HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 01

Reminder: Hot Jobs and Hot Careers Never Last

There was an interesting piece in the National Post last week about unemployed professionals in the Alberta oil and gas industry.  In amidst the occasional whine about the oil industry being so unloved by the rest Canada, there is a serious article about what happens to people in specialized professions when the economic tide swings away from that profession.  Some quotes:

Philip Mulder, spokesman for the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), said its geoscientists are faring badly in the current climate because they are predominantly employed in oil and gas…PetroLMI/ENFORM, which tracks labour market trends in the sector, said 145,000 people worked directly in oil and gas extraction, pipelines and services in the province on average in the first four months of 2016, down from 176,000 during 2014. Meanwhile, 17,300 were unemployed on average during the first four months of 2016, up from 6,500 during 2014. The rest left the industry by moving elsewhere or to other sectors, retiring, going back to school.

Lemiski, 33, studied for eight years at the University of Alberta to earn a degree in geology and a master’s in earth and atmospheric sciences.  He started his career six years ago as an exploration geologist at Talisman Energy Inc., but was laid off when the company ran into financial difficulties and cut its exploration program. He found work at Nexen Inc., owned by China’s CNOOC Ltd., as a petrophysicist, but that didn’t last long and he was back on the street in March.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Times are obviously tough for professionals in this industry and it’s hard not to sympathize with people whose profession is vanishing under their feet.  But let me simply point out that this situation could have been predicted by anyone a) with half a brain and b) who remembers what the early 1990s recession was like in Alberta.  Cyclical industries are just that – cyclical.  They rise and they fall.  That’s fine until people forget that both are equally likely.

And of course, the top of a boom is precisely where people tend to forget that.  One of many examples: the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2011, saying Canada would need 6,000 geophysicists to deal with retirements between now and 2020.  Here’s a Petroleum Labour Market Information report saying that the country wasn’t training enough people, and predicting that there would be a shortfall of 1500-200 geologists and geophysicists in Alberta alone by 2022. And so of course there was a drumbeat across the west:  why weren’t those out-of-touch universities doing more to graduate more geologists?

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened of course. Back in the late 1990s the Ontario government fell for the pitch of the IT industry that there simply had to be more computer science graduates in the province or woe, disaster, earthquakes, pestilence, etc.  So the Harris government, which had hitherto done nothing but cut the bejesus out of Ontario universities, decided to spend millions to “double the pipeline” in computer sciences (i.e. double the intake of students in order to double the number of graduates).  Ontario universities took the money and implemented the plan, which delivered a record number of graduates… who hit the job market in 2002, right in the middle of the worst tech bust in history.  Cue thousands of underemployed Engineers, at least for a few years.

My point here is not that universities should ignore the labour market.  That would be silly; most students attend university to get a better job, and ignoring the labour market is tantamount to malpractice.  My point, rather, is that one has to be extremely careful about trying to time the market by shifting enrollment into specific programs.  Any job that’s in high demand today has good chances of looking very different in five years – the time it takes to design a program and get a new boatload of students through it.  All you end up with are a lot of disappointed and underemployed students.

Pay attention to long-term trends?  Certainly.  Short-term booms?  As little as possible.  Even in Alberta.

August 31

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 2)

There are a lot of things “everybody knows” about students these days.  Everybody knows students these days think of their education in far more utilitarian terms than they used to, caring more about their jobs outcomes and less about the joy of learning.  Everybody knows it’s easier to get an A than it used to be.  And everybody knows students are working more because education is way more expensive. 

Unfortunately, all of this is demonstrable twaddle.  As per yesterday, we can examine these questions by looking at longitudinal data from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium.

Let’s start with the issue of why students choose to attend universities.  It is certainly true students, if asked about their motives for attending, do tend to focus on employment-related themes.  However, this is nothing new: this concern has long been the case among students.   Yes, students are more likely than they were 15 years ago to say they go to university to get a good job (86% vs. 80%), but they are also more likely to say they are going because they want to increase their knowledge in a particular academic field.  The rank order of reasons hasn’t changed: only the frequency with which students cite them.

Figure 1: % of first-year students indicating different rationales for attending university, 2001 vs 2013

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Figure 2 shows the change in the distribution of grades students report receiving during their first year (technically the question, posed mid-way through the winter term, asks what students think their average for the year will be).  It turns out the curve is very similar: yes, students are slightly more likely to report getting As, but they are also slightly more likely to report getting Cs.

