Higher Education Strategy Associates

December 06

Ciao, and Some Holiday Reads

Hi from Santiago, Chile, where I am doing a bit of work this week.  This last term has been an awfully busy one, and so I’m cutting the blog off for the holidays, today – a week earlier than usual.  You will, however, still get a weekly email from me over the break (except for the actual week of Christmas), and I’ll be back again full-time on Monday, January 6th.

Thanks to all of you for reading over the past few months, and for all of you who are active on the comment board, and for giving me hell on twitter – you should all know I am sincerely very grateful for your feedback.  It keeps me on my toes, and I nearly always learn something.  Much appreciated.

Since its the holidays, I know you’re all dying for some reading recommendations for the holiday season.  So here’s a brief re-cap of some of the more notable reads from the past year:

The Great University Gamble, by Andrew McGettigan.  This is a genius little book.  It clearly explains, in a refreshingly small number of pages, all the baffling changes that the UK higher education system has undergone in the past decade (but especially in the last three years under the conservatives).  The UK is a deeply weird place these days – you don’t know how weird until you’ve read this book.

Higher Education in Americaby Derek Bok.  Actually, with the possible exception of the sections on professional education, this one’s a bit of a snoozer.  But it’s one of those “serious” books everyone is supposed to read, so I’ll put it on this list so you can ask for it as a gift, and not spend your own money on it.

Stretching the Higher Education Dollar, edited by Kevin Carey (one of my favourite US higher ed commentators) and Andrew Kelly, this is an interesting look at some of the most potentially “disruptive” ideas currently circulating.  It’s unfortunately a little heavy on first-heavy practitioner experience (i.e. guys blowing their own horn), and short on third-party analysis, and so occasionally the articles have the feel of being written by people who’ve drunk their own Kool-Aid, but it’s not bad for all that.

The Entrepreneurial Stateby Mariana Mazzucato.  This is getting a lot of good press (made the FT books of the year list), and it’s not a bad read.  Personally, I think the author frequently overstates her case – assuming risk and being entrepreneurial aren’t the same thing – but it’s a useful corrective to the market-fetishist nonsense that often passes for innovation literature.

And finally, if anyone feels like getting me a gift (hi, mom!), number 1 on my wish list is the incredibly lush-looking, The Library: A World History.  Must-have nerd porn.

Happy holidays, everyone!

December 05

Income-Contingent Loan Problems

Everyone who’s ever given thought to the matter thinks that income-contingent loans are superior to mortgage-style loans.  At any given level of debt, it’s always preferable for low-income borrowers in repayment to have the option to suspend payments, and make them up at a later time.  Pretty much all the objections to income-contingency – especially here in Canada – are about matters extraneous to the actual method of loan repayment (e.g. fees would rise, interest is too high, etc.).

The reason that income-contingent loans work for borrowers is that they operate on the principle of, “can’t pay today?  No worries, catch you tomorrow”.  On average, that’s true: where students have low-income early in their repayment period, their incomes later on usually rise sufficiently to pay off the debt without difficulty.  The problem is that while this is true on average, it’s not true for everyone.  And that means loan losses. While losses are part and parcel of any publicly subsidized loan system, at least with “regular loans” you can see those losses more or less as they occur, and can make provisions for them on that basis.

But the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), and its English counterpart, basically assumed away the problem of losses (no worries, catch you tomorrow).  That led them to do a lot of really dumb things with respect to loan repayment thresholds.  In both countries, when tuition fee increases were in the offing, governments tried to calm students by offering them breaks on repayment terms: in Australia, “no repayment” now occurs below A$51K in annual income; in England, the threshold rose from £10K in 1998 to £15K in 2005, to £21K in 2012.  And each time it rises, a few more borrowers became less likely to repay the full value of their loan.

The problem is that, eventually, tomorrow arrives.  In Australia, of the $25 billion that has been issued in HECS debt, $6 billion has been written-off – that’s up from just $2 billion in 2006 (and that’s in addition to billions in loan interest subsidies).  In England, they’re so worried about the long-term costs of non-repayment that they’ve effectively halted any growth in enrolments, so that the loan portfolio doesn’t get any bigger.

None of this is really the “fault” of income-contingency, per se.  It’s more the fault of deliberately setting repayment thresholds at levels where poorer graduates won’t repay; lower the threshold and the problem goes away.  It’s not even really clear that it’s a problem – ensuring that the poorest graduates don’t repay their loans is arguably a pretty sensible subsidy.

But there’s still a public policy failure here.  Governments lost control of part of the education budget because the “catch you tomorrow” attitude meant there was no default mechanism to tell them when things were going wrong.  And that actually is a problem with income-contingency – and future loan program designers need to consider it carefully.

