HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 12

An Update from Australia

Back in our spring (their fall), the Government of Australia announced a new university funding policy, which consisted of:

  • Cutting per-student public funding by about 20%; but,
  • Subsequently allowing funding to rise along with enrolments (this is known in Australia as “demand-driven funding”);
  • Simultaneously de-regulating all tuition; and,
  • Allowing the interest rate on student loans to rise from equal to inflation to equal to the government’s 10-year bond rate (i.e. actually placing a real interest rate on the loan).

Understandably, students opposed the idea, while high-prestige universities loved it.  Other universities were less keen, but figured student dollars are more reliable than government dollars, and so mostly backed the reforms (albeit without much enthusiasm).  The opposition Labour Party opposed the policy and made some substantive critiques of it here, but offered no counter-proposal other than the status quo, which isn’t great for universities either.

From the start, the potential hitch to this plan has been that, while the Liberal/National coalition has a solid majority in the House, the balance of power in the Senate is held by the Palmer United Party (imagine Ford Nation run by a successful self-made businessman rather than a crack-head with the impulse control of a five-year old), and the Motoring Enthusiast Party (yes, really).  That doesn’t matter so much in terms of implementing spending cuts – Australia sets caps on spending, but the government of the day is free to spend less without parliamentary approval – but it does matter for tuition where policy changes require an Act of Parliament.  And so there has always been the possibility that if the budget legislation stalls, government funding to institutions could be cut without institutions being able to raise fees to compensate.

Many insiders (mainly from within universities themselves) have suggested that if the government ditched the interest rate policy, the hard feelings of recalcitrant VCs and disappointed students would be smoothed over enough to allow the policy through.  However, Clive Palmer has, to date, been adamant that he’s in favour of free fees, and no fiddling around with interest rates is going to change his mind.  And while he’s been known to make deals on other issues (notably climate change), he’s not left himself much room for deal-making.

The government will avoid putting the proposals to a Senate vote if there’s a chance of them being rejected.  With the House soon breaking for Christmas, it’s looking likelier than ever that a vote won’t take place until 2015, leaving institutions in a bit of a tizzy.  The big universities wanted the deal done months ago so they could announce their new fee structure (to date, Western Australia is the only institution brave/crazy enough to do so), and start reaping the rewards of a big fee increase; now, they have virtually no basis on which to do any budgeting because they have literally no idea what their income will look like in 2016.

All of which makes deciphering what the policy will look like in practice an exercise in pure theory.  Without some idea of institutional pricing strategy, there’s no way to model the program’s effects.  With no model to work from, it’s anyone’s guess  as to how this will play out – a state of affairs that sits just fine with the doom-mongers and headline-writers who enjoy talking about $100,000 degrees.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably put my money against deregulation becoming law in 2015.   But Aussies tend to give their governments second terms even if they are a complete shambles (see: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard), and a new government might have a better mandate to push this through come 2016.

November 11

An Update from England

In 2012, the UK government allowed tuition in English universities to rise from a little over £3,300 to ($5,500) to about £9,000 ($15,300) in a single year.  Well, technically, they de-regulated tuition up to a maximum of £9,000, but since charging less than the maximum would obviously imply that programs weren’t top-quality, pretty much everyone went to the maximum immediately. Actual average tuition jumped to about £8,600 ($14,620).

So, of course, we’ve all been wondering what the effects of this would be.  I’ve looked at the evidence a few times in the past (see here, here, and here), but now the UK University and College Application Service (UCAS) has issued a summary of the effects of fee increases on student demand.  Why UCAS – the body that processes university applications, but by dint of which is also the body that monitors changes in applications and enrolments by things like age, race, income, etc. – chose to answer these questions on a very short Q+A webpage rather than with a report with corroborating evidence is a bit puzzling; nevertheless, the corroborating evidence can be found in the organization’s own annual analyses of demand, available here.

