Higher Education Strategy Associates

April 24

Canadian Innovation, Seen from Abroad

So, I came across this quite remarkable little document yesterday – it’s a report prepared by MIT-Skoltech on the universities around the world who contribute the most to their local innovation systems.

(What is Skoltech, you ask?  Well, it’s a university located in a nascent science and tech hub, just outside Moscow, in a place called Skolkovo, and is the pet project of the Medvedev wing of the Kremlin.  Anchoring this tech hub is the new Skolkovo University of Science and Technology, or Skoltech.  To emphasize its difference from the rest of Russian Academia, the institution’s hired an American, Edward Crawley, from MIT as its first President. In the stuffy world of Russian Academia, this was a Big Freaking Deal.  MIT quickly signed up for a long-term partnership deal to develop Skoltech; hence, MIT-Skoltech).

Anyways, since the whole point of the Skolkovo project is to create a self-sustaining economic cluster which isn’t totally penetrated by the usual gang of oligarchs and kleptocrats, the role universities can play in developing technology-based ecosystems is much on the minds of campus leaders.  And so they hired a consultant to interview some of the world’s leading thinkers on innovation, higher education, and tech clusters, and asked them to name, i) the universities around the world which have the most highly-regarded tech ecosystems, and ii) the universities that do the most to develop tech ecosystems in challenging circumstances.

Here’s what they had to say about Canadian universities…

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Maybe it’s not a surprise that none of our universities would make the top ten in the world; though Technion, ETH Zurich, and the National University of Singapore all cracked the top ten’s inevitable Anglo-American cartel.  But the identities of the schools that made it into the “doing most with the least” category ahead of any Canadian university should raise eyebrows: Sophia Antopolis (France), Aalto University (Finland), and KAIST (Korea).  Oh, and the University of Auckland.  At innovation, we rank below hobbits.

Of course, this is just expert opinions; it’s not in any sense “factual”.  Maybe if one were to delve into some metrics (the paper actually has a very useful section on measuring innovation at universities, though it does not use them in its comparisons), one would find that places like Waterloo and UBC “deserve” a place at the top table.  But experts usually aren’t that far off the mark.  And even if they are, the fact remains: people who matter in this field don’t think of Canadian universities and “top innovators” in the same sentence.

Universities with a reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship attract investment and top-class industrial partners.  If that’s not the image we’re projecting, we should be asking ourselves some pretty tough questions.

April 23


Some of you have been calling and e-mailing over the last few weeks, asking me about the new global higher education rankings system called U-Multirank (full disclosure: I played a very minor “advisory” role in this project, in 2009).  To save everyone else a call, I thought I’d give you the skinny, via this blog.

U-Multirank is a creation of the European Union.  Stung by the THE and Shanghai rankings, which showed continental European (especially French) universities lagging badly, France took advantage of their EU Presidency in 2009 to announce that the EU would create a new rankings system, which, in the words of the French Minister of Higher Education, would create a new and fairer global ranking, one that would prove that French universities were the best.  (Yes, seriously.)

The people to whom this project was entrusted are among the smartest people in all of higher education: namely, the folks at the Centre for Higher Education (CHE) in Germany, and the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) in the Netherlands.  The system they have created is how rankings would look if universities had created rankings themselves, rather than left it to newspapers and magazines.  It includes indicators on teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation, and regional engagement, and it portrays the data on each of these separately – no summing across indicators to come up with a single league table with a single “winner”.  Read the project’s feasibility report, here – it’s an important piece of work which fundamentally re-imagines the notion of global rankings.

It turns out, though, that not everyone likes the idea of rankings without winners.  In one of the most cynical pieces of university politics I’ve ever seen, the group known as the “Leading European Research Universities” (LERU) announced a couple of months ago that it would not participate – ostensibly this is because the rankings system is, “ill-conceived and badly designed”, but really it’s because they don’t like rankings in which they don’t come out on top.

As you can tell, I’m a fan of the U-Multirank concept; but I’m cautious about its overall prospects for success.  I think its ability to add non-European institutions will be limited because many of its indicators are euro-centric and will require non-european institutions to incur some cost in data collection.  And I have my doubts about demand: after many years in this business, I’m increasingly convinced that, given the choice, consumers prefer the simplicity of league tables to the more accurate – but conceptually taxing – multi-dimensional rankings.

Still, if your institution is on the fence about participating, I urge you to give it a try.  This is a good faith effort to improve rankings; failure to support it means losing your moral right to kvetch about rankings ever again.

