Higher Education Strategy Associates

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

Often, I think, I am seen as a bit of a downer on Canada.  It goes with the territory: my role in Canadian higher education is i) “the guy who knows what’s going on in other countries and ii) “the guy who pokes the bear”.  So frequently I ending up writing blogs saying why isn’t Canada doing X or wouldn’t it be great if we were more like Y, and people get the impression I’m down on the North.

Not true.  I think we have a pretty good system, one most of the world would envy if we could ever stop admiring our minute inter-provincial differences and explain our system properly.  Among OECD countries, we’re always in the top third of pretty much any higher education metric you want to use.  Never at the very top, but reasonably close.  It’s just that it’s not cheap, is all.  We’re never going to win any prizes for efficiency; countries like Israel, the Netherlands and Australia perform far better on those metrics.

But there is one area in which Canada does a fantastic job and doesn’t even realise it.  And that is the extent to which it has a strong culture of work-oriented higher education which is matched by few other countries.

Let’s start with our colleges and polytechnics, which for the most part deliver labour market-oriented professional education at a level known by UNESCO and OECD as “Type 5B” (bachelor’s degree programs are called “Type A”).  Among OECD countries only Japan and Korea do a greater proportion of young people have this kind of education.

Figure 1: Level 5 (post-secondary education) Attainment Rates of 25-34 year olds, Select OECD Countries



We sometimes hear complaints from colleges and polytechnics about not getting enough respect, but the fact is, Canada has arguably the best-funded and most successful non-university post-secondary education system in the world.  We should say it, and celebrate it.

What about the university system, you say?  Well, the University of Cincinnati may have invented co-op education, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the University of Waterloo perfected it.  Last time I checked, they were arranging over 17,000 co-op experiences for students every year.  And institutions across the country have adopted the idea as well.  Personally, I think that’s a result of competition from our excellent college sector: it keeps universities on their toes.


And OK, it’s easy to scoff at university claims that 40% of students get some kind of work-integrated learning experience because so many of them are so short-term and of not-particularly high quality, and because at least a few universities seem to care more about classifying as things as possible as “experiential” than actually creating more such experiences: but so what?  The fact that we’re having the debate at all suggests we are on the right track.  And that’s a sight better than most other countries I could name.

Now, I know some of you are going to say “but Germany! Switzerland! Apprentices!”.  And there are some admirable things about those systems (though, as I have said before), Canadians deeply misunderstand what it is apprenticeships in Germany actually do).  Namely, they aren’t post-secondary in nature (note how low Germany’s Type B score is in the figure above); rather, they’re part of the secondary system and in many ways are designed to keep people out of the post-secondary system.  It’s hard to compare out system to theirs.

So, in sum: could we do more on experiential and work-integrated learning?  Of course we could (and should).  But stop and smell the roses: compared to most places, we do a pretty good job on this stuff.  And we should acknowledge that to ourselves even if, in true Canadian fashion, we’re a little reluctant to say so to anyone else.

June 14

Affordability of Higher Education in Canada and the United States

About a decade ago, my colleague Kim Steele and I did a comparison of the affordability of public higher education in all ten Canadian provinces and fifty US states. In general, Canadian provinces did not do well; yes, Canada has lower costs for students, but its student aid system is less generous and – this is worth remembering – Americans are wealthier than we are. And so, once you adjust costs and net costs for family purchasing power, it turned out there was a substantial affordability gap in Americans’ favour.However, things have changed a lot in the intervening decade. Tuition has increased at a faster pace in the US than in Canada, and while both countries have made improvements in student aid, the gap in median household incomes has narrowed substantially due to the severity of the recession in the US. And so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought it would be fun to re-run some of those comparisons. We’ll be publishing our full 60-jurisdiction report in the fall but it seemed like it would be fun to give you some top-level comparisons right now.

First, a brief methodological note on this comparison. We take six different measures of cost (see table below) and divide each of them by each nation’s median household income. We do this because affordability by definition is a function of a household’s ability to pay – simply comparing costs, which on their own are meaningless.


