Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 08

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Qatar

Until about fifteen years ago, Qatar was a pretty typical Gulf country as far as higher education was concerned. With a single state university, founded and staffed mostly by Egyptians, it satisfied the needs of the small domestic population.  But then the country decided to get serious about higher education.

With help from the RAND corporation, the ruling al-Thani family’s Qatar Foundation established something called Education City, an absolutely unique experiment in cross-border education.  Lots of institutions have set up campuses in foreign countries (including in the Gulf), but Education City was an attempt to create a single super-university, one faculty at a time.  Need an Engineering school?  Bring in Texas A&M.  Med School?  Call Cornell.  And so on.

(College of the North Atlantic – Qatar’s operation is not part of Education City but they were chosen on a similar basis.  I’m told that the Qataris wanted a Canadian partner for their college because: a) our reputation for excellence in vocational/professional education; and, b) our accents are easy to understand.  And then, among the Canadian schools, the Newfs won the competition.  Go figure.)

Since the Emir pays for everything, he got to attach conditions rarely seen in cross-border education, such as insisting that everyone who taught at these schools also had tenure at their home institution, and that knowledge-transfer mechanisms were in place with the existing Qatar University, so that eventually Qatari academics might be able to do all this themselves.  Because, at the end of the day, Education City provides an insurance policy against the day the LNG runs out, whereupon Qataris will have to live by their wits by being a knowledge-based economy (KBE).

But what made the whole thing surreal was the amount of money the al-Thanis sunk into the venture.  “Are we a KBE yet?” the Prince would ask, after having spent hundreds of millions on the new campus.

“Well, no,” would come the reply.  The Education City faculty are good, but KBEs need high-interaction between universities and tech-oriented businesses”.

“Ok,” said the Sheikh. “Let’s go get some of that”.  Boom, Cisco and Microsoft get a purpose-built $500M campus next to Education City, exempted of all rules about hiring Qatari employees.

Then: “So, do we have a KBE yet?”

“Well, no.  Turns out we can’t get good mid-career faculty to come here because there’s no research career for them.  We need granting councils”.

“How much do those cost?”

“Well, in advanced KBEs, governments spend about 1% of GDP on research”.

“Great, here’s the cheque, let me know when we have a KBE”.

For a whole bunch of reasons, this isn’t going to turn out as well as the Emir would like – but it’s still a fascinating approach to creating a higher education system from scratch.

November 07

International Alliances and Research Agreements

In business, companies strive to increase market share; in higher education, institutions compete for prestige.  This is why, despite whatever your told by people in universities, rankings are catnip to university administrations: by codifying prestige, they give institutions actual benchmarks against which they can measure themselves.

But prestige is actually much harder to amass than market share.  Markets can increase in size; prestige is a zero-sum affair (my prestige is related directly to your lack thereof).  And universities have fewer tools than businesses to extend their reach.  Mergers are not unheard of – indeed, the pressure of global rankings has been a factor behind a wave of institutional mergers in France, Russia, and Scandinavia – but these tend to be initiated by governments rather than institutions. Hostile take-overs are even less common (though UBC’s acquisition of a campus in the Okanagan shows it’s not impossible).

So, what’s a university to do?  Increasingly, the answer seems to be: “make strategic alliances”.

These tend to come in two forms: multi-institutional alliances (like Universitas 21, the Coimbra Group, and the like), and bilateral institutional deals.  Occasionally, the latter exercise can go as far as ambitious, near-institutional mergers (see the Monash-Warwick alliance, for instance), but it usually consists of much simpler initiatives – MOUs between two institutions, designed to promote co-operation in fairly general terms.  There’s a whole industry around this now – both QS and Thompson Reuters offer services to help institutions identify the most promising research partners.  And signing these MOUs seem to take up an increasing amount of time, effort, and air miles among senior managers.

So it’s fair to ask: do these MOUs make any difference at all to research output?  I have no hard evidence on this, but I suspect that returns are actually pretty meagre.  While inter-institutional co-operation is increasing all the time, for the most part these links are organic; that is, they arise spontaneously from the interaction of individual researchers coming up with cool ideas for collaboration, rather than from more top-down interactions.  While there’s a lot that governments and institutions can do to promote inter-institutional linkages in general, there’s a very limited amount that central administrations can do to promote specific linkages, that doesn’t quickly become counterproductive.

