Higher Education Strategy Associates

May 21

AHELO: Universities Behaving Badly

So there’s some excitement being generated this month with respect to the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO).  Roughly speaking, AHELO is the higher education equivalent of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), or the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).  It consists of a general test of critical thinking skills (based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment), plus a couple of subject-matter tests that test competencies in specific disciplines.  AHELO completed its pilot phase a couple of years ago, and OECD is now looking to move this to a full-blown regular survey.

Not everyone is keen on this.  In fact, OECD appears to moving ahead with this despite extremely tepid support among OECD education ministers, which is somewhat unusual.  Critics make a number of points against AHELO, which mostly boil down to: a) it’s too expensive, and it’s taking resources away from other more important OECD efforts in higher education; b) low-stakes testing generally is BS; and, c) intrinsically, trying to measure student outcomes internationally is invalid because curricula vary so much from place to place.

The critics have half a point.  It’s true that AHELO is expensive and is crowding-out other OECD activities.  And it’s not entirely clear why OECD is burning this much political capital on a project with so little ministerial support.  But while there is some credibility to the low-stakes testing issue, it hasn’t stopped either PISA or PIAAC from being huge successes, helping to inform policy around the world.  And as for different curricula: that’s the point.  Part of what government wants to know is whether or not what is being taught in universities is bringing students up to international standards of competency.

But what’s notable about the charge against AHELO are the people who are against it.  In the main, it’s associations of universities in rich countries, such as the American Council on Education, Universities Canada, and their counterparts in the UK and Europe.  And make no mistake, they are not doing so because they think there are better ways to compare outcomes; quite simply, these folks do not want comparisons to be made.

Now, this wouldn’t be a terrible position to take if it were done because universities dislike comparisons based on untested or iffy social science.  But of course, that’s not the case, is it?  Top universities are more than happy to play ball with rankings organizations like Times Higher Education, where the validity of the social science is substantially more questionable than AHELO’s.

Institutional opposition to AHELO, for the most part, plays out the same way as opposition to U-Multirank, it’s a defence of privilege: top universities know they will do well on comparisons of prestige and research intensity.  They don’t know how they will do on comparisons of teaching and learning.  And so they oppose it, and don’t even bother to suggest ways to improve comparisons.

Is AHELO perfect?  Of course not.  But it’s better than nothing – certainly, it would be an improvement over the mainly input-based rankings that universities participate in now – and could be improved over time.  The opposition of top universities (and their associations) to AHELO is shameful, hypocritical, and self-serving.  They think they can get away with this obstructionism because the politicking is all done behind the scenes – but they deserve to be held to account.

May 20

Who Wins and Who Loses in the “Top 100 Under 50″ Rankings

The annual Times Higher Education “Top 100 Under 50” universities came out a few weeks ago.  Australians were crowing about their success, and a few people in Canada noticed that Canada didn’t do so well – only four spots: Calgary 22nd, Simon Fraser 27th, UQAM 85th, and Concordia 96th.   So, today, we ask the question: why do young Canadian universities not fare well on these rankings?

Well, one way to look at this is to ask: “who does well at these rankings?”  And the answer, as usual, is that the ones that make it to the very, very top are some pretty specialized, ludicrously well-funded places, which have no obvious Canadian equivalent.  For example:

  • ETH Lausanne (top school) has 5,000 undergraduates and 4,500 graduate students, making it Harvard-like in its student balance.  They do this despite, in theory, having an open-access system in place for domestic students; in practice, weaker students self-select out Lausanne because the failure rate in year 1 is so high (roughly 50%, higher in Math and Physics).  It may be the only university in the world to operate not just a nuclear reactor but also a fusion reactor as well.  The institution has base (i.e. operations) funding of slightly over $800 million Canadian, which works out to a ludicrous $80,000 per student.
  • Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) (2nd place) has an even more ridiculous 1,300 undergraduates and 2,100 graduates.  Its budget is a slightly smaller $250 million US (still over $60K per student), but it has a $2 billion endowment from its founder, POSCO (a major steel manufacturer in Korea), as well as a heavy tie-up with POSCO for applied research.  (A good history of Postech can be found here).  Again, no Canadian university had those kind of advantages growing up

You get the picture.  It’s a similar deal at Korea’s KAIST and Singapore’s Nanyang (both in the top five).  UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz are also in the top ten, and while the California system is currently experiencing some problems, these institutes continue to feed off the massive support the UC’s used to receive.  And since the THE rankings heavily privilege money and research intensity, you can see why these kinds of institutions score well ahead of Canadian schools, where implicit rules prevent any institution from reaching these degrees of research-intensity.

