Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 25

What could a new private university in Canada look like?

Yesterday I outlined why a major private university has never emerged in Canada.  But I also suggested that it wasn’t impossible one might pop up in the future if it were backed by someone with sufficiently deep pockets and an eye for strategy.  Here is what I mean by this:

For a private university to be a success, it needs to be getting thousands of students.  Say 4,000 or so.  It’s not impossible to operate below that level, but it’s precarious.  Ask Bishop’s.

And that’s tough.  Getting people to commit to a university before it has any visible sign of success (such as well-employed graduates) is extremely difficult when there are quite prestigious institutions available nearby, as is the case nearly everywhere in Canada.  Ask Quest.

Any new university is likely to take a few years to catch on; and yet it must be able to put out a quality product during that time.  Hence the need for deep pockets.  But there also needs to be a real value proposition for a new institution: a reason to go there rather than a regular university.  England’s Buckingham University and Australia’s Bond University (both private universities which have managed to clear the 4,000 student mark) did this by offering accelerated degrees that allowed a student to graduate more quickly.  That might also work here, but let me suggest a couple of other ways that might work too.

The first possibility is to create a university which can compete with big public universities on price.  There are a couple of ways of doing this, but basically it means re-thinking the structure of an institution.  One popular route these days is to do away with departments (which are an utter cost sink and the source of pretty much any cost-inflating idea a university can come up with) and leave faculties as the only level of administration.  Combine this structure with a human-resource strategy which combines a few well-rewarded big names with a mostly casual staff, and there’s the possibility of creating an institution which is cost-effective while still carrying enough prestige to attract students.  In the United States, two new universities have been built along more or less this model in the past decade (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and University of Minnesota Rochester), although neither has gone quite as far as Professor Vance Fried and his prescriptions in a well-known 2008 paper which purported to offer “Ivy-like” education for below $7,500 per student.  In Ontario, back a few years ago when for some reason the government thought it was going to build three new universities, a similar idea was proposed by Centennial College plus Maureen Mancuso and Alastair Summerlee of Guelph University.  The proposal was technically ineligible and the competition for new campuses never happened anyway because (whoops) the number of 18 year-olds started declining in 2013 (and who could possibly have foreseen that at any time since 1995?).  But nevertheless I think it shows there’s at least some appetite to head down this route, and that it would be possible to go down this route for at least Arts, Sciences and Business.

The second possibility would take the opposite route.  If Canada has an available niche, it’s in luxurious, prestigious liberal arts colleges (yes, there is the U4 League, but none of them could be described as luxurious – indeed provincial funding models leave these kinds of universities pretty stretched).  So why not try to charge top dollar for a Liberal Arts school with big names?  This has been the approach of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London for the past four years and – regulatory niggles aside – it seems to be doing reasonably well.   Now I know what you’re thinking: who wants to pay for Liberal Arts degrees, unemployment, baristas, etc.  But the fact is, as institutions like Middlebury, Bryn Mawr and indeed NCH show, provided the level of instruction is good and the student-teacher ratio small, there are lots of people prepared to pay for that kind of education.  Maybe not 4,000 people for year, but if the fees are high enough, a university can survive at somewhat smaller numbers.

So yes, the potential for a private university is there.  What’s missing so far is ambition and money.  One day, someone will fill that gap.  It’s just a question of when.

October 24

Why don’t we have private universities in Canada?

Every once in awhile I get asked a question like “why doesn’t Canada have private higher education”?  The answer is complicated, in part because the question isn’t as precise as it seems.

To start, we have a lot of private higher education in Canada, but it’s at the sub-degree level.  Stats on private higher education in Canada aren’t good but the best estimates suggest that there’s something on the order of 150,000 students attending somewhere in the region of 1800 institutions.  Something like a third of these students are in programs of under 3 months in length; most of the rest are in programs between 3-12 months in length.  Close to 2/3 of enrollments are either in health fields (medical assistants and technologists, for the most part) or in some form of IT/media (systems analysts, animation, etc.).  Though the quality of these institutions varies, these programs survive and thrive because they fill a perceived need for employment-oriented courses of less than 12 months in length.  Universities and colleges don’t fill that need, so the market does.  Simple.

