HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 09

Some Intriguing New UK Access Data

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (also known in these parts as “the other HESA”) put out an interesting report recently on participation in higher education in England (available here).  England is of course of great interest to access researchers everywhere because its massive tuition hike in 2012 is a major natural policy experiment: if there is no clear evidence of changes in access after a tuition hike of that magnitude then we can be more confident that tuition hikes elsewhere won’t have much of an effect either (assuming students are all given loans to cover the fees as they are in England).  I’ve written about previously about some of the evidence that has come out to date back here, here, here and here: mostly the evidence has shown little to no effect on low-income students making a direct transition to university, but some effects on older students.

The new (other) HESA report is interesting.  You may have seen the Guardian headline on this, which was that since the change in fees, the percentage of state school students who proceeded to higher education by the age of 19 fell from 66% to 62% in the years either side of the policy change (note: regular state-school students make up a little over 83% of those enrolled in A-level or equivalent courses, with the rest split about equally between selective state schools and independent schools).  On the face of it, that’s a pretty bad result for those concerned about access.

But there are three other little nuggets in the report which the Guardian chose to ignore.  The first was that if you looked simply at those who took A-levels, the drop was much smaller (from 74% to 72%).  Thus the biggest drop was from those taking what are known as “A-level equivalents” (basically, applied A-levels).  The second is that among the very poorest students – that is, those who receive free school meals, essentially all of whom are in the main state sector – enrolment rates essentially didn’t move at all.  They were 21% in 2011/12, 23% in 2012/13 and 22% in 2013/14. All of this is a long way up from 13% observed in 2005, the year before students from families with incomes below £20,000 had to start paying tuition.  Third and last, the progression rate of state school students to the most selective institutions didn’t change at all, either.

So what this means is that the decline was most concentrated not on the poor in state schools but in the middle-class, and landed more on students with “alternative” credentials.  That doesn’t make a loss of access any more acceptable, but it does put a crimp in the theory that the drop was *caused* by higher tuition fees.  If “affordability” (or perceived affordability) were the issue, why would it hit middle-income students more than lower-income students?  If affordability were the issue, why would it be differentially affecting those taking alternative credentials?  There some deeper questions to answer here.

 

September 08

Trends in Canadian University Finance

New income and expenditure data on Canadian universities came out over the summer courtesy of StatsCan and our friends over at the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO), so today it’s time to check in on what the latest financial trends.

In 2014-15, income at Canadian Universities was, overall, a record 35.5 Billion dollars (just above 2% of GDP, if you’re counting).  That’s up 1% in real terms over the previous year and up 5% on five years ago (2009-10).  But the composition of that income is changing.  Total government income is down 2% in real terms from last year and down 8% from 2009-10 (the latter being somewhat exaggerated because the base year included a lot of money from the 2009 budget stimulus via the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP).  Income from student fees, on the other hand, was up 5% on the previous year and 32% up from 2009-10, again taking inflation into account.  That doesn’t mean that fee levels increased that much; this is aggregate income so part (maybe even most) of this change comes from changes in domestic and (more pertinently) international enrollment.

Figure 1: Change in Real Income by Source, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10

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Let’s turn to a look at expenditures by type.  Salary mass for academic staff actually fell slightly last year after inflation, but over five years the overall salary budget for academics is up by 10%, after inflation. Again, this isn’t what’s happening to average salaries, it’s what’s happening to aggregate salaries, so it’s partially a function of average and partially a function of staff numbers.  For non-academic salaries, it’s an 11% increase over five years.  And yes, you’re reading that right: labour costs have risen 10% while income has risen only 5%.  Again, that’s exaggerated a bit by fluctuations in incoming funds for capital expenditures, but it’s probably not sustainable in the long term.  Because other elements of the budget are increasing quickly too: for instance, scholarship expenditures rose by 21% over that period to stand at over $1.87 billion.

 Figure 2: Change in Real Expenditures by Type, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10

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Finally, let’s take a look at expenditures by function within the operating budget.  Operating budgets as a whole are actually up quite a bit – 14% (this is partially offset by falls in the capital and research budgets).  Here’s how the money gets used:

 Figure 3 – Division of Canadian Universities’ Operating Budgets by Expenditure Function, 2014-15

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As you’d expect and hope, the lion’s share (57%) of the operating budget goes to instruction and non-sponsored research.  Most of the rest goes on three categories: administration, student services, and physical plant.  Figure 4 shows how growth in each of these areas has differed.

