Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 09

Why so Dismally Ahistorical?

If there is one thing that drives me nuts about defenders of the humanities, it’s their insistence on nailing their argument to an appeal to “historic values” which simply don’t exist.

Take a recent essay pro-Liberal Arts essay in the National Post by Simon Fraser University professor Patrick Keeney, who writes, for instance, that liberal education is an “ideal that goes back to the Greeks.” That simply isn’t correct. Liberal education is a medieval invention – and it wasn’t all that liberal in a modern sense either, consisting then of astronomy, music, geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic and grammar. Socrates, if you’ll recall your philosophy 101, kept getting his butt kicked in the marketplace by the sophists, who taught skills that were actually lucrative. Plato may not have liked the sophists – they were of course among the many Athenians who opposed his proto-fascist plans for the place – and painted them in a negative light for all eternity but there’s no question whose services Greeks actually preferred.

Then there’s the predictable yarn about how the historic mission of universities is being “bulldozed in the name of… economic pragmatism” as universities turn into mere “vocational schools.” Leaving aside the scorn for vocational education, this commonly held assumption is similarly at odds with the historical record. The earliest university faculties were entirely professional – law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, religion at Paris, and so on. Universities founded on liberal education principles were relatively rare until nineteenth century America – a time and place in which universities were arguably at their most elitist.

And then there’s the gall of arguing that governments that are to blame for convincing people that universities ought to have a professional focus. Universities have succeeded at attracting public funds by arguing that they can best create job-ready graduates. That’s always been the trade-off for public funding. There was never an era when governments sough to invest billions so every third teenager in our society can take four years to develop a life of the mind.

As the focus and function of the university continues to evolve, it’s essential that the public discourse about the role of higher education ground itself in accuracy. It shouldn’t be too much to ask defenders of disciplines in the humanities (which includes the discipline of history) who seek – in their professional lives – to uncover truth to actually get their facts right.

To put it another way, if there has been, as Keeney argues, “a widespread drift away from the arts and humanities and toward professional, applied and vocational study,” it is nothing more than a return to the university’s roots.

September 08

Blended Learning Has a Long Way to Go

Here’s the key fact you need to know about HESA’s new report on the State of E-learning in Canada: as the intensity of availability of e-learning resources increase, students become less satisfied, and less likely to say they feel they are learning a lot.

Contrary to the rantings of technophiles, students don’t behave much like “digital natives.” They still far prefer to do their readings on paper rather than on a screen, for instance. They really don’t seem to have a lot of time for dynamic e-learning resources like interactive discussion forums, and they don’t think there is any comparison between courses you take in person and those you watch even occasionally on a screen – the former wins hands down.

The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period. Particularly in the humanities, there’s an aura of eros around the teacher-as-guru that e-learning enthusiasts just don’t seem to take into account.

But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right. It might just be that the technology, and the way in which we integrate it with the curriculum, just isn’t that good. Just because students aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean universities can’t underwhelm them.

For the moment, students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue. What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.

Work done by the National Center for Academic Transformation has shown how intelligent course redesign can improve learning outcomes and reduce costs, and with budget crises looming across much of the country, this isn’t something any institution can sensibly ignore. But it will require institutions to pay a lot more attention to implementation and to continually measure and monitor results to find out what works and what doesn’t.

That’s a big task, but it’s one HESA will be working on for years to come.

Extra note: those of you in Ontario looking for deeper commentary on the Liberals’ Big Idea regarding tuition grants, visit my Globe and Mail blog.

September 07

Debt Aversion

If there is one trope that keeps coming up in higher education, it’s how student loans are evil because they discriminate against young people from low-income backgrounds, who – it is alleged – are debt-averse.

The problem with this trope is two-fold: the first is that empirical evidence proving that debt aversion is concentrated among the poor, or even that it exists in the first place, is remarkably thin (though, in fairness, it’s a difficult phenomenon to prove).  The second is that there’s no necessary link between debt-aversion and PSE attainment.  Debt-averse students might simply make ends meet by working more and being more frugal.

However, in the last year or so there have been two excellent studies – one published by HEQCO and the other by the World Bank – which have improved our understanding of the phenomenon enormously (hat tip to Anne Motte).  Read them both: they’re the best student aid papers you’ll see all year.

