Higher Education Strategy Associates

June 03

International Speed-Dating in Boston

I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.

In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.

In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.

And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.

Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.

June 02

Funding Formulas 201

The last time we  talked about funding formulas, we discussed the difference between determinative and allocative formulas.  When we talk about Ontario, which is currently undergoing a funding formula review, we’re definitely talking about the latter.  The formula isn’t going to drive total spending (this remains the legislature’s prerogative), what it is going to do is decide how the total amount will be split up.

The question is: how best to do this?

At this point, it’s worth going into some history about funding formulas.  Back in the day – say, the 1960s – universities would come cap-in-hand to government asking for money for various sundry purposes (usually, there were a couple of new “wow” proposals in there to justify a big increase), and government, in-turn, would cut cheques to individual institutions for any old amount.  Eventually, governments got tired of that shtick, and decided to come up with a way to allocate funds automatically – but fairly – to avoid going through that rigamarole every year.

Over time, however, global thinking about funding formulas changed – due mainly to work done at the OECD.  It’s now no longer just about divvying up money, it’s about using money to create a set of incentives to steer the system.  Now, admittedly, when the OECD talks about using money to steer a system, it does so because it thinks it’s better for governments to set goals for institutions, and then get out of the way.  In other words, governments “should steer, not row”.

(An interesting question in Ontario, of course, is how formula spending power can be made to steer the system, when the government of the day has a predilection not just to row, but to flail around like a five year-old on a boogie board.  Should be interesting.)

Anyhow, the idea is that you can get universities to do stuff by rewarding them via the funding formula.  The question then, from a practical point of view, is: how big a carrot do you need to get an institution to do something it may not want to do (e.g. pay more attention to teaching, get research institutions to reach out more to poorer kids, etc.)?  The answer here is: “nobody knows”.  And this is a bit of a problem, especially if you’re trying to incentivize something.  Thanks to the work of Nicholas Hillman and David Tandberg, we can be pretty sure that small nudges – say, nudges that account for 2-3% of the budget, or so – aren’t going to work.  If you’re going to try something like this, you need to go big.  As in, “at least 10% of an institutional budget” big.

Now, here’s the thing: in Ontario, the government only accounts for about 40% of university funding, with the rest coming from tuition or commercial activities.  So something that puts 10% of the institutional budget at risk actually has to put 25% of government funding at risk.  And logically speaking, this means you probably can only pick one, or at most two goals for your funding formula to target.   So what should the government pick: completion rates?  Research commercialization?

It’s hard, in fact, to see how you can steer competently in a way that makes sense for all institutions, in a jurisdiction where so little institutional funding comes from government.  There is the possibility of creating individual goals for each institution based on individual missions, but now you’re getting a long way from the idea of a “formula”, something where everyone pumps the same numbers into the system, and a global result for all institutions pops out.

Basically, system steering gets a lot tougher for governments if they’ve already allowed institutions to become mostly student-funded.  This is something Ontario is about to discover in a big way.

June 01

The Cost of Moving the Needle

One of the things about increasing post-secondary participation is that the cost of improving access increases all of the time – as you get closer to universality, the students you want to attract becoming increasingly marginal, academically, and require greater investments in order for them to succeed.

A really good example of this comes from the City University of New York (CUNY), which recently completed an evaluation of its Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which is meant to encourage completion among students taking Associate (i.e. 2-year) degrees at the school, on a full-time basis.  The program design is pretty much what you’d expect: it tops-up financial aid so that net cost is zero, plus throws in textbooks and a transit pass.  Each student gets a personal advisor/mentor/coach, as well as career counselling.  Participants get grouped together in small classes (25 students, or less), and the classes are block-booked so that students can take all their courses either in the morning, afternoon, or evening (of great assistance to students with work or family responsibilities).

