HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Author Archives: Alex Usher

April 13

Situation Critical

So, we haven’t yet got through all the provincial budgets, but it’s crystal clear from those in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, plus the election promises made by the winners/likely winners in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, that there is no chance whatsoever that provincial governments, on aggregate, are going to increase government grants to institutions by an amount equal to inflation.  This will mark the fifth time in the last six years that provincial grants to institutions have lagged inflation. 

While provinces aren’t spending on post-secondary institutions, they do seem to be quite interested in post-secondary students.  In total, aggregate provincial spending on student aid is up by around $600 million in real dollars over the past six years.   Which is to say: provinces are happy to make higher education cheaper, they’re just not interested in increasing institutions’ purchasing power.

In contrast to the dire situation in the provinces, universities and (to a lesser extent) colleges are on an unprecedented winning streak in Ottawa.  There’s been a goody for postsecondary in literally every single one of the last 20 federal budgets.  No other sector can claim anything close to that.

On the face of it, this is a distinctly weird state of affairs.  Both the federal and provincial governments are catering to the same set of voters, so why does one level seem to think that post-secondary institutions are worthy of continued attention while the other does not?  It’s not an ideology thing: this situation seems to be true no matter which parties are in power (and in any case at the moment Liberals are in power both federally and in most provinces).  The answer is pretty simple, though.  And I will say it loud and clear, because it’s a message institutions themselves seem unwilling to admit.  Ready?  Here it is:

The public likes what institutions’ are offering in terms of being engines of economic growth via research and will support it through tax-funded programs.  The public does not like what institutions are offering in terms of undergraduate teaching – at least at the price currently offered – and will not countenance major increases in either funding or tuition.

There’s no other explanation here, folks.  This is the central, basic dilemma that every university and college is facing right now.  The sector used to have a value proposition that the public accepted.  That’s how universities more than doubled their income between 1999 and 2009.  But no longer.   It’s not that the public dislike universities, or think they are “broken”.  They are just no longer convinced by the value proposition on offer and would like the cost (and by cost here I mean both tuition and the cost to the treasury) to come down. 

Universities and colleges are, I think, mostly in a state of denial about this.  “We need to tell better stories”, they say.  But c’mon.  The public isn’t stupid or in some state of false consciousness.  More students are going to post-secondary education than ever before, more people have contact with post-secondary graduates than ever before.  They have some sense of what they are talking about.  They might, in short, be right about the value proposition.

So instead of assuming the proles and the pols are wrong, and that we just need improve our comms for government to go back to increasing funding at inflation plus 4% the way they were a decade ago, let me suggest that perhaps universities and colleges might actually need to change.  If they want the slow erosion of funding to stop, they will actually need to present the government with a new value proposition, a different offering in return for renewed funding.

No, it won’t be easy.  But it is necessary, and sooner rather than later.

Tomorrow: what a new value proposition might look like.

April 12

Going Overboard on Basic Research?

I’m getting some worrying vibes from the new federal government.  It’s nothing I can directly put my finger on (other than some annoying Ministerial tweets last week which seemed to claim that any money put into PSE infrastructure is ipso facto about “innovation”) but I get the sense that the new government is in danger of making some real mistakes with respect to innovation policy.  Specifically, I’m worried that in the rush to repudiate the Harper legacy in all things science, they may end up with an innovation policy that takes us back to the naïve 1990s.

What do I mean by this?  Well, in the late 1990s, when the Chretien government began seriously investing in research (after having initially slashed the bejesus out of it in the 1995 Budget), their rationale went something like this: growth requires innovation, research is the wellspring of innovation, therefore:

      $ to universities for research → a miracle occurs → productive high-tech economic future

And on that not very sophisticated basis, billions were spent.

Now, without denying some good came from this, I think it’s fair to say that this is a pretty limited view of how innovation works.  For one thing, there’s an implicit suggestion that innovation is about “new discoveries” being turned into “new products”.  And while that is one type of innovation, it is far from the only one.  What about process innovations or business model innovations, to name but two?  Why focus on the “big breakthroughs” when so many incremental innovations are possible?  Why focus on only one part of the value chain (and possibly not a part Canada is particularly good at) when there is value in so many others?

