HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

February 19

Free University and We Don’t Even Know It

I’ve long believed that post-secondary education should be free for bright, poor kids.  And although there’s room for differences over what constitutes “poor” and “bright” (I’ve got a strict-ish definition of the former, less so the latter), it seems to me that this is a sentiment with which most people agree.

But here’s the thing: in actual fact, there are an awful lot of bright poor kids already going to university for free, and nobody seems to notice.  The problem is that we just don’t package it in a way that people recognize it as being free.

Take Quebec.  What’s that?  Lowest fees in the country, but kids still have to pay?  Pshaw.  Over 100,000 university students there receive grants.  The median grant is $4,500.  Average tuition and fees is $2,000 or so.  A quick look at statistics from Quebec Aide Financiere Aux Etudes suggests that at least 40,000 students are receiving more money from government than they are paying to go to school.  Unless you’re deliberately trying to be obtuse about it, that makes 40,000 people getting a free university education.

Ah, you say.  But what about mean old Ontario, where tuition and fees are now up around $7,000.  Well, actually, there are a substantial number of students getting free education there, too.  Thanks to the Ontario Tuition Grant, full-time dependent students from families making under $160,000 (yes, the limit’s an utter travesty – we’ll discuss it another time) get $1,730/year from the government.  Those from families with income under $40,000, or so:  they’re eligible for another $1,600 from the Canada Student Grant.  Add in another $2,300 or so in education tax credits, and we’re up to $5,600.  If the student is doing well at school – say, high 80s – that can qualify them for another $1,500 or so in entrance awards.  That’s $7,100 in non-repayable government aid – more than what they are paying in tuition.

Or, another combination: Imagine the same student from a family earning roughly $60,000.  Probably wouldn’t get the Canada Study Grant, but would get everything else, meaning they’d be receiving about $5,500.  If they left home to go to school, the likelihood is that they’d get a loan in the $9,000-$10,000 range – of which anything over $7,140 would be forgiven (that is, turned into a grant).  So, again, free tuition.

I could go on province-by-province (Saskatchewan and Manitoba do pretty well in this kind of accounting), but I’ll spare you. There are no numbers that would allow us to say for sure how many people are receiving this kind of money.  For what it’s worth, my guess, based on my knowledge of student aid in Canada, is that the number is probably in the 100-150K range, but it’s hard to know for sure.

You’d think that this would be one of those things about which everyone – especially provincial governments – would be standing up and shouting to the rafters: it’s a heck of a good news story.  And yet, absurdly, nearly no one even knows its even happening.

How did this state of affairs come about?  More tomorrow.

February 18

The Canada Apprentice Loan

One of the signature pieces in last week’s budget was the Canada Apprentice Loan (CAL).  Very few details were given out at the time (see p. 70 in the budget, here), but what details did emerge suggest two things to me: first, that the idea went into the budget less-than-fully-baked; and second, that it could turn out to be a fairly significant political mess.

The proof of this being less-than-fully-baked is the lack of detail surrounding the idea.  While the scheme seems to be about putting money into apprentices’ hands during block training periods, it made no mention of how this loan would mesh with the significant amounts of EI money apprentices already receive during those periods (training periods are considered a period “out-of-work” under EI, so apprentices are eligible for EI during this time, and receive payments equivalent to 55% of their normal working income as a result).  Does it replace the EI money?  It seems unlikely that the Tories would try a bait-and-switch, but the silence about integration suggests the issue hasn’t been thoroughly thought through.

But if it’s additional, what’s the $4,000 for, exactly?  Living costs? That would put the amount available to them over 100% of their wage rates. If that happens, all hell will break loose on the Canada Student Loans front.  CSLP doesn’t work on a wage-replacement principle, it works on an allowance principle: that is, it assumes that the purpose of student loans is to top-up students to a particular maximum, based on living arrangements, presence of children, and local cost of living.  For a single student living away from home, that probably means about $1000/month.  But apprentices earning $16/hour in their job already receive about $1600/month in EI funding.  If you lend this better-off group more money, what possible excuse do you have to say no when student groups come asking for similar treatment for CSLP?

