HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

September 28

Are Japanese Humanities Faculties Really Being Shut Down?

You may have noticed stories in the press recently about the government of Japan asking national universities to shut down their humanities faculties.  Such stories have appeared in the Times Higher Ed, Time, and Bloomberg.  Most of these stories have been accompanied by commentary about how shortsighted this is: don’t the Japanese know that life is complex, and that we need humanities for synthesis, etc.?  A lot of these stories are also tinged with a hint of early-1990s “these uncultured Asians only think about business and money” Japanophobia.

The problem is, the story is only partly accurate.  A lot of background is needed to understand what’s going on here.

Some facts about higher education in Japan: First, “national universities” – that is, big public research universities – only account for about 20% of student enrolment in Japan; the remainder of students are enrolled in private universities.  Second, the number of 18 year-olds has fallen from 2 million in 1990 to about 1.2 million; meanwhile the annual intake of students has stayed relatively constant at around 600,000.  The problem is that the 18 year-old cohort is set to continue shrinking, and few think that a system with 86 national universities, about as many regional/municipal universities, and 600-odd private universities can make it through this demographic shift.  Re-structuring is the name of the game these days.

Now, while national universities are theoretically autonomous, they still take “advice” from the Ministry of Education, which is sometimes transmitted via circulars that explains the Ministry’s perspective on national academic priorities.  The current brouhaha centres around one such circular, distributed this past June, which contained the following statement: “With regard to the programs of teacher training, and humanities and social sciences in particular, it is encouraged to stipulate a reform plan, taking into consideration the reduction of 18-year-old population, human resource demands, expected level of education and research, the roles of national universities and etc., and dismantle and restructure organisations based on social needs”.

There’s some clunky language in there, and since I don’t speak Japanese I’m unclear as to how much of this is lost in translation.  A lot of this story comes down to the meaning of the phrase “dismantle and restructure organizations”.  Nearly all the coverage assumes that “organization” means “faculty”.  But if it means “program” (which is effectively what this commentary from a former education bureaucrat suggests) then basically the government is saying “students numbers are down, maybe you should do some program reviews”.  If this is the case, the whole thing is a lot less controversial.

There’s another aspect here, too. The original English language stories in the Japan Times and the Times Higher Education relied heavily on a Yomiuri Shinbun story – which no longer appears to be on the internet – in which 26 of the 60 national universities with humanities programs said they were closing programs, or curtailing enrolment, without ever specifying the proportions.  Twenty-six universities where enrolment in certain humanities programs is being curtailed is a very different story from shuttering 26 humanities faculties altogether.

A final niggle is that since this circular only applied to national universities, humanities in the country’s 600-odd private institutions would have been unaffected anyway.  So even in a worst case scenario sense, this is would be the fate of humanities in about 5% of the country’s universities, not the entire system.

So if the story is only partly true, why did it blow up the way it did?  A couple of reasons, I think.  First, obviously, is that there aren’t a lot of English-language journalists specializing in Japanese higher education, so there is considerable potential for misunderstanding and nuance-missing.  Second, there’s a big market for stories about humanities programs being shut down, mainly from humanities professors themselves who seem to have an endless capacity to imagine what fresh horrors the barbarians in control of the system will do next (for an example see this from the Guardian).

The third reason, though, is that there really are some big disputes between Japanese academics and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Academics are generally on the left, and have opposed the LDP’s recent legislation allowing the Japanese military to participate in overseas combat missions.  They also aren’t too happy about new government legislation that strengthens central administrations at the expense of faculty councils.  In a sense, the humanities row is a proxy fight: there are some in the LDP who really would like to stick it to the academy this way, and there are some in the academy who have reasons to make the government look buffoonish.

But for western readers, there’s a different lesson here: be not overly credulous in dealing with stories from countries whose languages you don’t understand.  Especially if they play to your existing prejudices.

September 25

University Rankings and the Eugenics Movement

Over the course of writing a book chapter, I’ve come up with a delightful little nugget: some of the earliest rankings of universities originated in the Eugenics movement.

