HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

January 10

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Chile

Chile has a very diverse higher education sector, and has been subject to a lot of policy experimentation in recent years.  That makes it a case to watch, both regionally and globally.

Prior to the 1973 coup, Universidad de Chile was the country’s pre-eminent school, with campuses across the country.  But academia didn’t fare so well under Pinochet, as there were waves of arrests, exiles, and, in some cases, executions.  All of this meant that, on occasion, whole departments suddenly vanished.  U de Chile was subsequently split into a dozen smaller institutions, most becoming independent – but less powerful – public universities in their own right.

By the end of the military regime, there were 25 “state-sponsored” universities – 16 public and 9 private (mainly Catholic), which are usually referred to as the “CRUCH” universities (pronounced croossh (it’s an acronym for the Council of Rectors), all funded through a mixture of public funding and student fees (more the latter than the former).  None were really what you’d call a research university – Latin America historically has never really had many of those – but it had the usual prestige hierarchy, with the two oldest universities, Universidad de Chile and Pontifical Universidad Catolica de Chile, at the top.

But the key Pinochet-era decision was to open the higher education market to private competition.  The result was the creation, over three decades, of 35 new, fully-privately funded universities.  Few are considered anything like the equal of the older universities, academically.  Partly, that’s like private universities almost everywhere, as they tend to avoid offering programs in prestigious but capital-intensive subjects like Engineering, Science, and Medicine; but mostly it’s because a lot of them are for-profit, and are therefore seen as suspect.

Chile’s sub-baccalaureate system – 45 Institution Profesional (essentially, polytechnics) and 68 CFTs (essentially, community colleges) is entirely privately-run, the only country in the world where this is so.  The existence of these institutions is an irritant to CRUCH universities, who have responded by using their influence in the accreditation system to (essentially) impose accreditation criteria designed for universities on community colleges.  Result?  Only 2.2% of CFT programs are actually accredited.

What’s distinctive about Chile is the diversity of its funding channels.  There’s a public subsidy for the CRUCH universities, which is mostly historic rather than formula-driven, and a different, voucher-ish public subsidy for private universities able to attract students with high scores on the national university-entrance exam.  There’s one student loans program for CRUCH universities, and another, much less subsidized, program for everyone else.  Add in some half-hearted attempts at performance-contract funding, a dozen or so bursary programs for various target groups – plus, of course, the fact that as a percentage of GDP, Chile’s private contributions to higher education are among the highest in the world (nearly 1.5% of GDP), and you can see why the policy environment is fairly chaotic.

Now, add into all this the fact that President-elect Bachelet has promised to make all education free.  What does that mean in a system which is 70% + private?  No one knows.

Stay tuned.  This will get interesting.

January 09

The Salaries Problem

I’ve made a few key points over the last couple of days:

1)      Canadian Universities will be lucky if they keep being able to increase their incomes by 3% per year, holding enrolments constant.

2)      The kinds of salary settlements we have seen recently at Canadian universities, if allowed to continue, will eat up easily 70-80% of that income, maybe more, leaving precious little left over for IT, infrastructure, etc.

3)      It’s not a problem of administrative bloat.  The ratio of academic salaries to non-academic ones hasn’t changed in over a decade.

To put it bluntly, this isn’t sustainable.  Things have to change.

Could the solution be on the revenue side?  Certainly, that’s part of the current problem.  Over the past two years, things have been pretty dire for higher education, with institutions only receiving about 0.45% per year in government funding increases.  That might improve a bit in some provinces over the next year or two, but my guess would be that both Ontario and Quebec will see significant cuts in the 2015 budget cycle, once they’ve both had elections.  So that’s not in the cards.

Ask students to pay more?  That would make oodles of sense in many places (especially Alberta, BC, and Quebec), but it’s a tough sell in a recession.  To the extent this is possible, it will be for professional Master’s programs, which are going to spread like mushrooms.

Admit more students?  Well, that would work in some places, but not east of the Ottawa River, where things are drying up.  International students are always a very viable alternative, though it’s not clear that every institution is equally suited to acting (as Brad DeLong recently wrote in a delightfully bitchy post about the University of California) as finishing schools for the superrich of Asia.

That leaves expenditure – the largest and fastest-rising bit of which is salaries.  And here there are only three options: cut jobs, cut salaries, or some combination of the two.  Tenure limits institutions’ ability to do the former (to academics, at least), so that suggests that restraint on the salary side is where the action is going to have to be.

