HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Canada

September 14

Data Point of the Week: StatsCan Gets it Wrong in the EAG

So, as noted yesterday, the OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG) statfest – all 495 pages of it – was just released. Now it’s our turn to dissect some of what’s in there.

Of most immediate interest was chart B5.3, which shows the relative size of public subsidies for higher education as a percentage of public expenditures on education. It’s an odd measure, because having a high percentage could mean either that a country has very high subsidies (e.g., Norway, Sweden) or very low public expenditures (e.g., Chile), but no matter. I’ve reproduced some of the key data from that chart below.

 

(No, I’m not entirely clear what “transfers to other entities” means, either. I’m assuming it’s Canada Education Savings Grants, but I’m not positive.)

Anyways, this makes Canada looks chintzy, right? But hang on: there are some serious problems with the data.

In 2008, Canada spent around $22 billion on transfers to institutions. For the chart above to be right would imply that Canadian spending on “subsidies” (i.e., student aid) was in the $3.5 – 4 billion range. But that’s not actually true – if you take all the various forms of aid into account, the actual figure for 2008 is actually closer to $8 billion.

What could cause such a discrepancy? Here’s what I’m pretty sure happened:

1) StatsCan didn’t include tax credits in the numbers. Presumably this is because they don’t fit the definition of a loan or a grant, though in reality these measures are a $2 billion subsidy to households. In fairness, the U.S. – the only other country that uses education tax credits to any significant degree – didn’t include it either, but it’s a much bigger deal here in Canada.

2) StatsCan didn’t include any provincial loans, grants or remission either. They have form on this, having done the same thing in the 2009 EAG. Basically, because StatsCan doesn’t have any instrument for collecting data on provincial aid programs, it essentially assumes that such things must not exist. (Pssst! Guys! Next time, ask CMEC for its HESA-produced database of provincial aid statistics going back to 1992!) So, what happens when you add all that in (note: U.S. data also adjusted)?

 

Not so chintzy after all.

September 08

Blended Learning Has a Long Way to Go

Here’s the key fact you need to know about HESA’s new report on the State of E-learning in Canada: as the intensity of availability of e-learning resources increase, students become less satisfied, and less likely to say they feel they are learning a lot.

Contrary to the rantings of technophiles, students don’t behave much like “digital natives.” They still far prefer to do their readings on paper rather than on a screen, for instance. They really don’t seem to have a lot of time for dynamic e-learning resources like interactive discussion forums, and they don’t think there is any comparison between courses you take in person and those you watch even occasionally on a screen – the former wins hands down.

The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period. Particularly in the humanities, there’s an aura of eros around the teacher-as-guru that e-learning enthusiasts just don’t seem to take into account.

But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right. It might just be that the technology, and the way in which we integrate it with the curriculum, just isn’t that good. Just because students aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean universities can’t underwhelm them.

For the moment, students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue. What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.

Work done by the National Center for Academic Transformation has shown how intelligent course redesign can improve learning outcomes and reduce costs, and with budget crises looming across much of the country, this isn’t something any institution can sensibly ignore. But it will require institutions to pay a lot more attention to implementation and to continually measure and monitor results to find out what works and what doesn’t.

That’s a big task, but it’s one HESA will be working on for years to come.

Extra note: those of you in Ontario looking for deeper commentary on the Liberals’ Big Idea regarding tuition grants, visit my Globe and Mail blog.

August 30

Anticipating Demographic Shifts

I was in Regina last week speaking to the university’s senior management team about challenges in Canadian post-secondary education, when someone asked a really intriguing question.

“Given the changing demographics of Canada, with fewer traditional-aged students, are there any examples of good practice of universities altering their programming serving non-traditional students instead”?

I have to admit, I was stumped.

You’d think, for instance, that maritime universities, who have been facing demographic decline for quite some time, would have some experience of this, but they don’t, really. Think about it: when Memorial started hurting for students because of Newfoundland’s awful demographics, the main response was to lower tuition fees and begin raiding other nearby provinces for traditional-aged students. In the rest of the maritimes, they’ve been sucking traditional-aged students out of Ontario for a couple of decades now, and the primary solution to any shortfall now is to go looking for traditional-aged students in other parts of the world.