The story starts with Francis Galton. A first cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was the inventor of the weather map, standard deviation, the regression line (and the explanation of regression towards the mean), fingerprinting, and composite photography.  In other words, pretty much your textbook definition of a genius.

At some point (some believe it was after reading On the  Origin of Species), Galton came to believe that genius is born, not made.  And so in 1869, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius in which, using biographical dictionaries called “Men of Our Time” (published by Routledge, no less), he traced back “eminent men” to see if they had eminent fathers or grandfathers.  Eventually, he concluded that they did.  This led him into a lifelong study of heredity.  In 1874, Galton published British Men of Science, where he explored all sorts of heritable and non-heritable traits or experiences in order to better understand the basis of scientific genius; one of the questions he asked was whether each had gone to university (not actually universally true at the time), and if so, where had they gone?

Galton soon had imitators who began looking more seriously at education as part of the “genius” phenomenon.  In 1904, Havelock Ellis – like Galton, an eminent psychologist (his field was sexuality, and he was one of the first scientists to write on homosexuality and transgender psychology), published A Study of British Genius This work examined all of the entries in all of the (then) sixty-six volumes of the Dictionary of Biography, eliminated those who were there solely by function of birth (i.e. the royals and most of the nobility/aristocracy), and then classified them by a number of characteristics.  One of the characteristics was university education, and unsurprisingly he found that most had gone to either Cambridge or Oxford (with a smattering from Edinburgh and Trinity).  Though it was not claimed as a ranking, it did list institutions in rank order; or rather two rank orders, as it had separate listings for British and foreign universities.

Not-so-coincidentally, it was also around this time when the first annual edition of American Men of Science appeared.  This series attempted to put the study of great men on a more scientific footing.  The author, James McKeen Cattell (a distinguished scientist who was President of the American Psychological Association in 1895, and edited both Science and Psychological Review), did a series of annual peer surveys to see who were the most respected scientists in the nation.  In the first edition, the section on psychologists contained a tabulation of the number of top people in the field, organized by the educational institution from which they graduated; at the time, it also contained an explicit warning that this was not a measure of quality.  However, by 1906 Cattell was producing tables showing changes in the number of graduates from each university in his top 1,000, and by 1910 he was producing tables that explicitly ranked institutions according to their graduates (with the value of each graduate weighted according to one’s place in the rankings).  Cattell’s work is, in many people’s view, the first actual ranking of American universities.

What’s the connection with eugenics?  Well, Galton’s obsession with heredity directly led him to the idea that “races” could be improved upon by selective breeding (and, conversely, that they could become “degenerate” if one wasn’t careful).  Indeed, it was Galton himself who coined the term “eugenics”, and was a major proponent of the idea.  For his part, Ellis would ultimately end up as President of the Galton Institute in London, which promoted eugenics (John Maynard Keynes would later sit on the Institute’s Board); in America, Cattell wound up as President of the American Eugenics Society. 

In effect, none of them remotely believed that one’s university made the slightest difference to eventual outcomes.  In their minds, it was all about heredity.  However, one could still infer something about universities by the fact that “Men of Genius” (and I’m sorry to keep saying “men” in this piece, but it’s pre-WWI, and they really were almost all men) chose to go there.  At the same time, these rankings represent the precursors to various reputational rankings that became in vogue in the US from the 1920s right through to the early 1980s.  And it’s worth noting that the idea of ranking institutions according to their alumni has made a comeback in recent years through the Academic Ranking of World Universities (also known as the Shanghai rankings), which scores institutions, in part, on the number of Nobel Prize and Fields Medals won by an institution’s alumni.

Anyway, just a curio I thought you’d all enjoy.

September 24

Youth Unemployment: Some Perspective, Please

Every once in awhile, you’ll hear folks talking about the scourge of youth unemployment.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear them describe it as a “crisis”.  But how bad is youth unemployment, really?

Well, the quick answer is that you can’t really separate youth unemployment from general unemployment.  As Figure 1  shows, one is a function of the other.

