HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Europe

June 30

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, a major paper I’ve been working on for over a year with colleagues from DZHW on the subject of the effects of fees was published last Monday by the EC (available here).  In my last post, I talked about how fees affected institutions – today, I want to talk about how they affect students.

In our report, we looked at case studies over 15 years (1995-2010) from nine countries – Austria, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and South Korea.  These countries represent very different experiences.  Some have private higher education, others don’t.  Some have public sectors that change fees, while others don’t (Hungary and Poland are in the middle, where public universities provide education free for some while charging for others).  And looking across all the different cases, we found = the following:

1)      Most tuition increases have no perceptible effect on enrolment.  The only cases where clear-cut effects could be discerned was in England in 2012, where the increase was about $10,000 in a single year, and in the de-regulation of professional fees in Ontario in the mid-90s (where, bizarrely, low-income students were not affected, but middle-income students were).

2)      That said, there are also some clear-cut cases where tuition has been a driver of increased access.  In both Poland and South Korea, major increases in enrolments were driven by the existence of fee-supported places (mainly but not exclusively in private institutions).

3)      Though this is partly a matter of many countries having education data-sets that make Canada’s look enviable, there is very little evidence that changes in fees have done much to change the composition of the student body.  In every country where there is data, underrepresented groups have done better over time, regardless of the fee regime.  Even in the extreme case of England 2012, under-represented groups (the poorest income quintile, black and Asian students) tended to be less affected by the tuition increase than richer, whiter students. (The one exception here is older students, who were disproportionately affected by the changes.)  To the extent that late-entrants to higher education come from poorer backgrounds, this should be seen as a kind of hidden socio-economic effect of fees.

4)      Changes in tuition fees seem to have had no discernible effects on students’ choice of major, and few discernible effects on students’ decisions about where to study (in Canada, for instance, rates of out-of-province study are actually up over the last decade).

5)      It is not so much that fees themselves have no effect; rather, it is that in nearly all cases, fees are introduced with accompanying increases in student aid.  Sometimes it is paltry compared to the size of the fees required (e.g. South Korea in the 90s), sometimes it is implemented in a fairly clunky way (Germany, mid-2000s).  But it is always there to offset the worst effects of fees.  And in the case of England 2012, it was there to ensure that students weren’t required to pay a single extra penny of costs up-front, which seems to have had a major factor in limiting the impact of the world’s largest-ever tuition increase (in the short-term at least).

The lesson here?  Unless you’re planning on going England-style crazy, international evidence fee increases are unlikely to affect access in a measurable way.

June 23

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 1)

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve been working on a project with colleagues Dominic Orr and Johannes Wespel of the Deutsche Zentrum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung (DZHW) for the European Commission, looking at the effects of changes in tuition fees and fee policies on institutions and students.  The Commission published the results on Friday, and I want to tell you a little bit about them – this week I’ll be telling you about the effects on institutions, and next week I’ll summarize the results with respect to students.

The first question we answered had to do with whether or not a rise in tuition ultimately benefits higher education institutions.  Critics of fees sometimes suggest that extra fees do not in fact result in institutions receiving more money, because governments simply pull a fast one on the public and withdraw public money from the system, thus leaving institutions no better off.  Our examination of nine case studies revealed there were certainly some occasions where this was the case – Canada in the mid-90s, Austria in 2001, and the UK in 2012 – but that in the majority of cases fee increases were accompanied by stable or increased government funding.  Moreover, in all the cases where there was an accompanying decrease in public funding, it was signalled well in advance by governments, and indeed the increase in fees was deliberately designed to be a replacement for public funds. We did not find a case where a government “pulled a fast one”.

