HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 01

The Tennessee Promise

So, yesterday I talked about a big increase in access in the UK, which seems to have little to do with tuition fees.  Today, let’s talk about a developing story in the United States, where a lowering of net prices seems to have had a big impact on access.

You may recall that in the US over the last couple of years, there has been a growing movement for free community college, something that President Obama picked up on earlier this year.  But before Obama picked up this baton, free community college had already been introduced in Republican Tennessee, where governor Bill Haslam had turned something called “the Tennessee Promise into law in 2014.

Technically, the Tennessee Promise is not “free tuition”.  It’s only available to students entering straight from high school (which is a bit weird in terms of design, but whatever).  Students have to be full-time, maintain a 2.0 average, meet regularly with a mentor, and perform eight hours of community service per term.  And technically, what it does is reduce your tuition to zero after all other forms of aid and scholarship are taken care of (this is what is known in the business as a “last dollar” scholarship).  If you apply for the award and meet the terms, government will cover your tuition to the point where your net price is zero.  For a good number of people, this means free tuition with minimal strings attached, so let’s just call it free tuition.

Now, you might expect that with this kind of incentive, enrolment might rise a bit.  And you’d be right.  According to very early results, the number of freshmen is up 29.6% over last year.  Obviously this is a pretty impressive result, but before we get too excited, we should probably find out a little more about where these new students are coming from.  Are they “new” students, or are they mostly students who would have gone to a 4-year college, but have chosen 2-year instead?  And what about students’ financial background?  If you’re poor enough to be anywhere near maximum Pell grant ($5,775), the Tennessee Promise provides no additional aid, because tuition at Tennessee Community Colleges is about $4,000.  So it may well be that what the Tennessee Promise is doing is providing aid to people higher up the income ladder.  This is a little inefficient, but since (as I noted back here) community college students tend to come from poorer backgrounds anyway, this is not as regressive as it would be if it were implemented at 4-year colleges.

We should be able to answer these questions in a few weeks (yes, Canadians, in some places data is available in weeks, rather than years).  Even though Tennessee does not track applicants by income the way the UK does, the state’s excellent annual Higher Education Fact Book does contain two pieces of data that will help us track this.  The first is college-going rates by county, which will help us understand whether the jump in participation is concentrated in higher- or lower-income counties, and the second is the percentage of students who are Pell-eligible.  I’ll keep you up-to-date on this when the data is out.

The most intriguing possibility here is that rates of attendance for Pell-eligible students might be rising, even though the Tennessee Promise provides no actual added benefit for many of them.  It may well be that simply re-packing the way we frame higher education costs (“it’s free!”) matters more than the way we actually fund it (“your tuition is $4,000, and you also have a grant for $4,500”).

This would have significant policy ramifications for us in Canada.  As we noted last year in our publication, The Many Prices of Knowledge, many students at Canadian community colleges face an all-inclusive net price that is negative, or very close to it.  Similarly, poor first-year university students in both Ontario and Quebec have negative net prices.   No one knows it, because we package aid in such a ludicrously opaque fashion, but it’s true.  And if the Tennessee data provides evidence that the packaging of aid matters as much as the content, then it will be time for Canadian governments to re-evaluate that packaging, tout de suite.

August 31

An Interesting Story about Access in the U.K.

Remember how, in 2012, tuition in England rose by about $10,000-$12,000 (depending on the currency exchange rate you care to use) for everyone, all at once?  Remember how the increase was only offset by an increase in loans, with no increase in means-tested grants?  Remember how everyone said how awful this was going to be for access?

Well, let me show you some interesting data.  The following comes from UCAS, which, at this time of year, does daily (yes, daily!) reports on “accepted applicants” (that is, applicants who have been offered a place at universities for the term commencing in a couple of weeks).  Figure 1 shows what’s happened to student numbers from families in the lowest income quintile since 2011, which was the year before the tuition increase.

Figure 1: Number of Accepted Applicants from the Lowest Income Quintile, England, 2011-15

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Big increase, right?  Over three years, it amounts to 19.8%.

“Oh well”, say the zero-tuition true believers, “this doesn’t prove anything.  What really matters is what happened to students from higher income backgrounds.  Surely, being less bound by financial constraints, their numbers grew even more”.

