Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Canada

October 17

The Ontario College Strike

Ontario College Professors, represented by the Ontario Public Sector Employee’s Union (OPSEU) went on strike Monday morning.  A few thoughts on where we are and what might happen:

  1. OPSEU’s final settlement offer published on the weekend (available here) is a heck of a long way from what they were proposing a couple of weeks ago.  They’ve given up literally everything on workloads and the (frankly ludicrous) demand for academic Senates at all institutions and some other stuff besides.  From this you can either infer that the union is trying really hard to reach a settlement, or that these issues were always meant to be sacrificed at the table for progress on the couple of issues the union apparently sees as core; namely, staff complements and “academic freedom”.
  2. The staff complements clause basically says that at every institution, for every full-time teacher, there should be no more than one part-time/sessional teacher (currently, it’s about 2:1 or even a bit higher).  No doubt this would significantly increase institutional costs (and, given that full-timers teach more than part-timers, destroy many more part-time jobs than it would create full-time ones), and it’s not entirely clear ow that would be paid for.  That’s almost certainly the main reason why the colleges – whose budgets are tight – aren’t budging on that point.
    But a bigger issue possibly is that we’re talking about colleges here, the whole point of which is that the instruction is job-oriented, and that means having a lot of instructors who are active in industry.  The exact mix is going to differ somewhat from field to field, but you need a healthy proportion in there.  The right mix might not be the current 2:1, but for the sake of quality college education it seems to me both parties have a duty to ensure that they have some sense of what kinds of ratios do work before agreeing to anything here.  It’s a pedagogical as well as a financial issue.
  3. The “academic freedom” demand has a similarly barbed tail.  Most of what is being asked for is pretty innocuous.  But check out proposed clause 13.04 (a), which defines academic freedom as “freedom in the conduct of teaching” and which the explanatory notes say “affirms faculty ability to make academic decisions about their courses”.  Whoa Nelly.
    The idea that academic freedom = professorial sovereignty within the classroom is a uniquely Canadian one.  I am not sure where it comes from, exactly, but it is very different from notions of academic freedom that one sees in European universities (which tend to stress collective autonomy rather than individual liberties, especially where curriculum is concerned), and it’s not clear to me how the hell this is supposed to work in a college context.  Your average college program is much more structured than one in universities.  Courses don’t often exist in isolation, but rather as part of a carefully constructed package which builds towards a diploma.  To ensure the coherence of a diploma, you actually can’t have individual profs making too many individual decisions about their courses.  At the very least, professorial control needs to be inscribed within the boundaries of program-level curriculum limits (or, in the case of trades/apprenticeship instructors in Red Seal Trades, within the limits of nationally-mandated curricula).
  4. In university strikes, where there is nearly always one faction of students who comes out in favour of faculty and often volunteers to help on the picket line.  This is always greatly appreciated by faculty, who spend a lot of time talking up this kind of support on social media. Most striking profs feel some guilt because of the negative effects of strikes on students, and this kind of thing assuages the guilt somewhat.
    But in this case, the more vocal student faction has been anti-strike.  Last week, a group of students started a petition to demand refunds of $30/day for every day the strike goes on.  As of early Monday morning, the petition had over 38,000 signatures.  It’s not an anti-prof petition, quite– after all, it takes two to avoid a strike (that said, the overall tone of the accompanying twitter hashtag #wepaytolearn certainly seems to lay the blame on the union).  In any case, it sure doesn’t seem likely at the moment that OPSEU can count on much of the kind of morale-boosting solidarity that university unions seem to be able to count on.
  5. One of the good things about the union’s final offer is that for the most part it jettisons the proposals that the employer council was never going to agree to (mainly, the stuff about Senates).  The outlines of a deal are now pretty clear: colleges will give a little on reducing the use of sessional staff and the union will soften the language on academic freedom to accommodate legitimate concerns about program coherence.  With luck, there’s a deal inside a week.  Without luck, the provincial legislature has to step in and legislate everyone back to work and impose binding arbitration sometime around Halowe’en.

October 02

Atlantic Blues

One big story from out east that didn’t get a lot of play in the rest of the country was the news that the Nova Scotia government had, over the period 2013-2017, quietly bailed out Acadia University to the tune of $24 million.  This is of course the second time a Nova Scotia government has bailed out this decade: the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) received about $10 million.

This isn’t really a partisan thing: it was an NDP government that bailed out NSCAD and a Liberal one which offered extra help to Acadia.  It’s a structural problem: Nova Scotia is not a very rich province, and it has a lot of universities, only one of which is large enough to have real economies of scale.  This problem was laid out in great detail seven years ago by economist Tim O’Neill in a special report on the system prepared for the Provincial Government but the Dexter government passed on making the difficult decisions.  Now, the new Liberal government has put some extra money in and has allowed institutions to raise a bit more money through tuition, but it doesn’t change the really basic structural challenge the province’s institutions face.  Come next recession, at least one university will be back in the same situation.

