HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: funding

August 27

Theories of Change

One of the easiest things to do in policy is to advocate for policy X, so as to change effect Y.  One of the hardest things to do is to get people to explain clearly their theory of change.  That is, what are the steps by which changing X actually affects Y?

Take performance-based funding.  It’s easy to get hot for the idea that organizations can be steered by offering incentives: if you pay schools for students, they’ll raise enrolment.  If you pay them for graduates, they might spend a bit more effort and money on academic support service.  And so on.  By this theory, all you need to do to get universities to change their behaviour is to offer the right financial incentives.

But here’s the problem: that theory works a lot better for individuals than for organizations.  If what you are trying to do is force a change in organizational culture (e.g. get them to shift to a more student-centred focus), you have to remember that individuals inside an organization aren’t necessarily going to face the same incentives as the institution.  Just because an organization is incentivized doesn’t mean everyone in it is incentivized.

In extremely hierarchical organizations, it’s possible for management to pass incentives on to staff in various ways.  But universities are not particularly hierarchical institutions.  Outside of terrorist cells, universities are about the most loosely-coupled organizations on earth.  Some of the larger among them, to quote Kevin Carey, are more like holding companies for a group of departments, which are themselves holding companies for professors’ research interests.

So let’s get back to the example of a government that hopes to get universities to pay more attention to student success.  Say the government comes up with a funding formula that potentially allows an institution to access a couple million dollars more if it increases its graduation rate.  What happens?

Well, it’s certain that university leadership will try to grab the money.  That’s their job.  Then they’ll think about how to achieve the goal.  Pretty much every authority on retention will tell you that it is a institution-wide exercise.  The key is identifying students that are having trouble, and then making sure they get appropriate assistance, either from instructor(s), or from some kind of centralized suite of academic services.  But while it’s easy enough to invest money in new centralized services, the key to such an approach still rests on professors (some more than others) altering the way they behave in class, so as to spend more time/effort identifying strugglers early, and then doing something about it (talking to the students themselves, sending their name to a counsellor who can then contact the student and offer assistance, etc.)

The question is: how do you get the professor to make those changes?  The promise of more money to the institution is a pretty weak one.  First, while many people’s behaviour will need to change in order to get the money, not everyone’s does, so there’s a rational reason to try to free ride on the process.  Second, even if the institution does get the money, it doesn’t follow that the money will be distributed in such a way that all individual profs  benefit.  A prof’s behaviour is not incentivized in the same way as the institution’s.  And if that’s so, why would we expect the prof to alter his or her behaviour?

I’m not saying it’s impossible steer universities by using money as an incentive; I’m saying that success in doing so requires the incentives to be aligned in such a way that everyone’s behaviour down the chain is incentivized.  And in a university, where every professor is, to an extent, a free agent, that’s really hard to do.  It works where the incentive aligns with career goals or professional norms (e.g. do more research).  But when it pushes against professional norms, it’s a lot more difficult.

Fundamentally, people trying to steer system reforms need to ask themselves: how will this incentive alter what individuals on the ground actually do on a day-to-day basis?  If there’s no good answer to that question, chances are the incentive isn’t likely to work.

June 05

Random Crazy Thoughts About Funding Formulas

A few days ago, I attended a meeting of an advisory group on the review of the Ontario University Funding Formula. I can’t of course tell you what went on inside the meeting, but I thought I would share with you some of the (creative? crazy?) ideas that I had while inside them.

One issue which has popped up both in Ontario and in some meetings I had in DC last week, was the problems created by having money automatically fund enrolments. Now obviously money has to track enrolments to some degree – big universities need more money than little ones, expensive programs need more money than cheap programs, etc, etc. But on the other hand making the relationship direct creates an institutional incentive to deal with every cost problem by just chasing more students, which may not be socially optimal. Indeed, it leaves institutions open to the charge (not always entirely fairly) that they care more about getting people in the door than making sure they graduate.