This is not a cheap program.  At the time the program was being evaluated, it cost over $4,000 per student, per year, though the cost later fell towards $3,500 per student as the program ramped-up.  In the context of US 2-year colleges, such as the nine CUNY community colleges at which this program was implemented, and where per-student expenditure is about $8,000 per student, this is a heck of a lot of money.  But it works.  MDRC, one of the world’s top social science research organizations, evaluated the project recently using a random-assignment experiment, and found that ASAP’s effects on a range of outcome measures were “the largest it (had) found in any of its evaluations of community college reforms”.

The evaluation (executive summary available here) showed that 40.1% of program participants graduated within three years, compared to just 21.8% of students from the control group, and 25.1% had enrolled in a four-year college by semester 6, compared to just 17.3% in the control group (though many American community colleges offer more technical programs, the colleges at which the program was implemented mostly offered arts programs designed as pathways to 4-year colleges, so this metric is actually quite important, because completion without continuation to a 4-year college is of substantially lower value to the student).

Now, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding statistic: for $4,000/year, ASAP can almost double the graduation rate.   But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in fact, it takes $14,000, spread over 3 years, to achieve this effect.  And even with a doubling, the program is really only affecting one-out-of-five students; one-fifth of students would have graduated anyway, and another three-fifths still don’t graduate.  So to produce one extra graduate, you actually have to spend something in the neighbourhood of $50,000 or so (it’s not actually 5 x $14,000, because you stop spending money once a student drops out).  That’s a lot of money to get one extra graduate, especially for a general Associate degree, where both public and private returns are quite low.

This is by no means a criticism of ASAP: it’s a good program delivering excellent results.  But it does go to show how much money it takes to move the needle on degree completion.  That’s not all going to come from new government sources; it’s going to require changes in institutional business models to reduce costs in order to put more money into things like counselling, advising, and support.

May 29

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Lusophone Africa

If you’re ever depressed about the state of academia where you live, spare a thought for academics in a set of countries that are collectively one of higher education’s biggest backwaters: the Lusophone African countries of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome & Principe, Mozambique, and Angola.

The legacy of Portuguese colonialism hangs heavy over these countries.  After the Belgians, the Portuguese were probably the colonial power least concerned about educating native populations. They were also entrenched for a longer period of time, with the Portuguese only leaving in the mid-1970s.  Though both the University of Luanda in Angola (now Agostinho Neto University) and Lourenco Marques University in Mozambique (now Eduardo Mondlane University) were created prior to de-colonization, they were created for local whites who, almost to the very end, assumed that their colonialist enterprise would continue indefinitely: the number of university-educated blacks at the time of independence was minimal.  Both countries were academically devastated by the Portuguese withdrawal, and in both cases, the void was initially filled by visiting academics from fraternal socialist countries. 

The socialist period was important for both countries, as both decided to expand their systems along Soviet lines – meaning lots of small, narrowly-focussed institutions (e.g., universities for mining, for police, etc.) rather than as full universities.  Since the 1990s, both countries have added gaggles of private universities, but as is the case elsewhere in Africa, these are cheap and low-quality – hardly surprising in countries where universities have difficulty charging fees of over a couple of hundred dollars per student.

Despite these issues, the other three members of the African Lusophone community make Angola and Mozambique look like giants.  Cape Verdeans – an odd people, with half a million living in Cape Verde, and 700,000 living abroad – have it best: a nine-institution system (one public, eight private, with the majority of private institutions having been in operation only since 2009).  Sao Tome & Principe (population 175,000) has three tiny institutions (a public polytechnic, and two tiny privates), with a total of about 2,000 students.  Guinea-Bissau’s system is equal parts fascinating and insane.  About ten years ago it – sort of – had a public university (actually a public/private partnership), which promptly fell apart, leaving a bunch of independent faculties (medicine, business, economics, etc.) but no university; apart from that, there are a number of other private facilities, which spend a good deal of their time teaching university “bridge” courses, because the public secondary system has no grade 12.

