Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 19

Tuition: Walking and Chewing Gum Simultaneously

Since we’re talking tuition this week, I thought I’d take an opportunity to tee off on one of the weakest arguments out there on this subject.  You know, the one that goes like this:

  1. Higher Education is a Public Good
  2. Public Goods should be free
  3. Yay, free tuition.

There are actually two responses to this argument, one narrow and one broad.

The narrow argument is that in economic terms the first premise is wrong and hence the second and third are incorrect as well.  Yes, economists believe that public goods – that is, goods which are both non-rivalrous and non-excludable, should be free.  But higher education is neither of these things (see this earlier blog post here for a longer explanation) so the second and third points are false.  QED.

Now this is an unsatisfactory answer to most people, because when non-economists use the term “public good” they actually mean “a good which has a lot of positive externalities”, not “a good which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable”.  This drives some economists a bit batty, but such is life.   And, so the argument goes, since it has lots of positive externalities, we should subsidize it.

Economically, that’s a solid argument.  Having positive externalities means that those who pay for the good don’t reap all the benefits.  Everybody gains from having more doctors, for instance, or more teachers (more lawyers…well, that may have negative externalities).  They gain from having a more educated populace which tends to be healthier, less prone to crime, more likely to engage civically, etc.  Typically, where buyers don’t capture all the beneficiaries, less of a good gets consumed than it should.  This is a type of market failure, and an argument for government intervention and subsidy (this is the argument for public funding of research, for instance).

BUT.  But, but, but.  Notice the difference here.  With pubic goods, the argument is that government should be the sole payer because the non-excludability thing literally means that no one can capture the benefits of the investments (lighthouses are the classic if not entirely satisfactory example here).  But with goods with positive externalities, while there is a case for subsidies, there’s not a case for complete subsidization.  To the extent that there are private benefits, the beneficiaries should pay for them.

But that’s not the way the free tuition folks tend to argue things.  It often seems sufficient, as evidenced by this recent Christopher Newfield piece in the Guardian, to say “public good!” – by which he presumably means “goods with positive externalities”- and that’s a good enough reason to ask for a 100% subsidy.   Often, this is then contrasted with some “evil” alternative where asking for students to pay fees implies a “neoliberal agenda” in which education is entirely conceived of as a “private good”.

This is nonsense.  A good can have both public AND private aspects.  We can subsidize a good AND ask private beneficiaries to contribute at the same time.  In fact, we can even devise policies which subsidize degrees differentially based on the extent to which the benefits of the degree are public (e.g. undergraduate programs in nursing or ECE) or private (MBAs).  We won’t always get those divisions between public and private exactly right, but I can guarantee you that the split we come up with will be more accurate than “100% public”.

This idea that a good must be either public or private and either completely subsidized or completely marketized should be beneath us.  The world is neither that neat nor that Manichaean.  But just as most of us can walk and chew gum simultaneously, most of us can conceive of a world where goods can be both public and private without blowing a head valve.  And we can design policies accordingly.

October 18

Why the American Free Tuition Debate is Different (redux)

As many of you know, I’ve been around the block a few times around the issue of “free tuition” (see here here here and here for a few examples if you’re interested/have forgotten/find these pieces amusing).  But one thing that I’ve found fascinating about the developing American discourse on free tuition is how very different it is from that of other countries.  I’ve written before about how the presence of private universities changes the nature of the debate in the US, but the actual rationale for universality is different as well.

Let me explain.

In most parts of the world, the argument against tuition fees is that they deter participation.  This is, of course, mostly nonsense, at least if the country in question has a functioning student assistance system.  Except where tuition is increasing by literally thousands of dollars at a time, the demonstrated effects of tuition increase are negligible to non-existent, because student aid, you know, works.  And, more to the point, in most cases extra fees get plowed back into the institutions themselves, so arguably fees increase participation by expanding the number of places available.  This is most obviously true in Asian countries like Korea where 80% of students are at private universities.  Literally, if tuition fees did not exist, there would be no places for all these students.

There’s a secondary argument about fees and inequality.  This takes two forms.  The first is that they selectively deter poorer students.  This is not very convincing because a) in most countries student aid is sufficient to compensate and b) the most important barriers to higher education are non-financial.  As a result, by most measures students from non-traditional backgrounds are no more likely to end up in higher education in free tuition countries than in ones with fees.

The second part of the argument is that fees – and related interest costs on loans, where these exist – actually serve to impoverish students from poorer backgrounds and thus perpetuate inequality: if only we reduced fees, then there would be greater equality because poor students would be $X better off.  This is plain ridiculous, because more affluent students would also be $X better off, thus reducing inequality not one jot.  If you think richer parents won’t indulge in intergenerational wealth transfers just because tuition is free, you’re deluded.

