Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Canada

December 05

Access to Opportunity

There’s been a fair bit of talk over the past few months about the practice of articling in Ontario.  Specifically, the problem is that there are too many law school graduates for too few articling positions.  The situation has deteriorated to the point where the Law Society of Upper Canada has released a major report outlining an “alternative work experience,” in order to deal with the surplus of students who don’t get “real” articling positions.   For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with the minority report:  if implemented, this proposal will create a two-tiered system, and anyone who uses the alternative will, from the get-go, be stigmatized within the profession.

In one sense, there’s something impressive here about the way law schools have themselves escaped much of the blame; after all, the root cause of the problem was their decision to increase capacity well beyond what the articling system could support.  Now, I don’t believe in making universities alter admissions based on labour-market conditions; if people want to pay for the privilege of learning about law, there’s no reason to refuse their money.  But greater honesty with students is needed: if you know that a quarter of your graduates aren’t going to be able to get professional licensing because of an overloaded system, you should be required to explain that fact in very clear terms to incoming students.  Not to do so is ethically suspect.

But the real story here has not to do with the number of articling students, but rather with how they are actually distributed.   The Law Society report does make a passing reference to “equity” issues – the suspicion that, perhaps, non-white students aren’t getting a fair shake in articling spots.  But they never get to the heart of the matter, which is that law firms’ control of the articling process gives firms an enormous, unregulated role in controlling access to the profession.  And though no one will ever say this out loud, firms use this power to do favours for colleagues and clients.  “Oh, your son needs a spot?  We’ll see what we can do …”

We need to take a hard look at how real-world opportunities get distributed in Canada.  Justin Trudeau, a man given opportunities well beyond what his native talents would command, because of who his father was, is just the tip of the iceberg.   At the highest levels, this is a clique-y and insular place; jobs get publicized through insider networks rather than through open, merit-based competitions.  We’re not yet in New York publishing industry territory, where trustafarians have a hammerlock on all the choice positions, but in Toronto, at least, we’re closer to that situation than we’d like to admit.

Canada’s done a good job of ensuring access to education.  Pretty soon, though, we’ll need to start having serious discussions about ensuring access to opportunities.  And as Ontario’s articling situation shows, these are two different things.

December 04

Mental Health on Campus

There’s a lot of talk about mental health on campus these days – Sunday’s Globe feature, a Toronto Star piece from last week, and the September cover story in Maclean’s, are but three recent examples.  Part of what seems to be driving the increased concern is that the kids affected by this crisis aren’t necessarily the ones on the margin, but are often amongst those considered to be “high-achievers.”

Without casting doubt on the seriousness of the issue – and it is a serious issue – there’s a part of this story which I find quite puzzling: Why is this suddenly an issue, now?  What’s changed?

I don’t find any of the commonly-advanced explanations particularly convincing.  The main one is that, “youth are just under so much pressure these days”, usually followed by references to high tuition fees, student debt, and/or weak graduate job prospects.  But the facts don’t bear-out the claim: Net tuition is stable (or declining) in much of Canada, student debt in real dollars has barely changed in a decade, and student job prospects were appreciably worse in the early-to-mid-90s, without triggering any similar rise in mental health issues.

Instead, I see two factors more at work here.

First is the tendency to over-medicalize daily life.  Melonie Fullick, for example, wrote a few months back about mental health issues in graduate school.  She does an excellent job of outlining the difficulties and frustrations accompanying graduate studies, and the ways in which institutional academic policies accentuate those frustrations.  But, in fact, much of what she describes can more properly be characterized as “angst,” rather than mental health issues, and we should be careful about conflating the two.

Second, Fullick is undoubtedly on to something in pinpointing the roots of anxiety in failure (either real or anticipated).  But it’s not as though failure has spiked lately (student job prospects, on the whole, remain better than they were for most of the 90s).  So if this “epidemic” is real, then it must mean that it’s fear of failure which is rising, independent of any actual change in students’ fortunes.

I can’t prove this, obviously, but I get the sense that as a society we’ve spent too much effort raising kids’ self-esteem and, in the process, removed any sense of adversity (or the importance of overcoming adversity) from their lives.  As Paul Tough has written about, both for The New York Times Magazine, and in his latest book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, what high-achieving, high-income kids often lack most is any experience in dealing with failure.  University may in fact be the very first time they’re forced to confront it.

