross-purposes to the values of the institution in question.

So while virtually no one wants to put profs in charge of marketing efforts, institutions should make it a point to ensure everything that goes out bearing your institution’s name has had a set of “academic eyes” on it.  Get academic input on marketing campaigns before they start.  Not to obtain creative direction or, God forbid, to do wordsmithing (that way madness lies), but simply to ensure that what is said in the institution’s name is said in a tone that doesn’t do violence to the academic mission.  It could save everyone a lot of potential embarrassment.

October 03

Peas in a Pod

A few weeks ago, there was an absolutely hysterical story on CBC about a Fraser Institute report on carbon taxes.  You can read the article for yourself, but the argument was basically this: carbon taxes are bad because they would have a disproportionate effect on people in lower income brackets.

Assuming you believe the Fraser Institute actually gives a rat’s hairy behind about people in lower income brackets, this is not an entirely stupid point; multiple studies in the US have come to this conclusion. But it depends quite a bit on the design of the tax: if you use part of the revenue to fund lump-sum transfers to poorer families to offset the effects of the tax, one can actually develop a tax which is relatively progressive (see this paper from Resources for the Future for some simulations on the incidence of different types of carbon taxes).  So yes, if you design a bad carbon tax, it probably will have regressive effects.  But design a good one and you’re off to the races.

You may at this point be asking yourself “why is Alex droning on about carbon taxes in what is ostensibly a higher education blog”?  Fair question. And the answer is: because the Fraser Institute’s argument about carbon taxes is EXACTLY the same as the CFS/CAUT/Usual suspects on the left argument against tuition.  Fees are seen as regressive because they represent a higher proportion of family income to the poor than the rich (see here for example)

Now, if we believe that CFS and the usual suspects on one side and the Fraser Institute on the other both actually believe their own argument, then we have a possibility of some radical political re-alignment in Canada.  The hard left should oppose carbon taxes, the hard right should oppose tuition fees – after all, who would want to hurt the poor?

But, as you may suspect, that isn’t the whole story.  In precisely the same way that the Fraser Institute assumes away any sensible attempt to hold the poor harmless for a carbon tax through rebates or transfers, the usual suspects on the left completely ignore grants and scholarships as an offset to tuition fees, and so exaggerate – and occasionally entirely misrepresent – the actual distributional impact of net tuition.  One of the reasons I was so pleased last year about the Government of Ontario’s decision to make net tuition “free” for low income students was not so much because it improved students’ welfare (net tuition was already less than zero for many thousands of students), but precisely because it makes this rhetorical BS harder to maintain.

Anyway, even if students grants or energy tax rebates didn’t exist, objecting to putting a price on something because any non-zero price “impacts the poor more than the rich” is insane.  You could object to every product in a market economy that way: beer, popcorn, baby formula, pistachios – they all “impact the poor more than the rich”.  The point is to raise incomes at the bottom to help people purchase more goods at less of a burden, not get rid of the price mechanism.  You’d think that a right-wing pro-market think-tank might actually grasp that.

But then of course, said right-wing think tank does understand this.  Their argument is an argument of convenience and not conviction.  In the service of defeating carbon taxes, no argument is too stupid to make.  As is the case for the usual suspects and their hatred of tuition.  Peas in a pod.

September 30

Athletics Scholarships in Canada

Time was, about twenty years ago, Canadian universities didn’t spend money on university athletic scholarships.  Then things changed and universities turned on the taps.  Today we ask the question: “how’s that going for everyone”?

Well, it’s not going too badly, if you’re an athlete.  Just under 5,830 students received athletic scholarships totalling $15,981,189 in 2013-14 – that’s a little over $3,000 a pop.  CIS officially recognizes twenty-one sports, nine of which have teams for both genders (eighteen total), plus football which is male-only and rugby and field-hockey which are female-only.  However, roughly 85% of the scholarship dollars are concentrated in just nine sports, as shown below in Figure 1.  Some have almost no scholarships at all: inter-collegiate curling, for instance, has only 16 scholarships nationally for both sexes.

