Higher Education Strategy Associates

December 10

The History of the Smorgasbord

One of the things that clouds mutual understanding of higher education systems across the Atlantic is the nature of the Arts curriculum.  And in particular, the degree to which they actually have them in Europe, and don’t over here.

When students enroll in a higher education program in Europe, they have a pretty good idea of the classes they’ll be taking for the next three years.  Electives are rare; when you enter a program, the required classes are in large part already laid out.  Departments simply don’t think very much in terms of individual courses – they think in terms of whole programs, and share the teaching duties required to get students through the necessary sequence of courses.

If you really want to confuse a European-trained prof just starting her/his career in Canada, ask: “what courses do you want to teach?”  This is bewildering to them, as they assume there is a set curriculum, and they’re there to teach part of it.  As often as not, they will answer: “shouldn’t you be telling me what courses to teach”?  But over here, the right to design your own courses, and have absolute sovereignty over what happens within those courses, is the very definition of academic freedom.

And it’s not just professors who have freedom.  Students do too, in that they can choose their courses to an extent absolutely unknown in Europe. Basically, we have a smorgasbord approach to Arts and Sciences (more the former than the latter) – take a bunch of courses that add up to X credits in this area, and we’ll hand you a degree.  This has huge advantages in that it makes programs flexible and infinitely customizable.  It has a disadvantage in that it’s costly and sacrifices an awful lot of – what most people would call – curricular consistency.

So why do we do this?  Because of Harvard.  Go back to the 1870s, when German universities were the envy of the world.  The top American schools were trying to figure out what was so great about them – and one of the things they found really useful was this idea called “academic freedom”.  But at Harvard, they thought they would go one better: they wouldn’t just give it to profs, they’d give it to students, too. This was the birth of the elective system.  And because Harvard did it, it had to be right, so eventually everyone else did it too.

There was a brief attempt at some of the big eastern colleges to try and put a more standard curriculum in place after World War II, so as to train their budding elites for the global leadership roles they were expected to assume.  It was meant to be a kind of Great Books/Western Civ curriculum, but profs basically circumvented these attempts by arguing for what amounted to a system of credit “baskets”.  Where the university wanted a single course on “drama and film in modern communication” (say), profs argued for giving students a choice between four or five courses on roughly that theme.  Thus, the institution could require students to take a drama/film credit, but the profs could continue to teach specialist courses on Norwegian Noir rather than suffer the indignity of having to teach a survey course (not that they made their case this way – “student choice” was the rallying call, natch).

Canadian universities absorbed almost none of this before WWII – until then, our universities were much closer to the European model.  But afterwards, with the need to get our students into American graduate schools, and so many American professors being hired thereafter (where else could we find so many qualified people to teach our burgeoning undergrad population?), Canadian universities gradually fell into line.  By the 1970s, our two systems had coalesced into their present form.

And that, friends, is how Arts faculties got their smorgasbords and, to a large extent, jettisoned a coherent curriculum.

December 09

Sleepwalking Towards Massively Increased Participation Rates

I was in Berlin last week giving a keynote at the 20th Anniversary conference of the CHE (Centre for Higher Education Policy).  The topic was – promise not to laugh – “What Germany can Learn From Canada”.

You said you wouldn’t laugh.  Last time I trust you lot.

Anyways, the speech basically revolved around the following graph, which shows Canada’s impressive increase in university participation rates:

 Figure 1: 18-21 University Participation Rates, Canada, 1992-2014














So, what did we actually do as a country to achieve this?  Can you name a single province that said: “hey, let’s increase participation rates by 60%!  And here’s an integrated series of policies to get us there!”

Of course you can’t, because it didn’t happen (apart from Ontario eliminating OAC, but that’s a pretty small effect).  Canadians never plan anything.  We just muddle through, and then try to explain what it is we did as if we’d had a clue to begin with.  But try explaining that to a crowd of Germans.  I had to fall back on the whole “Canada is a country that works in practice, but not in theory” gag.  Still, it’s an interesting question: If no government or institution set a 60% growth target fifteen years ago, how did we get here?