In a word: nope.  The rate of accepted applicants increased by more than three times faster for students from the bottom quintile (quintile 1) than it did for those from the top (quintile 5).  Of course that’s partly because they have a lot more room to grow: there are still about three times as many accepted applicants from the top quintile as the bottom quintile.  But the point is: contrary to expectations, the gap is closing.

Figure 2: Change in Number of Accepted Applicants by Income Quintile, England, 2011-2015, Indexed to 2011

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“Ok”, say the skeptics; “let’s look at counterfactuals: what’s going on in neighbouring countries, where policy didn’t involve a massive tuition fee increase?  What about Wales, where tuition stayed at a little over £3,000, or Scotland where tuition is free (for Scots: English kids still have to pay the £9,000)?”

Fair question.  Figure 3 shows what happened to students from the lowest income quintile in all three countries: in Scotland, rates of accepted applicants are up by 28%, in Wales by 21%, and in England by 17%.

Figure 3: Change in Rate of Accepted Applicants, England, Scotland, and Wales, 2011-15, Indexed to 2011

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“A-HA!”  Say the usual suspects.  “Clear evidence that free is better!”  Well, maybe.  But before declaring victory, why not look at rates of accepted applicants for low-income students across these three countries?   That is: what percentage of all youth from the bottom income quintile actually reach the stage of being “accepted applicants”?

Figure 4: Accepted Applicants from Bottom Quintile Families as a Percentage of all Bottom Quartile Youth, England Scotland, And Wales, 2011-2015

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Quite a different story, isn’t it?  Turns out that in horrible, vicious, neo-liberal, £9,000 tuition England, 18% of lowest-income quintile youth apply, and are admitted to university.  In idyllic, equality-loving, £0 tuition Scotland, the figure is not much more than half that, at 10%.  So let’s just say that the evidence claiming fees explain participation rates, and changes thereof, is pretty limited.

But getting beyond the issue of fees, I think there’s a bigger story here.  Right across the UK, regardless of tuition fee regime, there is a massive uptick in participation from low-income students over the last couple of years.  Clearly, something is going right there with respect to low-income students.  Is it a change in aspirations?  Expectations?  Academic preparation?  As far as I know, no one has published on this – I have a feeling everyone was so keyed on explaining expected declines in participation that no one was set up to explain the opposite.  But whatever is going on, it’s a success, and other countries would do well to learn from it.

August 28

Boards, Senates, and Myths of University Exceptionalism

If there is one thing that the departure of Arvind Gupta has demonstrated, it’s that there are a large number of faculty (and others) who either misunderstand or dispute the role of Boards of Governors at universities.

Here’s the deal.  Regardless of whether an organization is for-profit or not-for-profit, there is some kind of committee at the top, which usually has the word “Board” in its title – Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, whatever.  The job of this board is threefold: first, make sure the organization meets its strategic goals. Second, make sure it meets its financial goals (in for-profits, these two are pretty much identical, but in non-profits they’re different).  Third, hire and hold accountable a chief executive for getting those things done.

At this point, I hear the objections: “universities aren’t corporations, how dare you compare us to a for-profit company, etc.”  The first of these is wrong: universities most definitely are corporations.  Corporate status is key to providing the legal framework for pretty much everything universities do.  True, they aren’t for-profit entities (in our country, anyway) but for-profit/not-for-profit is irrelevant with respect to governance: you still need a body at the top of the organizational hierarchy performing those three functions.

What makes universities unique is the degree to which staff are involved in developing  strategic goals.  Both for statutory and practical reasons, this job is more or less left to Senates (or their equivalents), and their committees.  Boards formally ratify these strategy documents, and thus “own” them, but compared to other types of organizations, they are very hands-off about this part of the job.  Senates, in effect, are the source of university exceptionalism.  But there is nothing – literally nothing – that makes universities exceptional with respect to the jobs of maintaining healthy finances, and selection/oversight of the chief executive.  The Board of a university executes those functions exactly the way the board of any other organization does.

When it comes to hiring, people kind of get this.  When new Presidents are hired, no one questions the prerogative of the Board to make the decision.  And while there is sometimes grumbling about who got chosen or who didn’t get chosen, no one parades around demanding “transparency” about why candidate X got picked instead of candidate Y.  But apparently when a President leaves, many people think that the Board owes the faculty all the gory details.  Because transparency.  Because “universities are different”.

