Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 26

Differentiating University Missions (Part One)

This week, HESA is hosting a conference in Toronto on the subject of Differentiation of University Missions. We’re focusing on this because we think there are a host of factors both inside and outside academia that are pushing institutions towards isomorphism. In a word, there’s a danger that institutions are becoming clones of one another, robotically following the same script – rather like the placid ladies of Stepford.

There are obviously a lot of facets to this issue, but broadly, I think we can point to three factors which (in no particular order) dovetail with one another to put pressure on institutions to homogenize themselves:

1) Government Incentives.  In most countries, governments don’t really incentivize institutions to behave differently from one another.  In Canada, we present almost no incentives for institutions to do anything other than publish more and accept more students. Given the current array of subsidies, where is the incentive for institutions to pursue excellence in teaching, or to do a superb job in regional development?

2) The Preferences of the Professoriate.  Let’s not kid ourselves; nobody is happier about the increasing research-intensitiveness of Canadian universities than academics themselves. When middling universities tell their staff they have to teach less in order to keep up with the big boys and girls of Canadian academia, who complains, exactly?

3) The Prestige Race. I’m not entirely convinced this third reason is actually conceptually separate from the second; however, some very smart people who I respect a great deal (like conference guest Ellen Hazelkorn) do, so it seems apposite to include it. Basically this argument is that the pull of major rankings systems – especially the big international ones like the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings – have queered the definition of excellence to the point where institutions have no choice but to privilege their research missions of over all other.

What can we do about this? What other models are there out there to encourage diversity? Who gets to decide what missions institutions can or can’t have? These are the questions we’ll be dealing with this week, both at out conference and in this blog. Feel free to join in the discussion.

September 23

SSHRC and its Mission

There was a great story by the Globe’s James Bradshaw in July on the fate of the $17.5 Million of SSHRC’s budget that was set aside by the Government of Canada for “business-related degrees” in the 2009 federal budget that didn’t get the attention it deserved on account of coming out too close to the Canada Day weekend. Basically, it revolved around Rotman’s Roger Martin’s assertion that the program was an “abject failure” because it went to almost everyone except MBA students.

What apparently eluded the scheme’s proponents was the fact that the “R” in SSHRC actually standards for “research.”  And since MBAs tend not to do a lot of primary research, most of that money – not unreasonably – went to students doing “business-related” research in a variety of other fields.

What’s most interesting to me about Bradshaw’s story – apart from the obvious stuff about how the same community that whined about the PMO “directing” SSHRC to put aside a new pot of money for (horrors) business had no qualms at all about accepting PMO-directed money when it came under the label of the “digital economy” – is how the scheme’s authors (including Martin) came to think their original plan was a good idea.

Martin, apparently, was under the impression that SSHRC operates as a giant slush fund for grad students, and the story implies that what Martin thought he was getting with the 2009 budget was a pot of money that MBA students could use to offset their ever-heftier tuition fees. It’s easy to scoff at the naivete of this view, but it’s easy enough to see where he might have got this impression; directly or indirectly, something like two-thirds of SSHRC’s budget ends up with graduate students.

It makes you wonder: is SSHRC’s primary purpose to relieve institutions of the burden of funding all those social science graduate students? If institutions had to fund their own graduate students, would we have anything like as many graduates students in the arts as we do?  Have we implicitly federalized the Social Sciences and Humanities, and if so, what should the implications of this be?

September 22

By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

There are two ways of thinking about student unions. You can think of them as being (a) populated by idealists, who only want education for all, or you can think of them as (b) actual unions, prioritizing wins (financial and otherwise) for their members – who, let’s recall, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than society as a whole – ahead of any other cause.

With that in mind, let’s look at the some recent public statements from the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter.

March 2011 – The Canadian Federation of Students says it is “disappointed” that the Ontario budget included measures to improve access by increasing spaces rather than reduce tuition fees for students who are already in post-secondary.