Universities in these countries – with the exception of a couple of centres at Eduardo Mondlane and Agostinho Neto – are mostly about advancing science.  However, there’s simply not the infrastructure for it, though if Angola weren’t such a kelptocracy it might have used its oil wealth to build a decent education system by now.  In total, the five countries might produce 200 scientific publications per year, with Mozambique accounting for about half that (for comparison, Uganda alone manages 600 per year).  Students wanting to pursue scientific careers tend to grab a government scholarship to study abroad (usually in Brazil or Portugal, but increasingly China as well); having left the country to study, however, many of these students choose to stay abroad.

Conditions in African higher education are generally pretty tough (although, like the continent itself, things are gradually improving).  But at least Francophone and Anglophone Africa are linked to wider global academic communities, and can draw on vast scientific literature in recognizable languages, thanks to the sheer academic might of English- and French-speaking countries.  Lusophone Africa is a different story; neither Portugal nor Brazil can, in any way, be counted as scientific superpowers, and so the academic tradition upon which they draw is significantly shallower.

As a result of these networks, Lusophone countries simply don’t have access to the same kind of money as their Francophone and Anglophone counterparts.  At present, there’s no Lusophone equivalent to the kinds of massive academic assistance from which places like Tanzania or Uganda have benefited (it’s hard to walk around at Makerere without running into some kind of project funded by foreign governments or foundations).  Even if Lusophone countries do start to become wealthier, this problem of having weaker networks is going to remain; ultimately, closer links with China might be the only way to overcome this issue, but this is a very long-term solution.


May 28

The 2016 Presidential Race

I’ve been spending a bit of time in the United States the last couple of weeks (Indianapolis, Boston, Washington DC), and one of the things I’m noticing is the extent to which political discourse – which, ludicrously, already centers around the 2016 Presidential Race – is focussed on issues in higher education.  Specifically: issues of tuition and student debt.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it’s an enormous shift from about ten years ago, when higher education first started to inch into the news.  Back then, it was about competitiveness: how can we use higher education to gain a march on all these various Asian countries (usually India and China) who suddenly  appear to be eating Americans’ lunch.  Back then, higher ed was relishing the attention – finally, a Sputnik moment, to push higher education back to the forefront of the political debate (Sputnik being a positive thing in American higher education, because it brought about a huge burst of spending on university science).  Now, no one is talking about a higher education bonanza.  No one is talking about quality.  To the extent anyone is talking about putting up new public money, it is meant to be used to make education more affordable.

(In Canada, of course, we’re way ahead of them.  This is the feed-the-student-starve-the-campus routine that we’ve seen for the last four years.)

On the Democratic side, it’s President Obama’s proposal for free college tuition that is setting the tone of the debate.  Bernie Sanders, trying to outflank Hillary Clinton to the left, has been an outspoken proponent.  Martin O’Malley (remember Mayor Carcetti, from The Wire?  He’s based on O’Malley), the only other semi-serious contender, talks about “debt-free college”, but his actual policy proposals involve expanding and improving income-based repayment, and allowing college students to refinance their loans at lower rates of interest.  Clinton, meanwhile, has said she supports Obama’s free college plan, but then went on to say that debt is caused by more than tuition, which implies that her thinking actually lies in other areas (most likely: more Pell grants, more tax credits, and tougher regulation of for-profits).

Action on the Democratic side of the ledger isn’t all that surprising: they’ve owned the higher education file since 1992, when Bill Clinton became the first ever candidate to successfully campaign on the issue.  What’s more interesting is the amount of attention being paid to higher education by Republican candidates.

Among currently declared candidates, Marco Rubio has shown the most audacity, backing a relatively serious access and completion agenda.  He has co-sponsored legislation backing so-called “human capital loans”, and has also called for the creation of a national unit-record data base to collect better data on student outcomes.  This has made him something of a darling among centrist wonks who think he might herald a new age of bipartisanship in higher education.

That may be clutching at straws: a number of other Republican candidates seem to be trying to run based on their ability to beat the living crap out of colleges: Governors Jindal (Louisiana) and Walker (Wisconsin) both introduced stonking cuts to higher ed in their budgets this year, mostly to show how tough they are on feckless elites (a Republican meme that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 run for the California Governor’s office).