April 22

More Data on Skills Shortages

I’ve been doing some work on skills shortages recently, and came across this adorable little document from HRSDC.  It’s their employment projections for the period 2011-2021, and its conclusion is pretty unequivocal: we do not have major skills shortages in Canada, nor are we going to have them anytime soon.

This prediction is based on something called COPS – the Canadian Occupation Projection System.  COPS makes long-term employment projections on an occupation-by-occupation basis, based on the major components of supply (new school leavers, immigration) and demand (retirements, changes in demand).  Most of those factors can be foreseen fairly easily, but change in demand by industry can be hard to get right on a year-by-year basis.  As a result, while COPS is good at predicting this like, “we’ll need more oil and gas workers because hydrocarbons are rising in price”, it’s useless at predicting what the price of oil will be in any given year (which means it can’t predict short-term spikes), or at working out the impact of new technologies (e.g. fracking) which might have long-term consequences for specific markets.  It’s basically a “best guess” given current knowledge of technological and economic trends.

And this best guess says that only five of the 144 occupational groups are in chronic shortage – that is, they are currently in shortage and projected to remain so for another decade.  Exactly none of these occupations are in the trades.  Zero.  Bupkis.  What is in high demand are managers of tradespeople (especially oil and gas, but also more generally in construction), but that’s quite different.  What’s needed to solve this are not more apprenticeships, but more of the kinds of programs increasingly popping up in polytechnics, like the degree in construction management offered by Red River College.

The other four occupations in chronic shortage?  i) Doctors and dentists, ii) Nursing managers and RNs, managers of health, iii) Managers of health, education and community services (Hey!  Justification for administrative salary increases!), and iv) Human Resources and other business services.  If you look at them in terms of total expected employment shortfalls, one gets an even clearer picture of where the real shortages are:

Distribution of Employment Shortfalls in the Five Occupational Groups Experiencing the Greatest Skills Shortages













Fully half of the positions expected to be in shortage, among the five highest-demand occupations, are for front-line health workers.  Roughly forty percent – the ones in business services and health & education management – are office jobs, mostly requiring degrees in business or social sciences.

Remember, this is from HRSDC.  It’s the official government projection.  So why did federal government spend the run-up to the budget talking-up trades rather than health?  Do they not read their own stuff?  Or is there some other factor at work here?

April 19

A Two-Tier Tuition Regime in Quebec?

Things are getting interesting in Quebec.  First Laval and now l’Université de Montreal are publicly threatening to leave the Conseil des Receteurs et Principaux des Universites du Quebec (CREPUQ).  In the discreet and diplomatic world of Canadian University politics, this is like blowing a vuvuzela during a piano recital.

At one level, this is a delayed reaction to CREPUQ’s limp performance during last year’s tuition fee debate.  At the outset, all institutions agreed to take a common position and speak through CREPUQ, a strategy fatally undermined by CREPUQ’s subsequent decision to spend the crisis hiding under a blanket.  I don’t have any inside information, but reading between the lines, it seems that there was a split between the independent universities (McGill, Concordia, Bishop’s, Laval, Montreal, Sherbrooke) and the UQs, with the former mostly thinking the Charest government didn’t go far enough, and the latter – possibly with an eye on an incoming PQ government – being more ambivalent.  The result was a deafening and damaging silence from the reform’s key beneficiaries.

The lesson Laval and Montreal seem to have taken from this is that CREPUQ and their UQ colleagues are no longer to be trusted.  And so they are now out actively lobbying for a two-tier solution, which would promote their interests over those of the UQ system’s.  Specifically, they are arguing for a two-tier tuition structure which would allow research-intensive institutions to charge a higher fee, while allowing the government to claim it is preserving access by giving students a low-fee option through the UQs.

I think there is some merit in a two-tiered solution.  Clearly, a lot of (mainly francophone) students have made it known that they value cheap universities over good universities.  So, fine, let those be the UQs.  For everyone else, there’s a better-resourced solution, funded by fees rather than government.

But the specific details of the plan are a bit sketchy.  First of all, the link between tuition and research is a bit ridiculous.  What’s the value proposition: “pay us more, so we can pay less attention to you”?  Even if it weren’t ridiculous, the idea that it would apply to just Laval, Montreal, McGill, and Sherbrooke is nuts.  On any research measure other than, “do you have a medical school”, Concordia kicks Sherbrooke’s behind; for it not to be on that list is a transparent piece of linguistic politics and institutional snobbery.