Figure 4: Change in Real Expenditures by Function, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10

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If you look at the “big four” spending areas, instructional and admin costs rose at roughly the same rate over fiver years (14% vs. 15%), while student services rose more quickly (21%) and physical plant less so (7%, with a 4% drop in the last year).  Non-credit instruction is up very strongly for reasons I cannot quite fathom.  But look at computing costs (up 31%) and “External Relations” (which includes Government Relations, alumni relations/fundraising and other marketing costs – up 27%).

In sum: i) government funding is down in real dollars but student income has replaced that income and more besides, so that institutional budgets are still increasing at inflation +1% per year; ii) compensation budgets (academic and non-academic alike) are rising faster than income, which is a problem for the medium-term and iii) there are a lot of small-ish budget items that are growing much more quickly than salaries (scholarships, computing, student services etc.) but given that compensation is 60% of the total budget, that’s still where the majority of the restraint needs to happen.

September 07

Unpleasantness at Brock

So, everybody is talking about the kerfuffle at Brock: yet another presidential hire gone wrong, though this time the slamming-on-the-brakes happened before the hire actually started working, which I suppose is progress.

What actually happened?  At the moment, here’s what we know for sure:  Wendy Cukier, a former VP at Ryerson was offered the President’s job at Brock in December 2015 with a start date of September 1.  She was undergoing what seemed to be a normal transition, starting to meet with faculty, up until a few weeks ago when meetings suddenly ceased.  On Monday August 29th, news emerged that Cukier and the Board had mutually agreed to suspend the appointment, and to look for a new President.  Cukier returned to her professorial position at the Ted Rogers business school at Ryerson.

Now, no one has yet actually asserted in print that the reason for the “mutual” change of heart is a report about Cukier’s alleged bullying of staff while at Ryerson, but many news outlets have reported that an inquiry into such allegations took place and by putting two facts side by side the journalists clearly expect the reading public to make that leap.  The inquiry into those allegations is said to have occurred in late 2015 (i.e. around the time Cukier’s appointment at Brock occurred),  an investigative report into the allegations is reported to have been received by Ryerson in January 2016 (i.e. after the appointment).  We don’t know what the inquiry’s report said, and news outlets have been careful to avoid directly stating that there was any connection between the two.

Brock, obviously, is a bit screwed now.  Their interim President is the VP Finance & Administration (not an academic and a former CFL player to boot, which has made the faculty union extremely sniffy in an oh-my-God-what-will-other-universities-think-of-us kind of way, which is frankly juvenile).  The some-say acting, some-say interim Provost is an outsider: Martin Singer, the Arts Dean from York who is best remembered for deciding to allow Saudi males to not study with girls in the name of religious accommodation. The VP Research is also interim.  It’s going to be a tough two years working to sort this out.

To the extent anyone is talking about the general implications, there same to be three.  First, some people have posited that gender is an issue in the affair.  On the facts of this particular case that seems a stretch.  It is however undeniable that recent university President “departures” (let’s call them that) have been disproportionately female (Leavitt at King’s, Ghazzali at UQTR, Lovett-Doust at Nipissing, Scherf at Thompson Rivers, Woodsworth at Concordia, Busch-Vishniac at Saskatchewan, Hitchcock at Queen’s and now Cukier), at least compared to the mostly male population of university presidents.  I’d argue that – contra Jennifer Berdahl and the view that only alpha male behaviour is rewarded in universities – there’s a disproportionate number of individuals in that group who were let go precisely because they were too alpha.  If there’s a gender case to be made here, it might be about what kinds of leadership styles get women promoted to decanal and vice-Presidential positions in the first place.

Second is the role of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which again are getting in the way of Everyone’s Right to Know Every Last Detail (though to be honest, Brock’s Board of Governors has 27 members and I’m willing to bet that that’s too many to keep a secret for long).  NDAs don’t get a lot of favourable press and some say they should be done away with, but it’s hard to see how that’s possible. If someone is being let go for some reason that reflects badly on them but which is short of being “with cause”, you can either pay them a small amount of money now and have them leave quietly (I’m actually a bit surprised no one has yet commented publicly on whether there was a payout and if so how big it was), or you can trash them publicly and pay a lot of money after the inevitable lawsuit.  As public institutions, I don’t think universities and colleges have a lot of flexibility on that point.