Most of this data is easily available from various official sources (email me if you’re curious).  The exception is living costs because while Canada occasionally produces student income/expenditure surveys (we at HESA have done a few of these), Americans simply don’t.  Not on a national basis, anyways.  When you hear American student aid analysts talk about “cost of attendance”, what they’re referring to are institutional estimates of costs to live on- or off-campus which form the basis of student aid need assessment.  Sometimes these estimates make sense, sometimes they are batshit crazy (do read the New America Foundation’s recent series on this issue, available here. Regardless, they’re the only data we have.

In our 2006 paper, we used US figures for on-campus housing and in Canada we used results from an Ekos survey for living expenses.  Here’s how affordability stacked up then:

Figure 1: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2002-03 

American tuition and living costs were both 15-20% higher than Canadian ones, but once adjusted for household income they were roughly the same – education costs in both countries came out to 11% of median household income and total costs were 23-24%. Where the Americans had a real advantage was in loans: the ubiquity of loans meant that Americans were much less credit-constrained than Canadians and had to dig into their pockets much less in the short term. Result: on the most inclusive measures of affordability, Americans looked better than we did in 2002-03.

Now on to a more recent comparison, after a recession and many policy changes on both sides of the border. We’ve refined the US living cost data by using a weighted average of on-campus and off-campus housing costs, and to make the Canadian data more comparable we’ve chosen to use CSLP living cost estimates for Canada rather than actual survey data (nationally, the two are within 5% of one another, so it’s not a big change in practice). Here’s how the data looks for 2013-14:

Figure 2: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2013-14


What happened? How does Canada now look so much more affordable? Well, not much on the income side; in fact US median household income grew slightly faster on the American side. But tuition grew a lot faster in the US than it did in Canada. So, interestingly, did American students’ living costs; in 2003 they were 18% higher than in Canada; now they are 86% higher. To some extent, the increase in US living costs is due to our methodological change of including off-campus housing costs. That said, US cost of attendance is truly rising quickly for reasons which are not entirely clear.

Some policy measures have kicked in to offset these rises. Grant dollars per student in the US have risen by over 170% in the past decade, and loans per student have risen 64%. Both these figures far outstrip the equivalent figures in Canada. But it’s not enough to close the widening cost gap. On the most inclusive measure of affordability – out-of-pocket costs after tax expenditures – Canadian families must spend 11.9% of median household income (compared to 13.1% a decade ago) while Americans must spend 20.8%, up from just 9.7% a decade ago.

Plenty of food for thought – on both sides of the border.

June 13

A Marginally Less Mediocre Set of Provincial Budgets

So, it’s that time of year when I bring you the round-up of what’s happened in provincial budgets over the past few months. Usually, when I do this, I look both at student financial aid and transfers to institutions; this time, I’m going to skip the student financial aid stuff because there’s essentially no change (rock steady since 2013 at around $2.35 billion in constant dollar terms).

One thing that happens a lot when you look closely at budget estimates is that it’s surprising how often what’s actually in the budgets doesn’t actually match how they are described in news reports. For instance, this year it was widely reported that post-secondary institutions in Newfoundland got the chop – but according to budget papers their operating budgets are essentially unchanged from last year (though capital budgets have been cut by $5 million). On the other end, the Alberta NDP was widely applauded for major new investments in higher education but as near as I can tell, this year’s operating transfers are only 3% (in real dollars) ahead of where they were two years ago (though capital funding is way up). That doesn’t mean that the alternative narratives are wrong; I’m looking at big-picture all-inclusive province-wide transfer data; there are other ways of slicing the data which get you quite different results. But its’ worth keeping in mind that the pictures that governments and institutions see are not always the same.

Anyways, here are the year-on-year changes in provincial PSE budgets, in constant dollars:

Figure 1: Year-on-year change in inflation-adjusted transfers to post-secondary institutions, 2015-16 to 2016-17, by province


Four provinces saw a decline in both real and nominal dollars: Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Of these, two (NL, SK) saw cuts land disproportionately on the capital side. In New Brunswick, a couple of weeks after the budget, the government announced a one-off increase in funding from some weird new innovation/growth slush-fund-y kind of thing which generally has me a bit perplexed; however, because these comparisons are for reasons of comparability budget-to-budget, I have not included this here (they will presumably show up in higher baselines in next year’s comparison. British Columbia and Nova Scotia both increased expenditures, but by slightly less than inflation.

