Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 03

Scientists vs. Universities: Does War Lie Ahead?

Because universities lobby for science money, there is often a naïve assumption that the interests of scientists (academic ones, anyway) and those of universities are aligned.  But they are not.  In Canada, there is sometimes broad agreement about what to push for (the Canada Foundation for Innovation in the late 1990s was an example), but I would argue that today the interests of scientists and those of universities are about as far apart as they have been at any time in my adult life.

There are two major flashpoints in this fight.  The first has to do with the changing characteristics of science in this country.  Under the Harper Conservatives, there was an ever-increasing tendency for the granting councils to add increasing amounts of “applied” elements to basic research funding.  I wrote about this yesterday so I won’t belabour the point, except to say this: the main university lobbies – Universities Canada and the U-15 – were very, very quiet about this drift.  I can’t say they never raised the issue with government; my guess is that they did so behind closed doors.  But they were never seen to put any public pressure on government on this file, presumably because they fretted about the Conservatives’ reaction to any public discourse that wasn’t uniformly positive.  But that angered and alienated a lot of researchers.

The second flashpoint was the creation of Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF).  This was a new pool of research money presented in the 2014 budget, which was designed to give whacking huge loads of cash to individual research universities on a particular research theme.  The first round of awards, which wrapped up just before the election, saw money go to five universities: $114 million to U of T for regenerative medicine, $66 million to UBC for quantum materials, $33 million to Sherbrooke for quantum science and quantum technologies, $37 million to Saskatchewan  for Global Food Security, and $98 million to Laval for something called Sentinel North, which I can’t begin to explain, but sounds pretty cool (all figures are over 7 years).

Now, CFREF makes tons of sense from the point of view of individual universities.  Getting a big hunk of cash for a single project is a great way to give a university an enhanced and more focused profile, and to find ways to leverage money from other sources.  Basically, it’s a way of getting the federal government to act like a transformational donor.

But there are two big problems with CFREF; first, it’s new money for research at a time when the value of granting council dollars are slowly falling, and second, it’s desperately unclear that spending money this way makes any sense for the country as a whole.  If you really thought it was important for the country to spend $66 million on quantum materials, is dropping all of it at one university likely to be the most productive way to use it?  (Hint: no.)  Researchers understand this problem, and are deeply annoyed that university presidents don’t seem to.

And so, I think, we have a recipe for a real struggle.  An increasing number of academic scientists are coming to believe that university presidents do not represent their interests.  But they have almost no means with which to get their opinion across in Ottawa.  Neither CAUT nor the disciplinary federations have anything like the power and access of the U-15 or Universities Canada in the capital.

So what could happen?  I am starting to think this fight may get played out on Senate floors across the country.  Academics can’t defeat university presidents in Ottawa, but they can pass motions in Senate directing the university to, for instance, support money for granting councils over money for CFREF, or to turn up the volume on criticism of the applied research drift.  It probably wouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 such motions at major universities to get Presidents scrambling to start a better internal dialogue about funding priorities.

That said, such exercises are hard to organize, and I kind of doubt anybody’s going to organize this in time to change the U-15 or Universities Canada pre-budget statements, which are already being drafted.  But I do think there is trouble ahead, and Senates are the likeliest forum for this to play out.  It could get ugly. Watch this space.

November 02

Pure vs. Applied Science and an Easy Win for the Liberals

OK, y’all probably know that I’m not particularly a fan of the terms “pure” and “applied” science (outside of physics and cosmology, most science is applied, to some extent), with “pure” science being a post-World War II political construct. Long-time readers will also know that I am generally unimpressed with the whole “any move away from ‘pure’ science is a step towards barbarism” cant: major science powers can and do spend a heck of a lot of money on applied research (Fraunhofer institute, anyone?).  But that doesn’t mean something isn’t seriously out of whack in Canadian science.

For arguments’ sake, let’s say there are two buckets, one called “100% pure science” and one called “100% applied science”.  What’s the right amount of money for a government to put into each of them?  No one knows.  The answer presumably differs somewhat by country, and is based on the nature of other elements in the innovation ecosystem: business, venture capital, supply chains, etc.  But in Canada, at the granting council level at least, the “pure science” bucket is and always has been way, way, way larger than the applied bucket.

