HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

March 06

Some Thoughts on TA Strikes

At the time of writing (Thursday PM), Teaching Assistant Unions at both the University of Toronto and York University are on strike, as is the union representing sessionals at York.  Since Toronto is indeed “The Centre of the Universe”, I’m sure everyone across the country is just riveted by this news.  At the risk of irritating those readers still further, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the matter.

1)      A lot of people seem to be wondering “why are we relying so much on adjunct labour these days?”  The quick answer is “because profs are spending more time researching and less time teaching than they used to”; sessionals are an emergent property of a system that gets paid to teach, but prefers to spend money on research.  See also this recent piece on the economics of sessionals.

2)      It’s for this reason that I’m finding the OCUFA campaign on sessionals – “WeTeachOntario” – mindbogglingly un-self-aware.  It’s great to support sessionals, of course, but the utter lack of any kind of recognition that full-time faculty’s well-above-inflation pay settlements, and their perennial push to research more and teach less are significant contributing factors to the problem is simply amazing.

3)      The University of Waterloo’s Emmett Macfarlane wrote a very good piece on the TA strike on the Policy Options blog, which summed up a lot of my feelings about the strikes.  The issue pretty clearly isn’t about what students get paid for their labour as TAs (which at over $40/hr is pretty good), but what they receive overall (i.e. labour plus scholarship), which they feel is inadequate.  And yet it’s the labour tool they are using to address the problem, which is… problematic.

4)      On the issue of whether U of T grad students are, as they frequently claim, “living below the poverty level”:  The union keeps using a figure of $23,000 as the Toronto poverty level, which is in fact the pre-tax low-income cut off for large cities.  The post-tax figure – which is the more accurate comparison, since TA labour income is below the level at which income gets taxed and scholarships are tax-free up to $10K – is $19,000.  Or $1,583/month.  The base TA/grad package is $15K for 8 months or $1,875/month.  So the veracity of the claim seems to rest on the assumption that grad students get no outside income in those other 4 months.  My guess is that’s not for the most part true – they’ll either take on extra work or have an outside scholarship.

5)      What doctoral students are really asking for is that they be treated as employees, not just for their teaching duties but also for the entirety of their academic labour.  And that’s not crazy: in much of Europe, doctoral students are in fact university employees, and reasonably well paid.  There’s nothing to stop a university doing that here: in fact, some might argue that it would substantially improve a university’s ability to recruit graduate students.

The problem – as always – is money: universities don’t want to make the sacrifices to other aspects of the university budget (including, obviously, academic and staff pay) to make this work.  One possible compromise would be to turn PhD students into employees, but accept far fewer of them; but here you’d run into the problem of Arts professors having to backfill by doing more teaching themselves, and Science professors going bananas because now who’s going to run the labs?

To which, with some justification, doctoral students might simply say: Exactly. We’re worth more than you think.   And I’d have a fair bit of sympathy with that.

Have a good weekend.

March 05

CAUT on Foreign Professors

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Executive Director, David Robinson, made some interesting statements recently about the way universities hire foreign professors.  He made them in response to an announcement that the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) had negotiated an agreement to be exempted from certain rules of the new Temporary Foreign Worker program.  To quote in full from CAUT’s press release:

The national organization representing Canada’s professors says that special exemptions from the temporary foreign worker program for universities are unjustified.

“The program is intended to fill temporary labour market shortages and not to be a recruitment tool for permanent posts” said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). “Universities are using the program to side-step proper procedures for recruiting.”

Universities and the federal government agreed this week to exempt institutions from a rule in the program requiring employers to submit plans ensuring Canadian citizens can move into positions held by temporary foreign workers.  Under the new rules, universities and colleges will self-regulate by reporting to their national organization only.

Robinson says there may be a lack of qualified Canadian candidates for some specialized positions, but that the temporary foreign worker program is not the way to fill these posts and that universities should have to “make the case and provide the evidence to the government like every other employer.”

“The reality is there are scores of qualified Canadian academics who are employed on temporary and part-time contracts who should be considered for full-time openings,” Robinson said. “There is simply no evidence of a generalized labour shortage of professors in Canada. It seems that universities want to play fast and loose with the rules, at the expense of qualified Canadians.”

