HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 13

Statistics Canada is in the Wrong Century

If what you are looking for is agricultural statistics, Statistics Canada is a wondrous place.  See, Statscan even made a fabulous (if oddly truncated) little video about agricultural statistics.

Statscan can tell you *anything* about agriculture.  Monthly oilseed crushing statistics?  No problem (59,387 tonnes in August, in case you were wondering).  It can tell you on a weekly basis the weight of all eggs laid and processed in Canada (week of August 1st = 2.3 million kilograms); it can even break it down by “frozen” and “liquid”.  Want to know the annual value of ranch-raised pelts in Canada?  Statscan’s got you covered.

But let’s not stop here.  Wondering about barley, flaxseed, and canola deliveries for August, by province?  Check.  National stocks of sweetened concentrated whole milk, going back to 1970? Check (for comparison, GDP data only goes back to 1997).  Average farm prices for potatoes, per hundredweight, back to 1908?  Check.

There is even – and this one is my favourite – an annual Mushroom Growers’ Survey.  (Technically, it’s a census of mushroom growers, – and yes, this means Statscan expends resources to maintain a register of Canadian mushroom growers; let that sink in for a moment.)  From this survey – the instrument is here – one can learn what percentage of mushrooms grown in Canada are of the Shiitake variety, whether said Shiitake mushrooms are grown on logs, in sawdust, or pulp mill waste fibers, and then compare whether the value per employee of mushroom operations is greater or lesser for Shiitake mushrooms than for Agaricus or Oyster mushrooms.

According to Statistics Canada, this is actually worth spending money on.  This stuff matters.

Also according to Statistics Canada: the combined value of agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting is $25 billion.  Or about $10 billion a year less than the country spends on universities alone.  Total value of educational services is $86 billion a year.

And yet, here are a few things Statscan doesn’t know about education in Canada: the number of first-year students in Canada, the number of part-time instructors at Canadian universities, the number of part-time professors at universities, anything at all about college instructors, access rates to post-secondary education by ethnic background or family income, actual drop-out and completion rates in secondary or post-secondary education, the number of new entrants each year to post-secondary education, the rate at which students transfer between universities and colleges, or within universities and colleges, time-to-completion, rates of student loan default, scientific outputs of PSE institutions, average college tuition, absolutely anything at all about private for-profit trainers… do I need to go on?  You can all list your pet peeves here.

Even on topics they do know, they often know them badly, or slowly.  We know about egg hatchings from two months ago, but have no idea about college and university enrolment from fall 2013.  We have statistics on international students, but they do not line up cleanly with statistics from Immigration & Citizenship.  We get totals on student debt at graduation from the National Graduates Survey, but they are self-reports and are invariably published four years after the student graduates.

What does it say about Canada’s relationship to the knowledge economy, when it is official policy to survey Mushroom growers annually, but PSE graduates only every five years?  Who in their right mind thinks this is appropriate in this day and age?

Now, look, I get it: human capital statstics are more complicated than education statistics, and it takes more work, and you have to negotiate with provinces and institutions, and yadda yadda yadda.  Yes.  All true.  But it’s a matter of priorities.  If you actually thought human capital mattered, it would be measured, just as agriculture is.

The fact that this data gap exists is a governmental problem rather than one resulting from Stastcan, specifically.  The agency is hamstrung by its legislation (which mandates a substantial focus on agriculture) and its funding.  Nevertheless, the result is that we have a national statistical system that is perfectly geared to the Edwardian era, but one that is not fit for purpose when it comes to the modern knowledge economy.  Not even close.

October 09

Living the Lie in Research Universities

Take the following two thoughts/statements:

1.       “At our institution, research and teaching are inseparable, two sides of the same coin”

2.       “At our institution, if you are a good researcher, you get more money and you get teaching leave to do more research”

Both these statements can’t be true.  Which do you think is false?

Back in pre-89 Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel liked to tell a story about a shopkeeper who displayed a sign saying “workers of the world, unite!”.  The shopkeeper did not believe this slogan; rather, the shopkeeper displayed it because not to do so would be seen as disloyal.  Displaying the sign was a sign of submission to the regime, not a sign of support.  It was a lie in which the shopkeeper had to live in order to maintain his or her position in society.

“At our institutions, research and teaching are inseparable, two sides of the same coin”.

This is a lie.  It is a lie whose purpose, fundamentally, is to obscure actual work practices in universities and to obscure actual institutional priorities and the consequences of those priorities.