Transparency is usually to the good, of course.  But sometimes, if you’re dealing with a personnel matter, the correct way to deal with it is to say goodbye as quickly and as amicably as possible.  By and large, you don’t do that by broadcasting the circumstances of the departure to the world.  Transparency sometimes comes second to expediency, tact, and judgement.  Yet, what a lot of people at UBC seem to be saying is that Boards owe them explanations.  Because “universities are different”.

To keep this short: universities are different – but not in that way.  Regardless of the organization they serve, boards don’t owe anybody explanations about personnel decisions.  They have a responsibility to make sure the organization is fulfilling its mandate (in managerial terms: making sure it has a strategic plan, and is fulfilling it), and providing a public good.  That’s it.   What they have to make clear in a university context is whether or not a dismissal/resignation affects the strategic plan, or (especially) if there was a dispute between Board and CEO regarding the nature or direction of the strategic plan.  And the reason they have an obligation in this scenario is because of Senate’s role in creating the strategy in the first place.

Sure, faculty might want to know details.  They’re curious.  They’d like to know (or impute) the politics of the whole thing.  But there is no right to know, and saying “universities are different” – when in this respect they clearly are not – doesn’t change anything.

August 27

Theories of Change

One of the easiest things to do in policy is to advocate for policy X, so as to change effect Y.  One of the hardest things to do is to get people to explain clearly their theory of change.  That is, what are the steps by which changing X actually affects Y?

Take performance-based funding.  It’s easy to get hot for the idea that organizations can be steered by offering incentives: if you pay schools for students, they’ll raise enrolment.  If you pay them for graduates, they might spend a bit more effort and money on academic support service.  And so on.  By this theory, all you need to do to get universities to change their behaviour is to offer the right financial incentives.

But here’s the problem: that theory works a lot better for individuals than for organizations.  If what you are trying to do is force a change in organizational culture (e.g. get them to shift to a more student-centred focus), you have to remember that individuals inside an organization aren’t necessarily going to face the same incentives as the institution.  Just because an organization is incentivized doesn’t mean everyone in it is incentivized.

In extremely hierarchical organizations, it’s possible for management to pass incentives on to staff in various ways.  But universities are not particularly hierarchical institutions.  Outside of terrorist cells, universities are about the most loosely-coupled organizations on earth.  Some of the larger among them, to quote Kevin Carey, are more like holding companies for a group of departments, which are themselves holding companies for professors’ research interests.

So let’s get back to the example of a government that hopes to get universities to pay more attention to student success.  Say the government comes up with a funding formula that potentially allows an institution to access a couple million dollars more if it increases its graduation rate.  What happens?

Well, it’s certain that university leadership will try to grab the money.  That’s their job.  Then they’ll think about how to achieve the goal.  Pretty much every authority on retention will tell you that it is a institution-wide exercise.  The key is identifying students that are having trouble, and then making sure they get appropriate assistance, either from instructor(s), or from some kind of centralized suite of academic services.  But while it’s easy enough to invest money in new centralized services, the key to such an approach still rests on professors (some more than others) altering the way they behave in class, so as to spend more time/effort identifying strugglers early, and then doing something about it (talking to the students themselves, sending their name to a counsellor who can then contact the student and offer assistance, etc.)

The question is: how do you get the professor to make those changes?  The promise of more money to the institution is a pretty weak one.  First, while many people’s behaviour will need to change in order to get the money, not everyone’s does, so there’s a rational reason to try to free ride on the process.  Second, even if the institution does get the money, it doesn’t follow that the money will be distributed in such a way that all individual profs  benefit.  A prof’s behaviour is not incentivized in the same way as the institution’s.  And if that’s so, why would we expect the prof to alter his or her behaviour?

I’m not saying it’s impossible steer universities by using money as an incentive; I’m saying that success in doing so requires the incentives to be aligned in such a way that everyone’s behaviour down the chain is incentivized.  And in a university, where every professor is, to an extent, a free agent, that’s really hard to do.  It works where the incentive aligns with career goals or professional norms (e.g. do more research).  But when it pushes against professional norms, it’s a lot more difficult.