What’s gone wrong with Canadian Science is not that we’ve been taking money out of the pure bucket and putting it into the applied bucket – I know that’s more or less the media narrative on this, but it doesn’t actually describe what’s happened.  No, the issue is that little by little, the entire pure research bucket is getting dragged towards the applied bucket.  Every time the government demands a business co-funder, every time they ask for more “real-world applications” of a potential project, they pollute the pure science bucket.  The 100% applied bucket did get marginally bigger during the Harper years.  But of far more importance is that the 100% pure bucket gradually became an 80% pure bucket, and then a 70% pure bucket, etc., etc.

(I suppose we could argue percentages here, but that’s not really the point – you get the idea.)

To be fair, the start of this shift actually pre-dates the Tories; certainly some of this was underway by the time Chretien left office.   But virtually all reasonable observers now think this shift has gone too far.  Yes, doing “translational” research is important, but moving to the point where the translational aspect of research is the centre, and the basic research just an add-on – as CIHR recently did – is simply ass-backwards.

So here’s a simple thing the Liberals can do to win massive acclaim, without spending an extra dime: call the granting councils in, and tell them to unbundle their pure and applied research efforts.  You could probably even cut a little bit off the “pure” budget and throw it into the “applied” bucket – so long as the “pure” budget gets dragged from the 70% mark back towards the 100% mark.

(Again, we could argue percentages, but life’s too short.)

The point is, there isn’t a scientist in the country that thinks putting everything in a hybrid pure/applied system has worked.  It can be changed for the better, at no cost.  This should make it a no-brainer for the new government – provided the higher education community can get its act together to advocate loudly, consistently, and quickly.

October 23

Expected Parental Contributions

Just a quick note: next week, I’ll be on that all-too-common transportation route, Toronto-Milwaukee-Shanghai, en route to attend (and deliver a paper at) the 6th International Conference on World-Class Universities, and the blog will be on hiatus while I’m away. Anyways, to business.

Everyone knows that for dependent students – that is, students less than four years out of secondary school, or who have not spent two consecutive years in the labour market full-time – the amount of student assistance available depends on parental income.  And that’s mostly true.  But there are some catches.

Back to first principles for a moment.  Student assistance is based on something called “assessed need”, which is simply “assessed costs” (tuition and fees, plus an estimate for books/materials costs, plus an allowance based on place of residence) minus “assessed resources”.  If you’re a dependent student, one of your assessed resources is something called “expected parental contribution”.  This amount has nothing to do with what your parents actually contribute: it has to do with what the government assumes they can contribute based on their income.

On what do governments base these assumptions?  First, governments assume that parents need a minimum amount of money on which to live – this is known as the “minimum standard of living” or MSOL. This figure is meant to buy the same basket of goods across the country (meaning that MSOL is higher in high-cost provinces) and is equivalized for household size (meaning that larger households have higher MSOLs).  Parents are not expected to make contributions on MSOL, but they are expected to make contributions above it at an escalating rate.

But MSOL is based on taxable income, meaning it’s not just total parental income that matters, but also the income split between family members.  A two-parent family where the two parents earn $45,000 and $55,000 pays less tax than one in which a single wage-earner brings in $100,000, and hence have higher post-tax income.  A student from the two-income family in this example will therefore have a higher “expected contribution” and, ceteris paribus, lower student aid than a student from a one-income family.  Figure 1 shows how much aid students from one- and two-earner families get at different levels of family income (the figures are accurate for Manitoba, but roughly the same relationship holds across all provinces).  Basically, beyond about $90,000 in family income, the expected contribution of the one-income family is $2,000 less than that of the two income family – and hence their child will be eligible for a similarly greater amount of student aid.

Figure 1: Expected Parental Contribution by Parental Income, Single- and Dual-Income Families













What is more interesting, perhaps, is to look at how the rules differ across provinces.  Figure 2 shows expected parental contributions by province, by family income (assuming a two-parent, one-child, two-income family, with an income-split as outlined in the previous paragraph).  What it shows is that parental income affects student aid eligibility in very different ways in different parts of the country.