Figure 1: Youth Unemployment Rates, 15 and Over vs. 15-24 Age Groups, Canada, 1976-2015 (Source: CANSIM 282-001.  Seasonlly-Adjusted)

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As Figure 1 also shows, compared to most of the last 40 years, youth unemployment is currently fairly low.  In the 476 months since the Labour Force Survey began, it has been lower than it is today only 29% of the time.  If this is a crisis, it is of exceedingly long duration.

Now, what some people get upset about is the fact that youth unemployment is “twice the overall rate”.  But is that really historically unique?  Figure 2 shows the answer.

Figure 2: Ratio of 15-24 Unemployment Rate to 15 and Over Unemployment Rate (Source: CANSIM 282-001)

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So, there are two things here on which to remark.  The first is that 2:1 isn’t an immutable ratio: it has changed over time, most notably in the mid-90s when it increased significantly.  The second thing is that the ratio is a lot more seasonal than it used to be.  It’s not entirely clear why this happened.  I had thought initially that it might have something to do with increasing PSE participation rates, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  A mystery worth pursuing, at any rate.

In any case, we should also ask: how does Canada look in comparison to other countries?  In Figure 3, I show the ratio of youth unemployment to overall unemployment in various countries.  Canada’s current ratio – about 1.96 – is not world-beating, but significantly better than the OECD average (2.2). It suggests that the question of youth employment ratios is actually something all economies – with the exception of the Netherlands and Germany, perhaps – deal with.

Figure 3: Ratio of Youth Unemployment Rate to Overall Unemployment Rate, Selected Countries (Source: OECD)

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To get right down to brass tacks: workers gain value with experience.  By definition then, young workers are, on average, less valuable than older workers.  This is the reason why they have trouble getting hired.  And this is why, in the end, the only way to bring down youth unemployment is to give them more value to employers; which is to say, they need more job-ready skills.

Could we do better than we are doing?  Yes, of course.  But even the best countries in the world aren’t doing much better than we are.  So, let’s work on this problem, but maybe tone down the rhetoric about the its extent.

September 23

Boards of Governors

So, thanks to UBC, everyone wants to talk about Boards of Governors these days.  How they’re not transparent enough, how they’re not representative enough, etc.  What should we make of these claims?

On the transparency thing, I think the radicals have at least half a point, regarding some universities at least.  Practice varies from one institution to the next, but it’s not hard to find some boards where harmful secret practices exist.  Some parts of board meetings must be in camera – anything to do with hiring or performance monitoring of Presidents (sorry guys, Presidents have the same privacy rights re: employment as everyone else).  But frankly most of it can be, and often is, open to the public.  Certainly when it comes to institutional finances and financial planning, nearly everything should be open (certain parts of discussions regarding investment management probably need to remain schtum, but that’s about it).

The other issue is more problematic.  It seems everyone and their dog want to make Boards more “representative” (see one example here, from Carleton).  This is desperately wrong-headed, and stems from a misunderstanding of the function of Boards of Governors, and indeed of governance generally.

Boards are not representative bodies.  Board members are trustees, not politicians.  They act in the best long-term financial interests of the institution, and hold the leadership of the institution – specifically the President – to account for how the institution is run.  In publicly-funded systems, they also have one incredibly important role: namely, to make sure that money spent aligns with the institution’s long-term interests.

The reason this matters so much is that someone has to oversee the financial functions.  Universities spend millions – in some cases billions – of dollars each year, much of it public money.  Where upstanding members of the community are present and keeping an eye on the shop, there is little need for government to play an activist role; where the governing board is made up of insiders, government quite reasonably worries about foxes guarding hen houses, and takes a more direct role.  If you look across Europe, for instance, there’s a pretty direct correlation between the degree of external representation on boards and institutional financial autonomy.

Now, someone pushing for more representation might reasonably reply by saying: “we’re not interested in weakening external financial oversight; what we want is more discussion about what actually constitutes the long-term interests of the institution”.  And, you know, fair enough: there aren’t a lot of places to discuss this kind of thing.   This is why strategic planning processes are important (and why faculty shouldn’t ignore them).  It’s also why Boards and Senates should probably meet together more often, both formally and informally, so as to encourage more exchange about “big picture” stuff.