Figure 2: First year students’ average reported grades, 2001 vs 2016

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Finally, there is the issue of students working.  As Figure 3 shows, it turns out that the percentage of first-year students indicating that they have a job has fallen from 42% to 34%, while the average number of hours worked among those who do work has fallen from around 16 hours per week to 14 hours per week.  The drop in the employment rate appears to be secular rather than cyclical, while the drop in hours does seem to have some cyclical component (i.e. a big drop between 2007 and 2010).

Figure 3: First-Year Students’ Employment Rates and Average Hours of Work, 2001-2016

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We can’t tell exactly what’s causing the drop in employment rates and hours or what the effects are because the survey of first-year students is lighter on financial data than its companion surveys are.  But there are three obvious reasons why students might be working less than fifteen years ago.  The first is that a significant number students in 2016 will have had the benefit of 18 years worth of Canada Education Savings Grants whereas the 2001 cohort would only have had three years’ worth.  The second is that student aid is significantly more generous to first-year students than it was in 2001 (mostly due to the relaxation of income criteria in 2004 and 2006).  Finally, institutions themselves are giving away a lot more money.  Back in 2001, 39% of incoming students said they received a scholarship or other financial award from their institution.  By 2016, that number had increased to 58%.

Now, let’s see how many journalists complain about one of these things “everybody knows” about over the next week or two.

August 30

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 1)

As the school year starts, it’s always valuable to take a look at trends in incoming students.  The best tool we have for that in Canada for doing this is the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium’s triennial survey of first-year students (the most recent version is here.  It’s not the greatest of instruments: consortium membership changes from cycle to cycle, so the base population is neither equal to the national first-year population nor stable from cycle to cycle.  But since Statistics Canada is now declining to do any surveys at all of enrolled students, it’s all we’ve got, and by and large, participating institutions are reasonably representative of the country as a whole.  There’s also a problem with CUSC occasionally changing the wording of the questions, thus making time series somewhat difficult – but then again, this is an aggravating habit that Statscan has in spades.  So, with all those difficulties acknowledged, let’s begin.

Here’s my favourite chart, on the theme of visible minorities (a subject I tackled a few months ago):

Figure 1: Visible Minority Students as a Share of all First-year students, 2001-2016

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Now part of the increase comes from the way this value is calculated.  The question used to simply be: “are you a visible minority?”’; it now asks directly about ethnicity and infers visible minority status on that basis (basically, if you do not declare yourself as white or aboriginal, you are considered “visible minority”).  So part of the increase may have to do with a change in the question phrasing.  But still, this is pretty impressive.  Even if you take out all the international students (not all of whom are visible minority), you’re talking 33% of all students (compared to just 22% of all Canadians 15-24%) being visible minority.  That would make Canada possibly the only country in the world where visible minorities have that kind of advantage.

Here’s another intriguing time series where the phrasing of the question makes an enormous difference: students with disabilities.

Figure 2: Percentage of Students Indicating they Have a Disability, 2001-2016

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The jump in the last three years is definitely due to the way the question was posed.  In all previous years, the question was “do you have a disability”?  In 2016, the question specifically referenced nine different kinds of disability (including learning disability, which accounted for over half the responses). It then asked if the disability was serious enough to require the university to provide accommodation.  Only 32% of those listing disabilities – or 7% of all students – said yes, which brings us back down to the range of previous years.  Moral: how you ask a question matters a lot.

On to socio-economic background, which this survey measures via parents’ educational background.  This time series is a bit messed up because CUSC changed the wording of the question this year (formerly, the survey asked about each parent separately, now it just asks about “parents’” highest level).  But here goes:

Figure 3: Percentage of Students’ Parents Possessing a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher

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It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these results.  Since children tend to hit university about 30 years after their parents do, this graph is to some extent just reflecting the expansion of access to university in the 70s and 80s.  But that’s not quite the whole story.  According to the census, in 2001, 17% of adults aged 45-64 possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher; in 2011 it was 21% (I know, I know, National Household Survey – but still).  So it appears as if more recent cohorts of first year students are slightly more likely to come from better-educated households than their predecessors, which is not a particularly good finding.

More tomorrow.

August 29

Welcome Back

Morning everyone.

We’re back for another term.  I hope everyone’s summer went well.  Let’s get started.