The third implication people are drawing form this is that here again we have Another Failed Board Search, Why Can’t Boards Get Things Right, Need for Immediate Governance Overhaul, etc.  But I think this is overdone. The Brock University Board Chair has gone on record saying his university “did not know” about the Ryerson report (there is no word about when Brock became aware of it).  But unlike one or two Presidential searches I’ve heard of, Brock actually *did* its homework and interviewed quite a few people about Cukier.  It’s just that, as far as we know, no one at Ryerson told them about the results of the inquiry, presumably because it was a “personnel matter” and hence confidential.  If staff at Ryerson knew about the issue and withheld information from the Brock search committee, that’s hardly something the Brock board can be blamed for.  Sometimes bad things happen even if you do everything by the book.

Finally, let me stress that we don’t yet know the full story.  Maybe we never will.  The staff allegations at Ryerson might only be a small part of the issues involved.  Keep an open mind.  There’s probably more to come.

September 06

Announcements

Guys!  I’ve got it solved!  This whole funding thing!

You know how Liberal MPs are taking up the entire back-to-school season with on-campus announcements of Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) money?  It’s annoying, right?  I mean this is money isn’t some “favour” delivered through hard work and pork-barrelling by the local MP.  It’s technocratically-determined funding decided upon by a professional public service.  And yet all the universities and colleges have to go through this rigamarole, saying “thank you” to the local MP, and having pictures taken that can be used ad nauseam in local media.

OK, I get it.  Politicians need to get “credit”, and it’s not just about personal political advantage (though I suppose that never goes amiss).  It’s important that the public knows how their money is spent and media “events” help with that process.  To that extent, it’s perfectly legitimate.   But why is it legitimate for some types of spending and not others?  Why do the feds get these heaps of publicity for a few hundred million dollars when provinces hand out over a billion dollars a month every year?

That’s not a novel observation on my part, or anything.  Everyone has had this discussion of course.  It hasn’t exactly passed unnoticed that announcements of capital projects (especially ribbon-cuttings) get more fanfare than announcements of operating grants. And there’s a too-smug, too-certain line that everyone knows about how “if only we could do ribbon-cuttings for operating grants” then politicians would give money for that, too.

Now, there’s at least some truth to this.  Relative to operating grants, universities and colleges have been getting more money for capital these past fifteen years or so.  And presumably the ability to get good press out of announcing such funding has at least some small role to play in it.

But do we really know that we can’t hold media events for operating grant announcements?  Or have we just never tried?

I mean, clearly, the fact that the money has already been announced is no barrier to getting media out to events.  Every last dime of SIF has already been announced weeks ago.  Hell, last week the Science Minister showed up at Humber College to re-announce changes to the Canada Student Loans Plan that had not only been announced five months ago but which had actually gone into effect four weeks previously.  Timeliness and novelty are clearly not the issue.

Some people might say: “ah, well, you can’t announce operating grants because they aren’t new.”  But this is small-time thinking.  There’s almost always a part of the funding that is new, even if it’s only 1 or 2%.  And what that money is funding changes quite a bit every year.  One year it might be buying RECORD LEVELS OF ENROLLMENT, and in another SIXTY NEW PROFESSORS AND A NEW CENTER FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES.  Tie it in with some kind of re-announcement about new goals, multi-year agreements, whatever, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide news event.

Not a ribbon cutting, maybe, but a reason for provincial politicians and institutional officials to be pleasant to one another in public, to explain to the electorate what their money is buying, and have some photos taken.  And who knows?  If people are right that positive media is what begets more capital funding announcements, maybe it’ll help bring operating grants back up a bit too.

So come on, institutional government-relations types and provincial media-flack types.  It can’t be beyond your wit to organize some media for all that massive public investment.  Give it a try.  It can’t be any less legitimate than this interminable parade of SIF announcements to which we’re currently being subjected.

September 02

New Thoughts on Innovation Policy

A new book on innovation policy came out this summer from a guy by the name of Mark Zachary Taylor, who teaches at Georgia State.  The book is called The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries are Better Than Others at Science and Technology and to my mind it should be required reading for anyone interested in following Canada’s innovation debate.