Clearly, part of it is demand.  In the 1990s, we still had a lot of unmet demand, especially in Alberta and British Columbia.   There were simply not enough spots to grow around, and so, in part, growth was just a matter of satisfying existing demand.  But demand has clearly risen since then, too.  And why not?  Employment levels for university grads have remained higher than those for other fields of study (in most provinces, anyway) and so have pay levels, even if the gap between university and college has narrowed a bit.

But what made institutions choose to accept these students?  Check out what was happening to operating income per student.

Figure 2: Average Operating Income per FTE Student, Canada, 1992-2012














Basically, we threw money at universities so they would take more students.  Even after increasing student numbers by about 50%, universities were getting more money per student, in real dollars, than they were before the expansion. Institutions simply couldn’t lose by expanding.

This would be easy to explain if in fact universities benefited from formulae that would increase money automatically as student numbers increased.  Now, what’s interesting here is that while governments did increase money every year, they did so regardless of whether they had formulae.  As long as students came, money flowed.  But grant money alone wouldn’t have allowed universities to keep pace.  The rise in tuition fees was necessary to keep the gates open.

But here’s the weird thing: despite all the increases in fees, students didn’t actually end up paying more.  In net terms, costs remained about the same because of the significant increases in various type of subsidies – especially tax credits.

Figure 3: Fees, Net Fees, and Net Fees After Tax Expenditures (TE), Canada, 1992-2009














(Yeah, I know, the data’s a little old on that figure.  It’s the best I’ve got.  Sorry.)

In other words, apart from international student fee income, all the extra fee revenue institutions picked up over the last fifteen years was just government subsidy flowing indirectly to institutions.  Like a huge crazy voucher program in disguise.

Did anyone plan this?  No.  It was a mix of independent federal and provincial decisions, reacting to societal demand for more education.  We muddled through.  But boy, in retrospect, it seems like an awfully messy way to have got here.

Maybe time for a policy clean-up?

December 08

Massachusetts, Not Michigan

TD economist Ed Clark gave an enormously important talk last week, which deserves a lot of attention.  You can get the gist of it from two quotes:

“To return to the path to prosperity, Canada needs to stop wasting time worrying about how to get low-wage jobs back from the U.S. or abroad and start thinking about how to use our well-educated population, immigration policies and public health care to our advantage”.

“Stop competing with Michigan. Start competing with Massachusetts”.

Brilliant.  Couldn’t agree more.  I am fed up with our governments’ weird obsession with showering money and policy attention on blue-collar industries (overwhelmingly male-dominated blue collar industries, I might add).  Time to join the 21st century.

BUT.  Let’s be careful about this.

There will no doubt be some who are eager to use Clark’s words as a “Sputnik moment”.  You know, those times when a perceived scientific or economic threat makes politicians more susceptible to spending money on pretty much anything that looks scientific or knowledge-oriented.  Higher education loves Sputnik moments.

The thing is, no one actually knows how to do this well; that is, nobody really knows what kind of spending or programming actually leads to growth.  One of the problems of being on the technological frontier is that everything is uncertain, and so there’s likely to be a lot of false starts and a lot of waste when looking for the next big thing(s).  But universities (and to a lesser extent colleges) seem like a safe bet, so Sputnik moments are like catnip for them.  All they have to say is “give us bucks because knowledge economy” and politicians will shell out (It’ll be dressed up a bit, but that’s the level of sophistication).

The problem with this argument is that it’s maybe only a quarter of the story.  If pouring money into universities guaranteed economic growth, places like Malaysia, Chile, and Sweden would be world-beaters.  There’s a lot more to high-tech economic growth than education.

