Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 08

Higher Education Data Glasnost

Many people complain that there is a lack of post-secondary data in Canada.  But this is actually not true.  There are tons of data about; it’s just that institutions won’t share or publish much of it.

Let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, there was a small, public-minded higher education research company that wanted to create the equivalent of Statistics Canada’s university tuition fee index for colleges.  The company had completed a project like this before, but had done so in a somewhat imprecise way because of the time and effort involved in getting enrollment data necessary to weight the program-level tuition data.  And so, politely, it began asking colleges for their enrolments by program.

Now, program-level enrolments are not a state secret.  We are talking about publicly-funded institutions here, and given the number of people who use these services, this is very much the definition of public information.  Nor are these data difficult to collect or display.  Institutions know exactly how many students are in each program, because it’s the basis on which they collect fees.

And yet, across most of the country, many institutions have simply refused to provide the data.  The reasons are a mix of the understandable and the indefensible.  Some probably don’t want to do it because it’s a disruptive task outside their workplan.  Others are cautious because they don’t quite know how the data will be used (or they disagree with how it will be used) and are afraid of internal repercussions if it turns out that the shared data ends up making their institution look bad (note: we’re using the data to publish provincial averages, not institutional ones; however, in single-institution provinces like Saskatchewan or Newfoundland and Labrador, this can’t be helped).  A few simply just don’t want to release the data because it’s theirs.

Regardless, it is unacceptable for public institutions to conceal basic operational data for reasons of convenience.  That’s not the way publicly-funded bodies are supposed to operate in a democracy.  And so, regretfully, we’ve had to resort to filing Access to Information (ATI) requests to find out how many students attend public college programs across Canada.  Sad, but true.

It then occurred to me how many of our national higher education data problems could be solved through Access to Information legislation.  Take Simona Chiose’s very good piece in the Globe and Mail last week in which she tried to piece together what Canadian universities are doing with sessional professors, and where many institutions simply refused to give her data.  If someone simply started hitting the universities with annual ATI requests on sessional lectures, and publishing the results, we’d have good data pretty quickly. Ditto for data on teaching loads.  All that excellent comparable data the U-15 collects every year?  You can’t ATI the U-15 because it’s a private entity, but it’s easy-peasy lemon squeezy to ATI all of the U-15 members for their correspondence with the Ottawa office, and get the data that way (or, conversely, ATI the U-15’s correspondence to each university, and get the collected data that way).

Oh, I could go on here.  Want better data on staff and students?  ATI the universities that have factbooks, but refuse to put them online (hello, McGill and UNB!).  Want better data on PhD graduate outcomes?  ATI every university’s commencement programs from last year’s graduation ceremonies, and presto, you’ve got a register of 3,000 or so PhDs, most of whom can be tracked on social media to create a statistical portrait of career paths (this would take a little bit of volunteer effort, but I can think of quite a few people who would provide it, so while not easy-peasy lemon squeezy, it wouldn’t be difficult-difficult lemon difficult, either).

It’s not a cure-all of course.  Even with all that ATI data, it would take time to process the data and put it into usable formats. Plus there’s an agency problem: who’s going to put all these requests together? Personally, I think student unions are the best place to do so, if not necessarily the best-equipped to subsequently handle the data.  And of course institutional data is only part of the equation.  Statistics Canada data has to improve significantly, too, in order to better look at student outcomes (a usable retention measure would be good, as would an annual PSIS-LAD-student aid database link to replace the now-terminally screwed National Graduates Survey).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting going hair-trigger on ATIs.  It’s important to always ask nicely for the data first; sometimes, institutions and governments can be very open and helpful.  But the basic issue is that data practices of post-secondary institutions in Canada have to change.  Secrecy in the name of protecting privacy is laudable; secrecy in the name of self-interested ass-covering is not.  We need some glasnost in higher education data in this country.  If it takes a wave of ATI requests to do it, so be it.   Eventually, once enough the results of these ATI requests filter into the public realm, institutions themselves will try to get ahead of the curve and become more transparent as a matter of course.

I’d like to think there was a simpler and less confrontational way of achieving data transparency, but I am starting to lose hope.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

October 05

Party Platform Analysis: The New Democrats

I’m going to have to go a little off-piste for the analysis of the New Democratic platform, because its launch was so odd.

