Higher Education Strategy Associates

January 05

Canadian College Athletics

Morning, all. Good holidays?

I spent a part of my break in Venice, California (when not writing about higher education, I am in fact The Dude). What hits you full in the face when in the US at this time of year is the ubiquity of college football. I could regale you with tales of US college athletics, but others do it far better than I could: I recommend Charles Clotfelter’s Big-time Sports at American Universities, or if you’re looking for something shorter, this NYT article from last week is not bad.

What’s amazing to me is not simply the size of the college sports enterprise, but also the degree of regulation that goes along with it. Much of this regulation is of course devoted to trying to keep college athletes from claiming any part of the income they are generating for schools and the NCAA through their athletic prowess (Taylor Branch’s classic 2011 article in the Atlantic is pretty good on this). The complexity of the rules designed to stop outsiders (agents, boosters, memorabilia collectors, anyone really) from providing them with “unearned remuneration” can seem quite hilarious to Canadians – our college football teams are completely unregulated in this regard, which is why Laval’s football team is essentially paid for by a furniture company magnate.

A fair bit of the rulebook comes in the name of gender equality. For decades now, a part of the Higher Education Act known as Title IX has required institutions to offer equitable opportunities to play sports and that they offer scholarship opportunities to men and women equal to their participation. That doesn’t mean equal participation and scholarships, exactly: Men are 57% of all registered NCAA athletes, and receive 54% of the $2.1 billion in athletic scholarships on offer (recall that men only make up 45% or so of undergraduates). The gap has been closed over the years (see this excellent piece from the Women’s Sports Foundation) largely by encouraging growth in women’s sports rather than, as sometimes claimed, reducing the spots available to men.

The question (for me at least) then becomes: how well is Canada faring on the same metrics?

In terms of athletic opportunities (i.e. spots on varsity teams), the total count is 11,601, up about 15% since 2001-2. Men represent 54% of all the athletes today, the same proportion as a decade earlier (despite men only representing about 44% of the undergraduate class).

Scholarships have grown much faster than athletic opportunities. In fact, athletic scholarships have probably grown faster than any other component of university spending in Canada over the past decade. In 2000-01, Canadian universities gave out $2.4 million in scholarships to 2060 students (avg = $1165 per scholarship), of which 65% went to men. In 2012-13, Canadian universities gave out $14.6 million in scholarships to 5070 students (avg = $2880 per scholarship) of which 57% goes to men.

There’s some good and some bad here. We’re making (slow) progress towards gender equality in sports, and the gender balance in athletes and scholarships in Canada is similar to that in the US. If you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that we in Canada have achieved this without the need for government regulation; if you’re a pessimist, you can ask why we aren’t further ahead given that our athletics programs aren’t burdened with the Big-Time Football albatross.

But most importantly – why have our university athletic budgets gone up fivefold in real dollars over the past decade? Does this make any kind of sense? Who’s minding the store here, exactly?

December 12

End of Term

Hi all.  Today’s blog will be the last for 2014.  Normal service will resume on Monday January 5th.

End of term is always a time for stick-taking.  And so I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what’s happened in 2014.

First, the positive stuff.  I think we should note an enormous and fairly positive shift in the tone of the discussion regarding education and the labour market.  The fact that I was not able to offer a “worst back-to-school” article this year is in large measure a reflection of the decline in people talking absolute crap.

In 2013, it was all sociologists vs. welders, why weren’t universities producing the “right” kind of graduate, and why couldn’t we all be more like Germany?  British Columbia, unfortunately, is still largely in the grip of this nonsense, but in the rest of the country this kind of talk has diminished substantially.

Jason Kenney himself seems to have understood that while Germany’s interesting, you can’t get there from here; moreover, the main reason you can’t get there from here isn’t because of recalcitrant institutions, it’s because Canadian employers are genuinely retrograde when it comes to training.  That’s progress.