But look again at that Australian article I linked to above.  No fewer than 16 Australian universities made the top 100, and the reasons cited for their successes – public funding, stable regulation, English language, other cultural factors – all of these factors exist in Canada.  So why does Australia succeed where Canada doesn’t?

The explanation is actually pretty simple: on average, our universities are substantially older than Australia’s.  Even among the four Canadian schools, two arguably don’t actually meet the “under 50” criteria (Calgary was founded in 1945, though did not become an independent institution until 1966; Concordia dates from 1974, but the two colleges that merged to form it date back to 1896 and 1926, respectively).  Outside of those four, the only Canadian institutions with over 10,000 residential students, founded after 1965, are Lethbridge, Kwantlen, and Fraser Valley (though, depending on how you define “founding date”, presumably you could also make a case for Regina, MacEwan, and Mount Royal).  In Australia, only one-third of universities had degree-granting status before 1965.

The “under-50” designation effectively screens-out most institutions in countries that were early adopters of mass higher education.  The US, for instance, has only seven institutions on the THE list, five of which are in the late-developing West and South, and none of which are in the traditional higher education heartland of the Northeast.  It’s an arbitrary cut-off date, which has expressly been drawn in such a way that puts Asian universities in a better light.  It’s worth keeping that in mind when examining the results.

May 19


One of the favourite terms being bandied about on campuses these days is “mismanagement”.  According to some, everything would be fine if it weren’t for “mismanagement” – if weren’t for “mismanagement”, there would be no money problems, and life would be simply swimming.

The problem is that it’s not 100% clear what people mean by “mismanagement”.  It seems that, in fact, there are a few possible definitions:

1)      Malfeasance: This does happen occasionally, more often than not in areas related to construction and facilities management.  This is mismanagement, if not in the overt sense, then at least in the sense of not having adequate controls.

2)      Slip-ups/errors in judgement: To err is human.  In every big organization, mistakes are made every day.  These things tend to be fairly minor in scope, but intensely annoying if for some reason the mistake affects one’s own work.  Still, it’s unlikely that universities and colleges are more afflicted with these than any other large complex organization.  There’s a reason Dilbert is set in the private sector, for instance.  

3)      Paperwork: Judging by the whinging that goes on, many academic staff seem to equate paperwork with over-management, which by definition (to some) is “mismanagement”.  As with slip-ups, this kind of stuff is pretty routine in large organizations, and is not specific to post-secondary education.  Try working in government.

But actual mismanagement is none of these things.  Mismanagement is where people are systematically prioritizing, or spending money, on the wrong things (e.g. spending millions on a lazy river, for instance, or where resources are being over-committed to a particular project or line-item to no good effect – e.g. paying your President twice in the same year).  This does happen of course, but on the whole the amounts of resources involved are trivial compared to overall institutional spending.

The problem is that “wrong things” are in the eye of the beholder.  Thus, there is a noticeable tendency these days for academics with a grudge to assign the term “mismanagement” to activities with which they disagree (and that, by definition, means less money available for one’s own pet projects).  Spending “too much” on internationalization, prioritizing field of study A over field of study B or – god forbid – constructing a new building?  Obviously, the institution is being run by cretins or saboteurs who “mismanage” funds!  In some cases, this might be mismanagement; more often, it’s simply a difference of opinion about how to achieve institutional goals.

This would all be fairly harmless were it not for the fact that students’ and academics’ increasing use of the term “mismanagement” is coming at a time when it is increasingly difficult for institutions to obtain funds.  Blaming institutional financial woes on “mismanagement” is tactical ineptitude of the highest magnitude because it gives government license to freeze or cut payments, and thus exacerbate the problem.  “Really?” says the Government, “It’s management ineptitude that’s causing all the funding problems, not frozen tuition or stagnant government transfers?  Gosh, I guess you don’t need this $X million in operating grants, then – just manage yourselves better and it’ll be all right.” 