So, although parents might be loath to hear it, we need to consider a very different possibility: that the spike in rates of reported mental stress might have more to do with incoming students simply being a lot more fragile, and less prepared, than were their predecessors.

November 21

If I were a Human Trafficker…

… I might be looking at Canadian immigration and student visa policies and thinking that there were some pretty nice loopholes to exploit. Because there are some fairly juicy ones out there.

The most obvious loophole – which, in fairness, the government is already moving to close – is that student visas don’t currently require students to attend a particular institution. Hence the stories of students arriving but never attending a school, or of some Ontario institutions “stealing” visa students by pouncing on them at Pearson and convincing them to come to a different college than the one to which they’d been admitted (I have no idea if this one’s true, by the way – but it’s a great yarn).

It’s also how a human trafficker teamed up with an unscrupulous employee at Lakeland College (the college itself was blameless) to issue fake acceptance letters which allowed a group of 60 Polish welders to enter the country. The human trafficker profited on the arrangements by hiring the men out to construction firms at twice the rate he paid the men.

But even with new, tighter student visa rules, potential gaping holes remain. The Canada Experience Class allows graduates of Canadian institutions to gain permanent residence based on:

(1) Obtaining a diploma in four semesters of “full-time study” (as defined by the institutions itself).

(2) Working for one year following graduation as a “retail sales supervisor,” or in a “specialized service occupation” (a classification which includes line cooks).

How difficult do you think it would be, say, in one of the provinces with relatively lax regulation of private institutions, to do a deal with such an institution to create some customized four-semester “full-time” programs? And then do some deals with employers to give these people jobs at which they can be ruthlessly exploited for twelve months? Actually, my guess is you wouldn’t even need to pay them salaries – if their families trusted you enough to get the paperwork done right and get their kid permanent residence status in Canada, they’d probably pay you. I don’t know exactly what the going rate for a pathway to Canadian citizenship is, but I’d guess mid-five figures, at the very least.

If I can come up with this, you can be fairly sure that actual human traffickers have come up with it, too. In fact, something not a million miles from this happened in California last year. The odds that something comparable is happening here are unknowable, but I’d guess they’re high enough that we should worry.

A couple of bad apples have the potential to spoil things for everyone. A little more vigilance on everyone’s part will pay dividends in the long run.

November 16

Au Revoir, UVPs (Sayonara, Language Departments)

Marketing 101: if you’re trying to sell something, you need to have a “Unique Value Proposition,” or UVP. What is it, exactly, that your product has that no other one has? What’s the combination of quality, price, niche features, etc., that you can provide that no one else can?

What’s interesting (to me at least) in the world of international higher education is how few Canadian institutions actually have a UVP, or at least one they could consciously enunciate. Usually it’s something along the lines of “we’re a quality university located in a vibrant community (replace “vibrant” with “idyllic” if you’re actually out in the boonies) and we offer degrees in English!” The subtext being, “You know you love English, you non-english-speaking foreigners – it’s the lingua franca of global commerce, innit?”

Well, imagine for a moment what would happen if that last bit weren’t true. Imagine if, as Nicholas Ostler posited a couple of years ago in The Last Lingua Franca, that machine translation were to improve to the point where it rendered the need to learn foreign languages essentially obsolete. The social cost of learning another language is high, as is people’s attachment to their own language. If machines could translate for us, demand for second language learning would likely plummet.

O.K., you don’t need to imagine any more. Last month, Microsoft Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid was at a conference in Tianjin and took the opportunity to show off some machine translation software that did simultaneous spoken English-Mandarin translation. You can read LiveScience’s account of the event here, but you really want to actually watch the video (actual demonstration starts at about 7:30).

If that didn’t totally blow your mind, go get a cup of coffee and watch it again when you’re awake. This is the universal translator. This is the Babel fish. O.K., the error-rate is still pretty high. But the countdown is on to these things being widely available commercially. We’re talking years, not decades.