Fundamentally, people trying to steer system reforms need to ask themselves: how will this incentive alter what individuals on the ground actually do on a day-to-day basis?  If there’s no good answer to that question, chances are the incentive isn’t likely to work.

August 26

October 20th

Policy-making in Ottawa is like a huge river, moving in a slow stately procession, and only occasionally providing excitement if you hit some rapids.  It’s not like Washington, which – for all its vaunted “gridlock” – is actually more like an ice jam: there is a lot of pressure in the system, and things can move pretty quickly if the jam breaks somewhere.  Partly it’s because of our Westminster system, and our tradition of party discipline: there are not many independent policy actors on the hill, and hence, not many points where interest groups can exert leverage.  Add to that a relative lack of genuinely independent intellectual life in Ottawa (government and interest groups are dominated by policy analysts – Canada has no real equivalent to the Brookings Institute, or even the New America Foundation), and what you’ve got is a shop that doesn’t absorb new ideas easily.

All of which is to say that changes of government represent one of the very few times where new ideas get a hearing.  And while it’s far from assured, there’s a significant chance that there will be a new government on, or shortly after, October 19th – the Tories haven’t seen a poll putting them in majority territory in years, and it seems unlikely that either opposition party will keep them in power, either with votes or abstentions.  So October 20th is going to be the crucial date for policy entrepreneurs.

A new government comes to power with only a limited idea of what it’s going to do.  Party platforms don’t come close to covering all areas of government activity, so new ministers are winging it on most files.  Most post-secondary files come under the “winging it” category: apart from a Tory promise on tax breaks for apprenticeships, and a Liberal promise for more money for Aboriginal students, there’s been nada in the platforms so far, and as I said back here, that’s probably not going to change. Also, if there is a change of government, the new cabinet will be pretty raw: apart from Mulcair, there’s no one on the NDP front bench who’s ever held a cabinet seat at either a federal or provincial level; among Liberals, there are a dozen or so who have the “Honorable” prefix, but only Ralph Goodale, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum had substantial portfolios for any period of time.  Whether a new cabinet is red or orange, or a combination of the two, it’s actually going to be pretty green (but not Green).

Now, if you’re in the business of selling policy ideas, green cabinets are the best kind.  They have little allegiance to the status quo, are interested in new ideas, and cynicism hasn’t yet set in: they will never be more open to new ideas than they are at the start of a new government.  But – and this is the important bit – they have to be new ideas.  New governments may want to replace old policies, but they won’t do it by re-adopting even older ones.  There has to be an element of progress involved.

In higher education, there aren’t a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound.  On student aid and transfers, frankly, they’ve done little that opposition parties wouldn’t have done themselves.  Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it’s small ball from a government perspective.  Where a big re-think is needed is on research.  Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: “bring back the status quo ante”.  That’s a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn’t excite new ministers.  If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.

October 20th is fast approaching.  And this kind of window rarely opens twice.  Time to get cracking on some new approaches.

(corrected from the original and the version that went out via email to reflect the fact that the election is on the 19th, not the 18th.  That was a bad goof on my part – sorry)

August 25

Oil and Universities

As the price of oil continues to plummet, just a few thoughts on the financial implications for universities.

In provinces that are oil importers, the effect is likely net positive, slightly.  Economic growth should be a little bit above trend, inflation will fall a bit, and those factors will make it easier for provincial governments to balance budgets this year, without turning to cuts.

In provinces that are exporters, an oil price drop will likely affect the budget in two ways.  The first is through reductions in royalty payments, and the second is through a decline in general tax receipts, as a result of a generalized economic slowdown.  On the flip side, as oil price decreases, so too does the Canadian dollar – which means that the price of oil in Canadian dollars actually isn’t decreasing as fast.  How these play out in Canada’s three major oil-producing provinces all depends somewhat on a variety of economic factors, so here’s a quick look at various the provincial budgets’ sensitivity to oil prices, and how current prices play out.