From the Acadia story we can glean two things.  First, former President Ray Ivany is clearly a very persuasive guy (but we kind of knew that).  Second, we now have some greater insight into the drafting of the controversial Bill 100, which provided for the possibility of universities to ignore collective agreements if they were in financial exigency and needed to restructure.  Turns out it wasn’t out of the blue: it was in reaction to Acadia telling them they needed a bail-out.  Bill 100 was the Government signalling to everyone in the province’s higher education community: bailouts aren’t the only possible outcome.  Radical restructuring is a possibility too.

How radical?  Well, two neighbouring provinces can give a sense of how bad things can get.  We’ve seen what kind of time Memorial University of Newfoundland is having dealing with cuts of 20% or more to income with little to no ability to recoup money from tuition fees.  In New Brunswick, cuts to provincial operating grants have if anything been as severe, if spread out a little more – a 22% drop in real terms from 2010-11 to 2015-2016 (see back here for more on provincial changes).  Student numbers have fallen as well, by nearly 15%.  That’s a double-edged sword, because while it means the per-student cut in the operating grant is not as severe, that’s also a lot less fee income coming in as well.

Figure 1: Change in university enrolments, Atlantic Provinces, 2010-11 = 100

Source: Association of Atlantic Universities

In fact, the only province in the region where things remain reasonably quiet is Prince Edward Island, where the UPEI is holding its ground both in terms of government grants and student numbers.  Compared to the rest of the region, that’s a reasonably good place to be.

The fundamental challenge of most of the region’s universities is size.  Small is a great selling point – if you can charge for it.  If you can’t, small just means fragile.  And fragility describes too many Atlantic universities right now.  Acadia won’t be the last university in the region to approach the brink; there’s almost certainly more drama to come in the years ahead.



September 27

Some Surprising (?) Data on Canadian University Expenditures

I’ve been doing some work on financial data of higher education institutions around the world, and specifically looking at what’s been going on at top research institutions compared to everyone else.  And I thought maybe you all would be interested in what I’ve found for Canada.

For the purpose of this document, I have separated the six institutions in Canada which always come top in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (aka “Shanghai Rankings”) – that’s Toronto, UBC, McGill, McMaster, Alberta and Montreal – from the rest, which allows me to look at “the Big 6” against everyone else.  Over the past fifteen years, those institutions have pretty consistently made up around 20% of the country’s total enrolments and about 30% of institutional expenditures.

Figure 1 shows growth in expenditures in real dollars, with 2000-2001 as the base year. And basically what it shows you is that Canadian universities had a money-hose aimed at them in the early 2000s, with annual increases in the 9-10% range.  These big increases continued for slightly longer at the big 6 than in the rest of the system, but by about 2006 they were growing at the same rate again (around 4% per year after inflation), and by 2011 growth had leveled off completely and was holding steady in real terms.  The more dramatic and historically-challenged in the community call this “austerity”, but actually it’s just steady-state.

Figure 1: Change in Canadian University Expenditures, 2000-01 to 2014-15, indexed to 2000-01 

But wait, you say, hasn’t participation rates been going up?  Weren’t there a lot of new students to accommodate in there?  There were indeed.  See figure 2.

Figure 2: Change in Canadian University Enrolments, 2000-01 to 2014-15, indexed to 2000-01 


Two things about changes in enrolments: first, they increase at roughly the same pace in the top 6 as everywhere else, and second, they increased pretty consistently across the time period, rather than jump radically at first and then tail off, as expenditures did.

From the foregoing you can probably do the math in your head and work out what per-student expenditures look like: rising a bit in the 00s and falling a bit since about 2000.  And this is in fact exactly what we see:

Figure 3: Per-student Expenditures at Canadian Universities, 2000-01 to 2014-15

But there’s a bit of a difference here.  If you’re not at one of the big six, per student expenditures in real dollar have been falling ever so slightly for seven or eight years and now sit right about where they were fifteen years ago.  If you’re at one of the big six, they’ve been falling only since the turn of the decade and they currently sit about 20% above where they were at the turn of the millennium.  The big institutions, which already spent a lot more per student because they had more expensive programs, did more research, etc, in a sense “pulled away” from the rest of the pack over the course of the aughts.

But actually what was most interesting to me in this exercise was looking at how heterogenous the “top 6” actually are in terms of expenditures.  At one end, you have Montreal, which sneaks into the world top 200 with expenditures of only about $30,000 per student (Montreal includes both Polytechnique and HEC for these purposes), which in fact make them look – financially anyway – more like the “everyone else” category than the rest of the big 6. Toronto, McGill, and McMaster all spend just north of $40,000 per student.  But the big western universities – Alberta and UBC – spend substantially more: over $50,000 in the case of the former and nearly $60,000 in the case of the latter.

