Higher Education Strategy Associates

May 28


Once upon a time, we thought that to indulge in serious thought, scholars needed to be protected from the hurly-burly of commerce and politics.  That’s why an awful lot of American campuses were built out in the middle of nowhere (eg. Dartmouth, Princeton, U Illinois, U Indiana, U Virginia, U Washington), and why many of the medieval universities of Europe have walls – both were strategies to keep out the riff-raff.

Nowadays, of course, we think exactly the opposite.  Urban universities and colleges are hip and cool.  They’re in the middle of booming cities, interacting with businesses, and collaborating to fix social problems.  And though one might think this development is just a bunch of Richard Florida-esque hipsterdom (Cities! Knowledge! Vague connection between the two!), in fact, it has to do with a much larger and more fundamental change in the nature of universities themselves.  As far as universities’ goals and self-image is concerned, there’s a new Sheriff in town.  And its name is “permeability”.

As far as teaching and learning goes, some types of permeability are actually already ingrained into North American universities in ways that European universities are only starting to catch on to.  You can be permeable in terms of credits – making institutions welcoming to students who already have collected credit elsewhere. You can be permeable in terms of time – allowing students to start and stop their programs regardless of age or the length of time it takes to complete a set of credits (this may sound mundane to people in the Anglosphere – in most of the rest of the world, however, this kind of stud is either in its infancy or might as well be science fiction).

The most dynamic institutions in the world are the ones where it’s hardest to define where an institution ends and where other organizations begin.  The schools with the most frenetic pace of scientific innovation aren’t the ones fussing about patents and licensing, they’re the ones with the open-ended innovation agreements with business, where issues of IP rights don’t get in the way of the main goal, which is to develop productive, ongoing relationships. The schools with the most interesting students aren’t necessarily the ones with the traditional credit-based paths to completion, but rather the ones who ensure a mix of academic and applied experiences, like through Waterloo’s co-op program.  The most interesting undergraduate research projects aren’t the ones assigned by professors, but rather are the applied-research projects that come from local businesses, and are proliferating in place like Ryerson and Canada’s Polytechnics.

Permeability is less about what institutions do than it is a state of mind.  It is about openness, not just to the outside world, but also to new ways of achieving things.  It is about thinking of universities as being embedded in a vast variety of networks, rather than being a hub with various spokes (it can be a hub for some things – just not all of them).  And it’s about empowering students and professors to develop and explore their own networks, rather than assume these will be organized by the institution itself.

We’ve essentially come full-circle here.  It’s the isolated universities who wanted to function as “cities upon a hill” who look out-of-touch these days.  The most dynamic ones, far from shutting themselves off, are doing their best to turn themselves inside out, and open up as many of their functions as possible to contact and integration with commerce and society.

Permeable Universities are the model for the 21st Century.  Working out how to help them emerge is the main task of higher education policy for the coming decade.

May 27

Ontario Platform Review

The current Ontario election is possibly the most depressing one I’ve ever lived through.  I agree entirely with Laval’s Stephen Gordon, who describes the province as the northern equivalent of Argentina: formerly great, and utterly unable to deal with decline.  Kathleen Wynne isn’t quite Cristina Fernandez, of course, the Liberals aren’t quite Peronists, and Toronto FC sure ain’t Boca Juniors.  But there are still enough parallels to make you go “hmmmm”.

Anyways, where do the three parties stand on post-secondary education?  It’s harder than you’d think to tell, because neither opposition party seems to have put a whole lot of thought and care into their platforms and the associated costing (read Jim Stanford’s quite astonishing deconstruction of the Tory jobs numbers here, for instance).  Still, to the extent intentions can be teased out from current documentation, here it is in a nutshell:

Institutional Grants: Assuming the Liberal Platform is the 2014 Budget, then institutions can look forward to four years of one percent increases in government grants.  Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP have promised any increase at all (though see below on NDP tuition promise).