Figure 1: Top Sports by Scholarship Expenditure, 2013-14


What’s interesting here is that over time, the amount of money spent on Athletics scholarship has been rising quickly and steadily.  Even after accounting for inflation, Canadian universities spent nearly three times as much on athletics scholarships ($16 million vs. $5.8 million) in 2013-14 as they did ten years earlier.  It’s an interesting choice of expenditure by allegedly cash-strapped institutions.

Figure 2: Total Athletics Scholarships by Gender, 2003-4 vs 2013-4, in constant $2014


I suspect most institutions would probably defend it as a kind of strategic enrolment investment, much the way they defend other kinds of tuition discounting.  I mean, does it really matter if you give someone a $5,000 academic entrance scholarship or a $5,000 athletic scholarship?  They’re both forms of tuition discounting.  And of course, the absolute amounts are trivial.  $16 million is only 1% of the total amount of funding given by universities to students (if you include funding to graduate students).  And if you want into get into truly ludicrous comparisons, it’s less than what the University of Michigan spends on salaries for its football coaching staff.

A final point to make here is around gender equity.  Male and female athletes receive awards at roughly the same rate (45% of athletes of each gender receive an award), which is good.  However, imbalances remain in terms of the number of athletics spots for men than women (53% of all athletic team spots are male, compared to about 41% of undergraduates as a whole), and in terms of the size of the average award ($3,286 vs. $2,737).  Those results are better than they were a decade ago, and they appear to be slightly better than they are in the US, where actual legislation exists in the form of Title IX to enforce equity in sports, but they are still some ways from equal.

September 29

The Ontario NDP’s Bad Student Loan Math

The Ontario NDP have started down the road to madness on student aid.  Someone needs to stop them.

Here’s the issue: the NDP have decided to promise to make all Ontario student loans interest-free.  As a policy, this is pretty meh.  It’s not the kind of policy that increases participation because students don’t really pay attention to loan interest, and it’s not going to make loans a whole lot more affordable because Ontario forgives most loans anyway (as a consequence something like 90% of all loans in repayment in Ontario are federal loans which wouldn’t be subject to this policy).   My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that this policy might save a typical borrower in repayment something like $5/month, which isn’t a big deal as far as affordability is concerned.  One could argue that affordability of loan repayments shouldn’t be a big priority since loan payments as a fraction of average graduate income has gone down by about a third in the past fifteen years, but on the other hand, this isn’t likely to cost very much either, so really, who cares?

No, the problem isn’t so much the proposed program as it is the tagline that’s gone along with it. To wit: “The government shouldn’t be making a profit from student debt”.


I mean, where to begin with this stonking bit of nonsense?

The worst-case interpretation of this is that the NDP actually believes that “interest” equals “profit”, or, to put it another way, that money has no time-value.  Read literally, it suggests that all interest is usury.  The NDP is sometimes accused of being stuck in the 70s as far as economic policy is concerned; this particular slogan suggests it might be more 1370s than 1970s.

More likely, though, this is the NDP aping Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been saying these kinds of things about US student loans for a few years now.  The essence of the critique is this: governments borrow money cheaply and lend to students at a higher rate (in the US, the rate on Stafford undergraduate subsidized loans is the 10-year Treasury rate plus 250 basis points, and somewhat higher for other types of public loans).  The gap between the two rates is needed because of course the government loses money on loans through loan defaults (it also loses money by assuming the loan interest while a student is in school, but that’s a separate issue).  For reasons beyond comprehension, the US government does not base its financial calculations for student loans on actuarial reports which are linked to actual student behaviour, but rather according to “standard conventions”, one of which essentially assumes no loan losses at all.  It is by using this convention – i.e. basically ignoring all actual costs – that Warren came to the conclusion that student loans “make money”. For a more complete description of why this is total nonsense, check out Jason Delisle’s work on the subject here as well as articles from the Atlantic, the Washington Post and the Brookings Institute.

