HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

May 23

Information vs Guidance

I’ve been working a lot lately on two big projects that touch on the issue of secondary school guidance.  The first is a large project for the European Commission on admission systems across Europe and the second is one of HESA’s own projects looking at how students in their junior year of high school process information about post-secondary education (the latter is a product for sale – drop us a line at info@higheredstrategy.com if you’re an institution interested in insights in how to get on students’ radar before they hit grade 12).  And one of the things that I’ve realised is how deeply difficult it is to present information to students in a way that it is meaningful to them.

Oh, we hand out information all right.  Masses of it.  We give students so much information it’s like drinking from a fire-hose.  It’s usually accurate, mostly consistent (though nothing – nothing – drives students crazier than discovering that information on a student’s catalogue is different from the information on the website, which happens all too frequently).   But that’s really not enough.

Here’s what we don’t do: we don’t provide data to students in a way that makes it easy for them to search what they want.  Information is provided solely by institutions themselves and students have to go search out data on an institution-by-institution basis.  We have nothing like France’s Admission Post-bac system which – while not without its faults as an admissions portal – actually does simplify an otherwise horrifically complicated admissions system by putting institutional information in a single spot.  We have nothing like the state-level guides in Australia where students in their graduating year can get info on all institutions in a single book.

We don’t make it simple to try to learn about their choices.  Institutions have every reason not to do this – their whole set-up in term of providing information to students is based on a philosophy of LOOK AT ME PAY NO ATTENTION TO THOSE OTHERS (though I kind of wonder what would happen to an institution that tried the “compare us now” approach used by Progressive Insurance).  Government has chosen not to play a role, preferring to leave it to institutions.  And third parties have given them things like rankings, and other statistical information which adults think they should know and care about but by and large don’t.

What students want – what they really, really want – is not more information.  They want guidance.  They want someone who is knowledgeable about that information AND who knows and appreciates their own tastes, abilities and interests and render it meaningful to them.  Yes, Queen’s is my local university and it’s pretty prestigious, but will fit in?  Sure, nursing pays well, but will I get bored (and which schools are best for nursing)?  I want to do Engineering, but it seems like a lot of work – can I actually handle it?  And if so, would it be better to go to a big school with lots of supports or to my local institution?

But this is precisely what guidance functions in secondary schools don’t deliver on a consistent basis.  Too often, their role is that of a really slow version of the internet – a centralized place to get all the individual view-books and brochures.  They don’t know individual students well enough to provide real, contextualized guidance, so that task falls upon favoured teachers and – more often – students own families.

Well, so what, you say.  What’s wrong with making students do a little leg-work on their own, and asking family and friends for guidance?  Well, the problem with this is cultural capital starts to play a really big role.  While guidance is helpful for everyone, the students who have the least idea of what to expect in post-secondary education, the ones most in need of guidance, are precisely the ones whose families have the least experience in post-secondary.  So if guidance fails, you get a Matthew Effect, with the already-advantaged receiving another leg-up.

(Secondary complaint: it is astonishing, if you believe students, how little guidance counselors want to talk to students about government student financial assistance.  On the other hand, they seem quite prepared to peddle stale chestnuts about how easy it is to get institutional aid because “millions of dollars go unclaimed every year because people don’t apply”.  I cringed every time I heard this.)

The way forward here is probably not to increase the number of guidance counselors to make it easier for them to know individual students.  The fact is, they will never get as close to students as will senior-year teachers.  Better, probably, to let those teachers do the advising (after some training, of course) and then build in time and rewards appropriately.

But it requires investment.  We have to stop preferring the provision of information over guidance because it’s cheap.  Good decisions require good guidance.  Skimp on it in schools serving richer areas if we must, but when it comes to serving low-income students it’s a false economy.

 

May 19

Free Tuition, Sea of Japan Edition

To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition.  This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.

So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy?  Two things.  First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success.  Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things.  Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.

But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian.  Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces.  Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine.  And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.

A couple of points here.  First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale.  As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong).  High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s.  Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.

The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities.  Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult.  Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?

There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees.  This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge.  In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada).  But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.

If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done.  But we’ll see.  Two stories to watch, for sure.