Student Assistance: The New Democrats say they will make provincial loans interest-free.  Assuming this is not retroactive (that is, it only applies to loans issued in 2013-14 onwards) this is a pretty cheap proposal because the province already forgives about two-thirds of the provincial loans it issues.  My calculation suggests that, at most, this costs about $10 million in year one, and evens out after about four years at a cost of between $30 and $40 million.  The Liberal platform offers nothing more than a re-iteration of how great their 30% tuition rebate grant is.  The Conservative platform says it will eliminate the rebate at a savings of $450-500 million.  This, they claim, is in line with recommendations of Drummond commission, but that’s not actually true; what Drummond actually asked was for all aid, including the grant, to be “reshaped” and made more targeted.   Removing the grant won’t actually save what the Conservatives say it will; the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant will necessarily rise somewhat to compensate.

Tuition:  Implicitly, the Liberal position is a continuance of a 3% cap on tuition.  The Conservatives have said nothing at all about tuition during the campaign, but if their White Paper on PSE is any guide, the policy seems to be modest, across-the-board increases, along with selective deregulation.  The NDP has proposed a tuition freeze and appears to offer partial compensation to institutions.  They offer very little detail so it’s hard to tell for sure, but assuming that the aforementioned interest-free loan promise is only for new loans, there will be about $80 million (rising to $240 million over three years) left over with which to compensate institutions for the lack of fee revenue.  If you exclude international student fees and assume no growth in student numbers, it implies that compensation will be about 2% – or, less than what fees would have brought in, so this pledge would not seem, in fact, to compensate institutions fully for the loss of revenue.

Apprentices:  The Tories really like the idea of dramatically expanding the number of apprentices, for reasons that are somewhat vague.  Their thesis is that the reason this cannot be done is because the ratio of apprentices to journeypersons on worksites is too low.  They would like to raise this ratio in order to increase the number of apprentice spots.  What this would do to the quality of instruction/supervision is not addressed.

Financial Summary:  Based on the foregoing, PSE institutions can expect the following from the three parties:

Liberals: a 1% p.a, hike in the grant, plus 3% p.a. on fees, means budget growth of 2%, plus whatever they can grab from international students.  No change on student aid.

NDP: 0% in the grant, 2% as compensation for the fee freeze means 1% growth, plus whatever can be grabbed from international students.  An extra $10M per year in interest subsidies for students.

PC: As far as can be gleaned from their official documents, the increase is 0% in the grant and likely some increase (how much is unknown) in fees.  Allegedly, student aid will fall by $450-$500 million, but in practice somewhat less than that.

Enjoy the franchise.

May 26

Tuition Fees and Inequality

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s unfair that some people graduate with debt, and others don’t.  The ones that do tend to have started off poorer to begin with.  And so instead of being a means of social mobility, tuition ends up being a means of perpetuating it – the ones who start off poorer end up poorer.  That’s bad, and that’s why we should have no tuition.  Eliminate tuition and you eliminate inequality.

Let’s take this one-by-one.

First of all, eliminating tuition doesn’t eliminate debt.  Sweden, famously, has both free tuition and significant debt.

Second of all, while the notion that the poor are the ones with debt is mostly true, it’s not entirely so.  Some well-off kids borrow – usually in their fifth year when their parents’ income no longer counts against them in the need assessment process.  And some poorer kids get through without loans by working and living at home.

But the most important of all is a point articulated by the American writer Matt Bruenig in this article: eliminating tuition does not, in any way, change inequality between rich and poor students.  To a large degree, the kids who graduate without debt do so because their parents pay their bills.  If you make tuition free, it reduces (but does not eliminate) the need to borrow; it also means that wealthier parents get to save their money.  The gap between rich parents and poor parents is not made narrower: they are both saving the same amount of money.  And the idea that the gap between graduates is made narrower depends entirely on the notion that rich parents will look at all that money they’re saving and not pass it on to their kids.

Does anyone really believe that?  Does anyone really believe that if rich parents had more money they’d pass less of it on to their kids?  No?  Then your argument relating tuition to the perpetuation of inequality is wrong.