It’s not even a matter of cutting salaries.  It’s about getting the rate of salary increase back down to where it historically was for most of the 70s, 80s and 90s.  The 2000s saw an historically unprecedented rise in professorial salaries, as shown by Figure 1:

Figure 1: Median Academic Salaries, Canada Real $2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More relevant for university finances was the fact that average salaries were increasing even faster than the median during the 2000s – 18% in real dollars vs. 11% for the median.

Figure 2: Average Academic Salaries, 2001-2 and 2009-10, in Real $2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You know the good old days everyone talks about?  Maybe they were good precisely because salaries weren’t cannibalizing the rest of the budget.  Something to think about, anyway.

January 08

Administrative Bloat?

If there’s one common complaint among academic staff it’s that non-academic staff… administrators… are multiplying like weeds, and taking over the university.  Of course, no one can tell if this is actually happening because Canadian universities have never bothered to put together any common statistics on non-academic staff.

What we do have, though, is data on non-academic staff compensation – that is, we can see how much non-academic staff were paid in any given year, and track that over time.  We can then compare that to how much money was spent on academics.  These changes in compensation ratios are a reasonable indicator of changes in staffing levels, even if we don’t know exactly how many people are employed in these positions.

Going back to 1979, the ratio of academic to non-academic staff compensation looks like this:

Figure 1: Ratio of Academic to Non-Academic Staff Compensation, 1979-2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey

What Figure 1 means is that, whereas in 1979, total academic salary mass was 17% higher than non-academic salary mass, by 2011, it was 7% lower.  Interestingly, there’s actually been no change at all in the past decade: the ratios have remained essentially stable since about 2000.  Before that, they fell gradually for about 20 years (the apparent huge fall in 1999 was the result of a change in the survey that – as I understand it – brought academic salary mass more fully into the picture, which obviously would have a negative effect on these ratios.  So in fact, about a third of the change seen here is actually just the result of a series break).

Of course, averages are one thing – but they can hide a heck of a lot of variation between institutions.  Here’s the distribution of non-academic to academic salary masses for 2011, across all institutions:

Figure 2: Distribution of Academic : Non-Academic Salary Mass Ratios by Institution, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey

In fact, a majority of institutions still have ratios above 1.0 (meaning they spend more on academic staff than on non-academic staff); it’s just that some of the country’s biggest institutions have ratios below 0.9, and they drag the average down considerably.

But that’s still not quite the whole story.  Take a look at the top and bottom ten institutions on this measure:

Table 1: Top and Bottom Ten Institutions Based on Academic : Non-Academic Staff Salary Mass Ratios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey

Looking at the left-hand column, the secret to spending less on non-academic staff seems simple: just be a small institution with no major science programs (Sherbrooke is an anomaly).  That makes intuitive sense if your hypothesis is that the big contributor to the growth in non-academic salaries is the growth of universities’ research function.  The problem is, a lot of very similar universities are also in the right-hand column.  Ste. Anne and Emily Carr are practically identical to St. Boniface and OCAD – so why the enormous differences?  Royal Roads’ and TELUQ’s low ratios are easy to understand because of their reliance on IT – so too is Toronto, with its enormous research overheads.  But ENAP?  Trinity Western?  What’s going on there?

The answer is, we don’t know.  Much of the U-15 universities tend to cluster between .95-.75 on this measure, but apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to how much institutions spend on academics vs. non-academics.  And yet it has a pretty big effect on institutions’ bottom lines.  It’s a puzzle worth trying to solve.

January 07

How Universities Are Becoming More Labour-Intensive

Yesterday, I showed how universities in New Brunswick were – despite welcome new promises of stable funding from the provincial government – facing problems because salary increases were going to eat all the available new money.  Some of you possibly thought I was being alarmist.  But it’s easy enough to show how this can happen.  In Ontario, it already has.