To the extent that local research is going to translate into local economic growth, you need managers and entrepreneurs who are skilled at taking research from an idea to proof of concept, and from there to market.  You need pools of investment capital that understand developing technological fields and are prepared to invest patiently in them.  And then of course you need a workforce to actually churn out product.  In the absence of this kind of social and financial infrastructure, funding so-called “basic” research is a lot like pushing on string as far as generating economic growth is concerned.

Then there’s the issue of graduates and the skills they deliver to the economy.  If you want to generate more economic growth matter, you need to make sure that institutions are giving students the kinds of skills that will actually raise private sector productivity levels.  That means much greater attention on the part of employers in articulating the skills and competencies they require as productivity rises, and much greater attention on the part of universities and colleges in providing students with such skills and competencies so as to be employable after graduation.

(Before anyone blows a gasket: I am not suggesting that the purpose of higher education is exclusively to generate skilled labour.  What I am suggesting is that if you’re going to use a Sputnik argument for more money, then you’re going to have to demonstrate how that money improves general productivity.  If you don’t like that deal, then don’t use Sputnik arguments.)

All of which is to say: there’s good news on the horizon in terms of getting everybody focused on a high-innovation, high-productivity economic future in Canada.  But the surest way to waste this opportunity would be to call for wanton expansions of current subsidies to higher education.  Change is needed to make public dollars work more effectively.  We should use this opportunity to make those changes.

December 05

Remembering Polytechnique

Tomorrow is the 25the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.

I remember the trauma of it.  I also remember the way it mobilized people: Now, surely, things would change.  Now, surely, things would be different.

Looking at things today, I’m not sure our 1989 selves would be all that excited about how things have turned out.

Enough from me, though.  My voice isn’t one that matters today.  Just spare a few minutes.  Go to a service.  Remember the dead.  We still need to do right by them.

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique finance department
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

December 04

Why We Can’t Have Nice Institutional Data

We’ve all heard of Open Universities, and we’ve all heard of Open Data.  But have you ever heard of Open University Data?

Me neither.  And there’s a reason for that.  Two, actually.  Lack of volition, and lack of co-ordination.

Lack of volition is the easy one.  Higher Education is a prestige economy.  The cardinal rule is: do not diminish your institution’s prestige.  The institution must be presented in the best possible light at all times.  Therefore, there is no incentive – absolutely none – for anyone to do anything that might put the institution in a negative light vis-à-vis other institutions.

(My favourite example of this is one time when we asked a group of institutions to provide us some institutional data in .csv format, which was ALREADY PUBLICLY AVAILABLE in .pdf, so that we could avoid the tedious business of transcribing a few of thousand data points from a couple of hundred documents.  We were denied.  Because… well we never quite worked that out.  I suppose it’s simply because they can. In any event, an external company we use to do low-end data scraping ended up a couple of hundred dollars wealthier as a result.)

Not that this means institutions don’t produce or use data.  They do – lots of it.  What they don’t do is put data out in the public realm in a way that would allow unfavourable comparisons to be drawn.  And they’re not precluded from producing comparable inter-institutional data, either.  The U-15, for example, produce a huge amount of comparable data.  I’ve never seen the full list of stuff that gets covered by the U-15 data sharing agreement, but I’m told it’s terrifyingly large, allowing for some truly meaningful, granular comparisons.  They just don’t publish it.  Indeed, I’ve been told by someone who’s seen the agreement (and whom I have no reason to doubt) that there is data in there that institutions are not even permitted to share with their own governing boards.  Which, if true, would be interesting, to say the least.

(Yes, yes, there are the various regional common data initiatives.  But on key issues where anyone would actually care about results, data is usually either fudged or displayed with so many caveats as to be essentially useless.  And in Ontario at least, the data is deliberately spread over 20-odd websites precisely to make it as hard as humanly possible to actually use data for comparative purposes.  So, no, that doesn’t count.)

