Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

June 12

Quitting Time

So, it’s that time of year again, when we all quit the routine of work, and pretend to be on vacation, but are in fact secretly working our tails off on writing/research projects (I’ve got three this summer), which will make us even more burned-out and miserable come September.  Don’t you just love it?  But the arrival of something resembling summer (climate change is not doing us any favours in Toronto) does mean putting this blog on hiatus for a few weeks.  Normal service to be resumed on August 24th… or maybe the 17th if some really interesting stuff happens.  We’ll see.

In previous summers, I’ve kept up a regular blogging schedule, under which y’all get something from me every Monday.  I’m not going to do that this summer.  Instead, I’ve decided to adopt a policy of publishing “whenever I feel like it”.  I’m guessing that’ll be about once a week, but it won’t be on a regular day.  This will afford me a slightly saner schedule, while also giving me flexibility to write about the odd crisis that crops up, in a more timely manner.

When the blog returns in the fall, it will be with one slight change.  HESA Towers is starting to focus a little more on issues of internationalization.  We’ll actually be starting a separate blog just for that (not a royal “we” – I will have co-authors); the title and launch date are TBA, but it will be sometime in the fall.  We will be cross-posting that blog here; so expect Friday posts next year to all be on the subject of internationalization.

But with respect to this past year, I’d like to trouble you good folks for some feedback. I’m always interested in your thoughts on the blog, and what (if anything) I should do differently.  I’m also curious about your reaction to two specific changes in this past year.  The first is the decision to lengthen individual posts.  Until this year, I had a pretty rigid 450-word limit, to keep posts to a good, bite-size morning piece.  However, I found it slightly easier, and less time-consuming, not to spend so much time editing for length (I do enough of that on twitter).  I think they mostly read better now (extra words allow for a little more exposition), but I worry that people are less likely to read as a result.  What do you all think – have you noticed a difference? And if so, is it for better or worse?

The second change was to put a little more focus on events and trends outside Canada (Chile and Australia, in particular).  I find international comparative stuff endlessly fascinating because it helps me understand the constraints of our own policy set-up, but I don’t know how exciting you guys find it.  Should I do more of this stuff?  Less? Are there any other countries you’re interested in?

Anyways, have a great summer.  Rest Up.  There’s lots of work to do next year.  I’m looking forward to it.

June 11

Universities: It’s Not All About You

I just finished reading quite a good little book, Universities and Regional Development, edited by (among others) OISE’s Glen Jones.  Analytically, it’s useful for a couple of reasons: first, it gets beyond universities as single-entity black boxes when it comes to engaging with external stakeholders; also, it does a good job of emphasizing history and path-dependence as under-analyzed variables in explaining change (or lack thereof) in higher education.

One thing that struck me, however, was the tone of some of these pieces.  It’s possible that I’m imagining some of this, but I identified an undercurrent running throughout a few of the articles: having explained how particular university initiatives failed as a result of “historical particularities”, or by ignoring “institutions’ entrepreneurial architecture”, the argument just seemed to end.  The implication here being that, to ensure smoother outcomes in the future, everybody needs to adjust to the particularities of higher education institutions.

The question most policy-makers would ask here is: “why”?   Why should everyone else adapt to universities, rather than universities adapt to the needs of government and other stakeholders?  It’s a question that too many people inside the higher education bubble can’t even grasp, let alone answer.  The idea that other people’s agendas sometimes matter doesn’t get much of a hearing in higher ed.

Why am I bringing this up?  Well, it has to do with a post the other day on the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA)’s blog.  Signed by “Graeme” (presumably Graeme Stewart, OCUFA’s comms manager), it asks why all the speakers at big higher ed conference panels (presumably excluding those at OCUFA’s own conferences) are all cut from the same cloth – namely, why are they “single-mindedly practical”, but inside-the-box, thinkers?  Where are the radicals opposed to “technocratic, metrics-obsessed discourse”, he asks?  Why aren’t they being heard from?

Fair question, but I think the answer is pretty simple.  The critical higher education scholars have a lot of useful things to say (particularly around gender), but frankly they add almost nothing to the debate when it comes to issues of finance and accountability, which are what most conference panels are designed to discuss.  Among the “alternative voices” in higher education, there is an astounding reluctance to acknowledge the fact that Canada spends more than pretty much any other country on higher education, a near-complete absence of serious discussion about the underlying reasons for cost-inflation in the sector (indeed, there instead seems to be a preference for wholly phantasmagoric discussions about fund accounting), and a general attitude that the only thing that matters when it comes to money is: MOAR! MOAR!! MOAR!!!