Figure 4: Per-student Expenditures at Canadian “Top 6” institutions, 2000-01 to 2015-16

These graphs pose many interesting questions, but here are the three posers I’d most like to see explained:

i)      why didn’t Canadian universities derive any economies of scale when enrolments increased?

ii)     what are University of Alberta and UBC buying with their extra $10,000 per student per year?

iii)    what does Montreal do that allows it to get into the upper reaches of global research universities with a comparatively pedestrian budget?

Tomorrow, we can look a bit at how some of Canada’s “close competitors” stack up.

September 19

Growth of Presidential Compensation

Let’s do another blog on this topic because everyone loves talking executive compensation.

Yesterday we looked at Presidential pay in international comparison and saw that Canadian university Presidents have fairly low pay compared to equivalents in other English-speaking countries.  But, one might argue, that’s the wrong metric.  Maybe the real problem isn’t high pay so much as a relatively quick rise in pay over the past few years.

That’s a fair argument.  But let’s see what the data says.

My data source here is the ever-handy CAUT Almanac (2005, 2010-11 and 2015-16 editions), from which we can obtain data on Presidential salaries for 2003, 2008 and 2013.  There are multiple observations for 58 institutions (44 in 2003, 54 in 2008 and 56 in 2013); any institution for which I have data for only one year is eliminated.  Now with numbers this small, one has to be careful about one or two outliers distorting averages either up or down.  With that in mind, figure 1 shows the evolution of average compensation for university Presidents in Canada.

Figure 1: Average Pay, University Presidents, Canada 2003-2013, in real 2013 dollars

Source: CAUT Almanac

What figure 1 shows is that between 2003 and 2008 average Presidential pay rose by 8% after inflation (or, about 1.6% per year).  However, between 2008 and 2013 the figure fell by a little less than 1%, meaning that for the decade as a whole the average annual increase was 0.68%.

Surprised?  Skeptical?  Well with datasets this small, it’s good to be careful.  Not all of these are observations are comparable.  In any given year, a few Presidents get hired and others leave their position.  For these people, the salaries & compensation as captured by the Almanac are not particularly helpful because their salary only covers part of the year.  In a couple of cases, you also get what look like one-off payments which inflate the salary.

To try and get around this problem, let’s look at the change between 2003 and 2008 for every institution for which we have data for both years:

Figure 2: Distribution of Real Presidential Salary Changes, 2003 to 2008

Source: CAUT Almanac

The highest value here is Acadia, and that’s clearly because the 2003 observation was for a President who was only came on board in September, thus giving her an artificially low number in the base year.  Similarly, most of the negative numbers are for people who came on board mid-way through the year in 2008, such as Alan Rock (Ottawa), Roseann Runte (Carleton) and Michael Goldbloom (Bishop’s).  But some of the negative numbers are also “resets” as universities bring compensation down when a new President is installed; for instance, Indira Samarasekara’s 2008 compensation was 28% lower than her predecessor’s in 2003.

Without a lot of fact-checking around appointment dates which I frankly have no interest in doing (free email guys: you get what you pay for) I can’t be sure exactly which Presidents fall into which category.  But assuming that the artificially high and artificially low observations more or less cancel each other out, looking at the median observations should give us a sense of what was going on at the typical institution.  As it turns out, the median here is 20%, compared to the 8% average we saw in figure 1: that’s not a “better” figure, by the way, just a different lens.  For 2008 to 2013, the median is 0% (same as the average), and for 2003 to 2013 the number is again 20%.

Just for amusement, let’s compare this for a second to what’s been going on with professorial pay. Again, the data source is the CAUT Almanac for the same years.  Guess what?  Between 2003 and 2013, the average rise in pay – after inflation – for full professors (the nearest comparator to University Presidents) was 23%.  I suspect that the rapid rise after 2008 has to do with fewer retirements and more professors staying on for more years and receiving annual pay rises.

Figure 3: Comparison of Changes in Presidential and Full Professorial Pay, 2003-2013

Source: CAUT Almanac

To sum up:  between 2003 and 2008, presidential pay was rising by somewhere between 1.5% and 3.7% per year over inflation, depending on how you look at it.  However, between 2008 and 2013 presidential pay stayed even with inflation.  Meanwhile, average pay for full professors rose steeply after 2008, and over the decade to 2003 to 2013, their average pay rises were higher than those for Presidents – substantially so if we take an average-to-average comparison.