For data here, I pulled the financial statements for the last five years at the “Big 8” (Toronto, Waterloo, Western, Queens, Guelph, York, Ottawa, and McMaster), which comprise about 75% of all university spending, and hence are a pretty good proxy for the university system as a whole.  It’s not as good as Stastcan data; but, on the other hand, it gives me something past 2011, which is the most recently-available Statistics Canada/CAUBO report.  And here is what it shows:

Figure 1: Total and Salaries/Benefits Expenditures, 8 Largest Ontario Universities, 2009-2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expenditures at these institutions rose from $7.4 billion in 2009 to $8.6 billion in 2012, before falling back to $8.45 billion in 2013.  That’s a 14% nominal increase, which is about 6% after inflation – not bad.  Meanwhile, salaries and benefits rose from being 59% of overall budgets to being 63% of overall budgets.

Now that doesn’t sound so bad, either.  But let’s look at the same data another way:

Figure 2: Increases in Total and Salaries/Benefits Expenditures, 8 Largest Ontario Universities, 2009-2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This looks considerably less good, doesn’t it?  As new money has come in and permitted higher spending, salaries and benefits have eaten fully 92% of the increase.  This, friends, is the consequence of increasing salary mass by 5% per year, when income is only growing at 3%.

And the consequences for the rest of the budget?  After salary increases, the Ontario 8 only had $83 million to put into non-salary areas.  On a base of about $3 billion, that’s an increase of about 3%, but after inflation, that’s actually a 4% reduction, i.e., a fall of about 1% per year.  And of course much of that money is earmarked for things like research, so in terms of disposable income, it’s likely that the figure is actually much higher.

Outside Ontario, we don’t see quite the same pattern.  I pulled 7 other comparable institutions (UBC, Alberta, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, McGill, and Dalhousie) and found that on the whole they spent a greater proportion of their money on salaries (66% in 2013, compared to 63% in Ontario), but that there was no sudden change in the way money was spent (only 67% of new expenditure went to salaries, meaning the average went unchanged).  That said, there were differences inside this group.  Most actually managed to decrease their salary-to-total expenditure ratios; the two exceptions were Alberta (where salaries took 86% of all new expenditure) and McGill (where they took an astounding 179% of new expenditures).

For a set of institutions that endlessly bang-on about how hi-tech they are, Ontario universities are apparently one of the very few industries in the provinces that are becoming more labour intensive over time.  And that won’t change until compensation increases start coming into line with increases in income.

January 06

The New Normal

Happy New Year!  Did everyone have a great vacation?

The highlight of my vacation was going to Argentina and stumbling upon the world’s most unfortunately-named university in a suburb of Buenos Aires, named “Morón”.  It’s called – wait for it – Unversidad de Morón.  Seriously, their international marketing people must have the most difficult jobs in higher ed.

Anyhow, I wanted to start the year by talking about what was a hopeful development from last fall – the Government of New Brunswick’s decision to pre-announce university funding increases for the next two years.  Instead of waiting for provincial budget-time to make an announcement (which, quite honestly, is far too late for institutions needing to do serious planning), the government pre-announced not one but two(!) years’ worth of future increases: 2% for 2014-15, and another 2% for 2015-16.  And they also told institutions they could raise domestic undergraduate tuition by 3% for each of the next two years.  Assuming no big increase in domestic or international student numbers, that means the university can count on overall budget increases of around 2.33%.

Great news, right?  Guaranteed new money!

Put the champagne down, guys.  2.33% still isn’t enough to keep pace.  Cutbacks will inevitably follow.  To understand why, let’s look at professorial pay.

UNB profs are currently without a contract – and indeed are very close to a strike on the issue.  But their previous four-year contract was a fairly generous one.  It moved the salary grid upwards by (on average) 2.4% per year, plus everyone not at the top of their pay grade got annual bumps of (on average) about $1300/year.  What percentage that works out to in total depends on where your place is in the pay grid, but for new associate professors, on average, it was about 4% per year on the nose.

So, 4% in total on academics pay.  Benefits tend to scale at the same rate, as does non-academic pay, so 4% on those, too.  At most Canadian universities, salaries and benefits are about 60% of all expenditures.  Multiply that out – 60% times 4% = 2.4%, and right there we’ve already used up slightly more than the entire announced increase in funding.

That is to say: if labour contracts continue to play out the way they have over the past four years, there is exactly no money left over for anything else.  But since inflation erodes buying power, that actually implies ongoing cutbacks of all non-salary items of about 2% per year.  And that’s the best case scenario for a university, since I think few provinces will be as generous as New Brunswick this year.

The reality, then, is this: either staff pay settlements have to start coming into line with increases in institutional income, or the new normal is going to be continuing pay hikes, combined with annual cutbacks in all non-salary items.