To put this more bluntly, to assume that basic research is the only type of research an innovation policy should fund is crazy.  Serious countries understand this.  It’s the reason, for instance, that Germany, besides funding its universities and the Max Planck institute, also funds the Frauenhofer Institutes, which is one of the world’s greatest performers of applied research.

Over the course of the last few years there have been many complaints that the Harper government focused too much on applied research.  True, all granting councils (but especially CIHR) were pulled in the direction of having grantees justify their funding in terms of “immediate benefit” and finding commercial co-partners, etc, and for the most part this idea of injecting some “appliedness” into basic research funding was bad policy.  But the fact is that the actual amount we spend on research which is exclusively applied in nature – that is, Frauenhofer type-stuff, or programs like the Industrial Research Chairs – is actually pretty small.  The revamp of the National Research Council was a stab in a Frauenhofer direction – albeit a somewhat clumsy stab, with over-inflated expectations of quick success.  But now even that’s been thrown into question, the revamp now “suspended” pending the outcome of a review of the government’s review of its basic science policies. 

To be clear, it’s not that the government has yet made any definitive false steps.  But rhetorically it seems to be backing itself into a corner in terms of thinking of innovation exclusively in terms of basic research plus maybe funding some exciting business/university co-location spaces (an idea which I think we could also describe as being less-than-fully-baked, as I explained back here.  That would be a bad mistake.  What Canada needs is a full-spectrum innovation policy, one which doesn’t put all its eggs in the new discoveries/new products basket. 

Or, to put it another way: yes to basic research, but stools need more than one leg.

April 11

Those New Infrastructure Funds

I have been meaning to write about the new $2 billion “Strategic Investment Fund” (SIF), the 3-year infrastructure money-dump the Liberals announced in the budget.  However I waited a bit too long and Paul Wells beat me to it in an excellent little article called How to Spend $2 Billion on Research Really Quickly (available here).

Do read Wells’ piece in its entirety, but the Coles Notes version is:

  1. The deadline for submission is quite soon (May 9), which is kind of a crazy goal for slow-moving organizations for universities to hit
  2. The money is not a straight-out grant: matching funding is required, which could be a bit of a challenge
  3. The amount of work required to a shot of that money in terms of getting engineering and regulatory approvals, environmental assessments, providing evidence of “additionality”, “sustainability”, “meeting industry needs”, “benefiting aboriginal populations” and of course getting approval from one’s Board of Governors, is stonkingly huge.

Those are all good points.  Let me add a couple of more.

First of all, yes these things are challenging but hardly unprecedented. The timeline and process are almost exactly those seen in the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) the Tories created for the 2009 budget.  In both cases, the programs were announced with unbelievably tight timeline criteria (about two months from budget time to deadline) and the same matching funding requirement.  In both cases, the program was announced with eligibility criteria but no selection criteria.  That means we don’t really know what the government is looking for, what kinds of things it wants to see in submissions and how it will go about choosing from among the many submitted projects.  There is a margin for shenanigans here, but it’s the same margin the Tories had in ’09 and everyone seems to think that process went OK.

Second of all, the key thing to understand here is that although the rhetoric around infrastructure is always about “new” infrastructure, the fact of the matter is given the timelines and the rules, this program will be almost entirely about renovations and re-fits. (and occasionally some expansions).  The tight timelines make it impossible to submit any build project that isn’t already in the pipeline, and the rule that the federal money shouldn’t displace already-committed money means pretty much anything in the pipeline is ineligible.  In my (admittedly non-random) quick scan of projects completed under KIP, I could only find one example of a project which was 100% new build, namely, the ART Lab studios at the University of Manitoba.

(Also – apparently U of M managed to get KIP to fund seven different projects.  Kudos to one or both of their planning shop and government relations shop).