The platform was unveiled last Thursday morning.  In Saskatoon.  While Mulcair himself was in Montreal.  This meant that the  event was not covered by any of the national press (the biggest outlet that filed a story was the Ottawa Citizen).  The announcement itself was unaccompanied by any backgrounder, which meant that many key details were missing, including cost estimates.

On a purely political level, this is incomprehensible.  It seems as if the party didn’t actually want their proposal to be covered.  But why make a billion-dollar (see below) spending commitment if you’re not going to publicize it?

Then again, maybe it’s better no one made a big deal about it given some of the silly things their candidates said at the event, such as “debt is up 30% since 2006”, which may be true if you look at federal loan volume, but that’s because so many more people are going to school.  You know, because of access.  In fact, over that period, the incidence of debt is down slightly, while the average value (in real dollars) is up slightly, making the whole file a bit of a wash.  Another candidate made a different, utterly ridiculous statement: “governments shouldn’t profit on student loans!”  I don’t know whether she got that line from Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump (both have said it), but it’s not even vaguely true, and suggests she knows nothing of how income from student loan interest funds the in-school zero-interest period, the repayment assistance program, and covers the substantial losses the program experiences with defaults.

Anyways, it’s too bad the packaging of the event was so embarrassing, because the substance isn’t so bad.  The details, as we know them, are as follows:

First, the NDP proposes to spend an extra quarter of a billion dollars over four years on student grants.  That’s all we know.   Is it to enrich the current Canada Study Grants (i.e. more money to the same people), or is it to extend the current Canada Study Grant (i.e. give the same money to more people)?  Or is it for something new entirely?  We have no idea, because the NDP – unlike the other three parties – declined to provide more backgrounders about its policies.  Why this is considered acceptable in this day and age is a question for others to answer.

Second, the government plans to “eliminate interest on student loans”.  As far as I can tell, no one asked if they meant eliminate interest on all existing loans, or just those consolidated from 2016 forward, or just those issued from 2016 forward.  So we don’t know.  The fiscal consequences of this are huge.  If all loans suddenly become interest free, that’s a hit on the order of $2 billion over 4 years.  If it’s all loans consolidated (i.e. going into repayment) then my guess is this is on the order of $700 million or so, and if it is just loans issued then we are talking about maybe $300 million.

(Huge caution: my numbers are very back-of-the-envelope, based on incomplete public data and an inability to model the second-order effects of interest abolition such as savings on RAP and default.  Take it as a good-faith attempt to project costs based on limited data. And a total unwillingness of the NDP to reveal any program details or cost assumptions.)

It’s a bit difficult to evaluate the pledge without knowing the costs, but I think we can say two things about the Thursday announcement:

One, regardless of the price tag or details, this platform is substantially better than the usual NDP policy of “let’s cut tuition fees”.  It’s more targeted at students in need, and doesn’t run you into all kinds of problems of federal-provincial co-ordination (in contrast to the NDP promise on child care, which runs precisely into this set of problems).  That’s a huge improvement over most previous NDP platforms, and the party deserves some love for it.

Two, the zero-interest platform is kind of “meh”.  It’s good in the sense that it’s a benefit focused on students with need.  But no study I’ve ever seen has suggested that student loan interest rates makes an ounce of difference to access.  It’s a cost, but one small and well-hidden enough that it seems to have no bearing on the decision to attend post-secondary.  And it’s not entirely clear what problem this is designed to solve: student loan repayment burdens have fallen by more than a third over the last decade.  All this subsidy will do is raise the returns to education slightly – a windfall benefit to those who have already decided to make the investment.

A final note: the NDP appear not to be making any announcement on science/innovation.  Along with the Tories and Greens, that makes three parties who are making no commitments in these areas, which may mean something fairly dire for granting councils in future.

October 02

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Brazil

Brazil is the smallest and probably the least-known of the BRICs.  It doesn’t have a big economy or a big diaspora like China or India, and it isn’t a former superpower like Russia.  But it is still the second-largest country in the Americas, and with more Brazilian students heading abroad, it’s a country well-worth knowing more about.  So here goes:

First, it’s a pretty young system.  The first functioning university – Universidade de Sao Paolo (USP) – was founded in 1934 (prior to that, individual faculties of law and medicine existed, but did not comprise a full university).  That’s maybe not a huge surprise given that former colonial master Portugal only got it’s second university (Coimbra) in 1911.  And until 1968, there really wasn’t much by the way of a full-time teaching corps: most profs had jobs elsewhere, and taught part-time for the prestige.

