Higher Education Strategy Associates

March 04

Smarter Policy on Apprenticeships

I’m pretty sick of the discourse around apprenticeships in Canada.  But that doesn’t mean I’m against apprenticeships; quite the opposite, actually.  I’d just like policy formation on the subject to revolve around something more intelligent than MOREMOREMOREWENEEDMORE.

Instead of focussing the discussion entirely around intake rates, we could be having much more productive discussions about any of the following:

1.        How do we increase completion rates?

Contra most of the rhetoric you hear, Canada’s apprenticeship intake rates are pretty good – and in the skilled trades, our rates are higher than in Germany.  The bigger issue is that half of all apprentices don’t complete their training within ten years of starting a program, and a significant proportion of those who do, take far more than the “four years” you see on brochures.  We don’t tolerate this kind of failure rate in other forms of education – why do we tolerate it for apprenticeships?

2.       Should we continue to use block-release for training? 

In most countries, apprentices intersperse their learning and working on a near-daily basis.  A typical situation in Germany would be to have the apprentice working on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and in class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  In large part, this day-release policy exists to ensure that the applied and theoretical parts of learning are as integrated as possible.  In Canada, we do what is known as “block release” – that is, have apprentices do their learning in discrete chunks.  Our system evolved partly because of climate, and partly because of government EI rules: laying off workers for a few weeks so they could get some training was both a convenient way for employers to slim payroll during the winter months, and a way for provinces to get the feds involved in financing apprenticeships.  But does it make sense pedagogically?  Do we get better journeypersons as a result?

3.       Why do our apprenticeships take so long?

There’s virtually nowhere else in the world where apprenticeships take longer than three years.  Why do ours take four, or more?  Do our apprentices end up more skilled than those elsewhere, or is this just a way for businesses to pad profits by paying well-trained workers less than full rate for an extra year?

4.       How do the outcomes of our apprenticeships compare to those in other countries?

This is really the key question.  The number of journeypersons we have is ultimately only half the equation: all the quantity in the world doesn’t make up for a lack of quality. And we actually have some means to do this: I’d love to have someone give red seal exams to a random group of German or Dutch apprentices, and see how they do (for balance, it’d be good to have apprentices from different countries take the PIAAC test, as well).

Anyone who wants to have those discussions is welcome for a chat at HESA Towers, anytime.  Anyone who wants to keep banging on tired tropes about how trades are discriminated against, and we need to encourage more students to blah blah blah, I have but two words: do better.

March 03

Effective Higher Education Policy

Higher education, as a policy field, requires long-term thinking.  It’s not just because universities themselves are pretty slow to effect change: it’s because it genuinely can take years for policies to have an impact.  Want to improve research impact? You need to build new labs, hire new staff, perform research, do peer review, publish, do the knowledge mobilization, etc.  Want to “double the pipeline” to get better computer science grads?  That really means getting students to shift to heavier STEM course-loads back in grade 9, then get accepted into university, then graduate.  That’s 9 years, minimum, before you see any real change.

Effective long-term policy-making requires that governments are able to make credible commitments; when they say something is going to happen, it has to happen.  Otherwise, institutions will basically twiddle their thumbs and wait the government out.  For precisely this reason, Ontario right now is the exact opposite of an effective higher education system.  It’s not just because, since 2006, the Liberals have used higher ed mostly as a playground for electoral gimmickry (though that hasn’t helped); it also has to do with the fact that everybody in the province thinks the Liberals are done like dinner, and will be gone with a matter of months.  Consequently, no one treats current policy initiatives (e.g., differentiation) as anything other than busywork, which will be binned the day after the election.

I can hear skeptics saying: so what? Governments have shelf-lives (except in Alberta), and when they’re done, they’re done, and policies change.  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  One of the things about societies with high-performing higher education systems – the Dutch, for instance – is that you don’t see a lot of violent lurches in higher education policy.  There’s actually strong bipartisan support for long-term policies.  Partly, this is a result of the electoral system, and the way it forces together coalition governments.  But more importantly, parties realize that trying to use the education system as a wedge issue with which to score points against one another at election time is, in the long run, counterproductive.