Bruenig makes the argument – correctly – that if you are going to base your tuition policy around the idea that it should serve to reduce inequality (something many sensible people would think is nuts), then the only way to do that is by charging sharply progressive fees.  Ask the kids from poorer families to pay little or nothing, and ask the kids from wealthier families to pay more.  And in practice the way you do that is by charging high fees and off-setting it with need-based grants.

Anything else fails the inequality-reduction test, simple as that.

May 23

New Data on Student Debt: the 2010 National Graduates Survey

The National Graduates Survey figures on debt for the class of 2010 were (quietly) released yesterday.  Unlike the employment data they released a few weeks ago, this data actually *is* comparable to results from previous surveys.  It is thus a good way to check on whether/how student debt is actually reaching “out of sight” levels.

So, let’s start with some interprovincial comparisons.

Average Government Student Loan Debt at Graduation, Borrowers Only, By Province and Type of Institution, Class of 2010














The national average government debt among borrowers was $22,300 for university graduates, and $14,000 for college graduates.  However, this conceals some pretty wild differences between provinces, especially at the university level where the provincial means extend from $11,900 in Quebec to $35,000 in New Brunswick.  Of particular interest is the fact that Ontario, the province with the highest tuition, actually has among the lowest levels of debt (indeed, between 2000 and 2010, it fell nearly 17% in real terms).

Looking at the data over time, the next two figures show how government student loan debt has evolved:

Incidence and Mean Amount of Government Student Loan Debt at Graduation, Bachelor’s Degree Borrowers Only, 1982-2010














Incidence and Mean Amount of Government Student Loan Debt at Graduation, College Borrowers Only, 1982-2010














The takeaway here: despite steadily rising tuition, the percentage of students taking out need-based loans to finance their education hit a thirty-year low in 2010.  Debt was still high, but in real dollars was below where it was in 2000.

Now, while need-based government debt has been falling, non-need-based (or at least, not necessarily need-based) private debt has been rising.  Private debt is a mish-mash of credit card debt (which most surveys suggest is pretty small), private bank loan debt, and debt to family members – the last of these is presumably fairly soft debt in the sense that it is available on highly negotiable terms and there is a reasonable chance of some form of debt forgiveness.  Incidence of all forms of these debt combined has risen from 19% to 26% among bachelor’s graduates since 2010 (16 to 22% among college grads), and average debt from these sources (among those with any amount of such debt) has risen from $13,170 to $17,700 for bachelor’s graduates ($8,300 to $10,000 for college graduates).

It’s not clear what to make of the private debt figures.  For the 15% of the student population that has both public and private debt, one assumes that the recourse to private debt is indicative that for this part of the student body, the existing student aid packages are inadequate.  This is a group we should be pretty concerned about.  As for the other 11% who only have private debt, it’s hard to say what the issue is.  Why are they choosing private money over public money?  Are they actually fairly well-off, and hence ineligible for aid?  We simply don’t know.

In any case, as a result of this increase in non-public debt, total debt is up very slightly, as we see in the figure below.  But while the averages of debt are up, the incidence is down – from 53% to 50% on the university side, and from 49% to 43% on the college side.  And this, recall, in a period where participation rates were growing sharply.

Average Total Debt at Graduation, Borrowers Only, By Type of Institution, Classes of 2000, 2005 and 2010














So: government debt down, private debt up.  Incidence of total debt down slightly, average debt up slightly.  Any way you look at it, the basic picture on student debt is right where it’s been for the last decade.  And meanwhile, interest rates have fallen, and after-tax incomes have risen.

I know facts never get in the way of a good story, but: There.  Is.  No.  Crisis.  Period.

May 22

The Australian Revolution

Something important is happening in Australia.

Briefly: a right-wing coalition took power in Australia a few months ago.  Said coalition created a “commission of audit” to look over public finances, and recommend “economies”; unsurprisingly, it came back with recommendations much like the ones the Commission on the Reform of Ontario Public Services would have, if Don Drummond, instead of being a mild, respected former public servant, had been an Orc with especially low blood-sugar.  Among the recommendations: large cuts in government operating and research grants, complete de-regulation of tuition fees, and making the country’s famous HECS student aid scheme significantly less generous by charging real interest, and lowering the repayment threshold – currently at a rather amazing A$51,000 (also, $51,000 Canadian – we’re at par) – to $32,354.