Quebec’s budget increase was slightly (0.18%) larger than inflation. Ontario’s increase was 0.8% but this was entirely due to a bump in capital spending – if we focused on operating dollars alone Ontario would show a slight decline. Manitoba’s new Progressive Conservative government increased spending on higher education of 1.75%; that’s slightly less than what the departing New Democrats had promised but still second-best in the country (don’t get comfortable; the budget cuts are coming next year). Alberta saw a stonking increase of nearly 11% in real dollars but roughly two-thirds of the growth in spending there comes from higher capital expenditures; like the federal government, Alberta has gone big on campus construction as a recession-antidote. With respect to the rest of the increase, some of it actually seems to stem from measures adopted in the previous fiscal year but only actually spent in this fiscal (Alberta, recall, had a weird budget cycle last year which saw the budget only adopted in October).

So the good news is that there was an increase in government expenditures nationally, but how big an increase is a matter of interpretation. If you include capital spending (as I do here), then nationally we had an increase of $375 million, or a just under 1.6%. However, very little of that is going into capital expenditures; take out the changes as one can discern in capital funding (not all provinces break it out clearly in their estimates) then the increase falls to less than $100 million, or less than half of a percentage point.

Over the last five years, what we see is a 3.1% decline in total transfers to institutions, as shown below:

Figure 2: Total Provincial Transfers to Post-secondary Institutions, 2011-12 to 2016-17, in constant 2016$


Now, it’s important to keep these numbers in perspective. There are a lot of countries where institutions have got hit a lot worse. And of course, our institutions are able to offset losses in public funding by raising tuition (a bit), adding students and taking in more full-fee paying international student – paths not always open to institutions elsewhere.

But on the other hand, bear in mind that system-wide our costs are rising by 3% a year after inflation. Something, eventually, is going to have to give.

June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.

June 09

Modes of College-Going

At HESA towers, we’ve recently been looking at some data on student costs of living in various countries.  This has prompted a number of observations with respect to the ways in which higher education – however global and transnational it may occasionally appear to be – is still deeply rooted in national cultures.

One of the things that started us going down this route was looking at estimates of cost of living for American students.  Everyone of course knows that students at American universities live in relative luxury what with the hotel-style dormitories, gourmet food options, climbing walls, lazy rivers and whatnot.  But what kind of staggered us when we took a look at the data was that American students actually appear to be paying *more* once they leave campus.  According to IPEDS, On-campus cost of living is $11,795 (C$14,792), off-campus (not with parents) cost of living is $12,986 (C$16,484) (for comparison, surveys show average living costs of off-campus not-with-parents in Canada is around C$8,500).

Now take this data with a grain of salt: American cost-of-living data is not based on surveys as it is in Canada, but on a compilation of institutional estimates of costs of living (at diligent institutions this may be based on student surveys but at less diligent institutions it may be a number dreamt up with a view to making students eligible for larger sums of students loans).  But at a deeper level there is a truth here.  American families (middle-class ones anyway) do view the higher education experience in a slightly different way than Canadians do.  Up here, there is a sense that post-secondary is a time when students “pay their dues” and live frugally; in the US, college is supposed to be “the best four years” of a student’s life.  And that materially affects the standard of living we expect students to maintain which in turn affects how much students “need” in order to attend college.  And apparently, that amount is “nearly twice as much per year as in Canada”.

Or, take the UK.  This is a country where over 70% of students leave home to go to school.  This has been falling gradually from the low 90%s twenty years ago, but the fall has been very gradual and seemingly unrelated to spikes in tuition fees (the increasing proportion of students from non-white backgrounds, who may not subscribe to this cultural tradition, is a likelier culprit.  You’d think that as tuition went from $0 to $16,000 you might get a *little* bit of price response, but no: spending huge wodges of cash to live away from home is so ingrained as a being part of the “university experience” that even big increases in costs (both tuition and, if you’re studying in London, rent) make little dent in the practice. 

