Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

September 18

Cutting the BS on Teaching and Research

Sometimes people ask me: “what would I change in higher education, if I could”? My answer varies, but right now my fondest wish is for everyone to just cut the BS around the teaching/research balance.

Whenever a debate on teaching and research starts, there’s always people who either intimate how “unfortunate” it is that we have to talk about trade-offs, or people who claim that any deviation from the current trade-off means the death of the academic.  But this is nonsense.  There are only twenty-four hours in a day; trade-offs between teaching and research are always being made.  The issue is not teaching v. research, but where the balance is.  Twenty-five years ago, it was perfectly normal for professors to teach five courses a year.  Now, even at mid-ranking comprehensives, the idea of 3/2 is enough to cause paroxysms.  Just because it’s a good idea for professors to combine research and teaching doesn’t mean that any specific combination of research and teaching is right.

Even if we take it as read that, “engagement with research” makes you a better teacher (something which is much less empirically established than many assume), it’s clearly not equally the case in all disciplines.  Researchers in some disciplines – Physics and Math come to mind – are so far removed from the understanding of your average undergraduate that it’s probably a waste of everyone’s time to put them together in a classroom.  Conversely, language courses are almost never taught by people engaging in research on language acquisition, because it’s unnecessary.  Indeed, first and second year courses in many disciplines probably don’t even need researchers teaching them – a fact institutions acknowledge every day because they keep handing them to non-tenure track faculty.

Over the past 25 years, teaching norms at large universities went from five courses per year to four, to even three; that is, full-time teaching time went down by 20-40%.  The academy did this without ever engaging the public about whether that was the right way to spend public and student dollars.  It’s therefore worth debating, in light of current fiscal pressures, whether the current (historically unprecedented) trade-off between research and teaching is the right one.  We once had good research universities with many professors teaching five courses a year; there’s no reason we couldn’t do so again.  Shutting discussions down – as CAUT Executive Director, Jim Turk, recently did – by equating any change in the balance as an attempt to turn universities into high school isn’t just unhelpful and obnoxious: it’s BS.

And so I say: no more BS.  Let’s all be grownups and talk reasonably about what balance makes sense, not just for professors, but for students and the public as well.

September 17

Why Public Higher Education Should be Free…

… is the unfortunate title of a new book by Robert Samuels, a professor at the University of California, and president of the University Council – American Federation of Teachers.  The title is unfortunate because the book’s not really about free tuition; the subject doesn’t really get a look-in until about three-quarters of the way through.  Rather, Samuels’ book is mostly about (as he puts it in the title of his first chapter) why tuition goes up and quality goes down.  When Samuels focuses on this issue, it’s an excellent book.  When he strays, it’s not.

Let’s start with the good stuff.  Chapter 2, “Where the Money Goes in Research Universities,” is genius.  Not because it’s saying much that people don’t already know – pack in the undergrads, teach them using underpaid sessionals, reserve “real” profs for graduate students and research – but because it’s very rare anyone on the inside of universities exposes this strategy in stark naked terms (ok, yes, Ian Clark and co. have also done it, but Skolnik aside they aren’t academic lifers). I mean, sure, people like me talk about it all the time, but within institutions themselves there’s an omertà about it all.  Samuels is a rare bird in stating that while reductions in government support haven’t been helpful, a lot of higher education’s wounds on the undergraduate front are self-inflicted.

Where he’s less good, frankly, is on actual issues of money.  The chapter on university endowments – which focuses entirely on bad risk management practices leading up to 2008, without bothering to consider university long-term investment practices, or the recovery of endowment positions since 2008 – is either inept or mendacious, I can’t tell which.  And Samuels makes no serious attempt to prove his claim that, with just a few revisions of mission, tuition could be made free.  It’s not that he doesn’t have good ideas for making institutions less costly, it’s that the extent of possible savings is not quantified, and he can’t seem to decide if such savings should go to improving the plight of sessionals by making them full-time, or passing the savings on to students.  It’s a a lot of hand-waving, frankly.

As for the touted benefits of free tuition?  Basically, it’s that poorer students would be better off if it were so.  This is true, but could just as easily be achieved with grants.  Why governments and institutions should provide windfall gains to millions of students from better-off families in order to make it free for poorer ones isn’t addressed.

So, briefly: 9 out 10 for the first three chapters because it’s an unusually clear and concise statement of the problems and of the current political economy of universities.  After that, it’s about a 5 out of 10.

September 16

And the Winner is…

OK, all that data I gave you last week was fun, but let’s get back to the serious business of snark.  I know you’ve all been waiting to hear the winner of the “Worst Back-to-School Story” competition.  And so, without further ado:

Stories reporting on the CIBC World Markets report about how students were choosing the “wrong” subjects received nominations from a number of you.  However, while these were indeed irritating, I don’t feel that they really achieved the level of awfulness commensurate with this award.

Runner-up was a Globe online piece by Zander Sherman, who, if you’ll recall, wrote a seriously terrible book on education about a year ago.  His prescription for improving higher education’s real problems was to send it back to the twelfth century, with Latin, Greek and hazing for all.  It’s not clear if he was attempting satire, given that his antipathy is to compulsory education; but if satire was his aim, it didn’t work.

