Higher Education Strategy Associates

October 02

A New Study on Postdocs

There’s an interesting study on postdocs out today, from the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) and MITACS.  The report provides a wealth of data on postdocs’ demographics, financial status, likes, dislikes, etc.  It’s all thoroughly interesting and well worth a read, but I’m going to restrict my comments to just two of the most interesting results.

The first has to do, specifically, with postdocs’ legal status.  In Quebec, they are considered students. Outside Quebec, it depends: if their funding comes from internal university funds, they are usually considered employees; but, if their funding is external, they are most often just “fellowship holders” – an indistinct category which could mean a wide variety of things in terms of access to campus services (are they students?  Employees?  Both?  Neither?).  Just taxonomically, the whole situation’s a bit of a nightmare, and one can certainly see the need for greater clarity and consistently if we ever want to make policy on postdocs above the institutional level.

The second – somewhat jaw-dropping – point of interest is the table on page 27, which examines postdocs’ training.

Level of Training Received or Available, in % (The 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey, Table 3, pg. 27)














As the authors note, being trainees is what makes postdocs a distinct group – it’s basically the only thing that distinguishes them from research associates.  So what should we infer from the fact that only 18% of postdocs report receiving any formal training for career development, 15% for research ethics, and 11% on either presentation skills or grant/proposal writing?  If there’s a smoking gun on the charge that Canadian universities view postdocs as cheap academic labour, rather than as true academics-in-waiting, this table is it.

All of this information is, of course, important; however, this study’s value goes beyond its presentation of new data.  One of its most important lessons comes from the fact that a couple of organizations just decided to get together and collect data on their own.  Too often in this country, we turn our noses up at anything other than the highest-quality data, but since no one wants to pay for quality (how Canadian is that?), we just wring our hands hoping StatsCan will eventually sort it out it for us.

But to hell with that.  StatsCan’s broke, and even when it had money it couldn’t get its most important product (PSIS) to work properly.  It’s time the sector got serious about collecting, packaging, and – most importantly – publishing its own data, even if it’s not StatsCan quality.  This survey’s sample selection, for instance, is a bit on the dodgy side – but who cares?  Some data is better than none.  And too often, “none” is what we have.

CAPS/MITACS have done everyone a solid by spending their own time and money to improve our knowledge base about some key contributors to the country’s research effort.  They deserve both to be commended and widely imitated.

October 01

How the Zero-Tuition Crew Could Learn to Love Tax Credits

So, let’s say you’re among those who clings to the idea that tuition isn’t just a massive give-away to upper-income families.  Let’s say you really, really believe that tuition – sticker-price tuition, none of these “net price calculations”, thank you very much – affects access.  How would you go about gathering evidence for your point of view?

Ideally, of course, there would be some data showing that, as fees went up, participation went down.  Problem is, the data doesn’t show this.  To wit:

Tuition + Ancillary Fees (in $2013) and Participation Rates, Canada, 1993-94 to 2012-13













Well, OK then.  Maybe if you’re desperate to prove a point, you might relax your scruples about counting grants against tuition.  Maybe it’s all the extra student aid pouring into the system which has made a difference?

Tuition + Ancillary Fees (in $2013), Net Fees (i.e. Minus Grants) and Participation Rates, Canada, 1993-94 to 2012-13













Well, no.  Damn!  Now what?

Well, here’s one possibility.  Check this out:

Real Tuition + Ancillary Fees, Minus Grants and Tax Credits, as a Percentage of Average After-Tax Family Income













If you add grants and tax credits, and adjust for inflation, and then adjust for median family income, you get to the point where you realize that, in fact,  fees were more or less constant in terms of affordability over the last decade or so.  So voila!  That damnable rise in tuition fees that so inconveniently accompanied the increase in participation rates?  Turns out it didn’t happen – at least if you properly count subsidies.  In fact, one could now convincingly argue that the lack of a relationship between fees and participation is a huge hoax, and that the rise in participation was actually fuelled by the massive infusion of tax credits and grants over the past fifteen years, which effectively netted out the impact of tuition.

There’s a slight problem with all this, of course.  And it’s that the zero-tuition crowd has a long track record of claiming that subsidies have no effect whatsoever, because sticker price is the only thing that matters.  No one thinks tax credits have any effect on participation, and the more hardcore of the zero-tuition crowd don’t believe grants matter either (True story: a long-time student leader informed me the other day that the whole concept of net tuition was bogus, and that grants should never be included in discussions about affordability, because “grants don’t reduce tuition, they just help you pay for it”.  Yes, really).