So next time anyone complains about huge pay rises to executives, just remember that professorial pay has been rising faster.  Sauce for the goose, etc.


September 12

NDP Leadership Race Notes

So the deadline to sign up for the federal NDP leadership passed a couple of weeks ago, and the first deadline for the mail-in ballots is next Monday.  So what to make of the four candidates and their views on post-secondary education?   Based on their platforms and a series of responses to a questionnaire on Science policy from Evidence for Democracy (responses available here), my take is as follows:

Jagmeet Singh.  Nothing.  He has a lot of policy proposals on various topics but effectively nothing on skills, education and how to pay for them.  He is also the only one of the four candidates specifically avoided making any commitments at all with respect to the Naylor Report.

Charlie Angus.  On the skills side Angus says he would “establish a labour market partners’ forum so government can work with labour and other stakeholders to develop programs and make Canada’s labour market development programs more accessible by lowering the eligibility requirement.”  I am not entirely sure what this means, though the use of the term “eligibility requirements” seems to imply that he’s talking about skills acquisitions as being entirely tied to Employment Insurance, which is somewhat restrictive (even though Angus does simultaneously promise it to make it easier to qualify for EI).

On post-secondary generally, Angus says he would work “towards a comprehensive education accord with the provinces that eliminates tuition, ensures adequate funding for research, sets standards for mental health and sexual assault policies, and improves working conditions for students, staff and adjunct or contract faculty on campus,” which suggests ambition if not a totally firm grasp on how federalism works (also: no price tag attached).  He also says he wants to eliminate interest on Canada Student Loans (bad idea), put new money into PSSSP for Indigenous students and extend it to include bridging programs, increase weekly loan limits for all students and better harmonize federal & provincial retraining programs (all excellent ideas).  And finally, with respect to Science, Angus is pro-Naylor (committed to implementing the report, full stop) and anti-superclusters.

Guy Caron.  For a former CFS chair, Caron is awfully quiet about PSE (then again, as an MP from Quebec, his perspective may have changed somewhat).  From an income standpoint, his Basic Income scheme – everyone over 18 gets their income topped up to at least equal Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut Off  would pretty much take care of the need to increase student aid any time soon.  But also in Caron’s platform is a genuinely intriguing mention of an “Activity Account for Lifelong Learning” which is describes thusly: “financed by contributions from workers, employers, and the federal government, the account will enable its holder to finance lifetime learning and job retraining. It would be portable so that if the individual moved or switched jobs, the account would migrate with them”.  The notion is not developed further, so it’s hard to say exactly what’s intended, but it sounds a lot like a mix of CPP/EI (compulsory deductions) with RESPs (government top-ups) for personal use.  In principle there’s much to like about this kind of idea though it’s worth remembering that a badly-implemented version of this idea cost the UK government hundreds of millions of dollars back in 2001.  Caron also supports full implementation of the Naylor report.

Niki Ashton.  This is the big one.  Ashton promises to:

  • Eliminate tuition fees, as per the proposal made by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  That would cost $3.5 Billion, and still depends on a) provinces being willing to pick up half the bill, and provinces being willing to accept massively different levels of federal support to so (basically, provinces currently doing most would receive the least under this program, leading to the obvious problems I described back here).
  • Reduce tuition for international students to “affordable levels”.  No financial details as to what possible mechanism would compel institutions or provinces to go along with this, or whether it has even occurred to her that most HEIs would sharply reduce intake of international students if this ever happened (unless the feds ponied up a couple of extra billion in compensation).
  • Eliminating interest on Canada Student Loans and doubling the repayment threshold so students do not need to repay loans if earning under $50,000.  It’s hard to tell from the platform, but this looks like a retroactive commitment – that is, it applies to all outstanding student loans.  That’s an expensive commitment, since international evidence shows that raising the threshold usually has significant knock-on effects in terms of lifetime repayment rates.
  • Increase funding for Aboriginal PSE.  Basically the promise here is to fulfill the TRC recommendation to get rid of the 2% cap (which the Trudeau government already ditched last budget), fund the backlog of First Nations applicants and include Metis students in this funding arrangement.
  • Increase funding for graduate students and “equalize research funding across disciplines”.  My interpretation of this is that it means increasing the SSHRC budget relative to those of NSERC and CIHR, but it’s not 100% clear.
  • With respect to Naylor’s recommendations, Ashton carefully says she is committed to “addressing” them, but carefully avoids any comment at all on the big issue of a $1.3 Billion increase in funding.  The bits she likes involves “re-balancing” funding and handing more money to grad students, post-docs and early career scientists.  If one were being uncharitable, one might suspect that she cares about government funding for science mainly as an income support mechanism for scientists rather than a means for actually performing scientific endeavours.