So here’s an idea: since tuition fees rise directly with enrolment, institutions already have an incentive to chase bodies. Why not switch the funding formula incentive entirely to completion as Denmark does with its “taximeter” system? Completions are probably correlated about .75 or .8 with enrolments, which means that it wouldn’t cause a massive dislocation; you could probably up that to .9 or so if you funded based on an “expected completion metric” which took into account the quality of the incoming students (so, for instance, Queen’s would have to show much higher completion rates than Algoma to get the same money because the entrance averages of its students is higher).

Compounding the money-follows-enrolment problem is the fact that no formula I’ve ever been able to locate ever makes a distinction between the cost of an average student and the cost of a marginal student. This is on the face of it ridiculous: the 15,000th student at any institution is a heck of a lot cheaper to educate than the first or even the 5000th. And while yes, actually calculating marginal costs is a mug’s game and you certainly wouldn’t want to try to work that out in a funding formula, it’s not impossible to include a taper in the funding mechanism. That is, the first 100 in a particular field of study might be worth X, the next 100 might be worth .9x, the next 100 .8x, and so on and so forth. Easy enough. Why not do it?

One other interesting discussion to be had around funding models is the extent to which they can make systems “sustainable” (by which government means “not cost too much”). The Government of Ontario is very keen on the idea of using the funding formula to promote “sustainability” in Ontario universities. My first thought was that this was kind of nutty since a) the funding formula discussion is entirely allocative (ie. it is about how to divide the money not how much to give) and b) as I understand it, this funding formula review is not allowed to touch i) tuition, ii) collective agreements and iii) pensions. Frankly it’s pretty difficult to address sustainability if the formula can’t really take into account the largest components of revenue or costs. And yet, the central problem in institutions is getting cost increases back in line with revenue increases (see here and here).

As I’ve argued previously, there are good reasons why we might want to link total compensation to a particular percentage of total income, in much the same way that teams in professional sports do: it keeps the lid on costs when times are tight and it gives everyone in the institution an incentive to raise net revenues. Now, this particular provincial government won’t countenance doing that by interfering with collective bargaining (a problem since universities on their own don’t seem to be able to control costs very well) or by implementing the “BC solution”  where the government sets out sector-wide guidelines about the extent to which aggregate pay can rise.

But then I thought of a way around this: what if the funding formula actually fixed the proportion of compensation costs to non-compensation costs? What if the formula contained a dollar-for-dollar clawback as compensation rises above 75% of total income? Of course, there’d be all sorts of screaming, and the devil would be in the details as to how to define compensation (circumventing the limit by hiring people as contractors would be the obvious loophole to close), but I think it might actually be a very effective tool for to help institutions become more sustainable.

Food for thought, anyway.

June 04

University Endowments in a Global Context

Every once in awhile, when politicians of a certain mindset get going on the subject of how much money is being wasted in higher education, they fall back on a line about “why can’t universities be more self-sufficient”, or better yet, “why can’t they just fundraise more, like American universities do”?

Easier said than done. Here are the top ten Canadian universities, by endowment.

Top ten Canadian Universities by Endowment (in C$ Billion)


So you’ve got Toronto at about $2 billion in total endowments, McGill and UBC hovering at about $1.5 billion and Alberta just scraping $1 billion. After that it starts to fall off quickly. Queen’s clocks in at three-quarters of a billion while Calgary, McMaster and Western at just over half a billion (which, for comparative purposes, is somewhat less than U of T’s medical faculties alone) and then on down from there. Only twenty universities in Canada have endowments as large as $100 million. To put that another way, given the way endowments work, that means there are only 20 institutions in the country which receive as much as $4 million annually from endowment returns. Spread $4 million over, say 20,000 students and you’re looking at a grand total of about $200 per student in endowment income, which at most universities is basically a rounding error.

Now, let’s look at the top ten in the United States.

Top ten US Universities by Endowment (in C$ Billion)

6.4.2

Clearly, the US is a whole different ballgame here. All of the top six institutions in the US have larger endowments than all Canadian institutions combined: Harvard’s endowment alone is over three times Canada’s. (In fact, this week Harvard got its largest ever single donation, worth $400M US – which is almost exactly equal to Dalhousie’s endowment. One Donation. Seriously.)