Quite apart from the obvious havoc this is going to wreak on modern language departments (seriously – who’s going to pay for them once simultaneous machine translation is ubiquitous?), everyone banking on international education being a cash cow for decades to come needs to think things through very carefully. Just ask yourself this: how many international students would still go to your school if they didn’t need to learn English?

Yeah. Exactly. Now what’s your UVP?

Truly game-changing technologies don’t come along that often, but this is one of them. This business just got a lot tougher.

November 15

“Mainly, it is confusing”

A colleague (and frequent reader) pointed me in the direction of a highly entertaining document about Canada’s international education pretensions. It’s an executive summary of some qualitative research (i.e., focus groups) that Ipsos-Reid conducted in Brazil, India and China on DFAIT’s behalf with respect to “Imagine Education au/in Canada”, the Canadian education “brand” which is famously unpronounceable in either language.

Now, you might think that research of this nature might have informed the drafting of that report of the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy which came out in August and has now been released as accompanying documentation. But you’d be wrong. In fact, this document had to be prised out of DFAIT with a freedom of information request, and was released, for reasons which utterly defy comprehension, not on the DFAIT website but on that of the National Library.

It’s great reading, anyway. Here are my favourite bits:

“There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments; indeed, apart from a few mentions of University of Toronto there is very little awareness of any Canadian educational establishments.”

“Canada is a not top-of-mind destination for foreign study for participants in any of the three countries except with Brazilian participants interested in language studies”

“There is no perception of a Canadian Education advantage compared to others”

“The Imagine Education in/au Canada brand has some weaknesses which need to be addressed. Mainly, it is confusing and not seen as sufficiently linked to education and Canada.”

Gosh. It almost sounds like we’re not doing as well as we thought we were. It almost sounds like we might have work to do. It almost sounds like doubling the number of foreign students might be really, really hard, and require a lot of work and investment. It almost makes it sounds as if statements like this…

“Canada’s brand is based on consistently high quality and a reputation for excellence across the entire education sector. Canada offers international students a safe and multicultural learning environment in which they can choose to study in English or French.”

Or this…

“The education brand for Canada is characterized by a broad spectrum of possibilities for international students and researchers with across-the-sector quality at its core.”

…are utterly without foundation.

Which makes you wonder: how was it, exactly, that those exact statements make it into the final report of the Advisory Panel when the authors have clear evidence in front of them that suggested something quite different?

We can achieve more in international education, but we won’t do so through wishful thinking. Right now, there’s way too much of that going around.

November 14

The Tools to Plan

Governments are really keen on planning as a way to improve access to education. “If only people would plan more,” goes the refrain, “people would be able to explore more options, make better financial decisions, etc., etc.” True as far as it goes; so why are governments themselves the biggest culprits in impeding good financial planning?

Say you’re a student in grade 12 deciding where to go to school next year. You’d probably like to know how your choice of institution and your decision to stay at home vs. going away will affect your aid eligibility. But despite the fact that some schools require you to apply in January, in most provinces the earliest you can apply for student aid is March (occasionally February).

Helpful, huh? Plan, plan, plan, guys – but we refuse to tell you anything about how much student aid you might receive until after you’ve made your key decision.

I’ve raised this point with student aid officials a few times over the past few years, and the response I get tends to be glassy-eyed looks as they try to imagine re-jigging the entire administrative process.

“We couldn’t do that,” they say. “Institutions only set their tuition fees for the following year in February or March” (this matters because systems currently require tuition as an input in the need assessment calculation).

“So call it an interim calculation,” I say, “and tell them that if tuition rises they can expect a bit more. Nobody ever got mad because student aid gave them more than their initial assessment.”

“But we don’t get our own budget until March. What if there’s a deficit and the government wants cuts?”

“Trickier,” I say. “But the Americans have successfully managed to deal with that problem for the last 40 years – just make sure any cuts kick in 12 months down the road. “

“That’s up to politicians, not us,” they say (not unreasonably), and then shift the conversation to other topics.

Canada is – slowly – getting better at the mechanics of student aid. In most (but not all) provinces, the electronic enrolment confirmation seems to be rolling out reasonably well, as is federal-provincial loan harmonization/integration. But on the issue of need assessment timing, we just can’t seem to get past the idea that programs should be run for the convenience of governments rather than the needs of students. If American students can get their need assessment done 12 months in advance, there’s no reason other than a lack of imagination why ours shouldn’t be able to as well.