As for accountability, “sod off and leave us alone” covers way more of the discussion spectrum than it should.  Measure outputs?  Report on them? Heaven forfend such metrics-obsessed behaviour.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course.  American critical scholars such as Chris Newfield or Robert Samuels actually do talk about finances, and the latter at least is prepared to see huge cost reductions in universities through a shift in focus from research to teaching.  You can agree or disagree with that solution, but at least it’s an acknowledgement that cost (as opposed to price) is a problem – something I have yet to see in Canada.

Too often, what we hear from the “critical scholars” crowd is: “how can we make life better/prevent life from getting worse for people working in higher education?”  While there are lots of important topics in this area – the issue of sessionals comes to mind – it’s still a remarkably self-centred discussion.  It’s not about what higher education can, or should, do for society and the economy, it’s what everybody else should do to make academia a happy place.

It’s fine for OCUFA to want to broaden the discussion on higher education.  But it’s terminally self-serving to suggest that this goal is achieved simply by including more people who will emphasize universities’ particularist nature.  Listening more attentively to what external stakeholders think of universities – good or ill – would surely be a more rewarding path.

June 10

Will Things Change if Harper Goes?

There is a strain of thinking in higher education that goes something like this: “everything bad in higher education funding is the fault of neo-liberals [this being a general term of abuse rather than an actual ideological signifier].  Once neo-liberals are out of office, we can get back to the good old days, and not worry about austerity”.

It seems to me that the evidence for this point-of-view is pretty thin.  Near as I can tell, neither of the main opposition parties give two hoots about higher education.  Neither of them has released any policy statements around higher education in the past year.  Trudeau occasionally makes a speech about how important it is that attainment rates hit 70% (a demographically questionable promise, which I examined here, but has yet to utter a word about how he will achieve this.

Then there’s the fact that neither party’s post-secondary critic actually seems to care very much about post-secondary education.  For yuks, I looked at the Hansard record for the New Democrats’ Dan Harris (Scarborough Southwest) and the Liberals’ Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) over the past 14 months.  I could have gone back a bit further, I suppose, but that’s about the point at which I got bored with the exercise.  It was dispiriting, to say the least.

Dan Harris has spoken four times on the subject of post-secondary education in the House in the last 14 months.  Two of these were on the same day, and on the same subject (the Canada Student Loans Program’s vehicle cost exemption rules), back in April 2014.  Since then, he has spoken once to support the striking University of Toronto teaching assistants, and once to castigate the Tories for not doing more to bring international students into the country at a faster pace.  Ted Hsu has spoken a couple of times on the subject of Science & Technology funding, generally, and specifically on the subject of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which received funding in the last budget.  But on the subject of post-secondary education, I could find nothing at all.

It’s not that either man is silent in the House.  Both men – properly – devote much of their time to local matters.  But they speak widely on other issues, as well.  Harris has risen to talk about Bill C-51, childcare, government advertising policy, and banking.  Ted Hsu has spent much of his Commons time chastising the government on the issue of the National Household Survey, and calling for a reinstatement of the long-form census.  What all of these things have in common is that they have nothing to do with post-secondary education.

So, post-secondary critics don’t talk about post-secondary education.  Presumably that’s partly a matter of personal choice and interest.  But partly, as well, it’s a reflection of how their parties see post-secondary education as a vote-winner.  If they thought there were votes to be had by speaking on this subject, they’d be talking about it.  But they don’t, so they aren’t.

And it’s not just the votes – there simply isn’t much money available to promise anything.  Both opposition parties having essentially forsworn significant tax increases, dollars for new priorities are scarce.  The Liberals have more or less blown whatever fiscal room their program might have had on a revision of child benefits; the New Democrats have made a costly promise with respect to childcare.  Economic growth is slow, and stock markets are flat, which means there will be no big windfalls to fund much by way of expansion.  New funds for PSE are going to have to come from cuts elsewhere – never a pleasant thought for a government.

None of this means that a New Democrat or Liberal government (or, horror of horrors, a coalition government) will sit pat on higher ed.  After all, the Tories never promise much on higher education, and yet always manage to find something for the sector each year, even if it’s not entirely adequate, and/or is wrong-headed.   