There’s a third broad argument out there as well, though you tend not to see it in North America.  In some part of the world – Chile is a notable example here – the argument about free fees has nothing to do with access at all; rather it is about the role of the market.  In some people’s minds, if funding comes entirely from government, then it is the public and not the market which will decided what education is and how it should be delivered.  Now, in practice I think a lot of people mean “ensconced academics” rather than “the public” when they say this, and I think they’re taking the benevolence of elected governments for granted when saying this, but whatever.  It’s an argument.

But the longer I listen to American arguments around free tuition (particularly but not exclusively from Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the excellent book Paying the Price, which I reviewed back here), the more convinced I am that it is rooted in quite a different set of concerns.  Superficially, it’s based in the second set of arguments about how fees deter poor students.  But it starts from a completely different set of premises around student aid.  Unlike (say) the Canadian free-tuition types, American free-tuition types actually accept the notion that student aid can, in theory, offset the problems created by tuition.  Their argument is rather a political one: they do not believe the political will exists to support need-based/means-tested aid on the necessary scale and only by extending benefits to all via free tuition will one get the necessary buy-in.  Proponents of this view like to use the phrase “programs for the poor are poor programs”.  In effect, the only way to get money for the needy is to give it to the rich as well.  And if it takes a subsidy which is net-regressive to do it, so be it.

This is a very different kind of argument from the one we are used to up here, and it’s one that’s kind of hard to argue with from outside the country.  Obviously, for targeted means-tested aid to work, there does need to be a political consensus that net transfers from rich to poor are a Good Thing.  Maybe in the US no such consensus exists, I don’t know; I’m not an American and I can’t really say.  I’m not convinced universalism is any more sell-able in the US than means-testing, but then again I also thought Clinton would carry Michigan and Pennsylvania so perhaps I am not the best judge.

But what I do know is that in Canada this argument makes no sense.  We do have a consensus or redistributive targetting.  That’s how the federal government and the governments of Ontario and New Brunswick got rid of education tax credits and put the proceeds into an expanded need-based grant programs.  We can make good, durable programs for the poor and that’s to our credit.

The American argument on free tuition, then, is actually one born of despair over the very specific political conditions which exist in the US which prevent them from adopting solutions like Canada’s.  It might make political if not economic sense in the US and for that matter some other countries as well.  But it’s not applicable everywhere and certainly not chez nous.

October 17

The Ontario College Strike

Ontario College Professors, represented by the Ontario Public Sector Employee’s Union (OPSEU) went on strike Monday morning.  A few thoughts on where we are and what might happen:

  1. OPSEU’s final settlement offer published on the weekend (available here) is a heck of a long way from what they were proposing a couple of weeks ago.  They’ve given up literally everything on workloads and the (frankly ludicrous) demand for academic Senates at all institutions and some other stuff besides.  From this you can either infer that the union is trying really hard to reach a settlement, or that these issues were always meant to be sacrificed at the table for progress on the couple of issues the union apparently sees as core; namely, staff complements and “academic freedom”.
  2. The staff complements clause basically says that at every institution, for every full-time teacher, there should be no more than one part-time/sessional teacher (currently, it’s about 2:1 or even a bit higher).  No doubt this would significantly increase institutional costs (and, given that full-timers teach more than part-timers, destroy many more part-time jobs than it would create full-time ones), and it’s not entirely clear ow that would be paid for.  That’s almost certainly the main reason why the colleges – whose budgets are tight – aren’t budging on that point.
    But a bigger issue possibly is that we’re talking about colleges here, the whole point of which is that the instruction is job-oriented, and that means having a lot of instructors who are active in industry.  The exact mix is going to differ somewhat from field to field, but you need a healthy proportion in there.  The right mix might not be the current 2:1, but for the sake of quality college education it seems to me both parties have a duty to ensure that they have some sense of what kinds of ratios do work before agreeing to anything here.  It’s a pedagogical as well as a financial issue.
  3. The “academic freedom” demand has a similarly barbed tail.  Most of what is being asked for is pretty innocuous.  But check out proposed clause 13.04 (a), which defines academic freedom as “freedom in the conduct of teaching” and which the explanatory notes say “affirms faculty ability to make academic decisions about their courses”.  Whoa Nelly.
    The idea that academic freedom = professorial sovereignty within the classroom is a uniquely Canadian one.  I am not sure where it comes from, exactly, but it is very different from notions of academic freedom that one sees in European universities (which tend to stress collective autonomy rather than individual liberties, especially where curriculum is concerned), and it’s not clear to me how the hell this is supposed to work in a college context.  Your average college program is much more structured than one in universities.  Courses don’t often exist in isolation, but rather as part of a carefully constructed package which builds towards a diploma.  To ensure the coherence of a diploma, you actually can’t have individual profs making too many individual decisions about their courses.  At the very least, professorial control needs to be inscribed within the boundaries of program-level curriculum limits (or, in the case of trades/apprenticeship instructors in Red Seal Trades, within the limits of nationally-mandated curricula).
  4. In university strikes, where there is nearly always one faction of students who comes out in favour of faculty and often volunteers to help on the picket line.  This is always greatly appreciated by faculty, who spend a lot of time talking up this kind of support on social media. Most striking profs feel some guilt because of the negative effects of strikes on students, and this kind of thing assuages the guilt somewhat.
    But in this case, the more vocal student faction has been anti-strike.  Last week, a group of students started a petition to demand refunds of $30/day for every day the strike goes on.  As of early Monday morning, the petition had over 38,000 signatures.  It’s not an anti-prof petition, quite– after all, it takes two to avoid a strike (that said, the overall tone of the accompanying twitter hashtag #wepaytolearn certainly seems to lay the blame on the union).  In any case, it sure doesn’t seem likely at the moment that OPSEU can count on much of the kind of morale-boosting solidarity that university unions seem to be able to count on.
  5. One of the good things about the union’s final offer is that for the most part it jettisons the proposals that the employer council was never going to agree to (mainly, the stuff about Senates).  The outlines of a deal are now pretty clear: colleges will give a little on reducing the use of sessional staff and the union will soften the language on academic freedom to accommodate legitimate concerns about program coherence.  With luck, there’s a deal inside a week.  Without luck, the provincial legislature has to step in and legislate everyone back to work and impose binding arbitration sometime around Halowe’en.