Change wouldn’t be easy to achieve here in Canada; bipartisanship doesn’t come easy in Westminster systems. But it would help matters immensely, I think, if universities and colleges changed their lobbying techniques.  Right now, the emphasis is always on being aligned with “the party of government”, whoever that happens to be.  Over the past two decades, that’s been a successful recipe for getting governments to give the higher education lots of little treats every year, but it’s actually done very little to encourage long-term policy stability.   The sector has won a lot of battles this way, but it never seems to win the war.

It’s time to change tack.  The sector needs to start engaging political parties collectively, nudging political parties towards common policies that will survive changes of government, instead of getting them to compete against each other for the sector’s favour every four years.  For government to be smarter, institutions need to change the way they play the game.

February 28

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Senegal

Hi all.  I’ve been in Dakar, Senegal this past week, developing a student program here.  Here’s a quick snapshot of the place:

Senegal is home to francophone Africa’s oldest university, l’Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), sometimes known simply as the University of Dakar.  It’s one of the few institutions on the continent that predates independence.  For a very long time, it was the country’s only university – francophone African countries were slower to expand higher education opportunities than anglophone, for reasons I’ll get into shortly – and, in fact, it still accounts for about 90% of enrolments in the public system, and essentially 100% of its prestige programs.

As in most of Africa, Senegal started allowing private universities to operate in the early 1990s.  For a long time, these were few and small.  But then, in the past decade, their numbers shot up, from about 30 in 2000 to around 110 in 2010.  A handful of these – mostly management schools – had the scale to offer quality education, but with an average enrolment of 200 students, the sector as a whole struggles.

The reason francophone Africa was so slow to expand higher education is that national governments couldn’t afford it.  That’s not just because they were poor, but also because the prevailing model involved zero tuition, bursaries for (nearly) all, plus free/subsidized meals and accommodations.  The only way to keep costs down was to slam tight the lid on student numbers.  That was workable until the 80s baby boom started hitting universities fifteen years ago (hence the surge in private university numbers).  It made even less sense once the effects of universal primary and universal secondary education began to be felt, and the number of university-eligible students grew.

At this point, some bright light in government decided that the way to deal with this problem was to guarantee university education to everyone with a baccalauréat (the French kind, the one you get after high school).  Financially, this made so little sense that a series of hasty moves were made: tuition fees were implemented – with undergraduates now asked to pay $60/year, master’s students $120, and doctoral students $180.  (For comparison, the privates tend to charge between $1,750 and $2,250/year in fees.)  This provoked a couple of weeks of riots and some burned mini-buses, but the government held firm, and eventually the students paid up and went back to class – although this turned out to be a problem because, with the bacc guarantee, there were now far too many students.  UCAD, bursting at the seams, could accept only about 70% of the required students.

This led the Senegalese government to an innovative policy solution: namely, taking 6600 first year students, and paying the better private schools to educate them.  In the short-term, this works for everyone: UCAD gets some relief in student numbers, privates get some extra money, and government gets to keep its promise.  But with first year student numbers projected to increase by 10-15% per year as far as the eye can see, it’s at best a temporary solution.

The Senegalese government has finally discovered that la gratuité n’est pas rentable.  Future expansion is going to mean more students paying more money, in both the public and private sectors.  Given its status as a regional leader in higher education, it could herald the start of major change in higher education policy right across francophone Africa.

February 27

New Student Debt Numbers

So, the more stat-minded among you may have noted the release, this past Tuesday, of Statistics Canada’s 2012 Survey of Financial Security (SFS).  Though the main talking points were largely about mortgage debt, it also contained some interesting statistics on student debt.

Now, remember that these are figures on outstanding student debt.  Some of it will be in repayment (i.e. held by graduates now in the labour force), and some of it will not (i.e. held by current students).  The way to think of these debt figures is as a collective portrait of people who borrowed in the decade or so prior to the snapshot, and who had not yet fully repaid their debt (because those who had successfully completed repayment would be out of the sample).  So the 2012 figure for student debt is actually a collective picture of the outstanding debt of everyone who borrowed in the period 2002-2012, and who had not yet repaid, the 2005 figure covers the period 1995-2005 or so, etc., etc.