Now, the answer to why we don’t have something more like American private, non-profit universities is a bit trickier.  We actually did, once.  A good chunk of the universities in the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario started life exactly the way American private universities did: as private, often religiously-focussed institutions making efforts to ensure that local communities would have access to a supply of education teachers and clergymen.  While governments began supporting universities in the 19th century, the assistance was spasmodic, in many places support was not regularized until after the second world war.  Technically, universities like McGill are still private, in the sense that they choose their own Boards of Governors with no interference from government.  They are “public” because they take public money in return for accepting conditions on how the money is spent (observing rules about tuition fees for instance), but there’s nothing to say they couldn’t at some point change their mind about this.

Actually, Canada still has a private system of universities, but they are (with one exception) religious in nature: Trinity Western in BC, King’s, Concordia and St. Mary’s in Alberta, Canadian Mennonite in Manitoba, Redeemer in Ontario, the Atlantic School of Theology – you get the idea.  Quest University in British Columbia, set up a little over a decade ago, is the only secular private institution out there.

And this brings us to the heart of the question: when people ask “why no private higher ed in Canada”, what they really mean is “why aren’t there more Quest Universities out there”?  And it’s a fair question: all over the world,private universities are a major part of national systems of higher education.  Even in free-tuition Germany, over 10% of students choose to study in private fee-charging institutions.  So why not here?

It’s not, for the most part, a legal issue.  Most provinces have legislation which permits private organizations to offer degrees provided they can demonstrate quality of provision (use of the term “university” is a little trickier and usually requires an act of the legislature, but in principle there’s nothing stopping a government from bestowing that term on a private institution).  And yet, despite this we still see few examples of private degree-granting institutions.

To understand why, we need to go back to our observation about why private colleges thrive in Canada at the sub-degree level: because they offer something no one else does.  The way to think about private higher education is that it will thrive where there is a niche that public universities cannot or will not fill.  In most developing countries (as well as in countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan), private higher education thrives because governments cannot or will not supply higher education in sufficient quantity to meet demand.  In Eastern Europe, private higher education thrived in social sciences in the wake of communism because these faculties in public universities were utterly discredited and/or couldn’t provide education in high-demand subjects like business and commerce.  And as higher education gets more stretched in other countries in Europe one might start to see more private higher education providers (particularly in the UK)

But in Canada, there simply aren’t so many niches.  Our universities are well-funded, cover pretty much the entire spectrum of studies, and compared to most university systems around the world, quite open to covering new and emerging areas of study even if they aren’t “traditional”.  With few niches to fill, there isn’t a lot of room for private providers.  Quest University does its thing by staking out a unique value proposition around pedagogy (the block learning system) and outdoor activities – probably not a niche that could sustain competitors, but enough of one to sustain itself.

Could this change?  Could a new successful university appear in Canada on the scale of Quest, only larger?  Yes.  But it would take someone with deep pockets and a particular eye for strategy.  More on this tomorrow.

October 21

A Prairie Round-up

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that every spring I put together a little summary of provincial budgets and what they mean for higher education.  A few days ago I decided to put together a slide comparing the cumulative changes in provincial funding since 2011.  Here’s what it looks like, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Figure 1: Change in real provincial government transfers to institutions, 2011-2 to 2016-17


What should immediately jump out at you (apart from the raging dumpster fire that is Newfoundland’s public fisc these days) is that while public funding for universities is flat or declining in most of the country, in the three prairie provinces increases have been the order of the day.  So what’s going on out there?

The nature of the trend-bucking has differed across the three provinces.  In Saskatchewan and Alberta, high energy prices kept spending buoyant at least until a couple of years ago.  Since then, Alberta’s new NDP government has continued to spend, whereas Saskatchewan’s has started to retrench (but spending is still higher  than it was in 2011).  Manitoba’s never-too-hot, never-too-cold economy hasn’t see the big revenues fluctuations of its neighbours, but until earlier this year had a government that was prepared to engage in deficit spending in part so as to provide significant support to post-secondary education.