No argument from me on the Indigenous funding, but apart from that, my comments on Ashton’s platform are largely the same ones I had on the Green Party platform in the 2015 election (to which this bears more than a passing resemblance): so many billions of dollars, and not one of them going to increase the quality of provision or increase the number of student seats.  It’s all about cheaper.  Such a waste.

Anyways, if I’m ranking these platforms, Angus probably edges it.  His PSE accord idea is unworkable, but the pledges on Indigenous education and harmonizing training funding are good.  Caron would come second for the originality of his learning account idea.  Ten points to Ashton for thinking PSE is important, another ten for her position on Indigenous education but minus several hundred for the actual, wasteful substance.  Singh is simply missing in action.

The first round of voting takes place October 2nd; should extra ballots be required, they will take place on the following two weekends.  Best of luck to all.

September 11

The Growing Importance of Fee Income

I made a little remark last week to the effect that on present trends, student fees would pass provincial funding as a source of revenue for universities by 2020-2021 and combined fed-prov government funding by 2025.  Based on my twitter feed, that seems to have got people quite excited.  But I should have been a little clearer about what I was saying.

First of all, by “on present trends”, I literally meant do the simple/stupid thing and take the annual change from 2014-15 to 2015-16 and stretch it out indefinitely.  One could use longer-term trends but for provincial government funds, the difference is minuscule because the 1-year and 5-year trends are pretty similar.  It’s harder to do that with the federal money because it jumps around a lot on an annual basis (is there a federal infrastructure program in a given year?  Have they given a one-time bump to granting council dollars?  etc.) and so medium term trends are harder to discern.   Second, when I said it would pass government funding, I meant for the entire budget, not just the operating budget (feds don’t really contribute to operating budgets).  And third, I was speaking in terms of national averages: regional averages vary considerably and in some provinces, fees passed government grants as a source of income some time ago.

Anyways, I thought it would be fun to do some inter-provincial comparisons on this.  To make things simple, I’m going to exclude federal funds from the exercise, and just look at provincial grants and student fees.  As previously, the data source is the Statcan/CAUBO Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey.

Let’s start by looking at how grants and fees compare to the size of the operating budget of universities in each province.

Figure 1: Provincial grant and fee income as a percentage of operating income, by province, 2015-16

Now, remember: some provincial and fee income goes to areas other than the operating budget and operating income is not restricted to just student fees and government grants.  Thus, you shouldn’t expect the two sets of lines to add up to 100%.  In some cases they add to more than 100%, in some cases less.  But no matter, the point is here that already in 2015-16 fees represent a greater portion of the operating budget than government grants in Ontario and an equal proportion in Nova Scotia.  In BC and PEI, fee and grant income are close-ish, but in the other six provinces government grants predominate.

Now let’s look at the five-year percentage change in income, in real dollars, from fees and grants.  This one is kind of complicated, so bear with me.

Figure 2: Change in income from provincial grants and student fees, by province, 2010-11 to 2015-16

There are seven provinces which share a pattern: increasing real fee income and decreasing real provincial grant income, though the extent varies.  The biggest shifts here are in Ontario and BC.  Quebec is the only province which has seen an increase in income from both sources.  In all eight of these provinces, we can do straight-line projections of the future pretty easily.

But then there are two provinces – Newfoundland and New Brunswick – which have seen net decreases in both sources of income.  Basically, this is what happens when a demographic collapse happens at the same time as a fiscal collapse.  In per-student terms this doesn’t look quite so bad because enrolments are declining, but since staff don’t get paid on a per-student basis that doesn’t help much when it comes to paying the bills.  It’s hard to do straight-line projections with these two because it’s quite clear the fee income declines aren’t going to continue indefinitely (the demographic collapse stabilizes, eventually).  So we’re going to say good-bye to these two for the rest of this analysis, while wishing them the very best in dealing with their rather significant challenges.

Ok, for the remaining eight provinces, let’s combine the info in those last few graphs.  Let’s take the income by source data in figure one, and then apply the trend changes in figure 2 to each province.  The easiest way to show this in a graph is to show fee income as a percentage of provincial grant income.  We can show this out to 2024-25, as seen below in figure 3.

Figure 3: Projected ratio of student fee income to government grant income to 2025, by province

What figure 3 really shows is that Canada is heading towards a much more financially heterogeneous higher education system.  For the country as a whole, fee income for universities should surpass provincial government grants in 2020-21.  But this masks huge variation at the provincial level.  Ontario and Nova Scotia (by now) already exceed that level.  BC will get there in three or four years, PEI will get there by 2024-25.  But the other provinces aren’t on track to hit that level until 2030 at the earliest (and in Quebec’s case it’s about 2055).