First, things first: how does Taylor measure how “good” a country is at Science & Technology?  After all, there are lots of ways of measuring inputs to tech, but not many on the outputs side.  The measure Taylor selects is patents.  And yes, this is highly imperfect (though it does correlate reasonably well with other possible measures like multi-factor productivity), but Taylor doesn’t over-egg the data.  For most of the book, his interest is less in scoring countries and then using various types of regression analyses to come up with explanations for the scores; rather, he tends to group countries into fairly wide buckets (“Most innovative”, “mid-level innovative“, and “rapid innovators” showing rapid progress like Korea and Taiwan).  Canada – probably to the surprise of anyone who follows innovation policy in our country – comes up as one of the “most innovative” along with Japan, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. This may either be a sign of us being too tough on ourselves, or Taylor being out to lunch (I’m a bit unsure which, to be honest).

But put that aside: what’s important about this book is that it provides a good, critical tour d’horizon of the kinds of institutions that support innovation (research universities, patent protection, etc.) and explicitly rejects the idea that “good institutions” are enough to drive innovation forward.  This seems to me to be quite important.  Much of the innovation commentariat loves playing the game of “look-at-that-institution-in-a-country-I-think-does-better-than-us-we-should-really-have-one-of-those” (think Israel’s government-sponsored venture capital funds, for instance).  The riposte to this is usually “yeah, but that’s sui generis, the product of a very special set of political/institutional factors and would never work here”.  And that’s true as it goes, but Taylor goes a bit further than that.

First, he focuses on how open a country is to both inward and outward flows of knowledge and human capital.  Obviously, higher education plays some role here, but on an economy-wide basis, the real question is: are firms sufficiently well-networked that they can effectively hire abroad or learn about market opportunities in other countries?  Taiwan and Israel have worked this angle very effectively, cultivating ties with targeted groups in the United States and elsewhere (my impression is that Canada does not do this in anything near the same level – one wonders why not).

Second, Taylor doesn’t just stop at asking the question of how nations innovate (answer: they design domestic institutions and policies to lower transaction & information costs, distribute and reduce risk, and reduce market failures in innovation).  He also tries to get at the much more interesting question of why countries innovate.  Why do Finns innovate like mad and Norwegians not?  Why Taiwan not Philippines?  Or, for that matter, why the US and not us?  Institutions play some role here, but it’s not the whole story.  Culture matters.

Or, in Taylor’s telling: perceptions of internal and external threat matter.  His argument is that everywhere, the urge to innovate is countered by the wailings of bereavement from those who lose from technological innovation.  In many countries, the political power of losers is sufficient to create a drag on innovation.  Only in places where the country feels an existential threat (e.g. Israel, Taiwan) do political cultures feel they have the necessary social license to ignore the losers and give the innovators free rein.   Taylor calls this “creative insecurity”.

I have to say I don’t find this last bit entirely persuasive.  The bit about losers having too much power is warmed-over Mancur Olson with a tech-specific focus (Taylor goes to some length to say it’s not, but really it is). and while the second part is a plausible explanation for  some places -Singapore, say – his attempt at formalization requires some serious torquing of the data (Finland cannot credibly be described as being under external threat) and/or some very odd historical interpretations (Taylor’s view that Israel was under greater external threat after 1967 than before it would probably not be accepted by many mid-east specialists).

That said, it arguably does explain Canada.  Our resource base gives us an undeniable cushion that other advanced countries lack.  We lack external threats (and since the late-90s we lack internal ones too).  Frankly, we’re just not hungry enough to be top-of-the-pack.  Even in parts of the country that should be hungry – Nova Scotia, for example – there’s simply not that much appetite to sacrifice dollars spent on social policy to make investments in innovation. See, for instance, the carping over Dalhousie’s participation in the MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program.

Say it softly: as a country, we might not be cut out for this innovation stuff.  Sure, we like spending money on gee-whizzy tech things and pretending we’re at the cutting edge of this, that or the other, but it’s a long way from that to actually being innovative.  Innovation is tough.  Innovation causes pain and requires sacrifice.  But Canadians prefer comfort to sacrifice:  we can’t get rid of harmful dairy monopolies, our national dress is fleece, etc.

Anyways, read the book.  And have a great weekend.

