HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 19

The Canada Post-Secondary Education Act

History lesson: Back in 1864, Canada West (i.e. Ontario) was getting hot under the collar about a little thing called representation by population.  Since the Durham Report, the two Canadas had been governed under a system that gave both Upper and Lower Canada a veto over legislation.  This had made sense when the two colonies were roughly the same size, but now that Canada West was growing faster, it seemed like a bad deal.

The solution to this problem was called federalism: two orders of government, with different sets of powers.  And Quebec was totally cool with rep-by-pop at the federal level, provided – and this is key – that Education remain a provincial responsibility.  Because on no account was Quebec going to let Protestant Anglophone Ontarians get their stinking dirty hands on their Francophone, Catholic school system, period.  In other words, the bargain on which our nation rests is that education shall never be a federal responsibility.

So why is there a Canada Post-Secondary Education Act, a private member’s bill, under consideration in Ottawa?

The short answer is, because NDP PSE critics always sponsor one, and have done for the last three Parliaments, at least.  And the reason they do so is that they’re in hock to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), who drafted a model Act something like 30 years ago, and keep lobbying for its adoption.  Why CAUT thinks it’s such a hot idea is a mystery.  Partly, I suspect, it’s because many of its members belong to the shade of Anglophone political opinion that somehow believes “federal govt = important govt”, and important questions need to be dealt with by the important level of government.  More pragmatically, I suppose, it’s because Ottawa-based interest groups like CAUT always prefer constitutional interpretations that involve shifting the action to Ottawa.

You can see the CAUT version of the bill here, and you can see the NDP version of the bill – which is substantially different – here.  In some ways it’s a harmless enough bill.  Basically, it suggests that PSE transfers to provinces be conditional on a bunch of things that, for the most part, provinces already do.  But there are two extremely silly elements in the NDP version of the bill, which suggest whoever drafted it hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking through potential consequences.

The first is the stipulation that all post-secondary education in the receiving provinces must be “publicly administered”, that is “provided on a public and not-for-profit basis”.  That definition makes complete sense for community colleges, but less so for everyone else.  What happens to religious schools like Redeemer or Trinity Western?  What happens to foreign providers licensed to operate here (e.g. Charles Sturt in Ontario)?  What happens to the hundreds of licensed private vocational colleges and language schools?  Hell, what happens to union-run apprenticeship trades training organizations?  Add all that up, and you’re well over a hundred thousand students suddenly without a home.

The second is the exemption of the Act’s provisions on the grounds of the “unique nature of (its) jurisdiction”.  I’m sure this makes for good politics within the NDP caucus, where a large number are likely supporters of sovereigntist parties provincially, but it’s legal nonsense.  Sure, Quebec might be the reason education is a provincial responsibility, but constitutionally all provinces are equal, and none are more equal than others.

All of this is a footnote of course: private members bills rarely get to the floor of the house, and even if the present one did it would be voted down.  But for a party that may have a share of government after the next election, it’s a disappointingly amateur effort.

November 18

Origins

Higher education is a tradition-driven industry.  It’s frankly useless to try and deduce very much about national higher education systems based on public/private split, funding systems, methods of student selection, etc.  If you really want to understand what a country’s university system looks like, go find a history of the country’s first institutions.  That’s where you’ll find all the answers.

Within each country, the first university (or perhaps two or three) tends to act as a “model”, which the rest of the system tries to emulate.  So in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge were the model for later institutions; in the US, it was Harvard; in Uganda it was Makerere, etc. etc.  Canada is actually one of the few countries where this isn’t true. You could make an argument that McGill and Toronto (the oldest English-language universities in Lower and Upper Canada, respectively) played this role, but you’d have to ignore places like Laval and UNB for it to work.  Tricky.