But even to the limited extent the Warren critique makes sense in the US, it doesn’t work in Ontario.  OSAP loses money.  A lot of it.  It doesn’t publish numbers directly on this, but it’s easy enough to work it out.  Ontario 10-year bonds go for about 2.5% these days, and OSAP lends to students at prime + 1%, or about 3.7%.  So Ontario’s spread is only 120 basis points, or half the American spread (CSLP loans, are different: the feds borrow at 1% and lend at prime plus 250 basis points, for a total spread of 420 basis points).  120 basis points per year is not much when you consider that simply covering the cost of borrowing while students are in school is twice that.  Basically, it means that for someone who borrows for four years, the government loses money every time they pay back the loan in less than eight years.  And that’s not counting the cost of defaults, which are in the tens of millions of dollars each year.

Put simply: Ontario students get to borrow at zero interest while in school, and positive-but-below-market rates after graduation despite default rates which are astronomical by the standards of any other personal loan product.  That costs the government money.  If it defrays some of that cost through an interest rate spread, so be it – that does not constitute “making a profit”.  It is simply stupid of any political party which wishes to be entrusted with public finances to suggest otherwise.

September 27

Lying With Statistics, BC Edition

A couple of weeks ago I came across a story in the Vancouver Sun quoting a Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC (FPSE) “report” (actually more of a backgrounder) which contained two eye-catching claims:

  1.  “per-student operating grants have declined by 20 per cent since 2001 when adjusted for inflation.”
  2.  “government revenues from tuition fees have increased by almost 400 per cent since 2001”

The subtext here is clear.  20% down vs. 400% up?  How heinous!  How awful can the Government of British Columbia be?

Well now.  What to make of this dog’s breakfast?

Let’s start with the second point.  First of all, it’s institutional income, and not government income.  But leaving that aside, there was indeed a very big rise in tuition fees back in 2001-2 and 2002-3 (presumably why the authors chose 2001 as a base…if one used 2003 as a base, it would be a very different and much less dramatic story).   But if you simply look at average university tuition (college tuition is untracked) the increase since 2001 is only 110% (in nominal dollars).  Assume the increase for colleges was a bit higher because they were working from a lower base and perhaps we can nudge that up to 125%.  Still: how does one get from there to 400%?

First, remember that the authors (whoever they may be) are talking about aggregate tuition, not average tuition.  So some of this simply reflects an increase in enrollments.  In 2001-2, there were 196,000 students in BC.  In 2013-14, the last year for which we currently have data, there were 277,515 – an increase of 41%.  Back of the envelope, multiply that by the 110% nominal tuition increase and that gets you to a 176%.  Still a ways to go to 400% though.

Second, a lot of students are moving from lower-cost programs to higher cost-programs.  Some of that is happening within universities (e.g., from Arts to Engineering), but in BC it’s mostly a function of colleges turning themselves into universities and charging more tuition.  University enrollment rose from 80,388 to 179,917 while college enrolments went from 116,007 to 197,698.  That’s a lot of extra fees.

Third, BC has a lot more international students than it used to, and they pay more in fees on an individual basis than domestic students do.  Add those two factors together and you get another 19% or so increase in aggregate fees, which brings us to a 210% total increase.

That’s still nowhere near 400%.  So, I went and checked the source data – Statistics Canada’s Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC) for Universities (cansim 477-0058 if you’re a nerd) and the Financial Information of Community Colleges and Vocational Schools (cansim 477-0060) to try to find an answer.  Here’s what I found:


Yeah, so actually not 400%, more like 207% – reasonably close to the 210% from our back-of-the-envelope exercise.  The best excuse I can come up with for the Federation of BC Post-Secondary Educators’ number is that if you extend the universities number out another year (to 2014-15), you get to $1.258B, which is almost four times (actually 3.74x) of the 2001-02 figure (which is still only a 274% increase).  But you have to a) torque the living daylights out of the numbers and b) actively confuse percentage increases and multiples to get there.

But now let’s move over to the other side of the ledger, where the Federation notes a 20% drop in government support per student, adjusted for inflation.  Let’s note straight off the first inconsistency: they’re adjusting the government grants for inflation and not doing the same for tuition.  Second inconsistency: they’re adjusting the government grants for the size of the student population and not doing the same for tuition.