Anyways, the headline that the usual suspects would like you to focus on is the one about aggregate debt outstanding: $28 billion, up by $5.5 billion (23%) in real dollars since the last time the study was conducted, in 2005.  Why is that a big deal?  Because!  $28 Billion!  Big Number!  But a slightly more intelligent look at the data shows a different story.

Figure 1 shows that the average outstanding student loan was about $15,000.  That’s up about 6% from 2005, and 13% from 1999 (again, all figures are inflation-adjusted).  Why is this figure so much smaller than the one for total debt?  Simple: more people have outstanding student debt than in 2005, so it’s divided among a larger population.  That might be because people are taking longer to repay their loans – more likely, though, it’s a reflection of the fact that student numbers as a whole rose substantially over the 00s.

Figure 1 – Average Student Debt Among Holders of Outstanding Student Loans, in $2012














Intriguingly, the data for median student debt (that is, the mid-point value, rather than the mean) tells a slightly different story, in that it fell 2% between 2005 and 2012 (though it has still risen a bit since 1999).

Figure 2 – Median Student Debt Among Holders of Outstanding Student Loans, in $2012














How should we interpret this?  This isn’t the easiest data to unpack.  It probably means, as I pointed out back here, that student debt hasn’t been increasing.  But it also might mean that debt repayment rates have been increasing along with indebtedness, or (less likely) that a greater fraction of student loans are held by individuals who graduated from shorter programs.

Whatever the truth, what we do know for sure is that young people aren’t drowning in student loan debt.  Among family units headed by people under-35, only a quarter hold a student loan, and the loan debt constitutes just 5.3% of their total debt, down from 6.7% in 2005.  Whatever the effects of student borrowing is, it would appear that deterring graduates from taking on ever-larger mortgages isn’t one of them.

February 26

A More Productive Debate on “Differentiation”

One of the big topics over the past three years in Canada – and particularly in Ontario – has been that of “differentiation”.  The idea of differentiation as a boon to the university system essentially traces back to Adam Smith.  Just as in Smith’s hypothetical pin factory production can be increased multi-fold, by having different workers work on different aspects of pin-making, so too can a university system  be made more productive by having institutions concentrate on different aspects of higher education.

It also gains some moral force from the observation that universities tend towards isomorphism.  It’s not that everyone wants to be Harvard or U of T, exactly (though there is a bit of that), but rather it’s that every institution has a drive to make itself more organizationally complex and more research-oriented.   And collegiality makes it difficult for institutions to actually prioritize some fields of study over others: the number of institutions that are genuinely excellent in some fields of study, and yet can’t actually say so out loud, or do anything to promote these areas, for fear of offending other internal constituencies, are too many to count.

So, OK, specialization.  But in what?  The most highly counterproductive aspect of the current debate on differentiation in Canada is that it tends to revolve on only one possible aspect of differentiation (research vs. teaching), and it assumes that the relevant unit of analysis is the institution, as opposed to the discipline.  Neither of these should be a given.

To see how the debate could be re-cast, have a look at how the Dutch have handled the differentiation issue.  A few years ago, the Government struck-up a Committee on the Future Sustainability of the Dutch Higher Education System, whose report was entitled Threefold Differentiation – it’s a very smart plea for greater mission differentiation, without creating a zero-sum game around research.

The key difference between the Dutch and Canadian approaches is the idea of institutional “profiling”.  Institutions can specialize in lots of different ways: the kinds of students it accepts, its involvement in knowledge exchange and interactions with business, its degree of orientation to internationalization and/or regional engagement.  It can also specialize somewhat in terms of its research profile (smaller institutions, for instance, might have doctoral programs in arts or science, but not both).  Thus, their views of differentiation are significantly more multi-dimensional than ours. And more dimensions = more ways for institutions to find a “win”.

A second key difference between the Dutch and Canadian approaches is the idea of performance and incentives.  There’s no pretence in the Netherlands that you can pull institutions away from isomorphism without some form of reward: institutions need to be rewarded for their profiles.  (In Canada, of course, the only incentives government provides is to be big and research-intensive.  And then they whine about institutions choosing not to differentiate themselves. Go figure.)  But the Dutch are equally clear that these rewards need to be based on transparent and measurable outcome indicators.  In Canada, we’ve sort of grasped the indicator bit, without necessarily tying it to rewarding specific profiles.