Though the US list is mostly made up of private institutions, two publics make the top ten: Michigan and Texas-Austin. The Texas endowment story is frankly insane and too long to recount here: suffice to say that technically UT Austin doesn’t specifically have a $11.5 billion in endowments; however, the UT system as a whole has about $26 billion (not counting another $13 billion or so for Texas A&M) thanks to various funds setup by the state, and Austin seems to end up getting about 45% of that, the $11.5 figure seems like a decent estimate of Austin’s implicit claim on funds.

In some ways, it’s not even the big-endowment schools that are the craziest. The US has five Liberal Arts colleges (Pomona, Swarthmore, Amherst, Grinnell and Williams) with 2,000 students or less which have per-student endowments of over $1 million. That means these schools have per student endowment income of over $40,000 – or, about twice what a school like Bishop’s has per student from all income sources. These schools actually don’t need to charge tuition – they do so only because to do otherwise would make their programs look cheap and common.

What about the rest of the world? Well, once you get outside North America, the data on endowments gets pretty thin. Wikipedia claims to list endowment values of major universities in Europe, Asia and Australia, but for reasons that are quite baffling, on closer inspection these figures often turn out represent the institution’s annual budgets. Plus the meaning of terms like “university foundation” and “endowments” seem to mean slightly different things in different places. Top three Australian universities have Foundations which manage $1 billion or more in “long-term funds”, but not all of these funds appear to be externally endowed in the way we think of the term (the balance would appear to be funds invested by the universities themselves). Similarly, Tokyo University Foundation lists $24.8 billion yen ($250 million) in cash “and pledges” which could mean just about anything.

European universities seem not to advertise or explain their endowments, possibly because they haven’t got many of them. ETH Zurich is described on a number of websites as have a billion euros in endowments, but the most recent ETH Foundation annual report puts the figure at closer to 400 million euros. The only other continental university with a major endowment is the Central European University in Budapest, which apparently has an endowment of roughly $1 billion thanks mostly to its principal benefactor, George Soros. The UK, of course, is a different story. Oxford and Cambridge are handsomely funded but the gap between these two and everyone else is enormous – the third-best endowed school has less than a tenth of what the second-best school has.

The only two Asian universities where we have definite evidence of serious wealth are The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the National University of Singapore (NUS). The former, of course, was famously endowed to the tune of USD $20 Billion by its founder; the latter seems to have built up its formidable $2.3 Billion (Cdn) endowment in a more traditional (from a North American perspective) way, though gifts of many individual benefactors.

Major University Endowments, Selected non-North American Institutions (in C$ Billion)

6.4.3

Not shown: KAUST and its $20 Billion US endowment because that would make the graph look ridiculous.

All of which is to say that Canada actually does well compared to most of the world in terms of private funding raising. Our top three schools are probably in the top ten in the world outside the US in terms of total endowment size, and in terms of total university endowments, we probably come fourth in the world after the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia. The problem is simply that due to proximity we compare ourselves to the US, which is sui generis in so many ways. KAUST aside, there simply isn’t a university in the world which can support itself through donations the way American schools can. We need to stop using them as a yardstick.

June 02

Funding Formulas 201

The last time we  talked about funding formulas, we discussed the difference between determinative and allocative formulas.  When we talk about Ontario, which is currently undergoing a funding formula review, we’re definitely talking about the latter.  The formula isn’t going to drive total spending (this remains the legislature’s prerogative), what it is going to do is decide how the total amount will be split up.

The question is: how best to do this?

At this point, it’s worth going into some history about funding formulas.  Back in the day – say, the 1960s – universities would come cap-in-hand to government asking for money for various sundry purposes (usually, there were a couple of new “wow” proposals in there to justify a big increase), and government, in-turn, would cut cheques to individual institutions for any old amount.  Eventually, governments got tired of that shtick, and decided to come up with a way to allocate funds automatically – but fairly – to avoid going through that rigamarole every year.

Over time, however, global thinking about funding formulas changed – due mainly to work done at the OECD.  It’s now no longer just about divvying up money, it’s about using money to create a set of incentives to steer the system.  Now, admittedly, when the OECD talks about using money to steer a system, it does so because it thinks it’s better for governments to set goals for institutions, and then get out of the way.  In other words, governments “should steer, not row”.