UCAS’ conclusions were as follows: that the fee increase did cause a small one-time reduction of demand.  But the long-term trend of increasing demand continued, and application rates are now at their highest level ever.  Most importantly, and I quote, “In terms of demand, entry, and type of institution, differences by background have reduced over this period”.

Got that?  Not only did a $9,000 increase in tuition, with only loans and no grants to offset the higher fees, not increase educational disparities by race, income, etc., they actually coincided with a narrowing of educational gaps.

(For clarity here, neither I nor UCAS is implying that the narrowing of the gap is caused by the tuition increase; merely that the trend was unaffected by the increase.)

The English fee policy is still ludicrous, of course.  Charging a huge fee when you know that students can’t pay it back is just idiotic (current estimates suggest that 50% of all fee loans will go unpaid, and that 80% of students will receive some loan forgiveness).  But nevertheless, it is very striking evidence about how resilient demand is in the face of tuition increases.  You’d think that governments around the world would take a look at this and say, “hey, most everything people claim about the negative effects of tuition fees on access didn’t happen here.  Why is that, and should our government re-consider our policies in light of it?”  You might also think that governments that don’t do this might be guilty of deliberately ignoring evidence in order to preserve policies which harm the long-term health of universities, in service of crass short-term political objectives.

You might think that – of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.

November 10

Three Rules for Politicos

So I see that the Government of Ontario has announced what is possibly the most boutique student aid program of all time.  If students volunteer at the 2014-15 PanAm Games, they will be exempted from the pre-study period contribution (a contribution from the money you earn up to 16 weeks prior to the start of your studies) for 2015-16, and will be get a 12-month grace period on their loans (instead of 6-month) before needing to start repayment.

<puts computer away>

<sighs, drinks some Red Bull, looks out the window wistfully>

<slams head against desk violently, yelling “WHY?  WHY MUST THIS PROVINCE BE GOVERNED SO BADLY?  WHY?>

<Breathes deeply.  Opens computer again>

OK, three things here.  Three things every politician in the country desperately needs to understand:

1)     Exploiting Unpaid Labour =/= Encouraging Voluntarism.  If it’s mandatory – as in “mandatory volunteering hours in high school” – it’s not volunteering.  If you pay for it in kind, it’s not volunteering.  This kind of thing demeans the notion of actual volunteering.

Oh wait, you’re worried that you’re asking someone to do too much for nothing?  Then PAY THEM, you gibbering moron.  Pay them for their work.  It’s not hard: we’ve been doing it since the end of serfdom.

2)     Stop Using Student Aid as an Indirect Government Policy Tool.  This seems to be in everyone’s playbook these days.  Not enough money in the PanAm kitty because you’ve blown it all on buying out incompetent executives?  Use student aid as a way to attract cheap labour!  Having trouble filling rural nursing or legal aid positions?  Use student loan forgiveness as a recruitment tool!

No.  No, no, no!  Student aid is about giving money to students to complete their studies.  If you want to play labour market games, do so directly.  Problem finding nurses for rural areas?  Have the damn Health Ministry pay them more.  Otherwise, you’re sending the message that you only want nurses from poorer families – the ones whose parents couldn’t give them enough money to keep them off student loans – to work in rural areas.

3)     No More Boutique Programs.  Student aid is already way too complicated.  Governments are collectively throwing $5.6 billion into student subsidies – that is, about 78% of the value of domestic tuition fees (institutions throw in another $1.6 billion on top of that).  And yet everyone thinks the cost of education is sky-high: students and parents simply do not understand the subsidies they are being given.  That is a clear sign of policy failure. 

Basically, if you’re thinking up boutique policy in student aid you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I realise this may come as a shock to the Ontario Liberals, who appear not to know any way to govern other than through policy boutiquery, but it’s true.  The priority for the coming years must be to simplify the system, not to tack on more bells and whistles.  Period.

Got that, politicos?  Pay the kids for their work, keep student aid simple, and tell the other ministries to stop using student aid as a way to backstop their own policy failures.  Stick to those three rules, and you’ll do all right.