The presence of differences in policy thinking in both parties means it’s sure to be a topic of debate right through the primaries (i.e. for another ten months or so).  Stay tuned.

May 27

How High Can Pay Go?

A few months ago, in the midst of a very exciting battle of words at Windsor, I got into an internet discussion with a professor who was absolutely outraged by one of the administration’s proposals: namely, to put a ceiling on professors’ salary, including his, after 30 years of service.

To step back for a moment: collective bargaining agreements generally outline a grid: a series of salary scales (or ladders, or steps – pick your term), generally one for each rank, to determine compensation. Each rank’s scale has a floor and increments, usually corresponding to years of seniority. Occasionally, at places like Alberta, UBC, and Waterloo, the increments are conditioned on an annual merit review, in which case it’s possible for a faculty member to see no increase in a year, or jump more than one step in a single year, but basically the principle is the same. Compensation increases as faculty move up the scale, and the whole scale gains value every year to compensate for cost-of-living.  (For more on the Progression Through the Ranks system, see an earlier post here.)

Anyways, this professor was peeved at the thought that his salary (apparently he had 30 plus years as a full professor) could never grow by more than a cost-of-living increment.  “What’s my incentive to even show up to work?” he asked seriously, while making north of $150,000 per year. I suggested that salary ceilings were pretty normal, but he claimed this was nonsense. So I asked one of our policy analysts, Jonathan Williams, to figure out who was right.

Jonathan reviewed collective agreements across 54 Canadian universities to identify the prevalence of maxima, or ceilings, on scale compensation, and the maximum number of steps for Professors, Associate Professors and Assistant Professors. He then compared results across institution types, using the Maclean’s classifications of medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate. Those institutions in our sample, but not in Maclean’s (e.g. Athabasca, Vancouver Island), we have left as “unclassified”. Since this is meant to be a short and convenient morning email, we’ll spare you the more detailed methodology report, but feel free to email us if you’re really curious.

Anyways, turns out the answer is slightly complicated, because while most collective agreements do have ceilings, they don’t always have them for all ranks.  As a result, in Figure 1 we display results not only by institution type, but also by rank. Across all institutions, over two-thirds have ceilings for Full Professors, and four-out-of-five have them for Assistant Professors.

Figure 1 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution
















Now, Figure 1 simply measures the number of collective agreements where there is some kind of pay maxima.  In practice, however, some of these scales have so many steps that almost no one will ever hit the top of the scale. For example, there are some collective agreements where there are more than 35 increments on the pay scale for Full Professors. Given that most people don’t make Full Professor until at least their mid-40s, only 80 year-olds would ever hit such a maxima (which, even with the elimination of mandatory retirement, seems a bit extreme). We therefore did a second analysis in which we counted scales containing 30 increments, or more, (i.e. incorporating 30 years of service, or more), as being equivalent to not having a ceiling at all.

Figure 2 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution (Assuming 30+ Years Per Rank Equivalent to no Ceiling)
















Across all institutions, this brings down the percentage with maxima by about ten percentage points. However, the effect is concentrated at comprehensive universities (like Windsor, as it happens). Of the 15 institutions where 30 or more steps existed, ten were in place at comprehensives.

However, these are, to some extent, outliers. If we look at the mean number of increments per rank, the numbers are considerably lower – most agreements have between 14 and 20 increments per rank – which is probably absurdly high for Assistant Profs, but are otherwise about right.

Figure 3 – Mean Number of Pay Increments, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution















We can also examine these patterns by region.  Ontario turns out to have the fewest institutions with maxima, especially when it comes to Assistant and Associate Professors, as shown in Figure 4. Institutions in Ontario also, on average, have about five more pay increments per scale than institutions in the rest of the country.

Figure 4 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Region














It should be noted here that shorter times to maxima are not necessarily positive or negative, either for institutions or faculty associations. Agreements with fewer increments tend to have larger increases per increment, meaning professors may earn higher salaries more quickly. Conversely, more years may reflect more modest annual increments.