Two points here:

First, over the last few years, some universities have indeed been using the TFW program to get new full-time professors into the country.  The main reason they have done so is the backlog in the regular work permits application system; it was simply faster and easier to use the TFW system instead.  Because these were permanent hires, universities would subsequently go through the regular process; TFW was never more than a temporary means of expediting the process of getting new professors into the county.  When the TFW system was effectively suspended a few months ago, this procedure was no longer possible.  But since the regular work permit system is still a mess, it became difficult for universities to hire the foreign professors they wanted – hence, the need for a deal to get the pipeline moving again.  Thus, use of TFW is not evidence of university chicanery, as Robinson insinuates, but rather of a deep uselessness at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Second, the last two paragraphs in that excerpt from the CAUT press release are intriguingly ambiguous.  Is Robinson suggesting that Canadian universities are deliberately excluding Canadians employed as sessional lecturers, and that there is some sort of connection between this and the TFW rules?   If so, he should provide some evidence.  And specifically, it should be evidence that university administrations are doing this rather than, say, his own faculty members who usually form a majority on hiring committees.

Or is Robinson perhaps suggesting something more aggressive: that because there is “no generalized labour shortage of professors” that we should be actively excluding foreign candidates?  The phrasing of that last paragraph is convoluted, but it can be read this way (or possibly he just wanted to dog-whistle this solution – letting people infer it without actually saying it outright).  This might seem an odd position for a union with as many foreign-born members as CAUT, but our academic left has always had a strong nationalist streak going back to the days of the Canadianization movement of the late-60s.

The argument that we should be giving jobs to “qualified” Canadians over foreigners is not a crazy one: after all, it’s what employers in pretty much every other industry must do.  But universities typically don’t view their job as finding someone “good enough” for the job description; they view their job as finding the person who is the best for the job (or, in practice, the person they think will be the best in about 5-7 years’ time).  Basically, academia doesn’t think of “the job” as being a set of defined tasks that could be filled by many different people as it is in most other industries.  Rather, hiring in academia is more akin to professional sports: it’s looking for the best talent to fill some pretty vaguely defined roles (e.g. “defender”).  And at the moment, Canadian employment rules back the academy on this issue.

An honest, open discussion about how and why we hire professors, and whether or not they deserve such a large exemption from the rules that govern other professions, would be interesting and useful.  It would be even better, though, if it were not begun by faculty associations hurling what are basically groundless accusations of bad faith at universities.  We can do better than that.

March 04

Stop Saying Higher Education is a Public Good

Few things drive me crazier than when people claim higher education is a public good, and then claim that, on that basis, it deserves either: a) more public funding, or b) needs to be funded exclusively on a public basis.  This argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term “public good” actually means.

When most people hear the phrase “public good”, they’re probably thinking something like, “it’s good, it’s publicly funded; therefore, it’s a public good”.  But  that rationale is tautological.  In fact, claims for public funding on the basis of a good being “public” rests on a much narrower definition.  Here, I’d urge everyone to read Frances Wooley’s excellent summary of this issue entitled, “Why public goods are a pedagogical bad”.  To qualify as a public good, the good has to be both non-rival (that is, one person using it does not diminish others’ ability to use it), and non-excludable (that is, once provided it is difficult to prevent people from using – e.g. lighthouses).  The number of goods to which that might actually apply is very, very small, and higher education certainly isn’t one of them.  Classroom space is very definitely rival, and it is trivially easy to exclude people from education – no money, no degree.  Higher education is thus a private good.  One with many public benefits, for sure, but private nonetheless.

Why does it matter if people call it a public good?  Because in all your basic economic textbooks, public goods are the goods that all (or nearly all) think should be publicly funded.  When people say something is a pubic good, they’re actually launching an (erroneous) appeal to economic authority as a basis for public funding.

Now, just because something isn’t a public good doesn’t mean there’s no case for a subsidy: it just means there’s no automatic case for it.  Health care, welfare, and employment insurance are not public goods, but there’s still a very good case to be made for all of them in terms of a public insurance function – that is, it’s cheaper to collectively insure against ill health, job loss, and poverty than it is to make people do it themselves.