But a University Board is not a Parliament – not even to the extent Senate is.  Representativeness is not, and never has been, one of its functions.  If you want to worry about boards, worry about their effectiveness.  Worry about their knowledge base of higher education and its challenges.  Worry about their size (many Canadian boards have 30-40 people, which is about twice as big as they should be).  Worry about cliques gathering in specific committees and doing end-runs around the rest of the Board (or the President).  These are all significant issues that require attention.

September 22

David Cameron, Pork, and World-Class Universities

I am going to assume that by now you have all heard about the… um… interesting news regarding British Prime Minister David Cameron, which was in yesterday’s papers.  If you haven’t, then take a quick look here.  Then come back.  Quickly.  Maybe have a shower first.

Ready?

OK, so, my first thought about this story is “I wonder what kind of day Oxford’s PR folk are going to have?”  Because, honestly, at most universities, the idea that some of your students – indeed, some of your most famous alumni – have at some time in the past been involved in on-campus porcine frottage would not be good news.  The press would want to know what the university knew about these very un-kosher sexual rituals, and when did it know find out?  Is it still going on?  Etc. etc.  And you’d have administrators running around campus worrying: what will this do to applications?  What will this do to fundraising?  Disaster!  How quickly can we close down these clubs?

(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether or not the story is true.  I think there are some very good reasons to think it isn’t.  The source, Lord Ashdown, has a well-known grudge against Cameron.  And accusations of pig-fiddling are one of the oldest tricks in the political book.  In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thomson described how LBJ had, in his Texas days, told his campaign manager to accuse his opponent of carnal knowledge of sows.  His campaign manager objected, saying they couldn’t call him a pig-f***** because no one would believe it.  To which Johnson replied: “I know, but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it”.)

But no.  On this question yesterday, silence.  No blowback at all on Oxford.  And I can guarantee you that no one – no one – at Oxford thought for a moment about next year’s application figures.  The problem is that everyone knows that whatever else Oxford may be, it’s a playground for Britain’s ruling class.  And let’s face it, the ruling class in Britain are known to get up to some pretty sordid stuff.  So in the popular imagination, it’s already only a small step from membership in the Bullingdon club to what appears to be a barnyard version of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut.  And not to single out Britain here: the same could more or less be said of Yale, with its various Skull and Bones-type societies.  And nobody (well, not many, anyway) think the worst of them.  Indeed, for a certain demographic, the presence of elite kinkiness probably increases an institution’s attractiveness.

But we can abstract from Oxford to say something more general about World-Class Universities, and it is this: being a world-class university means never having to worry about bad PR.  Alumni in a bestiality/necrophilia story? No problem!  Prestigious science faculty in bizarre twitter rant about how 14-year old Muslim children actually conspired to get themselves accused of bomb-making in order to get an invite to the White House?  It is but a laugh.  PR events that would swamp other institutions simply glide off World-Class universities’ backs.

Academic prestige matters.  Built up over enough time it can shield you from pretty much anything.  If you don’t think that’s a motivating factor in institutions’ prestige-seeking activities, you’re simply not paying attention.

September 21

The China “Crisis”

It’s no secret that China dominates the world market when it comes to sending students abroad.  About 20% of all globally-mobile students are from China; in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, they are far and away the number one source of foreign students.  (In all three countries, Chinese students account for as many foreign students as the next four source countries combined.)

Now every once in awhile – more and more frequently these days – you get some bad economic data from China, and everybody wants to be the first person to predict the coming “China Crisis”: oh Dear Lord, Chinese students are going to disappear, how will everyone cope?

To which I say: chill.  The Chinese market isn’t going anywhere, at least not for economic reasons.