Of course, in some parts of Europe, it’s the opposite: almost nothing gets students out of the house in Italy and Greece (even with low or no tuition): living away from parents simply isn’t part of the DNA.  In theory that should make higher education more accessible because it’s cheaper, but there’s not much evidence that’s the case.  In Scandinavia, people tend to draw out their time in universities, entering later and spending a lot of time switching back and forth between school and the labour market (more on that here). Result: on average, Scandinavian students are a *lot* older than North American ones.  Similarly: in South Korea, males have to do (roughly) two years of universal military service, which for reasons which I’ve never been able to work out, most males do in the *middle* of their university career (a common pattern is to do military service after sophomore year), which means their time-to-completion stats look very weird.

Anyways, the point of all this is simply to  remember that while higher education is a “common” global experience which a growing percentage of the world’s youth undergo, it remains embedded in some deeply national cultures about how students should transition from youth to adulthood.  It’s a major reason why access and student aid policy doesn’t travel well; it’s also why international comparisons  of students and student outcomes need to be done *very* carefully.

June 08

Are NSERC decisions “skewed” to bigger institutions?

That’s the conclusion reached by a group of professors from – wait for it – smaller Canadian universities, as published recently in PLOS One. I urge you to read the article, if only to understand how technically rigorous research without an ounce of common sense can make it through the peer-review process.

Basically, what the paper does is rigorously prove that “both funding success and the amount awarded varied with the size of the applicant’s institution. Overall, funding success was 20% and 42% lower for established researchers from medium and small institutions, compared to their counterpart’s at large institutions.” 

They go on to hypothesize that:

“…applicants from medium and small institutions may receive lower scores simply because they have weaker research records, perhaps as a result of higher teaching or administrative commitments compared to individuals from larger schools. Indeed, establishment of successful research programs is closely linked to the availability of time to conduct research, which may be more limited at smaller institutions. Researchers at small schools may also have fewer local collaborators and research-related resources than their counterparts at larger schools. Given these disparities, observed funding skew may be a consequence of the context in which applicants find themselves rather than emerging from a systemic bias during grant proposal evaluation.”

Oh my God – they have lower success rates because they have weaker research records?  You mean the system is working exactly as intended?

Fundamentally, this allegedly scientific article is making a very weird political argument.  The reason profs at smaller universities don’t get grants, according to these folks, is because they got hired by worse universities –  which means they don’t get the teaching release time, the equipment and whatnot that would allow them to compete on an even footing with the girls and boys at bigger schools.  To put it another way, their argument is that all profs have inherently equal ability and are equally deserving of research grants, it’s just that some by sheer random chance got allocated to weaker universities, which have put a downer on their career, and if NSERC doesn’t actively ignore actual outputs and perform some sort of research grant affirmative action, then it is guilty of “skewing” funding.

Here’s another possible explanation: yes, faculty hired by bigger, richer, more research-intensive institutions (big and research-intensive are not necessarily synonymous, but they are in Canada) have all kinds of advantages over faculty hired by smaller, less research-intensive universities.  But maybe, just maybe, faculty research quality is not randomly distributed.  Maybe big rich universities use their resources mainly to attract faculty deemed to have greater research potential.  Maybe they don’t always guess quite right about who has that potential and who doesn’t but on the whole it seems likelier than not that the system works more or less as advertised.

And so, yes, there is a Matthew effect (“for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance”) at work in Science: the very top of the profession gets more money than the strata below them and that tends to increase the gap in outcomes (salary, prestige, etc).  But that’s the way the system was designed.  If you want to argue against that, go ahead. But at least do it honestly and forthrightly: don’t use questionable social science methods to allege NSERC of “bias” when it is simply doing what has always been asked to do.