Now, none of this makes Canadian universities distinctive.  This happens all over the world.  The difference is that other countries have national ministries of education that can, on occasion, push institutions to produce common data.  If institutions start to whine about it, the ministry simply starts to withhold cheques (provinces could play this role, of course, but with the exception of BC none of ours ever really seem to try).  All we have is Statscan, which does not have the power of the pursestrings to compel data (in theory it could use the Stats Act to compel data, but that’s the administrative equivalent of going nuclear, so in practice it doesn’t happen).

So yeah, the rest of the Anglophone commonwealth have ways of publicly comparing research performance at the department level, but we don’t.  In Australia, every program in every school can tell you the exact cut-off mark it took to enter that program, but we can’t.  In Bulgaria – BULGARIA – they can do a Ross Finnie and tell you average salaries for every program in every institution in the country for five years out, because everyone is required to link their graduate data into the social security database.  Here, there’s just nobody to co-ordinate the effort, or override the cover-your-ass, never-give-out-information-that-might-one-day-be-used-against-you practices, which are the norm in Canadian higher education.

There are ways to solve this problem.  Unfortunately, nearly all of them involve coercion.  The current system is just too convenient for too many people to be abandoned without a fight.

December 03

Solving the Fees Problem

So, here’s the problem: Canadian governments are mostly broke.  Even the ones that didn’t look broke a couple of months ago (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) are now very definitely broke (especially Newfoundland).  There’s no money for PSE.  Everybody knows that.

So, equally, everyone knows that the only way institutions are going to avoid a crunch is either by turning themselves into finishing schools for the Asian middle class, or by charging domestic students higher tuition fees.  No one genuinely thinks the former is a sensible long-term solution, and yet that’s the way we’re heading because Canadian families and the politicians who represent them are resistant to the idea of a rise in fees.

To be clear, resistance does not arise because anyone really thinks fees deter access.  Even the dopiest politician knows that participation rates today are over 50% higher than they were 20 years ago when nominal tuition was about half what it is now (certain student groups are indeed that dopey, but that’s another story).  No, the reason people don’t want more fees is because too many people think that what universities and colleges are offering isn’t worth what they’re charging.

This is of course insane because, as we know, Canadians, on aggregate, are paying Net Zero Tuition for post-secondary education.  We have $7.2 billion going out every year in various forms of aid – exactly equal to what universities and colleges charge in tuition to domestic students – and apparently no one notices.  The focus is exclusively on the sticker price, never on the net price, which in many cases is negative.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the opacity of our student aid system.  We prevent students from working out their student aid package before they apply, and then we hand out as much of our aid as possible at the back end where no one will notice it.

It’s madness.  And it has to change.  We need to make it a lot more obvious what a great deal people are getting.  We need to make it so that when governments spend money to make it easier for people to go to school, the people being helped actually realize they are being helped.

This is going to require coordination.  Our confusing system is a product of the fact that many different players (feds, provinces, institutions) designed it so that it met their own administrative needs and desires for visibility, not the needs of students.  We need all of them to agree to make it less complicated, more predictable, and more visible.  That means, above all, ditching tax credits and either turning them into (hopefully targeted) grants or transferring them to institutions in return for a reduction in tuition.

Can’t be done, you say, because governments like to take credit for tax expenditures?  Tosh.  It’s abundantly clear that the public has no idea the credits even exist, so governments could hardly do worse than what they do now.  Besides, there’s precedent to show it’s good politics: in 2012, Quebec ditched some tax credits in order to pay for improved student aid, and back in 1999, Manitoba explicitly ditched a refundable tax credit to pay for a tuition roll-back (meaning the roll-back cost the government nothing, and students were in fact no better off at the end of the day, but boy did the NDP make hay out of that one).

So it’s doable.  But someone has to get the provinces and the feds to sit down together to make them do it.  The only people who can do this are the institutions: specifically, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CIC).  Only they have the clout to get the provinces and the federal government in the same room to hammer out a deal.  And it’s eminently in their interest to do so.  Until Canadians rediscover what a fantastically good deal they actually have in their higher education system, the likelihood of more funds heading their way is pretty slight.