Another possibility is that the loans are specifically for training costs.  But then why make it $4,000?  A Canadian Apprenticeship Forum paper from 2007 (see: here) showed that average training costs – including tools and apprenticeship registration fees – were just $1300, and that 50% of apprentices paid less than $800.  Nothing’s changed significantly since then, so why the super-high maxima?  Again, setting maxima well above actual need is going to set off a clamour for similar treatment in the CSLP.

Here’s my take: the current federal government is very fond of apprenticeships.  But the problem is that most of the levers of apprenticeship policy are in the hands of the provinces.  The only thing the federal government can really do is pump money into apprentices’ hands in the hope that the extra funding will make more people want to be apprentices.  That’s probably about as deep as the thinking went on this file before it went into the budget.

It’s possible it will get better upon implementation (as the recent ruckus on income-splitting shows, at least some of the Tory cabinet seem able to re-evaluate policy in the face of evidence), but as it stands right now, the roll-out of the CAL could be more problematic than the federal government seems to think.

February 14

Chinese Higher Education: Where to From Here?

So, now that China has 30 million students and a half-dozen “world class universities”, where to next?

Well, the first thing to note is that the system hasn’t finished growing.  While the major metropolitan areas of the north and centre have PSE attendance rates that approach those in Canada, outside of those very small areas, the average is less than half that.  Even in fairly prosperous coastal provinces like Zhejiang and Guangdong, participation rates are less than half of what they are in the rich metropolitan zones.  Now, some of the growth in participation rates will be taken care of via demography.  China’s 20-24 age cohort will shrink in size by about a third between 2011 and 2016 thanks to the One Child Law (demographically, think of China as just a really big Cape Breton), so participation rates will rise significantly even if China does no more than stay steady in terms of enrolments.  But it’s still a safe bet that in most of the country, we can expect more universities to open, and existing second-tier institutions will need to be expanded.

Participation rates by Region, 2008

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So with demand for education set to rise, and the country still struggling to absorb all the graduates from the past few years, I suspect the bigger issue going forward for China is going to be quality.  China’s worked out how to expand its system.  What it hasn’t done quite yet is worked out how to spread excellence beyond its top research schools (the Chinese equivalent of the Ivy League is the C-9: Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Zhejiang, Nanjing, Harbin Tech, University of Science and Technology of China, and the Jiao Tongs at Shanghai and Xi’an).

And even at these schools, some of the excellence is only skin deep: they might be able to butt into world league tables based on publication counts, by doing things like requiring all graduate students at 985 universities to get two publications in Thomson ISI-indexed journals (seriously… can you imagine doing that here? The system would totally collapse), but those articles’ citation counts are much lower than at large western universities, indicating that the rest of the scientific world doesn’t think they’re up to much.  But changing that means changing academic cultures – some of which have become sclerotic and corrupt (this stinging editorial in Science magazine [link is to an ungated copy] by two Chinese academics who had returned home from academic careers in the US, Shi Yigong and Rao Yi, is one of many pieces of evidence that could be cited here).  As we know here in North America, there is very little that is harder than changing academic cultures.  If China works out how to fix that problem, then there’s genuinely no reason it won’t lead the world at pretty much everything.  But I have my doubts.

The outlook in China then is pretty simple – mostly continuations of recent trends, with a greater emphasis on quality and employability.  And until they get that sorted out, there will continue to be opportunities for western institutions seeking to poach those who can’t get into 985 universities.

February 13

“Comparability” in Salaries

Come salary negotiation time, every faculty union wants to be paid based on what “comparable” universities are getting.  It was a huge point in the UNB strike, it continues to be one in the Mount Allison strike, and presumably it will be one at U Winnipeg as well (the strike deadline is February 24).