Effect of Current Oil Prices on Current (2015-6) Year Budgets, Major Canadian Oil-Producing Provinces

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So, the takeaway from the table: if oil prices remain as-is for the fiscal year as a whole, the effect is equivalent to a loss of 1.6% of total expenses in Saskatchewan, 4.4% in Alberta, and 5.4% in Newfoundland.  Now that’s a very rough estimate – it’s not taking account of the fact that falling oil prices are, to some degree, offset by a falling Canadian dollar (which would make the effect less severe), but it’s also not taking account of the fact that “total budget expenses” includes – in Newfoundland – quite a bit of debt payments as well, so the effect relative to program spending is understated.  And in any case, what happens this year is peanuts compared to what will happen next year.  This year’s provincial budgets assumed that oil would rebound to about the $80 range in 2016; at the moment, 12-month futures prices are running in the $50-55 range, so the impact of oil prices next year will be about double what you see in Table 1.

Even in Alberta, $4 billion is a lot of money.  At the moment, the betting seems to be that the new NDP government is willing to do a lot of borrowing to cover the shortfall, so in the short-term this may not matter much.  In Newfoundland, where the deficit is already over $1 billion, and net debt is over $10 billion, the ability to borrow may be more limited.  That almost certainly means program cuts in Newfoundland; in Alberta, it will make even existing promises from the incoming government hard to meet.

What about overseas?  Well, it’s worth a ponder how the drop in oil prices is going to affect higher education in the Gulf States.  All of them have big social welfare bills (the price for maintaining the monarchy), but they have varying abilities to maintain this spending in the face of low oil revenues.  Bahrain and Oman are already pretty close to the financial breaking-point, while the Kuwaitis and Saudis have big enough financial cushions to ride out a two-or-three year slump, but after that it gets harder to see how they will avoid significant cutbacks.  Qatar looks pretty safe, come what may; within the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s cushion is much better than those of the other Emirates, including Dubai.  The real worry for Canadian institutions is that there’s no guarantee that the King Abdullah Scholarship Program – which funds a large number of Saudi students in Canada – will continue to be funded at anything like current levels.

Bottom line: in this country, higher education is to no small degree dependent on the price of oil.  A long-term drop in prices will affect institutions negatively.  Planning and Government Relations offices take note.

August 24

Welcome Back

Morning, all.  August 24th.  Back, as promised.

School starts shortly.  The new crop of frosh were born in 1997, if you can believe that – to them, Princess Diana has never been alive, and Kyoto has always been a synonym for climate change politics (check out the Beloit Mindset List for more of these ).  Stormclouds line the economic horizon.  It’s going to be an interesting year.

In the US, progress on any of the big issues in higher education are likely to be in suspension as the two parties spend months figuring out who their candidates are going to be.  On the Democratic side, the presumptive candidate, Hilary Clinton, has put forward an ambitious plan for higher education, which, barring an absolute sweep at the polls, has almost no chance of passing Congress.  On the Republican side, no one apart from Marco Rubio seems to care much about higher education, except for Scott Walker who seems to want to use higher education as a punching bag, much as his idol Ronald Reagan did fifty years ago.

Overseas, the most consequential potential development is in the UK where – if the government is to be taken at face value – for the first time anywhere, measured quality of teaching might meaningfully affect institutional resources. In the rest of Europe, the ongoing economic slump looks set to create new problems in many countries: in Finland, where GDP contracted for the third year in a row, government funding will be down roughly 8% from where it was last year.  And that’s in one of the countries that thinks of itself as being particularly pro-education.  Germany, Sweden, and (maybe) Poland look like the only countries that might resist the tide.

Here in Canada, the outlook remains that post-secondary education will continue to see below-inflation increases in government funding for the foreseeable future, except in Alberta where the new provincial government intends on giving institutions a big one-time boost, which may or may not be sustainable, depending on how oil and gas prices fare.  This means resources will be scarce, and in-fighting for the spoils will be fierce.  And this, in turn, means a lot of governance, a lot of wailing about “corporatization” (always a good epithet when funding decisions aren’t going your way), and – inevitably, given the recent events at UBC – a lot of arguments about resource allocations, dressed up as arguments about governance.

(In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what happened there, exactly.  I do, however, believe three things: i) in a corporate context, the statements by the Board of Governors and interim President on Gupta’s departure are actually quite easily interpretable, and don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination; ii) if/when the truth comes out, it’ll be a hot mess of grey zones, and some of the wilder conspiracy rhetoric about the departure will seem ludicrous; and, iii) any theory positing that Gupta was fired for a lack of “masculinity” by a Board Chair who not only spent millions of his own dollars to create a dedicated Chair on Diversity in Leadership, but also that replaced said “unmacho” President with Martha Piper of all people, has more than one prima facie credibility problem.)