Second, I’m starting to see real evidence that institutions are getting serious about reining-in costs.  More institutions, for instance, are introducing Responsibility-Centred Budgeting, which will gradually align incentives within the university towards fiscal balance.  And at Windsor, we’ve seen the first example of a university really taking a hard line with extravagant salary demands.  So there is some hope.

But there’s still more to be done.  I don’t see much sign yet that most institutions are even trying come to grips with the Arts problem(s); on the contrary, in many places the strategy seems to consist of heroically ignoring the problem.  That’s bad.  So, too, is the continued impoverished state of our discussion on costs & affordability, and their relationship with access. This discourse remains in the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing stage largely because “progressive” groups like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the usual suspects in the student movement insist on pretending subsidies either don’t exist or have no effect.

We’re doing well recruiting international students, but I don’t think we’re doing all that well by them once they’re here.  I’m convinced one institution somewhere is going to sleepwalk into some kind of reputation-shredding catastrophe soon for precisely that reason.  And finally, there is still disappointingly few signs of a sustained, useful dialogue between higher education and employers.

Closer to home at HESA Towers, we’ve had an excellent year, and I’d like to thank my whole team here who have all worked incredibly hard.  My particular thanks go to Jacqueline Lambert, who does an awful lot of the data work for this blog (what, you thought I did all the crunching myself?).  It’s a privilege to work with a team this good, just as it’s a pleasure to be writing about a sector filled with so many hardworking, dedicated people.

But I’ll leave the last word to you, readers.  How has the blog been this past year?  Better than before? Worse?  Anything I haven’t been writing about, but should?  Anything I have been writing about, but shouldn’t?  Please let me know in the comments below, or email me directly.

Happy holidays.  Rest well, and come back strong in January.  Na’zhdravie!

December 11

Scholarships, Proximity Talks, and the PQ’s Lost Mojo

In the late 90s, Canada was still seemingly on the edge of a break-up.  But exactly 15 years ago at the Hotel Des Gouverneurs in Quebec City, that started to change, thanks to a scholarship program.

Recall: in the summer of 1997, the Chretien government gave in to a long-standing demand of the Government of Quebec, and the province’s chattering classes, and handed-over powers for labour market training programs.  The silence from said chattering classes was deafening.  Partly in retaliation, Chretien decided he’d poke Quebec in the eye by creating a Millennium Scholarship Foundation to hand out scholarships to all Canadians, including Quebecers (it was created as a private foundation precisely in order to do an end-run around Quebec’s opt-out from the Canada Student Loans Program).

The PQ, predictably, went mental.  Even the provincial Liberals – who back then felt a need to regularly buff their nationalist credentials – joined in, sponsoring a motion in the National Assembly that said Quebec would not work with the Foundation unless: a) Quebec got a proportional share of whatever money was on offer; b) Quebec would get to choose who got the recipients; and, c) there should be no duplication with provincial aid programs.  The PQ agreed because it figured these were terms the Foundation could not meet, and so the motion passed unanimously.  The PQ position was strengthened in the fall of 1998 when it won re-election, in part on a campaign against federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. Advantage Quebec, right?

What the PQ didn’t reckon on was Norman Riddell, the Foundation’s Executive Director.  He went around the country striking deals with every other province, which more or less met Quebec’s criteria.  He gave every province a share of Foundation money equal to its share of population, he let them “choose” students by saying he’d give money to students with the highest need, but accept provincial decisions about how to define need.  And there’d be no duplication, because he’d pay the provinces a small fee to run the whole thing for him anyway.  Advantage, Foundation.

This annoyed the PQ, because they’d been counting on the feds being unreasonable in order to sustain their Ottawa-is-Satan narrative.  They stalled, claiming it was beneath their dignity to negotiate with a “mere” Foundation, and insisted all negotiations be with Ottawa.  This threw sand in the wheels because Ottawa’s intergovernmental affairs machinery is ponderous to the point of parody.  By December ’99, just a month before money would start to flow in the other nine provinces, there was still no deal.