October 16

A Guide to Canadian Campuses, 30 Years On

On Saturday, I spent a lovely morning at Mount Allison talking to their Board of Governors.  Afterwards, I scooted across the Nova Scotia border to Amherst, which is home to Amy’s, one of Canada’s most remarkable used bookstores.  There I found a host of historical higher ed treasures (had to make a quick trip to Giant Tiger to buy a bag to get them all on the plane home), the most amusing of which was Linda Frum’s Guide to Canadian Universities, which – to the utter horror of the Canadian university sector – was published 30 years ago last month.

If you weren’t there in the late 1980s, you’ll have no idea about this book or its impact.  It was a bible for hundreds of thousands of university-bound kids.  Pre-internet, pre-rankings, how else could you find out about ALL THE UNIVERSITIES in one convenient place for the low price of $14.95?  And, packed as it was in bitchy, knowing sarcasm, it felt like it was delivering the straight dope in a way that no metrics-laden ranking exercise ever could.  Not that Frum’s dope was necessarily accurate.  Her research mostly consisted of spending a day on each campus and chatting to one or two senior admins and clutches of undergraduates over lunch in a cafeteria or java in a coffee shop.  Superficial, sure, but hundreds of times more informative than anything else available at the time.

Now, there is lots wrong with this book.  Its mere existence is an indictment of the closed nature of Canadian publishing (who asks an unknown 24 year old to write a major book and name it eponymously unless they are the offspring of a famous broadcaster?).  And it carries a huge whiff of Toronto snobbery, particularly towards smaller universities.  But in its way, it’s genius, and a quick re-read today is worth an hour or two of your time, for three reasons.

The first is that as a period piece it captures some aspects of university life that we’ve nearly completely forgotten today.  The most interesting one has to do with entrance averages, which were clearly – contrary to the way most people seem to remember it – a whole heck of a lot lower then than they are now (the description for York, for instance, ends with “if you want to live a little, and you can afford it, you’d be smart to take your 70 to Acadia, St. FX, Dalhousie, Memorial, UNB or Trent.”)  The occasional comment about having to wait a month to see first-run movies in Halifax, or the pulling power of student unions to attract up-and-coming music acts (Billy Idol played Brock Student Union?) speak to a very different, pre-Internet, entertainment culture that is mostly forgotten.


The second is that while the book is very often completely unfair (not surprisingly given its research methods), it is nonetheless hysterically funny.  No one write this way about higher education any more, and it’s a shame because it’s very engaging to the non-specialists.  My favourites:

“When people say McGill is a great institution, they really mean is that Montreal is a great city. Put McGill in Tuktoyaktuk and they wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic”

“Queen’s students are absolutely head over heels in love with their school, not to mention themselves”.