But behind all this, there’s a broader truth that I think the higher education community is being very slow to acknowledge.  The era of growth is over.  Higher education is not a declining industry, but it is a mature one, and this changes the nature of the game.  In the aughts, Canadian university income increased faster as a proportion of GDP than pretty much any country in the world (Netherlands and Russia aside).  It was a rising tide that raised all boats.   And I mean that literally: as a share of the economy, universities grew by half a percentage point (from 1.4% to 1.9% according to the OECD, which I think is a bit of an underestimate), which is like adding more than the value of the entire fishing industry.

But those boats stopped rising a couple of years ago.  Institutions with smug strategic plans about increasing excellence need to face reality that there’s no new money with which to achieve those goals: funds for new projects are, for the most part, going to have to come out of increased efficiencies, not new money.  It’s tougher sailing from here on out – permanently.  Institutions are going to need to be leaner, better managed, and more focused.  However, the meaning of those terms are hardly uncontested in academia.

This should make for a fun year.  Looking forward to it.

August 19

Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

UBC’s  Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.  Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something.  Finished?  Ok, on we go.

The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon?  Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom.  Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s.  It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer.   The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts.  Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour.  That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.

So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept.  In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing.  She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism.  Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure.  Under anyone else’s?  Not so clear.

(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”.  One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)

Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident.  Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did.  His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure.  But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote?  That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.  

Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded.  I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story.  She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members.  If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part.  But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”

To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified.  The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review.  It wasn’t scholarly.  It wasn’t made in a classroom setting.  She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done.  But protected under academic freedom?  CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.

August 12

Summer Updates from Abroad (3): An Intriguing American Student Aid Debate

Why do we give people student loans and grants?  Is it to help them get knowledge, or just credentials?  That question is subject to much debate in Washington right now.  At issue is whether student assistance helps or hinders innovation in higher education; at stake are potentially billions of dollars in public funding.

Let’s rewind a bit here: student aid in the US is governed by something that goes by the name of “Title IV” (meaning, essentially, chapter IV of the Higher Education Act, as amended from time-to-time).  The very first section of title IV states that student loans can only be given to students at “eligible institutions”, which means (among other things) that the institution has to be post-secondary, has to award degrees, has to be accredited, etc.  All sensible things to protect both consumers and the public purse.

The problem is, what if a new form of education pops up that is valuable, but doesn’t meet these tests?

There’s been a lot of focus recently on a variety of different types of programs called “just-in-time” education, the buzzword du jour that refers to code academies/bootcamps, and the like.  These academies – private educational establishments that often skirt the legal edges of provision of vocational education – are seen in many quarters as being incredibly valuable.  Coders are in short supply, and these bootcamps provide short (usually 8-12 weeks) courses that allow students to get the basics, and apply for jobs.  Some of them also provide training in entrepreneurship, and have mentors on-site to help with start-ups.  Stories about graduates quickly getting well-paying jobs abound, and given the long-standing worries about the youth labour market, a lot of people want to see these things expand further.

But these organizations aren’t charities.  A 12-week course in New York or San Francisco will run a student five figures, and not everyone has that kind of scratch on hand.  Hence, the desire in some quarters to see student loans extended to this sector.

Now you can see the argument here: why are we prevented from giving public support to institutions that provide skills rather than credentials?  Why are we stifling potentially beneficial innovation?  On the other hand, you can also see the opposite argument: who runs these schools, who regulates them, what are their credentials as educators, and what kinds of cranks and shysters will flood into the sector if you start letting students pay for this education using public money rather than their own?

The cranks and shysters problem is a perennial one in American higher education.  Even the vaunted GI Bill attracted them.  Though it’s more famous for putting ex-servicemen though college, the Bill also dealt with vocational training, leading to some rather dubious circumstances; Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, in their excellent account of the Bill, have a hilarious anecdote about veterans signing up at a school that offered three-month courses in chicken sexing, because they could get their living expenses covered while doing a (sorry, can’t resist) bird course.