May 18

Electing the President

In developed Anglophone countries, we basically take it for granted that Universities are run by Presidents (or occasionally Principals) who are not only responsible to a Board of Governors, but are also selected by them.  But this is not the only way to select institutional heads.  They can be selected directly by the Ministry of Education (which still happens in many places, including China).  Or they can be elected, which is the case in much of Europe.  Indeed, in much of Europe, the concept of “academic freedom” is tied pretty closely to the “freedom” of a community of scholars to select their own chief executive (i.e. its closer to our notion of “institutional autonomy”).

And, intriguingly, in a couple of universities in Quebec.

These past couple of months, both Université Laval and Université Sherbrooke have both held elections for new rectors (Presidents).  At the former, Sophie D’Amours won a three-cornered race with 50.7% of the vote to become Laval’s first female Rector in its 350 year history.  At Sherbrooke, Dean of Medicine Pierre Cosette beat out three rivals to become the President.

Now technically, these are not campus-wide elections, as does occur in some universities around the globe.  At both Sherbrooke and Laval there are “electoral colleges” which hold the necessary votes.  These are pretty broad in their composition.  For instance, at Sherbrooke, it consists of 13 nonacademic staff members (split across 3 bargaining units), 11 chargés de cours, 30 students, 4 “external members” and 90 academic staff (some of whom also are also administrators).  At Laval, all members of the Board of Governors and Senate have a vote, as to members of three “commissions” for academics, research and student affairs (I don’t completely understand what they do or they fit in the governing structure, but they seem like super-committees of the Senate except they report to VPs rather than the Senate).  In terms of votes, the proportions are similar to Sherbrooke (fewer students, chargés de cours, and non-academic staff, more external members) with the academic representation split 70-30 or so between regular academics and academics with decanal positions or higher.  (Laval has an excellent website explaining its election procedures if you want to check it out).

One thing about this kind of selection procedure: it tends to reward insiders.  Not always: in the 1990s, Francois Tavenas managed to get elected at Laval despite being a Vice-principal at McGill at the time (though he wasn’t a total outsider having spent much of his career there).  But on the whole you’re not going to get outsider candidates like Santa Ono or Richard Florizone using this method (flip side: you’re probably not going to get a Karen Hitchcock either).  It’s a system less likely to challenge entrenched academic interests.  People may legitimately disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.  At a practical level it’s not clear to me that these two universities are actually managed that differently than other Quebec universities (francophone ones, anyway).  Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone in Quebec make that case (though granted I spend a lot less time there than I used to).  After all, they are trying to attract the same staff, dealing with the same government, operating under the same regulations.  Elected and theoretically beholden to their constituencies they may be, but they’re still mostly facing the same sets of incentives as Presidents who are appointed by Board of Governors, so maybe there’s not that much of a difference.

This might be heresy in continental Europe, where internal autonomy over top appointments are sacrosanct (Danish academia has just spent months freaking out over a proposal that government might name Board chairs), but it’s probably worth a deeper dive than I can provide here to find out.  All you higher education grad students out there: there’s a killer doctoral thesis in this.

May 17

Diversity in Canada Research Chairs

One of the hot topics in Ottawa over the past couple of months is the issue of increasing diversity among researchers.   Top posts in academia are still disproportionately occupied by white dudes, and the federal minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, would like to change that by threatening institutions with a loss of research funding.

There’s no doubt about the nature of the problem.  As in other countries, women and minorities have trouble making it up the career ladder in academia at the same rate as white males.  The reasons for this are well-enough known that I probably needn’t recount them here (though if you really want a good summary try here and here).  There was a point when one might reasonably have suspected that time would take care of the problem.  Once PhD completion rates equalized (until the 1990s they still favored men) and female scientists began making their way up the career ladder, it might have been argued, the problem of representation at the highest levels would take care of itself.  But it quite plainly hasn’t worked out that way and more systemic solutions need to be found.  As for Indigenous scholars and scholars with disabilities, it’s pretty clear we still have a lot of pipeline issues to worry about and equalizing PhD completion rates, in addition to solving problems related to career progression, is a big challenge.

Part of what Ottawa is trying to do is to get institutions to take their responsibilities on career progression seriously by getting them each to commit to equity plans.  Last October, the government announced that institutions without equity plans will become ineligible for new CERC awards; earlier this month, Kirsty Duncan attached the same condition to the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.