June 07

Improving Higher Education in Africa Through Philanthropy

My reputation in Canadian higher education, for better or for worse, is that of being “the guy who knows what’s going on in other places”.  This credits me with a lot more knowledge than I actually have. But it does occasionally prompt people to ask me some interesting questions.  Recently, someone (hi, Krista!) asked me: so what would you say to someone who has a few million dollars to spend, and wanted to spend it on improving higher education for sub-Saharan Africans?

That’s a really good question.  So here’s my answer. 

What most people are inclined to do, as a first pass, is to create scholarships which allow promising African students to study abroad.  The Mastercard Foundation, for instance, did this as its first initiative.  But while this provides life-changing opportunities for the individuals selected, it does virtually nothing for the continent because by and large students who leave don’t come back.  Mastercard, to its credit, figured this out after a couple of years and changed tack.

So the next option is to try to find ways to fund African universities themselves.  One thing Mastercard now does is fund scholarships at selected high-quality African universities such as Ashesi University in Ghana or the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town.  This is a better idea than sending students abroad (it’s cheaper for one thing, so a given amount of money can help more people) and the institutions can use the income to improve their facilities and offerings.  That’s not bad.  But we can still do better.

Let’s start at the top.  African nations have collectively adopted a lot of high-sounding policies about Science, Technology and Innovation, but frankly the policy capacity of African governments to make this happen is pretty low.  If government capacity is the issue, it’s time to focus training on public servants, few of whom have a strong sense of how higher education and the private sector can and cannot support one another to support innovation.  Take 500 or so public servants from across African public sectors, run constant short-course training over three years through established African public policy institutes such as the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) or the Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI).  The cost of something like this could be in the low millions; the effects across the continent could be lasting and significant. 

Want something more ambitious?  Try expanding the models of higher education available in Africa.  There’s nothing like a good Canadian Polytechnic or north European “University of Applied Science” anywhere.  Someone should build and fund one for a decade or so – and spend big so that it’s something people want to emulate.

Not big enough yet?  Well, how about actually creating an African peer-reviewed research fund?  One of the problems with creating genuine African research flagships is that an enormous portion (in some cases as much as 90%) of their research budgets come from donors with specific research agendas.  The money is welcome, but shifting donors priorities make it difficult to develop an indigenous research capacity.  The World Bank’s decision to create a few dozen “African Centres of Excellence” is a step in the right direction, but it’s still in a sense “big science” – why not take the same approach and seed African science through thousands of small ($15-20,000) curiosity-based grants?  $100 million over five years could have a heck of an impact.

Or, finally, there’s the biggest challenge of all: re-designing the African university from the current model where all learning is assumed to happen in the presence of a teacher (and students therefore spend 35-30 hours in class per week), to a more North American model where students are expected to do more on their own and are therefore only required to spend 15 hours per week in class (I’ve written about this in more detail back here.  Quite simply, further massification is going to be impossible unless teaching gets less intense, but tradition and faculty interests make it difficult to see how this process will start.  But using philanthropic dollars to found a half-dozen universities to revolutionize the system?  Teach north-American style with a whole new, leaner production-function?  Now that would be a genuine game-changer, one that would open up enormous new possibilities for the entire continent.

June 06

Non-profit Islands in a For-Profit Ocean

One of the most irritating, head-bangingly simplistic slogans in Canadian politics is “no to for-profit healthcare”.  It’s one thing to suggest that there should be no financial barriers to accessing healthcare; it’s another to suggest getting rid of “profit”.  I mean, the entire system is based on profit.  You think the companies who build hospitals and clinics don’t make profit?  That the companies that sell heath software or medical equipment, or you know, actual medicines, aren’t in it for profit?  That doctors who band together in clinics and bill the government for services aren’t making profits?  There is profit oozing from literally every orifice of the healthcare system – all we’ve done is found a way to disguise this while at the same time ensuring that finances are never a barrier to accessing urgent care.  Pretending that we don’t have profit in the system is just a way of diverting attention from genuine issues about cost-control and quality of service provision.