So the zero-tuition crowd has three choices here:

  • They can keep their beliefs about subsidies, but accept that participation has risen along with tuition, and admit that, perhaps, their views on tuition are wrong.
  • They can renounce everything they’ve ever said about subsidies, run with the idea that affordability has not been deteriorating, and arguing that this is what has fuelled the rise in participation.
  • Ignore all empirical evidence, and continue their evidence-free approach to the whole question.

No prizes for guessing which is likeliest.

September 30

The View from Vilnius

I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Lithuania last week, at a meeting of the EU’s Directors General of Higher Education.  I was there to talk about some research we at HESA (along with some colleagues from DZHW in Germany) are doing for the European Commission, assessing the impact of cost-sharing on institutions and students.  Unsurprisingly, at the margins of the conference (and occasionally within its proceedings), what really drove conversation were tales of austerity, and their effects on higher education.

One thing I hadn’t previously understood was just how different the dynamics of cutbacks are in continental Europe.  In many countries, professors are civil servants; that is, they are employed by the government rather than their institution.  This means that governments can impose salary adjustments directly, rather than faffing about giving a cut to institutions, and then letting universities hash it out with academic unions. And hand out salary cuts they have: in Portugal, the cut was around 15%; in Greece, 25%.  I wonder how that would play out in Canada?

(This, by the way, is why one should take care in interpreting news of “cuts” to European universities.  University budgets in some countries exclude professors’ salaries, because those are paid directly to the professors.  In such places, a 10% cut to university budgets actually just means a reduction in non-salary items, or about 5% in our terms.)

Even among the minority of countries which have managed to keep their budgets stable, or increased them a bit, there is a new mood of ruthless efficiency.  Finland, for instance, while still being flush in relative terms, hacked 20% from the Polytechnics’ budget because they were thought to not be delivering the goods on employability.  Waste not, want not.

The problems mostly came at dinner, when I was asked about conditions at Canadian universities.

“Not bad,” I said.  “Weathered the storm so far.  Just starting to head into the difficult bits now.”

“How difficult?” I was asked.

“Oh, well, um… we have some freezes in government funding now.  But institutions can still get to 2.5% growth through tuition increases.”

Frowns aplenty.  A 2.5% increase in revenue is not “difficult” in Europe.

“But wait”, I said.  “In some provinces, we have actual cuts.  Alberta, for instance, had a 7% cut.”

At this point, everyone around the table chimed in with the cuts they’ve had: “Ten!”  “Fifteen!” “Eighteen”.  Alberta wasn’t impressing anyone.

“But isn’t Alberta quite rich?” someone asked.

“Well, yes,” I said.  “And they do spend a lot on higher education.  Over $19,000 per student.  But that was before the cut”.

At this point, frowns were replaced by jaws hitting the floor.  The European average is about half that.

Nothing like going abroad to get some perspective.

September 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System – Malaysia

If you pay attention to internationalization in higher education, you’ve probably come across laudatory stuff about Malaysia, either as a source country for international students, or as a higher education hub.  But what you may not know is the extent to which Malaysian internationalization is a result of the country’s deep-seated racial divisions.

Malays are the majority in the country, but there is a very large Chinese minority, and a smaller Tamil one.  Since independence, Malays have kept control of politics by voting en bloc, but the Chinese have tended to be wealthier and better educated, and so have dominated commerce.  To remedy this, the ruling coalition created a series of affirmative action plans for Malays – in higher education, this meant the introduction of ethnic quotas.  Upon introduction, the proportion of new, entering students of Chinese descent at the flagship University of Malaya fell from 60 to 20%.

In response, the Chinese sent their kids to study abroad, which is how Malaysia became a major source country for international students.  Eventually, the government understood that chasing out talented young people was a bad idea, so they permitted the creation of a new, private university sector not subject to the quotas.  Private colleges sprung up at a furious rate.  Even though tuition was several times higher in the private sector than in the public one, the quota system ensured it would not lack for customers; by 2010, 58% of all students were in private universities.  Foreign institutions like Nottingham and Monash – usually in partnership with Malaysian-Chinese holding companies – began setting up branch campuses, as well.  Both domestic and foreign privates also started looking abroad for students.  Since Malaysia is a cheap place to study, in a moderate Islamic environment, it pulls in a lot of students from Iran and East Africa, and has thus become something of an education hub.

That said, the “prestige institutions” are still the five public sector research universities, with University of Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia at the top – this despite brutal overstaffing, unnecessary bureaucracy due to tight state control (government controls staffing, since professors are ultimately state employees), and active discrimination against non-Malay faculty.  But they have med schools and research budgets and that’s about all you need for prestige, so…

One interesting side effect of all this has been a vast increase in educational spending.  Infected by the Asia-wide “world-class university” mania, the government has been pumping ludicrous amounts of money into the higher education sector (proportionately, Malaysia’s research excellence initiative dwarfs its more famous German and Japanese cousins).  Add to that skyrocketing enrolments in the fee-heavy private system, and what you get is a country spending roughly 4% of its GDP on higher education – more than any other country in the world.