(An interesting question in Ontario, of course, is how formula spending power can be made to steer the system, when the government of the day has a predilection not just to row, but to flail around like a five year-old on a boogie board.  Should be interesting.)

Anyhow, the idea is that you can get universities to do stuff by rewarding them via the funding formula.  The question then, from a practical point of view, is: how big a carrot do you need to get an institution to do something it may not want to do (e.g. pay more attention to teaching, get research institutions to reach out more to poorer kids, etc.)?  The answer here is: “nobody knows”.  And this is a bit of a problem, especially if you’re trying to incentivize something.  Thanks to the work of Nicholas Hillman and David Tandberg, we can be pretty sure that small nudges – say, nudges that account for 2-3% of the budget, or so – aren’t going to work.  If you’re going to try something like this, you need to go big.  As in, “at least 10% of an institutional budget” big.

Now, here’s the thing: in Ontario, the government only accounts for about 40% of university funding, with the rest coming from tuition or commercial activities.  So something that puts 10% of the institutional budget at risk actually has to put 25% of government funding at risk.  And logically speaking, this means you probably can only pick one, or at most two goals for your funding formula to target.   So what should the government pick: completion rates?  Research commercialization?

It’s hard, in fact, to see how you can steer competently in a way that makes sense for all institutions, in a jurisdiction where so little institutional funding comes from government.  There is the possibility of creating individual goals for each institution based on individual missions, but now you’re getting a long way from the idea of a “formula”, something where everyone pumps the same numbers into the system, and a global result for all institutions pops out.

Basically, system steering gets a lot tougher for governments if they’ve already allowed institutions to become mostly student-funded.  This is something Ontario is about to discover in a big way.

May 19

“Mismanagement”

One of the favourite terms being bandied about on campuses these days is “mismanagement”.  According to some, everything would be fine if it weren’t for “mismanagement” – if weren’t for “mismanagement”, there would be no money problems, and life would be simply swimming.

The problem is that it’s not 100% clear what people mean by “mismanagement”.  It seems that, in fact, there are a few possible definitions:

1)      Malfeasance: This does happen occasionally, more often than not in areas related to construction and facilities management.  This is mismanagement, if not in the overt sense, then at least in the sense of not having adequate controls.

2)      Slip-ups/errors in judgement: To err is human.  In every big organization, mistakes are made every day.  These things tend to be fairly minor in scope, but intensely annoying if for some reason the mistake affects one’s own work.  Still, it’s unlikely that universities and colleges are more afflicted with these than any other large complex organization.  There’s a reason Dilbert is set in the private sector, for instance.  

3)      Paperwork: Judging by the whinging that goes on, many academic staff seem to equate paperwork with over-management, which by definition (to some) is “mismanagement”.  As with slip-ups, this kind of stuff is pretty routine in large organizations, and is not specific to post-secondary education.  Try working in government.

But actual mismanagement is none of these things.  Mismanagement is where people are systematically prioritizing, or spending money, on the wrong things (e.g. spending millions on a lazy river, for instance, or where resources are being over-committed to a particular project or line-item to no good effect – e.g. paying your President twice in the same year).  This does happen of course, but on the whole the amounts of resources involved are trivial compared to overall institutional spending.

The problem is that “wrong things” are in the eye of the beholder.  Thus, there is a noticeable tendency these days for academics with a grudge to assign the term “mismanagement” to activities with which they disagree (and that, by definition, means less money available for one’s own pet projects).  Spending “too much” on internationalization, prioritizing field of study A over field of study B or – god forbid – constructing a new building?  Obviously, the institution is being run by cretins or saboteurs who “mismanage” funds!  In some cases, this might be mismanagement; more often, it’s simply a difference of opinion about how to achieve institutional goals.