That’s not to say professors don’t care about teaching.  It’s not to say that they aren’t good at teaching (some are great, other less so).  It’s not to say that some institutions aren’t doing some truly stellar work on teaching and learning (give UBC some love here for its many initiatives in this area).  It’s not even to say that research and teaching can’t be informed by one another.  It’s just to note that universities do not even act as though the two acts are even remotely equal in importance or prestige.

We need to remember that systems – even ones that on the whole are relatively beneficial – usually require at least some lies in order to work.  And if we don’t want to be utterly controlled by those systems, it’s good once in awhile to remember Vaclav Havel, and stop living the lie.  Talk about the lie, and what it means and what it makes us do.  And think about how we might be able to do better by the undergraduates that pay everyone’s salaries if things were different.

October 08

Higher Education Data Glasnost

Many people complain that there is a lack of post-secondary data in Canada.  But this is actually not true.  There are tons of data about; it’s just that institutions won’t share or publish much of it.

Let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, there was a small, public-minded higher education research company that wanted to create the equivalent of Statistics Canada’s university tuition fee index for colleges.  The company had completed a project like this before, but had done so in a somewhat imprecise way because of the time and effort involved in getting enrollment data necessary to weight the program-level tuition data.  And so, politely, it began asking colleges for their enrolments by program.

Now, program-level enrolments are not a state secret.  We are talking about publicly-funded institutions here, and given the number of people who use these services, this is very much the definition of public information.  Nor are these data difficult to collect or display.  Institutions know exactly how many students are in each program, because it’s the basis on which they collect fees.

And yet, across most of the country, many institutions have simply refused to provide the data.  The reasons are a mix of the understandable and the indefensible.  Some probably don’t want to do it because it’s a disruptive task outside their workplan.  Others are cautious because they don’t quite know how the data will be used (or they disagree with how it will be used) and are afraid of internal repercussions if it turns out that the shared data ends up making their institution look bad (note: we’re using the data to publish provincial averages, not institutional ones; however, in single-institution provinces like Saskatchewan or Newfoundland and Labrador, this can’t be helped).  A few simply just don’t want to release the data because it’s theirs.

Regardless, it is unacceptable for public institutions to conceal basic operational data for reasons of convenience.  That’s not the way publicly-funded bodies are supposed to operate in a democracy.  And so, regretfully, we’ve had to resort to filing Access to Information (ATI) requests to find out how many students attend public college programs across Canada.  Sad, but true.

It then occurred to me how many of our national higher education data problems could be solved through Access to Information legislation.  Take Simona Chiose’s very good piece in the Globe and Mail last week in which she tried to piece together what Canadian universities are doing with sessional professors, and where many institutions simply refused to give her data.  If someone simply started hitting the universities with annual ATI requests on sessional lectures, and publishing the results, we’d have good data pretty quickly. Ditto for data on teaching loads.  All that excellent comparable data the U-15 collects every year?  You can’t ATI the U-15 because it’s a private entity, but it’s easy-peasy lemon squeezy to ATI all of the U-15 members for their correspondence with the Ottawa office, and get the data that way (or, conversely, ATI the U-15’s correspondence to each university, and get the collected data that way).

Oh, I could go on here.  Want better data on staff and students?  ATI the universities that have factbooks, but refuse to put them online (hello, McGill and UNB!).  Want better data on PhD graduate outcomes?  ATI every university’s commencement programs from last year’s graduation ceremonies, and presto, you’ve got a register of 3,000 or so PhDs, most of whom can be tracked on social media to create a statistical portrait of career paths (this would take a little bit of volunteer effort, but I can think of quite a few people who would provide it, so while not easy-peasy lemon squeezy, it wouldn’t be difficult-difficult lemon difficult, either).

It’s not a cure-all of course.  Even with all that ATI data, it would take time to process the data and put it into usable formats. Plus there’s an agency problem: who’s going to put all these requests together? Personally, I think student unions are the best place to do so, if not necessarily the best-equipped to subsequently handle the data.  And of course institutional data is only part of the equation.  Statistics Canada data has to improve significantly, too, in order to better look at student outcomes (a usable retention measure would be good, as would an annual PSIS-LAD-student aid database link to replace the now-terminally screwed National Graduates Survey).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting going hair-trigger on ATIs.  It’s important to always ask nicely for the data first; sometimes, institutions and governments can be very open and helpful.  But the basic issue is that data practices of post-secondary institutions in Canada have to change.  Secrecy in the name of protecting privacy is laudable; secrecy in the name of self-interested ass-covering is not.  We need some glasnost in higher education data in this country.  If it takes a wave of ATI requests to do it, so be it.   Eventually, once enough the results of these ATI requests filter into the public realm, institutions themselves will try to get ahead of the curve and become more transparent as a matter of course.