A heartening outcome, perhaps.  Just never forget it’s ultimately the product of some fairly unpleasant racial politics.

September 26

Getting Medieval on Tuition

Here’s a great story you may have missed: at the University of Toronto, students have created their own exchanges where they can pay students who are enrolled in a class which is full to drop out, thus opening space for themselves.  In other words, a secondary market in class spaces has spontaneously emerged (as markets do).

Most people’s reaction to this is either shock/horror (costs to students, more inequality, yadda yada), or mild amusement.  But I think it raises some interesting questions: other than administrative convenience, why do we have a single price for all classes in a faculty, anyway?

From time immemorial, until sometime in the nineteenth century, professors actually charged their own tuition with no interference from “the university”.  They charged whatever the market would bear, which often wasn’t very much.  But it kept a market discipline on the profession.  Professors who couldn’t help students pass their exams didn’t just get bad teaching reviews – they got less money.

(Just once, when someone talks about how neo-liberalism is eroding the eternal values of the medieval concept of the university, I want them to include guaranteed professorial pay as one of the modern vices that needs to be rejected in favour of its medieval antecedents.  Just once.  Please.)

It’s interesting to think what would happen if we went back to that model.  Why not link professorial pay to the number of students taught?  Or, go a step further – allow professors to set their own price-per-class.  Really good professors could charge a lot, and thus (perhaps) limit their teaching load by reaching their desired income through higher average fees.  Either way, we’d be lining up incentives with teaching rather than research, and there would be real incentive to teach those big intro classes.

When you think about it, there’s lots of intriguing ways that demand-based pricing could be applied.  For instance, imagine what would happen if institutions decided to generate a set amount of income per class (say, $50,000).  Students would pay the class fee, divided by the number of students.  In smaller classes, students would see their price-per-class rise; students in big classes would get a break.  As a bonus, low-demand courses would cancel themselves out within the first week or two – if students saw prices rising because of low enrolment, they’d probably skedaddle before the add/drop period.

(If you think these pricing schemes are unfair, just remember: they’d follow exactly the same pattern as subsidies do now – much greater for smaller classes than for big ones.  If one’s unfair, so’s the other.)

It’ll never happen, of course.  But thought experiments like this help us to think through what we pay for in higher education – and why.

September 25

Campaign Platforms on Higher Education – Halifax Edition

It’s election time out on the east coast, and with polling day (October 8th) fast approaching, it’s time to see what the various parties have on offer for post-secondary education.

The ruling NDP is proposing… nothing.  Nothing at all.  Instead of an actual manifesto, they are running on their record (kind of) and making seven “key commitments” for the next term, none of which touch on post-secondary education in anyway.  This is a tactic often used by sitting governments, but it’s still disappointing.  It’s basically a way of saying “trust us”.  In PSE, where the Dexter government’s policy has essentially been, “raise student aid, cut grants to universities, and pray that somehow, beyond all reason, institutions self-implement the O’Neill Report“, it’s not a reassuring method.

(Seriously, why did Dexter ask Tim O’Neill for that report in the first place?  O’Neill never made any bones that he thought the situation going forward was dire, or that significant reform was necessary – why ask him to recommend such difficult measures if, as a government, the NDP lacked the will to implement any of them?)

The Liberal platform contains two proposals, both of which are pretty lightweight.  One is to remove interest on provincial student loans, even in repayment; apparently, government paying people to borrow is a good idea.  The second is to create – and I quote – “graduate scholarships for research and innovation to build research capacity for Nova Scotia”.  Well, of course!  Who knew building research capacity was that simple?

The Conservative platform is probably the most interesting.  For one thing, it suggests requiring institutions to provide prospective students with information about graduate employability.  I have no idea what that might mean in practice, but I suspect this meme will be popping up in many manifestos over the next few years.

More importantly, perhaps, the Tories are offering five-year MOUs with both NSCC and the province’s universities.  In the case of universities, these MOUs are to be based on – pay attention here – “high quality, affordable post-secondary education, institutional fiscal responsibility, commercialization, and population growth”.  In the case of NSCC, it is to be based on, “affordable and accessible post-secondary education, job ready skills training, increased focus on the trades, institutional fiscal responsibility, and population growth”.  Interesting distinctions, no?