First, a quick round-up of the major events since I was last in the Daily blog business: on August 1, the new Canada Student Grants program came into effect, with all grants now 50% larger than they used to be (the offsetting bad news, the loss of a whole bunch of tax credits, kicks in on January 1).   The big Ontario scheme doesn’t kick in this year, but the New Brunswick Tuition Assistance Bursary (TAB) started at the same time as the federal program.  There’s a new Minister for Advanced Education in New Brunswick who has been given a mandate to re-engineer the TAB so that it’s design isn’t quite so cockamamie; that’s great news, but no word yet on if/when/how such a re-engineering might take place.

The new government in Ottawa hasn’t quite left its hyperactive phase, and so the government has been conducting two big consultations of note this summer, one on innovation policy and one on science policy.  The Innovation policy increasingly looks to me like a go-nowhere exercise, mainly because the Minister himself seems to have a very difficult time distinguishing “innovation” from “glitzy tech things”. Universities, of course, won’t mind this policy confusion (and may indeed be actively abetting it) because, if the government is going to be handing out money for glitzy tech things they’re going to be pretty close to the front of the line, regardless of what happens to actual innovation.

(An aside: I don’t have time to get into this now, but absolutely everyone interested in innovation policy  – especially our esteemed Minister – needs to go out and buy Mark Zachary Taylor’s The Politics of Innovation.  I’ll come back to this book later this week but suffice to say it’s a fantastic and important read.).

The other big issue in Ottawa this summer has been the increasingly weird and disturbing management flame-out at the Canadian Institute of Health Research.  Other granting councils are also dealing with stable-ish budgets (last year’s budget boost was welcome but in real dollars budgets are still below where they were in 2009) and increasing application rates, which are leading to ever-decreasing project success rates.  But only CIHR has chosen to deal with these challenges by simultaneously changing the criteria of its main funding programs AND pilotinga whole new adjudication system whose raison d’etre appears to be to avoid every piece of known good practice in terms of evaluating scientific proposals.  I’m not an expert on this stuff, so I urge you to read someone who is: Jim Woodgett, the Director of Research for the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute (for instance, this piece  and this one too).  How CIHR President Alain Beaudet has kept his job through all this nonsense is frankly a bit of a mystery; but the Minister’s office now seems to be aware of the scale of the catastrophe and so a trip to the high jump may not be far off.

Overseas the big news is mostly in the UK (Brexit and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, subjects to which I’ll return over the next couple of weeks).  Hillary Clinton made a campaign promise to ensure that 85% of American students can attend a public university tuition-free, but it isn’t getting lot of press because almost nobody believes it’ll ever happen.  Still, we seem to be in a moment where governments (Ontario, Chile, the US) are increasingly interested in making higher education explicitly free for low and middle-income students.  We’ll see who else follows that trend in the next few months.

Finally, I have one small announcement to make with respect to this blog.  As y’all know, providing the reading public with expert commentary (well, commentary anyway) is a bit of a time sink.  But also, thanks to Statistics Canada’s cost-recovery policies, it’s a money sink as well.  I know many if not most of you dig this blog primarily for the data analyses – and I prefer writing data-pieces to think pieces – but the costs of obtaining that data are getting higher all the time. 

I’ve never really tried to monetize this blog the way Academica’s Top Ten does with its job posting thing; it seems like a hassle and it annoys some readers.  But equally, I can’t really justify blowing money on the blog either, and I need about $2500/year to get the data necessary to keep the interesting stats pieces coming.  So at some point in the next few weeks, I am going to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise that amount.  If you like the data work I do and think it’s valuable for policy discussions in Canadian higher education, please consider donating.   There will be tchotchkes.

That’s it.  Have a great term everyone.

 

August 24

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

I am a proud Carleton alumnus.  If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study.  You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience.  I’m always talking up Carleton.  So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.

The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors.  Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account.  He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).

The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”.  Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense.  In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.

This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share.  You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board.  But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not.  Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s  workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance). 

What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”.  This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.

One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance.  Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions.  Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself. 

Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities).  But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here.  Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out.  Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong.   Carleton needs to re-think this policy.

So says this alum, anyway.

August 17

Measuring Teaching Quality

The Government of Ontario, in its ongoing quest to try to reform its funding formula, continues to insist that one element of the funding formula needs to relate to the issue of “teaching quality” or “quality of the undergraduate experience”.  Figuring out how to do this is of course a genuine puzzle.