Sometimes there’s a case for government subvention due to obvious market failure – most student loans come under this category (markets have a hard time funding human capital), as does public funding of research (some types of research won’t be undertaken by the private sector because of the size of the externalities).

So it’s fine to say there is a public purpose to higher education.  And it’s fine to say higher education has many public benefits.  But saying higher education is a public good, and therefore deserves full public financing, is simply wrong.  If we’re going to have sensible conversations about higher education financing, the least we can do is get the terminology right.

March 03

Lowering Tuition in the UK

So, the UK Labour Party has decided that if it gets elected this spring (odds: probably just less than even), it will bring tuition fees down from their current maximum of £9,000/year to a maximum of £6,000/year.

Progressive, right?  Not in a million years.

As I pointed out back here, the weirdness of the UK system of fees and income contingent loans is that fees have risen so high that very few people – about one in five – are expected to pay it back given how the repayment system is set up (no payments on income below £21,000 [C$40,300], and 9% on the everything above it).  The rest – 80% or so – are expected to see at least some of their loan forgiven.  So if/when tuition gets reduced, those who were not expected to repay more than two-thirds of their loans will not see any benefit.  All that happens is that the debt they wouldn’t ever repay gets paid to institutions in advance, rather than lent to students and later forgiven.  Neither will universities be any better off: all that’s going to happen is that public funding will replace government funding pound for pound.

The benefit, in fact, would only accrue to those who were expected to pay more than two-thirds, and the largest benefit would go to that 20% who was expected to pay off their loans in full – i.e. the very best-off graduates (they don’t quite get off 100% scot-free; some part of this gain will be clawed back through higher interest rates on wealthy graduates).  This is why the BBC ended its Sunday interview with Labour higher education spokesman Liam Byrne, by asking the pointed question: “why propose something that benefits the Goldman Sachs graduate more than the social work graduate?”

Fair question – and so it was no surprise that Byrne ducked it, and stuck instead to his talking point that “the present system is unsustainable”.  I think by this he meant that the exchequer will spend ever greater amounts in future on forgiving loans – but if that’s the rationale, it’s hard to understand how bringing those payments forward makes it any more sustainable. And indeed, it’s worth remembering that the cause of the unsustainability (i.e. all that loan forgiveness for lower-earning graduates) is the thing that makes it at least somewhat tolerable and lightly progressive.

Now, one shouldn’t give the ruling Tory party too much – or indeed any – credit here.  The current fee/loan system was more or less designed by mistake; the Tories were under the delusion that very few universities would jack up fees to the maximum £9,000, and so the size of student debts (and hence loan forgiveness) came as a complete surprise to them.  If they could do it again, they’d undoubtedly make it far less generous to lower earners – and indeed, now seem intent on doing so by stealth, by freezing the repayment threshold and allowing inflation to erode its value.

None of this, of course, is to say that more public funds wouldn’t be welcome in the UK.  The question is, if you had a couple of billion to spend, as Labour now seems to want to do, would you: a) give it to institutions so they can improve the education they provide?  b) give it to students from lower-income backgrounds by reducing their tuition upfront (as the UK did between 1998 and 2006)? or c) hand it over to the richest tranche of graduates?

For some reason, Labour’s answer is c).  And on the politics of it, it’s hard to say they are wrong – in a poll taken over the weekend, 60% of UK voters say they back Labour’s policy.  And of course it’s easy to understand why; if you’re not paying attention (and let’s be honest, most people aren’t), you might think the tuition fee policy was actually going to make life easier for all students.  And who wouldn’t vote for that?

Apparently UK politicians – like Canadian ones – seem to think it’s better to play populist games with tuition rather than to actually do things that help low-income students.  That’s deeply unfortunate, but unfortunately not surprising.

March 02

Government Relations

So, the BC Government is telling BC universities that they shouldn’t hire lobbyists to lobby the provincial government.  What should we think of this?

On the one hand, it’s easy to spout slogans on this subject: “Governments give money to universities to teach, not to lobby”; “That money should be in the classroom”, etc., etc.  But look a little deeper and the answer is not as obvious.  I mean, if it’s wrong for universities to “spend money lobbying governments”, why stop at paying outside consultants?  Why not force institutions to layoff their entire government relations staff?  After all, they’re doing the same thing, just at lower rates of remuneration and more oversight from the boss.  But no one’s suggesting that.  Why not?  That money, too, could go to classrooms, couldn’t it?