December 02

The Bologna Process Now

I was in Bucharest last week at the Bologna Process Researchers Conference (I chaired the Social Dimension/Equity Track), hosted by Romania’s amazingly productive higher education agency, UEFISCDI (don’t ask what it stands for).  So I thought it would be a good time to talk about where Bologna is at these days.

The Bologna Process started back in 1998, essentially as a labour mobility measure.  Prior to Bologna, Europe had a bewildering variety of first degrees, lasting anywhere from two to six years, all of which had different names.  This made labour mobility more difficult.  How is a Portuguese employer  supposed to understand what skills the holder of a Lithuanian first-degree possesses?  Even if she could read it, she’d have no idea what the degree consisted of, what skills were imparted, etc.

Bologna was meant to deal with that in two ways.  The first was to harmonize degree structures and lengths.  Thus, the formula “3+2+3” for Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorates.  This formula is a bit reductionist, and first degrees can in many cases still be more than 3 years (the Scots, for instance, kept their four year structure), and can still have different names (the French got to keep “license”, since “Baccalaureat” was already taken).  But for the most part harmonization was achieved.

The second part of Bologna dealt with Quality Assurance.  If this new European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was going to make sense – that is, if students from Bulgaria were going to be able to seamlessly transfer into Finnish universities (or whatever) – there had to be some way to assure that the degrees in different parts of the EHEA were in fact compatible.  This led to the creation of harmonized Quality Assurance processes to ensure this was the case.  And while I’ve never heard anyone claim that a degree from an Albanian university is equivalent to one from (say) a French university, this common framework nevertheless seems to have had a positive effect on student mobility.

The problem is that the heavy lifting on Bologna – actually changing national legislation with respect to degrees and quality assurance – was all finished years ago.  So what is there to keep the “Bologna Process” going?  Well, there are on-going implementation issues.  But more importantly there is the attempt to keep adding items to the supra-national agenda – things such as teaching and learning, lifelong learning, the “social dimension” (i.e. equity).

Unfortunately, while these are all interesting issues, the implementation of any of these are fundamentally stuck at the national level.  The usual suspects might want to supra-nationalize things like access – in the same way that here in Canada they clamour for a federal role to oversee those mean, nasty provinces – but it ain’t going to happen.

In the absence of anything implementable, “Bologna” is increasingly a free-floating forum for higher education modernizers to exchange ideas and experience.  That’s not nothing – I’d argue Canada could use a bit more of this, for instance – but it’s not very compelling, either.  The Process is thus beginning to resemble a car without an engine.

Can it be revived?  Yes, and I would argue that it probably will be.  Soon enough, people will start asking the question “so, this EHEA… what’s it for, exactly?”  And given the state of the European economy, the answer to that question is surely going to be “growth”.   That implies a focus on education quality, innovation, technology transfer, and university-business co-operation.

That’s a somewhat different set of preoccupations than the ones now at the centre of Bologna.  The shift should be interesting.

December 01

Better Know a Higher Ed System: India (Part 3)

The basic situation in Indian higher education right now is as follows:

The national government is putting most of its new money into the creation of new institutions (IITs, mainly), which are elite in local – but not international – terms.  That placates the politically powerful upper-middle class, but does very little for access. The rest of the public sector is required to chug along with limited funds.

Capacity-absorption (that is, dealing with the growth in demand) is essentially being left to the private sector.  But the developing private sector looks a lot more like the one in Latin America than the ones we see in China or Eastern Europe.  That is to say, instead of having some reasonably-sized institutions that can use economies of scale to provide mass teaching at a reasonable quality, what India is getting are literally tens of thousands of tiny, sub-standard institutions.

