HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

March 27

Coursera Continues to Confuse

The big news Monday was that Coursera, MOOC provider extraordinaire, had a bit of a re-shuffle at the top.  Founders Daphne Koller and Andre Ng, and erstwhile President Laila Ibrahim, were joined by former Yale President Rick Levin, who is now the company’s CEO.  This, needless to say, got everyone quite excited.  A Big Name Has Joined Coursera!  It must mean… well, what does it mean, exactly?

Coursera is a company which – from a growth point-of-view – has two huge positives and two huge negatives.  The positives are an attractive portal that makes it easy to find and register in classes, and a set of partnership deals with many of the world’s top universities.  The latter is particularly important because quality in online education is often seen as pretty sketchy, and so having a ton of brand name schools as content providers is all to the good.

The first negative is Coursera’s partner universities don’t want to devalue their own brands by making their degrees, or even credits, widely available over the internet.  They don’t mind giving away content – MIT has had its entire curriculum up on the web for about a decade now – but they aren’t going to give away certification.  This leads to the second problem: it’s not clear how willing people are to pay for MOOCs without that kind of credit/certification.

Coursera’s whole business plan to date rests on testing the limits of that second negative.  Their bet is that lots of people are willing to pay $40 a pop for “certificates of completion” for individual courses. But it’s not clear how much money Coursera’s making from this.  In the first 9 months after certifications were issued, they earned a million dollars from them.  At about the same time, they completed a second round of venture capital funding, which in total has netted them about $65 million.  Since then, they’ve been very quiet about how much they are bringing in, and ed-tech journalists for some reason don’t ask tough questions about this.  I tend to view this as likely indicative of bad news for the company – Silicon Valley start-ups usually aren’t shy when it comes to talking about big revenue milestones.

And this is what makes this Levin deal so puzzling.  At this stage of the game, Coursera needs to be demonstrating it can actually earn its own income.  Why bring in a University President rather than someone with a background in business and technology (significantly, EdX also announced a new President on Monday: Wendy Cebula of Vistaprint )?  What does Levin bring Coursera other than closer relations with a group of partners who aren’t going to give you what you want in terms of granting credit anyway?

And what’s the logic behind the rest of the moves? Why demote the previous President – Ibrahim, who was hand-picked by Coursera investor Kleiner Perkins – to Chief Business Officer, when she was the only one in the place who has actual business experience?  Why give Andrew Ng a total grab-bag of titles and responsibilities (he’s now Board Chair, “Chief Evangelist”, and “in charge of pedagogy”, which could easily challenge for the biggest governance nightmare trifecta in history)?

Puzzling.

March 26

Some Final Thoughts on German Apprenticeships

If you’ve been following our Minister of Employment and Social Development, Jason Kenney, lately, you’ll know that he’s taken a keen interest in German apprenticeships.  So much so that his office recently organized a study trip to Germany, to which various provincial education ministers and Ottawa association types were also invited.

There are, basically, eight major differences between our system of apprenticeships and theirs. To wit:

1)      Our apprenticeship system is post-secondary, and caters to people in their 20s.  Theirs is essentially part of the secondary system, and caters to 17-19 year-olds.

2)      As a corollary, German apprentices spend a higher proportion of in-class training on basic employability skills (reading and math) than on technical skills.  They also spend a greater proportion of their time in class, as opposed to in the workplace.

3)      German apprenticeships take 2-3 years, ours take 4-5 (I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer as to why this is the case).

4)      German apprentices mostly do day-release training, not block release, resulting in a better fit between training and work.

5)      The range of apprenticeable occupations is much wider in Germany. Ours are effectively restricted to skilled trades; theirs include banking, retail sales, international trade, etc.

6)      Germany has well-articulated paths from apprenticeships to degrees. In Canada, this only exists at a couple of polytechs (eg. NAIT/SAIT), though the situation is improving.

7)      Germany distinguishes between “journeypersons” and “journeypersons who are qualified to supervise apprentices”.  This professionalizes the learning that takes place on the worksite, which is to the good.

8)      The obvious one: you don’t have to beat German employers over the head with a shoe to get them to invest in training on their own.

Take what you want from numbers 2-8; in the Canadian context, number 1 is the one that matters for federal policy-making: if you want to ape the German model, the feds need to get out of the system.