(You can get the gist of recent policy directions by looking at my recent provincial election analyses for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

So what’s in store for those three provinces now?  Well, for the moment they seem headed in quite different directions.  In Alberta, there were a lot of headlines about the NDP government extending its tuition freeze for a third year, but the interesting part of the announcement was that the Government simultaneously launched a review of the tuition policy with a view to a long-term funding solution.  Now, given that this is a government with a heck of a deficit that isn’t going to be solved through rising oil and gas prices any time soon, you’d have to think this “review” is in fact likely to end up twelve months from now with institutions being able to move somewhat on fees.  Because while the provincial government has been compensating institutions for the freeze, that still leaves income growth at around 2%. As we all know, Canadian universities start to seize up whenever the growth rate drops below 4% –  so there’s a gap there that has to be plugged somehow, and higher fees are almost certainly at least part of the solution.

In Saskatchewan, fees aren’t much on the agenda but the level of government support is.  Resource price falls mean that the government is running a $14 billion budget on $13 billion of revenue, so the province is talking very seriously about shrinking the size of government by 7% or so over the next two years. PSE will undoubtedly get its fair share of that cut; and that’s on top of a 7% cut over the last two years.  Yet so fast was expenditure growth in the first couple of years of this decade that even this massive cut will only bring the province back to the level of spending it was at in 2011.  The government speaks of looking for “transformational change” in PSE but the likelier result will be a lot of unpleasant but ultimately non-transformational corner-cutting and muddling through.

Manitoba feels like the place where fireworks are likeliest.  It has a new Conservative government with a mandate to pull back at least somewhat on public finances. Post-secondary education, one of the previous NDP government’s favourite files, seems likely to get hit the worst.  But the new government has some tools to mitigate these losses: tuition (currently 3rd lowest in the country) can rise, and a ghastly, wasteful post-graduation tax credit can be scrapped.  The former seems more likely than the latter, but both are possible.

Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, the union which sicced CAUT on its own members when an Economics department dispute over curriculum didn’t go the way some people wanted, has decided that now is the PERFECT TIME to hold a strike to support a wage demand of – are you ready for this? – 6.9% over one year.

If UMFA’s serious about this demand, it could be a long strike.  And that’s not because the demand is unaffordable – in theory anything’s affordable if you cut back enough on library budgets or whatever.  It’s simply politics: the new government is not going to go easy on any para-public body which appears to be out of step with the new mood of thrift.  Just imagine the scene at the MB legislature if the institution were to cave on this:

U of M: “We would like some more money please.  We’re kind of strapped on account of having just given the faculty a 6.9% raise”

Conservative Govt: “HAHAHAHAHAHA Come back when you learn to manage your way out of a wet paper bag”

Agreeing to such a rise would be like signing a suicide note.  Unlikely to happen.

Have a good weekend.

October 20

Ideas to Irritate People

The other day I was reading Sydney: The Making of a Public University by Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington, when I came across this fantastic idea.

Back in the 1850s, the University of Sydney (which was formed at more or less the same time as our own University of Toronto, and on a very similar model) was trying to figure out how to attract quality academic staff from the mother country.  The problem of course was how to provide them with a decent pay package when they still didn’t really have a good sense of how many students they were going to have (since most income came from student fees, low enrolment meant low income which could be trouble if you over-promised a set salary to a professor).  So they came up with a solution.  Professors were given a low base pay – a few hundred pounds a year – and then given the right to a share (usually 50%) of the fees generated by their lectures.

How awesome is that?

Imagine instituting that rule at universities today.  At a stroke, it wolud reverse all the perverse incentives which currently exist in the way we teach at universities.  Teachers would clamour for undergraduate courses over graduate ones, lower-year courses over upper-year ones, auditoriums over seminars.  In fact, the problem would be that the rewards of the big courses would be so huge that departments would have to make drastic changes to share the wealth.  No more 1000-student courses: to share the wealth properly, we’ll need to make 10 100-person courses, or maybe 20 50-student courses.  Sure, upper-year students might lose out on their small courses, but that’ll be a small price to pay for avoiding the big auditoriums in lower years.

Wait, I have more!