September 01

Reminder: Hot Jobs and Hot Careers Never Last

There was an interesting piece in the National Post last week about unemployed professionals in the Alberta oil and gas industry.  In amidst the occasional whine about the oil industry being so unloved by the rest Canada, there is a serious article about what happens to people in specialized professions when the economic tide swings away from that profession.  Some quotes:

Philip Mulder, spokesman for the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), said its geoscientists are faring badly in the current climate because they are predominantly employed in oil and gas…PetroLMI/ENFORM, which tracks labour market trends in the sector, said 145,000 people worked directly in oil and gas extraction, pipelines and services in the province on average in the first four months of 2016, down from 176,000 during 2014. Meanwhile, 17,300 were unemployed on average during the first four months of 2016, up from 6,500 during 2014. The rest left the industry by moving elsewhere or to other sectors, retiring, going back to school.

Lemiski, 33, studied for eight years at the University of Alberta to earn a degree in geology and a master’s in earth and atmospheric sciences.  He started his career six years ago as an exploration geologist at Talisman Energy Inc., but was laid off when the company ran into financial difficulties and cut its exploration program. He found work at Nexen Inc., owned by China’s CNOOC Ltd., as a petrophysicist, but that didn’t last long and he was back on the street in March.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Times are obviously tough for professionals in this industry and it’s hard not to sympathize with people whose profession is vanishing under their feet.  But let me simply point out that this situation could have been predicted by anyone a) with half a brain and b) who remembers what the early 1990s recession was like in Alberta.  Cyclical industries are just that – cyclical.  They rise and they fall.  That’s fine until people forget that both are equally likely.

And of course, the top of a boom is precisely where people tend to forget that.  One of many examples: the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2011, saying Canada would need 6,000 geophysicists to deal with retirements between now and 2020.  Here’s a Petroleum Labour Market Information report saying that the country wasn’t training enough people, and predicting that there would be a shortfall of 1500-200 geologists and geophysicists in Alberta alone by 2022. And so of course there was a drumbeat across the west:  why weren’t those out-of-touch universities doing more to graduate more geologists?

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened of course. Back in the late 1990s the Ontario government fell for the pitch of the IT industry that there simply had to be more computer science graduates in the province or woe, disaster, earthquakes, pestilence, etc.  So the Harris government, which had hitherto done nothing but cut the bejesus out of Ontario universities, decided to spend millions to “double the pipeline” in computer sciences (i.e. double the intake of students in order to double the number of graduates).  Ontario universities took the money and implemented the plan, which delivered a record number of graduates… who hit the job market in 2002, right in the middle of the worst tech bust in history.  Cue thousands of underemployed Engineers, at least for a few years.

My point here is not that universities should ignore the labour market.  That would be silly; most students attend university to get a better job, and ignoring the labour market is tantamount to malpractice.  My point, rather, is that one has to be extremely careful about trying to time the market by shifting enrollment into specific programs.  Any job that’s in high demand today has good chances of looking very different in five years – the time it takes to design a program and get a new boatload of students through it.  All you end up with are a lot of disappointed and underemployed students.

Pay attention to long-term trends?  Certainly.  Short-term booms?  As little as possible.  Even in Alberta.

August 31

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 2)

There are a lot of things “everybody knows” about students these days.  Everybody knows students these days think of their education in far more utilitarian terms than they used to, caring more about their jobs outcomes and less about the joy of learning.  Everybody knows it’s easier to get an A than it used to be.  And everybody knows students are working more because education is way more expensive. 

Unfortunately, all of this is demonstrable twaddle.  As per yesterday, we can examine these questions by looking at longitudinal data from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium.

Let’s start with the issue of why students choose to attend universities.  It is certainly true students, if asked about their motives for attending, do tend to focus on employment-related themes.  However, this is nothing new: this concern has long been the case among students.   Yes, students are more likely than they were 15 years ago to say they go to university to get a good job (86% vs. 80%), but they are also more likely to say they are going because they want to increase their knowledge in a particular academic field.  The rank order of reasons hasn’t changed: only the frequency with which students cite them.

Figure 1: % of first-year students indicating different rationales for attending university, 2001 vs 2013

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Figure 2 shows the change in the distribution of grades students report receiving during their first year (technically the question, posed mid-way through the winter term, asks what students think their average for the year will be).  It turns out the curve is very similar: yes, students are slightly more likely to report getting As, but they are also slightly more likely to report getting Cs.