Having significant international research links is indeed the sign of a good university – the problem is that for managers under pressure to demonstrate results, organic growth isn’t fast enough.  The appeal of all these MOUs is that they give the appearance of rapid progress on internationalization.  But given the time and money expended on these things, some rigour is called for. This is an area where Board members can, and should, hold their administrations to account, and ask for some reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

November 06

Teach for Canada: Attack of the Kielberger Colonialists

I see the Globe has given some laudatory coverage to something called “Teach for Canada”.  The brain-child of a couple of Bay Street types (who have never themselves taught a class), the idea here is to shamelessly rip-off Teach for America (TFA) and apply its methods to the problem of low achievement among the country’s Aboriginal youth.

This is a terrible idea.  And here’s why:

TFA recruits top university graduates right out of their undergraduate program, to do two years of teaching in some of the country’s poorest communities.  The idea is that bright, energetic, idealistic grads can succeed in teaching underprivileged youth, where regular, salaried teachers cannot.  And indeed, there’s some significant evidence that the program does work in terms of raising Math scores – such as this new study from the US Department of Education.

There is, however, no reason to think that this approach would have a similar effect if deployed in Canada among Aboriginal youth.

The reason TFA delivers some modest results is not because their brief training stint and alternative certification is equally effective as teachers college; rather, it’s because the quality of teachers in US public schools is so patchy.  Teaching isn’t a valued profession in the US, and doesn’t attract top students; the teacher-training itself is pretty weak by international standards (see Amanda Ripley’s, The Smartest Kids in the World for a decent summary on this).  Also, schools serving the poorest students tend to get weaker teachers, because funding is local and their tax base can’t support high teacher pay – a problem Canada doesn’t really have to deal with.  Of course, Canada isn’t completely free from these problems, but they’re nowhere near as severe here as they are in the US.

Ah, you say, but what about on reserves?  Doesn’t the argument hold there?

Well, the pay argument certainly does.  But let’s be clear: TFA was designed for urban environments.  TFA staff get ongoing training and mentorship.  TFA staff, for the most part, still get to live in (or close to) hip urban areas.  TFA does not go to reserves in fly-in communities, in part because the number of volunteers would be pretty low, but also because the model itself simply wouldn’t work.

More importantly, perhaps: the idea that what First Nations need are a lot of well-meaning but inexperienced white kids showing up in their communities saying, “we’re here to help!” is plain ludicrous.  There’s no doubt that education for First Nations, particularly those from more remote communities, is in a desperate state, and deserving of vastly more money and policy attention than it currently receives.  But youthful enthusiasm just isn’t a substitute for money and teaching experience.

Teach for Canada is pure do-gooding Kielberger-style colonialism.  It’s an idea that deserves a quick death.

November 05

Owning the Podium

I’m sure many of you saw Western President, Amit Chakma’s, op-ed in the National Post last week, suggesting that Canadian universities need more government assistance to reach new heights of excellence, and “own the podium” in global academia.  I’ve been told that Chakma’s op-ed presages a new push by the U-15 for a dedicated set of “excellence funds” which, presumably, would end up mostly in the U-15′s own hands (for what is excellence if not research done by the U-15?).  All I can say is that the argument needs some work.

The piece starts out with scare metrics to show that Canada is “falling behind”.  Australia has just two-thirds our population, yet has seven institutions in the QS top 100, compared to Canada’s five!  Why anyone should care about this specific cut-off (use the top-200 in the QS rankings and Canada beats Australia 9 to 8), or this specific ranking (in the THE rankings, Canada and Australia each have 4 spots), Chakma never makes clear.

The piece then moves on to make the case that, “other countries such as Germany, Israel, China and India are upping their game” in public funding of research (no mention of the fact that Canada spends more public dollars on higher education and research than any of these countries), which leads us to the astonishing non-sequitur that, “if universities in other jurisdictions are beating us on key academic and research measures, it’s not surprising that Canada is also being out-performed on key economic measures”.

This proposition – that public funding of education is a leading indicator of economic performance – is demonstrably false.  Germany has just about the weakest higher education spending in the OECD, and it’s doing just fine, economically.  The US has about the highest, and it’s still in its worst economic slowdown in over seventy-five years.  Claiming that there is some kind of demonstrable short-term link is the kind of thing that will get universities into trouble.  I mean, someone might just say, “well, Canada has the 4th-highest level of public funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP in the OECD – doesn’t that mean we should be doing better?  And if that’s indeed true, and our economy is so mediocre, doesn’t that give us reason to suspect that maybe our universities aren’t delivering the goods?”

According to Chakma, Canada has arrived at its allegedly-wretched state by virtue of having a funding formula which prioritizes bums-in-seats instead of excellence.  But that’s a tough sell.  Most countries (including oh-so-great Australia) have funding formulae at least as demand-oriented as our own – and most are working with considerably fewer dollars per student as well.  If Australia is in fact “beating” us (a debatable proposition), one might reasonably suspect that it has at least as much to do with management as it does money.