Or, conversely: if institutions are not allowed to pay consulting fees to lobbyists, would it be OK if they put them on payroll?  Sure, they’d be getting paid a little more on an hourly basis than your average GR person, but if we think GR employees are good but GR consultants are bad, who cares?

From the university’s perspective, the sloganeering makes no sense unless you take the lobbyists effectiveness into account.  If the lobbyist achieves nothing, then yes, that money would be better spent in the classroom.  But if by spending 50K on a lobbyist an institution ends up receiving another 500K in money, then that’s money extremely well spent.  Obviously, it’s not always simple to determine cause and effect when it comes to an individual’s work, but that’s how universities need to look at the problem; is there a return on investment?

Admittedly, from the public’s point of view it’s not so simple.  There is an unseemliness to institutions who receive public money to lobby government for more money.  I get that.  But if “receipt of public funds” is the dividing line between who does and does not get to have lobbyists, we ought to be consistent.  Bombardier lives on public sector funds; does anyone question Bombardier’s lobbying activities?  If not, why not?

As you can tell, I’m pretty sanguine about universities and lobbying (which shouldn’t surprise anyone – lobbying for students and universities is how I got into this business); but that doesn’t mean there are no red lines.   One obvious one that shouldn’t be crossed is universities directly or indirectly paying money to political parties, as Athabasca did when it bought a table at a Conservative fundraiser a few years ago.  That’s just dumb – and can lead to serious corruption (not to mention reprisals if/when an opposition party comes to power – a fairly remote possibility in Alberta, but still).

But here’s the basic point: we shouldn’t pretend all government decisions regarding universities are made on the basis of pure unadulterated reason.  Lots of things still get settled by grace and favour, and who knows who.  That story I linked to up top notes that UBC doesn’t pay any lobbyists.  That of course is because they don’t have to: UBC is connected up the wazoo, and it shows in any number of funding decisions the provincial government has made over the years.  For other universities, paying lobbyists is just a way of trying to equalize the playing field.  And what’s wrong with that?

February 27

Clearer Thinking About Student Unions

Student associations have difficulty being effective, what with leadership turnovers over every year or so, and corporate memories that rarely extend beyond 36 months.  But every once in awhile, either because of some astute hires, or a lucky co-incidence of good leaders being elected at the same time, a student group gets on a hot streak.  StudentsNS, which represents the majority of associations in Nova Scotia, is in that zone right now.

The latest evidence: their recent review of governance at student unions.  Quite simply, it’s incredibly refreshing to have representative associations think aloud – thoughtfully, I might add – about their own deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and democratic procedures.  For that alone, StudentsNS deserves high praise and widespread emulation.

One of the key issues the paper deals with is elections.  Student associations have enough problems with legitimacy, stemming from low participation in student elections; but they often complicate this problem by making an absolute farce of how they conduct these elections.  At many associations, election rules are from the pre-internet era, and are fixated on trying to create level playing fields by means that, by any modern standard, violate freedom of speech (not to mention common sense).  Chief Electoral Officers are given enormous powers to set the terms of the game – and with that power comes the ability to potentially game the election if they so choose, something they are frequently accused of doing.  The StudentsNS paper gives some very good suggestions in that respect.

It also gives some very good general advice about the relationship between student unions and universities.  Rightly, it says this attitude needs to be collaborative rather than adversarial: both have an interest in seeing students complete their studies with the tools (academic and otherwise) they need to succeed in their subsequent careers, and both have a role to play in helping students deal with social and academic barriers to integrating into an institution.  They can do a lot more together to affect and improve campus culture than they can separately.  That’s not to say students shouldn’t hold institutions to account: particularly when it comes to keeping universities focussed on their teaching mission.  But the basic tenor of the relationship needs to be one of partnership.

Where the report goes slightly awry is in its recommendations on governance.  The paper conceptualizes student unions as dispensers of member services, and student union councils as needlessly focusing on organizational minutiae instead of more narrowly on governance.  Of the latter there is little doubt.  But the paper’s solution is effectively to get rid of most of the campus-wide elected positions (for instance, Presidents and Vice-Presidents) and just get students to elect a governing board, which can then elect a president who in turn manages a largely professionalized staff.