There are three problems with the notion of “comparability”.  The first is obvious: finding genuinely comparable institutions.  On what, exactly, do you compare?  Size? Mission?  Teaching loads?  Research output?  There are number of plausible metrics here, but when choosing “comparable” schools the metric for comparability is never entirely transparent.  And the problem is that in the absence of rigorous metrics, faculty unions might simply try to find official “comparators” that are significantly more prestigious (and better-paid) than themselves, because then they’ll look worse by comparison, and hence be deserving of a larger raise.  Cue round after round of salary gains.

There is, of course, a simple way to stop this kind of gaming: institute a rule that if one institution is going to be considered a comparator to another, both sets of faculty unions must agree.  That is, for the faculty association of (for instance) UNB to be permitted to claim that Queen’s and Waterloo are “comparable” institutions for the purpose of salary, the faculty associations at Queen’s and Waterloo would: a) have to agree that UNB is a comparable institution; and, b) include UNB as a salary comparator in their negotiations.  This form of gaming would stop PDQ.

The second solution is slightly wonkish, and has to do with seniority and salary grids.  Let’s say two institutions are genuinely indistinguishable from one another and have identical pay grids, but at one the staff tends to be older and have more years of employment, and hence are paid better due to seniority. Could the university with the more junior staff claim the need for a raise because of “comparability”?  Real-life example: average pay at every single rank at UNB is about $10K behind the equivalent at Dalhousie, but because UNB staff are on average much more likely to be full profs on higher salaries, the average salary of all profs across each institution looks about the same.  Leaving aside the institutional comparability issue for a second, UNB profs have a legitimate argument about being underpaid.  But if they get a raise, then the administration has a legitimate concern about overpaying in total for professorial services.  See?  Trickier than it looks.

But say these two technical problems are solved: say you’ve found genuinely comparable universities and you can get over the problem of staff heterogeneity. There’s still going to be the problem of affordability.  A Mexican or Costa Rican university might declare itself comparable to a Canadian one, but that doesn’t mean it can afford to pay its staff on a similar basis.  Similarly, within Canada, not every institution is equally well-funded.  McGill and Alberta are comparable institutions in many respects, but one’s in Alberta and one’s in Quebec.  No prizes for guessing which one’s profs make 10% more than the other, on average.  And striking about it, even if that were something McGill profs ever did, wouldn’t change that one bit.

February 12

HESA’s 2014 Federal Budget Commentary

Hi all,

The team at HESA towers was up late last night putting together – as we do every year – a review of the Federal Government’s Budget measures, as they relate to higher education and training.  Far from being the snooze-fest many had predicted, it turned out there was a whole bunch of crazy stuff in there, from vast but slightly hazy research funds, to largely inexplicable apprenticeship loan programs.  You can read all of our budget coverage, HERE. Still not 100% sure what to make of it all, to be honest: but we’d love to hear  your reactions.

 

Ciao,

Alex

February 11

Cooling the “War on Science” Rhetoric

Today’s budget day.  I think we can be reasonably certain that no matter what comes up on the R&D front, somebody is going to trot out the meme that the Harper government is conducting a “War on Science”.  But this is, at best, a half-truth.  There is an enormous difference between the Harper government’s record of heeding scientific advice and its behaviour towards government scientists, on the one hand, and its record of funding academic science, on the other.

Their record on the former is indeed pretty terrible, particularly when it comes to protection of lakes, waterways, and groundwater.  The charge that they are putting developer interests above environmental interests is, near as I can tell, absolutely true.   The decreased ability of government scientists to communicate their results in scholarly forums is ridiculous.  But the paranoia around this stuff is getting out of hand – some of the rhetoric around the closure of libraries in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was pretty surreal.

(Apparently, plenty of people found photos of dumpsters full of books as prima facie evidence that jack-booted Tory ministers were personally eviscerating government library collections.  But regular book disposal is par for the course at any library.  Collections management strategies don’t just mean acquiring books, they mean getting rid of them when they are no longer necessary – in cases where similar collections are being merged, the proportion of volumes meeting that description can be quite high.  There is definite evidence of carelessness in the way collections are being disposed of, but anyone who thinks those decisions are made at the Ministerial level doesn’t understand Ottawa.)