Presumably, though, that’s not a hypothesis the U-15 wants to test.

November 04

Concentration vs. Distribution

I’m spending part of this week in Shanghai at the bi-annual World-Class Universities conference, which is put on by the good folks who run the Shanghai Jiao Tong Rankings. I’ll be telling you more about this conference later, but today I wanted to pick up on a story from the last set of Shanghai rankings in August.  You’d be forgiven for missing it – Shanghai doesn’t make the news the way the Times Higher Education rankings does, because its methodology doesn’t allow for much change at the top.

The story had to with Saudi Arabia.  As recently as 2008, it had no universities in the top 500; now it has four, largely because of the way they are strategically hiring highly-cited scientists (on a part-time basis, one assumes, but I don’t know that for sure).  King Saud University, which only entered the rankings in 2009, has now cracked the top-200, making it by far the fastest rise of any institution in the history of any set of rankings.  But since this doesn’t line up with the “East Asian tigers overtaking Europe/America” line that everyone seems eager to hear, no one published it.

You see, we’re addicted to this idea that if you have great universities then great economic development will follow.  There were some surprised comments on twitter about the lack of a German presence in the rankings.  But why?  Whoever said that having a few strong top universities is the key to success?

Strong universities benefit their local economies – that’s been clear for decades.  And if you tilt the playing-field more towards those institutions – as David Naylor argued in a very good talk last spring, there’s no question that it will pay some returns in terms of discovery and innovation.  But the issue is one of opportunity costs: would such a concentration of resources create more innovation and spill-over benefits than other possible distributions of funds?  Those who make the argument for concentration (see, for instance, HEQCO’s recent paper on differentiation) seem to take this as given, but I’m not convinced their case is right.

Put it this way: if some government had a spare billion lying around, and the politics of regional envy wasn’t an issue, and they wanted to spend it in higher education, which investment would have the bigger impact: putting it all into a single, “world-class” university?  Spreading it across maybe a half-dozen “good” universities?  Or spreading it across all institutions?  Concentrating the money might do a lot of good for the country (not to mention the institution at which it was concentrated – but maybe dispersing it would do more.  As convincing as Naylor’s speech was, this issue of opportunity costs wasn’t addressed.

Or, go back to Shanghai terminology: if it were up to you to choose, do you think Canada would be better served with one institution in the top ten worldwide (currently – none) or seven in the top 100 (currently – four) or thirty-five in the top 500 (currently – twenty-three)?  And what arguments would you make to back-up your decision?  I’m curious to hear your views.

November 01

Better Know a Higher Ed System: the East African Community

Yeah, I know: Africa’s not a country. But in higher education, at least, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are similar enough that they can be described as a single unit.

The story starts with Makerere University in Kampala, which was founded in 1922.  It’s the mothership for the whole region – both the University of Dar Es Salaam and the University of Nairobi (the Tanzanian and Kenyan flagships) started as its branch campuses back in the 1960s, when it was known as the University of East Africa. Makerere is a bit run-down lately (quite literally – one of its external walls collapsed and killed someone a few years ago), and it’s under constant financial pressure.  Academic staff recently went on strike for three weeks demanding a 100% raise (inflation’s kinda high in Uganda).  Eventually, they settled for 70%, but it’s really not clear how anyone’s going to pay for it.  Problems aren’t quite as bad in Kenya and Tanzania, but the basic issue of low pay for staff (and its accompanying phenomenon – brain drain) is endemic across the region.

Across all three countries, the public universities are the “prestige” institutions, even though they’re all abysmally funded, and have done very little to modernize their curricula over the years (students still spend 27+ hours/week in class, and practical work is scarce because of a lack of equipment).  As a result, all three countries also have burgeoning private sector universities to cope with demand overflow.  But unlike private systems in Poland or Asia, these universities tend not to be stand-alone, non-profit entities.  Rather, they almost always have connections to one of the local churches. Thus, there are networks of Catholic and Protestant Churches in all three countries, plus they all have at least one local Muslim university as well (the Aga Khan University also maintains a presence in all three countries.)  This puts a different spin on the term “private”, don’t you think?

Over the past decade or so, enrolment growth in all three countries has been astronomical, with annual increases of 15%, or more, being the norm.  And that’s despite having completely different student support systems.  Uganda has just a few fee-waiver scholarships – which, as is usually the case with these things, go to “meritorious” students, rich enough to go to a secondary school with tuition well above what the university charges – and no loans.  Kenya has fee waivers and a fairly small (but extremely well-run) student loan system, and Tanzania has an absurdly generous student loan scheme, which faces serious problems because they can’t actually collect anything.  (How generous, you ask?  They spend more on it than they do on their entire secondary school system.)