But this year’s winner, without a doubt, was Gary Mason’s article, University Students: Another Day Smarter But Deeper in Debt.  Slathered with inaccurate, misleading, or totally out of context data, it really stood out from the field.

Here’s my annotated guide to this wretched article:

















Bravo Gary, and thanks to all our contestants.  Your contributions make the back-to-school period what it is today.

September 13

Financing Canadian Universities: A Self-Inflicted Wound (Part 5)

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last few days.  Back on Tuesday, we asked the question why faculty-student ratios could fall by 20% over two decades when per-student income had jumped by 40% over the same period.  The best way to sum up the answer is with the following graph:

Changes in Total and Operating Income per Student, Academic Salary Mass, and Student-Teacher Ratios, Indexed to 1992













The top line is total income per FTE student.  That rose 40% between 1992 and 2010, most of it in a few glorious years in the late 1990s.  The next line is operating income per student, which only rose 20% per student over the same period. That’s still good, of course, but it does mean that other parts of the university were receiving money at a faster rate than the operating budget was.

Now let’s look at academic compensation.  Despite an increase in the operating budget, total academic compensation (i.e., salaries + benefits) fell.  All of that fall happened prior to about 2002 – since then, the two have moved more or less in tandem.  What that means is that a lot of money within operating budgets was being moved into other areas.  As we saw on Wednesday and Thursday, the big “culprits” were scholarships, utilities, and, to a lesser extent, central administration.

Finally, there’s the faculty:student ratio, which fell more or less in lockstep with academic salary mass until 2001.  After that, individual faculty salaries began to rise.  Thus, even as total academic salaries stabilized, that amount bought ever fewer professors, because their real salaries were rising.

And that’s basically the story.  Billions of dollars went into the academy in the last twenty years, coming from students, government, and other sources.  But a disproportionate amount of that money went into non-operating areas (such as research).  And a disproportionate amount of operating money went into areas other than academic salaries.  And average faculty wages rose substantially in real terms.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how faculty:student ratios can fall by 20% while income per student rises 40%.  And it’s worth underlining here: virtually all of this has to do with changing priorities within the academy, not changes in government policy.  It was universities who urged the new focus on research.  It was universities which made the decision to favour other spending categories over academic salaries.  It was the academic community as a whole which decided to pay more money to fewer professors, rather than keep salaries stable and hire more staff.  No one made the academy do this.  It’s a self-inflicted wound.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

September 12

Financing Canadian Universities: Are Administrators to Blame? (Part 4)

In yesterday’s post, I dismissed the idea that administration was to blame for academic salary mass falling as a percentage of operating budgets, noting that the big areas of spending increase over the last two decades were scholarships, benefits, and utilities.  But it is still true that salary mass of non-academics rose more quickly than it did for academics.  Total academic salary mass went from $4 billion in 1992, to $5.5 billion in 2010, while “administrative” salaries went from $3 billion to $5 billion (all figures in 2011 constant dollars).  So in a sense, one could argue that some crowding out occurred.

But who are all these administrators?  Are there more of them, or are they just getting paid better than they used to?

Unfortunately, we have no datasets on non-academic staff numbers in Canada (heck, thanks to budget cuts, as of last year we have no datasets on academic staff numbers either).  What we can do, though, is track dollars by category to get a sense of what kinds of functions are receiving non-academic salary dollars.

Figure 1 – Distribution of Non-Academic Salaries by Function, 2011













Of the $5 billion in non-academic salaries, the largest chunk (32%) is still spent under the rubric of instruction (e.g. lab technicians, departmental secretaries, teaching and learning centres, etc.).   Student services and physical plant (i.e. maintenance) employees make up another 11% each, or about $550 million apiece, per year.  IT workers are another 8%, library 7%, and non-credit instruction 3%.  Most of those salary categories are things that are relatively central to the process of education.  That leaves 28% – or about $1.3 billion – in what we think of as “classic” central administrators, the bogeymen/women of contemporary universities.

If we wanted to find “waste” in universities, we might look for it by looking at where non-academic salaries were growing the fastest.  This we do in Figure 2, below.  The left-hand column shows the share of the increase in non-academic salaries that each category received over the 1992-2010 period; the right-hand column shows the shares of spending each area had in 1992.

Figure 2 – Distribution of Increases in Non-Academic Salaries, by Function, 1992-2011













Figure 2 reinforces some traditional narratives; salary mass in central admin did indeed increase faster than for other non-academics.  But so too did salary mass in non-credit instruction, and in physical plant.  Total salaries in “instructional” areas (lab techs, etc.) fell relative to the total, but so too – and to a much greater extent – did salaries in student services.  Total non-academic salaries in libraries, meanwhile, literally did not increase at all.

Bottom line: There was “excess” growth in central admin salaries – that is, growth over-and-above its inflation-adjusted 1992 share, to the tune of $325 million.  Not nothing, to be sure, but a very long way from explaining the shortfall in academic salary mass.

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