“If only to keep up appearances, Western has a faculty”

The third and final reason to re-read it is to reflect on what has and hasn’t changed in Canada in thirty years.  Change the names of which on- or near-campus bars and restaurants are “hot”, and double (or in some cases triple) the enrolment numbers at each university, and a lot of this book still seems pretty accurate, which speaks to how durable institutional cultures and reputations are.  That said, some things do change: I’m pretty sure Acadia is no longer the preppy haven it was in 1987, and the description of UBC is completely jarring (“Before OPEC, no matter what UBC did it couldn’t help being the best school west of the Ontario border; now, UBC is a great Canadian university on its way down…the best professors and graduate students are deserting to accept higher salaries over the Rockies”).

One thing I really remember from that time is how much universities hated the book.  The principal criticism was that it was too subjective.  If only we could have some *real* analysis of institutions – you know with facts and data and stuff.  Four years later, Maclean’s came out.  Universities hated it.  Didn’t contextualize institutions enough.  Moral of the story: there’s no way to both compare universities and make them happy unless you conclude they are all brilliant.  Worth keeping in mind when reading criticisms of institutional comparisons.

And do read Linda Frum’s Guide to Canadian Universities if you can find a copy.  An entertaining trip down memory lane no matter what you think of it.


October 13

Notes from Brazil

There’s a lot happening in Brazil these days, what with an economic catastrophe, an impeached President, a significant fraction of the country’s political class and business elite under indictment, the return of major gang warfare to Rio and a set of Men’s World Cup qualifying results which suggest that the selecão might not be quite as useless one would think given their performances in their last three tournaments.  Meanwhile, there are lots of big stories in higher education, too:

Science With Borders

When then-President Dilma Rousseff launched the program Science Without Borders in 2011, it was like catnip for research universities around the world.  Brazil was going to “internationalize” its higher education system by sending hundreds of thousands of graduate students abroad on full-tide scholarships?  Bazinga!  Cue international offices making frantic efforts to learn Portuguese and making scouting trips to Campinas and Porto Allegre.

It didn’t take long for reality to hit.  By 2015, with the Brazilian economy in free-fall, the government “suspended”, mostly to save money but also in response to mounting criticism (from OISE’s Creso Sà, among others) that the program did not represent good value for money due to design flaws.  This spring the government dropped the other shoe: the program is being shuttered for good.  Given the economic chaos, it may be a long while before we see that many Brazilians seeking schooling outside the country again.

Blame it on Rio

The state of Rio de Janeiro is broke, thanks to a combination of economic depression and the crippling costs of holding the Summer Olympics in 2016.  So broke, in fact, that the state is having trouble paying to keep open its public universities.  Bills to subcontractors have gone unpaid for months, leaving students without cafeterias.  By June they ran out of money to pay teachers, and at the end of July the university shut down indefinitely.  Professors, for reasons which I don’t totally understand, chose the day after that announcement to go on strike (obviously, striking if you don’t get paid makes sense, but striking after the term has already been suspended seems like odd timing). School resumed in late August, but pay was interrupted again almost immediately and professors went back on strike last week.

The federal government, which is considering various bailout plans for the state, has told the Rio government to start thinking about privatization and – in the case of universities – charging fees (something the federal government does not do itself at federal universities).  Cue the usual inaccurate stuff about how tuition can’t possibly co-exist with access, which is ludicrous because…

Two Million New Students in One Year?

…as we all know, something like 75% of all students in Brazil are in private universities which exist almost entirely off tuition fees (there are a few older Catholic universities which have other streams of income but they’re the minority).  If your point of reference for private universities is American 4-year institutions, you might think there is big inequality here, with the richer kids going to private universities and poorer ones relegated to the free public ones.  But of course that would be wrong: the free public ones (some of them, anyway) are the prestigious institutions, and with places rationed on academic results, it’s the kids from better-off families who tend to predominate.  Most studies which have looked at the question suggest that the income distribution in the two systems is either roughly comparable or more tilted to the poor on the private side.

Over the last decade, both left and right governments have counted on private education providers to do the bulk of the work in expanding access. For instance, during Lula’s first term, the government created a program called ProUni, which gives institutions tax breaks in return for providing bursaries for low-income students (at least one for every 10.7 students served).  This program was part of the reason behind the remarkable growth in private university enrolments – from 1 million undergraduate students in 1994 to over 4 million in 2010 (for some reason, Brazilians only keep statistics on undergraduate enrolments – data on graduate students is almost impossible to find).