(A quick reminder here about how the Chairs program works.  There are two types of awards: Tier 1 awards for top researchers, worth $200,000/year for seven years, and Tier 2 awards for emerging researchers, worth $100,000/year for five years.  There are 2000 awards in total, with roughly equal numbers of Tier 1 and Tier 2 awards.  Each university gets an allocation of chairs based – more or less – on the share of tri-council funding its staff received, with a boost for smaller institutions.  So, University of Toronto gets 256 chairs, Université Ste. Anne gets one, etc.  Within that envelope institutions are free to distribute awards more or less as they see fit.)

The problem is, as the Minister well knows, all institutions already have equity plans and they’re not working.  So she has attached a new condition: they also fix the demographic distribution of chair holders so that they “ensure the demographics of those given the awards reflect the demographics of those academics eligible to receive them” by 2019.  It’s not 100% clear to me what this formulation means. I don’t believe it means that women must occupy 50% of all chairs; I am fairly sure that the qualifier “of those eligible to receive” means something along the lines of “women must occupy a percentage of Tier 1 chairs equal to their share of full professors, and of Tier 2 chairs equal to their share of associate and assistant professors”.

Even with those kind of caveats, reaching the necessary benchmarks in the space of 18-24 months will requires an enormous adjustment.  The figure I’ve seen for major universities is that only 28% of CRCs are women.  Given that only about 15-18% of chairs turn over in any given year, getting that up to the 40-45% range the benchmark implies by 2019 means that between 65 and 79% of all CRC appointments for the next two years will need to be female and probably higher than that for the Tier 1s.  That’s certainly achievable, but it’s almost certain to be accompanied by a lot of general bitchiness among passed-over male candidates.  Brace yourselves.

But while program rules allow Ottawa to use this policy tool to take this major step for gender equality, it will be harder to use it for other equity categories.  Institutions don’t even really have a measure of how many of their faculty have disabilities, so setting benchmarks would be tricky.  Indigenous scholars pose an even trickier problem. According to the formula used for female scholars, Indigenous scholars’  “share” of CRCs might be 1%, or about 20 nationally.  The problem is that only five institutions (Alberta, British Columbia, McGill, Montreal, Toronto) have 100 or more CRCs and would thus be required to reserve a spot for an Indigenous scholar.  An institution like (say) St. FX, which has only five chairs, would have a harder time.  It can achieve gender equity simply by having two or three female chairs.  But how would it achieve parity for Indigenous scholars?  It’s unlikely it could be required to reserve one of its five (20%) spots to an Indigenous scholar.

Many institutions would obviously hire Indigenous faculty anyway, it’s just that the institutional allocations which form the base of this program’s structure make it difficult to achieve some of what Ottawa wants to achieve on equity and diversity.

 

May 16

Jobs: Hot and Not-So-Hot

Remember when everyone was freaking out because there were too many sociology graduates and not enough welders?  When otherwise serious people like Ken Coates complained about the labour market being distorted by the uninformed choices of 17-19 year-olds?  2015 seems like a long time ago.

Just for fun the other day, I decided to look at which occupations have fared best and worst in Canada over the past ten years (ok, I grant you my definition of fun may not be universal).  Using public data, the most granular data I can look at are two-digit National Occupation Codes, so some of these categories are kind of broad.  But anyway, here are the results:

Table 1: Fastest-growing occupations in Canada, 2007-2017

May 16-17 Table 1 Fastest Growing

See any trades in there?  No, me neither.  Four out of the top ten fastest-growing occupations are health-related in one way or another.  There are two sets of professional jobs – law/social/community/ government services (which includes educational consultants, btw) and natural/applied sciences) which pretty clearly require bachelor’s if not master’s degrees.  There are three other categories (Admin/financial supervisors, Technical occupations in art, and paraprofessional occupations in legal, social, etc) which have a hodgepodge of educational requirements but on balance probably have more college than university graduates.   And then there is the category retail sales supervisors and specialized sales occupations, which takes in everything from head cashiers to real estate agents and aircraft sales representatives.  Hard to know what to make of that one.  But the other nine all seem to require training which is pretty squarely in traditional post-secondary education specialties.