From Statistics Canada

There have, admittedly, been some advances recently in attracting non-traditional-aged students in Northern Ontario and the Prairies – specifically, Aboriginal students, who tend to arrive at university in their mid- to late-20s (often after having had children). But even here, what they are doing for the most part is trying to put in as many supports as possible so that they can be taught as if they were traditional, full-time students. One might conclude that universities are going to great lengths to avoid re-engineering themselves to serve older populations.

Taking demographics seriously means that some universities are going to have to move towards much more modular delivery of courses, more e-learning alternatives, and more evening courses. There are pockets of this, of course, but it hardly constitutes a major trend. Generally speaking, community colleges and polytechnics have been doing much better on this front than universities.

As the demographic shift continues, what happens if governments conclude that they should put more resources on lifelong learning and less on traditional-aged students? That possibility may open up some big opportunities for those institutions (mostly colleges) who have already invested heavily in this kind of delivery, and leave those institutions (mostly universities) who have not politically quite vulnerable.

August 29

Market Opportunities – A Blue Ocean Strategy in Doctoral Education

The economics of higher education are pointing inexorably towards a two-tier faculty system; one in which research is rewarded, and one in which teaching is rewarded. If this wasn’t plain over the last fifteen years or so, it certainly should be by now.

So why haven’t Ph.D. programs shifted to adapt to this reality? If we’re looking at a future where there are at least as many graduates whose careers will depend upon their pedagogical prowess as upon research excellence, why aren’t their programs that cater to people heading down that career path?

The answer, of course, is because teaching remains a low-prestige endeavour and universities tend not to deliberately choose lower-prestige paths when they are already on a higher one. But that doesn’t preclude newer graduate programs from heading down this route. If I were president of a young, growing, mid-size university that was just starting to build significant doctoral programs (e.g., Lethbridge, University of Winnipeg, University of Northern British Columbia), I’d be sorely tempted to to follow this pathway.

Think about it: if you’ve got no chance of duking it out with the big boys and girls of the U-15 for major research dollars, why not create your own strategy and your own market? Target people who want to teach. Provide them not just with doctoral-level training but also with a full set of courses in pedagogical theory. For bonus marks, make sure they understand how pedagogy works in e-learning and give them the skills to develop their own course-ware. It would give students an enormous advantage in landing a job.

We’re all used to colleges advertising their success rates in placing their graduates. Given how coming budget cuts are likely to make it even more difficult to land academic jobs, we shouldn’t be surprised if grad schools soon start adopting that same strategy. The institution that gets out in front on a teaching-oriented Ph.D. will likely do exceedingly well on that metric.

August 28

HESA in the Montreal Gazette

On Saturday, the Montreal Gazette’s Karen Seidman talked to HESA President Alex Usher and others about student engagement in campus life:

Alex Usher is the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto think-tank that helps universities and governments measure and improve education strategies, and he doesn’t believe the learning experience changes much for commuter students.

“A lot of the research showing that commuter campuses have higher dropout rates comes out of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not necessarily true in Canada.”

And while he “respects” the fact that American research shows students have more success if they’re involved in university life, he doesn’t believe the negative impacts are anywhere near as bad as that research shows.

“You have to keep in mind that the big commuter schools in the U.S. tend to get more students who are less academically inclined,” he said. “Our schools may look like big American commuter schools, but they still retain their students.”

For example, 90 per cent of students in Canada who start a four-year degree are still in school or have graduated within five years.

 

 

August 24

Data Point of the Week: Comparing Academic Salaries

If there’s one subject we write about that gets people riled up, it’s academic salaries in Canada and the U.S. It’s a complicated issue – so let’s look at concrete examples at three of the better-paying Canadian institutions (Trent, Calgary and McMaster) and three prestigious American universities (Dartmouth, Washington and Berkeley).