After all, if we’re going to hector students about financial planning, the least we could do is actually give them the information they most need.

November 12

Student Aid Tax Rates

Anyone who thinks taxation is overly complicated and onerous in this country needs to spend a day or two in the shoes of a student. That’s because our tax system has absolutely nothing on our student aid assessment system.

Student aid in Canada is distributed based on something called “assessed need”, which is defined as “assessed costs” minus “assessed resources” (not real costs or real resources, because those are subjective). Essentially, government has to ask students about their resources and then make a call about how much they can spare for education. To the extent government thinks you can spare enough, it won’t give you aid. Thus, the formula for various resource tests acts as a kind of tax rate.

The Canada Student Loans Program recognizes five different types of income and five different types of assets, and – here’s the fun part – uses different tax thresholds and rates for each one. Here are the key ones:

(1) Parental Income. The threshold depends on family size, but for a family of four in Ontario, the threshold is about $50,000. For the first $3,000 in post-tax income, the tax rate is 33%, after that, it’s 50%

(2) Spousal Income. Again, it varies a bit by province, but in practice, 80% of all spousal income over about $1,500/month is considered a resource.

(3) Scholarship income. The first three thousand is exempt; after that, the tax rate is 100%.

(4) Student Summer Income. The threshold varies depending on whether you live with your parents in the summer; if you do, your threshold is about $1,000 per month, if not it’s about $200. Above that, the tax rate is 100%.

(5) In-school income. The first $50/week is yours. After that, the tax rate is 100%.

(Look at the pattern of 100% tax rates on student income over the thresholds: CSLP seems at least as concerned with ensuring students don’t get too comfortable as it does with ensuring that students have a basic income floor).

On top of that, there are various asset tests: on income from RESPs, on any RRSPs held (you keep everything up to $2,000 per year of age over 18 – after that the tax is 100%), on any liquid savings in your name (100% on that), on the value of any vehicle owned, and, in one province at least, on the value of houses as well.

There are many words that come to mind when you lay the program out like this. “Unnecessarily complicated” is one. “Ludicrous” is probably another, though reasonable people can disagree about which bits are the least reasonable. (my money’s on the spousal rate, which I’ll address tomorrow).

As a country, we can do better than this. This week, we’ll show you how.

November 08

Narcissism of Small Differences – Admissions Edition

Why do Canadian universities make admissions so complicated?

A couple of years ago, for a client, I took a look at the number of different undergraduate admissions requirements there were to various universities.  What I found was that at comprehensive universities in Ontario, there tended to be no fewer that 15 separate sets of admission requirements to various programs or faculties, and at some universities it was as high as 20.

Nearly all of them required grade 12 English (though engineering schools tended to waive that requirement), but after that the pre-reqs became bewilderingly complex.  Some required both of Ontario’s grade 12 level math courses, some required one or the other,  some required one of the two specifically.  Some just required a math or science course – some required specific science sources, others required a science course (from a menu of choices).

Then, just for the sake of comparison, I checked some American universities.  My data’s a few years old, but I doubt much has changed.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  I’m not singling out those four Ontario institutions for special opprobrium, either – I could have picked any four and it would look largely the same.  Basically, we let departments and faculty set whatever sets of criteria they want – presumably on the grounds that it will make the entering students slightly easier to teach – while in the US they set single, institution-wide standards and spend the first year or two getting students up to speed via a broader curriculum.

How ludicrous does it get?  Well, at one of those Canadian institutions mentioned above, “Computer Science” and “Computer Solid State Technology” have different entrance criteria; so, too, does “Business Admin and Business Economics”.  Different disciplines?  Sure.  But to an 18 year-old the distinctions are meaningless – it’s just bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.

I’d really like to hear a good defence of this practice.  Why, exactly, do we require students to gain admission to a program or faculty rather than to the institution as a whole the way Americans do?  What do we gain by it?  Is there any evidence that we get better students as a result, and better student outcomes as a result?  Or are we just indulging the amour propre of department academic committees, and creating confusion for students and extra work for admissions offices in the process?