The fact is, regardless of the financial difficulties here, the application numbers keep soaring.  Keeping up with demand is job one.  International providers that can find ways to provide affordable education here could do very well.

October 31

Parents, Transfers, and Debt

A few weeks ago, CBC ran a story about parents taking on debt so that their kids didn’t have to.  It’s a story worth parsing carefully, because it’s a great example of how economically irrational people can be when it comes to debt.

One family in this story recounts shelling out $200,000 for their three kids to go to university.  They even went into debt themselves to do it.  But they wanted to do this, apparently, because they wanted their kids to have flexibility and freedom when they graduated.  This would allow their kids to take time to work out what they wanted to do, instead of being forced into work quickly.


Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of why anyone would take on debt at commercial rates when your kids could borrow interest-free from a public loan program (though, let’s face it, that’s kind of nuts).  If the only thing you’re worried about is making sure your kids are making stress-free career decisions, then why not let the kid borrow the money, and then agree to assume the loan repayment for the first couple of years after graduation?  Or let the kid ease into repayment by gradually transferring the burden (25% in the first year, 50% in the second, etc.)?  It’s far cheaper, and doesn’t require the student to take on any burden until they’re ready. It should be a slam dunk, no?

The problem, I think, is that transferring money to your kids while they’re in school is socially acceptable in a way that paying for your kids debts is not.  It’s not simply a matter of pre-graduation = child, post-graduation = adult, and that gifts to children are more acceptable than gifts to adults; giving large sums of money to your kids still is acceptable even after graduation, as long as it’s attached to certain types of life events (e.g. marriage, buying a house, etc.).  Taking on debt, as David Graeber has pointed out, presupposes adulthood, since debts can only be incurred between legal equals.  And settling debts, making good on one’s obligations, is intrinsically connected to notions of virtue and honour.  Interfering with this – offering to make payments in a child’s stead – is in some ways seen as interfering in a rite of adulthood in a way that simply handing them money prior to graduation is not.  Effectively, it’s emasculating.

There are many culturally-rooted views about debt out there, and policy can’t be made to accommodate them all. Equally, though, there’s no reason to assume that, just because government comes up with economically “rational” policies, students and families will react to them in a “rational” way.  There’s way too many notions of innocence, duty, sin, and honour tied up with children assuming debt for the first time for that to be possible.

October 30

The Cultural Determinants of Student Debt Policy

With the school year now back in full swing, one of the things you’ve undoubtedly heard, and will continue to hear, is the question of student debt, and how it has become “out of control”.  And in that spirit, I wanted to relay a little anecdote.

A few months ago, as part of a student loans-related project that I was working on in a Southeast-Asian country, I led a session for government and bank officials looking at possible loan parameters, and their potential cost implications.  One of the parameters, obviously, was the repayment period of the loan.  In most of my sample models, I had assumed that the period would look something like Canada’s – about 10 years.  But in most of the models the participants developed, the period was only 4-6 years.

Shorter repayment periods on student loans are pretty common in Asia – in China, 4-6 years is also the norm. The policy implications of shorter periods are straightforward.  If the government is providing interest subsidies, then shorter repayment periods will reduce those subsidies; if not, then shorter repayment periods reduce the total amount of interest paid by students.  Either way, the shorter the period, the greater the repayment burden to students, as they must distribute the repayment of a given principal over a shorter period of time.

None of this was an issue for the participants, who just viewed debt as something young people had to repay quickly in order to get on with their lives.  When I pointed out that, in some cases, this would mean repayments would take up between a quarter and a third of graduates’ income, there were shrugs.  Borrowers were, for the most part, young and unmarried, participants said, they can just live at home and pay it off quickly.  What about getting married, I asked?  Or buying a car, or a house?  Almost unanimously, the reaction was: “pay this one down first, then borrow again if you need to”.

At this point it occurred to me that the entire narrative around student debt in the developed world is based on the notion that post-secondary graduates ought to immediately be able to join the middle-class, with all the consumption privileges that implies.  Data suggesting that graduates are putting off purchases because of student debt are treated as prima facie evidence that student loan debt is out of control.  In Asia, on the other hand, this might be considered a sign of policy success.

I am not saying the Asian way is right and ours is wrong.  I am just saying it’s worth understanding the cultural biases behind our own policies – and occasionally asking ourselves how much we want to pay to keep those biases intact.