What if you used a similar idea with doctoral students?  Not with respect to enrolments, but completions.  In the Netherlands for instance, the government pays universities something like 80,000 euros per doctorate, but only for doctorates that are actually awarded. Universities, in turn, sometimes charge a fee to a doctoral students but return part or all of it when s/he completes the degree, just to make sure the student has skin in the game.  Why not attach similar kinds of carrots and sticks to timely completion of a doctoral degree?  Not at an individual level – some delayed/failed doctoral degrees have more to do with the student than the supervisor – but collectively.  So if department X fell below a 60% timely completion rate (for instance) the Dean or the Provost could stop approving requests for conference travel.  Below 40%?  Start denying requests for sabbaticals.  I think the short-term effect would be to concentrate departmental-level thinking about how best to collectively ensure better doctoral-level supervision sharp.

OK, now I don’t really believe institutions should do either of these things.  But I do think that incentives matter.  And there are too few incentives within institutions to put student outcomes first.  And the question really is: why is that?  And what can be done to align staff incentives with student needs?

October 19

The Yale Tuition Postponement Option

If you pay attention to student assistance, you know about income-contingent loans.  And if you’ve heard about income-contingent loans, you probably know that the first national scheme debuted in Australia back in the late 1980s.  You might even know that the first theoretical exploration of income-contingent loans was made by Milton Friedman back in the 1950s (actually, he was talking more about human-capital contracts, but close enough.  And you might occasionally wonder: why did it take 30 years to go from idea to implementation?  Well, the answer is that it didn’t: there was an intermediate stage in which a couple of universities tried to run their own income-contingent loan programs.

The year is 1971. Private 4-year universities were probably at their lowest-ever ebb relative to the big public flagships: massive amounts of public money had been pouring into public universities while privates had yet to really perfect their practice of extracting mega-millions from loaded donors.  But Inflation is starting to rise in America as a result of a decade worth of a guns AND butter fiscal policy.  And so schools like Yale began to think about raising tuition to meet higher costs and regain their place at the top of the academic dog-heap.

Enter economist James Tobin – a man who within a decade would win a Nobel Prize and is today mostly known for his advocacy of a beloved-of-the-left tax on financial transactions (the eponymous “Tobin Tax”).  Room and board at Yale College at the time was $3,900 (yes, I know, I know).  The university wanted to raise fees by about $1500 over the next five years, and so President Kingman Brewster (the model for Walden University’s President King in the comic strip Doonesbury) asked Tobin to come up with a scheme that would allow the institution raise said money without putting too much stress on students.

The result was something called the Yale Tuition Postponement Option.  Students could choose to defer part of their tuition (the part that came on top of the pre-1971 $3,900) until after graduation.  Repayment was a function of both loan balance and income: borrowers were required to repay 0.4% of their income for every $1,000 of tuition postponed (a minimum payment of $29/month was set).  Repayments could take as long as 35 years although it was expected to take less time than that.

There was a catch, though.  Loan programs lose money through defaults.  These either have to be made up through subsidy (which is what happens in most government student loan programs) or mutual insurance among borrowers.  Yale had no intention of subsidizing these loans, and so went the latter route.  These were therefore in effect group loans – you kept paying until your entire borrowing cohort had repaid.  You could escape this only by paying 150% of your initial loan and accrued interest.

You can imagine how this went.  A lot of students borrowed, but there was a fair bit of adverse selection (people who worried about their incomes opted-in, people who thought they would earn a lot opted-out).   And as time went on, a lot of graduates groused about subsidizing their less-successful classmates.  The program was phased out in 1977-78 because federal student aid was becoming more generous and because the university was starting to twig to both the problem of adverse-selection program and the problem of keeping in contact with graduates and getting them to voluntarily disclose their incomes.  Eventually, amidst rising alumni discontent, the program was wound up in 2001 and outstanding debts assumed by the University (which by this time could easily afford to do so).

The failure of the Yale Plan was certainly one reason why people were scared off income-contingency for another decade or so, until a reformist Australian government picked up the idea again in the late 1980s.  But from a policy perspective it was not a total loss.  One Yale student who enrolled in the program – fellow by the name of Clinton – thought it was a great idea.    He made it a center-piece of his 1992 election campaign, and an income-contingent tuition option was in place by 1994.  That specific policy never took off, but most of the income-based repayment plans (which are now used by 40% of all borrowers) owe their start to this program.