Figure 2: First year students’ average reported grades, 2001 vs 2016

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Finally, there is the issue of students working.  As Figure 3 shows, it turns out that the percentage of first-year students indicating that they have a job has fallen from 42% to 34%, while the average number of hours worked among those who do work has fallen from around 16 hours per week to 14 hours per week.  The drop in the employment rate appears to be secular rather than cyclical, while the drop in hours does seem to have some cyclical component (i.e. a big drop between 2007 and 2010).

Figure 3: First-Year Students’ Employment Rates and Average Hours of Work, 2001-2016

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We can’t tell exactly what’s causing the drop in employment rates and hours or what the effects are because the survey of first-year students is lighter on financial data than its companion surveys are.  But there are three obvious reasons why students might be working less than fifteen years ago.  The first is that a significant number students in 2016 will have had the benefit of 18 years worth of Canada Education Savings Grants whereas the 2001 cohort would only have had three years’ worth.  The second is that student aid is significantly more generous to first-year students than it was in 2001 (mostly due to the relaxation of income criteria in 2004 and 2006).  Finally, institutions themselves are giving away a lot more money.  Back in 2001, 39% of incoming students said they received a scholarship or other financial award from their institution.  By 2016, that number had increased to 58%.

Now, let’s see how many journalists complain about one of these things “everybody knows” about over the next week or two.

August 30

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 1)

As the school year starts, it’s always valuable to take a look at trends in incoming students.  The best tool we have for that in Canada for doing this is the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium’s triennial survey of first-year students (the most recent version is here.  It’s not the greatest of instruments: consortium membership changes from cycle to cycle, so the base population is neither equal to the national first-year population nor stable from cycle to cycle.  But since Statistics Canada is now declining to do any surveys at all of enrolled students, it’s all we’ve got, and by and large, participating institutions are reasonably representative of the country as a whole.  There’s also a problem with CUSC occasionally changing the wording of the questions, thus making time series somewhat difficult – but then again, this is an aggravating habit that Statscan has in spades.  So, with all those difficulties acknowledged, let’s begin.

Here’s my favourite chart, on the theme of visible minorities (a subject I tackled a few months ago):

Figure 1: Visible Minority Students as a Share of all First-year students, 2001-2016

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Now part of the increase comes from the way this value is calculated.  The question used to simply be: “are you a visible minority?”’; it now asks directly about ethnicity and infers visible minority status on that basis (basically, if you do not declare yourself as white or aboriginal, you are considered “visible minority”).  So part of the increase may have to do with a change in the question phrasing.  But still, this is pretty impressive.  Even if you take out all the international students (not all of whom are visible minority), you’re talking 33% of all students (compared to just 22% of all Canadians 15-24%) being visible minority.  That would make Canada possibly the only country in the world where visible minorities have that kind of advantage.

Here’s another intriguing time series where the phrasing of the question makes an enormous difference: students with disabilities.

Figure 2: Percentage of Students Indicating they Have a Disability, 2001-2016

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The jump in the last three years is definitely due to the way the question was posed.  In all previous years, the question was “do you have a disability”?  In 2016, the question specifically referenced nine different kinds of disability (including learning disability, which accounted for over half the responses). It then asked if the disability was serious enough to require the university to provide accommodation.  Only 32% of those listing disabilities – or 7% of all students – said yes, which brings us back down to the range of previous years.  Moral: how you ask a question matters a lot.

On to socio-economic background, which this survey measures via parents’ educational background.  This time series is a bit messed up because CUSC changed the wording of the question this year (formerly, the survey asked about each parent separately, now it just asks about “parents’” highest level).  But here goes:

Figure 3: Percentage of Students’ Parents Possessing a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher

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It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these results.  Since children tend to hit university about 30 years after their parents do, this graph is to some extent just reflecting the expansion of access to university in the 70s and 80s.  But that’s not quite the whole story.  According to the census, in 2001, 17% of adults aged 45-64 possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher; in 2011 it was 21% (I know, I know, National Household Survey – but still).  So it appears as if more recent cohorts of first year students are slightly more likely to come from better-educated households than their predecessors, which is not a particularly good finding.