There are lots of interesting things about this model, of course.  But as long-time readers will know, I’m pretty skeptical about the rhetorical uses to which the legendary German apprenticeships are put in the Canadian context.  They are almost always deployed as an argument for increasing investment in skilled trades (which is wrong – less than 30% of German apprenticeships are in the skilled trades), and/or as a solution to youth unemployment, which seems to me to be a serious case of confusing correlation with causation.  Over the past few months, Kenney has been guilty of both of these sins.

So it was interesting the week before last when Minister Kenney decided to take me to task for some of my skeptical tweeting on the subject.  After a brief and interesting exchange, he offered this insight into his thinking:

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This is kind of a big deal.  If all of Kenney’s drum-banging about apprenticeships is actually about experiential learning, then that changes the debate enormously.  There are loads of people who could get on board with that.  When I pointed this out to him, he replied:

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Here’s hoping.  It would mark an important improvement in our policy debate if he does.

March 25

The Cost of Expanding Access in Poor Countries

I’ve been dealing a lot with issues of access in Africa (specifically, Senegal and Uganda) over the past couple of months.  And I think I’m coming to the conclusion that there are some situations where it flat-out doesn’t make any sense to expand access.

If you’re a producer of good and services, the main advantage of poor countries is that labour is cheap.  This is why manufacturing has, over the years, drifted to lower-wage countries – first Mexico, then China, and so on.  But universities don’t work that way.  Academics are significantly more mobile than other workers; If university pay falls behind in Ghana they’ll move to Nigeria or South Africa; if it falls behind in South Africa, they’ll move to the UK or Australia.  So to keep them, salaries have to be well above local norms.  Scientific equipment is sold at a global price, as are journals and periodicals (price reduction schemes do exist for Africa, but universities in places like the Balkans or the ‘Stans are pretty much out of luck on that), which is a huge burden for poorer countries.

As a result, the price differential between rich countries and poor countries for producing university graduates is substantially less than it is for producing widgets.  You can see this most easily if you express countries’ expenditures per student on higher education as a fraction of GDP/capita.  In advanced OECD countries, that number is usually in the region of 30%; in Africa, it is frequently over 100% (and even with that disparity, it’s not even close to buying a similar end-product).  It’s quite simply enormously expensive for governments in this situation to expand higher education.

The natural instinct of higher education policy wonks in this situation is always the same: pile on more resources.  If government can’t afford it, let fee-paying students (either in public or private universities) make up the difference.  And that works, up to a point.  But you still run up against the same problem: the cost structures of those institutions aren’t that different from those of public universities, and the troubles the government has in raising money for public services is mirrored by the troubles individuals have in finding well-paying jobs to pay for that education.

Student loans are sometimes mooted as a solution to the problem, but the repayment problems are enormous.  In Africa, for instance, it’s fairly typical that the cost of a year of study is equal to about 40-50% of an entry-level salary.  That means that even if a graduate does find a job right away, their outstanding debt will be on the order of 150%-200% of their income.  Not sustainable.

This isn’t a question of public vs. private.  It is simply a question of return on investment.  At certain levels of development, there are points beyond which you either have to radically reduce the cost of higher education (perhaps via intensive use of MOOCs, as the Kepler project in Rwanda is doing), or you have to say “enough is enough”, because the return isn’t there.  It’s politically difficult to do, but as with any good, one needs to acknowledge when marginal costs start exceeding marginal benefits.  This may be one of those cases.

March 24

March Madness

It’s March Madness in the US – the annual NCAA basketball tournament.  And so it’s time to ask the question: what the hell is it with Americans and intercollegiate sport, anyway?

To most of the rest of the world, the American college sports industry – by which we mostly mean Men’s Basketball and Football – is flat-out ridiculous.  There are 420,000 student athletes.  Attendance at college football games is 48 million/year.  Total income for college sports is just under $11 billion per year.

Eyewatering statistics.  And yet, according to most observers, the vast majority of institutions who participate in the big-money sports actually lose money on Athletics.  According to this 2011 USA Today survey, only 22 of 227 Division I schools break-even on their athletics programs.  In total, subsidies from state governments, student fees, and the like, equalled more than $2 billion.

Obviously, there’s some room for interpretation in those figures (notably, how much of the sports infrastructure you choose to assign to intercollegiate athletics, as opposed to facilities for the general student body) – but clearly there’s a heck of a lot of spending going on.  The question is: why? What’s in it for the schools?  Are all these schools just stupid, or is there something we’re not seeing here?