November 07

Better Know a Higher Ed System: The Russian Federation

Yesterday I told you a little bit about late-Soviet higher education.  Today, I’ll explain a little bit about how higher education has fared in the Russian Federation since 1991.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about higher education in Russia today is that it exists at all.  Ever wonder how many people would still be at your university or college if pay stopped for months on end?  That actually happened in Russia.  In the chaos of the early 1990s, funding for universities fell by 80% (and could cease altogether for months at a time), and funding for research fell by 95%.  Foreign aid programs – run mainly by the EU and a couple of large American foundations – briefly made up over half of all research dollars available in the mid-90s (donors were interested in preserving Soviet science, but even more so in keeping Russian nuclear physicists too busy to contemplate going to Iran or North Korea).

During the long university freeze, institutions were told to raise their own money.  With decades of co-operation with industry, tapping business was an obvious route to go – or would have been had the Russian economy not been collapsing at the same time.  That left tuition fees as a solution: except that, legally, tuition was supposed to be free.  The solution, as in many post-socialist countries (e.g. Poland, Romania), was to offer dual-track tuition – those who did well on exams got to go for free, while those who did less well were offered full-cost places.

Where the Russians went further than most was in the way they handled the exams.  Basically, institutions discovered they could make even more money if they each set their own exam, and then offered courses on how to pass their exams.  That way, even if they let someone in free for an undergraduate course, they could still make money off them during the pre-university tutorial period.  And since being in university also got males out of military service, the onset of the Chechen crisis also did wonders for the ability to charge fees for this kind of thing.

Under the communists, most higher education institutions were not universities but polytechnics or specialized institutions.  This changed in the early 1990s when, under a new accreditation system, most were allowed to call themselves universities (which they all did, because of prestige).  At about the same time, many institutions began to opens schools of business, social sciences, and humanities, because in the post-Soviet period, that’s where the demand was.  In this, new private universities were not at a prestige disadvantage to the older universities, because the discredit was most discredited in precisely these areas.   A private university sector thus grew as well.  All told, enrolment at universities almost tripled between 1995 and 2007, with virtually all the growth coming in the fee-paying sector.

Another hangover from the communist period was the separation of research and teaching.  Most research in Soviet times was done in research institutes and academies, away from universities – and though there was a lively discussion about whether or not to ditch this system in the early 90s, inertia prevailed and the university/academy bifurcation remained.  Just as Russian science returned to something approaching health in the mid-2000s, global rankings like the Shanghai and Times Rankings began to show how poor Russian university scientific production was compared to the rest of the world.  At best, Moscow State (Lomonosov) University and St. Petersburg State are capable of making a top 500 of global research universities – no one else is close.   Unfortunately the major investments the Russian government is putting forward through the Project 5/100, which aims to put five Russian universities in the global top 100 by 2020 aren’t going to make a lick of difference to this unless the government bridges the university/academy divide.  Unfortunately, that seems as far distant as ever.

November 06

Higher Education Reform Paradise on the Volga

I was recently in Moscow working on a small project, and so spent a couple of weeks mugging up on Russian higher education and its history.  My main takeaway is that there has never been a higher education system anywhere in the world that was more at the service of industry than that of the Soviet Union.

One of the very first Bolshevik documents on higher education (“On the work of the Higher School”, 1925), states this very clearly: “the basic task of higher educational establishments should be the training of workers for practical activity and production in the wide sense of the word in all its branches”.   Institutional entrance targets and curricula were all set centrally, in accordance with the needs of industry as set out in the National Plan.