Obviously, true mismanagement and malfeasance needs to be called out.  There’s never an excuse for wasting resources.  But labelling political disagreements as “mismanagement” is both wrong and harmful.  It needs to stop.

May 08

The Economic Growth Imperative

A quick note: the OTTSYD will be on brief hiatus next week, as I’ll be in Japan and won’t have regular access to my computer.  Not to worry, though, we’ll pick back up on the 18th.

Anyways: I was asked recently what I thought was the most important challenge for post-secondary education in Canada at the moment.  Resisting (barely) the flip answer “money”, I eventually settled on the allied concept of “learning how to promote economic growth and prosperity”.

Now, I know this theme is anathema to many in universities, who prefer to think of institutions as places to promote the pursuit of truth, beauty, etc.  Without wishing to dispute the importance of these goals, the pursuit of economic growth is simply a matter of self-interest.  Universities and colleges are not getting more money from tuition any time soon, largely because the perception of costs has drifted a long way from the actual net costs.  And as we saw earlier this week, there’s no new money coming from government this year, or any time in the near future.  The culprits?  A mix of adverse demographic trends and persistent slow economic growth.

Universities and colleges can’t do much about demographic change – they could be slightly less zealous about condom distribution during O-week, I suppose, but the pay-off is pretty long-term – but they can probably do something about economic growth.   In theory, PSE institutions can help themselves by working-out how to catalyze prosperity.  The problem is that universities, in particular, may not actually want to make the necessary changes to make this happen.

Let’s start by agreeing that we don’t actually know what specific higher education policies would maximize prosperity.  There’s this assumption that whatever we do now must be improving things, so let’s just continue on with only incremental changes.  But we actually have no idea if we’re teaching the right mix of skills, or competencies, or degrees to maximize growth.  We don’t know whether institutions can do more for growth by focusing on a few highly-qualified personnel (mostly PhDs), or by providing better education to a mass of students unlikely to go past the Bachelor’s level.  We don’t know what amount or types of experiential learning might be optimal. And while obviously it would be better all around if we understood these things, one still has to ask the question: if we knew the answer, would our institutions actually change as a result?  Or would internal resistance to things like more co-op, or a greater focus on undergraduate education (or whatever) stop them from doing the “right” thing?

It’s a similar case with research.  Say we had a better idea about how different types of research impacted short-, medium- and long-term growth, and we could say with some precision that re-jigging the system to be more/less focused on basic research, or more less/focused on (say) Life Sciences would likely result in larger economic payouts.  We don’t have any such idea of course – you’d think someone would have cracked some of this by now, but they haven’t – but if they had, would anyone whose research specialty/style not among the “correct” categories voluntarily change their research programs to help promote economic prosperity?  My guess is they’d sooner spend a lot of time contesting the economic research.

So there’s a choice here for institutions: continue doing what they are doing and worry about declining resources, or change things up to focus more on economic dynamism, and reaping rewards of higher income?  This is a discussion worth having sooner rather than later.

May 07

Funding Formulas 101

So I’ve been asked to act as a member of the “reference group” (that is, a group of individuals from whom advice may be sought, but which is not technically an advisory group – yeah, I know, it’s a bit odd) for the government of Ontario’s funding formula review.  Since everyone’s about open government these days, I thought I’d make public some of my views on the subject of funding formulae so you can get a sense of what I’m contributing to the discussion behind the scenes.

So, first off: does Ontario actually need a change to its funding formula?  For purely housekeeping reasons, yes.  It’s been about 40 years since the formula was last re-written, and it looks increasingly jerry-rigged (I can’t find a completely up-to-date version of the Ontario formula online, but here’s an ungated 2009 version that, minus some jiggery-pokery around education students, is still pretty much what’s in the system today).

But we need to be clear about what a funding formula amendment can achieve.  The government seems to be under the impression that a new funding system can help institutions better contain costs (it can’t), or support differentiation (it can, but only if you stretch the term “formula” to include a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly algebraic).  Other stakeholders seem to think that a funding formula change might improve financing for institutions.  This it can do in theory, but not – in Ontario at least – in practice.