Anyways, whatever their record on government science, the Tories’ record of funding academic science is something else entirely.  Some of the War-on-Science types like to add up all the tiny little cuts of the past year or two and present them as a sustained, coordinated attack on science. And there’s no doubt that some specific cases – the ones related to water, for instance (e.g. closure of the Experimental Lakes Area) – were probably linked to the government agenda.  But as for the rest of them: we’re coming back from a $50 billion deficit, and the government promised not to balance it on the backs of the provinces.  Cuts are to be expected, and it doesn’t seem as though Science is taking a disproportionate cut (though, thanks to Tory secretiveness about government operations, we can’t tell for sure).  Certainly, there has been nothing on the scale of the 14% cut the granting councils took in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget,  and nobody claimed there was a war on science back then.

In case you need a reminder going into today’s budget on the Tory funding record for Science, here it is:

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Could the Tories have done more?  Sure.  But that record simply isn’t one of a government “at war” with Science – which is presumably why people documenting the “War on Science” simply ignore it.

The only thing that worries me is that the numbers get smaller as time goes on.  Obviously, that has to do with the fact that the government entered a period of general restraint after 2010.  But I wonder: is it also the reaction of a government tired of getting kicked by a community to whom they have been relatively generous? Worth pondering.

 

February 10

China: The Expansion Hangover

The explosive growth of China’s higher education sector wasn’t achieved without incident.  In fact, the expansion has thrown up a number of challenges for institutions and students alike.

Let’s start with the institutions.  The so-called 985 universities – that is, the research-intensive schools directly under the control of the education ministry in Beijing – have done remarkably well out of government policies since the 1990s.  Peking and Tsinghua Universities, in particular, have become genuinely global powerhouses in certain fields of research (Tsinghua, along with Zhejiang and Shanghai Jiao Tong, now have publication outputs surpassing MIT’s, though citations still lag badly – an indication of the still-not-quite-mature state of science in China); other institutions like Fudan and Nanjing have also done well.

Less well-off are the many universities that are under provincial control.  They were all required to expand capacity in the late 90s, and did so under the expectation that they would be given access to the “diversified funding sources” they were promised in the 1998 Higher Education Law.  In practice, the provinces didn’t invest as much as hoped, and didn’t allow tuition to rise as much as hoped.  This left institutions – which had borrowed heavily in the expectation of future revenues – holding an enormous bag.  By 2011, some estimates had it that they collectively had a debt of about $US 41 billion.

Students, of course, were big winners – young people now are something like eight times more likely to end up in higher education than they were twenty years ago.  But when you expand numbers that quickly, you’re bound to run into some capacity issues on the other side.  And this is exactly what we find: unemployment among recent Chinese university graduates now runs at over 15%, compared to rates of just 3% for non-university graduates, and underemployment is also rife .  As I’ve noted before, that’s unlikely to curb demand because the risk-adjusted returns are still pretty good.  But the creation of a large number of unemployed young people is never a good thing for a government that puts political stability first and foremost.

More to the point, perhaps, the unemployment problem has made people even more desperate to get into one of the prestigious 985 universities, whose graduates can rely on institutional prestige to get them a job.  But as Damien Ma and William Adams pointed out in their excellent recent book, In Line behind a Billion People, access to these schools is highly unequal.  Each restricts seats for students who graduate from their own affiliated middle and senior schools (in which the children of local Party officials are overrepresented), and also set aside the majority of their places for pupils from their own city or province.  What that means is that students from Beijing (population: 20 million), who have their pick of eight of the thirty-nine 985 universities, can get into an elite school with much lower gaokao scores than students from Guangdong (104 million, two 985 universities) or Henan (94 million, no 985 universities).