December 04

Hard Thinking about Soft Skills

So, as I predicted a few days back, Canadian Council of Chief Executives’ CEO, John Manley, gave a speech to the Canadian Club (available here) in which he challenged the conventional wisdom about skills crises – which is presumably why it got zero press coverage.  He began by making the following points, based on a survey conducted of 100 major Canadian employers:

  • Skills shoratges are a problem, but only 11% of employers said it was a big problem (see graph below);
  • The shortages are in IT, Engineering, and skilled trades.  Scientists and researchers are the easiest positions to hire;
  • When evaluating hires, industry-specific knowledge is only the 6th-most important consideration, behind people skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical abilities, and leadership skills.

Figure 1. From the Standpoint of Your Company, How Much of a Problem are Skills Shortages?













At this point, however, Manley’s speech took a very weird turn.  Having laid out the case for soft skills being the crux of the skills shortage for many companies, he veered into a discussion of Canada’s increasingly mediocre results on PISA/PIAAC literacy and numeracy tests, and why Canada needs to improve.  Though it’s hard to disagree with the call for better skills in reading and math, it’s also not immediately obvious how either has a whole lot to do with, say, leadership or people skills.

(Canada seems to suffer from a strange inability to effectively link problems to solutions in education.  Need soft skills?  More math classes!  Need a few more pipefitters in Alberta?  Canada Jobs Grant!  It’s almost like a form of policy Tourette’s or something – when presented with a skill-related problem, we blurt out whatever’s already on our mind, rather than work out some kind of reasoned response.)

Anyways, all of this aside – it occurred to me that there’s an enormous branding opportunity for an institution that actually decided to put “soft skills” at the core of its curriculum.  Pretty much all of them, save leadership, can be taught through something not a million miles from an existing curricula – and even that could be incorporated without too much difficulty.

Certainly, to be credible you’d need to make a full-scale curriculum revamp, which would be neither simple nor quick; but think of the upside for a university or college: a school that put leadership and communication at the core of its curriculum would be offering something that is both in line with the traditional liberal arts (rhetoric was one of the seven liberal arts, after all) but that is also fundamentally in line with what today’s employers want.  It would give a school an interesting sales pitch both to employers and students.

I’m not sure every school would want to do it, but for small-to-medium size schools with enrolment challenges (e.g. Trent, Acadia, St. Thomas), “Soft Skills U” would be an interesting niche to try to occupy – if it were done seriously, and not simply slapping a label on what the institution already does.

December 03

Things We Take for Granted in Student Assistance

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with federal and provincial student aid leaders, in Toronto, about global developments in student assistance.  I told them there were a lot of interesting developments in different places, but they weren’t necessarily applicable to Canada because of different national contexts.

Context matters in student assistance – not everything we have here is available to student aid types elsewhere.  Here, for instance, are just a few of the things we take for granted when we make student aid policy:

1)      A government rich and trustworthy enough to run a lending program.  Not everyone has enough cash-on-hand to lend directly.  And of those that try to get banks to participate via loan guarantees, not all are trustworthy enough to be able to make a credible guarantee (if you were a bank, what value would you put on a loan guarantee from, say, Vanuatu?).

2)      Accurate need assessment.  Loans are based on family income, but how do you assess need when no one trusts the data?  In Japan, for instance, a nation of small shopkeepers, they won’t create a grant program because, fundamentally, they don’t believe enough people are telling the truth on tax forms, which form the basis of the need assessment process. 

3)      Money shows up when government says it will.  When government here says money will be available in September and January, that’s when it shows up (individual SNAFUs aside).  But in much of Africa, government programs run hand-to-mouth.  If tax receipts are a little slow, the loans board doesn’t get the money until October, or maybe November.  Cue student riots.

4)      The ability to track and contact students.  At a minimum, you kind of need a phone directory.  Most of Africa and Asia, which got mass telephony with the cell phone, doesn’t have that.

5)      A credit bureau.  Valuable partly because they help track borrowers, they’re also important because without them, there are few consequences for defaulting.  In African countries where credit bureaus do not exist student loan programs lose over 50% of their loans.

6)      Privacy.  Some countries don’t have our pesky privacy laws.  Kenya, for instance, will publish the names of delinquent students’ in the paper.  It’s remarkably effective.

7)      A belief that recent graduates should have adult middle-class living standards.  As I’ve noted previously, in much of Asia, loan repayment periods are 4-6 years.  No one thinks this is onerous.  The attitude is, “you’re young and unmarried – pay this off, then move out of your parents’ house and start consuming”.