If the argument is that China’s financial turmoil might lower Chinese incomes, and therefore reduce the affordability of foreign education, you need to keep in mind that Chinese families don’t fund education the way we do.  They save.  A lot.  For years.  Unlike North American families, Chinese families don’t try to make things work using their current incomes.  And so unless Zhounior’s savings were fully invested in the Shanghai stock-exchange just before the crash, some short-term economic instability isn’t going to matter that much.

And if things get worse?  What if financial instability leads to political instability?  I’d say that’s more likely to lead to an increase in study abroad rather than a decrease.  For wealthy Chinese families, sending students abroad for their education is at least as much about giving kids a foot in the door for emigration as it is a tool with which to advance their careers in China.  Having your kid in a foreign university is a hedge against precisely this kind of political uncertainty.

Now, this doesn’t mean the Chinese market is impervious to decline.  The fall in the size of the Chinese university-age cohort still matters, but that’s a long-term phenomenon, not a short-term one.  The troubles that graduates have in the labour market is real, and is affecting the composition of demand for higher education.  But remember: the proportion of Chinese undergraduates who choose to study abroad every year is 1-2% of the total.  What happens in that 1-2% market is only barely related to what goes on in the mass market.  It’s like trying to guess what’s going on with Mercedes-Benz sales from the sale of Toyota Corollas. The “mass market” looks nothing like the “elite market”.

The single thing that would most disrupt the flow of students out of China would be a sudden and noticeable increase in the availability of enrolment places at prestigious domestic institutions.  That is, either the big prestigious institutions could expand, or new institutions could join the ranks of the elite; either would reduce the demand for foreign education.  But the former flat-out isn’t happening; and the latter, while not impossible, seems unlikely under present circumstances.

In short, there are solid reasons to prepare for an eventual cresting of demand from China.  But the prospect in the short-term of a bursting of the Chinese student “bubble” is less convincing.  Plan accordingly.

September 18

Party Platform Analysis: The Conservatives

Back again for some more election platform analysis.  This week: the Conservatives.  But first, a caveat.  Part of the problem with trying to analyze party platforms in a 326-day election is that one’s rhythm gets all thrown off.  In a five-week campaign, all of the announceables are pretty much there in the first 21 days or so, so you more or less know when a party’s done announcing things.  In this election, we’re weeks into the campaign and we can’t be completely sure if the parties are done announcing things, unless, like the Greens, they actually publish the entire manifesto at once (an idea which, judging by their behaviour, the other parties find ridiculously passé).  So what I’m about to analyze is the Conservative platform as of Wednesday the 16th of September.  It’s possible there is a little more to come, but I have a feeling there isn’t – if I’m wrong, I will add some analysis later in the campaign.

Now, I should start by acknowledging that there loads of people in PSE who won’t care a fig what Conservatives promise, because they think the Harper record consists entirely of some kind of “War on Science”.  Long-time readers will know I’m not a fan of that theory: treatment of science and data within government (e.g. the long-from census) has been pretty horrible, but they haven’t done so badly on funding of academic science.  Arguably, by historic standards, their support has been the second-best of any government in Canadian history.  Their problem, however, is that first place goes to their immediate predecessors.

Anyways, the Tory strategy on higher education in this election seems to be to go with small, but tightly-targeted promises.  The first, released a couple of days after the election call, was a change to the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (not to be confused with the much sillier Apprenticeship Completion Bonus). This credit targets employers, which is the right focus, since they are the ones who control the supply of apprenticeship “places”.  Currently, it provides employers with a non-refundable tax credit of up to 10% of wages paid to each first- and second-year apprentice employed, up to a maximum of $2,000 per employee.  The tweak announced on August 3rd was to include third- and fourth-year apprentices, and bump the maximum reclaimable amount to $2,500.

This is one of those “meh” announcements.  Does it do a lot of good?  Probably not.  The credit makes sense in first and second year because those employees are noobs who require so much supervision that they don’t always add value.  By their third and fourth year, however, apprentices are getting hired because they add value to an employer, not because there’s a tax break involved (and in any case, in a lot of companies, the people doing the taxes don’t always talk to the HR people who make hiring decisions, so the logic model here of how this increases the supply of spaces isn’t perfect).  But on the other hand, it doesn’t do a lot of harm either.  It’s small ball – I didn’t see a cost estimate for this, but it’s got to be somewhere in the $30-50 million range.