Third, between twenty years of CFI funding plus now two rounds of KIP/SIF (let’s be honest, it’s the same program), one does start to wonder at what point we start entering into a moral hazard position where the provinces essentially opt out of the infrastructure game because they know the feds will pony up – or indeed whether we haven’t actually reached that point in several provinces.   True, the feds might respond by saying “but they can play a role by choosing the projects for which they want to provide matching funds”.  To which, if I were a provincial government, I might calmly explain that the feds should use this explanation for a rather protracted rectal examination because in effect what they are doing is blackmailing the provinces into spending on things they didn’t really intend to spend money during a period where most provinces are trying to control spending not increase it.  (I might also explain that if the federal government that when it says it wants to consult with provinces, it’s generally more effective to do so before announcing the program rather than after).

I’m sure there are many in Ottawa (including some higher education membership organizations) who think the idea of adding infrastructure to student aid and research as areas of shared jurisdiction in higher education would be just swell.  But it’s not entirely obviously to me that divorcing capital investment policy from system-level strategy is a recipe for good outcomes.  I suspect this is going to be part of a debate on “fiscal imbalances” between federal and provincial governments sometime quite soon.  Watch this space.

April 08

Overproducing Graduates For The Win!

A few weeks ago, my colleague Melonie Fullick teed off in her University Affairs column on some of the rhetoric around calls to increase the number of PhDs. Universities always like these kind of calls (and – guilty – I’ve made them myself), because they mean some combination of more money and more horsepower to do advanced research (in the Sciences at least). But universities are obviously producing a lot more PhDs than they are ever going to hire, and so, as Fullick points out, the question becomes what’s the absorptive capacity of the economy to take all these PhDs?”

I mostly agree with the points in this article – and certainly agree that we spend way too little time thinking about graduate destinations (and adjusting the content of PhDs programs accordingly). But let me suggest that there is another reason for us to increase the number of PhDs which was not dealt with either by Fullick or the folks she was taking to ask; namely, to push down the post-graduation wages of doctoral degree holders.

You’re recoiling in horror. OK, let me explain.

There are both public and private benefits to education, which is why we split the costs between government and students. But when we talk about “public benefits”, what do we mean, exactly? What does the state get out of subsidizing education? The short answer is that by subsidizing education, it increases the number of people able to attend, which in turn increases the productive capacity of the economy, which benefits everyone.

But think closely on that. How does increasing the number of students increase the productive capacity of the country? Well, let’s think about it in terms of a new technology – say teleportation – and you’ve got two countries of more or less equal size. Country A manages to produce 10 PhDs in teleportation technologies, while country B manages to produce 30. What happens then?

Well, in country B, maybe 4 or 5 get hired back in academia – which is great because they can train more teleportationists. And you’ve got 25 or so who can go into industry. Now how are firms in country A going to compete with that? They’ve only got 10 or so – and they have to fight with academia to hire some of them. It’s not just that Country A has fewer top brains to work on this task – it’s that they have more market power. And that raises the cost of R & D and likely production as well. Firms in country B won’t necessarily “win” the teleportation technology battle, but their innovation efforts will have a lower cost structure.

Now, that doesn’t mean country B will always have lower pay for teleportationists. Pay depends in part on product success and once firms in country B achieve success and become profitable, it is in their interest to raise wage levels in order to attract top talent. But at the start, the “overproduction” of graduates gives firms in country B a big head start. And if you think that’s crazy, go read up on the history of the German chemical industry: “overproduction” of PhDs in the 19th century gave firms in that country a lasting advantage that endures to this day.

Now this doesn’t work everywhere. In mature industries, particularly capital intensive ones, the spillover benefits to overproducing graduates is less because either there is less new-product innovation or because it is so capital intensive that the cost of researchers’ labour is trivial in terms of providing a cost advantage. I suppose one could argue that some benefit could be wrought by pumping out more PhDs skilled in process innovation, but to be honest I’m not sure anyone’s ever shown that process innovation rally relies on PhDs, so we can maybe rule that one out.

So maybe we need to revise Fullick’s conclusions a bit. It’s certainly true that across-the-board increases in PhD students might not be such a good idea, and that in mature industries, we do need to care about receptor capacities. But in newer industries, there’s a really good case for putting the pedal to the metal and letting the chips fall where they may. We could use a German chemical industry-like success around here.