The second question we asked was how universities reacted to the introduction of fees: did they suddenly start chasing money and becoming much more sensitive to the demands of students and donors?  The answer, by and large, was no, for three reasons.  First, tuition isn’t the only financial incentive on offer to institutions; particularly if they are already funded on a per-student basis, the introduction or increase of fees isn’t likely to change behaviour.  Second, institutions won’t go after fees in ways that they think will negatively affect their prestige.  In Germany for instance, many universities have considerable latitude to raise income via teaching through continuing-education-like programs, but effectively they don’t do this, because they believe that engaging in that sort of activity isn’t prestige-enhancing.  And third, institutions often delay altering their behaviour too much because they don’t believe government policy will “stick”.  In Germany, specifically, the feeling was that the introduction of fees was unlikely to last and so there was no point in getting too invested in attracting new students to take advantage of it.

In fact, although fees in public institutions are often touted as a way to make universities more flexible and more responsive to business, the labour force, etc., this never actually works in reality, because universities are saddled with enormous legacy costs (you can close a program, but you still have to pay the profs), and have a particular self-image that means  they closely-tied to traditional ways.  What does seem to work – at least to some degree – is to allow the emergence of new types of higher education institutions altogether.  In Poland, it was only the emergence of private universities that allowed the system to take on the explosion of demand in the 1990s.  In Finland, an entirely new type of higher education institution (ammattikorkeakoulu or “Polytechnics”) was developed to take care of applied education, and accounted for 80% of all enrolment growth since 1995.

Next week: the effects on students.  See you then.

March 11

A European Perspective on Three-Year Degrees

Glen Murray may be gone, but the allure of three-year bachelor’s degrees remains.  In future, my guess is that they’ll be much like the German apprenticeship system – an educational deus ex machina that successive generations of Canadian politicians will “discover” anew every couple of years.  So it’s probably worth asking, after roughly a decade of Bologna implementation, how Europeans themselves feel the whole experience is panning out. My own sense from talking to people across the continent is that, while no one thinks the three-year bachelor’s degrees are a failure, no one considers them a triumph, either.

For much of Europe, the adoption of a three-year bachelor’s degree was an act of division, not subtraction. That’s because in Germany, and most countries to its north and east, the pre-Bologna initial degree was not a 4-year bachelor’s but a 5- or even 6-year degree, equivalent to our master’s degree.  The move to divide these degrees into a 3-year bachelor’s and a 2-year master’s seemed to make sense for three reasons: first, because governments were indeed looking for ways to reduce student time-to-completion; second, the creation of a new credential seemed like an opportunity to get universities to focus on a new type of student, who wanted less theory and more practice; and third, for those who were dubious about the first two reasons, there was an overriding desire not to get left behind in the creation of a single, pan-European Higher Education Area with harmonized degree-lengths.

On the demand side, it’s been a bigger-than-expected challenge to get students to take shorter programs. In Germany, for instance, 80-90% of bachelor’s graduates go on to get a master’s, because everyone assumes that this is what businesses will want.  And they’re not wrong: in Finland, post-graduation employment rates for master’s grads is nearly 20 points higher than for bachelor’s grads (for university graduates, anyway – Polytechnic bachelor’s degree-holders do better).

It’s been no easier on the providers’ side.  When you’re used to giving 6 years of instruction to someone before giving them a credential, it’s not super-obvious how to cope with doing something useful in half the time.  In a number of cases, institutions left their five-year programs more or less unchanged, and just handed out a credential after three years (which makes at least some sense if 80-90% of people are going on anyway).  Where compression has actually occurred, what tends to happen is that institutions elect to keep courses on technical, disciplinary skills, and get rid of pesky things like electives, and courses that help build transversal skills.  The result is a set of much narrower, less flexible degrees than before.

At least part of the problem is that there hasn’t been a lot of progress in terms of finding ways to deliver both “soft skills” and technical skills in the same courses, which permit delivery of a more rounded curriculum without extending time-to-completion.  But innovative curriculum planners are in short supply at the best of times; it’s the sort of thing that probably should have been considered before engaging in a continent-wide educational experiment like this.