Being at the service of industry led to significant institutional specialization.  Of the more than 700 post-secondary institutions in the Soviet Union in 1970, only 40 or so were actually “universities”.  The university appellation implied being top of the higher education prestige ladder (which in turn implied being one of the country’s older institutions, like St. Petersburg State University or Moscow State [Lomonosov] University, but which was only applied to institutions that taught humanities).  The rest were “polytechnics” (still relatively broad in terms of science and technology, but not full universities) or “specialist institutions”.  The specialist institutions were actually so specialized that they weren’t even under the control of the higher education ministry – institutions that trained doctors and nurses were under the Health Ministry, those dealing with veterinary or agricultural sciences were under the Agriculture Ministry, etc., etc.

For the most part, research was (and still is) handled outside universities, through many specialized academies were run centrally from Moscow and generally did not report to the Education Ministry.  The Soviets believed that researchers would be more productive in such institutes, and would be relieved of the burden of dealing with students every day (we do the same thing of course – we just label the practice differently).  Of the research conducted in higher education, roughly half came from the 40 universities, and the rest from the other 700 or so institutions.  This of course does not include what we today would call “applied research”, where the specialized institutes excelled – in many cases, they had experimental equipment directly incorporated into the factory floor to make knowledge transfer speedier.

Because institutions were so applied in their focus, graduates never had a problem finding jobs afterwards.  In fact, jobs for graduates were guaranteed – sometimes at the very factories where the students had done their applied research.  Towards the end of the Gorbachev period, the Soviet government tried to create a quasi-market in graduates, asking companies to pay universities 3,000 roubles per student rather than order them up for nothing from a central agency.  This failed miserably, though whether it was due to companies’ inherent cheapness or the fact that the Soviet economy was starting to tank at the time is unknowable.

It’s also worth noting that the late Soviet higher education system had something called “People’s Universities”, though the “university” in question was just any local group (and there were thousands of them) that decided to put on a free adult education class.  Though the classes were organized locally, there was a national infrastructure behind the course curricula, financed through the sale of pedagogical materials (mainly books used as course texts).  Some of these were professionally oriented (e.g courses on car manufacturing, targeted at industrial workers), and could count towards other certifications, but mainly the courses were personal interest affairs.  If that’s not a system of proto-MOOCs, I’m not sure what is.

MOOCs, differentiation, specialization, applied research, industry focus… sounds like a right-wing higher ed reformer’s paradise, doesn’t it?  Gwyn Morgan would have loved it.

November 05

The Future of Transcripts

In theory, transcripts are a way to communicate a student or graduate’s academic achievement in higher education.  The problem is, they only really communicate achievements to other people in academia.  Outside academia, they’re fairly useless.

They say nothing about the skills a student may or may not have acquired at school.  They say nothing about what extra-curricular activities a student has engaged in.  At best, they communicate the lists of classes that a student took (though without curricula, it’s difficult to see what that means).  And if the credential is from another country, it might not even convey that much, since employers will be unlikely to interpret it properly (hence the multi-million dollar credential evaluation industry).

People have come up with all sorts of ways to overcome these problems – diploma supplements, badges, and whatnot.  But these sorts of initiatives suffer from a really basic collective action problem: employers only value what they understand, and new transcripts and credentials are, by definition, unfamiliar.  They only become familiar if a lot of institutions adopt the same standards on diploma supplements/badges/whatever, and start pumping out transcripts based on them.  And of course, that’s not easy to arrange.  Institutions won’t put in the collective effort unless they know businesses will use the new system, and businesses can’t commit to using the new system until they see it and understand it.

That sounds like a recipe for paralysis, and so it has been for many years.  But now there is new player on the scene who might be able to genuinely revolutionize the system.  And that player is LinkedIn.

Think about it: a LinkedIn profile is about the closest thing the world has to a common CV.  Employers all over the world know how to read it.  So whatever LinkedIn puts into its template becomes the de facto global standard.  So if LinkedIn starts to allow various forms of Open Badges onto the site (you can do it now, but it’s through a patch), vastly more employers will be exposed to this type of credential, badges will start to gain currency, and hence employer demand for badges will rise.