September 2011 – The Ontario Liberal party announces it will reduce tuition fees by thirty percent for every student from a family earning less than $160,000 per year. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says it would prefer a solution that spent more money to include families earning over $160,000 as well (who, last we checked, weren’t having problems accessing PSE).

Both incidents seem to lend themselves to the interpretation that the CFS cares only about money for all of its members. This is, of course, an entirely fair and reasonable position for a union to take.

But then, a new piece of evidence arrives that really makes you wonder:

September 2011 – CFS-O issues its party platform report card for the Ontario election. The NDP platform, which freezes tuition fees and eliminates interest on student loans, gets a B+ for affordability. The Liberal platform, which provides tuition rebates of 30% for 85% all of students, but allows base tuition to continue to creep upwards, gets a B. The report card helpfully points out that the Liberal tuition promise would cost $430 million annually, while the NDP interest elimination and tuition freeze would cost $110 million.

Even from the crude analytical perspective of “how much students get,” this makes zero sense. The only students who would be better off under the NDP proposals would be those from households with over $160,000. And while the NDP proposal does contain the holy grail of “freezing tuition,” the Liberal proposal hands students almost a billion more dollars over four years than the NDP one does.

That’s an awful lot of money to punt for the right to say that tuition is frozen, and isn’t consistent with our earlier theory about being their being solely concerned with financial wins. Rather, it suggests deep confusion about the difference between means and ends.

September 21

The Cult of Small vs. The Advantage of Big

Just some of the programs offered at Carleton

For a country as large a Canada it’s amazing what a fetish we make of smallness – with students packed into large institutions, there are economies of scale in terms of teaching and student services (admittedly, these economies are then splurged on research, but that’s a separate issue). But when it comes to attracting students, we try to hide bigness. Schools like to talk about how they “feel like” a small school, or give attention to students “as if it were” a small school.

This is a dumb idea for two reasons. First, it’s nonsense. Big schools can’t give a small school feel – they simply aren’t built to do so and it actually harms a university’s credibility and brand to pretend to be something they are not. That’s not to say big schools can’t give students a bit more of a human touch – the opposite of small administration needn’t be Borg-like administration – but raising expectations too high never does anyone any good.

Second, the attempt to play up smallness actually covers up big schools’ one enormous strength, and that is choice. Students love choice; if you look (as we do) at a lot of student surveys what becomes clear is that the most substantial critique students have of small schools is that they are, well, too small. As in, “limited.” Which isn’t something you can say about multiversities with a dozen or more faculties and 20,000 or more students.

Big means choice. Big means more options. Big means more opportunities. Big means not living for four years in a small community where everyone knows what you’re doing. One of the country’s comprehensive universities (my choices would be Ryerson, or Carleton, or perhaps Laval) needs to stand up in a strong marketing campaign and say “Proud to Be Big.” Not only would they stand out from the crowd, they’d be doing all other large-ish universities a service as well.

September 20

The 160 Student Solution

Here’s an important question. Why do we care about how many classes a professor teaches?

Virtually every university collective agreement has some kind of minimum or average or desirable teaching load – 2+3, 2+2, etc. It doesn’t really matter since so many professors are buying their way out of these anyway and going down to one class a term. Regardless, though, the unit of analysis here is the course.

This makes absolutely no sense. Universities don’t get paid based on how many courses they teach. They get paid by how many students they teach. And the term “course” isn’t exactly homogenous. It includes tutorials, small seminars, regular classrooms and enormous 500-student affairs. And the price professors pay to get out of teaching a class is more or less the same no matter how many students are enrolled in it.

Let me suggest the following: let’s get rid of course-based workloads and adopt student-number workloads instead. Why not say that every professor has to teach a minimum of 160 student half-courses (e.g., one half course of 160 students or 4 half courses of 40 students each) per year? And, equally, that when professors want to get out of a course, the payment to do so must be proportional to the number of student half-courses being abandoned.