At which point, la Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) came to the rescue.  It had dawned on students that there was: a) money on the table that their members would miss out on, and b) a deal to be made if the government of Quebec weren’t so obstinate.  The students forced Quebec back to the table.  Of course, Quebec still wouldn’t talk directly to the Foundation.  Instead, the feds had to act as intermediaries, shuttling back and forth between two hotel rooms to strike a deal, just like Northern Irish “proximity talks”.  It was deeply ludicrous, but a deal was eventually done, and Quebec students got their money like everyone else.

A few months later, Bouchard resigned as Quebec premier.  It was mostly because his party rank-and-file had become an enormous pain in the ass, but in his resignation speech Bouchard cited his failure to make Quebecers hate the Foundation as one of the reasons he felt it was time to move on.  Without Bouchard, the sovereignty movement caught a terminal case of lost mojo, and now stands weaker than at any time since the 1960s.

There’s no real point to this story, other than that those proximity talks (in which I participated) happened almost exactly 15 years ago to the day. And that, where student aid policy is concerned, Canada is – and always has been – a pretty goofy place.

December 10

The History of the Smorgasbord

One of the things that clouds mutual understanding of higher education systems across the Atlantic is the nature of the Arts curriculum.  And in particular, the degree to which they actually have them in Europe, and don’t over here.

When students enroll in a higher education program in Europe, they have a pretty good idea of the classes they’ll be taking for the next three years.  Electives are rare; when you enter a program, the required classes are in large part already laid out.  Departments simply don’t think very much in terms of individual courses – they think in terms of whole programs, and share the teaching duties required to get students through the necessary sequence of courses.

If you really want to confuse a European-trained prof just starting her/his career in Canada, ask: “what courses do you want to teach?”  This is bewildering to them, as they assume there is a set curriculum, and they’re there to teach part of it.  As often as not, they will answer: “shouldn’t you be telling me what courses to teach”?  But over here, the right to design your own courses, and have absolute sovereignty over what happens within those courses, is the very definition of academic freedom.

And it’s not just professors who have freedom.  Students do too, in that they can choose their courses to an extent absolutely unknown in Europe. Basically, we have a smorgasbord approach to Arts and Sciences (more the former than the latter) – take a bunch of courses that add up to X credits in this area, and we’ll hand you a degree.  This has huge advantages in that it makes programs flexible and infinitely customizable.  It has a disadvantage in that it’s costly and sacrifices an awful lot of – what most people would call – curricular consistency.

So why do we do this?  Because of Harvard.  Go back to the 1870s, when German universities were the envy of the world.  The top American schools were trying to figure out what was so great about them – and one of the things they found really useful was this idea called “academic freedom”.  But at Harvard, they thought they would go one better: they wouldn’t just give it to profs, they’d give it to students, too. This was the birth of the elective system.  And because Harvard did it, it had to be right, so eventually everyone else did it too.

There was a brief attempt at some of the big eastern colleges to try and put a more standard curriculum in place after World War II, so as to train their budding elites for the global leadership roles they were expected to assume.  It was meant to be a kind of Great Books/Western Civ curriculum, but profs basically circumvented these attempts by arguing for what amounted to a system of credit “baskets”.  Where the university wanted a single course on “drama and film in modern communication” (say), profs argued for giving students a choice between four or five courses on roughly that theme.  Thus, the institution could require students to take a drama/film credit, but the profs could continue to teach specialist courses on Norwegian Noir rather than suffer the indignity of having to teach a survey course (not that they made their case this way – “student choice” was the rallying call, natch).

Canadian universities absorbed almost none of this before WWII – until then, our universities were much closer to the European model.  But afterwards, with the need to get our students into American graduate schools, and so many American professors being hired thereafter (where else could we find so many qualified people to teach our burgeoning undergrad population?), Canadian universities gradually fell into line.  By the 1970s, our two systems had coalesced into their present form.

And that, friends, is how Arts faculties got their smorgasbords and, to a large extent, jettisoned a coherent curriculum.