April 07

Innovation to Watch at the University of Sydney

Australian universities seem to do “Big Change” a lot better than universities elsewhere.  A few years ago, the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its entire curriculum in the space of about two years partly to create a more North American-like distinction between undergraduate and professional degrees and partly to reduce degree clutter by winnowing the number of different degrees from over a hundred to just six.  (For a refresher, I wrote about this back here).

If you read press reports about the University of Sydney’s new strategic plan (read the full document here,  it’s completely worth it) you might think Sydney is just aping Melbourne: it’s culling of degrees from 120 to 20, mostly by wiping out five-year “double degrees”, and also reducing the number of faculties from 16 to 6.

But the reduction in the number of degrees is actually a much less interesting story than what Sydney plans to do in terms of its curriculum.  From 2018, every program is to have two courses in third-year: one to integrate and apply disciplinary skills and another to apply disciplinary knowledge and skills in context.  Every degree will culminate in a final-year project or practicum.  Every program will have cultural competency embedded within it, and support for international studies will rise so that (hopefully) the proportion of students with an international experience will rise from 19% to 50%.  A strong framework to support career transitions will also be set up. Involving both curricular and co-curricular efforts

Here’s the most interesting bit: And an entirely new “open learning environment” will be created within the university, which will provide short, on-demand courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, ethics, project management, leadership (you know, all the employability-related skills universities usually claim students pick up by osmosis).  Some of these courses will be online, while some will be blended online/workshop; some will be non-credit and some will be small-credit. 

Did I mention they are going to develop a university-wide approach to measuring how desired graduate qualities such as disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary effectiveness, communication ability and cultural competence have been attained?  Yes, really.

What makes this kind of change deeply impressive – and potentially highly significant – is that it is not coming from a second-tier, ambitious institution trying to catch attention by doing something new.  This is the country’s oldest university.  This is a big, old prestigious institution taking big serious steps to actually change the undergraduate degree structure in order to provide students with better skills without sacrificing academic rigour.  It’s a research university that cares enough about undergraduate learning outcomes that it will measure them in some way beyond graduation rates and immediate employment rates. 

This is cutting edge stuff.  It may even be a world first.  We should all hope it is not the last; this kind of approach needs to spread quickly.

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

April 05

Manitoba Election Manifesto Analysis

So, with Saskatchewan’s election out of the way (results unknown at time of writing but I assume it was a Sask Party blowout), it’s time to focus now on the election in next-door Manitoba.  This is somewhat difficult because neither the governing NDP nor the opposition Progressive Conservatives have chosen to do anything so mundane as issue platforms, preferring instead to simply issues a bunch of “priorities” or “announcements”.  The reason for this is straightforward: the Tories are up 20 points and provided no one catches Brian Pallister drinking blood in public, they will win the province’s biggest majority in over a century.  But it can lead to some confusion over what is actually being promised.  Like when Greg Selinger pledged to double the number of yurts in the province.  He said it, but there’s no corresponding pledge on the party website – so is it a promise, or not?

(Obviously the duty of any social democratic government to rectify the market failure in yurts should be clear; the real question is why it’s taken this government 16.5 years to act on this imperative.  I digress).

Enough grumbles: here’s the lowdown.

Over the past sixteen years, the NDP have treated higher education tolerably well.  They’ve put a reasonable amount of money into need-based student assistance (introducing a loan remission program in their first year in office).  Money to institutions has gone up slightly more than the Canadian average, but much of it was to compensate for a decade-long tuition freeze, so in fact the institutions’ net financial position ended up lagging the rest of the country somewhat.

But in the last few years, Manitoba has been arguably the best government in the country – the only one which has consistently given institutions increases ahead of inflation.  That’s pretty good.  On the other hand, it has also introduced one of those god-awful graduate tax rebates, with the result that – provided you graduate on time and stay in the province – you’re likely to receive more in grants and tax credits/rebates than you pay in tuition.  That’s inane. 

