The Globe carried an op-ed last week from Ken Coates and Douglas Auld, who are writing a paper for the MacDonald Laurier institute on the evaluation of Canadian post-secondary institutions. At one level, it’s pretty innocuous (“we need better/clearer data”) but at another level I worry this approach is going to take us all down a rabbit hole. Or rather, two of them.
The first rabbit hole is the whole “national approach” thing. Coates and Auld don’t make the argument directly, but they manage to slip a federal role in there. “Canada lacks a commitment to truly high-level educational accomplishment”, needs a “national strategy for higher education improvement” and so “the Government of Canada and its provincial and territorial partners should identify some useful outcomes”. To be blunt: no, they shouldn’t. I know there is a species of anglo-Canadian that genuinely believes the feds have a role in education because reasons, but Section 93 of the constitution is clear about this for a reason. Banging on about national strategies and federal involvement just gets in the way of actual work getting done.
Coates & Auld’s point about the need for better data applies to provinces individually as well as collectively. They all need to get in the habit of using more and better data to improve higher education outcomes. I also think Coates and Auld are on the right track about the kinds of indicators most people would care about: scholarly output, graduation rates, career outcomes, that sort of thing. But here’s where they fall into the second rabbit hole: they assume that the institution is the right unit of analysis for these indicators. On this, they are almost certainly mistaken.
It’s an understandable mistake to make. Institutions are a unit of higher education management. Data comes from institutions. And they certainly sell themselves as a unified institutions carrying out a concerted mission (as opposed to the collections of feuding academic baronetcies united by grievances about parking and teaching loads they really are). But when you look at things like scholarly output, graduation rates, and career outcomes the institution is simply the wrong unit of analysis.
Think about it: the more professional programs a school has, the lower the drop-out rate and the higher the eventual incomes. If a school has medical programs, and large graduate programs in hard sciences, it will have greater scholarly output. It’s the palette of program offerings rather than their quality which makes the difference when making inter-institutional comparisons. A bad university in with lots of professional programs will always beat a good small liberal arts school on these measures.
Geography play a role, too. If we were comparing short-term graduate employment rates across Canada for most of the last ten years, we’d find Calgary and Alberta at the top – and most Maritime schools (plus some of the Northern Ontario schools) at the bottom. If we were comparing them today, we might find them looking rather similar. Does that mean there’s been a massive fall-off in the quality of Albertan universities? Of course not. It just means that (in Canada at least) location matters a lot more than educational quality when you’re dealing with career outcomes.
You also need to understand something about the populations entering each institution. Lots of people got very excited when Ross Finnie and his EPRI showed big inter-institutional gaps in graduates incomes (I will get round to covering Ross’ excellent work on the blog soon, I promise). “Ah, interesting!” people said. “Look At The Inter-Institutional Differences Now We Can Talk Quality”. Well, no. Institutional selectivity kind of matters here. Looking at outputs alone, without taking into account inputs, tells you squat about quality. And Ross would be the first to agree with me on this (and I know this because he and I co-authored a damn good paper on quality measurement a decade ago which made exactly this point).
Now, maybe Coates and Auld have thought all this through and I’m getting nervous for no reason, but their article’s focus on institutional performance when most relevant outcomes are driven by geography, program and selectivity suggests to me that there’s a desire here to impose some simple rough justice over some pretty complicated cause-effect issues. I think you can use some of these simple outcome metrics to classify institutions – as HEQCO has been doing with some success over the past couple of years – but “grading” institutions that way is too simplistic.
A focus on better data is great. But good data needs good analytical frameworks, too.