Second, it’s an odd two-tier public university system.  There is a system of federal universities, which are quite prestigious (locally at least); but each state has its own system.  Most of the latter aren’t considered to be all that good, except in Sao Paolo where the state pours in a ton of money – USP is generally considered the country’s best.  And then there are the federal and state government-run systems of “non-university higher education institutions”, which are usually stand-alone faculties rather than a separate level of education, like community colleges or fachhochschule.  As in most of Latin America, the teaching mission tends to be given greater priority than it is in North America, with research restricted to a fairly small number of faculty.  Also, as in most of the rest of the continent, public higher education is free.

But of course, one of the reasons Brazilian public higher education can be free is that only a little over 20% of Brazilian students are fortunate enough (read: sufficiently academically gifted) to attend.  The other 80% of students go to private institutions.  Some of these are old, prestigious, mainly Catholic institutions; but since the late 1990s, most of the enrolment growth has been in for-profit institutions.  Quite simply, as Brazil massified its higher education system (it currently enrols close to 7 million students), the decision was taken to outsource that task to the private sector, much as was done in Chile and South Korea.  On the face of it, this was in keeping with other neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, but it was a policy that the left adopted for itself once Lula da Silva became President in 2003.

In this situation, equity is always a question: isn’t it the case that the poor are paying for higher education while the rich get to go for free.  Well, it is certainly inequitable.  But the fact is that the student population in both sectors looks pretty similar: in fact, the very poorest seem slightly more likely to attend public than private higher education (though the numbers are still fairly small).  And in the private sector, the arrival of private providers seem to be driving costs down: average tuition in the private sector fell substantially over the last decade, as these institutions searched for new students in less wealthy parts of the country – for the most part, this was the result of the Lula-era policy of offering substantial tax benefits to private higher education providers who hit certain participation targets for disadvantaged students.

One Brazilian higher ed innovation that deserves wider attention is something called the Provão (literally, “Big Test”). In the mid 1990s, when university quality was an issue, the national ministry introduced a test in certain fields of study (3 at first, growing  later to 26) to measure students’ competency at graduation.  In design, it was much like the Collegiate Learning Assessment in that captured “value-added” by simultaneously testing first and final-year students.  Unlike CLA exams, though, results of these tests were released, which allowed comparisons to be drawn between the quality of graduates from each institution; these also played a role in accreditation and re-accreditation decisions.  You can imagine how much universities loved this.

Interestingly, it was the replacement of the Provão, rather than support for private institutions, which became the election issue of 2002.  By 2005, Lula had replaced the Provão with something called ENADE.  In conception, this  was somewhat similar to Provao, but with some key differences – early musings about ditching the test entirely were not greeted favourably by the public.  It is now a lower-stakes test (samples of students are tested, rather than all students), it focusses more on value-added (it now has a first-year and fourth-year structure similar to the American Collegiate Learning Assessment), and it is less obviously a regulatory control mechanism.  It also now contains a general learning component, instead of being exclusively about domain-level learning.  In other words, it’s awfully close to what AHELO was trying to achieve.

Funny how it can be done there, but not here, isn’t it?

October 01

Golden Liberty or Rapid Collegiality?

Once upon a time, there was a land of liberty known as Poland.  While the rest of Europe was going through the counter-reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the beginnings of absolutism, Poland had the world’s most liberal constitution.  Nobles (who formed a rather substantial portion of the population) had the right to elect their king.  Religious freedom existed (though Catholics remained a strong majority).  The king could not declare war or peace without Parliamentary agreement (the Sejm), nor could he raise taxes without them.  That said, he was responsible for maintaining an army, paying state debts, and paying for the education of noble youth.  Parliament had the right to form coalitions to push through certain political aims, and the right to foment an insurrection if the king tried to infringe upon their privileges.  Most astonishing of all was the Sejm’s practice of liberum veto: the right of any individual noble to veto legislation, thus requiring all legislation to have consensus among the nobility.  All of this was known collectively as the “Golden Liberty”.