Now, what about the ten worst-performing occupations?

Table 2: Fastest-shrinking Occupations in Canada 2007-2017

May 16-17 Table 2 Fastest Shrinking Occupation
This is an interesting grab bag.  I’m fairly sure, given the amount of whining about managerialism one hears these days, that it will be a surprise to most people that the single worst-performing job sector in Canada is “senior management occupations”.  It’s probably less of a surprise that four of the bottom ten occupations are manufacturing-related, and that two others – Distribution, Tracking and Scheduling and Office Support Occupations – which are highly susceptible to automation are there, too.  But interestingly, almost none of these occupations, bar senior managers, have significant numbers of university graduates in them. Many wouldn’t even necessarily have a lot of college graduates either, at least outside the manufacturing and resources sectors.

Allow me to hammer this point home a bit, for anyone who is inclined to ever again take Ken Coates or his ilk seriously on the subject of young people’s career choices.  Trades are really important in Canada.  But the industries they serve are cyclical.  If we counsel people to go into these areas, we need to be honest that people in these areas are going to have fat years and lean years – sometimes lasting as long as a decade at a time.  On the other hand, professional occupations (nearly all requiring university study) and health occupations (a mix of university and college study) are long-term winners.

Maybe students knew that all along, and behaved accordingly.  When it comes to their own futures, they’re pretty smart, you know.

 

May 15

Provincial Budgets 2017

Springtime brings with it two certainties: 1) massive, irritating weekend traffic jams in Toronto as the city grants permits to close down Yonge street for a parade to virtually any group of yahoos, thus making it impossible to go from the cities east to west ends and 2) provincial budgets.  And with that, it’s time for my annual roundup of provincial budgets (click on the year for previous analyses – 2016 2015 2014 2013.  It’s not as bad as last year but it’s still kind of depressing.

Before we jump in, I need to remind everyone about some caveats on this data.  What is being compared here is announced spending in provincial budgets from year-to-year.  But what gets allocated and what gets spent are two different things. Quebec in particular has a habit of delivering mid-year cuts to institutions; on the flip side, Nova Scotia somehow spent 15% more than budgeted on its universities.  Also, not all money goes to institutions as operating funding:  this year, Newfoundland cut operating budgets slightly but threw in a big whack of cash for capital spending at College of the North Atlantic, so technically government post-secondary spending is up there this year.

One small difference this year from previous years: the figures for Ontario exclude capital expenditures.  Anyone who has a problem with that, tell the provincial government to publish its detailed spending estimates at the same time it delivers the budget like every other damn province.

This year’s budgets are a pretty mixed bunch.  Overall, provincial allocations after inflation fell by $13 million nationally – or just about .06%.  But in individual provinces the spread was between +4% (Nova Scotia) and -7% (Saskatchewan).  Amazing but true: two of the three provinces with the biggest gains were ones in which an election was/is being held this spring.

Figure 1: 1-Year change in Provincial Transfers to Post-Secondary Institutions, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Province Budget Figure 1 Year Change Provincial Transfers

 

Now, this probably wouldn’t be such a big deal if it hadn’t come on the heels of a string of weak budgets for post-secondary education.  One year is neither here nor there: it’s the cumulative effect which matters.  Here’s the cumulative change over the past six years:

Figure 2: 6-year Change in Provincial Transfers to Post-Secondary Institutions, 2011-12 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 2 6 year chage in provincial transfers

 

Nationally, provinces are collectively providing 1% less to universities in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2017-18 than they were in 2011-12.  Apart from the NDP governments in Manitoba and Alberta, it’s really only Quebec which has bothered to keep its post-secondary funding ahead of inflation.  Out east, it’s mostly been a disaster – New Brunswick universities are down 9% over the last six years (not the end of the world because of concomitant enrolment declines), and a whopping 21% in Newfoundland.