What this means is that there may not be as much of a change in substance and tone as some imagine.  And this isn’t because “all parties are the same”; rather, it’s that they’re all reacting to the same external stimuli.  Simply put, higher education has lost its place in the policy spotlight, and there are few rewards for spending political capital on it.

June 09

STEM and STEAM: The “Two Cultures” and Academic Incentives

About a month ago, I wrote about whether institutions would adjust their program mix if it would help improve economic growth.  Nearly everyone that wrote me implicitly assumed that the “right” mix for economic growth implied a switch to a more STEM-heavy system, before going on to say something like “but what about the humanities?”  I found this kind of amusing, because I actually don’t automatically assume that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees are where it’s at in terms of growth, and there are a couple of quite high-powered papers out that support this view.

The first, Revisiting the STEM Workforcecomes from the National Science Board in the US.  This publication makes a couple of sensible points, the most important being that STEM skills and STEM degrees are not the same thing.   Lots of STEM graduates end up in non-STEM employment; conversely, many STEM-field jobs are held by people who are not themselves STEM graduates (Steve Jobs, famously, went to Reed College and was self-taught as far as computers went).  Basically, the link between higher education credentials and labour market skills is nowhere near as tight as people tend to assume.

The second new STEM report, from the Canadian Council of Academies, makes an even more important point: namely, that STEM skills are a necessary condition for innovation, but not a sufficient one.  The panel that wrote the report (led by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge) did not go quite as far as Don Tapscott did in his plea to replace a focus on STEM degrees with a focus on STEAM degrees (i.e. STEM + Arts).  They did, however, point to a number of other types of skills, such as communication, team work, leadership, creativity, and adaptability, which they felt were at least as important as narrow STEM skills.  The panel also made the point that the best way to meet future human resource challenges is to focus more broadly on skill acquisition from pre-primary to higher education, across a range of subjects – because, frankly, you never know what kind of labour market you’re going to need.

Both reports say we need to get over our obsession with STEM, a conclusion that typically brings cheers from the humanities’ defenders.  But be careful here: even if you buy the “more STEAM” conclusion, it says nothing about the number of Arts degrees that should be produced.  Companies are not dying to hire more Arts grads so they can add that little something of creativity and communication to existing teams of STEM workers.  What they are looking for are individuals who can integrate all of those skills.  It’s a call for more crossover degrees involving both Arts and STEM.  It’s a call to get beyond C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.

The real problem is that universities genuinely do not know how to deliver programs like this.  Fundamentally, they are designed to focus on degrees rather than skills. Sure, programs can cross departmental lines; however, programs that cross faculty lines are the red-headed step-children of higher education.  As a result, “real” programs – read: prestigious programs – more or less follow disciplinary lines.  Within universities, faculties count success by how many students are “theirs”, but cross-faculty programs exist in a kind of no-man’s-land: they simultaneously belong to everyone and no one.  With no incentives, there’s simply no pressure from below – that is, from faculty – to embark on the arduous journey of creating a curriculum, and working it through the academic approval process.  In other words, STEAM only works for Arts at a resource level (and hence a political level) if it means more Arts degrees; if not, then forget it.

It would all be so much easier if institutions were built around what we wanted students to learn; instead, they are organized by academic disciplines that are necessary guardians of research quality, but in many respects actively hinder the development of balanced graduates who can succeed in work and society.  Finding ways to mitigate this problem is one of the most important questions facing higher education, but we can’t seem to talk about it openly.  That’s a problem that needs solving.

June 08

The Ongoing Goings-On in Saskatchewan

On Wednesday, former University of Saskatchewan President Ilene Busch-Vishniac filed an $8.5 million dollar wrongful-dismissal/defamation lawsuit against Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, former Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris, and a half-dozen members of the University’s Board of Governors.  Yeah, really, $8.5 million.  And if you read her affidavit (available here) she has a decent case.  Not an open-and-shut one, but a case nonetheless.

What’s new in this affidavit?  Three things:

1)      There was a communication gap between then-provost Brett Fairbairn and Busch-Vishniac.   We already knew the two spoke on the Tuesday night of the affair, agreeing that School of Public Health (SPH) Dean Robert Buckingham should be relieved of his position, though they remained undecided as to whether additional measures should be taken.  Busch-Vishniac empowered Fairbairn to decide, promising she would back whatever decision he made.  Later that evening, on the colossally stupid advice of the HR department, Fairbairn decided to dismiss Buckingham from the university, altogether.