I’d like to think there was a simpler and less confrontational way of achieving data transparency, but I am starting to lose hope.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

October 05

Party Platform Analysis: The New Democrats

I’m going to have to go a little off-piste for the analysis of the New Democratic platform, because its launch was so odd.

The platform was unveiled last Thursday morning.  In Saskatoon.  While Mulcair himself was in Montreal.  This meant that the  event was not covered by any of the national press (the biggest outlet that filed a story was the Ottawa Citizen).  The announcement itself was unaccompanied by any backgrounder, which meant that many key details were missing, including cost estimates.

On a purely political level, this is incomprehensible.  It seems as if the party didn’t actually want their proposal to be covered.  But why make a billion-dollar (see below) spending commitment if you’re not going to publicize it?

Then again, maybe it’s better no one made a big deal about it given some of the silly things their candidates said at the event, such as “debt is up 30% since 2006”, which may be true if you look at federal loan volume, but that’s because so many more people are going to school.  You know, because of access.  In fact, over that period, the incidence of debt is down slightly, while the average value (in real dollars) is up slightly, making the whole file a bit of a wash.  Another candidate made a different, utterly ridiculous statement: “governments shouldn’t profit on student loans!”  I don’t know whether she got that line from Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump (both have said it), but it’s not even vaguely true, and suggests she knows nothing of how income from student loan interest funds the in-school zero-interest period, the repayment assistance program, and covers the substantial losses the program experiences with defaults.

Anyways, it’s too bad the packaging of the event was so embarrassing, because the substance isn’t so bad.  The details, as we know them, are as follows:

First, the NDP proposes to spend an extra quarter of a billion dollars over four years on student grants.  That’s all we know.   Is it to enrich the current Canada Study Grants (i.e. more money to the same people), or is it to extend the current Canada Study Grant (i.e. give the same money to more people)?  Or is it for something new entirely?  We have no idea, because the NDP – unlike the other three parties – declined to provide more backgrounders about its policies.  Why this is considered acceptable in this day and age is a question for others to answer.

Second, the government plans to “eliminate interest on student loans”.  As far as I can tell, no one asked if they meant eliminate interest on all existing loans, or just those consolidated from 2016 forward, or just those issued from 2016 forward.  So we don’t know.  The fiscal consequences of this are huge.  If all loans suddenly become interest free, that’s a hit on the order of $2 billion over 4 years.  If it’s all loans consolidated (i.e. going into repayment) then my guess is this is on the order of $700 million or so, and if it is just loans issued then we are talking about maybe $300 million.

(Huge caution: my numbers are very back-of-the-envelope, based on incomplete public data and an inability to model the second-order effects of interest abolition such as savings on RAP and default.  Take it as a good-faith attempt to project costs based on limited data. And a total unwillingness of the NDP to reveal any program details or cost assumptions.)

It’s a bit difficult to evaluate the pledge without knowing the costs, but I think we can say two things about the Thursday announcement:

One, regardless of the price tag or details, this platform is substantially better than the usual NDP policy of “let’s cut tuition fees”.  It’s more targeted at students in need, and doesn’t run you into all kinds of problems of federal-provincial co-ordination (in contrast to the NDP promise on child care, which runs precisely into this set of problems).  That’s a huge improvement over most previous NDP platforms, and the party deserves some love for it.

Two, the zero-interest platform is kind of “meh”.  It’s good in the sense that it’s a benefit focused on students with need.  But no study I’ve ever seen has suggested that student loan interest rates makes an ounce of difference to access.  It’s a cost, but one small and well-hidden enough that it seems to have no bearing on the decision to attend post-secondary.  And it’s not entirely clear what problem this is designed to solve: student loan repayment burdens have fallen by more than a third over the last decade.  All this subsidy will do is raise the returns to education slightly – a windfall benefit to those who have already decided to make the investment.

A final note: the NDP appear not to be making any announcement on science/innovation.  Along with the Tories and Greens, that makes three parties who are making no commitments in these areas, which may mean something fairly dire for granting councils in future.

October 02

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Brazil

Brazil is the smallest and probably the least-known of the BRICs.  It doesn’t have a big economy or a big diaspora like China or India, and it isn’t a former superpower like Russia.  But it is still the second-largest country in the Americas, and with more Brazilian students heading abroad, it’s a country well-worth knowing more about.  So here goes:

First, it’s a pretty young system.  The first functioning university – Universidade de Sao Paolo (USP) – was founded in 1934 (prior to that, individual faculties of law and medicine existed, but did not comprise a full university).  That’s maybe not a huge surprise given that former colonial master Portugal only got it’s second university (Coimbra) in 1911.  And until 1968, there really wasn’t much by the way of a full-time teaching corps: most profs had jobs elsewhere, and taught part-time for the prestige.