I mention all of this because of an intriguing line in Julie Cafley’s Globe piece on the subject university governance.  To wit: “Universities are a paradox. While their governance structures are slow and process-driven, professors enjoy a high degree of flexibility and independence”.  Indeed, one could go further: governance structures are slow and process-driven precisely because professors jealously guard their flexibility and independence, and wish to throw obstacles in the path of anything that might threaten them.

The nature of tenure, academic freedom, and prevailing academic management practices do give academics enormous freedom in their working lives.  They do not have a liberum veto over university policy, but they certainly do have freedom over how they do their jobs; there are very few ways an institutions can influence how a professor delivers his or her teaching responsibilities, or research activities.  In the US, faculty at private universities have been denied the right to bargain collectively because the Supreme Court ruled that their working conditions amounted to them being managers, not employees.

Universities – North American ones anyway, less so elsewhere – are, by design, anarchies.  This is mostly to the good: top-level intellectual collaboration is a lot like jazz, and there are few jazz musicians who are free of anarchistic tendencies.  But managing anarchy – even just nudging the enterprise in the right direction – is very tricky, especially when the executive has very little effective power.  But an excess of libertarianism/weak central direction can be damaging.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, the liberum veto was used sparingly.  But as the 18th century wore on, and the need for greater central expenditures became pressing, the Polish nobility was gripped by an anti-tax, anti-central government feeling. Nobles started throwing vetoes around like confetti.  Nothing got done.  The country grew weak.  And eventually, over the course of the final quarter of the eighteenth century, it was dismembered, and its various bits incorporated into Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  It did not reappear as an independent country for 120 years.

There are lessons here for universities.  Jazz is good, but paralysis is not.  In order to succeed, universities need to be effective organizations.  Consultation: yes; freedom: yes – but sometimes decisions need to to be taken quickly, and then actually implemented in a faithful fashion. “Rapid Collegiality”, let’s call it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to achieve; in fact, I can think of few things more difficult.  But when universities start appearing ineffective to the outside world, the outside world wonders why on earth we support them to the tune of, say, 2% of GDP.  And, then, like Poland, a long slow decline could begin.

September 30

Fields of Study: Some International Comparisons

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “We really need to have more STEM grads in this country.  Really, we ought to be more like Germany or Japan – fewer of these ridiculous philosophy degrees, and more of those lovely, lovely engineers and scientists.”

Personally, I’ve heard this one too many times.  So, just for yuks, I decided to take a look at the distribution of degrees awarded by field of study across the G7 countries, plus (since I’m overdue in throwing some love in the direction of the blog’s antipodean readership) New Zealand and Australia.  The data is from the OECD, and is valid for 2012 for all countries except France, where the data is from 2009, and Australia where it is from 2011.

I started with the percentage of degrees that came from the Arts and Humanities.  The result was… surprising.

Figure 1: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities Fields














Germany leads the pack with just under 21% of all degrees being awarded in humanities, and Canada and Australia bring up the rear with 11.6% and 11.1%, respectively.  So much for the narrative about Canada producing too many philosopher baristas.

But as we all know, humanities are only half the story – there’s also the question of applied humanities, or “Social Sciences” as they are more often known.  The Social Science category includes business and law.  It turns out that if you add the two together, the countries cluster in a relatively narrow band between 47 and 56 percent of all degrees granted.  No matter where you go in the world, what we call “Arts” is basically half the university.  We should also note that Canada’s combined total is essentially identical to those of the great STEM powerhouses of Japan and Germany.

Figure 2: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities and Social Science Fields














Let’s now look directly at the STEM fields.  Figure 3 shows the percentage of degrees awarded in Science and Engineering across our nine countries of interest.  Here, Germany is in a more familiar place, at the top of the table.  But some of the other places are surprising if you equate STEM graduates with economic prosperity.  France, in second, is usually not thought of as an innovation hub, and Japan’s third place (first, if you only look at engineering) hasn’t prevented it from having a two-decade-long economic slump.  On the other hand, the US, which generally is reckoned to be an innovation centre, has the lowest percentage of graduates coming from STEM fields.  Canada is just below the median.