The universities’ debt problem will probably disappear eventually – as it has done before with state-owned enterprises, Beijing is likely just going to wipe the debts at some point.  The graduate problem also probably fades with time as the economy grows.  But the problem of unequal access to top universities is a killer.  As Ma and Adams note, urban elites like their privileges; woe betide the Party who tries to take it from them.

February 07

Chinese Higher Education’s Take-Off

When Deng re-opened the universities, the system somehow managed to pull together a couple of hundred thousand professors, and around 600 institutions started enrolling students.  By 1980 that meant about a million students a year in mainstream universities (plus another half-million in specialized “adult higher education institutions”), and a cozy student: faculty ratio of about 4:1.  Over the next decade, to 1990, those numbers would increase to about 2 million in universities (mostly in 4-year undergraduate programs known as Benke), another million in adult universities, and yet another million in two-year vocational (Zhuanke) programs.

At that point, the numbers flattened out for a few years, partially because economic growth faltered after 1990, but also because nervous Chinese authorities weren’t looking to increase student numbers after the events of April-June 1989.  But the years between about 1992 and 1995 were crucial ones because they locked into place a couple of key policies – mainly, rules allowing the establishment of private institutions, rules allowing universities to charge tuition fees, and rules allowing universities to borrow.  Together, those three rule changes provided the financial foundation for what happened next.

Growth came back in 1994, and numbers edged up over the decade, but the ninth and tenth five-year plans for education had bigger ideas in mind.  They foresaw a system that would triple or quadruple in size by 2005.  And so, more or less they did.  Basically, starting in 1999, all universities were ordered to increase their intake by 50%.  And again in 2000.  And again in 2001.  (And you thought Ontario’s double cohort was a big deal.) Within five years, the size of the university system tripled to over 10 million Benke students; adult higher education and Zhuanke enrolments grew in parallel so that by 2004 total enrolments were in the 20 million range, with about 20% of these students being educated in private universities.  Since then, enrolment has gone up another 50%, putting total enrolment in the 30-million range.

Now, I lied a bit in the last paragraph.  Not every institution was required to increase enrolment.  The very top schools – the 38 controlled directly by the Education ministry in Beijing, and considered the “elite” of the system (with the rest mostly reporting to provincial authorities) – were put into something called the “985 plan” (China has an odd tradition of numbering plans this way – 985 just means that the plan started in May 1998), which was meant to create “world-class universities”.  Basically, they were allowed to keep their undergraduate enrolments stable while, at the same time, receiving stonking huge amounts of money for research.  Sort of exactly what our big five asked for in their renowned 2009 Maclean’s interview.

And that’s basically the story: from 0 to 30 million students in 30 years, and from zero to a top-tier research contributor in the same period, through a policy of a two-tier university system, a lot of public money, and a healthy dose of tuition fees.  Nothing else in the history of higher education comes close to this scale of expansion of opportunity and achievement.

February 06

When the Times Higher Education Rankings Fail The Fall-Down-Laughing Test

You may have noted the gradual proliferation of rankings at the Times Higher Education over the last few years.  First the World University Rankings, then the World Reputation Rankings (a recycling of reputation survey data from the World Rankings), then the “100 under 50” (World Rankings, restricted to institutions founded since the early 60s, with a methodological twist to make the results less ridiculous), then the “BRICS Rankings” (World Rankings results, with developed countries excluded, and similar methodological twists).

Between actual rankings, the Times Higher staff can pull stuff out of the database, and turn small bits of analysis into stories.   For instance, last week, the THE came out with a list of the “100 most international” universities in the world.  You can see the results here.  Harmless stuff, in a sense – all they’ve done is take the data from the World University Rankings on international students, foreign faculty, and international research collaborations, and turned it into its own standalone list.  And of course, using those kinds of metrics, geographic and political realities mean that European universities – especially those from the really tiny countries – always come out first (Singapore and Hong Kong do okay, too, for similar reasons).