At a very broad level, funding formulas come in two types: determinative and allocative.  In a determinative formula, the government plugs all the relevant numbers into a formula, and out the other end comes a number that tells the government how much to spend.  These are pretty rare: Australia has a system like this, as does the United Arab Emirates.  Governments tend to dislike these formulas because they hand control of overall spending to bodies outside of government: as long as universities keep admitting people, governments have to keep spending (in the UAE’s case, it also led to Treasury trying to meddle in the admissions process as a way to keep expenditures under control). Instead, most formulas are allocative: government determines how much it wants to spend, and then uses a formula to divide that amount between all the institutions.  That’s very definitely how Ontario’s formula works right now, and I think it is safe to say the current review isn’t going to change that.

Tinkering with an allocative formula will certainly make some universities better off, but by definition it can’t make them all better off.  Indeed, winners and losers tend to be more or less equally balanced.  You can tweak the formula to help institutions that are more research-focused, but small institutions will pay; you can put more money to fund Fine Arts programs, but other fields of study will have to lose money to balance it out.

Another thing about funding formulas: the amount of difference they make to institutional behaviour is basically proportional to the percentage of the total bill that government foots.  In Quebec, where institutions are dependent on government for 80% of their money, changes to funding formulas matter a heck of a lot more than they do in Ontario, where the government share of operating expenditures is closer to 40%.

All of which is to say: let’s not kid ourselves that this funding formula review is going to change very much.  This is a risk-averse government, which dislikes seeing too many losers.  For some reason, they have initiated a process that has the potential to create a lot of losers.  My best guess is there will be a lot of interesting ideas thrown around, which will cause a lot of angst; in the end we’ll have a model that may have a very different set of indicators and coefficients, but will leave the actual distribution of money across institutions more or less unchanged.  Think of it as a policy process as written by Giueseppi de Lampedusa: everything will change, so that everything may stay the same

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the process, and to writing more about funding formulas.  More later.

May 06

Bill 100

A couple of weeks ago, the government of Nova Scotia introduced a very strange bill in the legislature.  Though nobody directly describes it this way, Bill 100 is effectively an academic Chapter 11: a set of rules under which a university can, in effect, declare bankruptcy and re-organize itself.

The basics of the Bill: in the event of a university getting into financial trouble, it will be permitted to submit a “revitalization plan” to government.  Assuming said plan finds favour with the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, the government will, in effect, suspend certain existing provisions of collective bargaining agreements in order to allow the institution to restructure – most notably the bits around financial exigency, which at some institutions require management to go through farcically-complicated rigmaroles in order to do fairly straightforward things, like lay-off staff in chronically under-enrolled programs (see for instance, pages 68-78 of St. FX’s 245-page Collective Agreement – yes, really – for an example).  Effectively, these provisions make it impossible, in practice, to carry out serious restructuring; hence, government’s interest in providing institutions with tools to do an end-run around them.

What has faculty unions up in arms are the Bill’s provisions suspending some the right to strike, and the right to grieve during the restructuring process.  Opponents of the Bill call these provisions unconstitutional.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  On the face of it, these provisions do seem contrary at least to the spirit of recent Supreme Court decisions on the right to strike, though presumably the province’s lawyers aren’t completely asleep at the switch, and have some reasonable grounds for assuming the Bill will survive judicial review.

In some ways, this is a fight over nothing – it’s not as though universities are going to be lining up to use the Bill’s provisions.  Any institutions choosing to go down this route would be heading into a reputational and regulatory nightmare, (Julia Wright of Dalhousie makes some useful points re: the inadequacy of the Bill when it comes to externally accredited programs here).  It’s a very, very last resort.

So why is the province creating a mechanism no one will want to use?  Simple: the real purpose of this bill is to put faculty on notice that the “public university put” is over.  Academic unions ignore the issue of universities’ ability to pay ever-increasing wage settlements by assuming that, at the end of the day, universities are “too big to fail”, and governments will come along and bail out universities if spending commitments get too big.  By laying-out a mechanism by which universities can fail, government is signalling that it is in fact quite prepared to see them do so.  This, in theory, should moderate wage demands.