If you’re going down the two-tiered road, it seems to me that there’s a logically solid case for restricting it to just two universities (McGill and Montreal, genuinely world-class and special) or expanding it to six by including all the “independent” universities (i.e. including Concordia and Bishop’s).   Anything else seems arbitrary.

April 18

Students Aren’t Keen on “Disruption”

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the current proliferation of MOOCs is meeting an enormous demand for access to informal learning opportunities.  Millions of people are signing up for courses which interest them, picking a few bits they wish to consume, and, in a few cases, even completing them – all at the low, low, price (to the user) of zero.  Undoubtedly a great development.

But for MOOCs to be sustainable they have to eventually generate some revenue, and things aren’t going so well on that score.  Coursera made a fuss last week about the $220,000 they earned last quarter by issuing certificates of completion; but given that they’re on $22 million of VC money, that’s still pretty anemic.  At the end of the day, someone has to pay for this stuff.  This is why some ed tech types seem to be pinning their hopes on governments changing the rules and, in effect, forcing universities to accept MOOCs and other not-necessarily-accredited courses – as is currently taking place in California and Florida.

There’s an important realization here: quite apart from faculty resistance, there are real regulatory barriers to institutions joining the techno-fetishist higher education revolution.  And therefore, the debate about MOOCs is heading quite quickly from being casual banter within universities, to being an outright political fight.  But on whose side should students fight?

Conceivably, students in places where colleges have been so ravaged by cuts that they are turning away large numbers, might actually be supportive of MOOCs for credit. But what about in Canada, where that’s not the case?  We noted a little while ago that students didn’t seem to be banging down the doors to take MOOCs, but that’s not proof they’d actually oppose it.

We decided to test this proposition by asking our MyCanEd student panel members if they would feel moved to participate in public protests should their province or institution announce a plan requiring students to take half their courses in an online format.  To calibrate the response, we also asked them a question we were pretty sure would elicit a strong response; namely, whether they would protest if their province or university announced a plan to raise tuition by $1000 every year, for five years.  The results were… intriguing.

How Likely Would you be to Participate in a Protest in the Event of:












The short of it is that forcing students to take courses online is only slightly less unpopular than a $5000 tuition hike.  This is something governments need to consider before they get too excited about the cost-saving potential of MOOCs.  And it should be cold water in the face of anyone who thinks that there’s a demand among current students for this particular form of “disruption”.

April 17

An Avalanche of Nonsense

I wasn’t going to write about the ludicrous new higher education paper, released last month by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled, An Avalanche is ComingI didn’t think it had enough exposure to warrant it.  But, since the Globe has now seen fit to publish an extract, I can go whole hog.

It starts off with bog-standard, “sky-is-falling” stuff: the global economy is a mess (true, but presumably temporary), the cost of higher education is increasing faster than inflation (true since the beginning of time), the value of a degree is falling (in most countries it hasn’t), and “competition is heating up” (MOOCs, basically).  Somehow, these weak propositions add up to the argument that, massive change is inevitable.

The paper goes on to posit that the modern university is essentially a bundling of ten different “features” (in actuality, a weird amalgam of inputs, throughputs, and outputs), to wit: research, degrees, city prosperity, faculty, students, governance/administration, curriculum, teaching & learning, assessment and (student) experience.   The impending “avalanche” will occur because technology and economics are permitting some unbundling of these services, and because in each of those ten areas, universities – allegedly – face growing competition.

For instance, the paper claims that universities’ dominance in research is being challenged by “think tanks” (hilarious – I await the Fraser Institute’s next paper on the Higgs Boson); it also claims – seriously – that the student experience is being challenged because it can be replicated by “meet-ups, youth clubs, and learning communities”.  As for the rest, it’s all basically MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs – they’re going to change everything, don’t you know!

There is this fantasy out there – shared by silicon valley types and big money consultants, alike – that just because unbundling can happen that it will happen.  Sure, it happened in the music industry – but that’s not a universal experience.  It hasn’t been the case, for instance, in the real estate industry – mostly because the idea of going DIY on the biggest financial decision of your life scares the bejesus out of most people.  And if you asked me whether higher education is closer in nature to music or housing, my answer would be pretty obvious.