This strikes me as an unnecessarily bloodless definition of a student association.  Granted, there is real ambiguity about their true role: they aren’t “unions”, though they do provide political representation, and they aren’t “governments”, though they do manage services for members.  This paper tries to do away with this tension by redefining political representation as simply another service to members, one more thing to hand over to unelected staff whose work is overseen by a President and governed by a council.

I don’t buy this, and I kind of doubt students will either.  Representation is a matter of politics, not just “governance”.  Students want and need a forum to express how they feel about major issues with respect to how universities are governed, and how provinces pay for universities and colleges.   The main way they do that is by voting for specific representatives who run on specific platforms.  Under this plan, representation would be handled by someone who is hired (perhaps annually, perhaps longer) by a President to execute the (possibly quite muddled) compromise views of a governing council elected on widely differing platforms.  This is both more complex and (probably) less effective than what exists now, and I suspect would lead to a decline in student engagement with their student unions rather than an increase.

But that’s quibbling on my part.  The report is basically a good one, and student associations across the country should ponder its recommendations.  The more important question for the country as a whole is: how can we develop more student associations as thoughtful as StudentsNS?

February 26

Data on Textbook Costs

This data is a little old (2012), but it’s interesting, so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought we’d share it with you.  Back then, when HESA was running a student panel, we asked about 1350 university students across Canada about how much they spent on textbooks, coursepacks, and supplies for their fall semester.  Here’s what we found:

Figure 1: Distribution of Expenditures on Textbooks (Fall Semester 2012)

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Nearly 85% of students reported spending on textbooks.  What Figure 1 shows is a situation where the median amount spent is just below $300, and the mean is near $330.  In addition to spending on textbooks, another 40% or so bought a coursepack (median expenditure $50), and another 25% reported buying other supplies of some description (median expenditure: also $50).  Throw that altogether and you’re looking at average spending of around $385 for a single semester.

That’s a fair whack of cash.  But what’s interesting here is not what they paid, but how they chose to save money. After all, students have a number of potential strategies to avoid purchasing textbooks: they can sign them out of the library, they can buy them used, they can share with friends, and in some cases find pirated electronic copies on the internet.  To observe how students were actually behaving, we asked them not just how much money they spent, but also: i) whether they actually bought all the required books and materials; and if not, ii) how much they would have spent if they actually had bought all the books.

Overall, two-thirds of students said that they bought all of their required textbooks.  But the proportion who said they did fell fairly dramatically as the overall cost of buying textbooks increased.

Figure 2: Percent of Students Saying they Bought all Required Textbooks, by Overall Required Textbook Costs

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So most students pay the full amount – but as figure 3 shows, those who don’t pay the full amount can actually underspend by quite a bit.  Somewhat surprisingly, while the proportion of those paying the full amount goes down in as costs increase, the same is not true of the portion of the full bill paid by those who do not pay.  In fact, the relationship between total required costs and the proportion of total costs paid by those paying less than 100% is completely non-linear.

Figure 3: Proportion of Total Textbook Costs Paid by Those Students who buy Less Than 100% of Recommended Books

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So there you have it.  We’re not sure any of this means much, but more data is better than less data.

 

February 25

Rankings in the Middle East

If you follow rankings at all, you’ll have noticed that there is a fair bit of activity going on in the Middle East these days.  US News & World Report and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) both published “Best Arab Universities” rankings last year; this week, the Times Higher Education (THE) produced a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) ranking at a glitzy conference in Doha.

The reason for this sudden flurry of Middle East-oriented rankings is pretty clear: Gulf universities have a lot of money they’d like to use on advertising to bolster their global status, and this is one way to do it.  Both THE and QS tried to tap this market by making up “developing world” or “BRICs” rankings, but frankly most Arab universities didn’t do too well on those metrics, so there was a niche market for something more focused.