Figure 1: University Enrolments by Sector, Brazil, 1991-2015

Source :Instituto Nacional de Estudos et Pequisas Educacionias Anisio Teixeiras

But if the long-term trend on private education in Brazil is impressive, what happened in 2015 is nothing short of astounding.  According to the Institutio Nacional de Estudis et Peguisas Educacionias Anisio Teixeiras, which publishes the country’s most complete set of enrolment statistics, in 2015, numbers in the private sector jumped by just under 2 million students, from 4.67 million to 6.63 million.  I half-think this is a misprint, but it seems like an authoritative source and Brazil is just crazy enough as a country that this might actually have happened.  If so, it’s a development to watch.

Bom Fim de Semana

October 12

The Right Way to Argue for Basic Research

The week before last, you may recall, I took issue with the way the country’s illustrious top university presidents (Gerforno, for short) were trying to sell higher education.  Effectively, what they were doing was selling higher education’s research mission by claiming “look, basic research creates jobs” on the basis of a few anecdotes.

The feedback I got was mostly “we really like the portmanteau Gerforno but are not necessarily convinced that there’s any other way to argue for basic research – if all the government wants to hear about is jobs, growth and middle-class families, isn’t that they way Presidents have to sell it?”  And there’s something to this view.  I used to work at Universities Canada; I get their lobbying strategy, and yes, this is exactly what the Presidents are thinking.

My objection is effectively two-fold.  Part of it is that there is too much intellectual dishonesty involved.  While there is a lot of research that ties a country’s overall research spend to long-term GDP growth rates or productivity rates, there is very little to substantiate a link between publicly-funded research or basic research with same.  That’s not to say the link doesn’t exist, just that the research doesn’t exist to prove it.  And second of all, there’s frankly a risk that coming to government year after year and saying “research means higher productivity means more jobs wears thin after awhile.  I mean, it’s been 20 years since the feds created the Canada Foundation for Innovation and really started spending money on research and as far as I know no one’s suggesting that all that money has in fact moved the needle on productivity very much.  Now, if we re-ran the last twenty years to answer the counter-factual “and what would productivity and growth look like if we hadn’t spent all that money” we might find it has in fact been worth it, but it’s easy to understand why politicians and civil servants might be skeptical about this claim.

So now many of you are now thinking “ok smart guy, how would you argue for it”?  Fair challenge.  Here’s my take:

I agree that there needs to be a way to link research to the idea of prosperity, but I think it has to be done in a way which is at once both much more specific and much more general than the way we are doing it now.  More specific in the sense that we have to stop arguing that research on its own is going to deliver growth because that’s a completely nonsensical proposition.  Investment in research is a necessary but insufficient condition.  To credibly link research to the economic engine, the research agenda needs to be tied to a whole bunch of other agendas: a competition agenda, a tax agenda, a regulation agenda, etc.  And the higher education agenda needs to make allies among people in other sectors who can help broaden this agenda.

At the same time, research advocates need to be less specific in the sense that we need to stop claiming that investment in this or that particular new shiny thing is going to lead to breakthroughs/growth/prosperity.  Every time higher ed leaders try to make the research-growth link, they reach for a small handful of specific examples in the life sciences or ICT.  Now maybe those leaders do actually know better and are just cynically pandering to politicians who have a narrow idea of what productivity growth actually is (“It’s new! It’s shiny!  Therefore it must be making Canada more productive!”).  The problem is that even though higher ed leaders are making these arguments in favour of “research” broadly defined, what politicians and policymakers tend to hear is “hey, we should double down on life sciences and ICT”.  Which is pretty much the opposite of what most of the research community wants.

So here’s my pitch: what we want and need is a Smart Canada.  We have no idea what the next big thing is going to be, nor does anyone else.  But our best bet to get ahead of the game is to be at or near the technological frontier in as many fields as possible.  And that means two things: first, it means adopting a very forward-looking posture on digital infrastructure and policy.  I don’t want to bore you with details, but we should be looking to imitate places like Estonia, South Korea and Singapore, and remembering that investing in digital infrastructure & digital public services > investing in digital companies.

Second, it means investing more in supporting and attracting talent.  And by talent I mean primarily people who can expand our country’s capacity in both research and development.  On the development side – that is, mostly in the private sector – that means a whole raft of changes to immigration (Dominic Barton made a number of helpful suggestions in this regard last year).  On the research side – mostly in academia – it means ensuring that we are creating an eco-system that can sustain basic research.  By and large, this means a greater emphasis on i) funding ideas and researchers rather than building infrastructure and ii) spreading the money around more widely than is currently the fashion.

(and yeah, there’s still an issue about ensuring ideas from basic research actually  do find their way into the economy eventually – that problem doesn’t go away.  But it’s kind of a last-mile problem, one you fix after the other pieces are in place).