It’s easy to see why FPSE does this.  As we’ve already noted, student numbers were up by 41% between 2001-2 and 2013-14.  Just do the math: a 20% per student cut while student numbers are rising by 41% actually means that government support has risen by 13%.  In real dollars. (I went back to the source data myself and came up with 14% –  Close enough).  Chew on that for a second: FPSE is ragging on a government which has increased funding for post-secondary education by – on average – 1% over and above inflation every year since 2001-2.

So quite apart from any problems with the 400% number, FPSE is making a deliberate apples-to-oranges comparison by adjusting only one set of figures for student growth and inflation.  Here’s how those numbers compare on a number of different apples-to-apples basis (and I’m being nice to FPSE here and allowing different end dates for fees and grants based on different data availability):


Now, it seems to me there’s enough in the Clark government’s record to mount a decent attack without resorting this kind of nonsense.  It certainly under-invests relative to what it could be doing given the province’s growing population.  It carries a faux-populist pro-extraction industry line to the detriment of investing in expanding knowledge industries.  It has stayed out of step with most of the rest of the country in the last ten years by not improving student assistance.  And a fair, non-torqued comparison between student fees and government grants still shows students are bearing an increasing share of the cost.

So why stoop to using transparently false figures?  One might expect that kind of chicanery from the Canadian Federation of Students, which has form in this area.  But this is from an organization which represents professors: people who actually use statistics in the search for the truth.  So why is the organization which represents them using statistics in a way that wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate course?

I’m quite sure most profs wouldn’t be OK with this.  So why do FPSE’s member locals tolerate it?

September 26

Reforming Funding for First Nations Students

I see from this article by John Ivison of the National Post that the issue of funding for post-secondary education for First Nations is becoming a bit of a hot potato.  Time for us to take a look at the situation.

I think most people now get that First Nations’ students don’t receive “free education”.  They pay tuition fees like everyone else.  What they do have (if they have “status”) is a parallel student aid system, which is called the Post-Secondary Student Support Program or PSSSP. If you are unclear on the difference between “status” and “non-status” Indians, have a peek at this primer from the âpihtawikosisân  blog.  PSSSP is a $322 million/year program, under which Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) distributes this money according to a somewhat obscure formula to the 600-odd bands across the country.  They in turn hand out that money to their own members who wish to take higher education courses.

In theory, PSSSP is a need-based program, and bands are supposed to allocate money according to need “up to” maximums in various categories (tuition, living expenses, books, child care, etc).  But individual bands aren’t blessed with a whole lot of need-assessment capability, and in practice pretty much everyone who is admitted to the system gets the maximum.  And so given a relatively stable overall budget (the program’s growth has been capped at 2% per year since – if I recall correctly – 1990), increasing costs and increasing numbers of people wishing to use the program, what happens is that many are not able to access the program at all.  About 20,000 students receive money each year, with each receiving on average about $15,000.  Each band has a “waiting list” in which people are prioritized according to various criteria.  The total number of people on waiting lists is not an easy number to pin down, but it’s generally estimated at just north of 10,000 students.

Lifting the growth cap on PSSSP should be a relatively high priority, and the Liberals did promise an extra $50 million infusion in their manifesto.  One of the biggest disappointments in last year’s federal budget was the Liberal government’s failure to follow through on this promise.  The story here is complicated, but basically goes like this: in their costing document, the Liberals misunderstood how much was actually in the AANDC budget and so had a hole in their projections when it came to paying for their promises on Aboriginal K-12 education.  In order to meet Aboriginal groups halfway (actually somewhat less than that) on K-12 spending, they killed the PSSSP increase and threw the money into the K-12 pot.

Unwilling to spend any political capital going after a government which was sky-high in the polls, aboriginal groups were very low-key in their criticism of the budget.  After all, a majority government is in power for four years – and there’s some chance the Liberals will make good on their PSSSP promise in their second budget.  Perhaps to that end, towards the end of the summer criticism grew from both First nations and student groups (a hat-tip to the Canadian Federation of Students on this one); expect a renewed push on this front over the fall.