Quite simply, when you hand over a lot of your education system to the private sector, *and* you choose to allow students to use public money, you either have to have some very good regulators, or you have to tolerate the fact that there are going to be some dubious folks trying to make a fast buck out of the situation.  As the Harkin Report on for-profit education, and Suzanne Metzler’s excellent book Degrees of Inequality have made clear, that’s exactly what happened in the 00’s when he Department of Education’s rules were too lax.

At the moment, the Obama administration’s preferred solution seems to be to try to get these academies to nestle themselves within existing universities and colleges.  There are some advantages here: universities would love to have these kinds of spaces to help students gain tech/entrepreneurial skills, the academies would gain access to more secure revenue, and the government would be assured of some oversight on quality.  From the perspective of people worried about cost-inflation in higher education, though, this might be a disaster.  Universities would undoubtedly pay for this by charging even higher fees to all students; instead of academies being a force outside the system, competing with universities, and forcing them to get better at producing better employment incomes, they’d be joining the Beast instead.

Complicated stuff.  Personally, I’m glad the Americans go through these debates, so the rest of us can learn from them without actually having to do the difficult and politically dangerous work of experimentation ourselves.

August 04

Summer Updates from Abroad (2): The UK Teaching Excellence Framework

The weirdest – but also possibly most globally consequential – story from this year’s higher education silly season comes from England.  It’s about something called a “Teaching Excellence Framework”.

Now, news of nationally-specific higher education accountability mechanisms don’t often travel.  Because, honestly, who cares?  It’s enough trouble keeping track of accountability arrangements in one’s own country.  But there are few in academia, anywhere, who have not heard about the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (or its nearly-indistinguishable predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise).  There is scarcely a living British academic who has travelled abroad in the last two decades without regaling foreign colleagues with tales of this legendary process, usually using words like “vast”, “bureaucratic”, “walls full of filing cabinets”, etc.  So news that the country may be looking at creating a second such framework, related to teaching, is sure to strike many as some sort of Orwellian joke.

But no, this government is serious.  It’s fair to say that the government was somewhat disappointed that its de-regulation of tuition fees did not force institutions to focus more on teaching quality.  With the market having failed in that task, they seem to be retreating to good old-fashioned regulation, mixed with financial incentives.

The idea – and, at the moment, it’s still just a pretty rough idea – is rather simple: institutions should be rated on the quality of their teaching.  But there are two catches: first, how do you measure it?  And second, what are the rewards for doing well?

The first of these seems to be up in the air.  Although the government has committed to the principle of assessing teaching at the institutional level, it genuinely seems to have not thought through in the least how it intends to achieve this.  There are a lot of options here: one could simply look at use of resources and presence of qualifications: student/teacher ratios, number of profs who have actually sought teaching qualifications, etc.  One could go the survey route, and ask students how they feel about teaching; one could also go the peer assessment route, and have profs rate each others’ teaching.  Or there’s the “learning gain” model, used by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which was part of the AHELO system (from which, by the way, the UK has now officially withdrawn).  Of course, everyone knows that most of these measurements are either untested, or can be gamed, so there’s some fear that what the government really wants to do is to rely on – what might generously be called – lowest-common denominator statistics; namely, employment and income data.

Why might they want to do something this bell-ended, when everyone knows income is tied most closely to fields of study?  Well, the clue is in the rewards.  British universities have – as universities do – recently been clamouring for more money.  But according to this government, there is no more money to be had; in fact, at about the same time they announced the new excellence framework, they also announced a £150 million cut to the basic teaching grant, spread over two years.  So the proposed reward for good teaching is the ability to charge higher fees (so much for de-regulation… ) But as I explained a couple weeks backraising tuition doesn’t help much because, thanks to high debt and a generous loan forgiveness system, somewhere between 60 and 80% of any extra charges at the margin will end up on the public books circa 2048, anyway. 

But… if you only increase tuition at schools where income is the highest, the likelihood is that you will get a higher proportion of graduates earning enough to pay back their loans, over time.  And hence less money will need to be forgiven.  And hence this might not actually cost so much.  Which is why there is an incentive for government to do the wrong thing here.

Still, on the off-chance the government gets this initiative at least partially right, the impact could be global.  Governments all over the world are trying to get institutions to pay more attention to teaching; expect a lot of imitators if the results of this exercise look even half-promising.  Stay tuned.

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