Both use ingenious research methods to examine the question of debt aversion.  The HEQCO paper measured debt aversion by offering students both a grant and a grant plus a small loan and measuring difference in take-up rates.  The World Bank paper offered identical offers for student loans to two randomized groups of students, except that in one group the offer was described as a loan and in the other it was described as a “Human Capital Contract.”

Both studies came to similar conclusions: debt aversion can be demonstrated, but the effect is relatively small.  The HEQCO survey showed students were slightly less likely to accept a grant for education if a loan offer was attached as well; the World Bank survey found an 8% improvement in the take-up rate if the loan offer was framed as a human capital contract.

Good news for the trope-promoters?  Yes and no.  While the HEQCO study found that debt aversion exists, they found no evidence that it was related to family income (the World Bank paper didn’t take up the question). And there remains no evidence that the presence of debt aversion negatively affects participation. Though we used a fairly crude measure, Sean Junor and I showed seven years ago in the Price of Knowledge 2004 (see page 107) that youth who reported extreme education debt aversion were slightly more likely to attend PSE than those who did not.

Verdict: debt aversion exists, but it is still a pretty weak argument against student loans.

September 06

A (Not Very Good) Sign of Things to Come

So, Dalton McGuinty has released the Ontario Liberal Party’s platform and its associated costing document.

What’s drawn everyone’s attention so far is this idea of “30% tuition rebates” – understandably so since the cost of the this one is almost a third of all new proposed spending (the miserly sums are a nod towards the fact that the province is essentially broke and can’t afford any new spending).  I’ll go into more depth about these rebates tomorrow in my Globe blog, globecampus.tumblr.com; suffice for the moment to say that the vagueness of some of the wording suggests that this item was a very last-minute inclusion and that there a lot of potential landmines – really big ones, actually – in implementation.

But ignore that for a moment, and take a gander at page nine of the costing document.  It suggests that if the McGuinty Liberals are re-elected then Ontario post-secondary institutions can expect to see their budgets grow from 7.2 billion to 7.9 billion over the course of the next four years.  Now, if you’re thinking; “10% over four years isn’t bad in tough times,” think again – that $700 million increase includes the $486 million set aside for the tuition grants, which of course doesn’t benefit institutions one bit.  It also presumably needs to cover ongoing funding for the 60,000 new places the government has announced  (capital costs for these students are included in the cost estimates but the ongoing operating funding isn’t).  Assuming a nice round $5,000 subsidy per student per year, that’s another $300 million, at which point we have used up the entire budgeted increase.

So, no rise to account for inflation.  No rise to account for increasing salaries.  No rise for anything, really – it’s a straight nominal freeze for institutions regardless of what’s happening to them on the cost side.  And this is from what is probably the most pro-PSE of the three parties in the current legislature.  Any other deal institutions might get is likely going to be worse.  And there’s no get-out on the tuition side.  If anything, the Liberals look set to reduce the annual 5% increase to something closer to 3%.

That means there’s no getting around the need for some serious belt-tightening.  Administrations at Western and Carleton are almost certainly wishing they could get a do-over on their faculty settlements from last year, and I can guarantee that this is going to make a resolution of the current Ontario colleges support staff strike a lot more difficult.  There simply isn’t money around anymore to fund the kind of settlements to which people have become accustomed.

Expect strikes.  Expect hiring freezes.  Expect an exodus of Ontario talent to better-funded universities further west.  This is what a $15 billion deficit will do to you.

September 02

America – the Exodus

As we watch our southern neighbours slide into seemingly perpetual budget crises and many state universities undergo some brutal austerity, it’s worth thinking about the American crises’ global impacts on higher education.

Scientific talent is not distributed evenly around the world. If there’s one thing that the Shanghai rankings show, it’s how unbelievably deep the scientific talent pool is at American universities. But talent can move. Twice in the twentieth century, countries suffered major exoduses of scientific talent. In 1930s Germany, hundreds of key scholars migrated from Germany to (primarily) America, a process which not only boosted the Allied war effort enormously, but set the stage for a period of dominance of American science that has lasted for over 65 years.