There are some of course who believe that quality can only be measured in terms of inputs (i.e. funding) and not through outputs (hi, OCUFA!)  Some like the idea of sticking with existing instruments like the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE); others want to measure this through “hard numbers” on post-graduate outcomes like employment rates, average salaries and the like.  Still others are banging away at certain types of solutions involving testing of graduates; HEQCO’s Essential Adult Skills Initiative seems like an interesting experiment in this respect.

But there are obvious defects with each of these approaches.  The problem with the “let’s-measure-inputs-not-outputs” approach is that it’s bollocks.  The problem with the “hard numbers” approach is that unemployment and income among graduates are largely functions of location and program offerings (a pathetic medical school in Toronto would always do better than a kick-ass Arts school in Thunder Bay).  And while the testing approach is interesting, all that testing is a bit on the clunky side, and it’s not entirely clear how well the data from such exercises would actually help institutions improve themselves.

That leaves the old survey stalwarts like NSSE and CUSC.  These, to be honest, don’t tell us much about quality or paths to improvement.  They did when they were first introduced, 15-20 years ago, but each successive survey adds less and less.  To be honest, pretty much the only reason we still use them is because nobody wants to break up the time-series.  But that’s an argument against particular surveys rather than surveys in general.  Surveys are good because they are cheap and easily replicable.  We just need to find a better survey, one that measures quality more directly.

Here’s my suggestion.  What we really need to know is how many students are being exposed to good teaching practices and at what frequency.  We know from various types of research what good teaching practices are (e.g. Chickering & Gamson’s classic Seven Principles for Good Practice).  Why not ask students about whether they see those practices in the classroom?  Why not ask students how instructional time is used in practice (e.g. presenting content vs. discussion vs. group work), or what they are asked to do outside of class?  And not just in a general way across all classes, the way NSSE does it (which ends up resembling a kind of satisfaction measurement exercise and doesn’t give Deans or departmental chairs a whole lot to work with): why not do it for every single class a student takes, and link those responses to the students’ academic record?

Think about it: at an aggregate faculty or institutional level – which is all you would need to report publicly or to government – the results of such a survey would instantly become a credible source of data on teaching quality.  But more importantly,  they would provide institutions with incredible data on what’s going on inside their own classrooms.  Are certain teaching practices associated with elevated levels of dropping out, or with an upward shift in grades?  By tying the survey to individual student records on a class-by-class basis, you could know that from such a survey.  A Dean could ask intelligent questions about why one department in her faculty seem to be less likely to involve group work or interactive discussions than others, as well as see how that plays into student completion or choice of majors.  Or one could see how teaching patterns vary by age (are blended learning classes only the preserve of younger profs?).  Or, by matching descriptions of classes to other more satisfaction-based instruments like course evaluations, it would be possible to see whether certain modes of teaching or types of assignment result in higher or lower student satisfaction results – and whether or not the relationship between practices and satisfaction hold true across different disciplines (my guess is it wouldn’t in some cases, but there’s only one way to find out!)

So there you go: a student-record-linked survey with a focus on classroom experiences on a class-by-class could conceivably get us a system which a) provides reliable data for accountability purposes on “learning experiences” and b) provides institutions with vast amount of new, appropriately granular data which can help them improve their own performance.  And it could be done much more cheaply and less intrusively than wide-scale testing.

Worth a try, surely.

August 10

Ontario’s Quiet Revolution

Last year, the Government of Ontario announced it was moving to a new and more generous systems of student grants.  Partly, that was piggybacking on a new and enhanced federal grants and partly it was converting its own massive system of loan forgiveness and tax credits into a system which – more sensibly – delivered them upfront to students.  For most students from low-income backgrounds, this means they will receive more in grants than they pay in tuition.

Now, while the new federal grants came into place last week (yay!), the new provincial program isn’t due to be introduced until 2017-18.  But the *really* important piece of the Ontario reform actually won’t kick in until even later.  As I noted back here, it’s the move to “net billing” (that is, harmonizing the student aid and institutional application systems) which has the most interesting potential because now students will see net costs at the time of acceptance rather than just sticker costs.  It has been generally appreciated (in part because I keep banging on about it) that this will be revolutionary for students and their perceptions of cost.  What is not as well appreciated is how revolutionary this change will be for institutions.

Currently, Ontario universities use merit scholarships as a major tool in enrolment management.  At the time students are accepted, institutions offer them money based on their grades.  The scale differs a bit between institutions (an 85% might get you $1,000 at one university and $2,000 at another), but the basics of it is that over two-thirds of entering students receive some kind of financial reward, usually for one year.  It’s a total waste of money for institutions, but everybody does it – so no institution feels it can stop doing it.