Now among these model institutions, there are basically only three “origin stories” out there.  In Europe, most of the early universities began as communities of scholars who banded together out of necessity.  And though they often sought protection under the state’s wing (at Bologna, they did so in order to weaken the collective bargaining power of students), they still saw themselves as the university, and viewed things like the right to elect a President as an essential component of university life.  Thus, in Europe, the way a university “ought” to be run involves a great deal of collective faculty authority.  This privilege is guarded jealously, even at the price of lower levels of funding and fiscal autonomy.

In Anglophone settler societies, the first universities tended to be created by small communities, which banded together and created their own institutions (often mediated through the offices of the church).  That is, the community’s will came first, and the professors came second.  This gave rise to a system where professors had considerably less power, and the board of governors comparatively more.  The Board expressed that power at a day-to-day level by installing a strong president to keep the faculty in line.  But even though public education became the norm in all of these countries, the tradition of endowing institutions with strong external boards and powerful Presidents remain.

(There are some exceptions to this rule.  At the University of Melbourne, for instance, the governing board just ran the place directly for 80 years, waiting until the early 1930s to hire a full-time Vice-Chancellor. Hard to believe the place survived, frankly.)

In Asia and Africa, the earliest universities were creatures of the state.  In these countries, there is a considerable tradition of strong state direction, even in private universities.  A phrase one hears frequently in these countries when discussing university autonomy is: “there is only one university – the Ministry of Education” (meaning that little variation is tolerated, regardless of the legal status of the institution).  In Taiwan for instance, even though most institutions are private rather than public, Taiwan National is still the model (ditto Tokyo University and Japan, or Seoul National University and Korea).  As in anglophone settler countries, there is a tradition of a strong President, but in these countries their role is more about executing government orders.

(Latin America is probably a fourth model – based on a weird mix of strong church, weak state, and a chaotic private sector – but I don’t know Latin American origin stories well enough to fit them into this framework.  Mea culpa, and I’ll get back to you on that one.)

These aren’t just historical curios.  Origins constrain people’s mental conceptions of what a university is and what it can be.  Although rankings and other forces are pushing people towards a Global Standard Model of a university, the continued strength of regional traditions ensure that these transitions will not be frictionless.

November 17

Affordability

If I could ban one word from higher education discussions, it’s “affordability”.  It’s a word without precision, and, particularly when used as a synonym for “accessibility”, it’s downright misleading and harmful.

The worst is when someone uses the raw price of a good – in this case tuition – to indicate “affordability”; as in: “tuition went up 5% last year, and that makes it less affordable”.  This is simply asinine.  When the price of milk or gas goes up, we don’t wring our hands about the “affordability” of milk or gas.  We don’t do this for two reasons.  The first is that “affordability”, as a concept, is a ratio and not a point. It’s a function not just of price, but of available resources.  If people were serious when talking about affordability, they would be talking about it in terms of fractions, not prices.

(This of course raises a question – what should we use as a denominator?  When I talk affordability, I tend to use mean or median family income, because nearly all students entering post-secondary education for the first time are drawing on family resources to do so.  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tends to use much smaller numbers as a denominator, like whatever the minimum wage happens to be.  I get where they’re coming from on this – many students, as they get older, pick up more of the burden of their education costs [though they also tend to earn significantly more than minimum wage].  My number will tend make the fraction fairly small.  Their number will make it look large.  Who’s right?  It depends; to some extent, we both are.)

Which brings us to the second issue: there are people for whom a night out at the movies is affordable, and others for whom it is not.  For some people a Mercedes S-500 is affordable, for others (most of us) it’s not.  Demand curves slope downward, and affordability matters at the margin, not the average.  Most people are simply not affected by an increase in price.  Even in the largest tuition increase in history – the English tuition hike of 2012, where tuition rose by nearly $9,000 – the net effect on applications was only about 5%.  To the extent that affordability affects accessibility, the issue is always about how it affects student at the margin, not how it affects the average student.

That’s why student aid is important.  Student aid helps the students at the margin (or at least it does so everywhere outside Ontario, where “needy” has been re-defined by a vote-grubbing government as anyone with income under $160,000).  Having grants offsetting higher costs is precisely the way affordability concerns should be dealt with – provided you think that affordability is an access issue.