If you just look at baseline salaries for two sets of institutions, you see some pretty big differences as shown in Figure 1, below. The gap is bigger for associate professors than for full professors, but either way, Canadian professors appear to be making out a lot better than American ones.

Figure 1: Unadjusted Average Base Salaries at Selected Institutions, in Thousands of Dollars.

But this isn’t quite the whole story. Our professors get a 12-month salary, and receive the same pay no matter what they do in the summer months. In the U.S., however, pay is on a nine-month basis – in the summer, many profs are working on research and drawing a separate income from their research grant. Different funders have slightly different rules about how much salary professors can take, but the basic rule of thumb – based on National Science Foundation (NSF) rules that came into effect in 2009 – is that they can take another two months’ worth of salary (i.e., 2/9 of their regular annual pay).

How does that affect average compensation in the U.S.? NSF data seems to indicate that about two-thirds of all professors at research universities hold grants. So, multiplying that out, average compensation across all faculty would look like this:

Figure 2: Adjusted Average Base Salaries at Selected Institutions, in Thousands of Dollars.

At the associate professor level, there is still an advantage to being in Canada – Trent, for instance, still has better salaries than Berkeley. But because promotion carries greater rewards in the U.S., the advantage reverses for full professors. There, all three Canadian universities have higher salaries than the University of Washington, but lower than those at Dartmouth and Berkeley.

If we only looked at research-active faculty, the numbers would look even better for the U.S. than they do in Figure 2. On the other hand, if we look at research-inactive faculty, the accurate comparison is Figure 1.

Another way of putting all this is that for older, research-active faculty, Canadian institutions may still face a bit of a compensation gap. For younger (i.e., associate professor rank) research-active faculty, Canada is the better bet; even Trent  outspends Berkeley. But where Canada really kicks tail is in research-inactive faculty, where faculty at our three selected universities have a collective compensation advantage of almost 25% for associate professors and 10% for full professors.

Which raises an interesting question: given the choice, is that the category in which we really want to have an advantage?

August 18

Pick a Number Out of the Air… Any Number Out of the Air

So I see that Colleges Ontario has released its wish list for the provincial election campaign. Some of the recommendations are interesting (e.g., the recommendation to give colleges a greater management role in apprenticeship training), some of it is run of the mill (more money for underfunding, etc). But one recommendation in particular is completely baffling: the suggestion that the government should guarantee that students that switch between public institutions within the province should be able to carry two-thirds of their credits with them.

Now, I’m all in favour of credit mobility, but this is grasping at straws. Why two-thirds? Why not three-quarters? Why not 100%? All Ontario institutions at the moment are governed by a qualifications framework that suggests that the learning outcomes at the diploma level and the degree level are quite different. On what basis should we suddenly understand an equivalence of 1 = .66? Or is Colleges Ontario suggesting we should just ignore the framework altogether?

If there is one thing that the we can learn from the experience of Europe – the Bologna process, the Tuning process and the European Qualifications Framework – it is that mutual recognition of credit has to be based on recognized learning outcomes. It means actually going through some fairly hard and detailed system-wide work to get system-wide agreement about how to define learning outcomes, and from there, to actually discuss how learning outcomes at one level relate to those at another. The European Credit Transfer System, for instance, found a way to make credit transferable by standardizing the amount of “expected student effort” per course.

But we don’t seem to like that kind of thing in Canada. We’re lazy. We think we can just wave a wand and tell people to recognize each others’ credits without examination. Colleges Ontario is hardly alone in this – the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada has repeatedly passed resolutions about mutual recognition of credit across the country. The Government of Ontario was so shy of doing the real work required to get credit mobility that in January it decided to throw a lot of money at colleges and universities to encourage more one-off articulation agreements and call it a victory.

So, by all means, let’s get serious about credit transfer. But please, no more gimmicks. Let’s do the hard work, and get down to the business of defining the real learning outcomes on which an intelligent and durable credit transfer system can be based.

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