Now think a little bit ahead to when paper degrees die out entirely.  Already, schools in North America can link directly with the Ministry of Education in China to verify academic records.  At some point in the next 20 years, someone will come along and digitize academic records at every school in the world  (that someone may or not be LinkedIn – individual players come and go in tech – but there’s almost certainly going to be a single player that ends up dominating this CV/transcript market).  And while doing so, they will inevitably have to create some sort of standard template for the transcripts.  And just like that, you will have a global electronic standard for academic information for CVs, which will not just have courses and grades, but also will have access to data regarding the curriculum of each specific course.

All of which is to say, change is coming to this little corner of student business processes.  It’s time for institutions to start thinking how they’ll react.

November 04

Yet More Reasons Free Tuition is a Bad Idea

The easy case to be made against free tuition is that it benefits students from richer backgrounds.  That’s because they are more numerous in higher education than students from poorer backgrounds and so, on aggregate, would receive more aid.  But that misses a more important point: because of the interaction between student aid and tuition, students from wealthier backgrounds would also receive a bigger benefit on an individual level.

Let’s take a really simple example from Ontario.  Take two students, Adele and Diana.  Both live with their parents and attend university in the same Arts program, but Adele’s family’s income is $40,000, while Diana’s is $160,000.  Currently, both pay $6,957 in tuition.  Both also receive $2,163 in tax credits.  But Adele receives $5,000 in grant money, meaning her all-inclusive net tuition is -$206, while Diana’s is $4,794.

Now imagine the province gets rid of tuition entirely.  Diana, the rich kid, sees her sticker price go to zero, and her all-inclusive sticker price fall to -$768 (that’s the value of the monthly “education amount” tax credits, which would presumably still remain even if the tuition fee tax credit disappeared).  In this scenario, Adele’s sticker price falls to zero; she would also retain the education amount tax credit, and would keep her $2,000 Canada Student Grant.  But she would lose all her provincial grant funding, which is based on tuition.  Her net tuition would thus fall to -$2,768.

Think about that: adopting free tuition means that the kid from the poor family would benefit by about $2,500, while the kid from the richer family would be better off by $5,562.  And, of course, as we noted earlier, higher education enrolments tilt towards the better-off (this is true both in free-tuition and positive tuition countries) – meaning free tuition is a double give-away to the rich.  There’s more of them, and they get more back from a free tuition policy.

Remind me why this is a good idea, again?

Poor students from colleges receive even less of a benefit.  Students there have tuition of $4,032.  But if tuition were eliminated, that $4,032 savings would be offset by a loss of $2,016 in tuition-related grants, and a little over $800 in tax credits.  Net gain: less than $1,200.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university gets an extra $5,562.

But where it gets really gets crazy is with respect to single parents.  Take Joe, a college student with one child, living on student aid.  In the current system, Joe would receive a little over $7,000 in pure loans, and about $10,000 in remissible loans (i.e. loans that are forgiven each year).  If tuition were eliminated, however, he’d lose the remissible loan (i.e. a delayed grant) almost dollar-for-dollar.  Plus, on top of that, he’d lose $825 in tuition tax credits (the lower tax credits for college are because of lower tuition, in case you’re wondering).  So Joe would actually pay more, in net terms, after a reduction in tuition.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university would get an extra $5,562.

How is this fair?  How is it progressive?  How is it in any way a good use of money?

If you substitute in different students or different provinces you’ll get slightly different results, but the basic point remains: net tuition is already free (or close to it) for many people in this country – particularly, poor dependent students and single parents.  Reducing nominal tuition does little or nothing to help these people, and in some cases can actually hurt them.  Our student aid debate would be much better if more people understood this.

November 03

Cockroaches

One of the most maddening things about higher education journalism is the widespread assumption of fragility.

Take the notion of vulnerability to technological disruption.  The most recent example of this is a piece from University World News (which really should know better) entitled “Can Universities Survive the Digital Age?”  It’s an absolutely ridiculous question that could only be posed by someone who knew virtually nothing of the history of universities.