This would all be fairly harmless were it not for the fact that students’ and academics’ increasing use of the term “mismanagement” is coming at a time when it is increasingly difficult for institutions to obtain funds.  Blaming institutional financial woes on “mismanagement” is tactical ineptitude of the highest magnitude because it gives government license to freeze or cut payments, and thus exacerbate the problem.  “Really?” says the Government, “It’s management ineptitude that’s causing all the funding problems, not frozen tuition or stagnant government transfers?  Gosh, I guess you don’t need this $X million in operating grants, then – just manage yourselves better and it’ll be all right.” 

Obviously, true mismanagement and malfeasance needs to be called out.  There’s never an excuse for wasting resources.  But labelling political disagreements as “mismanagement” is both wrong and harmful.  It needs to stop.

May 07

Funding Formulas 101

So I’ve been asked to act as a member of the “reference group” (that is, a group of individuals from whom advice may be sought, but which is not technically an advisory group – yeah, I know, it’s a bit odd) for the government of Ontario’s funding formula review.  Since everyone’s about open government these days, I thought I’d make public some of my views on the subject of funding formulae so you can get a sense of what I’m contributing to the discussion behind the scenes.

So, first off: does Ontario actually need a change to its funding formula?  For purely housekeeping reasons, yes.  It’s been about 40 years since the formula was last re-written, and it looks increasingly jerry-rigged (I can’t find a completely up-to-date version of the Ontario formula online, but here’s an ungated 2009 version that, minus some jiggery-pokery around education students, is still pretty much what’s in the system today).

But we need to be clear about what a funding formula amendment can achieve.  The government seems to be under the impression that a new funding system can help institutions better contain costs (it can’t), or support differentiation (it can, but only if you stretch the term “formula” to include a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly algebraic).  Other stakeholders seem to think that a funding formula change might improve financing for institutions.  This it can do in theory, but not – in Ontario at least – in practice.

At a very broad level, funding formulas come in two types: determinative and allocative.  In a determinative formula, the government plugs all the relevant numbers into a formula, and out the other end comes a number that tells the government how much to spend.  These are pretty rare: Australia has a system like this, as does the United Arab Emirates.  Governments tend to dislike these formulas because they hand control of overall spending to bodies outside of government: as long as universities keep admitting people, governments have to keep spending (in the UAE’s case, it also led to Treasury trying to meddle in the admissions process as a way to keep expenditures under control). Instead, most formulas are allocative: government determines how much it wants to spend, and then uses a formula to divide that amount between all the institutions.  That’s very definitely how Ontario’s formula works right now, and I think it is safe to say the current review isn’t going to change that.

Tinkering with an allocative formula will certainly make some universities better off, but by definition it can’t make them all better off.  Indeed, winners and losers tend to be more or less equally balanced.  You can tweak the formula to help institutions that are more research-focused, but small institutions will pay; you can put more money to fund Fine Arts programs, but other fields of study will have to lose money to balance it out.

Another thing about funding formulas: the amount of difference they make to institutional behaviour is basically proportional to the percentage of the total bill that government foots.  In Quebec, where institutions are dependent on government for 80% of their money, changes to funding formulas matter a heck of a lot more than they do in Ontario, where the government share of operating expenditures is closer to 40%.

All of which is to say: let’s not kid ourselves that this funding formula review is going to change very much.  This is a risk-averse government, which dislikes seeing too many losers.  For some reason, they have initiated a process that has the potential to create a lot of losers.  My best guess is there will be a lot of interesting ideas thrown around, which will cause a lot of angst; in the end we’ll have a model that may have a very different set of indicators and coefficients, but will leave the actual distribution of money across institutions more or less unchanged.  Think of it as a policy process as written by Giueseppi de Lampedusa: everything will change, so that everything may stay the same

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the process, and to writing more about funding formulas.  More later.

April 15

Enforced Savings for Education?

It’s generally acknowledged that students from low-income backgrounds have trouble paying for education; that’s why across North America, they tend to get packages of loans and grants which are far in excess of the value of tuition.  And that’s a good thing.  But when it comes to people who are truly middle-class – that is, students near or just over the median family income, there’s a fair bit of debate – sometimes acrimonious – about how to assist them.  