The problem is, for most people the question of affordability is about almost anything other than accessibility.  For most, it’s about making sure that whoever is paying for tuition has more money in their pocket to have a better “quality of life”.   Parents – you deserve that second vacation each year rather than paying tuition!  Students – you should have smaller loan repayments on your way to being the upper-middle class of tomorrow!

Affordability – as a ratio – is thus an important concept in the way we design student aid to help students at the margin.  But the way most people try to explain the concept, and the purposes for which they deploy the concept, are either wrong or disingenuous.  We need to talk a lot more about access and a lot less about affordability.

November 14

CASA at 20

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) turns 20 early next year (January or June, depending on what you take as a founding date).  But since the real founding events actually happened the previous November, I thought it would be worth offering some thoughts on it now.

Until the early 1990s, there had never been more than one national student association.  There was a National Federation of Canadian University Students dating from the 30s; this eventually became the Canadian Union of Students, which eventually collapsed in a paroxysm of anarcho-syndicalism in 1969.  It was briefly revived in the 1970s as the National Union of Students, and then again in 1981 as the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS); until the early 1990s, this was the unquestioned “natural” state of affairs.

CFS in the early 1990s was a nightmare of factionalism, but the policy towards non-members was still at least somewhat ecumenical.  The very biggest schools – Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta – stayed out because CFS’ one-school, one-vote policy was a turn off.  But they would still go to CFS meetings every year because that’s just what one did – it was the place all student leaders went to meet.  Despite any internal strife, it would all remain pretty good fun unless one side won.  In 1994, one side did.  The left faction, led by Guy Caron (now an NDP MP) and Brad Lavigne (an NDP strategist I profiled back here) took control, and proceeded to purge the opposition.  That led a number of the more moderate schools to start a series of escape referenda to start planning a new organization.

As it happened, a new organization was already being formed.  The 1993 election was the first to be fought after the internet became widespread, and a group led by (amongst others) now-Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, co-ordinated their own moderately-effective “vote Education” campaign.  This led to continued contacts and – eventually – a determination to create a new organization.

And so, by late 1994, there were three groups of non-CFS student unions circling each other – the ones (mainly from the Maritimes) who were leaving CFS who knew what kind of organization they didn’t want, the ones from Ontario who had just set up the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in opposition to CFS-Ontario, and wanted an exact copy in Ottawa, and the ones who had never been in a national student organization (Alberta, Calgary, UBC, McGill), and who were just pleased to be doing something new.  Suffice to say, there was a fair bit of mutual suspicion, and they didn’t all get on.  Indeed, in the fall of ’94 – 20 years this month, in fact – there was a moment where it all could have fallen apart when some of the western schools tried to disinvite the on-their-way-out-of-CFS schools from a major preparatory meeting in Edmonton.

Cooler heads prevailed and eventually CASA came to be in early 1995 (though it’s notable that some of the political fault-lines of the mid-90s still exist – culture matters, even in student unions).  And though it’s changed considerably since its inception – it’s significantly more centralized and bureaucratized than anyone thought possible or necessary in the mid-1990s – it has played a significant role in Ottawa over the years, not least by serving as a constant reminder to MPs that CFS’ nonsensically specious policies and methods don’t command unanimous support among Canadian students.

So, L’chaiyim, CASA.  Here’s to 20 more.

November 13

Preparing Students for the Workforce

There’s a line I hear every once in awhile from profs (mainly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) saying something to the effect of: their job is not to prepare students for the world of work; rather, they want to prepare students’ minds to be critical thinkers or better citizens, or something like that.  Actually, it’s usually phrased less delicately, like: “I’m not preparing kids to be cannon fodder for the knowledge economy”; “I don’t give a damn what employers think, I only care about my students”, etc., etc.

Now, this is admirable, in a way.  Universities certainly shouldn’t be training people for specific jobs (and to be fair, I don’t think there are that many people arguing this).  Even where universities are offering professional education, as a rule they should be training people for diverse careers in a profession, not a particular job.

