HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

December 04

Why We Can’t Have Nice Institutional Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 03

Solving the Fees Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 02

The Bologna Process Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26

Who Owns Internationalization?

One of the first things you realize when studying how institutions deal with the process of internationalization is how fragmented authority actually is in Canadian universities – to the point where you sometimes have to wonder whether anyone’s actually in charge of the whole operation.

Part of the reason for this fragmentation  is that internationalization isn’t a single activity, but rather a process that affects a whole range of other activities in which universities normally engage.  To the extent that internationalization is about research connections, it tends to get run through a VP Research office.  To the extent it’s about recruiting students, it’s typically a purpose-built unit reporting to a Provost, but functionally linked (often uncomfortably) to the Admissions office.  To the extent that it’s about attracting foreign faculty, it’s completely ad hoc, and run by departments according to their own needs.

To the extent that internationalization is about creating agreements/MOUs with institutions all over the world, well, that’s a dog’s breakfast, because these agreements don’t all deal with the same issues.  Some are about exchanges, some are about one-way student mobility (e.g., 2+2 agreements), others are about research collaboration, etc. etc.  And because these agreements are a dog’s breakfast, it’s not always clear which bit of the university is in charge.  Sometimes it’s bottom-up: faculty members can propose agreements based around their own research interests; other times it comes from a purpose-built office that may or may not take any account of researchers’ interests.

Now, it’s not quite true to say that “no one’s in charge” of internationalization, because every one of these processes has someone in charge, at least nominally.  Operationally, identifiable people are in charge of recruiting international students, dealing with international student services, etc.  But it’s very rare to see anyone knitting the work of these various processes together into a coherent whole.  That is to say, there is lots of operational authority in internationalization, but very little in the way of strategic authority over internationalization.

In many places, this – remarkably – is seen as a plus.  A lot of people in international policy think “decentralization” is a good thing per se, because operational authority should lie closer to centres of real expertise, rather than being bottled up in a single office somewhere, so that institutions can be nimble in responding to opportunities.  That’s certainly true from the perspective of operational effectiveness, but what has largely been lost is the ability of institutions to steer internationalization policy across the various areas in a common way.  Too often there is no one making sure that what’s being done in international recruitment ties in with what is being done in research collaborations, or international mobility agreements, and so forth.

Where institutional coherence is abandoned, “internationalization” can thus look a lot like an excuse for administrators to swan around the world to no obvious discernible purpose to anyone inside the organization.  This situation pushes cynicism of internationalization well above general faculty levels of skepticism about administration.

All of which is to say: high-quality internationalization requires someone to steer all the various activities in a common, self-reinforcing manner.  Institutions don’t need to create a VP of Internationalization to achieve this; in many cases, a Provost or Vice-Provost could do just as good a job, depending on institutional culture and current priorities (the occasional support of an engaged President doesn’t hurt, either). But what is needed is sustained attention from someone who has the clout to demand some policy coherence.  Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s lacking on many campuses.

November 25

Graduate Income Data Miracle on the Rideau

My friend and colleague Ross Finnie has just published a remarkable series of papers on long-term outcomes from higher education, which everyone needs to go read, stat.

What he’s done is taken 13 years of student data from the University of Ottawa and linked it to income tax data held by Statistics Canada.  That means he can track income patterns by field of study, not over the puny 6-24 month period commonly used by provincial surveys, or the new 36-month standard the National Graduate Survey now uses, but for up to 13 years out.  And guess what?  Those results are pretty good.  After only five years out, all fields of study are averaging at least $60K per year in annual income.  Income does flatten out pretty quickly after that, but by then, of course, people are earning a pretty solid middle-class existence – even the much-maligned Arts grads.

Figure 1: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Field of Study and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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One of the brilliant things about this data set is that you can not only compare across fields of study in a single cohort, but also you can compare across years for a single field of study.  Finnie’s data shows that in Math/Science, Humanities, Social Science, and Health, income pathways did not vary much between one cohort and another: a 2008 History grad had basically the same early income pathway as one from 1998.  In two other fields, though, it was a different story.  The first is Business, where the 1998 cohort clearly had it a lot better than its later counterparts; after two years out, that cohort was making $10K per year more than later ones, a lead that was then maintained for the rest of their career.  In ICT, the fate of various cohorts was even more diverse.