The benefits of this go far beyond standardizing workloads. It would prevent proliferations of small niche courses and send signals to deans and department heads about when to stop hiring (no department head will want to hire if it cannibalizes student numbers that existing professors need to hit in order to get paid). And it would put a cap on the number of students being taught by sessionals.

In fact, just looking at Statistics Canada’s FTE numbers in the CAUT Almanac, assuming that every full-time students takes five courses per term, it seems that there are a little over 8.7 million half-courses being delivered at Canadian universities. If every institution adopted the 160 student rule, then the country’s 38,300 full-time academic staff would be able to teach a minimum of 6.1 million half-courses – or very nearly three-quarters of the total.

Think about it: adopting a minimum student standard has benefits for workload standardization, cost control and decreasing reliance on sessionals. With tighter budgets on the way in most of Canada, it’s an idea whose time might be now.

September 19

International Student Recruitment: Not as Good as We Think We Are

One of the most startling things about Canada’s recent success in attracting international students is how easy it has all been. Australia and the U.K. took decades to build up their position in international higher education, and in the former case it took decades of government-backed investment in developing overseas networks. Our recent extraordinary spurt of growth in international higher education – particularly in the Indian market – came in the space of about five years in a comparatively uncoordinated way.

So are Canadians just brilliant at this stuff or are there other factors at work?

I’d argue for the latter. Consider that in recent years the Americans have been imposing ludicrous visa regimes, the U.K. has been making menacing noises about rejecting international students and Australia’s image has been tarnished by events that have highlighted problems of racism and student security. We’ve therefore reaped the benefits without making any serious investments ourselves. We didn’t hit a triple; we were born on third base.

But this situation isn’t going to last forever. Universities around the developed world are heading for big trouble financially, and they are all going to be spending more time trying to tap the foreign student market. And in the developing world, institutions are improving all the time and improving their value position vis-à-vis our own. Competition is going to increase, and it’s not clear how well placed we are to win.

At HESA, we’ve developed the Global Student Survey to examine the views of students in various exporting countries about education in general and international education in particular. Our India survey, available for purchase as of today, shows some of the obvious vulnerabilities that Canadian institutions have, and the value proposition and the rising competition from Indian institutions are clearly there.

More importantly, our national brand in education is a problem. We rank well behind the U.S. and U.K. as a destination in Indian students’ minds, and even Singapore and the U.A.E. peg above us in some categories. And whereas Indian students describe American, British and Singaporean higher education in terms that are generic synonyms for excellence, Canada gets described like this:

phrases Indian students associate with Canada


Forget the temporarily rosy enrolment statistics: we have a problem here. We ignore it at our peril.

September 16

What the U.K. Tuition Fight Tells Us About Universities

The U.K. is a great country when it comes to higher education innovation – good or bad, they’re not afraid to take new policy ideas to their logical conclusion. Their most recent move – allowing tuition fees to rise up to £9000 – is a case in point, and it is already providing some valuable lessons with respect to the essential dilemmas of higher education policy.

The government clearly thought that this kind of “big bang” deregulation of tuition would create real price competition – some institutions would go the high-fees/high quality route, while others would try take a more value-oriented tack. But they fundamentally misunderstood two things about universities.

The first is that universities don’t care about market share. Unlike most industries, no player in this industry aspires to teach more than a tiny fraction of students. As a result, there’s no one in a position to play the “low-cost, high-volume” role that, say, Wal-Mart does in retailing. They’re all niche players.

The second is that though universities aren’t competing for market share, they are competing for something else – prestige. And prestige, unfortunately, tends to be correlated with expenditures, which in turn are correlated with revenue.

So, when someone asks universities to compete, what they’re essentially doing is setting off an arms race for revenue. And if you do that at the same time as you liberalize fees, what inevitably happens is that there will be a race to the top of the tuition scale, with no one able or willing to play the role of low-cost, high-volume provider that plays such an important role for market discipline in other industries. You can offset the effects somewhat through student aid, but as long as prestige is the metric by which institutions measure their success, nothing – nothing – can be done to alter the basic dynamic.