December 09

Sleepwalking Towards Massively Increased Participation Rates

I was in Berlin last week giving a keynote at the 20th Anniversary conference of the CHE (Centre for Higher Education Policy).  The topic was – promise not to laugh – “What Germany can Learn From Canada”.

You said you wouldn’t laugh.  Last time I trust you lot.

Anyways, the speech basically revolved around the following graph, which shows Canada’s impressive increase in university participation rates:

 Figure 1: 18-21 University Participation Rates, Canada, 1992-2014














So, what did we actually do as a country to achieve this?  Can you name a single province that said: “hey, let’s increase participation rates by 60%!  And here’s an integrated series of policies to get us there!”

Of course you can’t, because it didn’t happen (apart from Ontario eliminating OAC, but that’s a pretty small effect).  Canadians never plan anything.  We just muddle through, and then try to explain what it is we did as if we’d had a clue to begin with.  But try explaining that to a crowd of Germans.  I had to fall back on the whole “Canada is a country that works in practice, but not in theory” gag.  Still, it’s an interesting question: If no government or institution set a 60% growth target fifteen years ago, how did we get here?

Clearly, part of it is demand.  In the 1990s, we still had a lot of unmet demand, especially in Alberta and British Columbia.   There were simply not enough spots to grow around, and so, in part, growth was just a matter of satisfying existing demand.  But demand has clearly risen since then, too.  And why not?  Employment levels for university grads have remained higher than those for other fields of study (in most provinces, anyway) and so have pay levels, even if the gap between university and college has narrowed a bit.

But what made institutions choose to accept these students?  Check out what was happening to operating income per student.

Figure 2: Average Operating Income per FTE Student, Canada, 1992-2012














Basically, we threw money at universities so they would take more students.  Even after increasing student numbers by about 50%, universities were getting more money per student, in real dollars, than they were before the expansion. Institutions simply couldn’t lose by expanding.

This would be easy to explain if in fact universities benefited from formulae that would increase money automatically as student numbers increased.  Now, what’s interesting here is that while governments did increase money every year, they did so regardless of whether they had formulae.  As long as students came, money flowed.  But grant money alone wouldn’t have allowed universities to keep pace.  The rise in tuition fees was necessary to keep the gates open.

But here’s the weird thing: despite all the increases in fees, students didn’t actually end up paying more.  In net terms, costs remained about the same because of the significant increases in various type of subsidies – especially tax credits.

Figure 3: Fees, Net Fees, and Net Fees After Tax Expenditures (TE), Canada, 1992-2009














(Yeah, I know, the data’s a little old on that figure.  It’s the best I’ve got.  Sorry.)

In other words, apart from international student fee income, all the extra fee revenue institutions picked up over the last fifteen years was just government subsidy flowing indirectly to institutions.  Like a huge crazy voucher program in disguise.

Did anyone plan this?  No.  It was a mix of independent federal and provincial decisions, reacting to societal demand for more education.  We muddled through.  But boy, in retrospect, it seems like an awfully messy way to have got here.

Maybe time for a policy clean-up?

December 08

Massachusetts, Not Michigan

TD economist Ed Clark gave an enormously important talk last week, which deserves a lot of attention.  You can get the gist of it from two quotes:

“To return to the path to prosperity, Canada needs to stop wasting time worrying about how to get low-wage jobs back from the U.S. or abroad and start thinking about how to use our well-educated population, immigration policies and public health care to our advantage”.

“Stop competing with Michigan. Start competing with Massachusetts”.

Brilliant.  Couldn’t agree more.  I am fed up with our governments’ weird obsession with showering money and policy attention on blue-collar industries (overwhelmingly male-dominated blue collar industries, I might add).  Time to join the 21st century.

BUT.  Let’s be careful about this.

There will no doubt be some who are eager to use Clark’s words as a “Sputnik moment”.  You know, those times when a perceived scientific or economic threat makes politicians more susceptible to spending money on pretty much anything that looks scientific or knowledge-oriented.  Higher education loves Sputnik moments.