The story is different on the student aid front, because a few provinces have made some big moves this year.  Ontario and New Brunswick have introduced their “free tuition” guarantees, thus resulting in some significant increases in SFA funding, while Quebec is spending its alternative payment bonanza from the Canada Student Loans Program changes (long story short: under the 1964 opt-out agreement which permitted the creation of the Canada Student Loans Program, every time CSLP spends more, it has to send a larger cheque to Quebec).  On the other side, there’s Newfoundland, which has cut it’s student aid budget by a whopping 78%.  This appears to be because the province is now flouting federal student aid rules and making students max out their federal loans before accessing provincial aid, rather than splitting the load 60-40 as other provinces do.

Figure 3: 1-Year change in Provincial Student Financial Aid Expenditures, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 3 1 Year change in student aid expenditures

 

And here’s the multi-year picture, which shows a 46% increase in student aid over the past six years, from $1.9 billion to just under $2.8 billion.  But there are huge variations across provinces.  In Ontario, aid is up 83% over six years (and OSAP now constitutes over half of all provincial student aid spending), while Saskatchewan is down by half and Newfoundland by 86%, mostly in the present year.  The one province where there is an asterisk here is Alberta, where there was a change in reporting in 2013-2014; the actual growth is probably substantially closer to zero than to the 73% shown here.

Figure 4: 6-Year change in Provincial Student Financial Aid Expenditures, 2016-17 to 2017-18, in constant $2017

Figure 4 6 Year Change in Provincial Student Aid

So the overall narrative is still more or less the same it’s been for the past few years.  On the whole provincial governments seem a whole lot happier spending money on students than they do on institutions.    Over the long run that’s not healthy, and needs to change.

May 12

Statistical Deceptions on Student Debt

Every couple of years, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) produces a “research paper” to provide a new “evidence-based” spin to back up its eternal demand for free tuition. Last month, they put out a new version, this one entitled The Political Economy of Student Debt in Canada. The theme this time is lightly-recycled Piketty: Canada’s main problems are inequality and rising indebtedness; if we eliminate tuition, that’ll strike a blow against both so wa-hey! The word “neoliberal” appears frequently.

This is all fine. It’s Lobbying 101 to link your own issues to those of the ruling government’s agenda in order to increase the likelihood that they’ll get picked up. Inequality is certainly a theme of this decade, as is the constant media drumbeat of ever-rising household debt (though for reasons that pass understanding they never match up statistics about rising debt with equivalent statistics about rising assets).

But there is a problem here. To make the analogy stick you’d have to be able to prove that student debt, like household debt, is rising rapidly when in fact it’s not. Data from the National Graduates Survey (NGS) suggest that student indebtedness has been more or less stable since 2000; the more recent/timely (but less accurate) Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium data (see here and here) actually suggests it has decreased a bit since 2000. And it is certainly the case that student loan burdens – that is, the percentage of after-tax income devoted to paying student debt – has decreased substantially over the last decade and a half, due mainly to falling taxes and lower interest rates. Average student loan debt – that is, the amount of debt owed by students at the time of graduation – may in fact perhaps the one type of personal debt which isn’t increasing.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this graph in the middle of the research paper, purporting to show that student debt has increase 40% in real terms since 1999:

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Where on earth does this data come from? Well, it’s not the NGS and it’s not any survey of graduating students. Rather, it’s from the once-triennial, now quadrennial Survey of Financial Security (SFS), which measures student debt in an entirely different way.

Both NGS and the CUSC try to measure the average debt at the point of graduation. NGS does it by asking graduates two years after graduation how much debt they left school with; CUSC asks students a couple of months before they graduate how much debt they have. SFS is not a survey of graduates; it’s a survey of 20,000 or so Canadian households. And when it reports debt, it does so i) by measuring outstanding debt, not debt at the time of graduation and ii) be measuring household debt, not individual debt. So if your household contains multiple individuals with student debt (whether as roommates or in a family relationship), SFS will combine the debt of all individuals. The second factor will definitely tend to inflate the amount of debt reported; the first is more ambiguous because on the one hand it is including both borrowers who graduated recently and those who graduated many years ago (which one would think would lower the average figure because the latter have been in repayment for many years), but on the other will tend to exclude those who graduated with lower debt because they will often have paid it off and hence be excluded from the statistic (thus raising average debt somewhat).