So, a failure for Yale perhaps.  But a long-term win for American students.

October 18

Presidential Salary Comparisons

The President of Iowa State University was recently reprimanded for crashing one school-owned airplane, overusing the other, and charging the cost to the institution.  The institution’s Board is asking serious questions: such as “why they were paying for the President to go back and forth to his family-owned Christmas Tree business in North Carolina,”  but not, apparently, “why in God’s name does our university own two aeroplanes?” As one does.

As I read this story, I thought “if nothing else, that’s a pretty amusing segue to talking about Presidential salaries, which I haven’t done in awhile.”  I made some international comparisons on Presidential salaries about four years ago, and basically came to the conclusion that i) being an Australian university President was a really sweet gig and ii) Canadian university Presidents were paid a lot less than their counterparts elsewhere.  But hey, what’s a daily blog that doesn’t occasionally revisit the same topic with new data?

So, same rules as last time: For Canada, the data is from the ever-useful CAUT Almanac, except for l’Université de Montréal, which I took from press reports.  For the US, the data is from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual survey on Presidential pay (I’d link but it’s paywalled) and is restricted to Presidents of public universities.  UK data is from the Times Higher Education Supplement, and Australian data is from The Australian.  Data for Australia is 2014, for the the UK and the US it is 2014-15 and for Canada it is 2012 (except Montreal, where it is 2014).   Currencies have been converted to US dollars using the 2014 Big Mac Index – if you want to translate these into Canadian dollars, just add 20%.  Figures represent total compensation rather than base pay.

In the first chart, I take the top-ten highest-paid university Presidents in each country and average their salaries.  As is plainly evident, the highest-earners Canadian Presidents are nowhere near as well paid as their foreign counterparts – in fact they receive less than half what top brass are paid in Australia (it’s difficult to be definitive given the different ways of converting currencies, but essentially, the worst-paid President in Australia is better-compensated than the top-earning President in Canada).

Figure 1: Average Salary of Ten Best-paid Public University Presidents in Canada, Australia, UK and US


Arguably this isn’t an entirely fair comparison because we are simply looking at the average at one end of a distribution.  So, to try to make a more apples-to-apples comparison, I also took an average of salaries at each country’s “top” institutions.  To do this, I looked at the Academic Ranking of World Universities (i.e. the Shanghai Rankings), and took the top 10 public institutions in the US (all in the top 40 worldwide), the top 9 institutions in the UK (the 9 in the top 100), the top 8 institutions in Australia (those in top 150) and the top 6 in Canada (also those in top 150 – meaning Toronto, UBC, Montreal, McMaster, Alberta and Montreal).  Here’s what this comparison looks like: 

Figure 2: Average Salary of Presidents at Top-Ranked Institutions in Canada, Australia, UK and US


So: everyone’s average drops somewhat because it’s not always the top universities paying the top salaries.  The drops are biggest in the US and the UK, but the rank order of average salaries remains the same: Australia way at the top, Canada at the bottom.  In fact, at roughly equivalent universities, Australian Presidents are making over two and a half times as much as Canadian ones.

To be clear: I’m not making am argument for going hog-wild on Presidential pay here in Canada.  On the whole, I think we’re closer to getting it right on senior exec pay than others are.  But our obsession with executive pay perennial habit of calling out “fat cats” is misplaced.  By international standards, our Senior execs’ pay is pretty modest.  And we keep them away from private planes, too.

October 17

Universal co-op, Minister? You first.

Back in June here in Ontario, the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel released its final report. One of the recommendations was that every Ontario high school and university student should have at least one mandatory co-op experience (i.e., once in high school, once in university college).  In a statement in the provincial legislature, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews essentially said she liked the recommendation and would be working in the coming months to figure out how to put it into effect.

Now, I am in favour of greater experiential learning opportunities, but there are some problems with this recommendation.  The good folks at HEQCO have already written about some of these; my concern is basically that good co-op and good internships cost a lot of money.  Students in placements need to be overseen, taught, and mentored.  They need to be given tasks which are both meaningful and correspond to actual student abilities (not easy to achieve for high school students in many workplaces).  And they need to be paid – not just because it’s the law, but because business simply won’t put in the time on students unless they have skin in the game.

