Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Europe

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.

June 19

Europe’s Latent Strengths

I spent part of last week at the European University Association’s Funding Forum in Salzburg. Though it’s getting harder to see how you keep a European-wide conversation going when different countries are heading off in such different directions (small increases in funding in Germany and some Nordic countries, versus cuts of 35-45% in Ukraine and Greece), it was nevertheless a pleasant and productive event.

My job there was to give delegates a bit of a pep talk about European higher education, and why it may see better days soon. Sure, they have very big demographic and fiscal challenges, but these days, who doesn’t?

European universities have two big latent advantages over North American ones. The first is their cost structure. As we’ve seen before, European universities have done well to keep their labour costs relatively low. They also have room to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the teaching function by reducing the number of contact hours per degree. Though the numbers differ a bit from country to country, it seems that German and Austrian students, at least, have about 15% more contact hours on the way to a degree than do North American students. Close that gap, and that’s a lot of labour costs potentially saved.

Can this be done without reducing standards? Well, unlike universities here, European universities actually have some objective standards to uphold, thanks the widespread adoption of learning outcomes statements. As a result, I’d back their universities over ours every day of the week to engineer those kinds of efficiencies in a sensible way.

Public and Private Expenditures on Tertiary Education as a % of GDP, 2009

Then there’s the issue of income. European universities have an enormous untapped asset; namely, students. Even if EU members could close half the tuition revenue gap with non-EU OECD members, they would suddenly have enormous new pots of income which they can use to revitalize themselves. Almost instantly, they could go from having systems that are poor (if efficient), to having systems that are genuinely well-funded. The back half of this decade could be an exciting time in Europe, if governments and institutions have the will to grasp this nettle.

Of course, introducing tuition fees is a delicate thing, especially in countries where high unemployment is reducing the obvious payoff to higher education. Not surprisingly, I spent a lot of time there explaining what was going on in Quebec (most were shocked to find out how generous the Quebec government’s package really was). The lesson seems to be that introducing big changes in fee policy requires careful timing and – more importantly – governments with a lot of popular credibility. We might be waiting a while for that in Europe – and in Quebec, too, for that matter.

August 25

Why Angela Merkel Matters to the University of Windsor

I was interested to see the coverage in the Windsor Star of President Alan Wildeman’s recent note to staff about the 2012-2013 budget.

The Star focused on the gap between $12 million increase in new costs and the $6 million increase in revenue as a reason for a coming round of tuition hikes. To me, though, this misses the real story:  namely, crappy pension fund returns.

Windsor, like many Ontario universities, is in a bit of a pickle about staff pensions.  The fundamental assumption behind defined-benefit pensions in the 1990s and 2000s was that one could expect pension-funds invested in the market to make serious money.  This meant that one didn’t need to fully pay for one’s pension obligations – the magic of economic growth and compounding interest would do part of the work for you.

But the Dow has been going sideways for a decade now and bonds yields are tinier than Brazilian bikinis – meaning that most pension funds haven’t been meeting their targets.  At Windsor the gap between pension plan liabilities and the current market value of pension plan assets is about $50 million (could be worse: at U of T it’s $1 billion), meaning it has a “going concern” solvency issue which needs to be addressed by a $5 million annual payment starting this year.

There’s most of your tuition increase right there.

To put the pension problem another way, as you can see in UWindsor’s admirably concise and transparent budget documentation, institutional pension spending has had to rise by 78% over the past four years and now takes up almost 8% of institutional spending.  Just to put that into perspective, the library only makes up 5% of spending. To put it yet another way, over the past four years the university has essentially has to reallocate a sum larger than the school’s entire IT budget just to deal with the pensions issue.

To repeat: this isn’t Windsor’s problem alone.  Pretty much every university with a defined benefits pension scheme is going through something similar.  And it could get a lot worse: if Eurozone bank problems cause credit markets seize up again this fall, equity markets will take another Lehman-like beating and university  pension funds will be headed for serious solvency problems that will require more than cosmetic tuition fee increases to solve.

So when you see all those stories about Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Euro bailouts, don’t think of them as a foreign issue.  Think of them as being possibly the cause of the next big Canadian university financial crisis.