But the effect this money has on students is predicated on the fact that the institutional award offer is the first time anyone has talked about money with them.  In our current system of student aid, you have to be accepted at an institution before you can apply for student aid.  Even $1,000 is a big deal when nobody else is offering you any money.  But as of early 2018, students will learn about their institutional award at exactly the same time as they find out their student aid award.  How will that affect the psychology of the money being offered?  No one knows. How should universities therefore adjust their policy?

Bigger questions abound.  “Net billing” implies that institutions will know the outcome of a student’s provincial need assessment before the student does.  Will they be allowed to adjust their own aid offers as a result?  Could the province stop them from doing so even if they wanted to?

What will new letters of acceptance look like?  When an institution tells a student about tuition, aid, and “net cost”, will they be required to lump all aid together, or will they be allowed to label their own portion of the aid separately?  You would think institutions would fight hard to keep the label on their own money but prohibiting labeling might be the best way to cut down on these scholarships and re-direct the money to better use, something I advocated a couple of years ago.  With no labellings, there would be no incentive to spend on this item, and institutions could back away from it with no opprobrium.  We’ll see if institutions are actually that shrewdly or not.

Even if they do retain the right to separate labeling, what will the effect on students be?  Getting an offer of a $1,000 merit scholarship is undoubtedly psychologically different than receiving a $1,000 scholarship on top of a $6,000 need-based grant.  And when placed in context with a tuition fee, the effect may vary again.  In other words, we’re heading into a world where Ontario universities – who collectively spend tens of millions of dollars a year on these scholarships – have literally no idea what effect they will have in the minds of the people they are trying to attract.  I suspect we may see one or two institutions re-profile their aid money and head out in very new strategic directions as a result of this.

Universities have a lot of business-process work to do to make net billing work over the next 12 months or so.  But more importantly, they have some big strategic decisions to make about how to dish out money to students in the absence of much hard intelligence.  How they react will be one of the more interesting stories of 2017-18.

August 03

A tipping point for internationalization?

Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow.  Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated.  Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it.  Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization?  We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.

The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say.  And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing.  But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.

To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping.  None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term.  Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit.  But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.

Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable.  If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers.  But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.

Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge.  Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were.  The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country.  The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point.  In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls.  This is not good.

And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries.  The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics.  In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.”  In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech.  These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more.  These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers  will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.

Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today.  Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world.  Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom.  Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.

I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it.  But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years.  Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.

July 25

The low-wage graduate problem

The week before last, the Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) put out a report (available hereon trends on low-paid employment  in Canada from 1997 to 2014 (meaning full-time jobs occupied by 20-64 year olds where the hourly earnings are less than 66% of the national median).  It’s an interesting and not particularly sensationalist report based on Labour Force Survey public-use microdata; however one little factoid has sent many people into a tizzy.  Apparently, the percentage of people with Master’s or PhDs who are in low-wage jobs (where the hourly earnings are less than two-thirds of the national median) had jumped from 7.7% to 12.4%.  This has led to a lot of commentary about over-education, yadda yadda, from the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and so on.

This freak-out is a bit overdone. I won’t argue that the study is good news, but I think there are some things going on underneath the numbers which aren’t given enough of an airing in the media.

First of all, as CSLS explains in great detail, the two important findings are that the incidence of low-wage work in the economy has stayed more or less stable, and second, Canadians on the whole are a lot more educated than they used to be.  This leads to a compositional paradox: even though all seven levels of education saw increases in the incidence of low-wages (see Figure below), overall the fraction of Canadians with low wage jobs dropped ever-so-slightly from 27.9% in 1997 to 27.6% in 2014.

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Now you have to be careful about interpretation here, particularly with respect to charges of “over-education”.  Yes, the proportion of grads in low-wage jobs is going up.  But the average wage income of university graduates is actually increasing: between 1995 and 2010, it rose by 6% after inflation.  And that’s while the number of people in the labour force with a university degree increased by 94%, and the proportion of the labour force with a university degree jumped from 19.3% to 28.7% (I would break out data on Masters/PhD specifically if I could, but public Statscan data does not separate Bachelors from higher degrees). 

What that tells us is that the economy is creating a lot more high-paying jobs which are being filled by an ever-expanding number of graduates.  But at the same time, more graduates are in low-wage jobs, which suggests that while averages are increasing, so is variance around the mean.