Also, because it measures outstanding debt rather than debt at graduation, it will tend to lag trends in student aid. That is, even after student debt at graduation stops rising, outstanding student debt will continue to rise as earlier cohort of (less indebted) graduates repay their loans and later cohorts of (more indebted) graduates take their place in the ranks of “those with outstanding student debt”. So it’s not really a big surprise that outstanding household student debt rose in the 2000s, because that’s the natural corollary of rising student debt at graduation in the 1990s (which, unlike rising student debt in the 2000s was actually a thing).

The point here is not that the data used is “fake”: the data itself is real. But to make their point about “rising student debt” the CFS’ report writers have used a quite different definition of student debt than that used by literally every other PSE stakeholder, indeed different to any definition of student debt CFS has ever used. And they have done so without mentioning that they have used an alternative definition. This is not an innocent oversight. The person or persons who authored this document clearly know their way around Statistics Canada data; anyone with that level of knowledge also understands that if you say “student debt has risen 40% since 1999”, people will understand that to mean “individual debt at graduation”, not “outstanding household debt amongst the entire population”. It’s a deliberate deception to further a politically convenient narrative.

Student debt, as that term is commonly understood, has not risen by 40% in real dollars since 1999. On the contrary, student debt levels are broadly stable and repayment burdens are much reduced over the past decade and a half. Using torqued, cherry-picked statistics to try to convince the public that the reverse is happening is pretty poor form.

 

May 11

Trade-offs in Apprenticeships

I haven’t worked on apprenticeship projects much in the last few years, but one of my current gigs has got me thinking about the area again.  And one thing that I apparently missed completely was a new (well, new to me anyway) effort to harmonize apprenticeship program sequencing nationally (details here).

Wait a minute, you say – weren’t apprenticeships always harmonized?  Isn’t that what Red Seal is all about?

Well, sort of.  Red Seal was about harmonizing outcomes.  Basically, Red Seal was an exam that journeypersons could take after completing their (provincially-governed) training which would certify them as being qualified to ply their trade right across the country.  It was optional – if you had no intention of leaving your home province there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking the exam because completion of the program was itself sufficient to allow one to practice there.  Red Seal was therefore basically a mobility tool for people who had completed apprenticeships.

Now, that was fine when most apprentices started and completed their training in one province.  But during the resource boom, there was an explosion of apprentices who began training in one province and then moved and wanted to complete training in another.  This created problems because although Red Seal had long since harmonized apprenticeship training outcomes, each province got to those outcomes in quite different ways.  Within the same trade, the number of required hours/weeks of training varied from one province to another, and the sequencing was different.  Something that an electrician learned at level 1 in Alberta wasn’t taught until level 3 in Ontario, something that made things complicated if, for instance, an apprentice level 2 electrician got laid off in Windsor and wanted to try his/her luck in Alberta.

As I say, I’ve been out of this file awhile but what seems to have happened is that the provincial directors of apprenticeship seem to have got together and actually co-ordinated things like training sequencing, number of weeks of in-class training, etc, and this is what they refer to as “harmonization”.  According to that federal website, this harmonization initiative is about halfway done – i.e about half the Red Seal trades were harmonized in 2016 and 2017 and the rest will be rolled out in stages over the next couple of years.

So, a triumph for the Canadian apprenticeship system?  Well, not so fast.

Not all trades programs are apprenticeship programs, but the curriculum still has to line up because everyone wants graduates of pre-employment trades programs to be able to become apprentices in that area.  So what that means is that national harmonization of apprenticeship programs in effect means nationalization of the entire trades curriculum.  And what that means is the effectiveness of all those local industry committees that every community college program has suddenly just got a lot less effective, because significant curriculum changes now have to be negotiated among ten provincial directors of apprenticeships.

Traditionally, those committees have been a point of pride in Canada because they have given trades programs the ability to respond quickly to business needs.  Now, their effectiveness has been traded away in the name not of journeyperson mobility but of apprentice mobility, which was a thing in the resource boom but maybe not so much in the bust.  Is that a smart trade-off?  I suspect the answer varies quite a bit by trade, and yet solution this is being applied uniformly across Red Seal Trades.

We are told “industry” asked for this change, but I really wonder who was part of the consultation.  I can certainly believe that big industry with training efforts in many different provinces asked for it.  I can believe that extractive industries asked for it.  I have a harder time believing that smaller and medium enterprises asked for it because it substantially lowers their ability to affect curriculum and to some degree lowers the values of apprentices to them.