Every time there’s a technological innovation, somebody thinks the university must be in trouble.  Only 24 months ago MOOCs were going to kill universities.  In the mid-1990s there was loads of techno-fetishist nonsense about the Death of Distance, and what it would do to education.  Before that it was computers (check out this cute piece from the 1950s), and in the 1960s and 1970 it was television (remember the University of the Air?) – although the earliest predictions about the effects of TV on education date back to the 1930s.  And before that, it was radio that was going to revolutionize education.  And before that, as Gavin Moodie reminds is in this fine article (longer version available here), Gutenberg and the printing press had the potential to “disrupt” higher education (why go through all that oral disputation in Latin if you could just read a book in the vernacular?).

The fact is, every time there has been a change, universities have found a way to incorporate the new technology.  New technologies never replace previous channels of knowledge transmission – rather, new channels are just added to existing ones (this is of course is a major reason why technology is usually a source of university cost inflation, rather than a cost savings).  Universities adapt.  Because the point of a university is simply that it’s a place where people gather to learn and discover using all sorts of tools, not just (as some reformers seem to think) via oral communication.

But it’s not just the techno-fetishists who think universities are fragile.  People are always worrying about whether institutions can survive “cutbacks” (a term people use even though operating grants have been increasing continuously for over 15 years at a rate well above inflation).  Of course they can.  You can cut universities forever, and they will still function.  Look at universities in Africa, operating in conditions of unimaginable penury. Look at universities like Beijing or Tsinghua, which moved their operations thousands of km (on foot) in order to stay open during the Japanese occupation.  Or look back at Canadian universities in the 1930s, when most universities lost half of their funding (or more in the case of the University of Manitoba, where the bursar made off with the endowment).  They survive.

They survive because communities have pride in even the tiniest universities, and sustain them as best they can.  They survive because at least part of the academy will remain to the bitter end, wanting to continue in the mission of transmitting knowledge.  In the midst of wars and famines, universities have survived, sometimes in the most treacherous circumstances imaginable.

Universities are like cockroaches: they are almost impossible to kill.  They’ll be here after the apocalypse.  The idea that a temporary loss of income or some minor technological advance will do them in is simply laughable.

October 31

Apprenticeships and Commodity Prices

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the commodities “supercycle” coming to an end.  The most immediate evidence for this is what’s happening with the price of oil, which is falling rapidly (the spot price is down 27% in the last 4 months, but more importantly the 5-year futures price is down 24% ).   That’s both because of weaker global demand and because there’s a lot more oil out there than there used to be, thanks to (among other things) improved shale oil recovery techniques.

So what does this mean for higher education?  At the moment it seems unlikely to affect much for universities except insofar as it affects provincial economies, and hence tax revenues.  Alberta’s budget is less sensitive to oil prices than to gas prices; Newfoundland is the only province that is likely to get hit badly.  On the other hand, the economies of Quebec and Ontario are likely to see a boost – oil price drops tend to act like tax cuts, so that’s good news for universities in those provinces.

Where I think the end of the commodity supercycle (if that’s what it is) is going to hurt most is in skilled trades apprenticeships.  For the past decade and a half, apprenticeship registrations have been escalating constantly.  And while registrations have increased everywhere across the country, a lot of it has been driven by the migration of skilled tradespeople to Alberta (and to a lesser extent BC and Saskatchewan), which in turn has been linked to the rise in commodity prices, particularly the price of oil.

Figure 1 shows this pretty clearly.  The orange line is apprenticeship registrations, and the blue line is the spot price for West Texas Intermediate crude (which is the usual benchmark for Alberta crude).  It seems clear as day that the pick-up in apprenticeships in the late 1990s correlated pretty tightly with the return of the oil boom.