The thing is, no one actually knows how to do this well; that is, nobody really knows what kind of spending or programming actually leads to growth.  One of the problems of being on the technological frontier is that everything is uncertain, and so there’s likely to be a lot of false starts and a lot of waste when looking for the next big thing(s).  But universities (and to a lesser extent colleges) seem like a safe bet, so Sputnik moments are like catnip for them.  All they have to say is “give us bucks because knowledge economy” and politicians will shell out (It’ll be dressed up a bit, but that’s the level of sophistication).

The problem with this argument is that it’s maybe only a quarter of the story.  If pouring money into universities guaranteed economic growth, places like Malaysia, Chile, and Sweden would be world-beaters.  There’s a lot more to high-tech economic growth than education.

To the extent that local research is going to translate into local economic growth, you need managers and entrepreneurs who are skilled at taking research from an idea to proof of concept, and from there to market.  You need pools of investment capital that understand developing technological fields and are prepared to invest patiently in them.  And then of course you need a workforce to actually churn out product.  In the absence of this kind of social and financial infrastructure, funding so-called “basic” research is a lot like pushing on string as far as generating economic growth is concerned.

Then there’s the issue of graduates and the skills they deliver to the economy.  If you want to generate more economic growth matter, you need to make sure that institutions are giving students the kinds of skills that will actually raise private sector productivity levels.  That means much greater attention on the part of employers in articulating the skills and competencies they require as productivity rises, and much greater attention on the part of universities and colleges in providing students with such skills and competencies so as to be employable after graduation.

(Before anyone blows a gasket: I am not suggesting that the purpose of higher education is exclusively to generate skilled labour.  What I am suggesting is that if you’re going to use a Sputnik argument for more money, then you’re going to have to demonstrate how that money improves general productivity.  If you don’t like that deal, then don’t use Sputnik arguments.)

All of which is to say: there’s good news on the horizon in terms of getting everybody focused on a high-innovation, high-productivity economic future in Canada.  But the surest way to waste this opportunity would be to call for wanton expansions of current subsidies to higher education.  Change is needed to make public dollars work more effectively.  We should use this opportunity to make those changes.

December 05

Remembering Polytechnique

Tomorrow is the 25the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.

I remember the trauma of it.  I also remember the way it mobilized people: Now, surely, things would change.  Now, surely, things would be different.

Looking at things today, I’m not sure our 1989 selves would be all that excited about how things have turned out.

Enough from me, though.  My voice isn’t one that matters today.  Just spare a few minutes.  Go to a service.  Remember the dead.  We still need to do right by them.

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique finance department
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

December 04

Why We Can’t Have Nice Institutional Data

We’ve all heard of Open Universities, and we’ve all heard of Open Data.  But have you ever heard of Open University Data?

Me neither.  And there’s a reason for that.  Two, actually.  Lack of volition, and lack of co-ordination.

Lack of volition is the easy one.  Higher Education is a prestige economy.  The cardinal rule is: do not diminish your institution’s prestige.  The institution must be presented in the best possible light at all times.  Therefore, there is no incentive – absolutely none – for anyone to do anything that might put the institution in a negative light vis-à-vis other institutions.

(My favourite example of this is one time when we asked a group of institutions to provide us some institutional data in .csv format, which was ALREADY PUBLICLY AVAILABLE in .pdf, so that we could avoid the tedious business of transcribing a few of thousand data points from a couple of hundred documents.  We were denied.  Because… well we never quite worked that out.  I suppose it’s simply because they can. In any event, an external company we use to do low-end data scraping ended up a couple of hundred dollars wealthier as a result.)