Simply put, the degree of culture shift required in business to provide these kinds of meaningful work-integrated learning experiences on a universal basis is massive.  Depending on the expected length of these experiences, we could be talking about increasing opportunities by anything from tenfold to fifty-fold – we’re talking between 250,000 and 300,000 students per year having to be accommodated here.  Not impossible, but not something that will happen overnight.  If the government tries to rush into this – and by rush I mean anything on a shorter timescale than a decade or so – were going to have a real mess on our hands.  Both businesses and educational institutions are going to need a lot of time to figure out how to make this work.

In this respect I would like to make a modest proposal to government: you first.

Seriously, if this is such a great idea, then the first to pioneer it should be the Government of Ontario to pioneer it.  It’s the largest employer in the province, with something like 85,000 employees (or about 1.5% of the entire provincial workforce).  If it can’t be a success at that level, why should it be a success anywhere else?

So here’s my idea.  Since the Government of Ontario represents 1.5% of the workforce, it should immediately commit to bringing in at least 1.5% of the necessary cohort on work-integrated learning experiences next year.  By my back-of-the-envelope reckoning, that’s 4,000 students or so (call it 145 students per ministry), half of which should be from high schools and half from post-secondary institutions.

Employers everywhere are going to need to know how a big, knowledge-intensive enterprise like the Government of Ontario can crafts meaningful paid experiences for that many individuals, and provides them with the necessary support, feedback and evaluation, with minimal loss of institutional productivity or adverse effects on institutional budgets.  By being a pioneer, the Government can provide invaluable real-life advice to private and para-public sector employers about how to make this program work for everyone.

No?  You don’t think it’ll happen?

Me neither.  But it would dispel a lot of cynicism about this initiative.

October 14

Stuff And Nonsense About Coding

We seem to be passing through a period of heavy stupidity with respect to “coding”.  To wit:

  1. On Wednesday our Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains, took the stage at the Public Policy Forum’s Growth Summit and mused about the importance of coding, why it should be taught in schools, and how it is “as important as reading and writing”.
  2. On Thursday , Melissa Sariffodeen, the co-founder and CEO of something called “Ladies Learning Code” managed to get an op-ed published in the Globe, saying as how “in the coming years, it will be difficult to find a single professional field or vocation untouched by increasingly sophisticated technology”, Canada needs to teach 10 million people (that is, slightly more than half the labour force) to code or “our ability to prosper socially and economically will undoubtedly be compromised”.

This is all as dumb as a bag of hammers.  We need to stop this nonsense right now.

The ubiquity of a given technology does not mean that everyone needs to be experts in its nuts and bolts.  Pretty much no job is untouched by, say, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  Yet the economy works fine without 10 million people knowing how to do preventive maintenance on electrical wiring or install a toilet.  Nearly all office jobs involve coming into contact with a ballpoint pen at some point, yet we all remain blissfully unaware of what kinds of tungsten carbide alloys make ink flow more smoothly.  We all use refrigerators, but almost none of us understand the vapor-compression cycle.  And that’s a good thing.  Ever since the stone age, we make have made economic progress through specialization.  New technologies become ubiquitous precisely BECAUSE they become so simple you don’t need to think about them a lot.

Coding is a valuable skill – for maybe 2% of the labour force.  What the rest of us need is digital literacy and proficiency.  Being able to write software is not the issue: rather, it is the ability to apply and use software productively that is the issue.  Ten million people who understand how to input data into software correctly, 10 million who can use and analyze the data software provides us: *that* is something we should shoot for.  It would have enormous effects on productivity and health (if you doubt the latter, spend some time talking to hospital administrators and their frustration with newly-trained medical staff who can work smart phone perfectly well but can’t use fill in Microsoft Access forms).  But ten million coders?  Mostly, that just pushes down wages in the tech sector.