There is no shortage of theories about those “other” benefits sports brings: one theory says that sports teams create school spirit and hence higher levels of engagement; another is that successful sports teams increase prestige, and hence applications.  The former is pretty clearly not true at all; the latter does happen occasionally, but only when a relatively unknown school hits the jackpot with a exceptional player or a deep run in the NCAA playoffs (Butler, for instance, saw applications rise 41% after their basketball team’s wholly-unexpected 2010 playoff run).  That said, if you don’t have a sports team, you run the risk of not being in the public eye.  Among major universities, only Chicago chooses not to compete in football (and even there, the decision to ditch the sport only took place after something like fifteen consecutive losing seasons).

The missing link here is government relations.  College sports is a way of attracting political backing for an institution among people who never have, and never will, attend higher education.  Indeed, particularly in the Southern and Western states where the development of higher education was heavily driven by the populists in the 1890s and early 1900s, providing entertainment to the masses wasn’t exactly a quid pro quo for providing state-funded elite education for the few, but it was pretty close.

And quite apart from its uses as a means of shoring up voter support, big games also serve as a great way for Presidents to meet-and-greet with important legislators, something Charles Clotfelter documented amply in Big-Time Sports in American Universities.  Given the way American politics works, with its dispersal of power and multiple points of influence, presidential schmoozing is an even bigger deal down there than it is up here.  And if you can get some of the governor’s top aides in your luxury box for a full three hours, that’s probably worth some serious dough.  Maybe not the $10 million per institution it’s actually costing, but close enough to it that sensible people are loath to risk it.

In other words, it may be madness, but there’s a method to it.

March 21

Capital!

If you’re ever bored and playing around with CAUBO data (what do you mean, “no else does that”?) you may have noticed that in 2011 there was a significant (roughly 3%) decrease in university expenditures – which is weird, because no province significantly reduced funding to universities that year, and universities never voluntarily reduce their spending.  So what the heck is going on?

The quick answer is: the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) ended, and so institutions lost a nice little source of income that they could devote to making newer, nicer, and more energy-efficient buildings.  But a deeper look at some of the numbers on capital spending makes for interesting reading.

Here’s the overall story on capital expenditure at Canadian universities:

Figure 1: Capital Expenditures at Canadian Universities, 1992-2011, in $2011

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Obviously, this graph shows the enormous effect of KIP – an enormous two-year spike in spending in 2009 and 2010.  But to me, the more interesting thing is the long-term increase in capital spending.  Back in the 1990s, we basically kept capital spending at around a billion dollars/year.  Come the millennium, we changed tack.  Over the next three years, capital spending jumped by 150%, nation-wide, and stayed there.  Part of that was of course the result of Ontario going on a double-cohort-related construction spree.  But it wasn’t just Ontario – remember that enrolments went up by about half between 1997 and 2009.  And of course, from 1999 onwards, Canada Foundation for Innovation money started flowing into institutions across the country to upgrade institutions’ research infrastructure.

Here’s what happened to spending in the four big provinces which make up 90% of the country’s post-secondary expenditures:

Figure 2: Capital Expenditures at Universities in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, 1992-2011, in $2011

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Figure 2 shows that although the big increases were in Ontario and Alberta; Quebec stands out for having a policy of very steady investment in capital.  It had a one-off increase in 2000 (one assumes this is mostly due to CFI), but other than that the expenditures were quite stable.  That means Quebec wasn’t a stand-out performer in 2010, but it also means that for most of the 90s, Quebec was outspending Ontario 2:1 (and thus it probably didn’t have the same kind of infrastructure deficit going into the 2000s).

But maybe the mind-blowing thing here is what happened in Alberta post-2000, which is best seen by isolating the later years in the previous graph and indexing provincial spending:

Figure 3: Capital Expenditures at Universities in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, 1999-2011, indexed to 1999

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Figure 3 illustrates two extraordinary spikes in spending: BC, where capital spending quintupled between 1999 and 2005, and Alberta, where capital spending triples in just three years after 2006.

The long and the short of it is that in the 2000s, for a variety of short-term reasons (double-cohort in Ontario, having more money than God in Alberta), capital expenditures settled at a level about 2.5 times where it was in the 90s.  Can we stay at this level, or are we doomed to give in to short-termism and start diverting this money to shorter-term priorities?  Certainly, a number of faculty unions (particularly in the Atlantic) have been making the case that capital expenditures should be re-directed to higher faculty salaries.