Figure 2: Expected Parental Contribution by Family Income, Selected Provinces













It is well-known that expected parental contributions in Quebec are much higher than they are in the rest of the country.  The province’s reputation for having a generous student aid program is only true for independent students; high expected parental contributions actually make aid very difficult to obtain for dependent students, especially in CEGEP (which may go some way to explaining that group’s notorious radicalism).  Compared to British Colombia, the MSOL threshold is $26,000 lower ($41,000 vs. $67,000); not only that, but also the rate at which contributions are expected to increase is faster in Quebec.  At $90,000 of family income, a BC family would only be expected to contribute $2,150; in Quebec, the expected contribution would be almost $12,000 (which, in effect, would disqualify a student from aid altogether).

BC and New Brunswick have similar-shaped curves in Figure 2, and the curves of all but two other provinces resemble them closely.  The first is Ontario, which uses a different and more restrictive parental contribution formula than the rest of the country.  In fact, in many respects, Ontario is like Quebec in that it has a very generous system of grants, but restricts access to them by having higher expected parental contributions.  At $90,000 in family income, an Ontario family would be expected to contribute almost $9,000 per year to their kids’ education (again, compared to just $2,150 in British Columbia).

The other exception is Alberta, which recently decided that parental contributions are a complication it could do without, and so abolished them a couple of years ago.  Sounds great, right?  Of course the reason Alberta could make such a decision is that it doesn’t cost them very much since, for most students, its system is all loan and no grant. Take the cons with the pros.

There. You now know more about this than I do (on this subject, my brain is officially subcontracted to Jacqueline Lambert, who created these awesome graphs); use the knowledge wisely.  See you all when I return.

October 22

Amusing Footnotes on Global Academic Pay

A few months back, I finished reading The Global Future of Higher Education and the Academic Profession: The BRICs and the United States (edited by – among others – Phil Altbach and Liz Reisberg). It’s a good book for two reasons: first, it contains pretty good thumbnail sketches of the four BRIC countries’ higher ed systems, and second, it shows how crazy and fragile academics lives are in most of the world.

(An aside here: one thing I really like about this book is that it just treats the four BRIC countries as entirely separate case studies, rather than four aspects of a similar phenomenon.  This is important because although BRIC was a handy acronym to encompass “big economies getting rich quickly in the mid-00s”, their vastly differing fates this decade shows that their economic similarities were pretty ephemeral.  And what goes for their economies goes double for their higher education systems, which are basically chalk and cheese.  The result is a much better product than the much more detailed, but conceptually muddled book by Martin Carnoy et al., University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICs.)

One of the highly amusing (to me, anyway) parts of this book was the way it underlined how academics get paid.  In all four countries, junior academic pay is substantially below average urban wages.  That sounds surprising – aren’t these people extremely well-educated?  Can’t they command big salaries elsewhere?  To which the answer is: yes, they can, which is why recruiting talented people to the academic profession is very difficult in some places (especially Russia and India).  But it’s worth noting also that with the exception of Russia, relatively few junior academics in any of these countries possess a PhD.  In most cases, they come with Master’s degrees (in Brazil, Bachelor’s degrees are still pretty common), and many never progress beyond that.  If they do get a doctorate, they often get it while receiving paid leave from their university, which is not a bad deal.

So one of the book’s themes are the various ways that academics make money outside of formal academia – either by moonlighting at other (usually private) universities, or by teaching in a test-prep or cram school.  Interestingly, in some countries, universities open their own test-prep schools specifically so as to provide moonlighting opportunities for their own profs, which sounds only just this side of crazy, but makes sense when you realize many of these places live with weird, bifurcated budgeting rules that put them in a straightjacket with respect to public money, but let them go hog-wild with self-generated income.

The rules on money from public sources play out in some very weird ways in China and India.  In these countries, base pay is centrally regulated.  But over the years, political compromises have allowed profs access to all sorts of pools of money outside their base pay.  In China, on top of base pay, there are separate allowances for housing, food, telephone, transportation and laundry.  India also has housing and transportation allowances, in addition to a “dearness allowance” (not a term of affection, but rather a cost of living adjustments), but also – and this is my absolute favourite – provides academics with a salary increment if they agree to a vasectomy or hysterectomy (conditions apply with respect to age, age of spouse, and number of children).

Basically, all these countries have highly centralized bureaucratic systems regulating institutional spending and pay, and all of them have a hard time treating money as fungible.  This creates all sorts of situations that look pretty inane on the outside, but if you block out the details it’s still just a story of institutions maximizing revenue wherever possible (which usually means meeting market demand), and paying professors whatever they can to retain talent (which can mean all sorts of things).