Figure 1: Oil Prices (in $2013 CDN) and Apprenticeship Registrations, 1991-2012

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That said, it does seem as though apprentice registrations and WTI decouples somewhat after the oil price crash in 2008, so maybe they can withstand a further reduction in price.  But if oil falls below $80/barrel (which it did this week), some estimates are that fully a quarter of new projects become uneconomical.  Intuitively, this seems like it would have enormous knock-on effects, not just in Alberta’s resource industry but also in its construction industry.  And if all those people from Ontario and the Maritimes start heading home, then the knock-on effects will be felt in the rest of the country, as well.

We got into a very lazy habit over the past decade of thinking that training and apprenticeships in the skilled trades was “safe”.  We told a lot of kids that they should forego other forms of education, because they could make out like bandits as apprentices.

In the short term, that was true.  But back in the 1980s, in the trough of the last commodity bust, unemployment rates in the skilled trades were in the double digits.  It’s not completely out of the question that could happen again.

October 30

Times Higher Rankings, Weak Methodologies, and the Vastly Overblown “Rise of Asia”

I’m about a month late with this one (apologies), but I did want to mention something about the most recent version of the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings.  You probably saw it linked to headlines that read, “The Rise of Asia”, or some such thing.

As some of you may know, I am inherently suspicious about year-on-year changes in rankings.  Universities are slow-moving creatures.  Quality is built over decades, not months.  If you see huge shifts from one year to another, it usually means the methodology is flimsy.  So I looked at the data for evidence of this “rise of Asia”.

The evidence clearly isn’t there in the top 50.  Tokyo and Hong Kong are unchanged in their position.  Tsinghua Beijing and National University of Singapore are all within a place or two of where they were last year.  In fact, if you just look at the top 50, you’d think Asia might be going backwards, since one of their big unis (Seoul National) fell out of the top 50, going from 44th to 52nd in a single year.

Well, what about if you look at the top 100?  Not much different.  In Korea, KAIST is up a bit, but Pohang is down.  Both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Nanyang were up sharply, though, which is a bit of a boost; however, only one new “Asian” university came into the rankings, and that was the Middle Eastern Technical University in Turkey, which rose spectacularly from the 201-225 band last year, to 85th this year.

OK, what about the next 100?  Here it gets interesting.  There are bad news stories for Asian universities.  National Taiwan and Osaka each fell 13 places. Tohoku fell 15, Tokyo Tech 16, Chinese University Hong Kong 20, and Yonsei University fell out of the top 200 altogether.  But there is good news too: Bogazici University in Turkey jumped 60 places to 139th, and five new universities – two from China, two from Turkey and one from Korea – entered the top 200 for the first time.

So here’s the problem with the THE narrative.  The best part of the evidence for all this “rise of Asia” stuff rests on events in Turkey (which, like Israel, is often considered as being European rather than Asian – at least if membership in UEFA and Eurovision is anything to go by).  The only reason THE goes on with its “rise of Asia” tagline is because it has a lot of advertisers and a big conference business in East Asia, and its good business to flatter them, and damn the facts.

But there’s another issue here: how the hell did Turkey do so well this year, anyway?  Well, for that you need to check in with my friend Richard Holmes, who runs the University Ranking Watch blog.  He points out that a single paper (the one in Physics Letters B, which announced the confirmation of the Higgs Boson, and which immediately got cited in a bazillion places) was responsible for most of the movement in this year’s rankings.  And, because the paper had over 2,800 co-authors (including from those suddenly big Turkish universities), and because THE doesn’t fractionally count multiple-authored articles, and because THE’s methodology gives tons of bonus points to universities located in countries where scientific publications are low, this absolutely blew some schools’ numbers into the stratosphere.  Other examples of this are Scuola Normale di Pisa, which came out of nowhere to be ranked 65th in the world, or Federica Santa Maria Technical University in Chile, which somehow became the 4th ranked university in Latin America.

So basically, this year’s “rise of Asia” story was based almost entirely on the fact that a few of the 2,800 co-authors on the “Observation of a new boson…” paper happened to work in Turkey.

THE needs a new methodology.  Soon.

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