Silver linings have clouds, basically.  And centralized curricula have trade-offs.

May 10

Why Education in IT Fields is Different

A couple of years ago, an American academic by the name of James Bessen wrote a fascinating book called Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth.  (It’s brilliant.  Read it).  It’s an examination of what happened to wages and productivity over the course of the industrial revolution, particularly in the crucial cotton mill industry.  And the answer, it turns out, is that despite all the investment in capital which permitted vast jumps in labour productivity, in fact wages didn’t rise that much at all.  Like, for about fifty years.

Sound familiar?

What Bessen does in this book is to try to get to grips with what happens to skills during a technological revolution.  And the basic problem is that while the revolution is going on, while new machines are being installed, it is really difficult to invest in skills.  It’s not simply that technology changes quickly and so one has to continually retrain (thus lowering returns to any specific bit of training); it’s also that technology is implemented in very non-standard ways, so that (for instance) the looms at one mill are set up completely differently from the looms at another and workers have to learn new sets of skills every time they switch employers.  Human capital was highly firm-specific.

The upshot of all this: In fields where technologies are volatile and skills are highly non-standardized, the only way to reliably increase skills levels is through “learning by doing”.  There’s simply no way to learn the skills in advance.  That meant that workers had lower levels bargaining power because they couldn’t necessarily use the skills acquired at one job at another.  It also meant that, not to put too fine a point on it, that formal education becomes much less important compared to “learning by doing”.

The equivalent industry today is Information Technology.  Changes in the industry happen so quickly that it’s difficult for institutions to provide relevant training; it’s still to a large extent a “learning by doing” field.  Yet, oddly, the preoccupation among governments and universities is: “how do we make more tech graduates”?

The thing is, it’s not 100% clear the industry even wants more graduates.  It just wants more skills.  If you look at how community colleges and polytechnics interact with the IT industry, it’s often through the creation of single courses which are designed in response to very specific skill needs.  And what’s interesting is that – in the local labour market at least – employers treat these single courses as more or less equivalent to a certificate of competency in a particular field.  That means that these college IT courses these are true “microcredentials” in the sense that they are short, potentially stackable, and have recognized labour market value.  Or at least they do if the individual has some demonstrable work experience in the field as well (so-called coding “bootcamps” attempt to replicate this with varying degrees of success, though since they are usually starting with people from outside the industry, it’s not as clear that the credentials they offer are viewed the same way by industry).

Now, when ed-tech evangelists go around talking about how the world in future is going to be all about competency-based badges, you can kind of see where they are coming from because that’s kind of the way the world already works – if you’re in IT.  The problem is most people are not in IT.  Most employers do not recognize individual skills the same way, in part because work gets divided into tasks in a somewhat different way in IT than it does in most other industries.  You’re never going to get to a point in Nursing (to take a random example) where someone gets hired because they took a specific course on opioid dosages.  There is simply no labour-market value to disaggregating a nursing credential, so why bother?

And so the lesson here is this: IT work is a pretty specific type of work in which much store is put in learning-by-doing and formal credentials like degrees and diplomas are to some degree replaceable by micro-credentials.  But most of the world of work doesn’t work that way.  And as a result, it’s important not to over-generalize future trends in education based on what happens to work in IT.  It’s sui generis.

Let tech be tech.  And let everything else be everything else.  Applying tech “solutions” to non-tech “problems” isn’t likely to end well.

May 09

Conservative Leadership Platform Analysis

So, I just read through all the thirteen leadership candidates’ websites, looking for their thoughts on all the stuff this blog cares about: post-secondary education, skills, science, innovation, youth, etc.

The things I do for you people.

Actually, it was a pretty quick exercise because it turns out almost no one in the Tory leadership race places much importance on post-secondary education, skills, innovation, youth.  They seem to care a lot about taxes, and immigration (and to a lesser extent guns), but for a party that was in government less than two years ago, the Conservative candidates seem to have remarkably little appreciation for the things that actually drive a modern economy.  Anyways, briefly, here is what the candidates say about the issues this blog cares about.