But there’s another element to this story not getting much play.  A few years ago, in a paper I wrote for AANDC , I noted that in fact almost everyone who qualifies for PSSSP would also qualify for the Canada Student Grant.  That would be another $3,000 per student per year.  Multiply that out across the 20,000 or so students currently getting PSSSP, that’s $60 million a year.  So if you could get everyone who currently gets PSSSP to also sign up for the Canada Student Grant and then have bands deduct that amount from their PSSSP award, bands would save enough to fund another 4,000 students at current PSSSP levels of funding.

Sound straightforward?  It’s not.  There are a whole bunch of barriers to getting bands to behave this way, not least of all that First Nations deserve to get their money for PSE on a nation-to-nation basis (i.e. like PSSSP) rather than having to go around clawing back $3,000 at a time with other government programs.  And yet, according to that Ivison article, it does seem like the Government of Canada is trying to push the idea of getting more status Indians with PSSSP funding onto student grants.

Is this an alternative to an extra $50 million in PSSP or in addition?  Who knows?  Is the plan to have bands claw back the new grant money from current students, and then distribute it to alleviate wait lists, or to give existing students more money? Who knows. I suspect in practice the answer may vary from band to band.  Either way, the next few months may promise a new era in First Nations Post-Secondary funding.

September 23

Social License and Tuition Fees

So, to Johannesburg, where South African Education Minister (and Communist Party chief) Blade Nzimande finally announced the government’s decision on tuition for next year. He was in a tricky place: students are still demanding free tuition (see my previous story on the Fees Must Fall movement here) and will not accept a hike in fees. Meanwhile, universities are quite rightly feeling very stretched (it’s tough trying to maintain developed-world caliber institutions on a tax base which is only partially of the developed-world): with inflation running at around 6.5%, a fee freeze would amount to a substantial cut in real income.

So what did the minister do? He pulled an Ontario (or a Chile, or a Clinton, if you prefer). Tuition to rise, but students from families with income of R600,000 or less (roughly C$56,000, or US$43,000) would be exempt from paying the higher tuition. Who exactly was going to verify students’ income is a bit of a mystery since the cut-off for student financial aid in South Africa is considerably below R600,000 (a justified cause of further student complaint), but no matter. The basic idea was clear: the well-off will pay, the needy will not. The exact amount extra they would pay? That would be up to individual universities. They could set their own tuition but were strongly advised not to try increasing fees by more than 8%.

It took student unions less than five seconds to find this inadequate and to denounce the government. Several unions have threatened to boycott classes if their institution raised fees.

This raises an interesting question. Why, if students in Chile and Ontario are claiming victory (or partial victory at least) over their fee regimens, do South African students reject it? Well, context is everything. The key here is government legitimacy, or lack thereof.

Let’s take the Charest government in the Spring of 2012. The tuition fee increase that the government proposed was not excessive, and poorer students in fact might have been better off once tax credits were factored in. But absolutely no one paid the slightest bit of attention to the policy details. This was a government that had outstayed its welcome, and was badly tarred by corruption scandals (my favourite joke from that spring: what’s the difference between a student leader and a Montreal mafia boss? Only one of them has to forswear violence in order to get a meeting with the Minister of Education). It had a good, saleable plan, but literally no political capital on which to draw. The plan, as we all know, failed.

(By the by, this is why, if the Couillard government is going to move on tuition fees, it’s going to have to do it this year. Their window is closing.)

I could go down the list here. The big anti-tuition fee protests that got the President of South Korea to promise to reduce tuition in the spring of 2011? That was at the tail end of a profoundly unpopular Presidency (though to be fair in Korea it’s the rare presidency that doesn’t end in profound unpopularity). The Chilean tuition protests of 2011-2? Also at the end of an unpopular presidency. By contrast, the largest tuition fee increase in the history of the world – the increase announced for England in the fall of 2010 – was essentially met with only a single rally, in part because the measure was introduced by a brand-new government which led in the polls. Basically, you need “social license” in order to do something unpopular on tuition fees. Some governments have it, others don’t.