October 29

How Student Debt Became a Big Deal in Canada

If you go back to debates in the 1993 election, or Lloyd Axworthy’s famous Social Security “Green Paper”,  most of what you see in the discourse about PSE would be pretty familiar today: “higher tuition = less access”, etc.  But what you wouldn’t find was any discussion of student debt.  It just wasn’t something anyone talked about.

Partly, this was because there wasn’t a lot of student debt at the time.  Although federal and provincial loans programs were undergoing a series of changes (increases in loan limits, cuts in grant programs), which set the stage for much higher student loan debt, no one was feeling it yet. But the more important reason was that no one understood how potent “debt” could be as a political argument.  And it wasn’t student groups who would stumble upon this realization – it was the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

In the mid-90s, AUCC had a simple mantra: the sector needed to speak with one voice.  No squabbling with CAUT or student groups – find a package of measures everyone can agree on.  In 1996-7, that unity of purpose on the research file resulted in the creation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.  I was hired by AUCC at about that time to try to do the same thing for student aid.  I thought the idea was nuts – at the time, university Presidents primarily saw student aid as a revenue-generating device, and students weren’t going to sign up for that.

What bridged the gap was the decision to focus on student debt.  Students and Presidents might have different views about tuition, but everyone could agree that student debt was bad.  Heck, Paul Martin was on TV every damn night, telling us debt was bad.  Different kind of debt, obviously, but such was the zeitgeist – who could possibly be in favour of more debt?  And so we decided to focus on that.

As a matter of luck, in the summer of 1996, HRDC erroneously published an estimate stating that average debt among borrowers would reach $25,000 in 1998.  In fact, it would take another decade to do so, but the error allowed us to make invidious comparisons between student debt in Canada and debt among graduates of US private universities, where average debt at the time was about $17K.  Nothing spurred Chretien-era Liberals to action faster than invidious comparisons with the US;  All it took was one front page story in the Toronto Star, and suddenly student aid became a hot file.  A little help from our friends at CFS and other coalition allies, and all of a sudden, we had an entire federal budget dealing with student debt.

Bottom line: student debt didn’t organically become a political issue in Canada.  It was very much “invented” in Ottawa – a politically convenient way to paper-over the cracks of a lobbying coalition, and successfully cudgel against a sitting government at the same time.

October 28

Debt, Tuition, and Inequality

A few weeks ago, I noted on Twitter that back when I was in student politics (24 years and counting) we opposed tuition hikes because we feared their negative effect on access.  Back then, fees hadn’t increased in real terms in almost two decades, so there wasn’t much evidence either way on the issue.  More than two decades on, the evidence has accumulated, and, on the whole, it turns out that what we believed back then was mostly mistaken: despite much higher tuition, more students than ever are attending PSE, and more low-income students than ever are attending PSE.

As a result, it’s increasingly ridiculous to use access arguments against tuition increases: basically you’re reduced to slogans like, “tuition reduces access!  And it’s a disgrace more people are paying it every year!”  Given this, I asked Twitter peeps what the best grounds were for opposing higher tuition and debt.  The most common answer was some variation of “tuition/debt causes inequality”, on the grounds that graduates with debt accumulate assets more slowly than students without debt.

Superficially plausible, maybe, but still wrong.  Inequality doesn’t exist “because of” borrowing.  Everybody pays equal tuition fees; debt is incurred by those who don’t have the cash up front to pay for it.  Blaming student aid for inequality is just blaming student aid for the fact that some students come from poorer families, and others from richer ones.  You don’t have to condone inequality to realize that it’s a silly proposition.

So, students who go in rich don’t accumulate debt, and therefore end up richer at the other end; students who go in poor do accumulate debt, and therefore remain poorer at the other end.  But that would be true regardless of how fees are set.  If you reduce fees for all, everybody is made better by the same amount.  Poorer families end up with less debt, richer families get to keep more cash-in-hand.  For the abolition of fees to reduce inequality, it would have to create some kind of behavioural change among richer parents that would make them less likely to pass that extra money on to their kids.  And how likely is that?

These are all pretty basic observations, yet they rarely make it into the debate about tuition and debt.  Partly, it’s because inter-generational transfers complicate the analysis, but I think it’s mostly because debt makes people squirrelly.  As Margaret Atwood and David Graeber have pointed out in recent books, the concept of debt is tied-up with an enormous amount of cultural baggage, which makes it difficult to talk about in purely economic terms.  For the next couple of days, I’ll be unpacking some of these cultural issues, and how they affect our discourse on debt.

More tomorrow.

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