But in a way, it’s also kind of a silly position to take, for two reasons:

First: It’s not either/or.  The insistence that education either has to be “for” the labour market or “for” personal betterment/critical thinking is laughable.  For instance, most of the skills that matter for the humanities – the ability to critically appraise documents and arguments, appreciating complex chains of causation, writing clearly and effectively – are also pretty important in the world of work.  Surely it is not beyond the wit of universities to design programs fit for multiple purposes.  So why is there such a tendency within the academy to strut and preen and claim that never the two shall be one?

Second: If you really do want to put the student first, then employability skills need to be front and centre.  Getting better jobs is really why students are there – and that’s been the case for a very long time.

Every three years, since 1998, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) has been asking freshman why they decided to attend university.  The top two answers have always been “to get a better job” or “to train for a specific job or career”.  The next two answers have always been “to get a good general education” and “to gain knowledge in a certain field” (See?  Students don’t think it’s either/or).  The humanities aren’t exempt from this: 76% of students in these fields say “getting a good job” is “very important” to them.

Figure 1: Importance of Various Factors in First-Year Canadian Students’ Decision to Attend University, 1998-2013 (Percentage Indicating Each Factor is “Very Important”)

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Now, if you actually drill down to what the single most important factor is, the results are even starker.  In 2013, fully 68% picked “getting a good job” or “preparing for a career” as the most important reason to attend university; only 16% picked “increasing knowledge in a specific field” or “getting a good general education”.  That’s not new, either: in 2001 it was 65% and 16%, respectively.

So while it’s legitimate to want to ignore the views of employers (especially in an era when employers are getting simultaneously pushier about wanting job-ready graduates, and stingier with the training dollars), it’s not legitimate to say that higher education shouldn’t be concerned with employability and the labour market.

It’s not for the companies – it’s for the students.  It’s what they want.  It’s what they think they’re paying for.  It’s what they deserve.

November 12

An Update from Australia

Back in our spring (their fall), the Government of Australia announced a new university funding policy, which consisted of:

  • Cutting per-student public funding by about 20%; but,
  • Subsequently allowing funding to rise along with enrolments (this is known in Australia as “demand-driven funding”);
  • Simultaneously de-regulating all tuition; and,
  • Allowing the interest rate on student loans to rise from equal to inflation to equal to the government’s 10-year bond rate (i.e. actually placing a real interest rate on the loan).

Understandably, students opposed the idea, while high-prestige universities loved it.  Other universities were less keen, but figured student dollars are more reliable than government dollars, and so mostly backed the reforms (albeit without much enthusiasm).  The opposition Labour Party opposed the policy and made some substantive critiques of it here, but offered no counter-proposal other than the status quo, which isn’t great for universities either.

From the start, the potential hitch to this plan has been that, while the Liberal/National coalition has a solid majority in the House, the balance of power in the Senate is held by the Palmer United Party (imagine Ford Nation run by a successful self-made businessman rather than a crack-head with the impulse control of a five-year old), and the Motoring Enthusiast Party (yes, really).  That doesn’t matter so much in terms of implementing spending cuts – Australia sets caps on spending, but the government of the day is free to spend less without parliamentary approval – but it does matter for tuition where policy changes require an Act of Parliament.  And so there has always been the possibility that if the budget legislation stalls, government funding to institutions could be cut without institutions being able to raise fees to compensate.

Many insiders (mainly from within universities themselves) have suggested that if the government ditched the interest rate policy, the hard feelings of recalcitrant VCs and disappointed students would be smoothed over enough to allow the policy through.  However, Clive Palmer has, to date, been adamant that he’s in favour of free fees, and no fiddling around with interest rates is going to change his mind.  And while he’s been known to make deals on other issues (notably climate change), he’s not left himself much room for deal-making.