The NDP’s initial instinct in PSE always seems to be “how can we hand money to students”?  Its election promise to convert the provincial student loan program into a fully grant-based program, as well as spend $4.5 million doubling the funding for the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative (MSBI), which is a 1-to-1 top-up for private donations made to institutions for the purpose of establishing scholarships. 

The Liberals appear to have made only one pledge in post-secondary education: that is, to match the NDP on converting loans to grants.  The Tories also appear to have only one promise, and that is to make two changes to the MSBI – increase it by 50% (that is, 50% more than now, but still $2.25M short of what NDP are promising), but changing the rules so it is not a 1-1 leverage but a 1-2 leverage (i.e. $2 in donations triggers $1 in matching funding).  This, apparently, will “leverage more money from the private sector”, which is a stretch if you ask me.  None of the parties seems inclined to touch the demonstrably wasteful and ineffective graduate tax rebate.

The NDP have also made two specific commitments to institutions: to fund a $12 million expansion of student family housing at the University of Brandon (I know little about this project but I assume it would be focused specifically on helping aboriginal students) and a $150 million commitment to the University of Manitoba’s “Front and Center” capital campaign, 80% of which is dedicated to infrastructure.  And if you find it strange that the government is contributing to a capital campaign, well, that’s Manitoba for you.

What’s distressing here is that – as in Saskatchewan – none of the parties have made any pledges at all with respect to core funding of institutions.  Now that might not be disastrous since not one of the parties are looking to implement swingeing cuts (although the left take it for granted that the Tories are lying about only wanting to restrain the rate of growth in government spending), but it does suggest that no one thinks core funding is a priority.  And that’s a problem for the whole sector.

Bottom line: if you’re voting on PSE alone, you vote NDP based both on past record and present promises.  They spend a lot of money on PSE, even if too much of it is wasteful and ineffective.  But the opposition parties don’t appear to put a lot of thought into anything other than how to hand more money to students.  And we probably shouldn’t reward parties with such one-dimensional views of higher education.

April 04

How to Improve Quebec Student Aid

As I noted last week  , the Government of Quebec is about to receive an unanticipated windfall in the form of an $80-$100M/yr “alternative payment” from the Government of Canada when the new Canada Student Grant system comes into effect. What should it do with the money?

An easy reaction from the Finance people would probably be “stick it into general revenues”. The student aid system has got a lot more expensive in Quebec over the last few years. Between 2008-9 and 2013-4, Quebec’s expenditures on student grants rose by 40% after inflation ($563 M vs $405M, in 2015 dollars) which for a province which has been trying very hard to deliver balanced budgets is pretty impressive. So there will likely be some pressure to swallow the cash just say “hey, this money is for our recent upswing in spending, it’s just…late”. And of course there’s not a thing the feds could do about that if they wanted to. That’s how alternative payments work: they are “in respect of” student aid, not “for” student aid.

But let’s assume for the moment that the province wishes to use some or all of that money for student aid: where should it spend? Traditionally, students have usually pushed for reductions in the loan cut-off. In Quebec, the first few dollars awarded to a student are loan, up to a ceiling: after that, everything is grant. The ceiling differs by level of study and somewhat annoyingly is expressed as a monthly limit, but assuming an 8-month school year (yes, CEGEP years are closer to 9-months but stick with me here), the loan cut-off is $1776 for CEGEP students, $2464 for university students, and $3272 for graduate students. Above that it’s all grant. So the simplest change you can make is simply to lower that cut-off, and turn loans into grants.

But let me suggest that’s not the best way to spend the money. Instead, Quebec should do something less sexy, but more effective: change its parental contribution rules. Though Quebec has a reputation for being more accessible than other provinces because of low tuition-fees and relatively generous grants (for those deemed to have need), there is a category of students in Quebec who are actually much worse off than elsewhere because of more stringent contribution rules.

The following graph shows expected parental contributions by province and level of family income.

Figure 1. Expected Parental Contributions Towards Tuition Fees by Family Income* and Province 

Expected Parental Contributions Towards Tuition Fees by Family Income and Province

*Assumes a family of 4, both parents working, one making 10k more than the other.