In short, there are specialization gains to be had through greater differentiation.  But as long as we define differentiation as being specifically about research vs. teaching, my guess is that we aren’t going to realize them.

February 25

The War on Small, Niche Public Universities

Governments love universities that make a niche for themselves.  ”How delightful“, governments say.  ”Oh, we’re so proud of you for not following the herd and trying to be just another big multi-versity.  You go, girl”.

They say all of this, of course, until it comes time to actually fund them, at which point governments effectively flip small, niche universities the bird.  In practice, governments behave as though they hate small universities with a passion.

There are two separate problems here.  The first has to do with the difficulties governments have with “small”.  Funding formulas tend to push institutions towards “average” costs.  But since most universities in Canada are big, “average” costs usually means the costs that large institutions with major economies of scale can achieve.  Small universities have to survive on the same amount, but without the economies of scale.

At one level, maybe that’s OK.  Smaller institutions probably do less research, and because of that they can pay their staff somewhat less.  And maybe there’s an argument to be made that it’s more important to run higher education systems efficiently than to have well-funded small institutions available to those students who would thrive in them.  But then why not let them charge more for their services?  But of course, no government will go that extra simple step.

The second problem has to do with niches.  These sound great, until you realize that niches, by definition, are unstable.  Change just one or two external parameters and suddenly a species can no longer exist .  So, all those institutions that bet heavily on education over the last decade, with the encouragement of lots of government funding?  Now they’re getting hammered by governments that no longer think their niche is worth funding (Law is in a similar situation, different only in that it was privately, rather than publicly, funded).

Now, imagine you’ve been trying to be both a small university and a niche university over the last few years.  The government won’t pay properly for your non-niche programs, and suddenly decides it dislikes the niche you’ve chosen (or, alternatively, the market for that niche suddenly disappears).  You’re screwed, basically.

This is why most small universities become medium or even large universities: in our system, size = more secure income streams.  Utilitarians might say “so what – what’s wrong with scale?”  But the problem for most of these institutions is that their Unique Value Proposition is being small.  Small doesn’t scale.  When you force these institutions to grow, there’s a real danger that you force them to be something they were never intended to be.  And that’s a loss of diversity to the whole system.

What’s really weird is that after all this, governments still wonder why there’s such skepticism about differentiation.  But on that, more tomorrow.

February 24

The Best Argument for Free Tuition

As you’ve all probably noticed over the years, I have little patience for most arguments for free or reduced tuition.  There’s not much evidence it improves access.  Sure, it reduces costs for poorer students, but there are cheaper and more progressive ways to do that than to simply provide aid to all, regardless of ability to pay.

The argument in favour of charging fees is threefold.  One is about fairness: people who gain a personal advantage from using a service (and private returns to education are still excellent, no matter what the “hell-in-a-handbasket” crowd says) should contribute towards its upkeep; the “positive-externality-of-education” argument is correct, and leads to the conclusion that there should be some public support of higher education, but not that it should be exclusively supported that way.  The second argument is about equity: this is a service used disproportionately by the wealthier elements of society, and so using public money for it is always problematic (unless, that is, you adopt the ludicrous arguments espoused by Hugh McKenzie, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, that it’s still progressive to give more services to rich people on the grounds that they pay more taxes).  The third argument is simply pragmatic: there are masses of people who are affluent and willing to pay for higher education.  Why would you punt that?

The zero-tuition folks really only have one semi-effective rejoinder to this, which is that most of this is also true of secondary education.  Why free education for one and not the other?  The answer, of course, is that secondary education is compulsory and post-secondary is not.  But this answer is getting less obvious all the time.  A large majority of young people now do get some kind of post-secondary education, and we’re getting closer to universality all the time. If higher education is becoming universal, would it not make sense for at least some of it to be free?  Not all of it, mind you: the fairness and equity rules above would still apply.  But if it were introduced for higher education programs where the students aren’t disproportionately drawn from upper SES groups, and where the returns to education are fairly low, free tuition wouldn’t violate those rules.