One can’t predict the future, of course.  But these figures really do remind you that the mid/late 00s were the Golden Years for Canadian higher education financing.  Makes you wonder how many people now feel silly for not having seen it at the time.

March 20

A Dreadful Book About Higher Education

If, for some reason, you feel a need to read the literary equivalent of sticking knitting needles in your eyes, have I got a book for you:  Henry Giroux’s, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.  The whole book is a mixture of baseless assertions, generalizations from anecdotes, and non-existent fact-checking, an unmitigated disaster from start to finish.

If you’re going to have an entire book about neoliberalism, it helps to actually define the term.  What is this thing that’s at war with higher ed, exactly?  But the task of defining terms is apparently beneath Giroux.  As near as I can tell, his definition of neo-liberalism includes a hefty dose of militarism, so when he says “neo-liberal” he really means something close to: “the Dick Cheney wing of Republican Party”,  but it’s impossible to know for sure.

The book does not, in fact, have a continuous narrative; rather, it’s a hastily slapped-together mix of a half-dozen articles or speeches, some of which are pretty tangential to higher education.  In the first two chapters, the “war” on higher education consists of governments (particularly the US government) spending money on the military and not on higher ed.  In two others, the enemy is academics themselves, refusing to be “public intellectuals”.  As with “neo-liberalism”,  Giroux chooses to leave “public intellectuals” undefined, but it appears to be synonymous with “agreeing with, and acting like, Henry Giroux”.

There are really only two chapters which deal directly with higher education.  One is about the 2012 “Maple Spring” in Quebec.  It’s utterly uncritical of the students and their aims, and makes some utterly fantastical claims about government and its motives.  In it, one learns that the Quebec tuition fee hike was caused by funds being diverted towards Canada’s “burgeoning military budget”, despite the fact that: a) Canada’s military budget has been going down since 2010; and, b) military expenditures are a federal, not a provincial responsibility.  Giroux, originally from the US, is clearly deeply confused about Canadian federalism, claiming at one point that Jean Charest had no trouble “contributing” $4.7 billion towards the cost of the new F-35s – which is a unique interpretation of the federal taxing power, to be sure.

The only other article that focusses specifically on events in higher education takes the Penn State child sexual assault scandal and – I wish I were making this up – uses it as a metaphor for what’s happening to young people and higher education in general.  Seriously.  But then again, offensive metaphors and comparisons seem to be something of a Giroux speciality: at one point early in the book he declares that the situation of adjuncts in US universities is “no better” than the condition of Cold War political prisoners and dissidents in communist countries (Move aside Solzhenitsyn, we’ve got some under-employed post-docs here!).

It’s not all dreary: I quite enjoyed the bit where he managed to shoehorn his wife’s name into a listing of great intellectuals writing on neo-liberalism (Friere! Bourdieu! Searls Giroux!).  But overall, this is just cartoon Chomskyism.  If that kind of thing turns you on, you’ll like it.  If not, save your money.

March 19

The Canadian Way of Higher Education Subsidies

One of the biggest arguments in student assistance is about who to subsidize and why.  Unfortunately, because we are rarely explicit in the way we talk about subsidies, discussions tend to be a dialogue of the deaf.

One school of thought says we should subsidize students based on their parental income.  Students from poor families need more help to succeed than students from wealthier families, and so the former should pay less, and so we should pay them grants to reduce the net cost of attendance.  Then there’s a second school of thought, which says that the way to focus subsidies is to focus on needy graduates.  Forget the upfront subsidies: the people we need to support are the ones who don’t do well out of their education, and as a result remain low-income for years.   The third school of thought holds that everybody should receive the same subsidy no matter what their parents make, or what they make afterwards.  And then there’s a final school of thought, which says we should reward “good behaviour”, however defined.

Other countries are pretty explicit about their choices.  The Americans go pretty heavy on the parental income track (though the beneficial effects of this are counteracted by other funding and policy choices).  The UK is quite explicit about using the graduate income track as a means of subsidy: everybody borrows oodles of money to pay expensive tuition fees, and the ones who make out worse get these loans forgiven (eventually).  Much of Europe – especially Scandinavia – operates under the third school of thought, even at the price (in a few countries) of having an unnecessarily badly-funded system as a result.  The fourth view is surprisingly widely-held around the world, as it applies to anywhere that has a dual-track system of higher education (most of the ex-socialist countries of Europe, much of Latin American and Anglophone Africa) where “meritorious” students get first crack at the subsidies.