All of which is to say: three-year degrees are not easy to design or deliver, and they don’t necessarily work in the labour market, either.  Shorter completion times are good, but caveat emptor.

January 27

Tenure and Academic Freedom

There’s a line you tend to hear in Canadian universities: that tenure “is essential to the defence of academic freedom”.  There’s no question that historically, in North America, the two concepts grew up together, and have been intertwined here for about a century.  But it’s demonstrably false that tenure is the only way to defend academic freedom.

In Europe, tenure has an entirely different historical origin.  Civil servants in many countries have tenure, and since university professors in many places were (and in some cases still are) civil servants, they simply picked it up as well.  The link with academic freedom is non-existent; it’s simply an employment benefit.  That doesn’t mean there’s no academic freedom in Europe.  In France, academic freedom is protected by statute.  In Germany, academic freedom is actually inscribed in the federal constitution (though with the anti-Nazi rider that academic freedom does not absolve teachers of loyalty to the constitution).

Then there’s the United Kingdom.  The UK had tenure until the early 1980s, when it was abolished under the Thatcher government and replaced with a system of long-term contracts.  But the same government also passed a statute which ensured that academic staff have the right to, “question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have”.  To my knowledge, no serious observer thinks the state of academic freedom is any worse in the UK than it is, say, here.  Certainly, it hasn’t prevented UK universities from being held in great esteem by academics around the world, as endless rounds of THE and QS surveys of academic reputation keep telling us.

Heck, let’s even look here within North America.  Over the past couple of decades, the proportion of teaching staff with tenure has declined.  And while this is widely held to have a number of drawbacks (as well as financial benefits), a reduction in academic freedom at these institutions isn’t usually one of them.

The point here isn’t that tenure fails to protect academic freedom – there are certainly lots of cases one could point to where it has been useful.  Rather, the point is that it is not the only way to protect academic freedom.  This is important because if academic freedom could be protected outside the institution of tenure, then tenure would simply become – as it is in Europe – a form of job security universities might wish to retain as an employment benefit, but which is not seen as a “right”.  More to the point, it would actually be negotiable.

So, how about it: academic freedom legislation, anyone?

November 14

Canada’s Bologna Moment

If you can cast your mind back all of three weeks, before the Ford video(s) and Mike Duffy going kamikaze on the Prime Minister, there was some big news out of Ottawa about how a Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) had finally been reached. The finer details of the deal are still unavailable, but one thing that has been promised all along is that this deal will permit the free movement of labour between Canada and Europe.  And that’s a reason for the higher education sector to pay attention.

Freedom of movement is pretty great, when it works.  But the problem with inter-jurisdictional freedom of movement is that it’s easier to achieve in theory than in practice.  Language barriers crop up, for one thing (even within Canada, lots of anglos who would like to move to Montreal don’t because their language skills aren’t good enough for the local labour market).  There’s idiotic regulatory barriers regarding credentials, for another.  But even where a trade agreement gets rid of credential-based regulatory barriers, there’s still the problem of whether employers actually recognize what a credential means, and can hire and pay people accordingly.

This was a problem in Europe back in the 1990s before there was a standard system of degrees, as there were a riot of different credentials on offer across the continent.  A German Diplom was a five-year technical credential, a French Diplome was a 2-year intermediate academic credential on the way to an undergraduate degree, an Armenian Diplom was a secondary school credential – what employer could keep all that straight?  Far easier just to hire a local, whose credential you understand.  So, even though the principle of free movement of labour existed in the European Union, the problem of general credential recognition meant that it was limited in practice.

This problem was a big reason why Europe’s governments got behind the Bologna Process.  Only by standardizing the structure of their higher education systems could they turn de jure mobility rights into a de facto mobility reality.  And so the question for Canada now, is: will this free-labour movement actually mean anything if our higher education systems aren’t aligned with Europe’s?  Canada can’t actually become part of the Bologna Process – that’s reserved for countries which are part of the Council of Europe – but there’s nothing saying we can’t harmonize our system with Bologna Processes.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the benefits of a big shift like Bologna harmonization are in fact worth the hassle.  But there’s also no doubt that the signing of CETA means that the time to ask ourselves the big questions about Bologna, and its benefits, is now.