Not that this means institutions don’t produce or use data.  They do – lots of it.  What they don’t do is put data out in the public realm in a way that would allow unfavourable comparisons to be drawn.  And they’re not precluded from producing comparable inter-institutional data, either.  The U-15, for example, produce a huge amount of comparable data.  I’ve never seen the full list of stuff that gets covered by the U-15 data sharing agreement, but I’m told it’s terrifyingly large, allowing for some truly meaningful, granular comparisons.  They just don’t publish it.  Indeed, I’ve been told by someone who’s seen the agreement (and whom I have no reason to doubt) that there is data in there that institutions are not even permitted to share with their own governing boards.  Which, if true, would be interesting, to say the least.

(Yes, yes, there are the various regional common data initiatives.  But on key issues where anyone would actually care about results, data is usually either fudged or displayed with so many caveats as to be essentially useless.  And in Ontario at least, the data is deliberately spread over 20-odd websites precisely to make it as hard as humanly possible to actually use data for comparative purposes.  So, no, that doesn’t count.)

Now, none of this makes Canadian universities distinctive.  This happens all over the world.  The difference is that other countries have national ministries of education that can, on occasion, push institutions to produce common data.  If institutions start to whine about it, the ministry simply starts to withhold cheques (provinces could play this role, of course, but with the exception of BC none of ours ever really seem to try).  All we have is Statscan, which does not have the power of the pursestrings to compel data (in theory it could use the Stats Act to compel data, but that’s the administrative equivalent of going nuclear, so in practice it doesn’t happen).

So yeah, the rest of the Anglophone commonwealth have ways of publicly comparing research performance at the department level, but we don’t.  In Australia, every program in every school can tell you the exact cut-off mark it took to enter that program, but we can’t.  In Bulgaria – BULGARIA – they can do a Ross Finnie and tell you average salaries for every program in every institution in the country for five years out, because everyone is required to link their graduate data into the social security database.  Here, there’s just nobody to co-ordinate the effort, or override the cover-your-ass, never-give-out-information-that-might-one-day-be-used-against-you practices, which are the norm in Canadian higher education.

There are ways to solve this problem.  Unfortunately, nearly all of them involve coercion.  The current system is just too convenient for too many people to be abandoned without a fight.

December 03

Solving the Fees Problem

So, here’s the problem: Canadian governments are mostly broke.  Even the ones that didn’t look broke a couple of months ago (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) are now very definitely broke (especially Newfoundland).  There’s no money for PSE.  Everybody knows that.

So, equally, everyone knows that the only way institutions are going to avoid a crunch is either by turning themselves into finishing schools for the Asian middle class, or by charging domestic students higher tuition fees.  No one genuinely thinks the former is a sensible long-term solution, and yet that’s the way we’re heading because Canadian families and the politicians who represent them are resistant to the idea of a rise in fees.

To be clear, resistance does not arise because anyone really thinks fees deter access.  Even the dopiest politician knows that participation rates today are over 50% higher than they were 20 years ago when nominal tuition was about half what it is now (certain student groups are indeed that dopey, but that’s another story).  No, the reason people don’t want more fees is because too many people think that what universities and colleges are offering isn’t worth what they’re charging.

This is of course insane because, as we know, Canadians, on aggregate, are paying Net Zero Tuition for post-secondary education.  We have $7.2 billion going out every year in various forms of aid – exactly equal to what universities and colleges charge in tuition to domestic students – and apparently no one notices.  The focus is exclusively on the sticker price, never on the net price, which in many cases is negative.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the opacity of our student aid system.  We prevent students from working out their student aid package before they apply, and then we hand out as much of our aid as possible at the back end where no one will notice it.

It’s madness.  And it has to change.  We need to make it a lot more obvious what a great deal people are getting.  We need to make it so that when governments spend money to make it easier for people to go to school, the people being helped actually realize they are being helped.

This is going to require coordination.  Our confusing system is a product of the fact that many different players (feds, provinces, institutions) designed it so that it met their own administrative needs and desires for visibility, not the needs of students.  We need all of them to agree to make it less complicated, more predictable, and more visible.  That means, above all, ditching tax credits and either turning them into (hopefully targeted) grants or transferring them to institutions in return for a reduction in tuition.