Still, it makes the American practice of paying profs for nine months and letting them make up the difference on research grants seem pretty simple by comparison.

October 21

Free the Satellites

The University of Toronto has a problem (several, actually, but I’m trying to keep these short).  And the problem is that if you’re not actually at U of T, and someone says “U of T”, what do you think of?  The answer, of course, is the St. George campus: that big and occasionally beautiful hunk of land East of Queen’s Park, College, and Bloor.

But what about the other two campuses?

It’s easy to forget about the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses.  Heck, I couldn’t even tell you what they do at Mississauga.  Arts, mostly, I think.   Scarborough – a campus named after a municipality that no longer exists, which is a bit of a ‘mare’ from a branding perspective – is fairly co-op intensive, or so I’m told.  It’s the kind of thing you’d probably hear about endlessly if it were it’s own university (Toronto’s Waterloo!), but since its part of U of T, whatever local distinction it might have just gets swallowed up by the beast that is U of T’s central marketing machine.

The thing is, U of T is big.  Really big.  Taking in all staff and students, it’s roughly the size of all three northern territories combined.  It has over half a million alumni – or roughly the same number of people as Newfoundland.  Its $2-billion annual operating expenses is forty per cent higher that Prince Edward Island’s.  At this scale, it’s not just students who can feel like a number; whole campuses can get lost, too.

You’d think that smaller campuses might be more homey, and offer an alternative to students who are intimidated by the downtown mega-campus.  But, no.  Among campuses of comparable sizes, Mississauga and Scarborough students are pretty much the least satisfied of any students in the country.  When we asked students to describe their institution a few years ago, Mississauga and Scarborough fell into the category of being like research universities, with all the alienation that goes along with that kind of undergraduate experience.  Basically, they get most of the disadvantages of attending a big research university, without most of the advantages.

And that’s just students.  Let’s not even get into the governance issues involved in running a three-campus system in a single unicameral structure.

There is a simple fix for this: split up U of T.  The GTA has close to six million people, and effectively three universities.  There is no other city of comparable size anywhere in the world that has so few universities – a testament to the Ontario government’s desire to find efficiency through gargantuanism.  If the government is genuinely interested in differentiation, it should turn this three-headed beast into three smaller institutions with more sharply defined missions.  Let Scarborough accelerate its experiment in work-related learning and become a real rival to Waterloo.  Let Mississauga develop its own identity (and maybe its own network of satellite schools) to serve the growing Mississauga-Halton-Peel region, and the large number of companies now locating there. Let St. George do whatever it wants to do, without thinking too much about the other campuses (ok, this one may not involve that much change).

Yes, there will be costs to a break-up.  In particular, students and staff may rebel at the thought of losing a connection to a big research brand like U of T.  But this is not a serious argument from a public policy perspective.  If providing increased status for students and professors were a major goal, why wouldn’t we just merge Ryerson and York with U of T so we can spread the benefits around even more?

Three vibrant and independent institutions with specific relevant missions are likely better than one huge, amorphous one.  It’s time to start talking seriously about how to do this.

October 20

OK, Everybody Take A Valium

Heady scenes last night.  We have a new government with a strong mandate.  And it’s not the by-now reviled Conservatives.  It can seem like a whole new world is emerging.

But as far as PSE is concerned, very little actually changed last night.  Higher education is mostly a provincial responsibility, and nothing that happened can change the fact that most provincial budgets are in a parlous state, and few governments (bar perhaps Alberta’s) seem much interested in spending on post-secondary education.

Did anything change federally?  Well, tone.  I would bet the phrase “commiting sociology” won’t be used as a term of abuse any time soon.  But as I have noted in a platform analyses here, here, and here, the Liberal platforms contains: i) no new transfer money for provinces; ii) no new money for granting councils; and, iii) no new money (or not very much anyways) for student aid – though they are promising a major and welcome re-jig of student aid, which will be to the benefit of some students from below-median income families.

That’s not very good news, but there is a base that can be built upon.  This is a government that will be more sympathetic to the concerns of the knowledge economy than the last one.  They likely can be brought round to the merits of basic science, provided that there are convincing answers for improving private sector innovation.  And to the extent that significant improvements can be made without spending a dime (do read Jim Woodgett’s A Decade of Mishandling  Science in Canada for more on this), I suspect there will be some willing ears in government.