Basically: support digital, support talent, support researchers and avoid confusing innovation policy with regional development or industrial strategies.  We can’t know for sure how to profit from tomorrow’s technologies, but this is a sure way for us to be as close as possible to the front of the line on new technology.  Think of it as an insurance policy, or if you’ll forgive a particularly ugly phrase, a way of “future-proofing” the country.

I admit it’s not quite as simple an equation as the Shiny Things = Growth algorithm which seems to have entranced the federal innovation ministry and in the short run it may be a tough sell.  But it’s a more durable and ultimately inclusive formula for linking growth and research.  We should give something like it a try.

October 11

How Sessionals Undermine the Case for Universities

Last year, I wrote a blog post about what sessionals get paid, and how essentially it works out to about what assistant profs get paid for the teaching component of their jobs and that in this sense at least one could argue that sessionals in fact are getting equal pay for work of equal value.

I got a fair bit of hate mail for that one, mostly because people have trouble distinguishing between is-ought arguments.  People seemed to think that because I was pointing out that pay rates for teaching are pretty close for junior profs and sessionals, that everything is therefore hunky-dory.  Not at all.  The heart of the case is that sessionals don’t want to be paid just to teach, they’d like to be paid to do research and all that other scholarly stuff as well.

(Well, some of them would, anyway.  Others have day jobs and are perfectly happy teaching one course a year on the side because it’s fun.  We have no idea how many fall into each category. Remarkably, Statistics Canada is planning on spending a million dollars to count sessionals in Canadian universities but in such a way as to shed absolutely no light on this rather important question.  But I digress: for the moment, let us assume that when we are talking about sessionals, we are talking about those who aspire to full-time academia)

A lot of advocates on behalf of sessionals seem obsessed with arguing their case on “fairness” grounds.  “It’s not fair” that they only get paid to teach while others get paid to teach and research and do whatever the hell service consists of.  To which there is a fairly curt answer, even if most people are too polite to make it: “if you didn’t get hired as a full-time prof, it’s probably because the relevant hiring committee didn’t think you were up to our standards on the whole research thing.”  So this isn’t really a winning argument.

Where universities are much more vulnerable is on the issue of mission.  The whole point of universities – the one thing that gives them their cachet – is that they are supposed to be delivering education in a research-intensive atmosphere.  This is the line of defence that is continually used whenever the issue of offering more degrees in community colleges or polytechnics arises.  “Research-intensive!  Degrees Gotta Be Research-intensive!  Did we mention the Research Intensity thing?”

But given that, why is it that in most of the country’s major universities, over 50% of undergraduate student course-hours are taught by sessionals who are specifically employed so as to not be research-active?

Ok, where the purpose of education is more practice than theory (eg law, nursing, journalism), you probably want a lot of sessionals who are working professionals.  In those programs, sessionals complement the mission.  But in Arts?  Science?  Business?  In those fields, the mere existence of sessionals undermines the case for universities’ exclusivity in undergraduate degree-granting.  And however financially-advantageous sessionals may be to the university (not an unimportant consideration in an era where public support for universities is eroding), long-term this is a far more dangerous problem.

So the real issue re: universities and sessionals is not one of fairness but of hypocrisy.  If sessionals really wanted to put political pressure on institutions, they would make common cause with colleges and polytechnics.  They would ceaselessly demand documents from institutions through Freedom of Information from institutions to determine what percentage of student credit hours are taught by sessionals.  They would use that information to loudly back colleges’ claims for more undergraduate degree-granting powers, because really, what’s the difference?  And eventually, governments would relent because the case for the status quo is really weak.

My guess is that those activists arguing on behalf of sessionals won’t choose this course because their goal is less to smash the system of privileged insiders than it is to join it.    But they’d have a case.  And universities would do well to remember it.

October 10

The Unfolding Disaster of the Liberals’ Innovation Policy

This Government, man.  It is something else.

Today, the Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Shaking Hands With Tech Executives, is in Halifax to – are you ready for this? – kick off a nationwide tour to announce the shortlist of the Superclusters competition.  Yes, the man has decided that it’s a good use of public money to spend the Parliamentary recess week jetting from one-part of the country to another announcing not the winners of this jumped-up contest but the shortlist.  The shortlist.  Seriously.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the man himself:

There’s reason to get upset about this because in theory this supercluster stuff is being judged by a non-partisan, expert panel and this Minister has decided to make it a partisan thing by doing this road show.  Now, I get it, to some extent this is the price of doing business in modern Canada: minsters will make announcement tours at the drop of a hat.  But there is at least a figment of a democratic argument there: when government spends money, it’s right to make public announcement so that citizens can know how money is being spent.  And yeah, it’s borderline when what you’re announcing is a decision of a non-partisan expert committee (and even more so when it’s a peer-review process like tri-council grants), but at least there’s a justification.  For a shortlist?  Not even close.  It’s a completely partisan effort, and it’s obnoxious.