But when their editors start tweeting stuff – presumably as clickbait – about how shocking it is that only ONE American university (MIT, if it matters to you) makes the top 100 – you have to wonder if they’ve started drinking their own Kool-Aid.  Read that list of 100 again, take a look at who’s on the list, and think about who’s not.  Taken literally, the THE is saying that places like the University of Ireland, Maynooth, the University of Tasmania, and King Abdulaziz University are more international than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

Here’s the thing about rankings: there’s no way to do validity testing other than what I call the, “fall-down-laughing test”.  Like all indicator-systems, they are meant to proxy reality, rather than represent it absolutely.  But since there’s no independent standard of “excellence” or “internationalization” in universities, the only way you can determine whether or not the indicators and their associated weights actually “work” is by testing them in the real word, and seeing if they look “mostly right” to the people who will use them.  In most international ranking systems (including the THE), this means ensuring that either Harvard or Stanford comes first: if your rankings come up with, say, Tufts, or Oslo, or something as #1, it fails the fall-down-laughing test, because “everybody knows” Harvard and Stanford are 1-2.

The THE’s ranking on “international schools” comprehensively fails the fall-down-laughing test. In no world would sane academics agree that Abdulaziz and Maynooth are more international than Harvard.  The only way one could possibly believe this is if you’ve reached the point where you believe that specifically chosen indicators actually *are* reality, rather than proxies for it.  The Times Higher has apparently now gone down that particular rabbit hole.

February 05

Riding Two Horses*

Here’s a home truth that you won’t see acknowledged very often: modern Canadian universities aren’t one organization; they’re two, each with different values, priorities, and procedures.

The first organization is the one we’re used to thinking about.  It’s the one that acts as a pillar of the community.  It teaches the local kids, and works on local problems.  It measures its success in its ability to attract ever-brighter domestic students, and in winning national competitions for public research funds.  When possible, some international research collaboration and recognition is great, too.  It is heavily regulated, publicly-funded, and acts squarely to serve domestic policy needs.

This is a great organization, no question about it.  It’s the kind of research-heavy, Humboldtian university we’ve all been taught to believe is the bees-knees. The problem is that governments never pay for research the way research universities think it should be paid for.  So they start looking for ways to make a little money on the side in order to make ends meet, and they start a second business to subsidize their core mission.

These second businesses use some of the same resources as their core Humboldtian enterprise, but they have a completely different ethos.  They exist to make money, pure and simple.  It operates where government regulation is weakest – where something like actual competition reigns, and people pay what the market can bear – i.e. in the market for international and professional Master’s programs.  A substantial portion of Canadian institutions now earn over 10% of their income from these markets; there are probably a half-dozen institutions where tuition from these students is approaching total tuition from domestic students.  With government spending on higher education increasing below inflation across the country since 2009, this influx of dollars is pretty much the only thing that has allowed universities to pay for their 4-5% annual cost increases.

But here’s the problem: these businesses require two totally different sets of management skills.  The first business is about collegiality, consultation, deliberation, and the sanctity of academic disciplines.  The second is about speedy response to market openings, a ruthless focus on margins, and de-emphasizing disciplines in favour of more cross-disciplinary thematic programming.   Finding people with the skills to manage either of the businesses is difficult; finding people with the skills to manage both is almost impossible.

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This is a major reason universities are becoming increasingly unmanageable.  The folks at the top are trying to ride two horses at once, usually without a lot of training.  The folks in the trenches don’t always grasp that there even is a second business (and many of those who do despise the idea); in part, this is because most institutions kind of backed-in to their secondary business without having a proper strategy, or even a public discussion about it.   The result is a lot of anger and mutual incomprehension.

The first business is where universities earn their reputation and prestige; the second, increasingly, is where they make the money needed to keep that reputation and prestige.  Only the institutions that make both of these enterprises work together, efficiently and harmoniously, will succeed in the coming decades.

 

*N.B: this idea of two institutions isn’t mine.  I came across it originally in an Australian publication; I would give credit to the original author if I could, but I can’t recollect where I first saw it.

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