That’s the math, and there’s no escaping it.

December 16

Three to Watch

A few years ago, Jamil Salmi put together a neat little book called, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, in which he noted that there were basically three ways to make a world class university: you can upgrade existing institutions (what most governments do), you can merge them (the French approach), or you can build entirely new institutions from scratch.

That last option sounds ludicrous to most people in western countries.  Who would bypass existing institutions which, over time, have have received billions of public dollars, and start a new one from scratch – wouldn’t that be a waste? But there are countries where this kind of approach conceivably makes sense: countries lacking in strong extant research universities, countries strong enough to ignore complaints from existing universities, and countries with shedloads of resource money with which to pursue this goal.  So far, three countries fit the bill: Saudi Arabia, Kazhakstan, and the Russian Federation.

The Saudis’ King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) is the furthest along of the three.  Having started life with a $10 billion endowment from King Abdullah, it’s been able to attract some top scholars simply because there’s so much money floating loose here for research (“detailed grant requests?  We don’t need no stinkin’ detailed grant requests!  Have another laboratory!”).  It’s even co-ed – though, since it’s all behind a walled, guarded compound, it’s hard to see any larger social movement being started as a result.

Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University seems the longest shot of the three.  The money’s there, but the academic talent isn’t – and frankly, naming your new temple of free thought after a President-for-Life probably doesn’t send the best message to prospective academic staff.  Like KAUST, Nazarbayev has gone out and signed a shedload of academic co-operation agreements with big, “world-class” institutions in order to get a bit of a halo; but hiring’s not going well, let’s put it that way.

The third, Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (“Skoltech”), is actually just one part of a new tech hub (Skolkovo), which is meant to recreate Silicon Valley, with Skoltech playing the role of Stanford.  Skoltech, a joint venture between the Skolkovo project and MIT, is actually a bit of a sideshow within the Skolkovo project, and certainly doesn’t have quite as grand a set of ambitions as either KAUST or Nazarbayev.  And though it all seemed to be off to a promising start, there’s now questions about funding, and there are persistent rumours that, as a project of former-President Medvedev, its future under President Putin may not be so bright.

It will be interesting to chart these institutions’ progression over the coming years.  At the moment, you’d likely bet on KAUST being the one to be in the best shape five years from now – already, it is producing some important scientific outputs; but, over the much longer term, Skolkovo, with its heavy tech links, might end up being the most intriguing of three.  Only time will tell.

December 09

Apprenticeships: Canada vs. Germany

Let’s play a game called: “Comparing Canadian and German Apprenticeships Using Actual Statistics, Instead of the Usual Misinformed Anecdotal BS That Passes for Analysis in Canadian PSE Policy Circles”.  We can start by asking: does Germany have more apprentices than we do?

Statistics Canada puts our apprenticeship population at 426,000.  In Germany, the number is 1.43 million.  But remember, Germany’s population is 2.6 times larger than Canada’s.  Normalized per 1000 of population, the relative number of apprenticeships looks like this:

Apprentices per 1000 of Population, Canada and Germany

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CANSIM 477-0053; Statistische Bundesamt, Bildung und Kultur Fachserie 11, Reihe 3, “Berufliche Bildung”, author’s calculations

So, overall, we do indeed trail Germany in terms of number of apprentices.

But the claim usually made on behalf of Germany is not just that it has lots of apprentices, but that these apprenticeships are the source of Germany’s manufacturing prowess.  Certainly, the skilled-trades brigade makes this point, and they seem to have convinced Essential Skills Minister, Jason Kenney, of this as well.

The problem is that it’s not true.  And that’s because German apprenticeships for the most part have nothing to do with what we call “skilled trades” (basically, anything involving construction or motive mechanics).  Check this out:

Proportion of All Apprentices that are in Construction/Mechanics Trades, Canada and Germany

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CANSIM 477-0053; Statistische Bundesamt, Bildung und Kultur Fachserie 11, Reihe 3, “Berufliche Bildung”, author’s calculations

Want more detail?  Let’s look at some of the key occupations that various pundits claim are a problem in Canada.

Electricians.  This is Canada’s largest apprenticeship category, with 64,000 apprentices. Germany has… 35,000.  Adjusting for population size, that means Canada has 4.75 electrician apprentices for every one in Germany.