Figure 2: Average Post-Graduation Income, Selected Cohorts of University of Ottawa Engineering/Computer Science Graduates, by Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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This is pretty stunning stuff: thanks to the dot-com bust, the first-year incomes of engineering and computer science graduates in 2004 was exactly half what it was in 2000 ($40,000 vs. $80,000).  If anyone wants to know why kids don’t flock to ICT as a career, consider uncertain returns as a fairly major reason.

Also examined is the question of income by gender:

Figure 3: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Gender and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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Two interesting things are at work with respect to gender.  The initial income gap of $10,000 in the first year after graduation gap is almost entirely a field-of-study effect: take out Engineering/Computer Science, and earnings are almost the same.  But after that, the gap widens at a pretty continuous pace for all fields of study.  It’s most pronounced in Business, where top-quartile male incomes really blow the averages out, but the pattern is the same everywhere.  Because of the way the data is collected, it’s impossible to say how much of this reflects differences in labour-market participation and hours worked, and how much of this is differences in hourly pay, but the final result – a gender gap of $20,000 to $25,000 in average earnings, regardless of field of study – is pretty striking.

Are there caveats to this data?  Sure.  It’s just one university, located in a town heavy on government and ICT work.  My guess is that elsewhere, things might not look so good in Humanities and Social Science, and ICT outcomes may be less boom-and-bust-y.  But fortunately, Ross is on this one: he is currently building a consortium of institutions across the country to replicate this process, and build a more comprehensive national picture.

Let me press this point a bit on Ross’ behalf: there is no good reason why every institution in the country should not be part of this consortium.  If your institution is not part of it, ask yourself why.  This is the most important new source of data on education Canada has had in over a decade.  Everyone should contribute to it.

 

 

Nb. One tiny quibble about the papers is that they present everything in monochrome graphic form – no tabular data.  To make the above figures, I’ve had to eyeball the data and re-enter it myself.  Apologies for any deviations from the original.

November 24

The Arts Problem(s)

There’s no polite way to say this: Canadian universities have an Arts problem.

At the heart of institutions’ looming fiscal problems is their inability to convince major customer groups (government, students) to pay the desired price for the product they’re offering.  The reason for this, mainly, is the perception that the product on offer is not value-for-money.  Part of this is due to our ludicrously opaque student aid systems, which lead students and families and politicians into thinking that net tuition is a heck of a lot higher than it actually is (see here for more on that, or here for the full report).  But part of it also has to do with the fact that people are under the impression that returns on education ain’t what they used to be.

That’s not entirely fair, of course.   The recession is responsible for most of the downturn in graduate jobs, not some sudden change in what the market “wants” in terms of skills.  And it’s not even true that returns are falling for all fields of study: some have held up relatively well in recent years.  But it is a problem in Arts.  Look what data from the annual survey of Ontario Graduates says: though employment rates remain high, the actual monetary returns are very bad at the moment – down roughly 20% in real terms over the past few years.

Figure 1: Average Income (in $2013) Two Years After Graduation, Ontario Graduating Classes from 2003-2011, Selected Disciplines

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Not surprisingly, students are voting with their feet.  Look at the pattern of applications by program in Ontario: after a series of small declines in Arts, last year saw a decline of 10%.

Figure 2: Share of Total Applications to Ontario Universities, by Selected Fields of Study, 2003-14

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The point here is that, increasingly, the perception of Arts is that they aren’t very useful.  And yes, it’s annoying that people want to reduce education to considerations of short-term employment, but it is what it is.  When we ask people to pay so much (either privately or via tax dollars), people expect results, and they aren’t seeing them.

So something has to change in the Arts; not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all of higher education, which is being tarred with the same brush.  And that something is a greater focus on employability.