We already knew that Fairbarin updated Busch-Vishniac by email on Tuesday night, and sent another email the next morning following Buckingham’s dismissal.  However, Busch-Vishniac claims that despite these two emails, it was not until late the following afternoon, hours after the story had broken, that she understood Fairbairn had dismissed Buckingham outright.

This point is central to Busch-Vishniac’s claim that there was no cause to dismiss her, because, according to her, she was never in favour of outright dismissal, and she moved to reverse the “blunder” (her words) as soon as she discovered it.  However, the only way she could have moved as quickly as possible was if Fairbairn’s two emails had both been unclear.  But this is not what she says, specifically; rather, she claims she “did not understand” that this was the decision, which suggests that Busch-Vishniac simply skimmed the emails, and didn’t grasp or process their full content.

Truthfully, this seems a bit weak as a defence.  Fairbairn’s account of the Tuesday meeting is clear: at that meeting, the possibility of dismissing Buckingham outright was discussed, and there is no indication in either his or Bush-Vishniac’s account that this option was ruled-out.  In other words, a priori, she doesn’t seem to have had a problem with the idea of firing Buckingham outright.

2)      Busch-Vishniac really dislikes the MacKinnons.  It’s no secret that Busch-Vishniac’s predecessor, Peter MacKinnon, preferred Richard Florizone (now President at Dalhousie) as his successor, and it’s no secret that the transition between MacKinnon and Busch-Vishniac was slightly less than serene.  It is also a matter of public record that Janice MacKinnon, the province’s former finance minister, who held an academic position in the SPH, was pretty much first-out-of-the-gate to defend Buckingham, and blast Busch-Vishniac, on the Wednesday, after the story broke. 

However, Busch-Vishniac’s affidavit accuses the pair of something far more sinister: namely, the affidavit claims that the MacKinnons co-wrote Buckingham’s “Silence of the Deans” document, which instigated the move to dismiss him, and that they also instructed him on the timing of the document’s release, and its distribution list.  All of this was – and I quote – “specifically intended to undermine Dr. Busch-Vishniac”.   No evidence for this claim is offered, and both MacKinnons fervently deny the allegation.

Thing is, neither of the MacKinnons is listed as a defendant, and the actual authorship of “Silence of the Deans” is immaterial to the case. There was simply no reason for Busch-Vishniac to place these accusations before the court, other than to give a two-fingered salute to a couple she doesn’t like.  Weird.

3)      Brad Wall and Rob Norris may have some ‘splainin’ to do.  Busch-Vishniac claims that Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris and Premier Brad Wall pressured the board to do some things that were hasty and rash: such as pressuring the Board to hold a meeting with inadequate notice (this is already a matter of public record), as well as – allegedly – asking for a second meeting that day, and excluding the President from it, or indeed firing her without cause.  Whatever you think of Busch-Vishniac’s handling of the affair, she makes a decent case in the affidavit that she did not receive due process.  One might argue that this is also true of Buckingham, but in law two wrongs don’t make a right.  And of course, it should be worrying to everyone if – as she alleges – a theoretically independent board bent to government demands so quickly and completely.

There is one final, related note: the genesis of this whole mess was Buckingham’s claim that SPH shouldn’t be merged into another faculty as part of the TransformUS prioritization process.  Many people at U of S backed this claim, while having no intelligent view on the matter because, hey, everybody hated prioritization, and supporting Buckingham was a way to stick it to The Man.

Post-affair, the University called in an external panel of experts to advise on the fate of the School.  They reported back last month, saying SPH wasn’t fulfilling its mission, and needed to be merged with another unit, pronto.  In other words, it turns out the TransformUS process (not to mention Busch-Vishniac and Fairbairn) was right about SPH all along.  How embarrassing.

June 05

Random Crazy Thoughts About Funding Formulas

A few days ago, I attended a meeting of an advisory group on the review of the Ontario University Funding Formula. I can’t of course tell you what went on inside the meeting, but I thought I would share with you some of the (creative? crazy?) ideas that I had while inside them.

One issue which has popped up both in Ontario and in some meetings I had in DC last week, was the problems created by having money automatically fund enrolments. Now obviously money has to track enrolments to some degree – big universities need more money than little ones, expensive programs need more money than cheap programs, etc, etc. But on the other hand making the relationship direct creates an institutional incentive to deal with every cost problem by just chasing more students, which may not be socially optimal. Indeed, it leaves institutions open to the charge (not always entirely fairly) that they care more about getting people in the door than making sure they graduate.