One view – one which I tend to subscribe to – is that most middle class parents are quite capable of providing some assistance to their kids.  It’s not an emergency, out-of-the-blue expenditure; they’ve had 18 years to save for it.  If there’s a liquidity problem, student loans are available which allow students to defer the costs until they have graduated and have a job.

The alternative view – proposed by the usual suspects here in Canada and in the United States by researchers like Sara Goldrick-Rab – is essentially that university costs have outstripped the ability of even middle-class to pay (a claim easier to make in the US than in Canada) and that therefore in the interests of a strong middle-class they need greater subsidy.

From a lifetime income perspective, if higher education are too expensive for families individually, they’re also too expensive for families collectively – unless the plan is to grab tax income from those families who don’t have kids or whose kids don’t go to higher education.  That would probably be quite regressive.  But I don’t think that’s primarily what proponents of aid to middle-class parents are saying.  I think they’re actually making a liquidity argument: middle-class annual incomes can’t cope with a sudden rise in annual household spending that supporting a student in college or university for 3-5 years entails.  That’s primarily an intertemporal liquidity argument – they have the money, they just don’t have it now

Now, the most obvious way to deal with that is loans, but the objection is some variation of “debt is bad, debt = inequality”.  I don’t buy that particularly (see here and here), but let’s assume there is merit in the argument.  Is government subsidy the only way to deal with this?  Answer: of course not.  We have exactly the same issue with retirement income support, and the way we deal with it is through enforced savings through programs like the Canada Pension Plan.

As higher education edges towards becoming universal, the pension model of funding becomes at least worth examining.  Why not create individual accounts for every child born and require parents to contribute a couple of hundred dollar a year through payroll deductions?  If income is below a certain threshold, government could make the contribution on parents’ behalf (as indeed it does for low-income parents through the currently non-mandatory Canada Learning Bond program).  That way, every family would know they had a lump-sum amount available once a child reaches age 18, without having to tap government coffers to support the middle-class who, on the whole, are able to pay for university/college if the payment process is extended sufficiently.

I’m not sure if I personally buy this argument: people tend to like the idea of saving but are less keen on making it mandatory.  But I do think it’s a better idea than using tax-income to support the middle-class.  That money should be reserved for helping the less-advantaged.

April 02

More Inter-Provincial Finance Comparisons

Yesterday we compared provinces on PSE spending as a percentage of GDP – that is, as a percentage of their ability to pay.  More or less, what we found was that most provinces were pretty similar, at 2.5% of GDP, with Saskatchewan a bit lower, Alberta a lot lower, and Nova Scotia and PEI much higher.  But provinces have different economic capabilities and different student participation rates.  So how do all these different expenditure patterns play out where it counts, in dollars per student?

Before I get into the actual numbers, some quick explanatory notes: all income and enrolment figures are for 2011-12, and expressed in 2012 dollars.  The income figures represent all income, not operating, meaning that any big capital projects in that year will skew things a bit.  The “government” figures include both federal and provincial spending.  To keep things relatively consistent, I express student numbers in Statscan FTEs (3.5 PT = 1FT), rather than headcounts; BC and Alberta, who have way more part-time students than anyone else, would look a bit worse if we did this using headcounts only.  Finally, although I am expressing everything in terms of institutional income, since income and expenditure are pretty much identical, you can assume that everything I say here for per-student income is basically true for per-student expenditure, as well.

Got that?  OK, off we go.

Figure 1 shows what income per head looks like in the college sector.  Nationally, colleges receive $16,585 per FTE student per year, just under two-thirds of which come from government.  Most provinces have averages above this, but Ontario and Quebec (which between them have almost 75% of the country’s college students) spends less.  The surprise here is Alberta: despite receiving slightly less than the national average as a percentage of GDP, on a per-student basis its colleges and institutions receive a fairly outlandish $32,000 per FTE, of which about $19,000 comes from government.

Figure 1: College Income per FTE Student by Source and Province, 2011-12

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Now, let’s turn to universities.  On average, Canadian universities have income of $31,000 per FTE, which is ahead of pretty much any university system in the world, with the exception of US privates.  Most provinces are pretty close to that level: only Manitoba is substantially below $30,000 per student, and only Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland are substantially above it.  In most provinces, universities get about 60% of their total income from government; the exceptions are Ontario and Nova Scotia (where it is about 45%), Newfoundland (73%), and Quebec (66%).