Another way to think of this is that in about a decade’s time, the funding landscape in places like Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is going to look the way it did in Ontario ten to fifteen years ago.  At the same time, Ontario’s funding landscape is going to look a lot like big American public schools, with less than 30% of the operating budget (and probably something like 15% of total funding) coming from provincial governments.  Differing incentives facing different universities means they are probably going to be run quite differently too: expect a greater variety of institutional cultures as a result.

Now, as with any straight-line projection, you should take the foregoing with a healthy amount of salt.  Politics matter, and funding trajectories can change.  This is one possible scenario, not necessarily the most likely but simply the one most in line with current trends.

But keep in mind that the above is the probably good news scenario for Ontario.  The bad news scenario would see the percentage of funds coming from fees restricted not by increasing the government grant, but by restricting student intake, or the intake of international students (which is where the big gains in fees are really coming from).  So even if you find this scenario disturbing: be careful what you wish for.

August 28

Welcome Back

Morning all.  Hope you had a good summer.  To welcome you back, let’s take a quick look at state of play in the sector as we start the academic year.

In Canadian PSE, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of doubt about where things are headed this year.  Post-Naylor, we’re going to be talking research, research, research.  If you doubt this, take a look at Universities Canada’s recent budget submission.   As always, there are three “asks”; for the first time I can remember all three asks are about research.  It’s clear that scientists – particularly those in health-related fields who have been jerked around the most in recent years – have been making their voices heard and that University Presidents at least are responding to that pressure by making this issue central to higher education lobbying for the next twelve months.

(I think this is poor form, actually.  Less than two years on from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not an enormous amount of progress immediately evident, I’m not sure how appropriate it is to not have something on indigenous education this year.  But I’m not in charge.)

“Superclusters” will probably get a lot of mileage as they get announced in the run-up to the budget next winter.  Apparently the competition – which is supposed to have five winners – received 50 applications, each of which was supposed to have at least one post-secondary education partner.  However, we’ve also been told that only 20 PSE institutions’ names were attached to these proposals.  From this we can deduce that i) it’s likely that a handful of institutions’ – no prizes for guessing which ones – are on three or more proposals (rumour has it one is on no less than 18), and either ii) almost none of these proposals have more than one participating PSE institution or iii) there are a lot of the same institutions over and over again.  If it’s the latter then the program has basically abandoned the idea of clusters being geographic in nature and this program basically is back to Network Centre of Excellence but with some private enterprise attached.  Which defeats the purpose of this stuff, in my view.  No self-sustaining cluster gets by on research alone. It gets by more than anything on having lots of trained workers of various kinds.  And that means colleges and polytechnics *have* to be part of the mix.  If they’re not then this whole thing is a conceptual failure from the get-go.

(But hey, this is Ottawa.  No one’s ever going to measure the results.  And even if by some miracle the policy’s was found officially wanting, presumably they can always claim that it’s because they didn’t spend enough money.)

While much of the attention will be focussed on Ottawa, remember we live in a federal country.  For most institutions, the real game this year will be in provincial capitals.  2018 is going to see elections in Ontario (June) and Quebec (October).  Combined with a minority legislature in British Columbia, what we have is a situation where the country’s three largest provinces – all of whom have budgets which are more or less in balance – are going to be in spending mode for the next twelve months.  Not everyone is going to share in this bounty, of course. My guess would be that Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan are going to see continued or intensified restraint and from what I hear Alberta is about to find out exactly how miserable a tuition freeze combined with zero funding growth can be.  But still, for the sector as a whole, what we have right now is possibly the best alignment of the constellations we’ve seen in about a decade.

Outside Canada, I think the big stories are going to be in Brazil, Russia, where the lingering effects of the commodity price collapse have left state budgets in very weak shape to fund higher education; in England the chaotic combination of Brexit and a historically incompetent/cowardly government will surely provide some entertainment, while in the US the twin topics of free speech on campus and the dismantling of many Obama-era improvements in student policy – particularly in the area of oversight of private colleges – will get top billing even if President Trump’s own ideas about student aid are surprisingly generous.

Here on this blog, I’m hoping to shift topic areas slightly this year.  Often last year I felt I wasn’t adding much to discussions beyond what I had already contributed in the previous five years, and I do worry sometimes about the blog feeling stale.  I hope this year to be able to focus a little bit more on areas I’ve dealt with less fulsomely in the past: particularly, colleges & polytechnics and on international PSE (the latter with a bit of a data focus).  Also, at some point this fall we will be moving to accept advertisements. We’ll see how all that goes.

And with that: have a good year, everyone.  Let’s get to work.

June 13

Who Should Benefit from Skills Training Money?