Carpenters, Plumbers.  These are our second and third largest occupational categories, with 51,000 and 44,000 apprentices, respectively.  Unfortunately, we can’t make a comparison here because Germany only publishes statistics for the top 20 apprentice occupations, and neither carpentry nor plumbing make that list.  Yes, really.

Automotive Mechanics.  Germany is slightly ahead here – 58,530 apprentices to our 41,760.  But normalized for country size, Canada has 85% more auto mechanic apprentices than Germany.

So if German apprentices aren’t in skilled trades, what are they doing?  Well, take a look at the top ten apprenticeships in each country (the % of all apprenticeships represented by each occupation is in brackets).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: CANSIM 477-0053; Statistische Bundesamt, Bildung und Kultur Fachserie 11, Reihe 3, “Berufliche Bildung”

You see, German apprenticeships are not about “skilled trades” in the way we think of them.  They incorporate occupations in the service industries that actually employ most people in a modern economy, like retail, insurance, banking, health, and public service.  Ours don’t.  End of story.

Bottom line: if Germany has a lead on Canada in terms of skilled trades, it’s not because of the number of apprentices they train.  To the extent that apprenticeships account for this lead at all (as opposed to, say, industrial structure), other factors like apprenticeship completion rates, or the quality of the actual training delivered, are more likely to be at work.

So here’s a New Year’s resolution for the entire country: we’re all going to shut the hell up about needing to have, “more skilled trades apprentices, like Germany”, and move on to more productive conversations.  OK?

Grazie, Buon Anno.

December 06

Ciao, and Some Holiday Reads

Hi from Santiago, Chile, where I am doing a bit of work this week.  This last term has been an awfully busy one, and so I’m cutting the blog off for the holidays, today – a week earlier than usual.  You will, however, still get a weekly email from me over the break (except for the actual week of Christmas), and I’ll be back again full-time on Monday, January 6th.

Thanks to all of you for reading over the past few months, and for all of you who are active on the comment board, and for giving me hell on twitter – you should all know I am sincerely very grateful for your feedback.  It keeps me on my toes, and I nearly always learn something.  Much appreciated.

Since its the holidays, I know you’re all dying for some reading recommendations for the holiday season.  So here’s a brief re-cap of some of the more notable reads from the past year:

The Great University Gamble, by Andrew McGettigan.  This is a genius little book.  It clearly explains, in a refreshingly small number of pages, all the baffling changes that the UK higher education system has undergone in the past decade (but especially in the last three years under the conservatives).  The UK is a deeply weird place these days – you don’t know how weird until you’ve read this book.

Higher Education in Americaby Derek Bok.  Actually, with the possible exception of the sections on professional education, this one’s a bit of a snoozer.  But it’s one of those “serious” books everyone is supposed to read, so I’ll put it on this list so you can ask for it as a gift, and not spend your own money on it.

Stretching the Higher Education Dollar, edited by Kevin Carey (one of my favourite US higher ed commentators) and Andrew Kelly, this is an interesting look at some of the most potentially “disruptive” ideas currently circulating.  It’s unfortunately a little heavy on first-heavy practitioner experience (i.e. guys blowing their own horn), and short on third-party analysis, and so occasionally the articles have the feel of being written by people who’ve drunk their own Kool-Aid, but it’s not bad for all that.

The Entrepreneurial Stateby Mariana Mazzucato.  This is getting a lot of good press (made the FT books of the year list), and it’s not a bad read.  Personally, I think the author frequently overstates her case – assuming risk and being entrepreneurial aren’t the same thing – but it’s a useful corrective to the market-fetishist nonsense that often passes for innovation literature.

And finally, if anyone feels like getting me a gift (hi, mom!), number 1 on my wish list is the incredibly lush-looking, The Library: A World History.  Must-have nerd porn.

Happy holidays, everyone!

December 05

Income-Contingent Loan Problems

Everyone who’s ever given thought to the matter thinks that income-contingent loans are superior to mortgage-style loans.  At any given level of debt, it’s always preferable for low-income borrowers in repayment to have the option to suspend payments, and make them up at a later time.  Pretty much all the objections to income-contingency – especially here in Canada – are about matters extraneous to the actual method of loan repayment (e.g. fees would rise, interest is too high, etc.).