Various faculty groups have made submissions on the bill (see CAUT’s submission here), and with some justification I think have pointed out the troubling aspects of restricting the right to strike and the right to grieve.  What they are – I think willfully – ignoring is institutions’ growing financial crisis, and governments’ growing frustration with the inability of institutions to manage their wage bills.  As far as governments are concerned, everybody else in the public sector makes wage sacrifices in difficult times – why do faculty unions think they should be exempt from this?  Unless academic unions can come up with a persuasive answer to this question, they should expect more legislation like Bill 100.

May 05

The Evolution of Institutional Government Relations

I was speaking yesterday at the Government Relations Officers Conference in Banff, and it got me thinking about how the field has changed over the last 20 years.

I started in government relations back in 1996, working for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) – now “Universities Canada”.  Back then, most medium-to-large institutions had government relations officers, but not government relations offices.  There would be one person, maybe with an assistant.  Their role was essentially to act as a go-between from university Presidents, to the upper-middle level of provincial bureaucracies.  Presidents themselves did the heavy lifting of dealing with ministers and premiers; AUCC did nearly all the work in Ottawa, and was in a very real sense the “voice of universities”.

Today, of course, government relations are quite different.  It’s not uncommon for big research universities to have GR shops of six to ten people.   Many big research institutions now have people who are permanently – or semi-permanently – in Ottawa, and indeed they have founded their own lobbying group, the U15, precisely so that AUCC is no longer the sole “voice of universities”.

There’s a question here, naturally: is all this extra work and personnel “worth it”?  Are universities getting more bang for their GR buck than they did 20 years ago?  It’s hard to tell, of course, because of the lack of a genuine counterfactual; but for what it’s worth, my thought is that returns to government relations expenditures are decreasing, but that the situation in the late 1990s was probably completely unsustainable.

In the late 1990s, higher education was an easier sell to a core demographic of voters – and hence to politicians.  Boomers had teenage kids, and postsecondary was a major concern; now, they are more concerned with ensuring their own (or occasionally their parents’) health care.  Money might not have been much more plentiful in the late 1990s, but the argument for post-secondary was a lot easier to make back then, and frankly it took fewer people to make it.

Also, universities and colleges were considerably simpler institutions 20 years ago.  It took less time to explain the role of various parts of institutions, and there were fewer institutional partners to whom these explanations were due.  And the rise of “accountability culture” had not yet, well, arisen.  There were fewer reports to government, less pressure to demonstrate value for money, and the need to do community relations in tandem with government relations was considerably less.

Finally, over the past 20 years, government relations became an arms race.  In part, that’s because institutions were competing with one another for government money, but more importantly they were fighting against increasingly large government relations efforts from other sectors, which were also after government funds.  As others raised the bar, it was difficult for institutions not to respond in kind.

So, yes, government relations used to yield a lot more money per government relations officer than they do now.  And so to that extent, the folks in universities who see the expansion of government relations offices as examples of administrative bloat have a case.  But on the other hand, the policy environment is considerably more challenging than it used to be.  Universities and colleges – like other public entities – need to run harder just to stay in place.

If institutions had more flexibility in cutting costs, if their first reaction to any financial challenge weren’t always to raise more money, the need for expanded government relations might be less.  But since that’s not the case, it seems to me our institutions need as many people spreading the word about their good works as they can get.

May 04

Worst Set of Provincial Budgets This Century

It’s the first week of May, and at HESA Towers that means it’s provincial budget analysis time.  As of now, nine of ten provinces have submitted budgets.  Sure, PEI is missing, and Alberta is presumably going to have to re-do its budget once the election’s over, but neither of them is likely to have a budget before June, so now’s as good a time as any.

(Islanders feeling slighted may rest assured they are not being singled out.  Our policy is to ignore anyone who can’t get a budget passed by May.  Last year we ignored Quebec.)

Some standard but important caveats on this data: What we’re comparing here is announced spending in provincial budgets from year-to-year.  But what gets allocated and what gets spent are two different things; Quebec in particular has a habit of delivering mid-year cuts to institutions, and student aid budgets can change rapidly if there is a shift in demand and/or interest rates.