Now, the Globe op-ed by a tech-sector entrepreneur probably looking for some government grants to expand her tech training business I can deal with.  Sariffodeen, as someone who teaches coding, is mostly talking her own book.  But Minister Bains?  That’s much more serious.  OK, we can all be thankful that as a federal minister he has no actual say over anything involving an actual education system.  Saying coding is “as important as reading and writing” is fatuous nonsense.  It’s the kind of thing you say when your fondest wish in life is to be admired by tech executives.  Reading and writing are foundational skills for literally anything in life.  Coding is a way for specialized experts to make software so the rest of us don’t have to.

Should we have more opportunities to learn how to code?  Sure.  Should we aim for much deeper knowledge ability to manipulate and use data/information?  Golly, yes.  Teach 10M people to code?  Treat coding as equivalent to reading and writing?  Get a grip.  No serious person should utter those words.

October 13

Pedagogical Change: Why Waterloo and not McMaster?

In the field of higher education, Canada has two genuine claims to having been (at least at one-time) at the forefront of innovation: co-op education, which primarily stems from Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, and Problem-based Learning as practiced at McMaster’s School of Medicine.   This is a big deal: most universities never pioneer innovative pedagogical techniques, and here Canada has two of them.  Yet only one of these universities really gets credit for it.  Waterloo is known nationally (and to some degree internationally) for its’ pedagogy, and McMaster…isn’t.  Not really.  And understanding why is key to understanding how innovation spreads (or doesn’t) in higher education.

So, let’s start with McMaster.  Shortly after the School of Medicine was founded in the mid-1960s, the staff there decide to adopt a pedagogy that had been experimented with at Case Western in the 1950s. Namely, switching from a system of more or less rote system of learning information to a system with a much greater emphasis on problem-solving skills.  What McMaster added to the Case Western system was a focus on tutorials and small-group learning.  Within the world of medical education this method was a smash success, spreading over the space of three decades to fifty-odd medical schools in North America, Europe and Australia.  In a couple of instances, it even jumped the disciplinary boundary into fields like business education and architecture. Significantly, it never made the jump to any other part of the institution at McMaster itself.  And though PBL still exists, McMaster is no longer really thought of as the leader.

Now, compare that to Waterloo, an institution that began life as a satellite campus of the (then) University of Western Ontario, teaching engineering to serve tire-making factories in the region.  The professors at Waterloo were intrigued by the model of co-op education that had been developed at the University of Cincinnati in the United States and wanted to introduce it at Waterloo College.  Western’s Engineering faculty thought this was simply too déclassé an idea for a real university and said no.  Since the Government of Ontario was in the business of setting up new universities at that time, Waterloo College essentially flipped Western off and started their own university, with co-op as a kind of founding mission.   Within Waterloo co-op spread to all its faculties, including Arts and last I heard was placing over 17,000 student per year in co-op programs.  Co-op is now  the norm in Canadian Engineering schools, and people all over the world recognize Waterloo as the pre-eminent institution in co-op education.

So what’s the difference?  Why did co-op at Waterloo turn out one way and PBL at McMaster another?

I think the simplest take on it is this: Waterloo had co-op embedded in its DNA.  The school’s trimester schedule, which was a necessary complement to co-op, was adopted across the institution.  Professors are hired based on their willingness to work in the trimester system and their willingness to update classes frequently based on feedback from students on how in-touch curricula really are with industry practices.  It’s not isolated to one faculty, or to the senior administration: the whole institution really is invested in it.  Compare that to McMaster, where no other faculty (so far as I can tell) ever really took the idea of PBL seriously. Even the School of Medicine itself wasn’t founded on PBL principles.   It was a success, for a time.  But it wasn’t in the DNA.

There is an important lesson here.  Universities, even when presented with fabulous ideas for reform, are very reluctant to change on a systematic basis.  It’s not that individual professors never do anything new; it’s that systemic change requires everyone going in a more or less similar direction at the same time, that that is very difficult for institutions to achieve.  It’s why real university reform often happens not by getting universities to change but by setting up new institutions.  Napoleon knew this: it was why he shut down universities and created the Grandes Écoles.  It’s why in the United States it took a new institution like Johns Hopkins to pioneer the PhD, or why it took the arrival of ANU in Australia to really make universities take research and graduate work seriously.

Left to themselves, universities will always tend to be conservative, fearful and change-averse.  History shows that new institutions pursuing new missions with all their might and leading by example can, eventually, drive real change.