The government will avoid putting the proposals to a Senate vote if there’s a chance of them being rejected.  With the House soon breaking for Christmas, it’s looking likelier than ever that a vote won’t take place until 2015, leaving institutions in a bit of a tizzy.  The big universities wanted the deal done months ago so they could announce their new fee structure (to date, Western Australia is the only institution brave/crazy enough to do so), and start reaping the rewards of a big fee increase; now, they have virtually no basis on which to do any budgeting because they have literally no idea what their income will look like in 2016.

All of which makes deciphering what the policy will look like in practice an exercise in pure theory.  Without some idea of institutional pricing strategy, there’s no way to model the program’s effects.  With no model to work from, it’s anyone’s guess  as to how this will play out – a state of affairs that sits just fine with the doom-mongers and headline-writers who enjoy talking about $100,000 degrees.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably put my money against deregulation becoming law in 2015.   But Aussies tend to give their governments second terms even if they are a complete shambles (see: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard), and a new government might have a better mandate to push this through come 2016.

November 11

An Update from England

In 2012, the UK government allowed tuition in English universities to rise from a little over £3,300 to ($5,500) to about £9,000 ($15,300) in a single year.  Well, technically, they de-regulated tuition up to a maximum of £9,000, but since charging less than the maximum would obviously imply that programs weren’t top-quality, pretty much everyone went to the maximum immediately. Actual average tuition jumped to about £8,600 ($14,620).

So, of course, we’ve all been wondering what the effects of this would be.  I’ve looked at the evidence a few times in the past (see here, here, and here), but now the UK University and College Application Service (UCAS) has issued a summary of the effects of fee increases on student demand.  Why UCAS – the body that processes university applications, but by dint of which is also the body that monitors changes in applications and enrolments by things like age, race, income, etc. – chose to answer these questions on a very short Q+A webpage rather than with a report with corroborating evidence is a bit puzzling; nevertheless, the corroborating evidence can be found in the organization’s own annual analyses of demand, available here.

UCAS’ conclusions were as follows: that the fee increase did cause a small one-time reduction of demand.  But the long-term trend of increasing demand continued, and application rates are now at their highest level ever.  Most importantly, and I quote, “In terms of demand, entry, and type of institution, differences by background have reduced over this period”.

Got that?  Not only did a $9,000 increase in tuition, with only loans and no grants to offset the higher fees, not increase educational disparities by race, income, etc., they actually coincided with a narrowing of educational gaps.

(For clarity here, neither I nor UCAS is implying that the narrowing of the gap is caused by the tuition increase; merely that the trend was unaffected by the increase.)

The English fee policy is still ludicrous, of course.  Charging a huge fee when you know that students can’t pay it back is just idiotic (current estimates suggest that 50% of all fee loans will go unpaid, and that 80% of students will receive some loan forgiveness).  But nevertheless, it is very striking evidence about how resilient demand is in the face of tuition increases.  You’d think that governments around the world would take a look at this and say, “hey, most everything people claim about the negative effects of tuition fees on access didn’t happen here.  Why is that, and should our government re-consider our policies in light of it?”  You might also think that governments that don’t do this might be guilty of deliberately ignoring evidence in order to preserve policies which harm the long-term health of universities, in service of crass short-term political objectives.

You might think that – of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.

November 10

Three Rules for Politicos

So I see that the Government of Ontario has announced what is possibly the most boutique student aid program of all time.  If students volunteer at the 2014-15 PanAm Games, they will be exempted from the pre-study period contribution (a contribution from the money you earn up to 16 weeks prior to the start of your studies) for 2015-16, and will be get a 12-month grace period on their loans (instead of 6-month) before needing to start repayment.

<puts computer away>

<sighs, drinks some Red Bull, looks out the window wistfully>

<slams head against desk violently, yelling “WHY?  WHY MUST THIS PROVINCE BE GOVERNED SO BADLY?  WHY?>

<Breathes deeply.  Opens computer again>

OK, three things here.  Three things every politician in the country desperately needs to understand:

1)     Exploiting Unpaid Labour =/= Encouraging Voluntarism.  If it’s mandatory – as in “mandatory volunteering hours in high school” – it’s not volunteering.  If you pay for it in kind, it’s not volunteering.  This kind of thing demeans the notion of actual volunteering.