We seem to be in a period in Canada where money for “skills” is in vogue, mainly because it is seen as a panacea for lots of quite separate problems. At a really high-order level, you’ve got the Innovation ministry in Ottawa pounding the drum on skills because the tech industry says skills are a bottleneck to whatever kind of tech-powered Nirvana the Minister imagines Canada to be headed towards. And then you’ve got the Employment and Social Development Ministry and to an extent the PMO who see investing in skills as a social cohesion play – more skills means more jobs means we won’t look like the US rust belt and we can avoid a nasty bout of populism up here.

I’ll focus on the social cohesion play for the rest of this blog because no one wants to hear my views on the Innovation Minister’s views on coding again (though on the off-chance you do, see here). The mostly-unacknowledged problem we have right now is that there are three entirely separate possible foci for skills training, and very little (as far as I can tell) strategic direction about where we should be spending our dollars.

The first direction is pretty simple: providing money to train people who have lost their jobs. This is what Employment Insurance has done for over forty years. It’s not particularly good at it; but then, it’s not like any other countries are particularly good at it either. Re-training people mid-career is hard, especially if they don’t have an especially high skill level to begin with.

Then there’s the second direction, the one the Harper government tried to take us down, a bit. And that’s providing money to employers to provide more skills to their own workforce. The argument here – in part – is that we can to some extent prevent unemployment by subsidizing companies to invest more in their employees’ skills and thus make them more competitive. This is essentially what the Canada job Grant was supposed to do.

Finally, there’s a third direction, which is to help people develop their own skills, shall we say, prophylactically. That is, help workers get whatever skills they think they need in order to make themselves more flexible, and more employable. Now obviously you don’t need policy to do this – in a market economy people can invest in their own skills as they like, but repeated evidence from around the globe shows that if you do that then you tend to get a Matthew effect: those that already have tend to get more.

It’s never entirely clear why those with lower skills don’t invest on their own. Is it money?  Time? General disinclination to spending time in a classroom? But they don’t, so people are always looking for ways to try to entice them.  Not many schemes have worked well, however. One notable attempt to do this in the UK via something called “individual learning accounts” ended in dramatic failure and mass fraud.

One obvious possibility to encourage this kind of training would be to create some kind of guarantee for workers to be able to take time off for training, an idea which was contained in the 1985 MacDonald Commission (which dubbed it a “Time Bank”). Ontario could have gone this route last month when it announced its labour reform package, but instead decided to give everyone a third week of paid holiday instead. Missed opportunity.

The point I want to make here is not just that these are three different target “markets” for training, it’s that they are to some extents at cross-purposes with one another. For instance, employers really like the second type, because they get to direct where the training goes. They are somewhat less keen on the third kind, because if individuals are investing in their own skills, they are probably to some extent doing so to give themselves insurance and make themselves more mobile.

Because funds are not inexhaustible, there are trade-offs between subsidizing different types of training. At some point, if we’re going to get skills training policy right, the question of what skills, for who, and when, have to be answered openly and trade-offs have to be analyzed and debated. We’re not there yet – right now it’s mostly an inchoate “Need moar Skillz!” But we need to get there soon. Otherwise this is all a waste of time.

June 12

The Nordstrom Philologist

People are always nattering on about skills for the new economy, but apart from some truly unhelpful ideas like “everyone should learn to code”, they are usually pretty vague on specifics about what that means.  But I think I have solved that.

What the economy needs – or more accurately, what enterprises (private and public) need – is more Nordstrom Philologists.

Let me explain.

One of the main consequences of the management revolutions of the last couple of decades has been the decline of middle-management.  But, as we are now learning, one of the key – if unacknowledged – functions of middle-management was to act as a buffer between clients and upper management on the one side, and raw new employees on the other.  By doing so, they could bring said new employees along slowly into the culture of the company, show them the ropes and hold their hands a bit as they gained in confidence and ability in dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.

But that’s gone at many companies now.  New employees are now much more likely to be thrown headfirst into challenging situations.  They are more likely to be dealing with clients directly, which of course means they have greater responsibility for the firm’s reputation and its bottom line.  They are also more likely to have to report directly to upper management, which requires a level of communication skills and overall maturity which many don’t have.

When employers say young hires “lack skills”, this is what they are talking about.  Very few complain that the “hard skills” – technical skills related to the specific job – are missing. Rather, what they are saying is they lack the skills to deal with clients and upper management.  And broadly, what that means is, they can’t communicate well and they can’t figure out how to operate independently without being at the (senior) boss’ door every few minutes asking “what should I do now”?

When it comes to customer service, everyone knows Nordstrom is king.  And a large part of that has to do with its staff and its commitment to customer care.  Communications are at the centre of what Nordstrom does, but it’s not communicating to clients; rather, it’s listening to them.  Really listening, I mean: understanding what clients actually want, rather than just what they ask for.  And then finding ways to make sure they get what they need.  That’s what makes clients and/or citizens feel valued.  And it’s what the best employees know how to provide.