I urge people to read the paper in order to get a sense of just how unhinged the higher education’s self-styled “revolutionaries” can actually get.  Though the paper ends with some sensible points about the need for institutions to sharpen their value propositions, these recommendations in no way flow organically from the wholly evidence-free view that student demand is collapsing in the face of MOOCs.  The notion this paper peddles – that positive change requires massive disruption – isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous.  It needs to be countered.

April 16

Attainment Rates 101

Apparently, the new Liberal Leader has decided that one of his touchstone policies will be to raise post-secondary attainment rates in Canada from 50% to 70%.  No details yet on how he plans to achieve this, but that’s not my focus today.  Rather, I’d like to look at the underlying math of how you move an attainment rate.

An attainment rate is the percentage of a given population that has completed a certain level of education.  Although Trudeau has never specified what age-range he’s talking about, the 50% figure (second-best in the world, as it happens) seems to come from OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG), and one can therefore infer that it covers the 25-64 age range.

Evaluating the feasibility of moving the needle on attainment depends on the time-frame in which one expects to complete the task.  Trudeau hasn’t specified this either, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that the intended period is ten years.

To understand how this might work, let’s break-down attainment rates by age, as we do, below, in figure 1.

Figure 1 – Attainment Rates by Age Cohort, 2011













One thing you can see right away is that attainment rates will naturally increase as younger, better educated 25 year-olds replace older, less well-educated 64 year-olds.  (though not dramatically so, because Canada’s 55-64 year-olds are fairly well-educated).  Thus, the status quo alone would raise the attainment rate to 53.5%.

Now, the burden of raising attainment rates tends to fall on the youth who are just leaving high school, because it’s a lot easier to get them into post-secondary education than it is people already in the labour force.  But doing this one youth cohort at a time is a tough slog – even more so in Canada, where that youth cohort is actually less numerous than the cohorts ahead of it.

A thought experiment can help illustrate how tough this is: imagine for a moment that every single kid who attends secondary school over the next decade not only graduates from high school, but also graduates from college or university – this would achieve a 100% attainment rate.  But here’s the kicker: even if this miracle occurred, it would only raise attainment rates for the population as a whole to 64%.

Figure 2 – A Miracle Attainment Scenario for 2021













Assuming that going all Soylent Green on the less-educated elderly is out of the question, then the only other way to bump attainment rates to this high a figure, within a decade, would be to go on the mother-of-all-adult education campaigns.  Except that Canada has a pretty terrible record with adult education, so it’s not clear how we’d do that.

Verdict?  A 70% attainment rate might be achievable in twenty years, but not ten.  And so even if he’s blessed with his father’s political longevity, it’s simply not something Justin Trudeau could ever hope to achieve during his time in office.

April 15

A Tool To Strengthen the Economy

A persistent sore point within higher education is the complaint that politicians want higher education to be, “more geared to the needs of the economy” – the implication of this being that higher education is a public good in and of itself, which should hold itself above mere utilitarian concerns.

This is a puzzling argument.  The arrival of state funding in the early nineteenth century was explicitly predicated on higher education being used as a tool to help strengthen the economy of the state.  This fact was as true in Europe (e.g. the rise of chemistry in German universities to assist the rise of the German chemical industry) as it was in North America (the Morrill Acts, the rise of A&M universities, etc).

Critics of this notion point to a period from the late 1950s through to the early 1970s, when a different logic seemed to apply.  Higher education was expanding very quickly then, and so too did the humanities and social sciences.  Lots of new public money went into these disciplines with nary a word about the “needs of the economy”.  From this, some conclude that this was a more enlightened era to which we should return.

Unfortunately, this argument is perfectly wrong.  The reason that the “needs of the economy” argument wasn’t used against social sciences and the humanities back then wasn’t because the rules of the game changed; it was because, for a brief moment, degrees in social sciences and humanities were actually in high demand.

Think about it:  what was the #1 growth industry in the 60s and 70s?  Government.  And which field of study did civil servants traditionally have?  Humanities and (to a lesser extent) social sciences.  Partly that was for class reasons (Sir Humphrey’s degree was in classics, for instance), but partly it’s because broad training in human understanding and critical thinking actually does matter in at least some parts of government.  But notions of society are less class-ridden today, government is no longer growing, and even within government the increasing complexities of modern regulation has led them to prefer specialists over generalists.    As a result, these fields of study don’t have the same labour market cachet that they used to.

It’s not that students in these subjects don’t go on to good things – they do (albeit, increasingly, a dose of grad or professional school is necessary to get them there).  But other areas of study seem to get graduates established in the labour market more quickly, and hence get the glory in a Humboldtian system.