November 07

Spousal Income

Over the past decade, successive Canadian governments have tried to give bigger and bigger breaks to parents through the student aid system. Loan eligibility has steadily been widened to richer and richer families by making expected parental contributions less onerous. But for some reason, no recent government has seen fit to change spousal contribution rates. Since the mid-1990s, this rate has been set at 80% of the spouse’s combined net income over a threshold which varies a bit by province but which in practice is about $13,000 per year.

Implicitly, the policy assumes both partners are students (in which case why not just treat their two applications as individual independent students?). But if the couple has one student and one non-student, the implications are mind-bogglingly punitive. Essentially, as soon as the non-student earns anything over about $35,000 per year, the expected contribution jumps so high that it is impossible for his/her spouse to get a loan. At any given level of family income a spouse is expected to contribute $15,000 more to a student’s education than a parent would.

Thanks to this policy, families with one spouse in school and one spouse working face an effective tax rate (that is, taxes paid plus reductions in benefits) of…drum roll, please…over 90%. And that’s only if the working spouse is debt-free. If they are repaying their student loan as well, the income phase-out on Repayment Assistance means that the effective tax rate on spousal incomes rises to well over 100%. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more text-book example of a welfare wall – the disincentives to work are just phenomenal.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the gory details (though for more deets, you can check out I Love You Brad, But You Reduce My Student Loan Eligibility which is a few years old but still basically correct). It’s just a clumsy set of rules written twenty years ago when pinching pennies regularly trumped good policy-making. But bureaucratic inertia has left this clunker on the books for too long. It’s terrible policy, which no one in government can defend with a straight face. It’s not just inequitable; it creates a serious barrier to mature students (many of whom are married) returning to school.

Married students don’t have their own organized interest group and for some reason, this isn’t a cause student unions have seen fit to take up on their behalf. But if, like me, you think this needs changing, just forward this email to diane.finley at parl.gc.ca and let her know this mistake needs fixing.

Let’s see what happens.

November 06

Australia is Better than Canada

…at least as far as thinking through the implications of globalization on education.   And I’m not talking just about the trivial matter of attracting more students to study at their universities.

About a week ago, the Australian government released a forward-looking White Paper called Australia in the Asian Century which charted a set of strategies to improve Australia’s chances of benefiting from the continuing Asian economic boom.  Some of those strategies were education-related; one was to get ten Australian universities into the world’s top 100 universities  by 2025, but another (as outlined in a speech) by Schools’ Minister Peter Garrett) was a $100 million pledge to require all schools to teach at least one Asian language and put more Asian content in the social studies and history curriculum.

(Yeah, that Peter Garrett.  Having the lead singer of Midnight Oil as your Schools Minister is awesome. God help us if we ever tried something like that. Best case scenario: Stompin’ Tom at Transport.  Worst-case: Chad Kroeger at Heritage.)

OK, the top ten pledge is a little goofy.  Australia’s tenth-best university is probably at the level of Dalhousie or U Manitoba.  Getting to the top 100 would mean matching the output of the U of A, more or less.  Short of doubling their budgets, there’s no way to close that gap in twelve years.

But those schools pledges – they’re ultra-cool.  They are ambitious, involve the whole population, and they actually deal with a real issue in internationalization – namely, being able to speak to potential customers in their own language.  There’s not one government in Canada – provincial or federal (assuming it had the power, of course) – that would make a commitment that bold.   Basically, we’re too lazy and self-centered to make the effort.

We have this twee notion that everyone likes us because we’re shy, demurring and not American when the truth is that nobody cares who we are or what we do because we’re shy, demurring, and not American.    We don’t think foreign languages are useful (hell, we can barely be bothered to learn the two we already have) in part because business doesn’t think they’re useful.  When’s the last time you saw an ad requiring applicants to speak an Asian language?

Australia’s tactics may not work (the reaction where I was in Jakarta last week was somewhat dismissive), but at least they understand that building working relationships in Asia requires actual language skills and cultural awareness and that there’s an advantage to giving kids an early start on that.  We still think that sticking Maple Leafs on our backpacks will do the trick.  This is why in the long run, we will lose the internationalization game – unless we start taking lessons from Australia.

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