So here’s an idea: since tuition fees rise directly with enrolment, institutions already have an incentive to chase bodies. Why not switch the funding formula incentive entirely to completion as Denmark does with its “taximeter” system? Completions are probably correlated about .75 or .8 with enrolments, which means that it wouldn’t cause a massive dislocation; you could probably up that to .9 or so if you funded based on an “expected completion metric” which took into account the quality of the incoming students (so, for instance, Queen’s would have to show much higher completion rates than Algoma to get the same money because the entrance averages of its students is higher).

Compounding the money-follows-enrolment problem is the fact that no formula I’ve ever been able to locate ever makes a distinction between the cost of an average student and the cost of a marginal student. This is on the face of it ridiculous: the 15,000th student at any institution is a heck of a lot cheaper to educate than the first or even the 5000th. And while yes, actually calculating marginal costs is a mug’s game and you certainly wouldn’t want to try to work that out in a funding formula, it’s not impossible to include a taper in the funding mechanism. That is, the first 100 in a particular field of study might be worth X, the next 100 might be worth .9x, the next 100 .8x, and so on and so forth. Easy enough. Why not do it?

One other interesting discussion to be had around funding models is the extent to which they can make systems “sustainable” (by which government means “not cost too much”). The Government of Ontario is very keen on the idea of using the funding formula to promote “sustainability” in Ontario universities. My first thought was that this was kind of nutty since a) the funding formula discussion is entirely allocative (ie. it is about how to divide the money not how much to give) and b) as I understand it, this funding formula review is not allowed to touch i) tuition, ii) collective agreements and iii) pensions. Frankly it’s pretty difficult to address sustainability if the formula can’t really take into account the largest components of revenue or costs. And yet, the central problem in institutions is getting cost increases back in line with revenue increases (see here and here).

As I’ve argued previously, there are good reasons why we might want to link total compensation to a particular percentage of total income, in much the same way that teams in professional sports do: it keeps the lid on costs when times are tight and it gives everyone in the institution an incentive to raise net revenues. Now, this particular provincial government won’t countenance doing that by interfering with collective bargaining (a problem since universities on their own don’t seem to be able to control costs very well) or by implementing the “BC solution”  where the government sets out sector-wide guidelines about the extent to which aggregate pay can rise.

But then I thought of a way around this: what if the funding formula actually fixed the proportion of compensation costs to non-compensation costs? What if the formula contained a dollar-for-dollar clawback as compensation rises above 75% of total income? Of course, there’d be all sorts of screaming, and the devil would be in the details as to how to define compensation (circumventing the limit by hiring people as contractors would be the obvious loophole to close), but I think it might actually be a very effective tool for to help institutions become more sustainable.

Food for thought, anyway.

June 04

University Endowments in a Global Context

Every once in awhile, when politicians of a certain mindset get going on the subject of how much money is being wasted in higher education, they fall back on a line about “why can’t universities be more self-sufficient”, or better yet, “why can’t they just fundraise more, like American universities do”?

Easier said than done. Here are the top ten Canadian universities, by endowment.

Top ten Canadian Universities by Endowment (in C$ Billion)

So you’ve got Toronto at about $2 billion in total endowments, McGill and UBC hovering at about $1.5 billion and Alberta just scraping $1 billion. After that it starts to fall off quickly. Queen’s clocks in at three-quarters of a billion while Calgary, McMaster and Western at just over half a billion (which, for comparative purposes, is somewhat less than U of T’s medical faculties alone) and then on down from there. Only twenty universities in Canada have endowments as large as $100 million. To put that another way, given the way endowments work, that means there are only 20 institutions in the country which receive as much as $4 million annually from endowment returns. Spread $4 million over, say 20,000 students and you’re looking at a grand total of about $200 per student in endowment income, which at most universities is basically a rounding error.

Now, let’s look at the top ten in the United States.

Top ten US Universities by Endowment (in C$ Billion)


Clearly, the US is a whole different ballgame here. All of the top six institutions in the US have larger endowments than all Canadian institutions combined: Harvard’s endowment alone is over three times Canada’s. (In fact, this week Harvard got its largest ever single donation, worth $400M US – which is almost exactly equal to Dalhousie’s endowment. One Donation. Seriously.)