Oh wait, you’re worried that you’re asking someone to do too much for nothing?  Then PAY THEM, you gibbering moron.  Pay them for their work.  It’s not hard: we’ve been doing it since the end of serfdom.

2)     Stop Using Student Aid as an Indirect Government Policy Tool.  This seems to be in everyone’s playbook these days.  Not enough money in the PanAm kitty because you’ve blown it all on buying out incompetent executives?  Use student aid as a way to attract cheap labour!  Having trouble filling rural nursing or legal aid positions?  Use student loan forgiveness as a recruitment tool!

No.  No, no, no!  Student aid is about giving money to students to complete their studies.  If you want to play labour market games, do so directly.  Problem finding nurses for rural areas?  Have the damn Health Ministry pay them more.  Otherwise, you’re sending the message that you only want nurses from poorer families – the ones whose parents couldn’t give them enough money to keep them off student loans – to work in rural areas.

3)     No More Boutique Programs.  Student aid is already way too complicated.  Governments are collectively throwing $5.6 billion into student subsidies – that is, about 78% of the value of domestic tuition fees (institutions throw in another $1.6 billion on top of that).  And yet everyone thinks the cost of education is sky-high: students and parents simply do not understand the subsidies they are being given.  That is a clear sign of policy failure. 

Basically, if you’re thinking up boutique policy in student aid you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I realise this may come as a shock to the Ontario Liberals, who appear not to know any way to govern other than through policy boutiquery, but it’s true.  The priority for the coming years must be to simplify the system, not to tack on more bells and whistles.  Period.

Got that, politicos?  Pay the kids for their work, keep student aid simple, and tell the other ministries to stop using student aid as a way to backstop their own policy failures.  Stick to those three rules, and you’ll do all right.

November 07

Better Know a Higher Ed System: The Russian Federation

Yesterday I told you a little bit about late-Soviet higher education.  Today, I’ll explain a little bit about how higher education has fared in the Russian Federation since 1991.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about higher education in Russia today is that it exists at all.  Ever wonder how many people would still be at your university or college if pay stopped for months on end?  That actually happened in Russia.  In the chaos of the early 1990s, funding for universities fell by 80% (and could cease altogether for months at a time), and funding for research fell by 95%.  Foreign aid programs – run mainly by the EU and a couple of large American foundations – briefly made up over half of all research dollars available in the mid-90s (donors were interested in preserving Soviet science, but even more so in keeping Russian nuclear physicists too busy to contemplate going to Iran or North Korea).

During the long university freeze, institutions were told to raise their own money.  With decades of co-operation with industry, tapping business was an obvious route to go – or would have been had the Russian economy not been collapsing at the same time.  That left tuition fees as a solution: except that, legally, tuition was supposed to be free.  The solution, as in many post-socialist countries (e.g. Poland, Romania), was to offer dual-track tuition – those who did well on exams got to go for free, while those who did less well were offered full-cost places.

Where the Russians went further than most was in the way they handled the exams.  Basically, institutions discovered they could make even more money if they each set their own exam, and then offered courses on how to pass their exams.  That way, even if they let someone in free for an undergraduate course, they could still make money off them during the pre-university tutorial period.  And since being in university also got males out of military service, the onset of the Chechen crisis also did wonders for the ability to charge fees for this kind of thing.

Under the communists, most higher education institutions were not universities but polytechnics or specialized institutions.  This changed in the early 1990s when, under a new accreditation system, most were allowed to call themselves universities (which they all did, because of prestige).  At about the same time, many institutions began to opens schools of business, social sciences, and humanities, because in the post-Soviet period, that’s where the demand was.  In this, new private universities were not at a prestige disadvantage to the older universities, because the discredit was most discredited in precisely these areas.   A private university sector thus grew as well.  All told, enrolment at universities almost tripled between 1995 and 2007, with virtually all the growth coming in the fee-paying sector.