An interesting movement is developing along these lines in the United States, with calls from both the left and the right to make two years of community college free.  In fact, the Governor of Tennessee (long a low-tuition state, like much of the South and West – it’s a legacy of 1890s populism) has put such a proposal in his State of the State address. Since US associates degrees tend to draw lower-income students, and lead to less well-paying jobs, it meets the fairness and equity tests.

Something similar wouldn’t make quite as much sense in Canada because more of our college credentials are longer, more specialized, and have high private rates of return; you wouldn’t want to do this with Sheridan’s animation programs, or SAIT’s pipeline technology programs, for instance.  But college ECE or pre-apprenticeship programs?  Free tuition there would be significantly more progressive than, say, grants to university students from families making $160,000.

Worth a conversation at least.

February 21

What a Trudeau Education Policy Might Look Like

So, Justin Trudeau says one of his major policy priorities is to “put more money into education and training”.  As with all Liberal policies these days, it’s short on specifics, though whether that’s because he wants to participate in policy-making, or because he has either no clue/intention of giving Tories a target to shoot at, is unclear.  With the Liberal policy convention underway, it’s an opportune time to think about how a future Liberal government might deliver on this promise.

One thing Trudeau pere knew very well is that education is a provincial responsibility.  Period.  If you can find it, read PET’s 1957 essay, “Grants to Quebec Universities”, in Federalism and the French Canadians, which begins with him saying: “I agree with Duplessis on this”, and mostly consists of him savaging the rationales centralists offer for Ottawa’s intrusion into provincial jurisdictions.  In office, Trudeau killed the direct federal university funding scheme that St. Laurent created, and replaced it with block grants to provinces (then known as “Established Programs Financing”, now known as the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer).

Let’s start by assuming that Justin is closer to his father’s views on this than are most Liberals: what tools would he then have for spending on education and training?  It’s a shorter list than you’d think.  As far as K-12 education goes, there’s practically nothing.  At best, you could boost provincial budgets by offering an infrastructure program to build/repair schools, thus taking those expenditures out of provincial hands.  That’s politically tricky – Alberta, BC, and Ontario, with their growing suburban youth populations, would scoff at most of this – but it is do-able.

At the university level, the most obvious way to get money into universities and colleges would be to pump more money into the CST, and fully designate it as being for PSE.  The problem, of course, is that there there would be absolutely no accountability over this – provinces could spend the lot on a weekend bender with Charlie Sheen if they wanted to – but it would be simple, quick, and most provinces would probably feel the need to make a show of spending some extra money on PSE as a result.  The other two traditional areas of federal expenditure – research and student assistance – would be easier realms in which to create identifiable boutique programs.  Hopefully, Trudeau would refrain from this, though.  An over-large institutional focus on research doesn’t obviously help “education” (there might be a separate case for research in and of itself, but we shouldn’t pretend they are one and the same, and one certainly shouldn’t be funded by initiatives for the other), and as I noted yesterday, there’s already too much boutiquery in student aid.

Skills training may offer some of the most interesting terrain for policy initiatives.  Axing the Canada Jobs Grant, and putting the money back into programs provinces actually seem to think work, would be a crowd pleaser, as would an infrastructure program for colleges to deliver better skills training.  Most ambitious of all would be to work with provinces on a top-to-bottom overhaul of apprenticeships, starting by decoupling federal support to apprentices from the EI system – a feature that perpetuates our deeply unfit-for-purpose system of block release training.

In short: there are some good options, but apart from skills training they aren’t very headline-worthy, and won’t appeal to many Liberals.

February 20

Why Can’t We Just Means-Test Tuition?

A couple of weeks ago, I had an exchange with a colleague who couldn’t figure out why tuition wasn’t means-tested.  It just makes sense, he said: make the rich kids pay lots of tuition, and make the poor kids pay very little.

I argued that it was means-tested.  If you didn’t have means, you’d get a grant, which would reduce tuition (though I allowed that this was done a lot less effectively than it could be, given how poor our targeting system in student aid is).  ”OK”, he said, “but why not cut out the middle-man and just vary tuition directly according to a student’s parental income?”

Now, there’s something to be said for this.  Clarity, for starters.   As we noted yesterday, there are already tens of thousands of low-income students attending for free, and nobody seems to know it.  If we could just re-package aid and fees into a single, easily understood figure, that clarity might go a long way to improving access.