Here’s the bottom line.  No party is making any promises of new money to universities or colleges (the Tories are offering MOUs, but not making cash commitments).  The only new money any party is offering is targeted towards students, which is consistent with the recent pattern of “feed the students, starve the schools” that we’ve seen in recent provincial budgets across Canada.

So, no change there, unfortunately.

September 24

Education is a Right… So?

I dig those little buttons you see sometimes.  The ones CFS hands out saying, “Education is a Right!”  What I don’t get, though, is why anyone thinks that kind of a slogan actually means anything with respect to education funding.

You’ve probably been in this discussion once or twice in your life.  Chatting about tuition, or funding, or whatever, and someone takes the position that there should be no fees/greater funding/etc.  You debate the merits of the point for a while and then that person – often with a tone of smug moral superiority – lays down the trump card: Education is a RIGHT!  And then dares you contradict him/her.  After all, you’d have to be some sort of monster to constrain a right, wouldn’t you?

Of course, this is horsepucky.  Education is not the only economic and social right which has been enumerated by international convention; how would those other “rights” look if we presumed that: if “X is a right” then “X must be provided free of charge”?

1)   Housing.  Shelter is of course a right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 27, for you treaty nerds). Now maybe I’m not paying close enough attention, but I don’t see anyone arguing that housing should be provided free of charge by the state just because it’s in the UDHR.  It’s been done of course – many communist countries went down this route – but one of the results is that housing providers tend to want to make provision more uniform.  And of low quality.

2)   Food. Even North Korea doesn’t make food free.  Subsidized, yes; free, no.  That’s because even the most hardline communists recognize that different people have different tastes, and have the right to use the fruits of their labours to construct their own consumption baskets.

3)   Health.  Most countries buy some of their health-care collectively though some sort of insurance function, which makes it free in the sense that the zero-tuition crowd would like education to be.  But not even Canada pays for all its health care this way – between eyes, teeth, drugs, elder care, and sports medicine, private expenditures still make up 30% of all health care dollars in Canada.   The difference of course is that this is insurance – protection against random catastrophic loss.  Education doesn’t work in quite the same way.  One rarely hears of young people being randomly and catastrophically educated.

In short, the “rights” argument is the start of a conversation, rather than the end of it.  In no other social and economic fields does the fact that something is a “right” make it automatically free to all.  Rather, it means that it needs to be available to all, and selectively subsidized where necessary.  In other words, the status quo.

September 23

Revisiting BS

Seems I hit a nerve last week when I wrote about Teaching v. Research. Between the emails and the twitter chat afterwards, I can safely say I’ve never received as much feedback on a piece as I did on that one.  As a result, I thought I should respond to a few of the key lines of discussion.

Interestingly, few critics seemed to have picked up on the fact that I was attacking the hypocrisy and sanctimony around the teaching/research discussion; instead, most tried to find ways to justify modern teaching loads.  Some missed the point entirely, protesting that the reason profs were teaching less was because of increased expectations around research.  This, of course, was precisely my point.  I wasn’t accusing people of slacking – I was suggesting that priorities and activities had (stealthily) changed.

Others suggested that the reduced teaching load was an illusion, (e.g. “but our classes are so much bigger now!”)  But class size and teaching loads are linked; if profs taught more, class sizes would go down.   Teaching time may not be a strict function of classroom hours, but neither is it a simple function of students taught.  Two classes of sixty students take up less time than three classes of forty.  Maybe not 33% less time, but a substantial amount nonetheless.

The most substantive critiques were around graduate teaching, and how that should be counted.  I admit to glossing-over this issue, so let’s talk about it here.  Part of the problem is that there are many kinds of graduate teaching. In the sciences, it can be indistinguishable from research; in the Humanities, it’s quite the opposite.  In some disciplines, Master’s level seminars are about the easiest thing to prepare for, though as graduate class sizes grow to undergraduate levels, the workload distinction varies, too.  And on top of that is doctoral supervision, which can be extremely demanding (though standards vary).

We know virtually nothing about graduate-level teaching loads, though they have presumably increased along with graduate enrolments, and are probably distributed in a very uneven way.  This leads to another question: is it perhaps the case that in addition to a substitution effect on undergraduate teaching, overall average workloads are also increasing?  That seems at least plausible to me.

Bottom line, though: we don’t know enough about workloads.  Faculty and administrations have kept this data hidden, even from themselves, for decades.  It’s time for more transparency.  Not only will it reduce BS, but it will increase accountability for how universities use their most important asset: professors’ time.