In Canada, we have a mish-mash of strategies, partly because we’re a federal system, so coherence is always a problem, and partly because we have a real tendency to reach for solutions before fully articulating the problem.  Our student aid system mostly works on the parental system, but allows students to declare independence relatively early (in practice, age 22), which effectively moves to the universal system.  We have a relatively generous Repayment Assistance Program (RAP), which uses the needy graduates approach.  And  though we aren’t especially heavy on merit awards, our $700M/year Canada Education Savings Grant, which rewards savers, is just a variant on the “reward good behaviour” approach.

You see, Canada just doesn’t do joined-up coordinated approaches; rather, we tend to just reach for whatever looks shiny, and implement it.  The result is a system that spends wildly in all directions, with nothing resembling an underlying philosophy.  Each individual program is arguably successful on its own terms, but the result is a system tha is arguably less successful than it could be if we focused spending on one or two of these pathways.

March 18

How ICRs can Become Graduate Taxes: The Case of England

As noted yesterday, graduate taxes and income-contingent loans have many similar features.  They both defer payments until after graduation, and they are usually payable as a percentage of marginal income above a given threshold.  In England right now, the payment scheme on ICR loans is that students pay 9% of whatever income they earn over £21,000 (roughly C$38,000).  The difference between the two is that with a loan you have a set amount to pay, and when it’s paid you’re finished.  With a graduate tax there is no principal, so you just keeping paying that fraction of your income for as long as the tax lasts.

That sounds like a simple and clear delineation, right?  Well, here’s a twist: what if the loan were so big that you had no practical chance of ever paying it off at the set repayment rate?  What would the difference between an ICR and a grad tax be then?  The answer is: practically nothing – and that’s exactly where England finds itself right now.

Let’s step back a bit: in 2010, the UK government decided to let institutions charge tuition up to £9000.  They also decided to allow students to borrow this amount for tuition (plus more, again, for living expenses) under the repayment scheme described above.  When they did this, they were under the misapprehension that universities might actually try to compete for students on price, and hence assumed an average tuition of about £7000.  Rather predictably, average tuition shot straight to £8500.  As a result, it’s quite common for students to be borrowing £12-13,000 per year, or £36-39,000 for a degree (that’s C$66-72,000 – yes, really).

Crazy, right?  Cue all the “intolerable debt burden” stuff.  But wait: these loans aren’t like the ones we’re used to.  Repayment is based on your income rather than size of debt – no graduate is ever required to pay more than 9% of their income over £21,000 in any given year, so the burden in any given year is pretty limited.  And – here’s the kicker – the loan gets forgiven after 30 years.  So, if you don’t finish paying, your obligation disappears without you having any debt overhang. Exactly like a Graduate Tax.

How many won’t pay it off?  Well, these things are difficult to predict, but even over 30 years, paying 9% of your income over $38,000 isn’t likely to completely pay off very many of these loans.  The government’s own financial forecasts are that 35-40% of the total net present value of the loans will have to be forgiven (others put it 8-10% higher).  At a rough estimate, that probably means 70 to 80% of all borrowers will see some loan forgiveness.

At this point you start to wonder if debt numbers really matter in this system.  Forget ICR: for most people, the current system is simply one in which government transfers billions of pounds in 2014 to institutions using student loans as a kind of voucher system, then turns a portion of those loans into student grants in 2044 via loan forgiveness.  In the meantime, graduates pay a 9% surtax on income over £21,000.

Altogether, a very wacky system.  Not a model for anyone, really.

March 17

Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” Scheme and the ICR vs. Graduate Tax Problem

You may have heard some rumblings from south of the border over the past few months with respect to a program called Pay It Forward (PIF).  The brainchild of a student group called Students for Educational Debt Reform, this idea was picked up by the Oregon assembly last summer; within a few months, over a dozen state governments were examining similar draft legislation.

The basics of the program are these: instead of paying tuition, students agree to pay a percentage of their future income (the percentages vary by state – in Oregon it’s 0.75% per year of study) for 20 years after graduation.  Some people mistook this for a version of income-contingent loans because it emphasized paying for school after-the-fact rather than up-front, and also because repayments were to be made as a function of income.  But there’s one key difference.  Loans have a limited liability: once you pay off the principal and interest, you’re done.  With PIF, there is no principal – once you start paying into a hypothecated fund, destined for the state’s higher education institutions, you keep on paying for 20 years no matter what.  This is formally known as a “graduate tax”.