Below $45,000, all provinces are the same – parents are not expected to contribute in any province. Above about $100,000 Quebec is better than any other province because tuition is lower – parental contributions effectively cap out because tuition is low (they may still get asked to pay for cost of living, but this is pretty similar everywhere. But look at the space $45,000 and $70,000 in family income: there, parents are asked to considerably more – or, to put it another way, students from families in this area receive less in student assistance than their peers elsewhere in the country.

When you hear complaints about student aid in Quebec, this is mostly what it’s about: middle income kids who can’t get loans, let alone grants. If Quebec used its new money to soften its parental contribution requirements (that is, basically shift its curve rightwards by $25,000 or so), it would allow substantially more students into the system and give a break to families in the $45-70,000 annual income bracket. And politically, who wouldn’t want to help this group?

Des idées pour vous mettre une puce a l’oreille…

 

March 31

The Development of Post-Secondary Education Systems in Canada

This is the title of a recent-ish book (subtitle: a comparison between British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, 1980-2010) edited, and largely written by Don Fisher and Kjell Rubenson of UBC, Teresa Shanahan of York U, and Claude Trottier of Université Laval.  Despite a couple of significant faults, it’s well worth a read.

The book’s main strengths are the three chapters that act as histories of each of the titular provinces.  We haven’t had a really decent history of Canadian higher education since Donald Cameron’s More Than an Academic Question, which came out almost 25 years ago now, and so this is a welcome addition.  (OK, it’s missing the other seven provinces, but these three provinces are 80% of the system, so that’s not too shabby.)  These chapters are thorough, detailed, and do a reasonably good job of mixing narrative storytelling with data analysis.  That’s no mean feat.

Where the book falls down (to some extent, anyway) is on two points, in particular: the analysis of accessibility, and the analysis of what they call marketization and neoliberalism.

First, on accessibility.  It’s pretty clear from the text that accessibility is defined entirely in terms of tuition fees.  Their look at student aid is superficial.  In particular, the insistence on comparing Quebec’s efforts to other provinces without taking into account the Canada Student Loans Program indicates they don’t understand the system very well.  (There’s a similar problem on R&D and the role of granting councils – the absence of a section on federal policy occasionally makes it difficult to understand what actually happened.)

What the authors do instead, in contravention of nearly all the international literature, is make a distinction between accessibility (i.e., fees) and “participation” – which is what everyone else would call accessibility.  They proceed to do two things: first, they directly compare combined college/university participation rates across the three provinces without mentioning the fact that PSE in Quebec lasts five years, while in the other provinces it’s four years.  This makes Quebec look slightly better than the other provinces, which most analysts would say is not entirely warranted.  Second, they are then surprised (really?) that even with this juking of the stats, participation rates in QC are not higher then they “should” be, given the tuition differences.  This suggests a view of access/participation that is particularly one-dimensional, and not informed by much actual literature on the subject.

And yet the issue of fees is a central one in this book.  At least one of the book’s authors – my guess would be Fisher – is really desperate to make as much hay as possible out of “marketization” in higher education, and then use this as evidence of a “neoliberalism” in which “competition” and higher fees are believed to be a spur to quality.  And while there are definitely people out there who believe this trope, the evidence that anyone in either Ontario or BC ever believed it is pretty thin (in fact, both governments introduced new external monitoring bodies to oversee quality assurance).  Yes, the Harris Tories and Campbell Liberals both allowed tuition fees to rise (as did the the NDP and Liberals in Ontario, albeit at slower rates), but allowing tuition fees to rise and “marketization” (let alone “neoliberalism”) are not one and the same thing.

There are lots of goods for which government shares costs with individuals: public transit, for instance.  The province and city put in some dough, but individuals have to pay to use the service.  Over the past couple of decades, costs have risen.  In 2005, here in Toronto, I could get on the TTC for $2.50.  Now, it’s $3.25, a 30% increase in nominal terms.  Now, if I went around telling everyone we had a neoliberal transit system because of a change in costs – irrespective of how much each government puts into the service – people would think I was mental.  Yet that’s effectively what this book argues with respect to higher education, to its distinct discredit.