But it’s not going to happen on its own.  The whole post-secondary community needs to speak with a single voice on this.  And it needs to speak quickly.  The basic policy framework for the new government will be set in weeks, not months.  Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

October 19

Canadian University Finances: An Update

Back in July, the Canadian Association of University Business Officers released the results of its survey of university finances for 2013-14.  The results underline the fact that institutions in Canada are facing some highly heterogeneous financial circumstances.

Let’s start with operating budgets.  Though universities are allegedly facing some kind of unprecedented austerity, total operating income rose by 4.17% in real dollars from the previous year  (inflation from September 2012 to September 2013 was a shade over 1%).  Income from government rose 0.9% in real dollars, from $11.1 billion to $11.2 billion.  But the big new source of money came from student fees, which rose 5.8% (again, after inflation) to $8.6 billion.  Remember, that’s not because tuition fees rose by 5.8%, but rather because both tuition fees and enrolment (notably, international enrolment) increased.

The surprise in 2013-14 was that although government grants and fees make up 91% of operating income, it was the remaining 9%, mostly endowment income, which actually accounted for 35% of all income growth, as shown below in Figure 1.  That’s probably not sustainable.

Figure 1: Source of Operating Income Growth














So, if operating income went up 4.17% after inflation, universities must be swimming in cash, right?  Well, no.  Because, in fact, spending went up to match income growth exactly at 4.17%.  Figure 2 shows the year-on-year increase in real spending.

Figure 2: Increases in Real Spending














Briefly: Compensation, which forms around 75% of the operating budget, is up by 4.6% after inflation (yes, after).  It’s not from hiring temps or sessionals, which gets classified as “other instructional wages” – that line item has actually shrunk slightly.  Total academic wages are up 3.6%; total non-academic wages are up 4.2%.  (Lest anyone get too excited about wage growth among non-academics, be aware that it’s primarily in student services and IT.  The smallest registered growth among all functional sectors was central administration, at 3.2%.)  But the real killer is what’s happening to benefits: up 9.2% in real terms.  Regardless of why this is happening (my guess: topping up barely solvent pension plans), the technical term for this situation is “bananas”.  But of course, it’s unfair to blame everything on the wage bill because universities aren’t excelling at restraining growth on their non-wage spending, either: that’s up 4.1%.  All of which is to suggest that the revenue theory of expenditure is alive and well in our universities; they raise all they can, and then spend all they raise.

Now of course, these trends aren’t spread equally across universities.  At some institutions, increases in operating budget came in at over 10% (UQTR, Trinity Western, and also UBC, but I think some of that is a reclassification issue).  Queen’s had an 8% real rise in income, and Toronto saw a 6% increase.  But at the other end of the table it’s pretty ugly.  UNB and PEI saw a fall of 3% in real terms, Mount Royal 4%, and NSCAD University a whopping 12%.

Similarly, outside  operating budgets, universities across the country have taken a hit.  Research income fell in nominal terms for the first time since 1995-1996; capital income fell by 8%, and now sits below $1 billion in real terms for the first time since 1998-99.

So, in short: operating costs are rising much faster than government funding, leaving institutions to fill the whole with larger student numbers and lots more international students. Research and capital funding are down in some serious ways.  But these trends are playing out in different ways in different parts of the country.  Kind of like last year only more so.

Happy Election Day, all; don’t forget to vote!

October 16

Election 2015: Last Thoughts

Voting day Monday.  So before y’all head out to the polls, here are a few last thoughts on each party’s position on post-secondary education, science, and innovation.

One: The Green platform is a vacuous embarrassment.  If you’re voting on higher ed issues, do not vote for this.

Two: It is an excellent thing in this election that all three major parties decided to focus their PSE initiatives specifically on families from below-median incomes.  The Tories are doing it through targeted measures on educational savings, the NDP and Liberals are doing it through new student grants (with the latter paying for it by taking tax credits away, thus actually raising prices for richer families).  No universal tax credits.  No schemes to lower tuition.  Just intelligent, targeted programming.  I’m immensely heartened by this.  It implies there is hope yet.