(And let’s be honest – the only reason I’m getting this upset is because I was willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt that the judging process was going to be half-way professional to begin with.  But as I suggested in December of last year, there’s a reasonably good chance that the fix was in from the beginning, and that in the name of regional pork-barrelling equilibrium, this competition is going to give us something ocean-y in the Atlantic, something aerospace-y in Quebec, ICT-y in Ontario, energy-y in the Prairies and (probably) life sciences-y in BC.  In which case the whole thing is a charade and whatever atrocities against good government Bains is committing this week are chickenfeed in comparison).

There remains no sense that Liberal innovation policy involves anything than finding some hip tech-y industry, and dumping money on a spatially-concentrated version of it, thereby giving a two-fer with regional development policy.  Tech industry lobbyists are no doubt to blame, but so too are university Presidents, who continue to pretend that shiny new bits of science infrastructure will lead directly to some high-wage sci-tech utopia, even in the absence of any other policy changes whatsoever.

And absence of change in other areas is exactly what we’re getting.  In the Bombardier trade dispute, the Minister has as good as identified the nation’s interests with those of the company itself, thereby committing us to a continued policy of pouring money into a failing “national champion”, which is not considered an “innovation” policy anywhere in the OECD outside of possibly the French communist party (and that’s not even getting into the screw-the-Winnipeg-aerospace-industry-to-help-the-Quebec-aerospace industry policy which Ottawa has been aggressively pursuing since 1986 – another #innovation!).  And one key pillar of innovation policy – that is, ensuring competition and lowering barriers to entry, said minister released a press release last week on new policy for “lowering cell phone costs for the middle class” (yes, really) which somehow managed to avoid the word “competition” altogether.  And let’s not even get started on their appalling defence of innovation-killing supply management rules.

The only half-way decent ideas the government has toyed on innovation is actually in the area of skills, where the Advisory Committee on Economic Growth has been pushing the right issues on immigration, talent and skills.  But even the one half-way decent initiative here – the so-called “Future Skills Lab” – has been mired all spring and summer in a turf war between ESDC and Finance.  The former wants to run it itself, and the latter wants it to sit outside of government.  There are more than a few echoes of a 20 year-old debate about the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation here, and as was the case back in ’98, Finance is right about this for all the reasons Andrew Parkin outlines in his paper How to Build a Skills Lab.

This government has time to redeem itself in Science by doing the right thing on the Naylor Report in Budget 2018.  But on the innovation file, it’s not obvious anything can be salvaged. Despite innovation being rather obviously a multi-faceted issue, it seems like the only pillar they want to lean on is this weird mix of research subsidies embedded in the supercluster notion, which increasingly seems to resemble 1970s-style economic policy only with money flowing to tech and life sciences instead of manufacturing and natural resources.

This is not innovation.  It is not even #innovation.  It is simply bad policy garlanded with photo-ops and annoying buzzwords.  Time to blow it up and start again.


October 06

Of No Fixed Address

Most people usually think of universities as being particularly stable, physically speaking.  Sure, they grow a bit: if they are really ambitious they add a satellite campus here and there – maybe even set one up overseas.  But by and large, the centre of the university itself stays put, right?

Well, not always.  There are some interesting exceptions.

In the first place, the idea of a “university” as a physical place where teaching gets done is not a universal one.  In many places, a university was a place that offered examinations and degrees while the teaching was done somewhere else, like in colleges.  The University of Manitoba started off that way, for instance: individual colleges were scattered around Winnipeg, and U of M just handed out the degrees.  UBC and the University of Victoria, famously, started their lives as colleges which prepared people to take McGill degrees; ditto Brandon and McMaster.  And all of this was more or less based on an example back in England, where the University of London played the same role right across the Empire (a number of African colleges started life as prep colleges for University of London degrees).

Some universities had to move because of wartime exigencies.  After the Japanese invasion of 1937, the majority of Chinese universities – the public ones, anyway – hightailed it to the interior, to Wuhan and then later to Chongking or Yunnan.  There, many universities would share campuses and what little bits of laboratories and libraries the universities had managed to bring with them.  Peking, Tsinghua and Nanking universities actually merged temporarily to form the South-west Associated University.  Similarly, during the Korean War, the main universities in Seoul (Yonsei, Korea, and Seoul National) all left town and headed to the (relative) safety of Busan, only returning to the capital when the war was over.  As in China there was a great deal of co-operation between fugitive universities; some observers say the big prestigious Korean universities have never been as willing to accept credits from other schools as they were at the start of the 1950s.  And sometimes, fugitive universities never make it home.  A number of religious universities in Taiwan for instance (e.g. Soochow University, Fu Jen Catholic University) were originally located in mainland China but left ahead of the Communist take-over in 1949.