September 15

The Manitoba Election

Just to show we’re not irretrievably Ontario-centric, we’ll be doing short snapshots of party platforms in all provinces with elections this fall.

First up, my home province of Manitoba.

Choices are stark in the only province to have shot its way into confederation: in the last 11 elections, only one has resulted in a minority government and only one resulted in the Conservatives and New Democrats combined receiving less than 85% of the seats. It’s one or the other (which if nothing else is handy to keep this note below 350 words). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NDP is going big on PSE; holding tuition to inflation, promising 5% annual increases in operating grants to institutions, and increasing student financial aid (the wording in the platform is vague enough to encompass both need- and merit-based grants, but given the party’s recent history, it would be surprising if it were not the former). It’s not a particularly inspiring or visionary platform – more sort of status quo plus a couple of percentage points. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than most Canadian institutions can expect over the next few years.

The Tories have rolled out a number of specific-yet-vague policies. They want to make sure higher education is “focused on the market,” say they will “support University College of the North to encourage additional training opportunities for Northerners” and “ensure that there is a credit transfer system.” All of which is well and good, but rather beg the question, “How, exactly?”

Intriguingly, the Tories have matched the NDP on holding tuition to inflation. But they’ve not said anything about grants to institutions. Which isn’t surprising since they’re talking about closing a $500 million budget gap plus reducing a raft of taxes. That inevitably means spending cuts, and while post-secondary education might be spared, it’s nevertheless unlikely a Macfayden government would provide institutions with anything like the annual increases the NDP are promising. Seems Canada’s becoming more European by the day: freezing prices commands universal political support but ensuring strong funding to institutions doesn’t. It’s time institutions began paying attention.


September 14

Data Point of the Week: StatsCan Gets it Wrong in the EAG

So, as noted yesterday, the OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG) statfest – all 495 pages of it – was just released. Now it’s our turn to dissect some of what’s in there.

Of most immediate interest was chart B5.3, which shows the relative size of public subsidies for higher education as a percentage of public expenditures on education. It’s an odd measure, because having a high percentage could mean either that a country has very high subsidies (e.g., Norway, Sweden) or very low public expenditures (e.g., Chile), but no matter. I’ve reproduced some of the key data from that chart below.


(No, I’m not entirely clear what “transfers to other entities” means, either. I’m assuming it’s Canada Education Savings Grants, but I’m not positive.)

Anyways, this makes Canada looks chintzy, right? But hang on: there are some serious problems with the data.

In 2008, Canada spent around $22 billion on transfers to institutions. For the chart above to be right would imply that Canadian spending on “subsidies” (i.e., student aid) was in the $3.5 – 4 billion range. But that’s not actually true – if you take all the various forms of aid into account, the actual figure for 2008 is actually closer to $8 billion.

What could cause such a discrepancy? Here’s what I’m pretty sure happened:

1) StatsCan didn’t include tax credits in the numbers. Presumably this is because they don’t fit the definition of a loan or a grant, though in reality these measures are a $2 billion subsidy to households. In fairness, the U.S. – the only other country that uses education tax credits to any significant degree – didn’t include it either, but it’s a much bigger deal here in Canada.

2) StatsCan didn’t include any provincial loans, grants or remission either. They have form on this, having done the same thing in the 2009 EAG. Basically, because StatsCan doesn’t have any instrument for collecting data on provincial aid programs, it essentially assumes that such things must not exist. (Pssst! Guys! Next time, ask CMEC for its HESA-produced database of provincial aid statistics going back to 1992!) So, what happens when you add all that in (note: U.S. data also adjusted)?


Not so chintzy after all.

September 13

HESA in the News

You’ve read our report on the state of e-learning in Canada. Now read the coverage – take a look at HESA in the news:

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