The other, better announcement had to do with improvements to the system of Canada Education Savings Grants (CESG).  You remember those?  Introduced in 1998, they initially paid a 20 cent top-up on every dollar placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), up to a maximum of $400/year (later increased to $500).  About ten years ago the system was tweaked to create something called an A-CESG, which changed the top-up rate on the first $500 contributed to 40 cents on the dollar for families in the bottom income quartile, and 30 cents on the dollar for those in the second quartile.  In early September, the Conservatives announced they would raise those top-ups again, to 60 cents and 40 cents, respectively.

Some of the usual suspects dismissed this announcement out-of-hand because “savings are only for the rich”.  That’s idiotic – it’s right there in the design that this money only goes to families with below-median income.  In that sense, this is a tight, targeted, progressive measure.  But like with the apprenticeship credit, you have to wonder if it’s actually going to change anything.  Why give more money to people who are already saving, rather than – say – adjusting the Canada Learning Bond (which essentially kick-starts RESPs for low-income families by making a $500 initial donation) and making it an automatic benefit,  instead of an application-based one?  It’s not so much that it’s a bad promise; it’s just less effective than it could be.

This, to my mind, sort of sums up the Conservative record.  They can be counted on to do something every year for post-secondary education: just not always the most effective thing.

Next week: probably the NDP, if they’ve fully release their platform.

September 17

A Global Higher Education Rankings Cheat Sheet

As you likely noticed from the press generated by the release of the QS rankings: it’s now rankings season!  Are you at a university that seems to care about global rankings?  Are you not sure what the heck they all mean, or why institutions rank differently on different metrics?  Here’s a handy cheat-sheet to understand what each of them does, and why some institutions swear by some, but not by others.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU): Also known as the Shanghai Rankings, this is the granddaddy of world rankings (disclaimer: I sit on the advisory board), having been first out of the gate back in 2003.  It’s mostly bibliometric in nature, and places a pretty high premium on publication in a select few publications.  It also, unusually, scores institutions on how many Nobel or Field prizes their staff or alumni have won.  It’s really best thought of as a way of measuring large deposits of scientific talent.  There’s no adjustment for size or field (though it publishes separate ratings for six broad fields of study), which tends to favour institutions that are strong in fields like medicine and physics. As a result, it’s among the most stable rankings there is: only eleven institutions have ever been in ARWU’s top ten, and the top spot has always been held by Harvard.

Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings: As a rough guide, think of THE as ARWU with a prestige survey and some statistics on international students and staff tacked-on.  The survey is a mix of good and bad.  They seem to take reasonable care in constructing the sample and, for the most part, questions are worded sensibly.  However, the conceit that “teaching ability” is being measured this way is weird (especially since institutions’ “teaching” scores are correlated at .99 with their research scores).  The bibliometrics are different from ARWU’s in three important ways, though.  The first is that they are more about impact (i.e. citations) than publications.  The second is that said citations are adjusted for field, which helps institutions that are strong in areas outside medicine and physics, like the social sciences.  The third is that they are also adjusted for region, which gives a boost to universities outside Europe and North America.  It also does a set of field rankings.

QS Rankings: QS used to do rankings for THE until 2009 when the latter ended the partnership, but QS kept trucking on in the rankings game.  It’s superficially similar to THE in the sense that it’s mostly a mix of survey and bibliometrics.  The former is worth more, and is somewhat less technically sound than the THE’s survey, and it gets regularly lambasted for that.  The bibliometrics are a mix of publication and citation measures.  Its two distinguishing features are: 1) data from a survey of employers soliciting their views on graduate employability; and, 2) they rank ordinally down to position 500 (other rankings only group in tranches after the first hundred or so institutions).  This latter feature is a big deal if you happened to be obsessed with minute changes in ranking order, and regularly feature in the 200-to-500 range.  In New Zealand, for instance, QS gets used exclusively in policy discussions for precisely this reason.