So there you have it.  Most institutions do in fact have pay grids with ceilings, although in some cases these are more abstract than real. This was a lot of effort to settle an 8-month old internet argument, but perhaps some of you will find it useful.


May 26

Game-Changing Institutional Alliances

A couple of weeks ago, Arizona State University and EdX announced an institutional tie-up, which received a fair bit of publicity.  Basically, the deal was that EdX – a well-known MOOC platform, owned jointly by Harvard and MIT – would help ASU put an undisclosed (but judging by the rollout, somewhere between 15 and 20) number of its big first-year courses online.  There were two startling things about this announcement:

1)      The MOOCs are not time-delimited, requiring students to start and move ahead synchronously.  It is much more an on-demand learning system;

2)      Arizona state is prepared to offer actual credit – up to one year’s worth – to students who complete the courses, provided they pay a fee to do so.

The value proposition here is simple: give higher education a try at no, or minimal, cost; if you do well, pay the fee, get the credit, and use the credit at ASU, or transfer it to anywhere in the world (ASU is promising not to indicate whether the credits were delivered in person or online, since “they are identical”).  ASU is calling this the Global Freshman Academy, with the implication being that people from around the world will tryout higher education in this way.

Some MOOC-skeptics like Johnathan Rees are going bananas, calling this the apocalypse, because now MOOCs are actually going to be for credit.  I’m not sold on this.  The price-per-credit on these courses isn’t cheap, isn’t covered by student aid, and it’s not entirely clear to me why you’d want to go after 30 credits in this way, when there’s no guarantee any other institution is going to accept them.  In short, I’m not sure the demand for this is actually there.  Similar projects – albeit with distinctly less-slick marketing – have already failed spectacularly at the University of California and the University of Illinois.

But there’s another project out there that, despite receiving less publicity, is probably more important, and that’s the tie-up between Harvard and Amherst.  Amherst is a liberal Arts college, and like arts colleges (and for that matter, Arts faculties everywhere), it sees the value in helping students get some Business education at the same time.  But rather than develop its own business capabilities, it has decided to outsource the whole thing to Harvard (via, again, EdX).  The Cambridge institution supplies the content, but students who finish the courses receive Amherst credit.

This full-on outsourcing of the production of internal credits is fascinating for a couple of reasons, and not just because Amherst famously called a time-out on MOOCs two years ago.  It’s fascinating from a management viewpoint simply because it opens up possibilities for institutions to extend programming in certain fields, without necessarily incurring the permanent cost increases that would be entailed in hiring tenured staff.

It’s also fascinating from a branding/reputation point of view.  For a deal like this to work, you need to have an institution of lesser prestige decide that it has more to gain by outsourcing part of its work to a more prestigious institution.  And you have to have a more-prestigious institution that is prepared to gamble its own reputation by associating itself with a lesser-prestige institution.  Harvard is unlikely to do this kind of deal with Southwestern North Carolina State, for instance, but it could easily do it with any Tier 1 Liberal Arts School.

In Canada, you can imagine where this kind of thing might be headed.  UBC, McGill, and U of T (all of which are charter members of EdX) are all in a position to offer these kind of deals to comprehensive universities (and some of the more selective undergraduate schools, like Mount Allison).  One can also see how this kind of association might be useful from the smaller institution’s perspective:  Acadia finds it hard to hold on to students in the face of competition from Dalhousie, which can simply out-compete them on breadth of offerings?  Why not do a deal with McGill to increase its own breadth of courses?

More radically, this could be a way to continue to offer classes in fields of study where numbers at any single institution aren’t very large, and hence are quite expensive to offer?  Why not let UBC offer zoology at institutions across the country?  What’s to stop Alberta and Toronto being near-monopolistic providers of Slavic Language courses to the whole country?

It’s not all going to happen tomorrow, of course: higher education is, after all, the single most conservative industry in the world.  But this kind of alliance has the potential to produce far-ranging effects, especially in the ways institutions choose to specialize and focus their own offerings.  Harvard says it has several more Amherst-like deals in the pipeline.  Watch this space.