Graduate taxes tend to be more progressive than income-contingent loans.  If you’re at the bottom of the income scale, you probably come out better off – you simply never pay anything.  If you’re at the top of the income scale, you’re likely going to pay a lot more because a portion of your income will go into public coffers long after you’d likely have paid off a loan.  Interestingly, the famous Yale Tuition Postponement Option of the early 1970s (designed by Nobellist James Tobin, and used by Bill Clinton when he attended law school there) went off the rails for precisely this reason – the richer students got tired of paying for the poorer ones, and started making a fuss.

One downside to a graduate tax is that it’s harder to collect than a loan.  In the US, for instance, it’s hard to imagine enforcing something like PIF, unless it was instituted nationally (if someone moved from Portland to Chicago, would Illinois be responsible for collecting the PIF contribution?).  A graduate tax was in fact examined relatively thoroughly not once but twice in England (the 1997 Dearing Report and the 2005 fee reform), and was rejected precisely because of concerns about grads evading repayment through emigration.

Another downside is: where exactly does the money come from while you’re waiting for graduates to start earning money?  If tuition is covering 40% of institutional expenditure, someone has to make that income good over the 20 or so years before the grad tax makes up the difference.  It’s not clear who that might be; if the state had money to do this, it probably wouldn’t be faffing around with ideas like PIF.  You could securitize the revenue stream, of course, but that also might get tricky.  Income-contingent loans lack graduate taxes’ most potentially progressive features, but they do have the advantage of: a) being collectable, and b) producing income for institutions in the short term.

There is of course one country that is trying very hard to merge the ideas of ICR and graduate taxes, with some really odd results.  More on the English experiment tomorrow.

March 14

Canadian Higher Ed Exceptionalism, Part 1 (An Occasional Series)

For awhile now, I’ve been writing about other national systems of higher education in our, “Better Know a Higher Ed System” series, in part to throw Canada’s own policy system into sharp relief. But sometimes it’s better to look at some things a bit more directly, so today I want to start exploring some areas where Canada really is an exception, globally.  And there’s nowhere we stick out more than in the way we admit students to university.

There are a limited number of ways to admit people to universities.  One of the most common is simply to use the scores from a common secondary matriculation exam as the basis for admission decisions.  Most of la Francophonie works this way, since they’ve all modelled themselves on France’s Baccalaureate.

Another option is to have a national university entrance exam, separate from matriculation.  The most famous of these is China’s gaokao, which draws on a millennia-long Chinese tradition, but which is in fact only 35 years old, and a product of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao reforms.  National exams are often a response to widespread cheating and corruption in schools.  In 2004, Russia introduced a new national exam with heavy security measures specifically to try to weed out academic corruption (it was only partially successful – since getting into university is a way for Russian males to avoid the draft, the impetus for academic corruption is pretty powerful).

In some places, individual universities have their own entrance exam, though these tend to exist only where a national exam is already in place.  Japan and Romania are two examples of this: in both countries, the more “elite” universities (e.g. Tokyo, Kyoto, Politehnica, Bucharest) have chosen to ditch the national exams and establish their own, for reasons of prestige, if nothing else.  And then, finally, you have the American options – not a university entrance exam but a national aptitude test, such as the SAT or the ACT.

So, now imagine trying to explain to foreigners how students get accepted to university in Canada.  Only Alberta, with its matriculation exams, has anything like the kind of standardized testing seen almost everywhere else in the world. In the rest of the country, you’re admitted entirely on the basis of grades based on high school marks predicated, to a considerable extent, on work portfolios rather than exams, and where grading standards between schools are only loosely consistent.  To the extent that there is fairness at all, it comes through the informal judgement of hundreds of admissions officers who, through simple experience, “know” which schools are easy graders, and take this into consideration when awarding places.

From the perspective of most other countries, the Canadian approach looks like sheer lunacy.  The scope for corruption in our system is enormous, but it’s simply not an issue here.  Everyone accepts the professional judgement of admissions officers and there are few complaints.  Such deep trust in the system is what has spared this country (outside Alberta, anyway) the kind of high-stakes exam nightmare that Americans endure.

In short, one thing that makes Canadian higher education exceptional is trust. That’s great, but trust is fragile.  It’s not something we should take for granted.

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