All of which is to say that technology, laws, institutions, and social conventions play a huge role in how student aid is administered.  We take it all for granted… but every once in awhile, we should step back and remember how fortunate we are that we can do so.

December 02

OK, So How Should the Humanities Present Themselves?

You’ll recall that last week I wrote some pretty blistering stuff about the way humanities profs sometimes defend the value of their field.  A few of you wrote back saying, “well, how would you do it, smart guy”?

The short answer is: the way Paul Wells does in his 2010 article, In Praise of the Squishy Subjects (read the whole thing. It’s worth it).  He points out that in the real world, where societal problems are incredibly complex and can’t be explained by simple cause-and-effect, what the humanities do is get people used to the idea of complexity.  The fact that they do so by getting people to read material that’s hundreds of years old is irrelevant.  It’s not just that classics are classics, it’s that:

If you spend a few years wrestling with the idea of society as propounded by Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau and Marx, you come away with a better understanding of all the alternative ways our own society might choose to configure itself, with their attendant risks. If you study the fur trade in British North America, you learn something lasting about the contribution of aboriginal Canadians to our politics and economics, and you begin to understand the behaviour of today’s Canadian businesses a little better. Read Goethe or Cervantes in the original and you understand things about Germany and Spain today that Goethe and Cervantes cannot have imagined.

Bingo.  The world always needs to be approached from a variety of lenses, and the humanities teach you how to do that.  Plus, as Wells says, since societies can’t know in advance what they’re going to need to know (all those Arab language and history degrees looked pretty useless in August 2001), it’s handy to have people around who know all sorts of weird things.  Humanities are thus also an insurance policy.

That’s the way I’d defend humanities in their current state.  With some small tweaks to the way they are set up, I could imagine two defences:

1)      Humanities Leverages Science.  You’ll note that a lot of humanities-types these days like to throw around that Steve Jobs quote, the one about how results only really sing when technology is married to the liberal arts.  However, this would be a way more convincing defence of the humanities if any humanities programs were themselves actually involved in such marriages.  Though there is some super-interesting digital humanities stuff going on out there, it ain’t penetrating down to undergraduate level.  Humanities programs that took those “many lenses” we talked about earlier, and applied them to some practical technological problems, would likely be extremely popular.

2)      Reposition Humanities as a Luxury-Good.  You know what?  Lots of people think humanities are fun, challenging, and interesting, and they pay extraordinarily good money to study it.  Look at AC Grayling’s College of the Humanities in London, charging twice the going rate (£18,000).  Look at any number of Liberal Arts Schools in the US charging $30,000 plus.  Who cares if other people don’t think it’s “worth it”?  The market speaks, baby.  The problem is, this route only works if universities have the cojones to go with a premium pricing strategy, which I’m guessing most don’t (although if I were, say, Mount Allison, I would definitely want to think about this).

So there you go.  No denigrating other fields, no self-absorbed equation of the humanities with civilization itself.  Just plain, simple non-histrionic arguments.  Let’s give them a try.

November 29

Unorthodox Dropout Statistics

Every once in awhile, some policy-maker or journalist gets their knickers in a twist about dropout rates.  And whenever that happens, people start looking for data.  Which, in this case, basically doesn’t exist.

Institutions have their own non-completion data, but since lots of people switch institutions for one reason or another a non-complete doesn’t equal a “dropout”.  Our national unit-record system – Statistics Canada’s Post-Secondary Student Information System – is supposed to be able to solve this precise problem, but for reasons too boring to relate is unable to do so, except in Atlantic Canada (see my colleague Ross Finnie’s report on this, here).  Quebec, Alberta, and BC all have provincial/regional data systems in place to look at this, but to my knowledge none have done so.

There is, however, one data source that allows people to track dropouts over time; namely, the Labour Force Survey (LFS).  If you simply take all Canadians between the ages of 25-34 who are: a) not in school; and, b) indicated that they have “some postsecondary education”, and divide them by the total number of Canadians aged 25-34 who are: a) not in school; and, b) either have a degree, or indicate that they have some postsecondary, then what you get is an estimate of the percentage of 25-34 year-olds who are dropouts from the postsecondary system.

This method obviously doesn’t provide precise year-to-year estimates of dropouts; some of the 34 year-olds in the numerator might have dropped-out as many as 15 years previously, for instance.  And due to the nature of the data source, one can’t derive separate rates for universities and colleges.  But it does provide a sense of general trends over time in non-completion.

So, what does the evidence say?  Check out the figure below.