May 25

Free Tuition: A Rocky Rollout in Chile

So the big news last week in Santiago was the announcement of the start of the “free tuition” plan, which was part of President Michelle Bachelet’s election platform in 2013.  Only it’s not quite free tuition, and it’s still not clear how it will be paid for.

I’ve written previously (back here) about the Bachelet promise, and the potential difficulties with implementing it in a country where most higher education is provided by private institutions, and forced nationalization is expressly prohibited in the constitution.  To those difficulties have been added the fact that the big tax hike the government thought would finance its reforms to compulsory and post-secondary education isn’t in fact going to raise quite as much money as previously expected, due mostly to a slump in the price of Chile’s main export, copper.   Not to mention the fact that the President herself has seen her approval ratings crater due to corruption allegations regarding her son.

The announcement last week left a lot of questions unanswered.  Free education, the President said, would now be available to “el 60% de los estudiantes más vulnerables”, which sounds like 60% of students, but based on the number of students estimated to benefit – roughly 250,000 students, or a quarter of the total – actually seems to mean “students from the poorest three income quartiles”.  There was no explanation of how institutions would be compensated for taking students.  And the President added a curious phrase, saying that students would be able to “accedan a la gratuidad completa y efectiva, sin beca ni crédito”. One hoped that the intention here was to underline that she meant free tuition and not just free net tuition (i.e. where grants offset the cost of fees).  However, some – including the academic and former Minister Jos Joaquin Brunner – have wondered whether it might mean that those who receive free tuition will lose eligibility for student aid.

Weirder by far is the President’s decision to simply exclude some institutions from the process.  Universities that are members of CRUCH (an acronym meaning “Council of Rectors”) – 16 public and 9 private universities that make-up the older (pre-1973) higher education system – were included, as were a selection of the country’s Institutions Professional (basically, Polytechnics), and its Centros de Formacion Tecnica (basically, community colleges).   But the country’s 35 private post-1973 universities were pointedly left out of the program.  No reason for this was forthcoming; and in case you’re wondering, it’s not solely because they are private, as all the IPs and CFTs are private, and they were included in the scheme.  One senses that some decades-old animosity between university sectors is playing-out here.  Whatever the reason, it puts Chile in the weird position of giving free tuition to median-income students attending a CRUCH university, and giving nothing beyond loans to students from the bottom of the income scale studying in the same program at a private university.

In theory, the government is committed to implementing full, across-the-board free tuition at some later date.  But it’s unclear exactly when this will happen and, given the situation in the private universities, whether it will in fact cover all forms of education.  Will it, for instance, cover graduate studies?   Will it cover 7 or 8 years of undergraduate education (currently the norm), or only the first 4 or 5?  Most importantly: how are institutions going to be compensated for taking all these students for free?

Hopefully, all of these questions will be resolved expeditiously.  But with only seven months remaining until the implementation date, Chileans are still in the dark about a lot of important details.

May 22

Waterloo, Core Strengths and Foreign Campuses

One of the things that marks Canada out among major countries with international education ambitions is the fact that we do very little in terms of establishing campuses abroad.  There’s a reason for that: basically, our institutions are so well-funded that they mostly don’t seem to see the need for such a high-risk activity.  And they are indeed risky: Waterloo tried to set up a branch campus focussed on math and engineering in Dubai, and it crashed only a couple of years later.

Part of the problem with the Waterloo experiment is that it misjudged both its own strengths and the market.  It seems to have thought that its own reputation as a math/engineering school would act as a lure, thus giving them an edge in a market that was dying for high-tech programs.  This was wrong on two counts: Waterloo’s reputation in math and engineering isn’t as strong in the Middle East as it is over here, and the Emirates tend not to produce math nerds and engineers so much as import them (and on the off chance locals want to learn this stuff, they tend to go overseas to the parent institution rather than rely on local provision).