Figure 3: Percentage of Degrees Awarded from Science and Engineering Fields














Last, Figure 4 looks at the final group of degrees: namely, those in health and education – fields that, in developed countries, are effectively directed to people who will pursue careers in the public services.  And here we see some really substantial differences between countries.  In New Zealand, over one-third of degrees are in one of these two fields.  But in Germany, Japan, and France – the three STEM “powerhouses” from Figure 3 – very few degrees are awarded in these fields.  This raises a question: are those countries really “good” at STEM, or do they just have underdeveloped education/heath sectors?

Figure 4: Percentage of Degrees Awarded in Health and Education Fields














So, to go back to our initial story: it’s true that Japan and Germany are heavier on STEM subjects than Canada.  But, first, STEM-centricness isn’t obviously related to economic growth or innovation. And second, STEM-centricness in Germany and Japan doesn’t come at the expense of Arts subjects, it comes a the expense of health and education fields.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

September 28

Are Japanese Humanities Faculties Really Being Shut Down?

You may have noticed stories in the press recently about the government of Japan asking national universities to shut down their humanities faculties.  Such stories have appeared in the Times Higher Ed, Time, and Bloomberg.  Most of these stories have been accompanied by commentary about how shortsighted this is: don’t the Japanese know that life is complex, and that we need humanities for synthesis, etc.?  A lot of these stories are also tinged with a hint of early-1990s “these uncultured Asians only think about business and money” Japanophobia.

The problem is, the story is only partly accurate.  A lot of background is needed to understand what’s going on here.

Some facts about higher education in Japan: First, “national universities” – that is, big public research universities – only account for about 20% of student enrolment in Japan; the remainder of students are enrolled in private universities.  Second, the number of 18 year-olds has fallen from 2 million in 1990 to about 1.2 million; meanwhile the annual intake of students has stayed relatively constant at around 600,000.  The problem is that the 18 year-old cohort is set to continue shrinking, and few think that a system with 86 national universities, about as many regional/municipal universities, and 600-odd private universities can make it through this demographic shift.  Re-structuring is the name of the game these days.

Now, while national universities are theoretically autonomous, they still take “advice” from the Ministry of Education, which is sometimes transmitted via circulars that explains the Ministry’s perspective on national academic priorities.  The current brouhaha centres around one such circular, distributed this past June, which contained the following statement: “With regard to the programs of teacher training, and humanities and social sciences in particular, it is encouraged to stipulate a reform plan, taking into consideration the reduction of 18-year-old population, human resource demands, expected level of education and research, the roles of national universities and etc., and dismantle and restructure organisations based on social needs”.

There’s some clunky language in there, and since I don’t speak Japanese I’m unclear as to how much of this is lost in translation.  A lot of this story comes down to the meaning of the phrase “dismantle and restructure organizations”.  Nearly all the coverage assumes that “organization” means “faculty”.  But if it means “program” (which is effectively what this commentary from a former education bureaucrat suggests) then basically the government is saying “students numbers are down, maybe you should do some program reviews”.  If this is the case, the whole thing is a lot less controversial.

There’s another aspect here, too. The original English language stories in the Japan Times and the Times Higher Education relied heavily on a Yomiuri Shinbun story – which no longer appears to be on the internet – in which 26 of the 60 national universities with humanities programs said they were closing programs, or curtailing enrolment, without ever specifying the proportions.  Twenty-six universities where enrolment in certain humanities programs is being curtailed is a very different story from shuttering 26 humanities faculties altogether.

A final niggle is that since this circular only applied to national universities, humanities in the country’s 600-odd private institutions would have been unaffected anyway.  So even in a worst case scenario sense, this is would be the fate of humanities in about 5% of the country’s universities, not the entire system.

So if the story is only partly true, why did it blow up the way it did?  A couple of reasons, I think.  First, obviously, is that there aren’t a lot of English-language journalists specializing in Japanese higher education, so there is considerable potential for misunderstanding and nuance-missing.  Second, there’s a big market for stories about humanities programs being shut down, mainly from humanities professors themselves who seem to have an endless capacity to imagine what fresh horrors the barbarians in control of the system will do next (for an example see this from the Guardian).