The South African government is in precisely this kind of legitimacy crisis right now. It is not a simple matter of President Zuma’s unpopularity, though his increasingly kleptocratic regime is profoundly unhelpful. It’s a bigger crisis of post-apartheid society. Formal racial equality exists, but equality in economic opportunity, equality in educational opportunity: those are still very far away and in many ways are not much better than they were 20 years ago. Today’s youth, born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, no longer feel much loyalty to the ANC as the leader of “the struggle”. They simply see the party as being incompetent, corrupt, and incapable of delivering a better and more equal society.

And it’s that anger, that rage, which is driving the #feesmustfall movement. I think there’s a real chance this won’t end well; there has already been a serious uptick in violence on South African campuses. South Africa’s universities, unfortunately, may end up as collateral damage in a larger fight for the country’s future.


September 22

MOOCs at Five

It was five years ago last month that Stanford set up the first MOOC.  MOOCs were supposed to change the world: Udacity, Coursera and EdX were going to utterly transform education, putting many universities out of business.  Time to see how that’s going.

(Ok, ok: the actual use of the term MOOC was applied to a 2008 University of Manitoba course led by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.  Technically, using Downes’ taxonomy, the 2008 MOOC was a “cMOOC” – the “c” standing for connectivist, if I am not mistaken – while the versions that became popular through Coursera, Udacity and EdX, etc. are “xMOOCs”, the difference being essentially that learning in the former is more participative and collaborative while the latter has more in common with textbooks, only with video.  But the Stanford MOOC is what usually gets the attention, so I’m going to date it from there).

In the interests of schadenfreude if nothing else, allow me to take you back to 2012/3 to look at some of the ludicrous things people said about the likely effects of MOOCs.

  • “In 50 years there will only be 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education” (Sebastian Thrun, former CEO of Udacity)
  • “Higher Education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or mooc), and our Napster is Udacity” – Clay Shirky.
  • “Higher education is just on the edge of a crevisse (sic)…five years from now these enterprises (i.e. universities) are going to be in real trouble” Clayton Christensen

And of course who can forget that breathless cliché-ridden gem of an op-ed from Don Tapscott, about the week that higher education changed forever in January 2013 (i.e. the week he sat in on a couple of seminars on the subject in Davos).  Classic.

So, five years on, where are the MOOC pioneers now?  Well, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity got out of the disrupting-higher-education business early after coming to the realization that his company “didn’t have a good product”; the company pivoted to providing corporate training.  Over at Coursera, the most hyped of the early pioneers, founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller have both left the company (Ng left two years ago for Baidu, Koller left last month for one of Alphabet’s biotech enterprises).  Shortly after Koller’s departure, Coursera released this announcement  which was widely interpreted as the company throwing in the towel on the higher education market and following Udacity down the corporate training route.

EdX, the platform owned jointly by MIT and Harvard thus seems to be the last MOOC provider standing.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the one which has (arguably) been most successful in helping students translate MOOC work into actual credits.  It has partnered with Arizona State University in its “Global Freshman Academy” and even allows conversion of some credits towards a specific MIT MBA (conditional on actually spending a semester on campus and paying normal fees to finish the program).   These “micro-MBAs” seem to catching on, but precisely because they are “micro”, they haven’t made a big impact on EdX’s overall numbers: their user base is still less than half Coursera’s.

So what’s gone wrong?  It isn’t a lack of sign-ups.  The numbers of people taking MOOCs continues to grow at a healthy clip, with Global enrolments to date now over 35 million.  The problem is there’s no revenue model here.  Depending on whose numbers you’re using, the number of users paying for some kind of certification (a fee which is usually priced in double digits) is at best around 3%.  So, work that out: 35 million users, with a 3% conversion rate, at $50 per user, and you’ve got a grand total of $52.5 million in total revenue.  Over five years.  Using content existing institutions are giving them essentially for free at a cost of anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000 per course.

This is not sustainable and never was.  Whatever valid points MOOC boosters had about the current state of education (and I think they had more than a few), the proposed solution wasn’t one that met the market test.  The basic problem is (and always has been) that higher education is fundamentally a prestige market.  Distance education is low prestige; distance education which doesn’t give out actual course credit doubly so.  You can disguise this by making delivery the domain of top universities, as EdX and to a lesser extent Coursera did – but top institutions don’t want to diminish their prestige by handing out actual credit to the hoi polloi over the internet.   So what you get is this unsatisfying compromise which in the end not enough people want to pay for.