Another hangover from the communist period was the separation of research and teaching.  Most research in Soviet times was done in research institutes and academies, away from universities – and though there was a lively discussion about whether or not to ditch this system in the early 90s, inertia prevailed and the university/academy bifurcation remained.  Just as Russian science returned to something approaching health in the mid-2000s, global rankings like the Shanghai and Times Rankings began to show how poor Russian university scientific production was compared to the rest of the world.  At best, Moscow State (Lomonosov) University and St. Petersburg State are capable of making a top 500 of global research universities – no one else is close.   Unfortunately the major investments the Russian government is putting forward through the Project 5/100, which aims to put five Russian universities in the global top 100 by 2020 aren’t going to make a lick of difference to this unless the government bridges the university/academy divide.  Unfortunately, that seems as far distant as ever.

November 06

Higher Education Reform Paradise on the Volga

I was recently in Moscow working on a small project, and so spent a couple of weeks mugging up on Russian higher education and its history.  My main takeaway is that there has never been a higher education system anywhere in the world that was more at the service of industry than that of the Soviet Union.

One of the very first Bolshevik documents on higher education (“On the work of the Higher School”, 1925), states this very clearly: “the basic task of higher educational establishments should be the training of workers for practical activity and production in the wide sense of the word in all its branches”.   Institutional entrance targets and curricula were all set centrally, in accordance with the needs of industry as set out in the National Plan.

Being at the service of industry led to significant institutional specialization.  Of the more than 700 post-secondary institutions in the Soviet Union in 1970, only 40 or so were actually “universities”.  The university appellation implied being top of the higher education prestige ladder (which in turn implied being one of the country’s older institutions, like St. Petersburg State University or Moscow State [Lomonosov] University, but which was only applied to institutions that taught humanities).  The rest were “polytechnics” (still relatively broad in terms of science and technology, but not full universities) or “specialist institutions”.  The specialist institutions were actually so specialized that they weren’t even under the control of the higher education ministry – institutions that trained doctors and nurses were under the Health Ministry, those dealing with veterinary or agricultural sciences were under the Agriculture Ministry, etc., etc.

For the most part, research was (and still is) handled outside universities, through many specialized academies were run centrally from Moscow and generally did not report to the Education Ministry.  The Soviets believed that researchers would be more productive in such institutes, and would be relieved of the burden of dealing with students every day (we do the same thing of course – we just label the practice differently).  Of the research conducted in higher education, roughly half came from the 40 universities, and the rest from the other 700 or so institutions.  This of course does not include what we today would call “applied research”, where the specialized institutes excelled – in many cases, they had experimental equipment directly incorporated into the factory floor to make knowledge transfer speedier.

Because institutions were so applied in their focus, graduates never had a problem finding jobs afterwards.  In fact, jobs for graduates were guaranteed – sometimes at the very factories where the students had done their applied research.  Towards the end of the Gorbachev period, the Soviet government tried to create a quasi-market in graduates, asking companies to pay universities 3,000 roubles per student rather than order them up for nothing from a central agency.  This failed miserably, though whether it was due to companies’ inherent cheapness or the fact that the Soviet economy was starting to tank at the time is unknowable.

It’s also worth noting that the late Soviet higher education system had something called “People’s Universities”, though the “university” in question was just any local group (and there were thousands of them) that decided to put on a free adult education class.  Though the classes were organized locally, there was a national infrastructure behind the course curricula, financed through the sale of pedagogical materials (mainly books used as course texts).  Some of these were professionally oriented (e.g courses on car manufacturing, targeted at industrial workers), and could count towards other certifications, but mainly the courses were personal interest affairs.  If that’s not a system of proto-MOOCs, I’m not sure what is.

MOOCs, differentiation, specialization, applied research, industry focus… sounds like a right-wing higher ed reformer’s paradise, doesn’t it?  Gwyn Morgan would have loved it.

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