So, the history is good, but the analysis ranges from decent to terrible.  Still, I urge you to pick up this book if you’re a Canadian higher ed buff.  It’s worth it, flaws and all.

March 30

Why the US Free Tuition Debate is Different

Free tuition is a growing political issue in the United States.  Most of the free tuition plans out there (for instance in Tennessee and Oregon) are effectively variations of what was recently introduced in Ontario – that is, a re-packaging of student aid so that some students pay “net zero” in college – or at least community colleges.  The plan President Obama has presented to Congress over the past twelve months or so seems to be a bit more expansive – that is, actual zero-tuition for two years of community colleges rather than just a re-jigging of aid (personally, I don’t think the math adds up on the proposal but that’s as may be).  But it’s still just for public community colleges, which make up around a third of the system as a whole.

A more expansive set of proposals comes from the work of the University of Wisconsin’s Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, who have produced an even more expansive proposal, which includes two years of free tuition (that is, no up front fees to anyone, not a simple re-jigging of aid to achieve “net zero”) at all public institutions – including 4-year universities – plus substantial financial aid for all.

(I am going to skip Bernie Sanders’ even more expansive plan for four years of free tuition at public universities.  That’s partly because I’ll be getting into that later this week when I look at the various presidential candidates’ higher education plans, but also because the Sanders plan isn’t costed in a serious way.  Basically, it involves raising revenue by imposing a Tobin tax on financial transactions and states suddenly agreeing to do spend a lot more on higher education, neither of which has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening. So I’m skipping it here to focus on the programs which are actually likely to be a part of public policy over the next couple of years.)

What’s worth noting about all these plans is that they all share one thing in common: they all restrict their ambitions to public institutions.  They all assume that private higher education, whether for-profit or non-profit, will go on regardless.  In international terms, that would result in a system that looks a lot like Hungary’s or Romania’s: a mostly-free public sector and a full-cost private sector.

This assumption insulates US free-tuition types from one of the arguments made by pro-tuition types (like me) – namely that free-tuition gives away too much to the rich.  In the US, the free-tuition types can dismiss that argument by saying – with some justification – that the rich don’t go to public institutions (two-year colleges anyway) because they prefer to seclude themselves in private ones.  That being the case, very little of the new subsidy would reach the top quartile, who are the prime beneficiaries of free tuition in countries where education is all or mainly in the public sector.

In fact, if you look at the Goldrick-Rab/Kendall proposal, it’s quite the opposite: the rich in the private institutions pay quite a bit.  Her proposal takes away $18 billion in need- or income-based financial aid from students at private not-for-profit universities – it also redirects effectively all existing grants and tax expenditures at both publics and privates as well (the assumption here is that institutions will re-deploy their own aid away from 1st and 2nd years to help upper-year students so that they don’t lose out, but it seems clear that to some degree students in later years might be more loan-dependent than they currently are).

Now, that said, this proposal is not as clearly pro-poor as some of the state policies.  By including all publics (including the big flagships), it provides money to a lot of people, many of whom are not what you would traditionally call needy.  Making attendance cheaper at prestigious public institutions while increasing net costs at privates may also significantly change enrolment patterns.  Almost certainly it will mean fewer low-income students at private universities (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view); it also probably means some upper-middle class kids will make the switch back to public universities which would to some extent dilute the progressiveness of this measure.  Goldrick-Rab and Kendall would almost certainly respond that in the US, only universality will get the middle-class to buy-into a program that would help the poorest; of course, in Canada, we’ve just had two big re-arrangements of student financial aid (in Ontario and federally) which show that our politics are quite the opposite.

The important points here are: i) free community college plans are cheap because they’re near “net free” already; and, ii) a free first-two years plan is at least fiscally conceivable if you completely defund the private system (which may or may not be politically feasible).  The former of these is pretty much true in Canada as well.  The latter is quite different and depends on a very different set of institutional factors that those at play up here.  Don’t assume that the arguments which make sense south of the border also make sense up here.

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