Figure 2: University Income per FTE Student by Source and Province, 2011-12

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If this doesn’t look like what you’re used to seeing (e.g. Quebec universities don’t seem underfunded compared to Ontario universities), it’s partly because we’re not strictly looking at operating funding here: research funding from the federal government is also included, and that can change the lens a little bit.

Another truth here: the highest levels of funding are in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan.  While Memorial, Saskatchewan and Regina are all decent universities, none of them tend to make anyone’s top ten list of Canadian institutions.  Reasonable people might therefore question the strength of the link between per-student funding and quality.

Combine figures 1 and 2 and you get Figure 3, which shows average income across all post-secondary institutions per FTE.

Figure 3: Institutional Income per FTE Student by Source and Province, Colleges, 2011-12

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Now, Quebec goes to the bottom of the pile, but that’s mostly because of weak funding in the college sector (which is fair enough, because much of it is effectively the final year of high school).  The biggest winners are – surprise, surprise – the three oil provinces of Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, all of whom are see institutional income of $35,000 per FTE student or thereabouts, which is roughly 35% higher than the national average of $25,800 per student.

It’s a very different picture than the one we saw yesterday when looking at expenditures as a percentage of GDP.  Essentially, rich provinces don’t need to spend as much of their income on higher education to have good post-secondary education.  As noted yesterday, Nova Scotia universities receive 2.5 times as much, in % of GDP terms, as do Alberta universities; yet, due to differences in provincial GDP and enrolments, Alberta institutions actually receive more dollars per FTE.

So which is the better measure, dollars per student or % of GDP?  It kind of depends on one’s perspective.  Institutions, naturally, care about the dollars: if someone else has more, they want parity so they can compete.  But governments and citizens probably care more about % of GDP, which is a measure of society’s ability to pay for things.  Every percentage of GDP used by PSE is a percentage that can’t be used to pay for something else, be it roads, hospitals, or personal consumption.

In other words, you can make a decent case for pretty much any province to be among the country’s best or worst, depending on whether you use a GDP framework or a per-FTE framework.  This is intensely annoying to people who crave certainty and exactitude, but that’s the way it is.

April 01

Some Inter-Provincial Finance Comparisons

Last week, I blogged about how OECD figures showed Canada had the highest level of PSE spending in the world, at 2.8% of GDP.  Many of you wrote to me asking: i) if the picture was the same when we looked at other measures, like per-capita spending or spending per-student; and, ii) could I break things down by province, instead of nationally.  I am ever your servant, so I tried working on this.

I quickly came up against a problem, which was simply that I could in no way replicate the OECD numbers.  Using numbers from FIUC (for universities) and FINCOL (for colleges), the biggest expenditure number I could come up with for the 2011-12 year was $41.75 billion in institutional income.  Dividing this by the 2011 GDP figure of $1.72 billion used in Education at a Glance (itself inexplicably about 3% smaller than the $1.77 billion figure Statscan reports for 2011) gives me 2.43%, rather than the 2.8% Statscan reported to OECD.  There is presumably an explanation for this (my best guess is that it has something to with student assistance), and I have emailed some folks over there to see what’s going on.  But in the meantime, we can still have some fun with inter-provincial comparisons.

Let’s start with what provinces spend on universities:

Figure 1: University Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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In most provinces, total university expenditure is right around two percent of GDP.  Only in two provinces (Saskatchewan, Alberta) is it significantly below this, and only in two (Nova Scotia, Prince Edwards Island) is it significantly above.  In terms of public expenditure, the average across the country is about one percent of GDP.  Nova Scotia, at 3.2%, is likely by some distance the highest-spending jurisdiction in the entire world.

Now, some of you are no doubt wondering: how the heck can Nova Scotia universities spend two and a half times what Alberta universities spend (in GDP terms) when the latter are so bright and shiny and the former are increasingly looking a little battered?  Well, I’ll get more into this tomorrow, but the quick answer is: Alberta’s GDP is eight times higher than Nova Scotia’s, but it only has about three times as many students.