 Chris Alexander (Former Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, ex-MP Ajax-Pickering): No specific platform on higher education, but the topic does come up frequently in his policies.  Expanding educational exports to Asia is priority.  He says he wants 400,000 new international students/year by 2020 and 500,000 per year by 2023 (I’m pretty sure he does not actually mean “new” as in new visa applications every year, I think that’s total in the country at any one time).  He also wants to spend money on new National Centres of Excellence and Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research for the digital economy as well as invest more in research related to art and design (I assume OCAD’s Robert Luke has something to do with that one).  He also has a general pledge to incentivize PSE institutions to collaborate more with “incubators accelerators and companies of all sizes”, whatever that means.

Maxime Bernier (Former Minister of industry, Foreign Affairs, and Min. of State for Small Business, MP for Beauce)The main point of interest in the Bernier platform is the rise in the personal tax exemption to $15,000 per year, which will have favourable impacts for many students.  Under his health platform, Bernier indicates he wants the federal government to vacate the health field and transfer tax points to the provinces; though he does not say so explicitly, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the same would apply to the transfer of funds to provinces for post-secondary education under the Canada Social Transfer.

Steven Blaney (Former Minister of Public Safety, MP Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis): Nothing at all.

Michael Chong (Former Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Sport, MP Wellington-Halton Hills):  Nothing at all.

Kellie Leitch (Former Minister of Labour and the Status of Women, MP Simcoe-Grey): Nothing at all.

Pierre Lemieux (Former MP Glengarry-Prescott-Russell): Nothing at all.  Are you seeing a pattern yet?

Deepak Obhrai (MP Calgary Forest Lawn)Nothing at all.

 Erin O’Toole: (Former Minister of Veterans Affairs, MP Durham): O’Toole is the only candidate with anything even vaguely resembling plans for science and Innovation in the form of a scheme to extend the notion of “flow-through shares” –a tax gimmick heavily used in resource industries to defray development expenses – to new life-sciences and tech companies as well.  More intriguing is O’Toole’s “Generation Kick-Start” platform, which promises everyone who completes a degree, diploma or apprenticeship with an extra $100,000 of personal exemptions (i.e. $15K in reduced taxes) to be used before they turn 30.  That goes up to $300,000 if their credential in an area where skills are in “short supply” (definition vague but seems to include engineers, coders and “skilled tradespeople” even though 3 years into the oil slump the latter wouldn’t really qualify as “in demand”).  The latter half of the proposal is goofy, but the basic idea has a lot of merit.

 Rick Peterson: (A BC Investment Advisor of Some Sort): Nothing at all.

Lisa Raitt (Former Minister of Natural Resources, Labour, and Transportation, MP Milton). Like Maxime Bernier proposal, Raitt proposes to raise the basic tax exemption to 15K.  She also wants to increase the (totally useless) apprenticeship and completion grant up to $4,000.

 Andrew Saxton (ex-MP, North Vancouver)Saxton’s policy pages are – to put it mildly – light on detail.  However, he says he does want to invest in “skills training to ensure Canadian skills are matched with Canadian jobs” (whatever that means).  Also, having lived in Switzerland for some time, he advocates a Swiss-style apprenticeship program which extends into industries like banking, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Andrew Scheer (Former Speaker of the House of Commons, MP Regina-Qu’appelle) Scheer’s money proposals in education are limited to a pledge that parents of students attending independent schools a tax deduction of up to $4000 tuition annually per child, and a tax credit of $1,000 (i.e. a $150 reduction in taxes) to parents who choose to homeschool their child.  In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”.  He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP.  Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.

Brad Trost (ex-MP Saskatoon-University): Nothing apart from a pledge for tax support to private education and homeschooling identical to Scheer’s.

And that’s the lot.  I think it’s fair to say that the field’s appreciation for the role of knowledge and skills in the modern economy is pretty weak.   Maybe dangerously so.  Still, if you are voting in this election and you think PSE and skills are important, your best bet is probably Chris Alexander; if you want to raise youth living standards, vote for O’Toole followed perhaps by Maxime Bernier or Lisa Raitt.

(And yes, I know the percentage of Conservative voters motivated by those two sets of issues are vanishingly small, but I only have this one shtick, so cut me some slack).

 

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