Then, last week, the federal Treasurer Joe Hockey (yes, really) announced his budget.  Sure enough, there were cuts to both operating grants and research council funding (roughly 20%). Tuition was indeed fully deregulated – a world first.  The HECS repayment threshold will fall only $500 or so, but interest rates are now equal to the government rate of borrowing, not inflation.

So, what does all this mean?  Hard to say just yet.  The HECS changes at least could be held up in the Senate, where the government lacks a majority, but much of the rest will go through as a supply motion.  If they do go through as planned, the likely results are as follows:

1)      Higher fees.  Education Minister Christopher Pyne claimed that competition might actually drive fees down, a statement so stupid that sheep could outwit it.  Nowhere in the world, ever, has deregulation of fees resulted in anything other than a very quick one-time rise.  How much higher?  Hard to tell.  Full deregulation has simply never been tried before.  But the best guess is that they will rise to roughly where international fees are – that is, somewhere between a doubling and a tripling.

2)      A small enrolment reaction: If results in England are anything to go by, the short-term effects on enrolment of deregulation could be small.  But then again, that assumes the tuition rise won’t be vastly more than what happened in England.

3)      A rise in institutional income.  In England, the near-tripling of fees slightly more than made up for the 40% cut in operating grants.  Here, the cut in operating grants is smaller, and the fee hike is potentially of the same size (though, again, who really knows?).

Those are the first-order reactions.  Where it gets more complicated is the potentially huge distributional effects among institutions, and the locking-in of prestige by top universities that are able to charge significantly more than others.  That’s why Australian Higher Education guru Simon Marginson referred to this plan as Christopher Pyne’s coming-out party as Shiva the Destroyer.  This is as big and unpredictable a reform as has ever been attempted in higher education, and while some reasonable guesses can be made (Gavin Moodie’s, here), they’re just that: guesses.

We could view all of this as just some kind of bizarre antipodean curiosity were it not for the fact that Australia is often in the vanguard of higher education policy innovation (income-contingency and internationalization, to name but two such areas).  It’s an experiment everyone should watch carefully.

May 21

Rationalizing Regressive Subsidies

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog analysing the distributional effects of tuition reductions vs. targeted grants, and concluded that the latter was far more progressive in their impact than the former.  In response, Carleton professor Nick Falvo wrote a piece on OCUFA’s Academic Matters website saying that I was “wrong about tuition”.  Because some of his arguments are interesting – to his credit, he didn’t reach for the appalling argument that a regressive distribution of benefits is OK because the rich pay more taxes – I thought I would take some space here to respond.

Although Falvo claims to be demonstrating that my thesis about regressivness is wrong, at no point does he actually address the distribution issue.  Rather, he essentially concedes this point, and then make a series of arguments about why tuition reduction is preferable to targeted grants despite their regressiveness.

Falvo makes five separate arguments about the superiority of a free-tuition arrangement over a tuition-plus-grant arrangement.  The first is that free tuition is more “efficient” than grants because the administration costs are lower. But this is silly.  In fact, SFA administration costs in Canada run about five cents on the dollar.  Why you’d spend billions of dollars on one type of subsidy, just to save a few tens of millions by getting rid of the few hundred public servants who administer the existing programs, is a bit beyond me.

The second argument  is, essentially, that grants don’t work because sometimes tuition rises faster than grants.  But the more efficient solution to this – were this indeed a problem – would of course be to spend more on grants, not decrease tuition.

His third and fourth arguments are mutually contradictory.  One is that targeted subsidies create disincentives to work (the “welfare wall” argument); the other is that targeted grants are too complicated to understand, and that free tuition is more effective because it is easier to understand than a fees-plus-aid strategy.  The first implies that families have quite a good understanding about how subsidies work, and adjust their behaviour accordingly; the second implies that they don’t.  My view is that the second theory is more likely to be the correct one.  Sticker prices are simpler to understand than net prices.  The question really is whether this actually matters.  How much damage does poor communication actually do to access?  Is it sufficiently bad that we should spend an extra couple of billion on it?  For that to be the case, one would need to prove not simply that some people are deterred by financial barriers (undoubtedly true), but that they are deterred in large numbers because of their misunderstanding of extant financial incentives.  On the basis of existing evidence, I’d guess that’s not the case.