October 12

The Fractured Chinese Higher Education Market

We often casually refer to China as being a single higher education market, but that’s really not true.  It’s probably more accurate to say that it is 32 different markets (34 if you want to include Macau and Hong Kong), one for each of the 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 major municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin).  That’s not just because most higher education funding is local rather than national; it’s also because student mobility is significantly restricted, especially among top universities.

Let’s start with economics.  Broadly speaking, the coastal provinces  Inner Mongolia are fairly rich (on par with Greece and the Baltics by GDP per capita), the middle provinces such as Hubei, Heinan and Shanxi have GDP/capita roughly half that of coastal ones, and then further west GDP per capita drops by another 50% when you get to Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu.  It’s not quite as simple as that – Anhui and Jangxi are close to the coast but relatively poor, Xianjing is as far west as you can go and yet is part of the middle-band, Shanghai and Beijing are relatively wealthy, etc.  But the rule of thumb is: coastal provinces are rich, inner provinces are poor.

This matters to higher education for a couple of reasons, the main one being that for the most part, higher education is funded provincially.  There are, however, a few dozen universities which are primarily  administered and  funded from Beijing, most of which report to the Ministry of Education but some to other ministries (e.g. the Telecoms Ministry or the Army).  The 38 research-intensive “985” universities (so named because the policy which governs them dates from May 1998) receive massive amounts of central government funding. The 110-odd “211” universities (apparently a reference to having 100 21st Century universities…21-1(00)…no, I don’t get it either) also get some central funding despite being largely dependent on local funding.

The second reason this matters is that these “top-tier” universities (especially the 985s) are unevenly distributed around the country.  Beijing has seven of them, Shanghai 4, and Tianjin and Chongqing another 3 between them – meaning that nearly half of the top universities are in just four cities.  Indeed, fourteen provinces and regions have no 985 universities at all, and Tibet has neither a 211 nor a 985 university.  That wouldn’t be a major issue if it weren’t for a second important factor: student mobility in china is strictly limited.

Because universities are mostly funded locally, the local government gets to determine the number of spots at each university.  Unsurprisingly, poorer provinces have fewer spots than richer ones.  Which means cut-offs have to be higher; and since every state has control of its own gaokao exam, it’s become the case that different provinces have different levels of gaokao difficulty (there is a helpful service which compares them all and ranks them on difficulty – for the last couple of years it has been Jiangsu).

But despite regional differences in the difficulty  of the gaokao, universities treat all the provincial scores as equal.  This matters enormously because each province reserves spaces for local students – and limits spaces for out-of-province students.  Pretty much everyone in the country wants to get into one of the top Beijing universities, and yet these policies keep these institutions largely the preserve of locals.  Which is absolutely fine for the privileged few who live in Beijing (mainly public servants and party apparatchiks) but not so good for anyone else.  A student from Jiangsu not only takes a tougher gaokao than one from Beijing, but s/he has to obtain a much higher score in order to get into Tsinghua or Peking.  It’s considered a truism in those schools that the students from outside Beijing are of a much higher calibre than the locals.

This problem isn’t going away any time soon.  As Damian Ma and William Adams say in their excellent book In Line Behind a Billion People, this policy of reserving little educational plums for Beijing parents is one of those things that keeps the elite population behind the regime: in a democratic system there is simply no way that benefits would be concentrated this tightly (their chapter on education is called “Give me Equality: But Not Until After My Son Gets Into Tsinghua”).  So even as the central government tries to open spaces at top-tier (i.e. 985 or 211) universities for people from provinces where top-tier universities are scarce or non-existent, they are doing their level best not to put that burden anywhere other than Beijing or Shanghai.  This year, most of the growth in spaces for students from the western provinces fell on Hubei and Jiangsu, much to the anger of local residents who feared their own children would lose out as a result.

There is a lesson here for people interested in recruiting students in China, and it is this: ignore the coastal provinces.  Find the provinces with the hardest gaokaos and the fewest 985/211 institutions (Jiangxi is not a bad place to start).  There are a lot of frustrated families there.  Go talk to them.  They will be more price-conscious than the students on the coasts, but they will also probably be of higher quality.

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