U-Multirank: Unlike all the others, U-Multirank doesn’t provide data in a league-table format.  Instead, it takes data provided by institutions and allows users to choose their own indicators to provide of “personalized rankings”.  That’s the upside.  The downside is that not enough institutions actually provide data, so its usefulness is somewhat less than optimal.

Webometrics RankingsAs a rule of thumb: the bigger, and more complicated, and more filled with rich data a university website is, the more important a university it is likely to be.  Seriously.  And it actually kind of works.  In any case, Webometric’s big utility is that it ranks something like 13,000 universities around the world, and so for many countries in the developing world, it’s the only chance for them to see how they compare against other universities.

September 16

An Argument About the Effects of Tuition Reductions

At various times in the past (herehere, and here, for example), I have made the argument that lowering tuition fees is regressive because the benefits will accrue to people who are either the children of the wealthy, or people who will be wealthy, or both.  I have also said that where neither of those conditions is true (for example, some types of community college programs), there is a reasonable case for free tuition.

As a rule, people who disagree with this position make one of three tactical responses.  The first is to hurl abuse, usually with the word “neo-liberal” thrown in for good measure.  These people we can safely ignore.  The second is to take the Hugh McKenzie-CCPA route, which is to say it’s OK to have these kinds of transfers to the rich because they pay more taxes than everyone else.  This is not prima facie idiotic, but it’s a very, very difficult argument to make as a progressive.  In fact, you can only really make it through a syllogism like this: “I am progressive.  I made a statement.  Therefore the statement is progressive”.  Evaluate as you will.

But there is also a (rarer) third response, which says: “ah, but you’re only looking at ceteris paribus results.  Surely free tuition would bring all sorts of new students to the table, and change the benefit calculus.”  Now it is undeniably true that *if* there was a massive shift in demand, then my argument would be wrong.  So let’s look at that *if* – how likely is it to happen?  What would have to happen in order for such a shift to take place?

Let’s look at this logically: would lower fees make anyone less likely to want to attend higher education?  No.  So any shift is not going to come from a fall in demand from upper-income groups, it’s going to have to come from a surge in demand from lower-income youth.  That’s possible, though unproven. There is, for instance, no data from either Manitoba or Newfoundland to suggest that this is what happened when they reduced tuition over a decade ago.  But let’s assume for the moment it’s true.

Now, you have to ask the question: even if aggregate demand increases, are universities likely to take in more students as a result of fee reductions?  Unless you’re also assuming that governments are going to spend a whole extra wad cash for expansion, on top of cash for eliminating fees (NB: the Green Party plan for free tuition in Canada does not do this; neither does the Chilean free tuition experiment), the answer here is “probably not” (or at least not much).  But if the supply of spaces is more or less fixed, then for any benefit-shifting to happen, additional students from poorer backgrounds are actually going to have to displace richer kids in order to close the gap.  Poor kids in, rich kids out.  That’s not an impossible outcome, but given that: a) universities ration places through grades; and, b) youth from higher-income families have an advantage in terms of academic preparation (go see any number of PISA studies on that one), it seems very unlikely.

But let’s suspend disbelief, and assume governments ARE in fact prepared to both reduce price and expand capacity.  What wold happen then?  Well, we don’t know, really.  But we do know that governments have been expanding university capacity tremendously over the past 15 years – partly through higher funding, and partly through higher fees.  And as far as we know (and admittedly we don’t know as much as we should), access has in fact been widened, at least as far as ethno-cultural backgrounds are concerned.  But that raises a question: if you can improve access simply by increasing capacity, why not just do that instead of spending all that money to also make it free?

In short, we know a way to improve access, and it doesn’t involve making higher education free.  Conversely, we know that making higher education free, on it’s own, is very unlikely to change the social composition very much (i.e. it won’t be effective on its own terms), and therefore will provide extraordinary benefits to children of upper-income families.

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