Three: Well, sort of… because pretty much all of the Science/Innovation policy on offer is pretty depressing.  Yes, lots of good stuff from Liberals and New Democrats about restoring freedom to science, creating various types of official science councils/advisors, restoring the long-form census, etc. etc., but when you get right down to it what’s on offer is this:

Liberals: hundreds of millions of dollars to incubators and accelerators.  Nothing to universities or colleges.

Conservatives: lots of tiny research promises: $24M for advanced manufacturing hubs, $45M to Brain Canada, $150M to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.  $4.5 Million for – I cannot believe I am writing this – Lobster Biomass Research (clearly, the Tories are in thrall to “Big Crustacean”).  Some of this might end up at universities (the Brain Canada money, for instance), but this is small bones.

NDP: The only party to actually suggest giving money to the granting councils (yay!), they budgeted a grant total of $55 million for the next four years.  Or about 25% of what inflation is likely to be (boo!), meaning the real value of council funding will continue to fall.

Greens: negative money for research because they’re going to shut down anything related to GMOs or Atomic Energy.  Because, you know, evidence-based policy-making. (Did I mention not to vote Green on higher ed issues?)

All of which is to say, scientists who want to communicate the need for more investment in basic research need to go back to the drawing board. Because on this evidence, something is going seriously wrong.

Four:  Nobody even mentioned the idea that we should touch transfer payments and get money to institutions that way. If you grew up watching politics in the 80s and 90s (as I did), this is almost unfathomable.  But it possibly represents a matured understanding of how the Federation is supposed to work.

Five: If you rank the parties on how much money they want to throw at students, access, and PSE institutions, it would look like this:

1) Green – several bazillion dollars (who’s counting?).

2) NDP – somewhere north of $1 billion.

3) Conservatives  – somewhere south of $100M.

4) Liberals – In net terms, according to their own manifesto $0 (in practice possibly higher than that).  But a more effective re-arrangement of existing dollars.

One probably shouldn’t get too depressed by this. Thinking back to the Tories: they’ve never campaigned on more money for research, but they always found a way to come up with something in every budget.  It might not have been quite what people wanted, and it might not have been as large as people would have liked, but there was never nothing.  Manifestos give you the baseline, not the entirety of a new government’s plans.  Improvisation happens.  Science can still get more than is on-offer here; it just needs to up its game.

Go vote.  And to Hull-Aylmer’s Greg Fergus, the best PSE candidate in this election: in bocca al lupo.

October 15

The Most Horrifying Book of the Year

One of the most famous studies on higher education and opportunity was published a little over fifteen years ago by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale.  Using something called the College and Beyond Survey, they followed over 6,000 students who had been accepted to American universities in 1976, and then looked at their outcomes almost twenty years later, in 1995.  The key finding was that holding SATs constant, school selectivity didn’t matter much.  The important thing wasn’t attending Harvard, it was having the marks to get into Harvard (for whites, at least – for black students, accessing the networks available to selective school alumni did have a positive effect on education).

As selective universities became even more selective during the early 2000s, and their average student’s socio-economic background drifted upwards, this study was comforting: the rich were just wasting their money on Ivies, and the poorer but talented who were excluded from those schools would end up doing just as well, even if they went elsewhere.  Except: I’ve never met an American parent who actually believed the study.  Sure, they’d say, but things have changed since the mid-70s.  Networks matter more, and by God the one thing you get at an Ivy League school is a network.

A book came out this past spring that explains why they’re right and Kruger and Dale are, if not wrong, then at least out of date.  It’s called Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.   It follows the graduate recruiting activities of a number of unnamed banking and consulting firms – the tiny fraction of companies that give 22 year-olds jobs that pay roughly six figures in the first year – across a number of Ivy League schools. And it will horrify you, and make you profoundly glad you don’t live in the United States.

The first couple of chapters are pretty mind-blowing.  The descriptions of how these major banks and consulting companies are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars – each – on recruiting activities on these Ivy League campuses are bad enough (there must be a lot of very good parties at these places). What is truly mind-blowing is that all of these organizations, filled with “masters of the universe” types, genuinely seem to think that whatever Harvard and Princeton admissions is doing, it must be absolutely, 100% right, because that’s effectively the only filter they have.  If you’re from a selective Ivy, these purveyors of elite jobs think “they must be smart and fast learners; let’s hire them”.  From a state school?  You don’t even get an interview.  What you have accomplished in your four years of higher education is irrelevant; it’s all about where you went to school.