October 18

Better Know a Higher Ed System – Scandinavian Labour Market Edition

A bit of a different tack for this week’s Better Know a Higher Ed System.  I’m not actually going to bore you by explaining the intricacies of four different systems of higher ed, or drone on about the ever-trendy Finnish polytechnics, or anything like that.  I am, however, going to tell you some nifty things about the way education and the labour market interact in these Scandinavian countries, and why, as a result, one should be quite careful when interpreting higher education statistics from this region.

There are three notable and interconnected facts about Scandinavia that you need to know:

  • The average age of Scandinavian students is much higher than it is elsewhere.  In Canada (indeed, throughout the Anglosphere) the four-year ages with the highest participation rates are 18-21.  In Scandinavia, it’s usually 21-24.
  • Scandinavian countries are usually considered to have the highest participation rates in adult education in the world.
  • Scandinavian countries are usually considered to have among the highest dropout rates from higher education in Europe.

Now, you’re probably thinking: how exactly are these things interconnected?  Well, it has to do with these countries’ labour markets working completely differently than anywhere else.  As explained to me by a few different sources (including some senior Scandinavian civil servants), Scandinavian employers actually tend to hire based on skills rather than credentials.  It’s not entirely clear how or why this happens – it’s certainly not because of newfangled “badges” or any such thing.  It’s just their culture.

As a result, it’s quite common for students to go to school, study for a few modules, get the desired skills, and then move into the labour market.  Later, they can simply slip back into the system and finish their studies. You can see how this would distort the statistics from everyone else’s point of view: the first transition causes a lot of – what, to the outside world, looks like – drop-outs; the second creates the illusion of a fabulous system of lifelong learning. But they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: students are just taking a leisurely path through studies, mixing periods of study with periods of work. Because they can.  Which, let’s face it, is pretty cool (as is much else about Scandinavia).

But there’s a cautionary tale here, as well.  We’re accustomed in the age of publications, like the OECD’s Education at a Glance, to compare countries based on international statistics, and to think that there’s something we can learn from “leaders” in particular categories.  But it’s not always true.  Scandinavian “success” at lifelong learning is ultimately a byproduct of a very unique set of attitudes amongst employers with respect to hiring young people.  And you just can’t import that.

September 30

The View from Vilnius

I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Lithuania last week, at a meeting of the EU’s Directors General of Higher Education.  I was there to talk about some research we at HESA (along with some colleagues from DZHW in Germany) are doing for the European Commission, assessing the impact of cost-sharing on institutions and students.  Unsurprisingly, at the margins of the conference (and occasionally within its proceedings), what really drove conversation were tales of austerity, and their effects on higher education.

One thing I hadn’t previously understood was just how different the dynamics of cutbacks are in continental Europe.  In many countries, professors are civil servants; that is, they are employed by the government rather than their institution.  This means that governments can impose salary adjustments directly, rather than faffing about giving a cut to institutions, and then letting universities hash it out with academic unions. And hand out salary cuts they have: in Portugal, the cut was around 15%; in Greece, 25%.  I wonder how that would play out in Canada?

(This, by the way, is why one should take care in interpreting news of “cuts” to European universities.  University budgets in some countries exclude professors’ salaries, because those are paid directly to the professors.  In such places, a 10% cut to university budgets actually just means a reduction in non-salary items, or about 5% in our terms.)

Even among the minority of countries which have managed to keep their budgets stable, or increased them a bit, there is a new mood of ruthless efficiency.  Finland, for instance, while still being flush in relative terms, hacked 20% from the Polytechnics’ budget because they were thought to not be delivering the goods on employability.  Waste not, want not.