Figure 1: System-wide Non-completion Rates, 1980 to 2010












Source: Labour Force Survey

It turns out that the percentage of former postsecondary students in the 25-34 year old population who dropped-out of school has declined steadily over the past three decades, reaching an all-time low of 9.4% in 2010. This is almost a 50% decline from the 1990 value of 17.1%.  While a definitional change means that pre-1990 data is not directly comparable to post-1990 data (hence the permanent downward shift indicated by a dotted line in the Figure above), it appears that the decline began sometime around 1986 – prior to that date, the dropout rate hovered fairly steadily at just under 25%.

A wise man once said that if a result is big enough, even a really bad experiment will pick-up that result.  It’s the same thing here: using LFS to look at dropouts is, at best, a third – or fourth – best option.  But the result is unequivocal: dropouts have been going down for nearly three decades.

November 28

Some Free Advice for the Parti Quebecois

So I see that the Government of Quebec, far from hitting their zero deficit target this year, is in fact going to come in with a deficit of about $2.5 billion.  This means that, not only will the “reinvestment” in higher education – the money that was going to compensate institutions for not getting their promised tuition increase – not come any time soon, but it’s better than even-money that there’ll be cuts this year instead.

Two points:

1)      Hey, CREPUQ!  Still think the “playing it quiet” strategy in the spring of 2012 was such a hot idea?  Congratulations on such a well-executed plan.

2)      Man, Quebec universities need to find some revenue sources.

That second one is a bit of a problem, of course.  The PQ has indexed domestic tuition to some form of inflation, and, as I understand it, the Liberals have agreed to this policy as well – so that’s out.  It could charge differential fees to out-of-province students, but they already tapped that well back 1996, so that’s out too.

So what about international students?

There are two oddities about Quebec’s international student fee policy.  One is the policy of having regulated fees in some disciplines (e.g. arts, science) and de-regulated fees in others (e.g. engineering and business).  Institutions get to keep all the money they take from students in de-regulated programs, but in regulated ones, any money received over and above what domestic students pay gets clawed back by the Ministry (yes, really).  The second oddity is that international students from la francophonie pay Quebec tuition.

It’s clearly time for Quebec to get rid of both these policy oddities.  The first one can’t be eliminated on its own, as it will be perceived as favouring the anglo universities, and, you know, dieu nous en garde.  But if both are killed together, then there’s something in it for everyone.  McGill gets to cash-in on all the Americans who come to study Arts, and enjoy the more righteous legal drinking age, and U de M and Laval get to actually charge all those European and African students who come over for the Engineering and Business programs.

(This is where someone says: “but they’ll lose students if they charge more!”  Irrelevant.  The only issue is whether they make up the attendant lost revenue through higher fees.  Which shouldn’t be hard.)

The benefits of the francophonie tuition policy are minimal.  Heck, one of its main consequences is that the Quebec government is currently subsidizing over 700 French students each year to study in English at McGill.  So why bother?  For the Quebec government, killing it would be a cost-free way to help universities with their funding issues.  It should be a no-brainer.

November 27

Sh*t Humanities Professors Shouldn’t Say

Two examples of ludicrous things I’ve seen/heard lately:

Example #1 - A few months ago, I was in a session on the topic of, “how to defend the humanities”.  The animator threw up some quotes that were (at least in theory) derogatory of the humanities, and asked people for possible responses.  One of these quotes was from Harvard literature professor, Louis Menand’s, book, The Marketplace of Ideas (highly recommended, by the way), which ridiculed times-to-completion in humanities PhD programs thusly:

“It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living.”

Bitchy, but to the point.  As people pondered this, someone put their hand up to offer a gem of a rebuttal.  To wit:

“Well, we teach people to think”.

Dear God.  Really?  Lawyers don’t know how to think?  Doctors don’t know how to think?

I know there’s a line of argument that says humanities are “really” about critical thinking (though, if that were true they probably wouldn’t be quite so disciplinarily-driven), but it’s one thing to say that, and another to imply that other disciplines do not promote critical thinking.  It’s academic snobbery pure and simple.

Example #2 – This summer, Rosanna Warren published an article in the New Republic entitled, “The Decline of the Humanities – and Civilization”.  At the conclusion of nine paragraphs of maudlin, woe-is-us, sky-is-falling (and largely fact-free) moaning about the state of the humanities, she makes the remarkable suggestion that only the humanities, as currently taught in universities, are capable of: i) giving people “a sense of what they are living for, and why”; ii) preventing society from “entering another Dark Age without a truly literate citizenry”; and, iii) allow society to remember “what it is to be truly human”.

Honestly, how self-absorbed, smug, self-righteous and arrogant does one have to be to believe that one’s own work is solely responsible for the maintenance of all human progress since the Renaissance?  After reading it, I actively wanted to go around, eliminating random humanities departments out of sheer spite.