Some of us said this five years ago (here, here and here) when MOOC-mania was in full flow and critical faculties were widely suspended.  Which just goes to show: higher education is the world’s most conservative industry and the rate of successful innovation is tiny.  Your best bet for imagining what higher education looks like in the future is what it looks like today, only more expensive.


September 21

Unit of Analysis

The Globe carried an op-ed last week from Ken Coates and Douglas Auld, who are writing a paper for the MacDonald Laurier institute on the evaluation of Canadian post-secondary institutions. At one level, it’s pretty innocuous (“we need better/clearer data”) but at another level I worry this approach is going to take us all down a rabbit hole. Or rather, two of them.

The first rabbit hole is the whole “national approach” thing. Coates and Auld don’t make the argument directly, but they manage to slip a federal role in there. “Canada lacks a commitment to truly high-level educational accomplishment”, needs a “national strategy for higher education improvement” and so “the Government of Canada and its provincial and territorial partners should identify some useful outcomes”. To be blunt: no, they shouldn’t. I know there is a species of anglo-Canadian that genuinely believes the feds have a role in education because reasons, but Section 93 of the constitution is clear about this for a reason. Banging on about national strategies and federal involvement just gets in the way of actual work getting done.

Coates & Auld’s point about the need for better data applies to provinces individually as well as collectively. They all need to get in the habit of using more and better data to improve higher education outcomes. I also think Coates and Auld are on the right track about the kinds of indicators most people would care about: scholarly output, graduation rates, career outcomes, that sort of thing. But here’s where they fall into the second rabbit hole: they assume that the institution is the right unit of analysis for these indicators. On this, they are almost certainly mistaken.

It’s an understandable mistake to make. Institutions are a unit of higher education management. Data comes from institutions. And they certainly sell themselves as a unified institutions carrying out a concerted mission (as opposed to the collections of feuding academic baronetcies united by grievances about parking and teaching loads they really are). But when you look at things like scholarly output, graduation rates, and career outcomes the institution is simply the wrong unit of analysis.

Think about it: the more professional programs a school has, the lower the drop-out rate and the higher the eventual incomes. If a school has medical programs, and large graduate programs in hard sciences, it will have greater scholarly output. It’s the palette of program offerings rather than their quality which makes the difference when making inter-institutional comparisons. A bad university in with lots of professional programs will always beat a good small liberal arts school on these measures.

Geography play a role, too. If we were comparing short-term graduate employment rates across Canada for most of the last ten years, we’d find Calgary and Alberta at the top – and most Maritime schools (plus  some of the Northern Ontario schools) at the bottom. If we were comparing them today, we might find them looking rather similar. Does that mean there’s been a massive fall-off in the quality of Albertan universities? Of course not. It just means that (in Canada at least) location matters a lot more than educational quality when you’re dealing with career outcomes.

You also need to understand something about the populations entering each institution. Lots of people got very excited when Ross Finnie and his EPRI showed big inter-institutional gaps in graduates incomes (I will get round to covering Ross’ excellent work on the blog soon, I promise). “Ah, interesting!” people said. “Look At The Inter-Institutional Differences Now We Can Talk Quality”. Well, no. Institutional selectivity kind of matters here. Looking at outputs alone, without taking into account inputs, tells you squat about quality. And Ross would be the first to agree with me on this (and I know this because he and I co-authored a damn good paper on quality measurement a decade ago which made exactly this point).

Now, maybe Coates and Auld have thought all this through and I’m getting nervous for no reason, but their article’s focus on institutional performance when most relevant outcomes are driven by geography, program and selectivity suggests to me that there’s a desire here to impose some simple rough justice over some pretty complicated cause-effect issues. I think you can use some of these simple outcome metrics to classify institutions – as HEQCO has been doing with some success over the past couple of years – but  “grading” institutions that way is too simplistic.

A focus on better data is great. But good data needs good analytical frameworks, too.

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