The problem is that rankings make considerably less sense in MENA than they do elsewhere. In order to come up with useful indicators, you need accurate and comparable data, and there simply isn’t very much of this in the region.  Let’s take some of the obvious candidates for indicators:

Research:  This is an easy metric, and one which doesn’t rely on local universities’ ability to provide data.  And, no surprise, both US News and the Times Higher Ed have based 100% of their rankings on this measure.  But that’s ludicrous for a couple of reasons.  First is that most MENA universities have literally no interest in research.  Outside the Gulf (i.e. Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia) there’s no available money for it.  Within the Gulf, most universities are staffed by expats teaching 4 or even 5 classes per term, with no time or mandate for research.  The only places where serious research is happening are at one or two of the foreign universities that are part of Education City in Doha, and in some of the larger Saudi Universities.  Of course the problem with Saudi universities, as we know, is that at least some of the big ones are furiously gaming publication metrics precisely in order to climb the rankings, without actually changing university cultures very much (see for example this eye-raising piece).

Expenditures:  This is a classic input variable used in many rankings.  However, an awful lot of Gulf universities are private and won’t want to talk about their expenditures for commercial reasons.  Additionally, some are personal creations of local rulers who spend lavishly on them (for example, Sharjah and Khalifa Universities in UAE); they’d be mortified if the data showed them to spending less than the Sheikh next door.  Even in public universities, the issue isn’t straightforward.  Transparency in government spending isn’t universal in the area, either; I suspect that getting financial data out of an Egyptian university would be a pretty unrewarding task.  Finally, for many Gulf universities, cost data will be massively wonky from one year to the next because of the way compensation works.  Expat teaching staff (in the majority at most Gulf unis) are paid partly in cash and partly through free housing, the cost of which swings enormously from one year to the next based on changes in the rental market.

Student Quality: In Canada, the US, and Japan, rankings often focus on how smart the students are based on average entering grades, SAT scores, etc.  But those simply don’t work in a multi-national ranking, so those are out.

Student Surveys: In Europe and North America, student surveys are one way to gauge quality.  However, if you are under the impression that there is a lot of appetite among Arab elites to allow public institutions to be rated by public opinion then I have some lakeside property in the Sahara I’d like to sell you.

Graduate Outcomes:  This is a tough one.  Some MENA universities do have graduate surveys, but what do you measure?  Employment?  How do you account for the fact that female labour market participation varies so much from country to country, and that many female graduates are either discouraged or forbidden by their families from working? 

What’s left?  Not much.  You could try class size data, but my guess is most universities outside the Gulf wouldn’t have an easy way of working this out.  Percent of professors with PhDs might be a possibility, as would the size of the institution’s graduate programs.  But after that it gets pretty thin.

To sum up: it’s easy to understand commercial rankers chasing money in the Gulf.  But given the lack of usable metrics, it’s unlikely their efforts will amount to anything useful, even by the relatively low standards of the rankings industry.

February 24

Offices

Here’s a stat I’d really like to see: how much time do professors spend in their offices?

There’s been an enormous shift in the way people work over the past thirty years.  Digitization of documents and the availability of remote access computing, the growth of email, the explosion of doctoral students available to do the research grunt work, the decreasing importance of collaborating with local colleagues, and increasing importance of collaborating with people around the world – it’s all given professors a lot more flexibility in deciding where to undertake their work.

Now, this flexibility likely hasn’t had an equal effect across disciplines.  In sciences – especially the wet ones – many professors have offices tied to their laboratories, and I don’t have the sense that they are spending any less time in their laboratories than they used to.  In social sciences and law, on the other hand, where outside consulting work is more common, and the means of academic communication is more journal-based than monograph-based, there’s a lot less reason to be tied to your office.

Other factors are at work, of course.  There are personal preferences.  Some people like working at home, and take advantage of flexibility to do so; others prefer keeping their home and work spaces quite separate.  Junior faculty probably have a greater interest in being seen at work than senior faculty.  And of course – this being Canada, and academic life being subject to collective agreements to a degree pretty much unknown anywhere else – some collective agreements will stipulate minimum office hours.

All of this is to say that it’s difficult to make generalizations about use of office space/time.  And I admit that I have no data on this at all, but I would guess that outside the sciences, there is a very significant portion of the faculty whose time in the office is fifteen hours per week or less.  And this makes me wonder: to the extent that this is true, why the hell do universities spend so much on office space?  If you think about a typical non-science faculty – Arts, Business, Education, etc. – and you divide up their total usable space (excluding things like washrooms, and hallways, and the like), offices probably take up about two-thirds of it.  And while many profs make copious use of their offices, in many cases these offices get used less than half the time.  Why?