Another factor at work here is immigration.  Since the mid-1990s, the number of immigrants over 25 with university degrees has increased from 815,000 (23.2% of all degree holders) to 1.87 million (33% of all degree holders).  It’s not clear how many of those have graduate degrees (thanks Statscan!) but I think it’s reasonable to assume, given the way our immigration points system works, that the proportion of immigrants with advanced degrees is even higher.

The problem is that immigrants with degrees – particularly more recent immigrants – have a really hard time in the Canadian labour market, particularly at the start (see a great Statscan paper on this here).  To some extent this is rational because the degrees and the skills they confer are genuinely not compatible (see my earlier post on this), and to some extent it reflects various forms of discrimination, but that’s not the point here.  There are over one million new immigrants with degrees over the past fifteen or so years, many of them from overseas institutions.  The CSLS-inspired freak-out is about the fact that over the past 17 years the number of degree-holders has increased by 450,000 (of which 130,000 are at the Master’s/PhD level).  Simple logic suggests that most of the problem people are seeing in the CSLS data is more about our inability to integrate educated immigrants than it is about declining returns to education among domestic students.  I know the data CSLS uses doesn’t allow them to look at the results by where a degree was earned, but I’d bet serious money this is the crux of the problem.

So, you know, chill everybody.  Canadian graduates still do OK in the end.  And remember that comparisons of educational outcomes over time that don’t control for immigration need to be taken with a grain of salt.

July 14

Brexit

Morning, all.

Everyone’s writing a Brexit thinkpiece these days.  Literally, everyone.  I’m feeling left out.  So here’s mine.

1) Brexit isn’t a foregone conclusion.  Yes, Leave won 52% of a non-binding referendum based on a pack of lies about the results of future negotiations that would make the PQ blush.  But the UK government has yet to invoke Article 50, the clause in the EU constitution that signals a 2-year countdown to departure, and will certainly not do so until a new PM is chosen.They may not do so until after the French and German elections next year, and as the realities of negotiating a divorce sink in they may never do so (and – irony of ironies, there are not enough trade lawyers in the UK to negotiate such deals, so they are having to import them ) .  Even if they do start negotiations, the final settlement may be so far from the Leave fairytale that there would almost certainly be a huge demand for a second referendum before ratification.  So all this handwringing may be for naught.

2) Even if Brexit doesn’t happen, this episode can cause a lot of damage.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Erasmus student mobility program yet, but with racist incidents up 500% since the vote, you can bet there will fewer European students thinking London is a place they’ll feel secure.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Horizon 2020 European research scheme yet, but multi-national scientific teams have been pulling UK researchers’ names from their proposals in anticipation of Brexit.  And the idea that the UK will make up for the drop in funding?  Good luck with that.  Paradoxically, the longer the uncertainty about Brexit, the less likely the UK will actually pull the trigger; but conversely, the longer they wait, the greater the damage will be.

3) What will happen to International student flows?  Now this is where it gets tricky.  A lot of the focus right now is on EU students, and the fear that they won’t come to the UK because they will have to pay international student fees instead of domestic ones.  But domestic fees are already pretty high (and in humanities and social sciences are set well above the cost of delivery). If universities want to keep those students they could always grant concessionary fees to EU students and keep them paying exactly what they’re paying right now.  No, I think the real issue with EU students has to do with whether students still think the UK is a place they want to spend a part of their lives.  Lots of them now go assuming they can stay and work there: no more.  But it’s not clear that countries like Canada or Australia would be able to pick up on this loss.  If the point of going to London was because it was a “destination” rather than simply a chance to learn English, it’s not obvious that Melbourne or Toronto would be a satisfactory second choice.

It’s the same with non-EU students: you might think that there would be a lot of non-EU students who might be dissuaded from going either because of increasing incidence of racism or because London was no longer a way into the EU.  Since the Tories took power it’s been increasingly difficult for graduating students to immigrate anyway, so it’s unlikely to be the latter: Teresa May’s immigration saw that lot off years ago.  But the racism/intolerance thing?  That’s a vulnerability.

4) Can Canadian universities and colleges cash in on this?  Yes. Advertise a lot in Asian markets where UK currently does well.  Emphasize security and multiculturalism.  Talk about possibilities for immigration.  And do it fast, because odds are the Aussies are already there doing it.

Hope you’re all having a good summer.

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