Not that it’s impossible for some of these small institutions to break out from the pack.  A few have done so, such as my particular favourite, Lovely Professional University in Punjab (it is named after the founder’s family business, an odd mix of sweet shops and car dealerships).  It’s gone from zero to 25,000 students in about a decade, but that’s very rare, and rests on having been “deemed a university” before the University Grants Commission (UGC) instituted a moratorium on new universities of this type.  No one is getting that chance any more, and new Lovely Professionals are likely to be few and far between.

Broadly, there are four things that need to happen here.

First, private money needs to get funneled into larger institutions, including public ones.  With the national government seemingly unwilling to do anything but throw money at the top end, the neglected middle needs money somehow – and the best somehow is tuition.  Right now, millions pay it in significant amounts to go to sub-standard colleges; it is simply incomprehensible why one wouldn’t want that money go into institutions of higher quality.  Currently the government keeps tuition low (roughly $250/year) in public institutions (while allowing it to float in private ones) on largely spurious grounds of accessibility.  Let tuition rise, create better student aid systems, whatever – but letting private money into public institutions is a necessity.

Second, whether by carrot or stick, institutions need to be encouraged to merge.  A system of 1,500 colleges with 10,000 students apiece will be enormously better for the country than a system of 30,000 institutions with 500 students apiece.  How it happens is secondary – it simply has to happen.

Third, too much regulatory power rests in Delhi; de-centralization is needed.  Even though 90% of universities are funded privately or by state governments, the UGC still effectively controls the entire system, including the curriculum.   A system serving a country of over a billion people is simply too large to run from the centre.  The centre should continue to regulate the 40 or so universities it funds directly; for everyone else, power needs to be transferred to the states.  There will undoubtedly be the odd catastrophe during the transition, but in the long run it will be worth it.

Finally, there needs to be a lot more diversity of provision, and a shift from input-based to outcome-based regulation.   Decentralization is useless if the states just replicate what the UGC is currently doing.   The UGC is innovation-averse and prone to politically-motivated interference in universities affairs (see, for instance, its sabotaging of Delhi U’s attempts to modernize its curriculum through the creation of four-year degrees).  More openness – including an openness to foreign institutions setting up shop in India – would not go amiss.

Of course, the chances of any of this happening are pretty remote… for which Canadian institutions should be thankful: it’s precisely India’s inability to improve its own system that is creating such marvellous market opportunities for our own institutions.  Lucky us.

November 28

Better Know a Higher Ed System: India (Part 2)

If you look at India’s higher education system, there are essentially two problems.

1)      Access.  This is a big country.  And so while 13 million or so students sounds like a lot, it’s only about half what China has – and sure, China’s a little bigger than India (1.36 billion vs. 1.25 billion), but thanks to its one-child policy, it’s youth population is actually smaller, meaning that the gap in participation rates is even bigger.  And, as in any rapidly modernizing country, it has an increasing number of young people who have their sights set on going to higher education.  Accommodating them is clearly a big job.

(Speaking of access, it’s worth noting that this term doesn’t mean quite what it does over here.  Here, we think mainly about access in terms of income or, if you’re a little more Marxist in your thinking, class.  In India, “equity” usually means evening out disparities by state [which is indirectly about income, but that’s not how the question is framed], or by Scheduled Castes [SC], Scheduled Tribes [ST] and Other Backward Classes [OBC – and yes, really that’s what they call it].   Collectively, these three groups make up between 40 and 50% of the Indian population, and so one popular measure to increase equity is what Americans would [but Indians don’t] call affirmative action – 45% of spots at central universities are reserved for these groups.  State governments have forced reservation policies on private universities of a similar nature, though usually the ones not receiving government aid are required to take fewer ST/SC/OBCs.)