September 20

Better Know a Higher Ed System: United Arab Emirates

SERIES INTRODUCTION: We too easily tend to think of other people’s education systems as being like our own, when often they are anything but.  Higher Ed is actually a big and pretty strange world and, starting today, I’ll be doing some thumbnails of some of the systems I know best.  First up, the UAE, where I’ve recently been doing some work on the funding formula for their universities.

According to the UAE constitution, education is exclusively a federal responsibility.  There are three public universities, one “research” institution (UAE University, in Al Ain), one “liberal arts” institution (Zayed University, split between Dubai and Abu Dhabi), and one “polytechnic” (Higher Colleges of Technology, with 17 campuses).  All are fully funded by government, as the country’s founding President, Abu Dhabi’s Shekih Zayed, apparently promised that anyone in the UAE who wanted a postsecondary education should be able to get one for free.  So these three institutions, which collectively serve about 37,000 students, are completely government-funded, much like Scandinavian universities are.

One quirk of the UAE system is that while it has a higher education ministry, universities don’t report to it.  Universities are actually independent entities which effectively report only to cabinet; the higher education ministry mostly busies itself with running overseas scholarship programs.  They used to get around this problem by having the Minister of Higher Education be named in a personal capacity (but not as Minister) as the President of all three universities, but this is changing, as Zayed and HCT were recently given their own Presidents.  The upshot of all this is that the UAE is one of the few countries in the world with less systems-thinking in higher education than Canada.

“But wait”, you say.  ”What about the famous NYU-Abu Dhabi, or Dubai Knowledge Village and its many foreign branch campuses”?  Here, it’s important to understand that the UAE is the only federation in the world where the constitution enumerates the powers of only one level of government.  Yes, education is theoretically federal – but who’s going to tell a Sheikh what he can or can’t do in his own emirate?  And so the seven emirates have permitted the creation, in parallel to the three federal universities (which are reserved for Emirati citizens), of about 100 universities of varying quality that serve Emiratis, ex-pats (the latter outnumber the former about 7:1, country-wide), and foreigners – and these universities are essentially outside the realm of federal policy-making.  Again, this makes Canada look like a paragon of organization.

Apart from that, UAE is your typical Gulf country for higher education: nearly all the academic staff are foreigners on short-term (usually three-year) contracts.  Profs get free housing plus $5,000/month or so, tax-free; their teaching loads are usually 4/3 or 4/4, and the research output is minimal.  Public universities all have separate facilities for women and men; in the more conservative eastern emirates, families would likely not allow women to attend were it otherwise.  In theory, graduates are all guaranteed jobs in the public sector, but these can take awhile to materialize, thus leading to a lot of graduate unemployment.

Sound crazy?  Well it is, a bit.  But then again, we look pretty odd to them, too.

September 19

Cultural Determinants of Data Acquisition Costs

I saw a fascinating piece in the New York Times awhile back.  It was about a trend at American universities, asking applicants if they were gay or not.  Apparently, these institutions believe that by asking students this question, they are sending a message that they are a gay-positive environment.


Americans think that transparency about identity is the path to utopia.  Enrolment statistics by race?  They’ve got them.  Indeed, they are required to keep such statistics, because of a clutch of laws designed to monitor whether or not Blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos and America Indians) are being discriminated against.

In Canada, the rule of thumb is simple: on forms used for administrative purposes, you can’t compel anyone to reveal data about identity, beyond what is strictly necessary to achieve the purpose for which the information is being collected.  So, on applications to universities and colleges, asking people’s names and addresses is about as far as you can go (provinces have different standards on whether you can ask gender – some say you can’t).  Asking about ethnicity, or aboriginal status?  Totally verboten.  Whereas in the US it’s mandatory.

What that means is that, in Canada, acquiring any data about students – other than raw numbers – requires voluntary surveys.  And those can get expensive: done centrally through StatsCan (and its levels of quality standards) they cost millions; even if you just get a decent-sized consortium together to do something, it will run into hundreds of thousands once you count everyone’s labour costs.  You can get it down into the tens of thousands if you go with an electronic survey, but then there are response bias issues (you can correct for them, but it requires someone to have already done a decent survey to begin with – and with the loss of the census long form, it’s not clear that we have such a survey).

Of course, even Canada is at least somewhat ahead of, say, France.  There, the local conception of nationalism means that state agencies are forbidden from classifying citizens as anything other than citizens.  Blanc, beur, noir: they’re all French according to the government, and its socially unacceptable to classify them as anything else.  A morally attractive stance, perhaps, but what it means is that the French have real trouble measuring social inequality in ways that matter.

All of this is simply to say, if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have statistics on ethnicity the way the Americans do, it’s this: they assume racial bias exists and keep stats to measure it.  We assume that racial bias exists, and so try to mask parts of individuals’ identities to prevent it.

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