Not only is this mindbogglingly stupid (and, to tell the truth, odd – surely one of these companies should have arbitraged this over-focus on a tiny minority, and gone big on flagship state university hiring?), but also it is infuriating in the extreme.  Read it, or at lest the first couple of chapters, which describe how firms filter by campus (it gets less interesting after that): if your blood doesn’t boil, you have no soul.

A last note: try reading this book next to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, or Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted.  Both Carey and Craig are of the opinion that one thing that will drive disruption in higher education is that companies are going to want the “best” employees. Eventually, they say, algorithms are going to come along and find those employees wherever they are, at which point the prestige value of a degree from a selective school will disappear quickly.

But reading Pedigree it becomes clear that what employers are usually looking for are people who remind them of themselves.  People they won’t mind hanging out with on a long night in the office.  People who will fit in.  And you don’t need an algorithm for that.  You just need an old boys’ club.

October 14

Universities and National Competitiveness

Ever since von Humboldt sold the Prussian Government on the idea that research universities were a tool with which to increase national power, they’ve been publicly funded to pursue precisely those ends.  The definition of “national power”, and the role universities are asked to play in developing it, has of course varied over time and by region.  Nowadays, we talk of power in terms of “national competitiveness”, and universities are supposed to play a role in ensuring that.  But even though competitiveness has been the watchword for going on two decades now, universities still struggle to determine how to fit into that agenda.

So what should they be doing?  To start, it’s important to think about what we mean when we say “national competitiveness”.  It’s not a straightforward concept because nations do not literally compete with one another.  When most people say this, they are really asking: “is our economy growing faster than others?” Or more narrowly, “are we attracting more foreign investment than others?”  And those things depend, effectively, on what happens inside firms.  If firms are financially healthy, then they are hiring, investing, and doing all the sorts of things that make economies hum.  So the big overarching question is: what can universities do to make firms financially healthier?

(Before anyone has conniptions, I’m not saying that this is the only thing universities are for.  I’m saying that if one wants to argue for universities on the basis of increasing national competitiveness, this is the logical conclusion of that argument.)

To simplify things a bit, consider that universities have two sets of outputs: graduates and ideas.  The way graduates help firms is by being more productive.  What that means in practice varies by industry, but in most white-collar jobs it means some combination of: i) being a fast learner, ii) being a good communicator, iii) being able to deal with ambiguity, iv) being able to make decisions without bothering the boss every few minutes (note: public sector employers like this stuff too).  If you’re running a university, or a faculty, or a department, you need to ask yourself: how do our teachers and our curriculum work towards giving students those skills?

The ideas part of this is a bit trickier.  What governments tend to focus on are ideas that lead to patents and licences: notions that are excludable, and can be given or sold to business in ways that allow them to make new products and develop new lines of business.  But the problem is that firm-strengthening ideas pass between academia and firms in a variety of ways.  Silicon Valley, for instance, would never have become what it did if Stanford had focussed on patents and licenses.  Rather, it arose because Stanford embraced the sharing of equipment and ideas, and of professors and entrepreneurs working with each other.

So if you’re running a university the question really should be, “what am I doing to make sure that ideas are flowing between universities and firms faster and more freely?”  That’s not an exercise in increasing publication counts, it’s an exercise in getting people to collaborate with those outside academia.

Where things get even trickier is with the fact that, in some cases, the conduit for sending ideas back and forth between universities and firms is students and graduates themselves.  This is most obviously true in the case of co-op students (which former Waterloo President Jim Downey calls the “human bridge” between universities and firms); but it’s also true in many professions, and even in business, where ideas taught in the classroom eventually seep into everyday practice, as graduates who’ve learned new ways of doing things flood the labour force.

(One area where more of this is desperately needed is in business.  Canadian business on the whole is simply not attuned enough to international markets, which is why there is always pressure to maintain a low dollar so we can pursue the lazy strategy of selling to the Americans.  A greater focus on developing markets in Canadian business schools has to be part of any national competitiveness agenda.)

Again, I’m not arguing that this is a university’s sole purpose.  Arts, culture, and the spirit of free inquiry are all central to university identities.  But if universities want to claim a significant share of public monies (equal to 1% of GDP, last I checked, and that’s not including any research money) on the basis of making the country (or the province) more competitive, these are the kinds of agendas that need to be in play.

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