More tomorrow.

August 29

Welcome Back

Morning everyone.

We’re back for another term.  I hope everyone’s summer went well.  Let’s get started.

First, a quick round-up of the major events since I was last in the Daily blog business: on August 1, the new Canada Student Grants program came into effect, with all grants now 50% larger than they used to be (the offsetting bad news, the loss of a whole bunch of tax credits, kicks in on January 1).   The big Ontario scheme doesn’t kick in this year, but the New Brunswick Tuition Assistance Bursary (TAB) started at the same time as the federal program.  There’s a new Minister for Advanced Education in New Brunswick who has been given a mandate to re-engineer the TAB so that it’s design isn’t quite so cockamamie; that’s great news, but no word yet on if/when/how such a re-engineering might take place.

The new government in Ottawa hasn’t quite left its hyperactive phase, and so the government has been conducting two big consultations of note this summer, one on innovation policy and one on science policy.  The Innovation policy increasingly looks to me like a go-nowhere exercise, mainly because the Minister himself seems to have a very difficult time distinguishing “innovation” from “glitzy tech things”. Universities, of course, won’t mind this policy confusion (and may indeed be actively abetting it) because, if the government is going to be handing out money for glitzy tech things they’re going to be pretty close to the front of the line, regardless of what happens to actual innovation.

(An aside: I don’t have time to get into this now, but absolutely everyone interested in innovation policy  – especially our esteemed Minister – needs to go out and buy Mark Zachary Taylor’s The Politics of Innovation.  I’ll come back to this book later this week but suffice to say it’s a fantastic and important read.).

The other big issue in Ottawa this summer has been the increasingly weird and disturbing management flame-out at the Canadian Institute of Health Research.  Other granting councils are also dealing with stable-ish budgets (last year’s budget boost was welcome but in real dollars budgets are still below where they were in 2009) and increasing application rates, which are leading to ever-decreasing project success rates.  But only CIHR has chosen to deal with these challenges by simultaneously changing the criteria of its main funding programs AND pilotinga whole new adjudication system whose raison d’etre appears to be to avoid every piece of known good practice in terms of evaluating scientific proposals.  I’m not an expert on this stuff, so I urge you to read someone who is: Jim Woodgett, the Director of Research for the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute (for instance, this piece  and this one too).  How CIHR President Alain Beaudet has kept his job through all this nonsense is frankly a bit of a mystery; but the Minister’s office now seems to be aware of the scale of the catastrophe and so a trip to the high jump may not be far off.

Overseas the big news is mostly in the UK (Brexit and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, subjects to which I’ll return over the next couple of weeks).  Hillary Clinton made a campaign promise to ensure that 85% of American students can attend a public university tuition-free, but it isn’t getting lot of press because almost nobody believes it’ll ever happen.  Still, we seem to be in a moment where governments (Ontario, Chile, the US) are increasingly interested in making higher education explicitly free for low and middle-income students.  We’ll see who else follows that trend in the next few months.

Finally, I have one small announcement to make with respect to this blog.  As y’all know, providing the reading public with expert commentary (well, commentary anyway) is a bit of a time sink.  But also, thanks to Statistics Canada’s cost-recovery policies, it’s a money sink as well.  I know many if not most of you dig this blog primarily for the data analyses – and I prefer writing data-pieces to think pieces – but the costs of obtaining that data are getting higher all the time. 

I’ve never really tried to monetize this blog the way Academica’s Top Ten does with its job posting thing; it seems like a hassle and it annoys some readers.  But equally, I can’t really justify blowing money on the blog either, and I need about $2500/year to get the data necessary to keep the interesting stats pieces coming.  So at some point in the next few weeks, I am going to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise that amount.  If you like the data work I do and think it’s valuable for policy discussions in Canadian higher education, please consider donating.   There will be tchotchkes.

That’s it.  Have a great term everyone.

 

August 24

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

I am a proud Carleton alumnus.  If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study.  You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience.  I’m always talking up Carleton.  So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.

The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors.  Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account.  He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).

The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”.  Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense.  In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.

This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share.  You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board.  But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not.  Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s  workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance). 

What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”.  This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.

One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance.  Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions.  Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself. 

Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities).  But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here.  Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out.  Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong.   Carleton needs to re-think this policy.

So says this alum, anyway.

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