The third reason, though, is that there really are some big disputes between Japanese academics and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Academics are generally on the left, and have opposed the LDP’s recent legislation allowing the Japanese military to participate in overseas combat missions.  They also aren’t too happy about new government legislation that strengthens central administrations at the expense of faculty councils.  In a sense, the humanities row is a proxy fight: there are some in the LDP who really would like to stick it to the academy this way, and there are some in the academy who have reasons to make the government look buffoonish.

But for western readers, there’s a different lesson here: be not overly credulous in dealing with stories from countries whose languages you don’t understand.  Especially if they play to your existing prejudices.

September 25

University Rankings and the Eugenics Movement

Over the course of writing a book chapter, I’ve come up with a delightful little nugget: some of the earliest rankings of universities originated in the Eugenics movement.

The story starts with Francis Galton. A first cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was the inventor of the weather map, standard deviation, the regression line (and the explanation of regression towards the mean), fingerprinting, and composite photography.  In other words, pretty much your textbook definition of a genius.

At some point (some believe it was after reading On the  Origin of Species), Galton came to believe that genius is born, not made.  And so in 1869, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius in which, using biographical dictionaries called “Men of Our Time” (published by Routledge, no less), he traced back “eminent men” to see if they had eminent fathers or grandfathers.  Eventually, he concluded that they did.  This led him into a lifelong study of heredity.  In 1874, Galton published British Men of Science, where he explored all sorts of heritable and non-heritable traits or experiences in order to better understand the basis of scientific genius; one of the questions he asked was whether each had gone to university (not actually universally true at the time), and if so, where had they gone?

Galton soon had imitators who began looking more seriously at education as part of the “genius” phenomenon.  In 1904, Havelock Ellis – like Galton, an eminent psychologist (his field was sexuality, and he was one of the first scientists to write on homosexuality and transgender psychology), published A Study of British Genius This work examined all of the entries in all of the (then) sixty-six volumes of the Dictionary of Biography, eliminated those who were there solely by function of birth (i.e. the royals and most of the nobility/aristocracy), and then classified them by a number of characteristics.  One of the characteristics was university education, and unsurprisingly he found that most had gone to either Cambridge or Oxford (with a smattering from Edinburgh and Trinity).  Though it was not claimed as a ranking, it did list institutions in rank order; or rather two rank orders, as it had separate listings for British and foreign universities.

Not-so-coincidentally, it was also around this time when the first annual edition of American Men of Science appeared.  This series attempted to put the study of great men on a more scientific footing.  The author, James McKeen Cattell (a distinguished scientist who was President of the American Psychological Association in 1895, and edited both Science and Psychological Review), did a series of annual peer surveys to see who were the most respected scientists in the nation.  In the first edition, the section on psychologists contained a tabulation of the number of top people in the field, organized by the educational institution from which they graduated; at the time, it also contained an explicit warning that this was not a measure of quality.  However, by 1906 Cattell was producing tables showing changes in the number of graduates from each university in his top 1,000, and by 1910 he was producing tables that explicitly ranked institutions according to their graduates (with the value of each graduate weighted according to one’s place in the rankings).  Cattell’s work is, in many people’s view, the first actual ranking of American universities.

What’s the connection with eugenics?  Well, Galton’s obsession with heredity directly led him to the idea that “races” could be improved upon by selective breeding (and, conversely, that they could become “degenerate” if one wasn’t careful).  Indeed, it was Galton himself who coined the term “eugenics”, and was a major proponent of the idea.  For his part, Ellis would ultimately end up as President of the Galton Institute in London, which promoted eugenics (John Maynard Keynes would later sit on the Institute’s Board); in America, Cattell wound up as President of the American Eugenics Society. 

In effect, none of them remotely believed that one’s university made the slightest difference to eventual outcomes.  In their minds, it was all about heredity.  However, one could still infer something about universities by the fact that “Men of Genius” (and I’m sorry to keep saying “men” in this piece, but it’s pre-WWI, and they really were almost all men) chose to go there.  At the same time, these rankings represent the precursors to various reputational rankings that became in vogue in the US from the 1920s right through to the early 1980s.  And it’s worth noting that the idea of ranking institutions according to their alumni has made a comeback in recent years through the Academic Ranking of World Universities (also known as the Shanghai rankings), which scores institutions, in part, on the number of Nobel Prize and Fields Medals won by an institution’s alumni.

Anyway, just a curio I thought you’d all enjoy.

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