Can’t be done, you say, because governments like to take credit for tax expenditures?  Tosh.  It’s abundantly clear that the public has no idea the credits even exist, so governments could hardly do worse than what they do now.  Besides, there’s precedent to show it’s good politics: in 2012, Quebec ditched some tax credits in order to pay for improved student aid, and back in 1999, Manitoba explicitly ditched a refundable tax credit to pay for a tuition roll-back (meaning the roll-back cost the government nothing, and students were in fact no better off at the end of the day, but boy did the NDP make hay out of that one).

So it’s doable.  But someone has to get the provinces and the feds to sit down together to make them do it.  The only people who can do this are the institutions: specifically, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CIC).  Only they have the clout to get the provinces and the federal government in the same room to hammer out a deal.  And it’s eminently in their interest to do so.  Until Canadians rediscover what a fantastically good deal they actually have in their higher education system, the likelihood of more funds heading their way is pretty slight.

December 02

The Bologna Process Now

I was in Bucharest last week at the Bologna Process Researchers Conference (I chaired the Social Dimension/Equity Track), hosted by Romania’s amazingly productive higher education agency, UEFISCDI (don’t ask what it stands for).  So I thought it would be a good time to talk about where Bologna is at these days.

The Bologna Process started back in 1998, essentially as a labour mobility measure.  Prior to Bologna, Europe had a bewildering variety of first degrees, lasting anywhere from two to six years, all of which had different names.  This made labour mobility more difficult.  How is a Portuguese employer  supposed to understand what skills the holder of a Lithuanian first-degree possesses?  Even if she could read it, she’d have no idea what the degree consisted of, what skills were imparted, etc.

Bologna was meant to deal with that in two ways.  The first was to harmonize degree structures and lengths.  Thus, the formula “3+2+3” for Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorates.  This formula is a bit reductionist, and first degrees can in many cases still be more than 3 years (the Scots, for instance, kept their four year structure), and can still have different names (the French got to keep “license”, since “Baccalaureat” was already taken).  But for the most part harmonization was achieved.

The second part of Bologna dealt with Quality Assurance.  If this new European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was going to make sense – that is, if students from Bulgaria were going to be able to seamlessly transfer into Finnish universities (or whatever) – there had to be some way to assure that the degrees in different parts of the EHEA were in fact compatible.  This led to the creation of harmonized Quality Assurance processes to ensure this was the case.  And while I’ve never heard anyone claim that a degree from an Albanian university is equivalent to one from (say) a French university, this common framework nevertheless seems to have had a positive effect on student mobility.

The problem is that the heavy lifting on Bologna – actually changing national legislation with respect to degrees and quality assurance – was all finished years ago.  So what is there to keep the “Bologna Process” going?  Well, there are on-going implementation issues.  But more importantly there is the attempt to keep adding items to the supra-national agenda – things such as teaching and learning, lifelong learning, the “social dimension” (i.e. equity).

Unfortunately, while these are all interesting issues, the implementation of any of these are fundamentally stuck at the national level.  The usual suspects might want to supra-nationalize things like access – in the same way that here in Canada they clamour for a federal role to oversee those mean, nasty provinces – but it ain’t going to happen.

In the absence of anything implementable, “Bologna” is increasingly a free-floating forum for higher education modernizers to exchange ideas and experience.  That’s not nothing – I’d argue Canada could use a bit more of this, for instance – but it’s not very compelling, either.  The Process is thus beginning to resemble a car without an engine.

Can it be revived?  Yes, and I would argue that it probably will be.  Soon enough, people will start asking the question “so, this EHEA… what’s it for, exactly?”  And given the state of the European economy, the answer to that question is surely going to be “growth”.   That implies a focus on education quality, innovation, technology transfer, and university-business co-operation.

That’s a somewhat different set of preoccupations than the ones now at the centre of Bologna.  The shift should be interesting.

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