Second, it’s an odd two-tier public university system.  There is a system of federal universities, which are quite prestigious (locally at least); but each state has its own system.  Most of the latter aren’t considered to be all that good, except in Sao Paolo where the state pours in a ton of money – USP is generally considered the country’s best.  And then there are the federal and state government-run systems of “non-university higher education institutions”, which are usually stand-alone faculties rather than a separate level of education, like community colleges or fachhochschule.  As in most of Latin America, the teaching mission tends to be given greater priority than it is in North America, with research restricted to a fairly small number of faculty.  Also, as in most of the rest of the continent, public higher education is free.

But of course, one of the reasons Brazilian public higher education can be free is that only a little over 20% of Brazilian students are fortunate enough (read: sufficiently academically gifted) to attend.  The other 80% of students go to private institutions.  Some of these are old, prestigious, mainly Catholic institutions; but since the late 1990s, most of the enrolment growth has been in for-profit institutions.  Quite simply, as Brazil massified its higher education system (it currently enrols close to 7 million students), the decision was taken to outsource that task to the private sector, much as was done in Chile and South Korea.  On the face of it, this was in keeping with other neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, but it was a policy that the left adopted for itself once Lula da Silva became President in 2003.

In this situation, equity is always a question: isn’t it the case that the poor are paying for higher education while the rich get to go for free.  Well, it is certainly inequitable.  But the fact is that the student population in both sectors looks pretty similar: in fact, the very poorest seem slightly more likely to attend public than private higher education (though the numbers are still fairly small).  And in the private sector, the arrival of private providers seem to be driving costs down: average tuition in the private sector fell substantially over the last decade, as these institutions searched for new students in less wealthy parts of the country – for the most part, this was the result of the Lula-era policy of offering substantial tax benefits to private higher education providers who hit certain participation targets for disadvantaged students.

One Brazilian higher ed innovation that deserves wider attention is something called the Provão (literally, “Big Test”). In the mid 1990s, when university quality was an issue, the national ministry introduced a test in certain fields of study (3 at first, growing  later to 26) to measure students’ competency at graduation.  In design, it was much like the Collegiate Learning Assessment in that captured “value-added” by simultaneously testing first and final-year students.  Unlike CLA exams, though, results of these tests were released, which allowed comparisons to be drawn between the quality of graduates from each institution; these also played a role in accreditation and re-accreditation decisions.  You can imagine how much universities loved this.

Interestingly, it was the replacement of the Provão, rather than support for private institutions, which became the election issue of 2002.  By 2005, Lula had replaced the Provão with something called ENADE.  In conception, this  was somewhat similar to Provao, but with some key differences – early musings about ditching the test entirely were not greeted favourably by the public.  It is now a lower-stakes test (samples of students are tested, rather than all students), it focusses more on value-added (it now has a first-year and fourth-year structure similar to the American Collegiate Learning Assessment), and it is less obviously a regulatory control mechanism.  It also now contains a general learning component, instead of being exclusively about domain-level learning.  In other words, it’s awfully close to what AHELO was trying to achieve.

Funny how it can be done there, but not here, isn’t it?

October 01

Golden Liberty or Rapid Collegiality?

Once upon a time, there was a land of liberty known as Poland.  While the rest of Europe was going through the counter-reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the beginnings of absolutism, Poland had the world’s most liberal constitution.  Nobles (who formed a rather substantial portion of the population) had the right to elect their king.  Religious freedom existed (though Catholics remained a strong majority).  The king could not declare war or peace without Parliamentary agreement (the Sejm), nor could he raise taxes without them.  That said, he was responsible for maintaining an army, paying state debts, and paying for the education of noble youth.  Parliament had the right to form coalitions to push through certain political aims, and the right to foment an insurrection if the king tried to infringe upon their privileges.  Most astonishing of all was the Sejm’s practice of liberum veto: the right of any individual noble to veto legislation, thus requiring all legislation to have consensus among the nobility.  All of this was known collectively as the “Golden Liberty”.

I mention all of this because of an intriguing line in Julie Cafley’s Globe piece on the subject university governance.  To wit: “Universities are a paradox. While their governance structures are slow and process-driven, professors enjoy a high degree of flexibility and independence”.  Indeed, one could go further: governance structures are slow and process-driven precisely because professors jealously guard their flexibility and independence, and wish to throw obstacles in the path of anything that might threaten them.