And then there’s philology* – the study of written texts.  We don’t talk much about this discipline anymore in North America since its constituent parts have it’s been partitioned into history, linguistics, religious studies and a tiny little bit into art history (in continental Europe it retains a certain independence and credibility as an independent discipline).  The discipline consists essentially in constructing plausible hypotheses from extremely fragmentary information: who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls?  Are those Hitler diaries real?  And so on.   It’s about understanding cultural contexts, piecing together clues.

Which is an awful lot like day-to-day business.  There’s no possible way to learn how to behave in every situation, particularly when the environment is changing rapidly.  Being effective in the workplace is to a large degree about developing modes of understanding and action based on some simple heuristics and a constant re-evaluation of options as new data becomes available.  And philology, the ultimate “figure it out for yourself” discipline, is excellent training for it (history is a reasonably close second).

That’s pretty much it.  Nordstrom for the really-listening-to-client skills, philology for the figuring-it-out-on-your-own-and-getting-stuff-done skills.  Doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, these are the competencies employers need.  And similarly, it doesn’t matter what field of study is being taught, these are the elements that need to be slipped into the curriculum.

*(On the off-chance you want to know more about philology, you could do a lot worse than James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.  Quite a useful piece on the history of thought). 

June 09

Why we should – and shouldn’t – pay attention to World Rankings

The father of modern university rankings is James McKeen Cattell, a well-known early 20th-century psychologist, scientific editor (he ran the journals Science and Psychological Review) and eugenecist.  In 1903, he began publishing American Men of Science, a semi-regular rating of the country’s top scientists, as rated by university department chairs.  He then hit on the idea of counting how many of these scientists were graduates of the nation’s various universities.  Being a baseball enthusiast, it seemed completely natural to arrange these results top to bottom, as in a league table.  Rankings have never looked back.

Because of the league table format, reporting on rankings tends to mirror what we see in sports.  Who’s up?  Who’s down?  Can we diagnose the problem from the statistics?  Is it a problem attracting international faculty?  Lower citation rates?  A lack of depth in left-handed relief pitching?  And so on.

The 2018, QS World University Rankings, released last night, are another occasion for this kind of analysis.  The master narrative for Canada – if you want to call it that – is that “Canada is slipping”.  The evidence for this is that the University of British Columbia fell out of the top 50 institutions in the world (down six places to 51st) and that we also now have two fewer institutions in the top 200, (Calgary fell from 196th to 217th and Western from 198 to 210th) than we used to.

People pushing various agendas will find solace in this.  At UBC, blame will no doubt be placed on the institution’s omnishambular year of 2015-16.  Nationally, people will try to link the results to problems of federal funding and argue how implementing the recommendations of the Naylor report would be a game-changer for rankings.

This is wrong for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it is by no means clear that Canadian institutions are in fact slipping.  Sure, we have two fewer in the 200, but the number in the top 500 grew by one.  Of those who made the top 500, nine rose in the rankings, nine slipped and one stayed constant.  Even the one high-profile “failure” – UBC –  only saw its overall score fall by one-tenth of a point; the fall in the rankings was more due to an improvement in a clutch of Asian and Australian universities.

The second is that in the short-term, rankings are remarkably impervious to policy changes.  For instance, according to the QS reputational survey, UBC’s reputation has taken exactly zero damage from l’affaire Gupta and its aftermath.  Which is as it should be: a few months of communications hell doesn’t offset 100 years of scientific excellence.  And new money for research may help less than people think. In Canada, institutional citations tend to track the number of grants received more than the dollar value of the grants.  How granting councils distribute money is at least as important as the amount they spend.

And that’s exactly right.  Universities are among the oldest institutions in society and they don’t suddenly become noticeably better or worse over the course of twelve months.  Observations over the span of a decade or so are more useful, but changes in ranking methodology make this difficult (McGill and Toronto are both down quite a few places since 2011, but a lot of that has to do with changes which reduced the impact of medical research relative to other fields of study).

So it matters that Canada has three universities which are genuinely top class, and another clutch (between four and ten, depending on your definition), which could be called “world-class”.  It’s useful to know that, and to note if any institutions have sustained, year-after-year changes either up or down.  But this has yet to happen to any Canadian university.

What’s not as useful is to cover rankings like sports, and invest too much meaning in year-to-year movements.  Most of the yearly changes are margin-of-error kind of stuff, changes that result from a couple of dozen papers being published in one year rather than another, or the difference between admitting 120 extra international students instead of 140.   There is not much Moneyball-style analysis to be done when so many institutional outputs are – in the final analysis – pretty much the same.

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