The problems mostly came at dinner, when I was asked about conditions at Canadian universities.

“Not bad,” I said.  “Weathered the storm so far.  Just starting to head into the difficult bits now.”

“How difficult?” I was asked.

“Oh, well, um… we have some freezes in government funding now.  But institutions can still get to 2.5% growth through tuition increases.”

Frowns aplenty.  A 2.5% increase in revenue is not “difficult” in Europe.

“But wait”, I said.  “In some provinces, we have actual cuts.  Alberta, for instance, had a 7% cut.”

At this point, everyone around the table chimed in with the cuts they’ve had: “Ten!”  “Fifteen!” “Eighteen”.  Alberta wasn’t impressing anyone.

“But isn’t Alberta quite rich?” someone asked.

“Well, yes,” I said.  “And they do spend a lot on higher education.  Over $19,000 per student.  But that was before the cut”.

At this point, frowns were replaced by jaws hitting the floor.  The European average is about half that.

Nothing like going abroad to get some perspective.

August 06

Correlation and Causation in Technical Education

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“In many Northern and Central European countries, including Switzerland and Germany, there are robust apprenticeship programs. In both of those countries, youth unemployment is very low compared to Canada and the U.S.”

Or this:

“As the economy changes, however, it is increasingly clear that this is the polytechnic moment… in the recent recession, youth unemployment was lower in countries with strong vocational training programs.”

There are three propositions here.  One is that Canada’s apprenticeship/vocational training/polytechnics systems are weaker than those in what for the sake of brevity I will call Germanic Central Europe (GCE).  Another is that unemployment is lower in GCE than it is in Canada.  Finally, it is heavily implied that there is some sort of causal relationship at work here; that GCEs have lower unemployment rates because of their educational systems.

Let’s take those three in turn.    It is certainly true that GCE countries have more apprentices than we do. But the term “apprenticeship” means something different over there.  As I pointed out back here, the reason places like Germany have more apprentices is because their set of apprenticeable trades is much wider than ours.  If you limit the analysis to just skilled trades, Canada’s apprentice numbers actually look about the same as Germany’s (our completion rates are much lower – but that’s a less sexy story).

As for “vocational education” and “polytechnics” (terms that are not synonyms): Canada already has the largest non-university tertiary system on the planet.   True, we don’t have a lot of “polytechnics”, but the recent trend in GCE has been to turn these institutions into degree-granting “Universities of Applied Science” with professional rather than vocational orientations.  So yes, GCEs’ technical education systems are different from ours.  But their sources of strength aren’t necessarily in “vocational” training the way we define it.

With respect to unemployment rates, it’s quite true that unemployment among 15-24 year-olds in places like Germany (8.1%), Austria (8.7%) and Switzerland (2.8%) are lower than in Canada (13.6%).  But youth unemployment can’t be examined in isolation: it is a function of overall economic conditionsThe ratios of youth unemployment to overall unemployment tell a different story: Canada’s rate is 1.92, Austria’s 1.85, Germany’s 1.53 and Switzerland’s a freakish 1.04.  Austria’s purported advantage, at least, disappears completely on this more sensible comparison

Finally, the issue of causation.  Dial things back about twelve years; Germany had the same “dual” system of apprenticeships, but unemployment rates were twice what they are now.  If apprenticeships “cause” low unemployment now, did they also “cause” high unemployment twelve years ago?  Obviously not.  Claiming causation in one period but not another looks like cherry-picking.

In short, it’s good to invest in top-notch technical education, but be wary of over-ambitious claims made about its impacts.

February 04

The Greek Choice

University World News ran an interesting piece the other day.  Apparently, the Greek government, as part of its continuing search for money, has devised a brilliant idea to get funds from the higher ed sector.  It’s going to close four universities, and reduce the size of the incoming class by about 30%.