Of course, universities aren’t the whole story.  Let’s look at colleges:

Figure 2: College Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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This is a wee bit more interesting.  Most provinces are bunched closely around the 0.5% of GDP mark, except for Quebec and Prince Edward Island.  If we were using international standards here, where college is usually interpreted as being ISCED level 5 (or level 5B before the 2011 revision), Quebec’s figures would be much lower because CEGEP programs leading to university are considered level 4 (that is, post-secondary, but not actually tertiary), and hence would be excluded.

But PEI is the real stunner here: apparently Holland College accounts for nearly 1.2% of GDP.  This sounds ludicrous to me and I have no explanation for it, but having looked up Holland College’s financials it seems to check out.

Here’s the combined picture:

Figure 3: Total PSE Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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So, what we see here is that most provinces again cluster around spending 2.5% of GDP, which would put their spending roughly on par with the world’s second-biggest spender, Korea (but slightly behind the United States).  Saskatchewan, at 2% of GDP, would still be ranked very highly, while Alberta, at 1.73% would be only a bit above the OECD average.

The crazy stuff is at the other end: PEI and Nova Scotia, where higher education spending exceeds 3.75% of GDP.  And yeah, their GDP is lower than most of the rest of the country (GDP/capita in those two provinces, at $39,800 and $41,500, respectively, is less than half what it is in Alberta), but there are lots of OECD countries with GDPs of roughly that level of income (e.g. Spain) who spend about a third as much on education.

Tomorrow, we’ll look a bit more at per-student spending.

March 30

Investing in Students

One thing I’ve seen a lot of recently, particularly from the left, are exhortations to “invest in education”, “invest in people”, and “invest in students”.   However, as economist Stephen Gordon noted on twitter this weekend, the actual meaning of the verb “to invest” is “to acquire a productive asset”.  So, in a literal sense, it would appear that a lot of people on the left are interested in a government-led return to slavery.

Of course, this isn’t what the left means when it says “invest”.  In fact, calls for “investment” are a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, combining one perfectly sensible idea with a much more dubious one.  The sensible bit is that “public spending on higher education has significant positive returns”; the less sensible bit is “if we spent more, we will continue to get similar high returns”.

The problem here – one which the investment crowd isn’t always keen to acknowledge – is that when real investors make investments, they actually measure returns.  And when they do, they measure returns relative to the original amount invested.  If returns do not increase in-line with investments, then this is what we call a bad investment.

To understand what I mean, let’s think about the Klein cuts in Alberta in the early 90s, or the Harris cuts in Ontario in the mid-90s, or the Bouchard cuts in Quebec in the mid-90s.  In all three cases, universities saw double-digit percentage decreases in operating grants.  Did student intake or graduation rates fall?  Was the quality of these graduates materially worse than those of any other era?  No?  Then what we have here is a case of a rise in returns to investment; governments spent less and got the same return.

The argument that a rise in spending will return a better investment is actually a tough one to make.  Will we get more graduates?  Will we get more thoughtful or productive graduates?  Will we get more research?  These are all things you have to measure.  By and large in Canada, our investments of the 2000s bought us more graduates and more research.  On other aspects – who knows?

(At this point in any of my talks, someone always asks something to the effect of: “but what about the other aspects of higher education, like citizenship, or critical thought?”  To which my answer is: if that’s what you think we’re buying with public expenditure: fine.  The issue is: on what basis do you think graduates will have more of those qualities if spending goes up 5%, or 10%, or whatever?)

I suspect some of the “investment” crowd wouldn’t mind actually measuring its investments; but, I also suspect there’s a larger portion of this group that could not care less about return on investments.  For these people, the word “invest” is simply a crude disguise for the word “spend”, and by “spend” they mostly mean transferring spending from the private sector to the public sector, hence raising private returns and lowering public ones (and this is from the left, for God’s sake).

None of this is to argue against public spending on education, of course.  And none of it is to say there aren’t reasons why higher education spending shouldn’t be increased.  But be careful of the language of investment: it doesn’t always lead where you think it will.

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