Though the US list is mostly made up of private institutions, two publics make the top ten: Michigan and Texas-Austin. The Texas endowment story is frankly insane and too long to recount here: suffice to say that technically UT Austin doesn’t specifically have a $11.5 billion in endowments; however, the UT system as a whole has about $26 billion (not counting another $13 billion or so for Texas A&M) thanks to various funds setup by the state, and Austin seems to end up getting about 45% of that, the $11.5 figure seems like a decent estimate of Austin’s implicit claim on funds.

In some ways, it’s not even the big-endowment schools that are the craziest. The US has five Liberal Arts colleges (Pomona, Swarthmore, Amherst, Grinnell and Williams) with 2,000 students or less which have per-student endowments of over $1 million. That means these schools have per student endowment income of over $40,000 – or, about twice what a school like Bishop’s has per student from all income sources. These schools actually don’t need to charge tuition – they do so only because to do otherwise would make their programs look cheap and common.

What about the rest of the world? Well, once you get outside North America, the data on endowments gets pretty thin. Wikipedia claims to list endowment values of major universities in Europe, Asia and Australia, but for reasons that are quite baffling, on closer inspection these figures often turn out represent the institution’s annual budgets. Plus the meaning of terms like “university foundation” and “endowments” seem to mean slightly different things in different places. Top three Australian universities have Foundations which manage $1 billion or more in “long-term funds”, but not all of these funds appear to be externally endowed in the way we think of the term (the balance would appear to be funds invested by the universities themselves). Similarly, Tokyo University Foundation lists $24.8 billion yen ($250 million) in cash “and pledges” which could mean just about anything.

European universities seem not to advertise or explain their endowments, possibly because they haven’t got many of them. ETH Zurich is described on a number of websites as have a billion euros in endowments, but the most recent ETH Foundation annual report puts the figure at closer to 400 million euros. The only other continental university with a major endowment is the Central European University in Budapest, which apparently has an endowment of roughly $1 billion thanks mostly to its principal benefactor, George Soros. The UK, of course, is a different story. Oxford and Cambridge are handsomely funded but the gap between these two and everyone else is enormous – the third-best endowed school has less than a tenth of what the second-best school has.

The only two Asian universities where we have definite evidence of serious wealth are The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the National University of Singapore (NUS). The former, of course, was famously endowed to the tune of USD $20 Billion by its founder; the latter seems to have built up its formidable $2.3 Billion (Cdn) endowment in a more traditional (from a North American perspective) way, though gifts of many individual benefactors.

Major University Endowments, Selected non-North American Institutions (in C$ Billion)


Not shown: KAUST and its $20 Billion US endowment because that would make the graph look ridiculous.

All of which is to say that Canada actually does well compared to most of the world in terms of private funding raising. Our top three schools are probably in the top ten in the world outside the US in terms of total endowment size, and in terms of total university endowments, we probably come fourth in the world after the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia. The problem is simply that due to proximity we compare ourselves to the US, which is sui generis in so many ways. KAUST aside, there simply isn’t a university in the world which can support itself through donations the way American schools can. We need to stop using them as a yardstick.

June 03

International Speed-Dating in Boston

I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.

In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.

In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.

And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.

Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.

June 02

Funding Formulas 201

The last time we  talked about funding formulas, we discussed the difference between determinative and allocative formulas.  When we talk about Ontario, which is currently undergoing a funding formula review, we’re definitely talking about the latter.  The formula isn’t going to drive total spending (this remains the legislature’s prerogative), what it is going to do is decide how the total amount will be split up.

The question is: how best to do this?

At this point, it’s worth going into some history about funding formulas.  Back in the day – say, the 1960s – universities would come cap-in-hand to government asking for money for various sundry purposes (usually, there were a couple of new “wow” proposals in there to justify a big increase), and government, in-turn, would cut cheques to individual institutions for any old amount.  Eventually, governments got tired of that shtick, and decided to come up with a way to allocate funds automatically – but fairly – to avoid going through that rigamarole every year.

Over time, however, global thinking about funding formulas changed – due mainly to work done at the OECD.  It’s now no longer just about divvying up money, it’s about using money to create a set of incentives to steer the system.  Now, admittedly, when the OECD talks about using money to steer a system, it does so because it thinks it’s better for governments to set goals for institutions, and then get out of the way.  In other words, governments “should steer, not row”.