On top of this, governments do not report expenditures consistently.  In some cases (i.e. Quebec, the three maritime provinces), provinces make it difficult to differentiate between operating and capital expenditure; in other cases (Ontario, for example), we don’t have consistent data for operating and capital estimates, and so we can only report on operating budgets.  That’s not a huge deal because what we are trying to do here is not compare absolute values of transfers across provinces, but rather look at relative change in each province over time, but it is still  something to keep in mind.

Finally, changes in total transfers may be different from changes in formula funding: as governments continue to micromanage institutions, an increasing portion of total funding is being disbursed in what to institutions seems a fairly capricious (or at least unpredictable and unguaranteed) manner.  Changes in institutional funding may therefore differ from the published provincial funding amounts.

OK, on to the real numbers, which I believe are the worst since 1997 or so: this year, total budgeted transfers to institutions nationally (minus PEI) is a little over $16.9 billion.  That’s down a little over $300 million in nominal dollars, for a fall (in real dollars) of 2.4%.  There were only two provinces – Manitoba and Nova Scotia – where institutional transfers were bigger than last year’s, and of these only Manitoba actually saw an increase larger than inflation.  As predicted back here, the province worst hit was Newfoundland, where the fall in the oil price tore a $1 billion hole in the budget, and as a result post-secondary expenditures took a hit of over 8%.

Changes in Operating Grants (Canada minus PEI), Budget 2014-15 to Budget 2015-16, Real $2015














On the student financial aid (SFA) side, overall we see an increase of 1.1% in real dollars, but this conceals some major differences at the provincial level.  Alberta is down nearly 17%, and Saskatchewan is down 33%.  Whether this reflects changes in demand (fewer people applying, which would make sense demographically in Saskatchewan, at least), or the results of minor tweaks in need-assessment formulae, or simply the result of adopting new reporting practices, is difficult to tell.  So far as I’m aware, neither province has introduced major changes to its student aid system this year, so it’s hard to see what’s driving these shifts (though having now published them, I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting calls/emails from both with explanations).  On the other side, New Brunswick is projecting an 11% increase in student aid, which is both massive and a bit baffling given shrinking populations and capped tuitions.

Changes in SFA Budgets (Canada minus PEI), Budget 2014-15 to Budget 2015-16, Real $2015














So what we see this year again is a continuation of the trend of increasing SFA support, and stagnant or declining institutional aid budgets.  Just to give you a sense of what’s going on here, here’s the net increase/decrease in absolute funding for SFA and institutional budgets over the last four years.

Total Changes in Budgeted Expenditures (Canada Minus PEI), Budget 11-12 to Budget 15-16, Real $2012














Or, to put that in percentage terms:

Percentage Real Change in Budgeted Expenditures (Canada minus PEI), Budget 11-12 to Budget 15-16














The SFA numbers, it needs to be said, are highly influenced by Ontario, which accounts for 75% of the increase in provincial spending.  In fact, four provinces (BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland) have actually seen decreases in SFA expenditure over the past four years, though that is likely because of healthy income growth related to resource prices – we’ll see if that holds next year.

So there you have it.  Worst set of provincial budgets for institutions so far this century, but student aid still keeps growing.  How long can the starve-the-institution, feed-the-students game last?  My guess is this pattern will continue playing out for some time to come.

May 01

Social Movements and Universities

I was giving a speech recently looking at long-term trends in higher education, when a young fellow called me out.  Why, he asked, was I projecting long term trends that remained stable or declining?  Why couldn’t I see that if we just got a major social movement together– you know, like the Red Square movement – we could change all that, and see a glorious new age of post-secondary funding!

It’s a nice idea.  Problem is it’s really hard to see how it ever comes true.

Take the Red Square movement, for instance – clearly one of the strongest social movements in Canada in the last couple of years.  Here’s what’s happened to the budget for post-secondary education over the last four years, in real dollars:

Figure 1: Quebec Government Transfers to Universities, 2011-2015, in Billions of Real $2015 (Source: Quebec Expenditure Estimates, 2011-15)














See that?  Despite massive protests, no change in expenditures to universities.  (I know, it looks like there was a one-time bump in 2014-15, but that was the budgeted amount before announcing mid-year cuts, which effectively wiped out the increase.)