Now, this isn’t to denigrate Waterloo at all – they showed gumption in trying to set something up abroad, and there’s no shame in failure.  But, respectfully, this particular effort failed because it didn’t play to Waterloo’s actual core strength, which is co-op. If Waterloo ever tried to create a foreign campus based on co-op, I’m pretty sure it could rise quickly to unimagined global prominence.

If there’s one thing governments around the world want to know, it’s how to crack the problem of graduate un/under-employment.  Waterloo cracked that problem decades ago, through co-op.  It arguably has more experience in creating partnerships with business to help educate undergraduates than any institution on earth.  Think of what that knowledge could do in China, where graduate unemployment runs at 3 to 4 times the national average.  Think what it could do in places like Egypt, Italy, or Spain, where 30% youth unemployment is common.  Heck, think what it could do in California.  Waterloo campuses that focussed specifically on the co-op experience and promoted themselves based on employability would be a smash pretty much anywhere.

It wouldn’t be easy by any means.  Businesses recruit differently everywhere; what Waterloo knows how to do in Ontario won’t necessarily work in Asia.  But that’s a problem solvable with enough reconnaissance.  Let the co-op experts roam the world to talk to businesses, and see how much of Waterloo’s shtick would actually work overseas, and what would need to be tweaked.  It might not be worth exporting everywhere, but surely in some places a co-op approach could take root.

Waterloo’s value proposition isn’t Engineering; it is co-op and employability.  And the market for that in undergraduate education is truly global.  One might even say the world needs more Waterloo.  The question is whether, once burned, the institution has the courage to take such a bold strategic step.

May 21

AHELO: Universities Behaving Badly

So there’s some excitement being generated this month with respect to the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO).  Roughly speaking, AHELO is the higher education equivalent of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), or the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).  It consists of a general test of critical thinking skills (based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment), plus a couple of subject-matter tests that test competencies in specific disciplines.  AHELO completed its pilot phase a couple of years ago, and OECD is now looking to move this to a full-blown regular survey.

Not everyone is keen on this.  In fact, OECD appears to moving ahead with this despite extremely tepid support among OECD education ministers, which is somewhat unusual.  Critics make a number of points against AHELO, which mostly boil down to: a) it’s too expensive, and it’s taking resources away from other more important OECD efforts in higher education; b) low-stakes testing generally is BS; and, c) intrinsically, trying to measure student outcomes internationally is invalid because curricula vary so much from place to place.

The critics have half a point.  It’s true that AHELO is expensive and is crowding-out other OECD activities.  And it’s not entirely clear why OECD is burning this much political capital on a project with so little ministerial support.  But while there is some credibility to the low-stakes testing issue, it hasn’t stopped either PISA or PIAAC from being huge successes, helping to inform policy around the world.  And as for different curricula: that’s the point.  Part of what government wants to know is whether or not what is being taught in universities is bringing students up to international standards of competency.

But what’s notable about the charge against AHELO are the people who are against it.  In the main, it’s associations of universities in rich countries, such as the American Council on Education, Universities Canada, and their counterparts in the UK and Europe.  And make no mistake, they are not doing so because they think there are better ways to compare outcomes; quite simply, these folks do not want comparisons to be made.

Now, this wouldn’t be a terrible position to take if it were done because universities dislike comparisons based on untested or iffy social science.  But of course, that’s not the case, is it?  Top universities are more than happy to play ball with rankings organizations like Times Higher Education, where the validity of the social science is substantially more questionable than AHELO’s.

Institutional opposition to AHELO, for the most part, plays out the same way as opposition to U-Multirank, it’s a defence of privilege: top universities know they will do well on comparisons of prestige and research intensity.  They don’t know how they will do on comparisons of teaching and learning.  And so they oppose it, and don’t even bother to suggest ways to improve comparisons.

Is AHELO perfect?  Of course not.  But it’s better than nothing – certainly, it would be an improvement over the mainly input-based rankings that universities participate in now – and could be improved over time.  The opposition of top universities (and their associations) to AHELO is shameful, hypocritical, and self-serving.  They think they can get away with this obstructionism because the politicking is all done behind the scenes – but they deserve to be held to account.

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