It’s also not unprecedented: in 1998, when tuition fees were introduced in the UK, the fees were made variable based on income.  Students from families making over £30,000 were charged £1,000; those from families making between £20,000 and £30,000 were charged £500, and those from families making less than £20,000 were not charged anything at all.  Similarly, in a couple of the German states that introduced tuition after 2006, waivers were instituted so that poorer students paid nothing at all.

There are basically two reasons why we don’t do this in Canada.  The simple, technical reason is that in most parts of Canada, universities are still notionally in charge of tuition and admission, and universities don’t ask students what their income is.  In the UK, government agencies outside the university were in charge of both, so it was easy enough to achieve.  For us to do that here would require taking away at lest some institutional autonomy and/or making sure that whoever makes the admission decision also knows a student’s family background.  Ontario’s provincial university application centre (OUAC) might be the kind of organization to do this, but elsewhere in Canada it would be more difficult, as each individual institution would have to tool up a separate income-assessment system.  Not impossible, by any means, but difficult.

But the bigger issue is simple raw politics.  If government grants were folded into a single tuition price, how could the federal government get credit for all its tax credits and Canada Study Grants?  How could Ontario get credit for its Utterly Inane 30% Tuition Rebate?  And, depending on how rigid you wanted to be about this one price rule, it might also prevent universities from using their student aid and scholarship budgets strategically.

In short, the barriers to simple, easy-to-understand means-tested tuition systems are less technical than political.  It’s a case of the need to be seen to do good trumping the need to actually do good.  Sad but true.

February 19

Free University and We Don’t Even Know It

I’ve long believed that post-secondary education should be free for bright, poor kids.  And although there’s room for differences over what constitutes “poor” and “bright” (I’ve got a strict-ish definition of the former, less so the latter), it seems to me that this is a sentiment with which most people agree.

But here’s the thing: in actual fact, there are an awful lot of bright poor kids already going to university for free, and nobody seems to notice.  The problem is that we just don’t package it in a way that people recognize it as being free.

Take Quebec.  What’s that?  Lowest fees in the country, but kids still have to pay?  Pshaw.  Over 100,000 university students there receive grants.  The median grant is $4,500.  Average tuition and fees is $2,000 or so.  A quick look at statistics from Quebec Aide Financiere Aux Etudes suggests that at least 40,000 students are receiving more money from government than they are paying to go to school.  Unless you’re deliberately trying to be obtuse about it, that makes 40,000 people getting a free university education.

Ah, you say.  But what about mean old Ontario, where tuition and fees are now up around $7,000.  Well, actually, there are a substantial number of students getting free education there, too.  Thanks to the Ontario Tuition Grant, full-time dependent students from families making under $160,000 (yes, the limit’s an utter travesty – we’ll discuss it another time) get $1,730/year from the government.  Those from families with income under $40,000, or so:  they’re eligible for another $1,600 from the Canada Student Grant.  Add in another $2,300 or so in education tax credits, and we’re up to $5,600.  If the student is doing well at school – say, high 80s – that can qualify them for another $1,500 or so in entrance awards.  That’s $7,100 in non-repayable government aid – more than what they are paying in tuition.

Or, another combination: Imagine the same student from a family earning roughly $60,000.  Probably wouldn’t get the Canada Study Grant, but would get everything else, meaning they’d be receiving about $5,500.  If they left home to go to school, the likelihood is that they’d get a loan in the $9,000-$10,000 range – of which anything over $7,140 would be forgiven (that is, turned into a grant).  So, again, free tuition.

I could go on province-by-province (Saskatchewan and Manitoba do pretty well in this kind of accounting), but I’ll spare you. There are no numbers that would allow us to say for sure how many people are receiving this kind of money.  For what it’s worth, my guess, based on my knowledge of student aid in Canada, is that the number is probably in the 100-150K range, but it’s hard to know for sure.

You’d think that this would be one of those things about which everyone – especially provincial governments – would be standing up and shouting to the rafters: it’s a heck of a good news story.  And yet, absurdly, nearly no one even knows its even happening.

How did this state of affairs come about?  More tomorrow.

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