Domestic politics can lead to changes as well.  In Seoul, the challenge of locating a major campus quite close to the centre of political power was brought home to authorities when students from Seoul National University helped overthrow the Syngman Rhee government in 1960.  Rhee’s successor, Park Chung-hee, put a safe distance between students and the regime by relocating the entire campus south of the river the following decade.   In Belgium until the 1960s, the Catholic University of Leuven was in tricky situation – a prestigious, historically French institution in an area that was mostly Flemish-speaking.  Eventually, being Belgians, they decided that the best course of action was to split the university; basically, the Flemish got the site and the infrastructure while most of the professoriate decamped 20 mile to the south to a greenfield site in a French speaking province.  Thank God no one’s suggested that at McGill.

And finally, some universities aren’t where they used to be because, well, they aren’t the same university, even though they may share a name.  Visitors to Salerno might want to visit the local university, thinking it has some connection with the ancient medical school there.  Unfortunately, that university disappeared about 700 years ago; the modern thing up the hill is an expansion of a teacher training college created during the Second World War.

So, yes, universities on the whole are pretty durable, staid and stable institutions.  Doesn’t mean they don’t wander around on occasion.

October 05

Why Companies Value(d) Higher Education

I recently read the book A Perfect Mess: the Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Larabee.  It’s very good – in fact, the first two chapters are for my money the best short history of pre-1900 American higher education ever written.  I’m going to refer to this book a few times over the next couple of weeks.  But today, I want to talk about an engaging little passage he penned about how business came to view college (that is, American “college”, our universities) as an indispensable pre-requisite to white collar jobs.

There was a time, of course, where this wasn’t the case.  Well after the Civil War, medicine and law remained jobs filled through apprenticeship rather than something that required higher education.  Andrew Carnegie famously said he had known few young men who were not injured by a higher education system that stamped the fire and energy out of them.  The conversion of men like Carnegie into boosters rather than detractors was key to higher education becoming a mass phenomenon.  If business had kept that attitude, the system today would look completely different (mainly, it would be much, much smaller).

So what was it that changed?  According to Larabee, business leaders came to appreciate college because of changes both in the structure of higher education and the structure of business.  Business changed because management – that is, the general ability to apply verbal and cognitive skills to organizations problems – became more important.  And higher education provided this training in three ways.

First, the importation of German ideas about how to run universities led to an increased emphasis on giving students broad assignments which they would need to work out on their own.  This gave graduates experience with the kind of autonomy and problem-solving needed in the modern workplace.  Second, the need to navigate the complex formal and informal social, academic and administrative hierarchies of the university gave graduates the skills needed to navigate the similarly complicated hierarchies of modern corporations.  Third, the socialization process that colleges put students through to promote institutional loyalty (the arrival of intercollegiate sports at the turn of the twentieth century was a big help here) was also important: businesses value loyalty highly.

It’s a persuasive theory, and I think it also speaks to what may be wrong in the college/business interface in the present-day as well.  If you look at universities, they’re still training and socializing students much as they always did: problem-solving, hierarchy-navigating, and loyalty-inducing (granted, that third one has been much more prominent in American and Japanese institutions than it has elsewhere, but the point is this hasn’t become any less important over time no matter what the starting baseline).  But business has changed.  Partly, it’s about speed but I would argue it is more about permeability.  In an age of flatter corporate hierarchies, young trainees are required to deal at a fairly early stage to deal with actors outside the companies in order to get things done.  They are doing front-line sales and communications more often.  They are dealing with external suppliers more often.  Success in the new business world relies not simply on navigating the internal environment, it requires a lot more horizontal networking and engaging with external hierarchies.

And this, I would argue, is something higher education – be it in colleges or universities – hasn’t yet figured out how to impart.  And it’s not entirely clear that the Work Integrated Learning fad du jour is a solution, since all that really does is transpose a student temporarily from one hierarchy to another.  (To be clear: I’m not saying WIL isn’t valuable, I’m just saying it doesn’t solve this particular problem).

I should emphasize that I’m not carping here.  It’s not obvious to me how universities could actually give students this kind of experience, and many may well say either that it’s impossible or that they shouldn’t try.  Fair enough.  But just remember that if institutions can’t perform their training/socializing role to employers’ satisfaction, there’s no reason to think higher education will continue to receive the public support it currently does, either.

Given that, working out how to give students those kinds of experiences – either in class or through extra-curricular activity – is probably worth a ponder.

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