It’s difficult to know what to do about this: taking away office space – even the little-unused type – would set off riots.  But if I were designing a university from scratch, I think I’d do everything I could to minimize the use of dedicated offices.  Provide as much shared office space as possible.  Have dedicated shared spaces for meetings with students.  Use modular walls to reconfigure spaces as necessary, and offer bonuses to those who use less space.  Pretty much anything to reduce the use of space and the associated utilities costs that go with them.

Profs are becoming more mobile, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But the legacy costs of the days when most work was done in offices are quite significant.  Finding a way to reduce them over time – sans riots, of course – is worth a try.

February 23

Demand Sponges

If you’ve ever spent any time looking at the literature on private higher education around the world – from the World Bank, say, or the good folks at SUNY Albany who run the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) shop – you’ll know that private higher education is often referred to as “demand-absorbing”; that is, when the public sector is tapped-out and, for structural reasons (read: government underfunding, unwillingness to charge tuition), can’t expand, private higher education comes to the rescue.

To readers who haven’t read such literature: in most of the world, there is such a thing as “private higher education”.  For the most part, these institutions don’t look like US private colleges in that (with the exception of a few schools in Japan, and maybe Thailand) they tend not to be very prestigious.  But they aren’t all bottom-feeding for-profits, either.  In fact, for-profits are fairly rare.  Yes, there are outfits like Laureate with chains of universities around the world, but most privates have either been setup by academics who didn’t want to work in the state system (usually the case in East-central Europe) or are religious institutions trying to do something for their community (the case in most of Africa).

Anyways, privates as “demand-absorbers” – that’s still the case in Africa and parts of Asia.  But what’s interesting is what’s happening as to private education in countries heading into demographic decline, such as those in East-central Europe.  There, it’s quite a different story.

Let’s start with Poland, which is probably the country in the region that got private education regulation the least wrong.  There was a massive explosion of participation in Poland after the end of socialism, and not all of it could be handled by the private sector, even if they could charge tuition fees (which they sort of did, and sort of didn’t).  The private sector went from almost nothing in the mid-90s to over 650,000 students by 2007.  But since then, private enrolments have been in free-fall.  Overall, enrolments are down by 20%, or close to 400,000 students.  But that drop has been very unequally distributed: in public universities the drop was 10%; in privates, it was 40%.

Tertiary Enrolments by Sector, Poland, 1994-2013

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In Romania, the big picture story is the same as in Poland, but as always, once you get into the details it’s a bit more on the crazy side – this is Romania, that’s the way it is.  Most of the rise in private enrolments from 2003 to 2008 was due to a single institution named Spiru Haret (after a great 19th century educational reformer), which eventually came to have 311,000 students, or over a third of the entire country’s enrolment.

Eventually – this is Romania, these things take time – it occurred to people in the quality assurance agency that perhaps Spiru Haret was closer to a degree mill than an actual university; they started cracking down on the institution, and enrolments plummeted.  And all this was happening at the same time as: i) the country was undergoing a huge demographic shift (abortion was illegal under Ceausescu, so in 1990 the birthrate fell by a third, which began to affect university enrolments in 2008); and, ii) the national pass-rate on the baccalaureate (which governs entrance to university) was halved through a combination of a tougher exam and stricter anti-cheating provisions (which I described back here).  Anyways, the upshot of all this is that while public universities have lost a third of their peak enrolments, private universities have lost over 80% of theirs.

Tertiary Enrolments by Sector, Romania, 2003-2013

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There’s a lesson here: just as private universities expanded quickly when demand was growing, they can contract quickly as demand shrinks.  The fact of the matter is that with only a few exceptions, they are low-prestige institutions and, given the chance, students will pick high-prestige institutions over low-prestige ones most of the time.  So as overall demand falls, demand at low-prestige institutions falls more quickly.  And when that happens, private institutions get run over.

So maybe it’s time to rethink our view of private institutions as demand-absorbing institutions.  They are actually more like sponges: they do absorb, but they can be wrung out to dry when their absorptive capacities are no longer required.

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