The situation is similar in higher education.  There’s all this sniffing about the profit-motive in education, but the fact that our institutions can act as (mostly) little non-profit islands is entirely dependent on the existence of the large for-profit ocean in which they sit.  Libraries?  Whether it’s humble low-volume monographs or big scientific journals, the entire enterprise of scientific communication is for-profit.  Ditto scientific equipment, pretty much anything related to IT (including software) and, usually, managing food on campus. But that’s just scratching the surface.  If you really want to see how many for-profit businesses exist along the margins of the higher ed economy, go to a National Association of Foreign Student Administrators (NAFSA) expo sometime.

First off, there are enormous numbers of people who want to sell you insurance.  Health insurance is a bigger deal in the US than chez nous, obviously, but even up our way we need insurance for all sorts of university activities, not least of which is to cover study abroad.  The foreign study business also has all sorts of room for travel agents, people who can arrange custom-built short-term programs in exotic locales, and provide students with foreign internship and work opportunities, or even with semesters at sea.

But all that is nothing compared to the businesses that strive on helping institutions bring students to their campuses.  Agents are the least of it.  Want international students to have a place to live near campuses?  There are companies which specialize in identifying and recruiting students through social media campaigns (my favourite NASFA exhibitor this year was one such company which provided Oculus tours of various campuses, mostly because it was the first time I got to use Oculus and see with my own eyes how inexplicable the $2 billion valuation really is).  There are businesses that specialize in the building and operating of private student residences, and others which specialize specifically in kitting out rooms with student bedding and furnishings.  Does your immigration system sometimes require students to get background checks?  There are companies that specialize in that.  Does your international faculty need to negotiate international tax preparation?  Again, there are specialists in this. 

Is this all stuff universities could do on their own?  Maybe.  But few could do all of them well without the assistance of for-profit companies.  That’s why universities turn to such companies: to be more efficient and provide higher-quality services at a reduced price.

And that’s the point here: the line between where non-profit universities end and for-profit businesses begin is a hazy one.  It’s a moving target, constantly changing based on the relative competencies of universities and the private sector.  Sometimes universities need to use more such services, sometimes they need to use fewer. 

To quote Deng Xiaoping: “it does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”.  This is a matter which should be dealt with purely pragmatically.  Caution and skepticism about private vendors?  Sure.  But recognize the great potential they bring as well.

June 03

Institutional Branding (2)

Yesterday I talked a bit about some basic rules of branding in universities, and why some of the wailing about the similarity of university brands are kind of overdone.  The key reason for this is because in fact most universities are competing in a very local market with only a few genuine competitors.  So yeah, maybe there are only a half-dozen genuinely unique brand-types out there, but as long as you have fewer than six direct competitors, that’s not necessarily a problem.

But, say some people, surely the growth of internationalization change all this.  To the extent that institutions are relying on international student dollars, institutions are actually playing in a market with hundreds or even thousands of competitors – doesn’t that invalidate the above argument and make having really unique value propositions much more important?

Well, kind of.  It’s important to distinguish here between brands and marketing efforts/materials.  Of course, your marketing materials need to speak to international students.  The question is whether your brand needs to.

When you’re working with brands, the rule of thumb is that the brand is supposed to “speak” to a relatively small number of audiences (say, three).  For example, a research university’s brand is probably designed to address top professors, promising graduate students, and transformational donors.  Why these three?  Because these are the things that contribute most to prestige, and prestige is the way universities keep score with one another. 

So the question is: what kinds of universities need to actually have international students as one of their top three audiences?  And the answer I think is “not many”.  Maybe it makes sense at institutions like the London School of Economics, where 30% of all income comes from overseas students.  In Canada, where there’s essentially no one in that position (St. Mary’s U aside, possibly) it’s harder to make that case.  For nearly all institutions, the key audiences are domestic, and so there still isn’t much of an imperative around uniqueness.