Throughout the last 200 years, publicly funded universities have always had to deliver economically-relevant goods to their paymasters.  The rules never changed; only the labour market did.

April 12

In Praise of Downward Mobility

One much-used trope, among those wanting to bash higher education, attacks the idea of “downward mobility”.  Typically, a journalist finds a kid from a nice middle-class family, having a hard time making-it in the labour market, and uses this as a platform for a string of Wente-isms:  “Higher education is supposed to be about upward mobility – but now graduates are downwardly mobile!  Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Etc. etc.

But upward mobility is greatly overrated.  Downward mobility is where our focus should be.  And here’s why:

Part of the problem with the notion of upward mobility is that, with respect to education, the term gets used in two distinct ways.  The first is a, “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” interpretation, where everyone is upwardly mobile in the sense that everyone’s purchasing power is rising.  Universities and colleges, through their enriching of human capital, and their contributions to the national innovations system, are seen to be key actors in this process – though, obviously, there are many other things which also go into economic growth.  Right now, this kind of upward mobility is in short supply.

But even where there is little or no economic growth, upward mobility in a second sense – that of people changing their position within the overall social hierarchy – can still exist.  But this type of mobility is a zero-sum game.  Upward mobility can only exist to the extent that downward mobility does.

The book I discussed yesterday, for example (Paying for the Party), is full of stories about downwardly mobile middle-class kids (albeit mostly ones who don’t work very hard at their studies).  That’s sad, but what’s truly appalling is the complete lack of downward mobility among the upper-class students.  No matter how useless they are academically, mom and dad are always there to help them avoid the consequences of their inaction.

A fair society, one where social position is actually reflective of effort and ability, requires more downward mobility, not less.  We need to be finding ways to take inherited privilege away, not re-inforce it.  It’s why the rich need to pay more in tuition (and why the poor need grants to offset it).  It’s why legacy admissions and merit scholarships that don’t take social origins into account need to be fought.  It’s why all those unpaid internships in so-called “desirable” fields (mainly media and publishing) are not just illegal but are also immoral, because they tilt the playing field to the trustafarians who can afford them.

In a low-growth economy, allowing some to rise in social position means others must fall.  We in higher education have a vital role to play in this, and we shouldn’t be squeamish about it.

April 11

Paying For the Party

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality is a quite remarkable new work of ethnography, by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton.  I recommend it unreservedly for student professionals, or anyone interested in how university affects social mobility.

Embedded in a women’s dormitory at a large, unnamed Midwestern flagship state university (which, if I had to guess, is probably either Indiana or Illinois), the authors observed the girls on one floor for a year, and then conducted regular follow-up interviews with them for another four years.  The results are fascinating, in a horrifying sort of way.

The authors advance an argument that the culture of partying – specifically fraternity/sorority (or “Greek”) partying – is the key factor determining long-term success in college.  Rich kids can live the Greek life through a combination of massive parental subsidies and a proliferation of “business-lite” degrees, and their job prospects aren’t diminished because their success in post-graduation job searches depends much more on parental connections than it does on academics.  Their less-wealthy, and less-networked peers can either attempt to keep up (which can lead to much higher debt and/or reduced academic achievement, which hurts them more than their better-networked peers) or they end up feeling alienated and alone, which also has negative effects on completion rates.

The authors’ most interesting claim is that flagship public universities actively aid and abet the partying culture, both by providing the Greek system with legitimacy/prestige and by dumbing-down the curriculum with too many “business-lite” degrees.  (I’m usually skeptical about “dumbing-down” arguments, but some of this stuff shocked me – karate and ballroom dancing as for-credit courses?) Almost without exception, the kids in this book who studied hard turned out fine; the problem is that too many students are either distracted by other things, or not given institutional encouragement to study the right things.

Two small caveats about this book, though.  The first is that its arguments for state-level public policy change are much weaker than the ones it makes for campus reform.  Asking for more public funding because students party too much, and don’t study enough, just isn’t going to sell.

The second, simply, is that this is an American book.  Much of the really nasty stuff documented here occurs in Canada only in a very attenuated fashion.  The Greek system is less important here than it is in the US, and our class systems are different, too; so one shouldn’t assume the arguments translate directly.  Still, Armstrong and Hamilton’s message about how social class affects the pathways one takes in higher education, and how they affect post-graduation experiences, is nevertheless a very important one; we should all pay much closer attention than we currently do.

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