Falvo’s final point is that free tuition is a more politically saleable proposition than grants – because more people will benefit, it is easier to create and maintain voting coalitions in favour of it.  Even if that’s true, it is an appalling argument.  Stephen Harper certainly sold the Universal Child Care Benefit much easier than Paul Martin sold the (targeted) expansion of daycare spaces, but that doesn’t make it good public policy.

The argument that the only way, politically, to get a dollar to the youth from the poorest quartile is to give three dollars to youth from the richest quartile is an awfully convenient one… if you’re from the top quartile.  I simply don’t believe we have to settle for a system where the only way to get money to the needy is to buy-off the rich.  And I remain completely baffled why people who claim to be progressive actively promote such an idea.

May 20

Re-Imagining an Arts Curriculum

Basically, Canadian higher education programs can be divided into two types.  First, are programs that must be accredited, and where graduates’ ability to work in their field is tied to accreditation (e.g. Law, Medicine, Engineering).  These programs start with desired outcomes, and work backwards to make sure that graduates have the skills required to meet professional certification.  Second, there are the Arts and Sciences, which more closely resemble a free-for-all, in which curriculum is driven at least as much by faculty research interests as by any sense of ensuring students graduate with a coherent body of knowledge and skills.

(Yes, yes, there are in-between cases, like business, where accreditation occurs but is not tied to professional practice, and so isn’t quite as rigorous on the outcomes side. Leave these aside for the moment.)

It wasn’t always this way.  Back before World War II, Arts and Science degrees had much more standardized curricula.  They weren’t by any means designed according to 21st Century learning outcomes-lingo, but a lot of thought did go into what specific body of knowledge Arts students would master.  It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the smorgasbord approach to arts education became standard (a story which is entertainingly told by Louis Menand in his book, The Marketplace of Ideas).

But it doesn’t need to remain this way.  There’s actually a lot that Arts can learn from some of the regulated professions, in particular from medicine where Canadian curriculum is considered one of the world’s best.

Take a look, if you will, at  something called CanMEDS.  It’s a curriculum framework that applies to  the residency training of all the medical specialties under the auspices of the Royal College of Physicians.  The College started by working out what kind of people they wanted doctors to be.  What they decided was that, in addition to being a medical expert, it was important for doctors to play six other roles – that of: i) communicators, ii) collaborators, iii) professionals, iv) managers, v) health care advocates, and vi) scholars.  All medical residency training since 2005 has incorporated not just training to those ends, but also frequent assessment activities as well.  And it’s so well-regarded internationally that countries like the Netherlands (no slouches in professional education) have adopted it wholesale for their own medical training.



















Now, there’s absolutely no reason one couldn’t structure an Arts curriculum the same way.   The expected role graduates should play wouldn’t be the same, obviously (though keeping subject matter expert, communicator, and collaborator seem like no-brainers to me).  Then you’d work to build-in activities and assessment for all of these intended roles/outcomes in every single course.  And if you couldn’t do that (it would likely be difficult in larger classes), you’d find ways to create new mandatory modules that develop and assess more specific competencies.

There’s no really good reason – other than inertia and intransigence – why it couldn’t work.  And the upside would be enormous.  Students who graduated from such a program would have actual tangible evidence of skills and competencies, as opposed to all the “we’re-not-sure-how-but-boy-the-Arts-are-important” hand-waving we do now.

Who’s first?

May 16

Deans and Multiple Personality Disorders

Imagine two scenarios.  In the first, an academic is threatened with termination if he/she speaks out publicly against the university’s proposed strategic plan.  In the second, a manager is fired for disobeying a direct order from a superior about running down the company he/she works for.  For most readers, I’d guess the first scenario is abhorrent, and the second quite understandable (if perhaps somewhat harsh).  Yet both scenarios describe precisely what happened to University of Saskatchewan’s Dean, Robert Buckingham.