There are so many good ways to promote the humanities.  It’s amazing to me that some humanities profs choose to do so by invoking arguments that implicitly show contempt for other parts of the academy.  I know the majority of humanities profs don’t take these kinds of positions, but enough do that the image of humanities can be damaged as a result.

So remember, all you humanities profs out there: friends don’t let friends spout sh*t.  Especially about the humanities.

November 26

The Changing Median Student

Unless you’ve been in some sort of cave for the last decade, you’ve probably heard conversations about students, which begin with the phrase, “Today’s students are… less engaged/less able to write/weaker at math/not as curious/not as academically inclined…”  The obvious question of “compared to when” is usually left unanswered, and depends to some extent on the age of the person doing the kvetching; solipsistically, I always assume they’re talking about 25 years ago (when I started university). Usually, the implication is that students are coming out of high school less university-ready than they used to be, and hence, that high schools aren’t doing as good a job as they used to.

So, is it true?  Well, to start, we have to come to grips with what we mean by “students”.  The student body of the 1980s looks a lot different than the student body of 2013 – and I don’t just mean in terms of the changing ethnic or age mix.

Take a look at the following graph, which shows the change in participation rate of 18-21 year olds in Canada, over time.

Participation Rate (in percent) of 18-21 Year Olds, Canada, 1980-81 to 2010-11













Cool, huh? We tripled access rates in thirty years. Remember this the next time you hear that accessible education is dead.

Now, assume for the moment that the fraction of Canadians who go to university are all at the top-end of the academic ability scale – that is, it was the 10% most academically able students in university in 1980-81, and it’s the top 30% now.  I know that’s not literally true, but it’s true-ish, so bear with me.  Today’s median student is therefore in the 85th percentile of academic achievement. Prior to 1988, when access rates were below 15%, we would not have even let that student into university.

Given this, it would be very surprising if today’s students weren’t, on average, academically weaker than those from 25 years ago.  But it doesn’t follow that students coming out of high school are getting worse.  To compare like-to-like you need to ask the question: is the average student of the top-half of this year’s university class better-or-worse prepared than the average student of 1988?  Pose the question that way, and I think you get a different answer.

Expanding access to universities brought in a new type of student whose academic orientation was different – but the curriculum and the student support system didn’t always change to match their abilities and expectations.  These are completely understandable reasons for the persistent disconnects and the complaints about “unprepared students” – but they don’t support the thesis that high schools are doing their job any less well than in the past.

November 25

Can Business Speak Up, Please?

This Thursday, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) CEO, John Manley, is speaking at the Canadian Club in Toronto on the subject of “Strengthening Canada’s Human Capital Advantage”.  Now, you may roll your eyes at this and think, “oh God, not another welders vs. BAs talk”.  But it’s possible that this is going to be a useful, serious event.  Although “everybody knows” that the business community believes there’s a critical skills gap, I don’t think business as yet has actually spoken very much on the subject.

Oh sure, there’s no shortage of people making a case on behalf of business: Jason Kenney, CIBC’s Benjamin Tal, the Conference Board’s Michael Bloom – all of whom, in one way or another, are saying, “more welders, fewer BAs”.  But none of these are actual business people.  We used to have something in Canada called the Corporate Higher Education Forum (CHEF), which served an interlocutor function on education policy, but it died of apathy almost 15 years ago.  Nowadays, you’re a lot more likely to hear policy entrepreneurs like Bloom talking than you are actual business leaders.  And that’s less helpful.

I have no doubt that resource-extraction industries in Western Canada are in dire need of people with a few very specific technical skills, like welding.  But they’re a tiny fraction of business in this country – 2 or 3 per cent at most.  What about small business?  What about manufacturing and services?  Heck, what about government itself?  What skills do they all want, and in what quantities? We have no idea.

We have a pretty good system in Canada for getting employer feedback to individual college and university programs, but no way of co-ordinating that feedback at a provincial or national level so that governments can understand the aggregate needs of the economy as a whole.  At the moment it seems to be that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, which is a terrible way to develop policy.  So, the fact that CCCE is getting involved in the skills field is almost certainly a good thing, because its members’ human resource needs are broader than the trades, and thus they’re likelier to provide a more balanced picture.

My guess is that if you ask business leaders the right question, they’ll say that the issue isn’t the number of skilled tradespeople, but about skills levels right across the board of all new graduates.  Such an answer, if it is ever forthcoming, would move the conversation from one of welders vs. BAs  to one of learning outcomes in every post-secondary program.  In some ways, it is a more difficult debate.  But it’s far preferable to the infantile discussion we’re having now.

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