Now, even saying something like that causes paroxysm among some: “I’m not going to create cannon-fodder for the knowledge economy, etc. etc.”  But as I’ve said before, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of talented academics to devise a curriculum that meets both the traditional aims of a liberal arts degree, and that places more emphasis on employability skills (what is the ability to critically appraise arguments, appreciate complex chains of causation, and clear and effective writing if not employability skills?).  Indeed, I’ve even suggested there are some good models available from fields like medicine to do exactly this.

But if fixing the Arts was as simple as that, it probably would have happened already.  The biggest problem with Arts isn’t that the curriculum is difficult to alter, it’s that to a large extent curriculum simply doesn’t exist.  For decades, Arts faculties in North America have been headed inexorably towards a “buffet”, where if you take a few courses from column A, a few from column B, and we’ll call it a degree as long as the credit hours line-up.  Or, more bluntly, there is no curriculum, there’s just a bunch of courses.  This is completely unlike Arts faculties in the rest of the world, where course choice is more limited and degrees are much more structured.

So here’s the real issue: the preliminary work required to improve curriculum – that is, getting folks to realize there’s a curriculum in the first place – is therefore pretty massive.  And this is why it’s likely that, even though Arts needs to improve quickly to stem declining enrolments, it’s unlikely that change will actually occur quickly.

In the best of all worlds, this is a task people should have started working on years ago.  But as they say, the second-best time to start anything is now.  We should roll up our sleeves and get cracking.

November 21

Variation in Tuition in the United States

One of the things foreigners always get wrong about the American higher education system is tuition fees.  The external perception of tuition is driven by what’s happening at the famous private institutions, mainly in the country’s northeast.  But that’s not even close to being the whole story.

Figure 1: Tuition by Type of Institution, United States, 2014-15

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It is true that tuition at private non-profits is pretty high – $31,231, on average; though it goes much higher than that (one-sixth of these colleges charge over $45,000/year for tuition alone).  Of course, discounts are rife, and few actually pay the sticker price.  Net tuition and fees in this sector are actually only about $12,500.  And more to the point, only 2.7 million undergraduates (i.e. fewer than 20% of the total) attend schools in this sector.  In contrast, 6.6 million students attend public 4-year colleges, where the average sticker price is only $9,139 (avg. net tuition = $3,000), and 7.1 million attend public 2-year colleges (i.e. community colleges), where fees are just $3,347 (avg. net tuition = -$1,900).

But the differences aren’t simply by sector, they’re also geographic.  In-state tuition at 4-year publics varies widely from one state to another.  In Wyoming, tuition is $4,646; in Vermont, it’s $14,419.  There are some broad regional trends you can see in the data, but they aren’t quite as stark: in New England (i.e. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), average tuition at public four-year institutions is $11,436; in the South and Southwest, it’s about $8,300.

This often makes people stop and think: why is it that tuition in the liberal, blue-state northeast is higher, while in the conservative red-state south and Midwest it’s cheaper?  Well, the answer is that politics in the US didn’t always break down the way it does today.  Back in the 1890s when the big Land-Grant universities were starting to grow, most of today’s low-tuition states were run by governments heavily influenced by the Populist movement.

Populists were suspicious of universities because they served such an elite section of the population.  They wanted them opened up to the children of farmers, and to make sure that they taught “practical arts” as much as the liberal ones.  These being the days before student aid really existed, the way populists gave effect to this was to order institutions to keep tuition low, a tradition that in most states remains true today.

In fact, one way to predict state tuition levels in the US today is simply to look at vote totals from the 1896 election.  That was the “Cross of Gold” election, which pitted the Democratic/Populist William Jennings Bryan against the Republican William McKinley.  Figure 2, below, plots today’s in-state tuition rates against Bryan’s share of the vote in that election.

Figure 2: Current-Day In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

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Rather amazingly, there is still a relationship between political patterns of 120 years ago and tuition policy today.  It’s not a perfect fit, of course – South Carolina, in particular, was a Bryan stronghold, and yet now has tuition of nearly $12,000 – but the pattern is clearly there.

America is large, and contains multitudes.  Generalizations about its higher education system need to be treated with much caution.

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