The Buckingham incident goes to the heart of a real live issue in Canadian universities: for whom do deans work – the President and Provost, or the faculty?  Are they management’s tool to keep faculty in line, or do they represent the interests of their faculty in the halls of the power?

I don’t think there’s much doubt in a legal sense that Deans answer to senior management rather than faculty.  But the way Deans are chosen usually incorporate a large amount of feedback from professors in that department, who want to make sure that the Dean is – to the extent possible – sympatico with their interests.  And whether the Dean is a likable figure or not, he/she is very much expected to fight for the interests of that faculty and its members when it comes to things like resource allocation.

So, to Saskatoon where, as part of the university’s restructuring process, the 5-year-old School of Public Health Buckingham headed was slated, along with the School of Dentistry and the college of Medicine, to become part of an enlarged Faculty of Medicine.  The School, which at least in its own eyes is pretty hot stuff having just received European accreditation for its program, was less than thrilled with the notion of being under the same roof as the College of Medicine, which has had a rough time with accreditation issues for the past few years.

Buckingham fought his corner spiritedly but quietly for several months.  When Deans were recently told that the time for chat was over, and it was time for all the managers to fall in line, Buckingham chose not to do so.  Instead, he wrote a letter (available here) that wound up in the StarPhoenix in which he effectively implied that: a) the President and Provost lacked courage, and b) that the College of Medicine was sub-standard.  Within the next 24 hours, Buckingham was not only removed as Dean, but was also fired as a tenured professor, and escorted from campus.

Now, given the high level of tension on campus, and that Buckingham was only a few weeks away from retirement, it might have made more sense to let this incident go with a reprimand (and indeed, after much media attention, and an emergency meeting called by Advanced Ed Minister, Rob Norris, the University “reconsidered and reversedparts of its initial decision).  But make no mistake, within a managerial capacity, it was a fire-able offense: you can’t have your Deans going off and running down their colleagues’ departments in public.

Simply put, the freedom of comment that one has as a faculty member doesn’t apply to management.  Buckingham’s line about “I’ve never seen academics be silenced like this” is somewhat disingenuous: Deans are management and held to a different standard.  Saskatchewan was within its rights to ditch him as a Dean; where they overstepped, and have since clawed back on their decision, was in firing him as a professor, because that raises legitimate issues of academic freedom.  As far as I know no professor has been dismissed for speaking out about university management since Norman Strax at UNB in 1968, and that’s not a place we want to go back to.

Both sides stepped over the line here, but it’s easy to see how it happened, and how it is likely to happen again.  At the end of the day, deans’ identities and allegiances are split between their role as academics and their role as administrators.  It’s a thankless and occasionally dangerous position.

May 15

Does More Information Really Solve Anything?

One of the great quests in higher education over the past two decades has been to make the sector more “transparent”.  Higher education is a classic example of a “low-information” economy.  Like medicine, consumers have very limited information about the quality of higher education providers, and so “poor performers” cannot easily be identified.  If only there were some way to actually provide individuals with better information, higher education would come closer to the ideal of “perfect information” (a key part of “perfect competition”), and poor performers would come under pressure from declining enrolments.

For many people, the arrival of university league table rankings held a lot of promise.  At last, some data tools with some simple heuristics that could help students make distinctions with respect to quality!  While some people still hold this view, others have become more circumspect, and have come to realize that most rankings simply replicate the existing prestige hierarchy because they rely on metrics like income and research intensity, which tend to be correlated with institutional age and size. Still, many hold out hope for other types of information tools to provide this kind of information.  In Europe, the big white hope is U-Multirank; in the UK it’s the “Key Information Set”, and in Korea it’s the Major Indictors System.  In the US, of course, you see the same phenomenon at work with the White House’s proposed college ratings system.