Well, that’s sure one way to do it.  Apparently, tuition fees weren’t considered – I’m not entirely sure why it wasn’t; it’s not as though they’re verboten in Mediterranean countries.  Spain, Italy, and Portugal all have tuition fees in public education, and the latter two also have substantial private sectors in higher education.

Undoubtedly, a move to impose tuition fees would carry with it some practical problems; students and their families don’t have a lot of spare cash right now, and the government isn’t currently in a position to set up a student loan guarantee system (what bank in their right mind would accept a guarantee from the Greek government?).  And it’s not as though the Greek people haven’t been hit with any number of recent tax increases and service cuts.  Given this, one can easily see why a government which has some pretty big political fish to fry – like saving the country from bankruptcy – would be gunshy about creating yet another political furore.

There would also be a potential for backlash.  Greece’s “academic amnesty” laws, which date from the ousting of the colonels in the early 1970s, essentially bans police from university grounds.  As you can probably imagine, such laws lower the barriers to violent opposition to pretty much anything – the result of any move to impose tuition fees might well become red-square, squared.

That said, it’s wise not to overplay the comparisons between Greece and, say, Quebec or Nova Scotia.  One is actually bankrupt while the others are simply impecunious.  But there’s no getting around the basic dynamics at work.  Once you rule out increased tuition as a source of income, government cutbacks can only mean one of two things: lower spending per-student, or a restriction of student numbers.  Greece, after several years of trying the former path, has now chosen the latter.

I wonder how student groups will respond to this?  I’m half-willing to bet that some of them will find a way to claim that, because free tuition has been preserved, the actual reduction of spaces doesn’t represent a loss of accessibility.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot fewer students living near one of the universities slated for closure (significantly, none of them are in Athens) will have access to higher education.  That’s a terrible loss, and one that could have been avoided with just a little contribution from students.

January 16

Why Don’t we Have More Private Higher Education?

Here’s a puzzle:  In many provinces, the law allows for the establishment of new, private, degree-granting institutions.  So why don’t they do it?

Why don’t disaffected lawyers set up a cut-price law school in central Toronto to compete against the expensive products offered by U of T and Osgoode?   Why doesn’t a brand-name private secondary institution, like the Bishop Strachan School, create its own liberal arts college, a la Bryn Mawr or Wellesley?

In Canada, private higher education is often thought of as “unnatural”, even though it’s a major feature of many higher education systems around the world.  For instance, countries like Hungary, Poland, and Romania all have non-trivial private university sectors.  In all of them, new universities sprung up as a result of de-regulation following the end of the socialist period, and were able – in law and the social sciences, at least – to compete for students with more established universities, because the latter’s previous Leninist associations left them discredited.

Yet of these countries, only Poland has anything like the dependence on non-state funding that Canada has.  Over there, where private funding is limited mostly to private universities (a majority of students in all countries attend tuition-free), we look like the odd-system-out, because our public institutions rake in so much private funding through student fees and other private contributions.  From their perspective, our system is much more “privatized” than theirs.

Intriguingly, it’s exactly that tolerance of private funding that has kept public institutions in a monopoly position in Canada.  Our use of both private and public funding sources essentially gives us the best-funded system of public higher education in the entire world, a system capable of offering a wide range of high quality programs.    And this significantly limits the appeal of private higher education.

Given a choice, students will always prefer a name-brand public institution over a start-up private institution, provided they are offering the same product.  Private higher education thus tends to flourish only when public institutions aren’t funded well enough to meet demand (e.g. Korea, Japan), or when the public “brand” has been eroded (e.g. East-central Europe).

The likeliest way for a private system of higher education to evolve in Canada is if governments were to restrict funding from both private and public sources to the point where the range of quality programming offered was curtailed.  Only when public institutions can’t cover all the market opportunities will private institutions be able to compete for students, and hence become viable.

And yes, there is one province where that’s on the verge of happening.  It’s Quebec.  If I were betting on where private institutions were likeliest to emerge, that’s where my money would be.

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