The reason that income-contingent loans work for borrowers is that they operate on the principle of, “can’t pay today?  No worries, catch you tomorrow”.  On average, that’s true: where students have low-income early in their repayment period, their incomes later on usually rise sufficiently to pay off the debt without difficulty.  The problem is that while this is true on average, it’s not true for everyone.  And that means loan losses. While losses are part and parcel of any publicly subsidized loan system, at least with “regular loans” you can see those losses more or less as they occur, and can make provisions for them on that basis.

But the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), and its English counterpart, basically assumed away the problem of losses (no worries, catch you tomorrow).  That led them to do a lot of really dumb things with respect to loan repayment thresholds.  In both countries, when tuition fee increases were in the offing, governments tried to calm students by offering them breaks on repayment terms: in Australia, “no repayment” now occurs below A$51K in annual income; in England, the threshold rose from £10K in 1998 to £15K in 2005, to £21K in 2012.  And each time it rises, a few more borrowers became less likely to repay the full value of their loan.

The problem is that, eventually, tomorrow arrives.  In Australia, of the $25 billion that has been issued in HECS debt, $6 billion has been written-off – that’s up from just $2 billion in 2006 (and that’s in addition to billions in loan interest subsidies).  In England, they’re so worried about the long-term costs of non-repayment that they’ve effectively halted any growth in enrolments, so that the loan portfolio doesn’t get any bigger.

None of this is really the “fault” of income-contingency, per se.  It’s more the fault of deliberately setting repayment thresholds at levels where poorer graduates won’t repay; lower the threshold and the problem goes away.  It’s not even really clear that it’s a problem – ensuring that the poorest graduates don’t repay their loans is arguably a pretty sensible subsidy.

But there’s still a public policy failure here.  Governments lost control of part of the education budget because the “catch you tomorrow” attitude meant there was no default mechanism to tell them when things were going wrong.  And that actually is a problem with income-contingency – and future loan program designers need to consider it carefully.

December 04

Hard Thinking about Soft Skills

So, as I predicted a few days back, Canadian Council of Chief Executives’ CEO, John Manley, gave a speech to the Canadian Club (available here) in which he challenged the conventional wisdom about skills crises – which is presumably why it got zero press coverage.  He began by making the following points, based on a survey conducted of 100 major Canadian employers:

  • Skills shoratges are a problem, but only 11% of employers said it was a big problem (see graph below);
  • The shortages are in IT, Engineering, and skilled trades.  Scientists and researchers are the easiest positions to hire;
  • When evaluating hires, industry-specific knowledge is only the 6th-most important consideration, behind people skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical abilities, and leadership skills.

Figure 1. From the Standpoint of Your Company, How Much of a Problem are Skills Shortages?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this point, however, Manley’s speech took a very weird turn.  Having laid out the case for soft skills being the crux of the skills shortage for many companies, he veered into a discussion of Canada’s increasingly mediocre results on PISA/PIAAC literacy and numeracy tests, and why Canada needs to improve.  Though it’s hard to disagree with the call for better skills in reading and math, it’s also not immediately obvious how either has a whole lot to do with, say, leadership or people skills.

(Canada seems to suffer from a strange inability to effectively link problems to solutions in education.  Need soft skills?  More math classes!  Need a few more pipefitters in Alberta?  Canada Jobs Grant!  It’s almost like a form of policy Tourette’s or something – when presented with a skill-related problem, we blurt out whatever’s already on our mind, rather than work out some kind of reasoned response.)

Anyways, all of this aside – it occurred to me that there’s an enormous branding opportunity for an institution that actually decided to put “soft skills” at the core of its curriculum.  Pretty much all of them, save leadership, can be taught through something not a million miles from an existing curricula – and even that could be incorporated without too much difficulty.

Certainly, to be credible you’d need to make a full-scale curriculum revamp, which would be neither simple nor quick; but think of the upside for a university or college: a school that put leadership and communication at the core of its curriculum would be offering something that is both in line with the traditional liberal arts (rhetoric was one of the seven liberal arts, after all) but that is also fundamentally in line with what today’s employers want.  It would give a school an interesting sales pitch both to employers and students.

I’m not sure every school would want to do it, but for small-to-medium size schools with enrolment challenges (e.g. Trent, Acadia, St. Thomas), “Soft Skills U” would be an interesting niche to try to occupy – if it were done seriously, and not simply slapping a label on what the institution already does.

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