Here’s the thing: social movements can be quite effective at getting governments not to do things.  They can prevent cuts to certain programs.  They can persuade governments not to charge for things they were going to charge for – like tuition fees.  But other than the UBC Great Trek of 1922 – which, you know, was 94 YEARS AGO – I can’t recall a single time in Canadian history where a major social movement actually got a government to spend significant sums of extra money on higher education.

(Quick aside to all you UBC folk out there: who was it that decided a 12 km walk across the lower mainland constituted a “Trek”?  It’s not like West 4th street is the frickin’ Transvaal.  Yeesh.)

To sum up: social movements – in higher education, at least – are most effective as agents of conservatism, keeping things as they are. Social movements do not wrest new resources out of government.  But they can force changes like a tuition freeze or maybe even tuition reductions, because that doesn’t cost a thing, and so frankly it’s no skin off government’s nose.  In other words, social movements – at best – can be a vehicle for taking money out of universities and handing it to students.  But there is simply no precedent in Canada for them making institutions any better off.

April 30

An Alberta Election PSE Primer

As long-time readers know, when there are important elections looming, I like to do analyses of party platforms.  There is such an election in Alberta next Monday.  It has never before occurred to me to write about Alberta election platforms because never before has it seemed like the Alberta PCs, who have been in power since Nixon’s first term, ever seemed likely to lose their majority (for the record, I never bought the polls in 2012).  And yet here we are, just a few days out, with the Conservatives in third, and the NDP running first in rural Alberta in some polls.

These are strange times.  Like, Book of Revelations strange times.  (“And when he opened the seventh seal, there was a silence about the space of half an hour, until the first polls began to trickle in” – Rev 8:1.)

And so, without further ado, here’s what the parties have to say:

The “Prentice Plan” (apparently the words Progressive Conservative don’t focus test well, despite the Party having been in power since Prohibition) promises a “world-class education system”.  Most of it is about K-12, but PSE does receive three vague-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness bullet-points.  These are: i) enhance financial aid and student awards; ii) develop a plan to ensure stable funding for institutions; and, iii) ensure apprenticeship training is more inline with labour-market demands.  For anyone who’s been awake for the last four years, this is baffling: the Tories slashed grants in 2010, and have yo-yoed institutional funding since 2008 (it’s 5% up!  It’s 7% down! Whee!).  Given the collapse in oil sands production, the most obvious way to “align apprenticeships with workforce needs” is probably to simply stop doing them for a year or two (see here for more on the link between commodity prices and apprenticeships).  So their platform seems to be mostly about running against their own recent record, with a little fantasy thrown in. Oh, and no commitment to more money for institutions, so far as I can tell.

The Wildrose Alliance Party, of course, does not have a record on which to run.  No one does, because the Tories have been in power since the late 17th century.  And that lack of familiarity with power shows in the party’s PSE platform, which is called – wait for it – “World-Class Post-Secondary, Trades & Skills Training” (imaginative, huh?).  They have an affordability and accessibility portfolio, which is pure Glen Murray (better transfer credit, more online delivery), a research policy that is nothing of the sort (more collaboration with industry, more tax credits for undergraduate students – yes really), and a trades/skills policy that is a mix of the good (more dual credit programs in trades in secondary schools), the banal (better information in high schools), the already-being-done (collaborate with other provinces to make trades certifications more portable), and the slightly weird (allow trades completers to choose between an oral and a written exam).  Note, however: no new public money for institutions.

The New Democrats, or rather, “Alberta’s New Democrats”, presumably to distinguish them from the ravening socialists who periodically run their neighbouring provinces, make only three PSE-related commitments in their platform.  One is with respect to re-installing the Summer Temporary Employment Program for youth ($10 million).  The second is “stable funding for universities and colleges” – in practice, a set of guaranteed annual increases of about 5% per year, which is quite substantial.  The third is to impose a total freeze on tuition, which undoes about 50% of the good of promise number two.

So if you’re in Alberta and you’re voting education in this election, the NDP would seem to be the obvious choice. That said: even if they are elected, and even if they are competent enough in government to deliver on their promises (a challenge for any non-incumbent party in a province where the government has been in power since the latter part of the Tang Dynasty), the net increase in money for institutions will still be below the rate of increase in universities’ underlying costs.  Cutbacks will still happen.  Sorry.

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