What unites all of these efforts is a belief that people will respond to information, if the right type of information is put in front of them in a manner they can easily understand/manipulate.  The arguments have tended centre around what kind of information is useful/available, and the right way to display/format the data, but a study out last month from the Higher Education Funding Council for England asked a much more profound question: is it possible that none of this stuff makes any difference at all?

Now, it’s not an empirical study of the use of information tools, so we shouldn’t get *too* excited about it.  Rather, it’s a literature review, but an uncommonly good one, drawing significantly from sources like Daniel Kahneman and Herbert Simon.  The two key findings (and I’m quoting from the press release here, because it’s way more succinct about this than I could be) are:

1) that the decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time, and

2) that greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions. 

Now, because HEFCE and the UK government are among those people that believe deeply in the “better data leads to better universities via competition model” the study doesn’t actually say “guys, your approach implies some pretty whopping and likely incorrect assumptions” – but the report implies it pretty strongly.

It’s very much worth a read, if for no other reason than to remind oneself that even the best-designed, most well-meaning “interventions”, won’t necessarily have the intended effects.

May 14

Trends in Applications

Some interesting trend data to review from Ontario today.

First, there’s the fact that applications from secondary schools have dropped by 3% this year, from 92,892 to 89,609 (as of the February snapshot, which for most purposes is as good as the final numbers, since something like 95% of all applicants apply before the end-of-January line).  This is a moderately big deal since it’s the first time since the double cohort that numbers have fallen.

Figure 1: Applications from Secondary Schools by Year, Ontario, 2004-14














Some university officials have waved this away as being a result of declining population, but there’s no evidence that the population of 18 year-olds has fallen by 3%.  Statscan hasn’t published data for 2014 yet, but between 2010 and 2013 the number of 18 year-olds actually increased by 2%, even though the agency’s population projections had suggested their numbers would fall somewhat.  In the chart below, which shows the ratio of secondary school applicants to 18-year-olds over time, I average Statscan’s projection with the actual annual increase for the past four years, and assume a fall of 1.6% in 2014. So even accounting for population change, university applicant numbers are still down.

Figure 2: Applications from Secondary School as a Percentage of 18-Year-Olds, Ontario, 2004-14














The fact that the percentage of 18 year-olds attending Ontario universities has fallen is notable, but we shouldn’t overstate the implications.  In the first place, it hasn’t fallen far – just back to where it was in 2012.  Second, these numbers are only for Ontario applicants; they don’t include all the many international students whose numbers are still rising.  Fact is, most institutions will be OK for awhile yet.

More interesting, perhaps, is what’s going on with applications by field of study.  Check out, for instance, what’s happening with the “big four” fields, which account for slightly over 70% of all enrolments.  Applications to Arts subjects have been falling for some time; in 2003, 35% of all applications were to Arts Faculties, now it is just 27% (albeit of a much larger applicant pool – in absolute numbers they are about where they were in 2003).  Science and Business have more or less kept their share of enrolments steady over time, while Engineering has seen its share grow from 8% to 11%.  That might not sound like much, but in absolute terms it represents an increase of 81%, from 5,515, to 9,984.

Figure 3: Arts, Science, Business, and Engineering Applications as Percentage of Total, Ontario, 2004-14














But look a little more closely at the data, at some of the smaller fields of study, and you can see some really amazing shifts in numbers.  Nursing, by some distance, is the “hot” discipline (not surprising, given the 100% placement rate and the $50K plus starting salaries), with applications increasing by close to 150%.  Social Work has seen applications double, and Math applications are up almost 90%.  Fine Arts applicant numbers have stayed very stable over the past decade; only Journalism has seen a major negative shock, with applications down by over a third from their 2008 peak.

Changes in Application Numbers, Selected Fields of Study, Ontario, 2004-14, Indexed to 2004














The disciplinary enrolment shifts are of significantly more importance than 1-year changes in total enrolments.  They show that, over time, students do in fact respond to changes in labour market conditions, but that it may take a few years for the response to be evident.  Quite properly, students might want to see sustained evidence of change before committing to a different field of study.  And that’s a good thing, whatever the usual Labour Market whiners might say.

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