(An interesting question in Ontario, of course, is how formula spending power can be made to steer the system, when the government of the day has a predilection not just to row, but to flail around like a five year-old on a boogie board.  Should be interesting.)

Anyhow, the idea is that you can get universities to do stuff by rewarding them via the funding formula.  The question then, from a practical point of view, is: how big a carrot do you need to get an institution to do something it may not want to do (e.g. pay more attention to teaching, get research institutions to reach out more to poorer kids, etc.)?  The answer here is: “nobody knows”.  And this is a bit of a problem, especially if you’re trying to incentivize something.  Thanks to the work of Nicholas Hillman and David Tandberg, we can be pretty sure that small nudges – say, nudges that account for 2-3% of the budget, or so – aren’t going to work.  If you’re going to try something like this, you need to go big.  As in, “at least 10% of an institutional budget” big.

Now, here’s the thing: in Ontario, the government only accounts for about 40% of university funding, with the rest coming from tuition or commercial activities.  So something that puts 10% of the institutional budget at risk actually has to put 25% of government funding at risk.  And logically speaking, this means you probably can only pick one, or at most two goals for your funding formula to target.   So what should the government pick: completion rates?  Research commercialization?

It’s hard, in fact, to see how you can steer competently in a way that makes sense for all institutions, in a jurisdiction where so little institutional funding comes from government.  There is the possibility of creating individual goals for each institution based on individual missions, but now you’re getting a long way from the idea of a “formula”, something where everyone pumps the same numbers into the system, and a global result for all institutions pops out.

Basically, system steering gets a lot tougher for governments if they’ve already allowed institutions to become mostly student-funded.  This is something Ontario is about to discover in a big way.

June 01

The Cost of Moving the Needle

One of the things about increasing post-secondary participation is that the cost of improving access increases all of the time – as you get closer to universality, the students you want to attract becoming increasingly marginal, academically, and require greater investments in order for them to succeed.

A really good example of this comes from the City University of New York (CUNY), which recently completed an evaluation of its Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which is meant to encourage completion among students taking Associate (i.e. 2-year) degrees at the school, on a full-time basis.  The program design is pretty much what you’d expect: it tops-up financial aid so that net cost is zero, plus throws in textbooks and a transit pass.  Each student gets a personal advisor/mentor/coach, as well as career counselling.  Participants get grouped together in small classes (25 students, or less), and the classes are block-booked so that students can take all their courses either in the morning, afternoon, or evening (of great assistance to students with work or family responsibilities).

This is not a cheap program.  At the time the program was being evaluated, it cost over $4,000 per student, per year, though the cost later fell towards $3,500 per student as the program ramped-up.  In the context of US 2-year colleges, such as the nine CUNY community colleges at which this program was implemented, and where per-student expenditure is about $8,000 per student, this is a heck of a lot of money.  But it works.  MDRC, one of the world’s top social science research organizations, evaluated the project recently using a random-assignment experiment, and found that ASAP’s effects on a range of outcome measures were “the largest it (had) found in any of its evaluations of community college reforms”.

The evaluation (executive summary available here) showed that 40.1% of program participants graduated within three years, compared to just 21.8% of students from the control group, and 25.1% had enrolled in a four-year college by semester 6, compared to just 17.3% in the control group (though many American community colleges offer more technical programs, the colleges at which the program was implemented mostly offered arts programs designed as pathways to 4-year colleges, so this metric is actually quite important, because completion without continuation to a 4-year college is of substantially lower value to the student).

Now, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding statistic: for $4,000/year, ASAP can almost double the graduation rate.   But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in fact, it takes $14,000, spread over 3 years, to achieve this effect.  And even with a doubling, the program is really only affecting one-out-of-five students; one-fifth of students would have graduated anyway, and another three-fifths still don’t graduate.  So to produce one extra graduate, you actually have to spend something in the neighbourhood of $50,000 or so (it’s not actually 5 x $14,000, because you stop spending money once a student drops out).  That’s a lot of money to get one extra graduate, especially for a general Associate degree, where both public and private returns are quite low.

This is by no means a criticism of ASAP: it’s a good program delivering excellent results.  But it does go to show how much money it takes to move the needle on degree completion.  That’s not all going to come from new government sources; it’s going to require changes in institutional business models to reduce costs in order to put more money into things like counselling, advising, and support.

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