2)      Quality.  It is a never-ending source of dismay to Indians themselves that they have only a single institute in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (Indian Institute of Science), while China has 28.  The reason for this isn’t hard to work out.  Indian universities traditionally focused very heavily on arts and humanities; the institutions that did focus on Science and Engineering tended to be small and narrowly-focused.  Neither of those profiles wins you points in international rankings.  But more broadly, infrastructure at most Indian universities is substandard, and professorial pay is more or less designed to keep bright scientific talent in the private sector.

You’d think there’d be a simple solution to both these problems: spend more money.  But India already spends about 2% of GDP on education, with half coming from the public sector and half from fees; proportionately, that’s well above the OECD average.  And since 2007, annual real increases in funding have averaged about 7%.  But money alone doesn’t make a difference – you have to spend it the right way.  And the central government’s priority seems to be neither improving access nor improving the existing IITs; instead, a significant amount of the new money is going to create new IITs and IIMs, and distributing them further around the country.  That’s great for the upper-middle class, which frets about getting their kids into these schools the way the American upper-middle class frets about getting their kids into the Ivy League.  But it’s not clear that it does very much either for access or quality in a broad sense.

Is there a solution here?  Sure.  But it lies in some painful changes to regulation, funding and management.  More next week.

November 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System: India (Part 1)

India is a big, crazy, multi-faceted, barely-functioning-but-still-impressive-it’s-functioning-at-all kind of country.  So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that its higher education system is a big, crazy, multi-faceted, barely-functioning- but-still-impressive-it’s-functioning-at-all kind of system.

The indigenous tradition of higher education stretches back to the 6th century AD.  Back then, Nalanda University was a world-centre of (mostly) Buddhist learning, which attracted students from Nepal, China, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.  Nalanda was also the first university with student dorms, and (allegedly) developed the first library cataloguing system.  But since Nalanda was destroyed by the Mamluks in the 12th century, its influence on modern Indian higher education has been zero.  Rather, the roots of the current education system can be traced to a very small number of institutions founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the British.

As in many colonial systems, these universities both bred nationalist revolutionaries, and gave those same revolutionaries an unshakeable belief that the English education system at the time of independence was the pinnacle of human achievement and should never be altered on any account whatsoever.  Which was a bit of a problem since those institutions were almost entirely Humanities-based with little by the way of Social Sciences, let alone the hard Sciences and Engineering.  That was (almost) OK if you thought of universities primarily as a place for civil service training; it wasn’t even vaguely OK if you wanted to build an advanced economy.

The basic institutional division in contemporary Indian higher education is between “universities”, which can grant degrees, and “colleges”, which cannot; the colleges are all affiliated to universities, meaning that college students take the exams of the affiliated university and receive their credential from there (remember BC’s university colleges in the late-80s/early 90s? Like that).  Colleges don’t get to choose their affiliate university; rather, each university has a geographic “catchment area” in which it has an effective monopoly.

Today, there are roughly 550 universities and 33,000 colleges.  (In case you’re wondering, that works out to an average enrolment per college of about 500, which from an efficiency point of view is madness.)  Most universities are funded by state governments, but the central government directly funds about 40 universities (mainly prestigious ones like Delhi U.).  It also funds another 110 or so “degree-awarding institutions”, which are not technically universities – the world-famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Management (IIM) come under this heading.  There are also another 12,000 or so diploma institutions, which, if you squint hard enough, are analogous to our community colleges.

Though India is often thought of as quite statist, its higher education system has a very large private sector – in fact, pretty much the largest in the entire world.  Of those 550 universities, roughly 200 are private, as are about 19,000 of the 33,000 colleges, and 55% of the student body is enrolled in private institutions.  Complicating things still further is the fact that some private universities (mainly ones that were founded before the 1970s) receive quite substantial grants, while others receive nothing; on the flip side, cash-strapped public universities now run a large number of full-cost-recovery programs, and therefore are themselves substantially privately funded.

Managing a system like this is pretty chaotic – all the more so when you have an insane regulatory system, plus conflicting and insistent demands both to focus on access and to improve quality.  But more about that next time.

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