That said, there is a need to make sure that your marketing materials and your brand don’t actively conflict with one another.  An institutional brand has to contain some kind of promise that appeals to potential students.  For the most part, brand promises which focus around specific regional or national themes leave international students utterly cold.  So U of T’s one-time claim to be “Canada’s answer to the world’s problems” or U Saskatchewan’s unofficial motto of being not just the University of Saskatchewan but the University for Saskatchewan – those simply don’t speak to potential overseas students.  So there’s a juggling act here: universities have to speak public and authentically in a way that appeals to diverse audiences.  In all but a few cases, this probably doesn’t require a change in brand; what it does require is finding a non-parochial vocabulary which can appeal to locals and international audiences alike. 

The problem is that in some cases, this will have the effect of making university brands less diverse at a global level.  But so what?  So long as it still works….

June 02

Institutional Branding (Part 1)

Branding is one of those things that inspires strong views in higher education.  Some fret over the fact that university brands are too similar, others get indignant over the fact that branding is necessary at all, usually using some variation on the rhetorical argument “what are we, dishwashing soap?”

Part of the problem, I think, stems from misunderstandings about what brands are and how universities use them.  Every university has a “brand” whether it wants one or not.  A brand isn’t logos and taglines, it’s the collective perceptions of an organization’s identity, or “personality” if you want to get anthropomorphic about it.  Trent’s brand, whether it wants it or not, is “Tree-Hugger U”.  Western’s is “Party U”.  Those little rhyming couplets about Brock and York (“if you can walk and talk…”, “if you can use a fork…”)  or that joke about one of my alma maters? (“Carleton – where the K stands for Quality”) – this are some of the most effective, if unfortunate, pieces of branding around.  So the issue isn’t really whether universities should have brands, the issue is whether and how they are going to manage them. 

The first issue in branding is who is the audience.  A managed brand is supposed to help you with your key audiences, and not all universities have the same audiences.  When smaller universities with lower admissions standards manage their brands, they are primarily doing so with an eye on undergraduate students because they worry about enrollment and filling seats so that they can pay their staff.  When U of T or McGill brand themselves, they don’t care about that stuff because they have far more quality applicants than they can accommodate.  Instead, they manage their brands in such a way as to attract top international faculty or with what I call “transformational donors” (i.e. people who can give them big whacks of cash all at once which can extend the intellectual reach of the university – mostly philanthropists, but also senior government officials and Ministers).  This is why some universities have taglines like “Yale, Shmale and others have ones like “A Place of Mind.”

The fact that universities brands are shooting to different levels of audiences is one of the reasons I think the “everyone has the same brand” argument is a little overdone.  But so too is the fact that (in Canada, anyway) most higher education institutions are playing to a really segmented geographical audience.  This makes the parallels to branding in other industries (eg. Dishwasher soap) somewhat fraught.  Ivory is playing in a continental market; universities like Fraser Valley, Winnipeg, Lakehead, Trois-Riveres, etc. are for the most part playing in a market which does not extend beyond provincial borders (and in some cases, considerably less).

What this means is that it really doesn’t matter how many Canadian universities have a brand of “your- friendly-local-university-which-does-great-things-for-the-local-community-and-launches-students-out-into-the-world” because these universities aren’t in competition with one another.  The number of students or philanthropists who are genuinely undecided between, say, Cape Breton, Windsor and Vancouver Island is infinitesimal.  So go ahead, use the same tag lines, visuals, and memes.  It’s all good.  Maybe if many similar regional institutions go in together on this they can get a bulk rate.

There are really only two situations where universities really need to be especially worried about the uniqueness of its brand.  The first is if the institution is genuinely in competition for students (usually grad students) or transformational dollars.  In Canada, that’s basically the U-15, give or take an institution or two (e.g. Simon Fraser, Guelph).  Here there is at least some need to stand out, although as one climbs the prestige ladder in higher education, the narrower are the criteria for genuine excellence and hence genuinely fewer potential brand identities that signal something which is both unique and desirable (UBC’s “Place of Mind”, for instance is a not-so-subtle way of sneaking in its desirable geography on top of a message of research-intensity, but not everyone has that option).  Basically, the needs for a distinctive call to transformational donors is at odds with the academy’s isomorphic preferences in terms of how to define “quality”.

The other situation is when you need to attract international students – an imperative faced by more and more institutions these days.  More on that tomorrow.

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