Though not quite on the same scale, the 1990s saw an enormous movement of Russian scholars to new homes in Europe and America in order to escape the economic collapse and concomitant shortages of research funds. What’s about to happen in the U.S. will probably not be on quite the same scale, but you can’t expect universities in California, Illinois, Texas and elsewhere to suck up financial hits of 20 to 40% and not lose talented staff to universities who can make them a better offer. Lucky for them, a lot of OECD universities are getting smacked just as hard by austerity and thus aren’t in a position to outbid them. But that’s not quite true in Canada, Scandinavia, and Asia (where the National University of Singapore, for instance, is hiring aggressively). Here, there is the potential to accommodate refugees from American budget cuts.

The key question is: how best to take advantage of this? If you’re a truly aggressive (and strategic) school, you might take a gamble: front-load your hiring for the next few years and specifically target some promising staff at U.S. schools. Hire your next five years’ worth of profs this year and make sure 90% are from American institutions. Sure, it’ll mean short-term deficits, but hey – credit’s never been cheaper and top academic talent is the very definition of productive capital. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Memo to provosts: Carpe diem.

September 01

Strategy Matters

Here’s a key truth to understanding the future of academia: the western world hit “Peak Higher Education” sometime in 2009. That is to say, across the OECD, we are unlikely to see public funding at 2009 levels ever again. Between the current global financial crisis and its associated fiscal problems, and the challenges associated with aging societies, there will not be a return to prior levels of public support for higher education for decades to come.

Now peak higher education isn’t hitting everyone equally. Canadian institutions, for instance, are thankfully not facing the 20%+ cuts the University of California system has undergone these last few years, or the 41% decrease in funding for teaching that UK universities are in the midst of experiencing. In some parts of the country, funding might even increase slightly over the next couple of years (though rather clearly, Ontario, Quebec and the three maritime provinces won’t be among the chosen few). But overall, the sector as a whole is going to be in decline.

Which means universities and colleges have four choices:

(1) They can get better at raising resources, through fundraising, charging higher tuition, attracting more international students

(2) They can get bend their cost curves to serve students more cheaply

(3) They can try some combination of the 1 and 2, or

(4) They can shrink.

That’s it. Those are the only alternatives. There’s no silver bullet which gets an institution out of those choices.

This is going to be painful. All those tough decisions which we used to be able to avoid taking when the next round of government funding came in? We actually need to face them now. In turn, what this means is that strategic thinking and strategic planning is going to take on a much more important and central role in higher education.

That’s why we at HESA are pleased to announce the launch of our new quarterly publication, The Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor. It takes a look at how institutions all over the world are using strategy to drive quality improvements and how higher education as a whole is adapting to Peak higher Education. Managing Editor Pamela Marcucci has put together a great first issue, which is available free of charge here. We hope you enjoy it.

August 31

Why is there an “S” in STEM?

Governments love to talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. They were given prominent space in the last Canadian federal budget, and the acronym permeates U.S. educational policy discourse. It’s conventional wisdom that increasing the number of STEM graduates is essential to economic growth. You might think that the chief purpose of the modern post-secondary institution is to churn out graduates in STEM fields – and that as a corollary, arts students are some sort of vestigial leftover from a bygone era, kept around only to avoid the pain of their excision.

The full-court press to jack up STEM graduate production rates overlooks one important detail – the STEM fields are hardly a monolith, and there are some very important differences among them. Indeed, sometimes it’s unclear why these fields are grouped together at all. The issue, in large part, lies with the “S” – an undergraduate science degree is much less likely to get you a job.

Take a look at labour force status of the class of 2005 two years after graduation, courtesy of Statistics Canada’s 2007 National Graduates Survey. For comparison, we’ve left in data for the humanities – a field that is seldom lauded as the ticket to immediate success in the job market.

It becomes quickly apparent that one of the STEM fields is not like the others. Graduates in the physical and life sciences have extremely low employment. Barely half of them have a full-time job, only two-thirds are employed at all, and almost a quarter are not in the labour force – two years after graduating. Moreover, they have the highest rate of unemployment (11%). Students in engineering or math and computer science, by contrast, have full-time employment rates of around 80% and employment rates around 85%, with unemployment under 8%. Based on short-term employment outcomes, the sciences have little in common with the other three. It makes you wonder: if “TEM” sounded half as good as “STEM,” would we be so quick to lump in the sciences with the rest?

Of course, the sciences still offer great value to their students and society – even if that value doesn’t pay off as employment in the short term. And should science’s showing on these graphs make it feel lonely, there’s another field that might be its friend. As the data shows, a science student’s employment prospects are rather similar to those of a humanities graduate. And that’s something we shouldn’t hide behind an acronym.

