Higher Education Strategy Associates

August 18

Pick a Number Out of the Air… Any Number Out of the Air

So I see that Colleges Ontario has released its wish list for the provincial election campaign. Some of the recommendations are interesting (e.g., the recommendation to give colleges a greater management role in apprenticeship training), some of it is run of the mill (more money for underfunding, etc). But one recommendation in particular is completely baffling: the suggestion that the government should guarantee that students that switch between public institutions within the province should be able to carry two-thirds of their credits with them.

Now, I’m all in favour of credit mobility, but this is grasping at straws. Why two-thirds? Why not three-quarters? Why not 100%? All Ontario institutions at the moment are governed by a qualifications framework that suggests that the learning outcomes at the diploma level and the degree level are quite different. On what basis should we suddenly understand an equivalence of 1 = .66? Or is Colleges Ontario suggesting we should just ignore the framework altogether?

If there is one thing that the we can learn from the experience of Europe – the Bologna process, the Tuning process and the European Qualifications Framework – it is that mutual recognition of credit has to be based on recognized learning outcomes. It means actually going through some fairly hard and detailed system-wide work to get system-wide agreement about how to define learning outcomes, and from there, to actually discuss how learning outcomes at one level relate to those at another. The European Credit Transfer System, for instance, found a way to make credit transferable by standardizing the amount of “expected student effort” per course.

But we don’t seem to like that kind of thing in Canada. We’re lazy. We think we can just wave a wand and tell people to recognize each others’ credits without examination. Colleges Ontario is hardly alone in this – the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada has repeatedly passed resolutions about mutual recognition of credit across the country. The Government of Ontario was so shy of doing the real work required to get credit mobility that in January it decided to throw a lot of money at colleges and universities to encourage more one-off articulation agreements and call it a victory.

So, by all means, let’s get serious about credit transfer. But please, no more gimmicks. Let’s do the hard work, and get down to the business of defining the real learning outcomes on which an intelligent and durable credit transfer system can be based.

August 17

Data Point of the Week: These are Fantastic Graphs

…from U.S. researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy on the subject of grade inflation. So fantastic, in fact, that I think I’ll mostly let them speak for themselves.


And this, of course, is at a time when institutions are becoming less selective, not more. Interestingly, though, it’s U.S. private universities – generally speaking more selective than publics – that are leading the grade inflation charge.


Since there’s no data to suggest that students are working harder than they used to, this is pretty much a straight-up change in grading practices. But what’s causing the change?

Canadian commentators James Coté and Anton Allahar would probably have you believe that grade inflation (or grade compression, as they more accurately dub it) is all due to the way that larger classrooms, disengaged students and manipulable teacher- evaluation schemes have given professors incentives to reduce standards – “they pretend to learn, we pretend to evaluate,” so to speak.

But this data – which shows that grade inflation/compression was more severe at the smaller and more selective institutions – suggests something different may be going on. In fact, Rojstaczer and Healy posit that the reverse is true – that diminished faculty disengagement expectations might be leading to disengagement.

Food for thought.

August 11

What Toronto Can Learn from Mike Bloomberg

Here’s an idea that deserves a lot more attention than it has received in Canada: the City of New York has issued an international RFP for schools that want to build a new engineering and applied sciences campus in the city. The winner gets $100 million and some free land. So far, over 20 universities from around the world (including the University of Toronto) have indicated an interest.

It’s brilliant: not happy with the mix of skills in your local economy? Don’t bother the provincial government. Don’t get local institutions to expand into areas in which they aren’t competent. Task an expert foreign institution to do it, and let them worry about issues like tuition, supply, demand, curriculum, etc.

Toronto has a similar problem to New York in that it has a massive hole in the local provision of education. But rather than missing subject fields like applied science, what’s missing in Toronto is an entire class of institutions. The GTA is filled with behemoths both at the university and college level because the provincial government has this weird size fetish; anyone who might benefit from a smaller school environment that is more capable of giving one-to-one instruction is simply out of luck.

Toronto should copy Bloomberg and offer two or three spots for providers to offer small, boutique liberal arts or professional institutions to fill this gap. There’s loads of land around town that is available (Downsview? The Docks?) and after a small initial investment for infrastructure, we could let the institution maintain itself through fees.

Sure, there are potential objections, but they’re easily dealt with. Worried about for-profit education? Put a rider on the contract to restrict the bidding to non-profits. Not happy that local, domestic providers aren’t being paid to do it? Well, they can compete for the award – and win it, if they are good enough. Worried about costs? We already have public institutions charging $20K or more for some programs, so it’s hardly a stretch.

If the United States of America – self-proclaimed home of the World’s Greatest Higher Education SystemTM – can mentally cope with the idea of turning to the world’s best to fill a market niche, maybe it’s time for us to think about it, too.

— Alex Usher

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