The nature of tenure, academic freedom, and prevailing academic management practices do give academics enormous freedom in their working lives.  They do not have a liberum veto over university policy, but they certainly do have freedom over how they do their jobs; there are very few ways an institutions can influence how a professor delivers his or her teaching responsibilities, or research activities.  In the US, faculty at private universities have been denied the right to bargain collectively because the Supreme Court ruled that their working conditions amounted to them being managers, not employees.

Universities – North American ones anyway, less so elsewhere – are, by design, anarchies.  This is mostly to the good: top-level intellectual collaboration is a lot like jazz, and there are few jazz musicians who are free of anarchistic tendencies.  But managing anarchy – even just nudging the enterprise in the right direction – is very tricky, especially when the executive has very little effective power.  But an excess of libertarianism/weak central direction can be damaging.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, the liberum veto was used sparingly.  But as the 18th century wore on, and the need for greater central expenditures became pressing, the Polish nobility was gripped by an anti-tax, anti-central government feeling. Nobles started throwing vetoes around like confetti.  Nothing got done.  The country grew weak.  And eventually, over the course of the final quarter of the eighteenth century, it was dismembered, and its various bits incorporated into Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  It did not reappear as an independent country for 120 years.

There are lessons here for universities.  Jazz is good, but paralysis is not.  In order to succeed, universities need to be effective organizations.  Consultation: yes; freedom: yes – but sometimes decisions need to to be taken quickly, and then actually implemented in a faithful fashion. “Rapid Collegiality”, let’s call it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to achieve; in fact, I can think of few things more difficult.  But when universities start appearing ineffective to the outside world, the outside world wonders why on earth we support them to the tune of, say, 2% of GDP.  And, then, like Poland, a long slow decline could begin.

September 30

Fields of Study: Some International Comparisons

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “We really need to have more STEM grads in this country.  Really, we ought to be more like Germany or Japan – fewer of these ridiculous philosophy degrees, and more of those lovely, lovely engineers and scientists.”

Personally, I’ve heard this one too many times.  So, just for yuks, I decided to take a look at the distribution of degrees awarded by field of study across the G7 countries, plus (since I’m overdue in throwing some love in the direction of the blog’s antipodean readership) New Zealand and Australia.  The data is from the OECD, and is valid for 2012 for all countries except France, where the data is from 2009, and Australia where it is from 2011.

I started with the percentage of degrees that came from the Arts and Humanities.  The result was… surprising.

Figure 1: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities Fields

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Germany leads the pack with just under 21% of all degrees being awarded in humanities, and Canada and Australia bring up the rear with 11.6% and 11.1%, respectively.  So much for the narrative about Canada producing too many philosopher baristas.

But as we all know, humanities are only half the story – there’s also the question of applied humanities, or “Social Sciences” as they are more often known.  The Social Science category includes business and law.  It turns out that if you add the two together, the countries cluster in a relatively narrow band between 47 and 56 percent of all degrees granted.  No matter where you go in the world, what we call “Arts” is basically half the university.  We should also note that Canada’s combined total is essentially identical to those of the great STEM powerhouses of Japan and Germany.

Figure 2: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities and Social Science Fields

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s now look directly at the STEM fields.  Figure 3 shows the percentage of degrees awarded in Science and Engineering across our nine countries of interest.  Here, Germany is in a more familiar place, at the top of the table.  But some of the other places are surprising if you equate STEM graduates with economic prosperity.  France, in second, is usually not thought of as an innovation hub, and Japan’s third place (first, if you only look at engineering) hasn’t prevented it from having a two-decade-long economic slump.  On the other hand, the US, which generally is reckoned to be an innovation centre, has the lowest percentage of graduates coming from STEM fields.  Canada is just below the median.

Figure 3: Percentage of Degrees Awarded from Science and Engineering Fields

3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last, Figure 4 looks at the final group of degrees: namely, those in health and education – fields that, in developed countries, are effectively directed to people who will pursue careers in the public services.  And here we see some really substantial differences between countries.  In New Zealand, over one-third of degrees are in one of these two fields.  But in Germany, Japan, and France – the three STEM “powerhouses” from Figure 3 – very few degrees are awarded in these fields.  This raises a question: are those countries really “good” at STEM, or do they just have underdeveloped education/heath sectors?

Figure 4: Percentage of Degrees Awarded in Health and Education Fields

4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, to go back to our initial story: it’s true that Japan and Germany are heavier on STEM subjects than Canada.  But, first, STEM-centricness isn’t obviously related to economic growth or innovation. And second, STEM-centricness in Germany and Japan doesn’t come at the expense of Arts subjects, it comes a the expense of health and education fields.

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.

Page 18 of 101« First...10...1617181920...304050...Last »