August 30

Anticipating Demographic Shifts

I was in Regina last week speaking to the university’s senior management team about challenges in Canadian post-secondary education, when someone asked a really intriguing question.

“Given the changing demographics of Canada, with fewer traditional-aged students, are there any examples of good practice of universities altering their programming serving non-traditional students instead”?

I have to admit, I was stumped.

You’d think, for instance, that maritime universities, who have been facing demographic decline for quite some time, would have some experience of this, but they don’t, really. Think about it: when Memorial started hurting for students because of Newfoundland’s awful demographics, the main response was to lower tuition fees and begin raiding other nearby provinces for traditional-aged students. In the rest of the maritimes, they’ve been sucking traditional-aged students out of Ontario for a couple of decades now, and the primary solution to any shortfall now is to go looking for traditional-aged students in other parts of the world.

From Statistics Canada

There have, admittedly, been some advances recently in attracting non-traditional-aged students in Northern Ontario and the Prairies – specifically, Aboriginal students, who tend to arrive at university in their mid- to late-20s (often after having had children). But even here, what they are doing for the most part is trying to put in as many supports as possible so that they can be taught as if they were traditional, full-time students. One might conclude that universities are going to great lengths to avoid re-engineering themselves to serve older populations.

Taking demographics seriously means that some universities are going to have to move towards much more modular delivery of courses, more e-learning alternatives, and more evening courses. There are pockets of this, of course, but it hardly constitutes a major trend. Generally speaking, community colleges and polytechnics have been doing much better on this front than universities.

As the demographic shift continues, what happens if governments conclude that they should put more resources on lifelong learning and less on traditional-aged students? That possibility may open up some big opportunities for those institutions (mostly colleges) who have already invested heavily in this kind of delivery, and leave those institutions (mostly universities) who have not politically quite vulnerable.

August 29

Market Opportunities – A Blue Ocean Strategy in Doctoral Education

The economics of higher education are pointing inexorably towards a two-tier faculty system; one in which research is rewarded, and one in which teaching is rewarded. If this wasn’t plain over the last fifteen years or so, it certainly should be by now.

So why haven’t Ph.D. programs shifted to adapt to this reality? If we’re looking at a future where there are at least as many graduates whose careers will depend upon their pedagogical prowess as upon research excellence, why aren’t their programs that cater to people heading down that career path?

The answer, of course, is because teaching remains a low-prestige endeavour and universities tend not to deliberately choose lower-prestige paths when they are already on a higher one. But that doesn’t preclude newer graduate programs from heading down this route. If I were president of a young, growing, mid-size university that was just starting to build significant doctoral programs (e.g., Lethbridge, University of Winnipeg, University of Northern British Columbia), I’d be sorely tempted to to follow this pathway.

Think about it: if you’ve got no chance of duking it out with the big boys and girls of the U-15 for major research dollars, why not create your own strategy and your own market? Target people who want to teach. Provide them not just with doctoral-level training but also with a full set of courses in pedagogical theory. For bonus marks, make sure they understand how pedagogy works in e-learning and give them the skills to develop their own course-ware. It would give students an enormous advantage in landing a job.

We’re all used to colleges advertising their success rates in placing their graduates. Given how coming budget cuts are likely to make it even more difficult to land academic jobs, we shouldn’t be surprised if grad schools soon start adopting that same strategy. The institution that gets out in front on a teaching-oriented Ph.D. will likely do exceedingly well on that metric.

August 28

HESA in the Montreal Gazette

On Saturday, the Montreal Gazette’s Karen Seidman talked to HESA President Alex Usher and others about student engagement in campus life:

Alex Usher is the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto think-tank that helps universities and governments measure and improve education strategies, and he doesn’t believe the learning experience changes much for commuter students.

“A lot of the research showing that commuter campuses have higher dropout rates comes out of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not necessarily true in Canada.”

And while he “respects” the fact that American research shows students have more success if they’re involved in university life, he doesn’t believe the negative impacts are anywhere near as bad as that research shows.

“You have to keep in mind that the big commuter schools in the U.S. tend to get more students who are less academically inclined,” he said. “Our schools may look like big American commuter schools, but they still retain their students.”

For example, 90 per cent of students in Canada who start a four-year degree are still in school or have graduated within five years.



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