HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Funding and Finances

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.

May 06

Bill 100

A couple of weeks ago, the government of Nova Scotia introduced a very strange bill in the legislature.  Though nobody directly describes it this way, Bill 100 is effectively an academic Chapter 11: a set of rules under which a university can, in effect, declare bankruptcy and re-organize itself.

The basics of the Bill: in the event of a university getting into financial trouble, it will be permitted to submit a “revitalization plan” to government.  Assuming said plan finds favour with the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, the government will, in effect, suspend certain existing provisions of collective bargaining agreements in order to allow the institution to restructure – most notably the bits around financial exigency, which at some institutions require management to go through farcically-complicated rigmaroles in order to do fairly straightforward things, like lay-off staff in chronically under-enrolled programs (see for instance, pages 68-78 of St. FX’s 245-page Collective Agreement – yes, really – for an example).  Effectively, these provisions make it impossible, in practice, to carry out serious restructuring; hence, government’s interest in providing institutions with tools to do an end-run around them.

What has faculty unions up in arms are the Bill’s provisions suspending some the right to strike, and the right to grieve during the restructuring process.  Opponents of the Bill call these provisions unconstitutional.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  On the face of it, these provisions do seem contrary at least to the spirit of recent Supreme Court decisions on the right to strike, though presumably the province’s lawyers aren’t completely asleep at the switch, and have some reasonable grounds for assuming the Bill will survive judicial review.

In some ways, this is a fight over nothing – it’s not as though universities are going to be lining up to use the Bill’s provisions.  Any institutions choosing to go down this route would be heading into a reputational and regulatory nightmare, (Julia Wright of Dalhousie makes some useful points re: the inadequacy of the Bill when it comes to externally accredited programs here).  It’s a very, very last resort.

So why is the province creating a mechanism no one will want to use?  Simple: the real purpose of this bill is to put faculty on notice that the “public university put” is over.  Academic unions ignore the issue of universities’ ability to pay ever-increasing wage settlements by assuming that, at the end of the day, universities are “too big to fail”, and governments will come along and bail out universities if spending commitments get too big.  By laying-out a mechanism by which universities can fail, government is signalling that it is in fact quite prepared to see them do so.  This, in theory, should moderate wage demands.

Various faculty groups have made submissions on the bill (see CAUT’s submission here), and with some justification I think have pointed out the troubling aspects of restricting the right to strike and the right to grieve.  What they are – I think willfully – ignoring is institutions’ growing financial crisis, and governments’ growing frustration with the inability of institutions to manage their wage bills.  As far as governments are concerned, everybody else in the public sector makes wage sacrifices in difficult times – why do faculty unions think they should be exempt from this?  Unless academic unions can come up with a persuasive answer to this question, they should expect more legislation like Bill 100.

April 28

Trust, Transparency, and Need-Based Aid

If you look around the world at the kinds of subsidies made available to students, you’ll be struck by the fact that there are two very large chunks of the world where need-based aid isn’t the dominant form: post-Socialist Europe and Africa.  The reasons for this boil down to a simple issue: trust.

In the post-socialist countries, the preference for merit-based aid over need-based aid is a relatively recent affair.  Prior to 1990, access to university was restricted both in absolute numbers and on ideological grounds: in order to attend university one had to have correct “origins”.  This was another way of saying that if your family was considered too bourgeois, you weren’t allowed to attend (Vaclav Havel, for instance, was denied entrance to university on these grounds).  Though regimes eased up on this somewhat as the 70s and 80s progressed, class origins continued to play a role in admissions up to the end of the regime.

So when it came time for new, post-socialist regimes to come up with student aid policies, there was considerable suspicion about anything that looked like it discriminated based on something like class.  Preferences based on parental characteristics, quite simply, were too tainted by communism to be a viable political project: nobody trusted government to discriminate between students based on something like income.  Merit-based aid, on the other hand, was not so burdened by history, and gave the appearance of being “objective” in the sense that exam results were measured in a consistent way across the country, and could easily be used to differentiate between students.  The results, in a word, were trustworthy.

In Africa, the trust problem is slightly more complex, and less tractable.  There, the state lacks the ability to monitor individuals’ income and consumption through the tax system.  Trying to run a need-based system of aid without means of income verification is difficult, to say the least (in bits of Eastern Europe – especially Russia – income verification poses the opposite problem in that people are reticent about providing documentation that would help the government verify income).  Without income verification, need-based systems tend to rely on proxies like ownership of land or livestock, which is either very complicated or impossible to verify.  These systems quickly fall into disrepute: because it is possible to cheat them, everyone comes to assume that those who receive need-based aid have cheated.  And so again, something simple and transparent – like merit as measured through examination results – becomes the de facto standard.  Everybody knows it’s ludicrously regressive, because the awards inevitably go to students from families rich enough to pay many multiples of university tuition to attend the best secondary schools, but at least it’s transparent and not corrupt.

Japan has a similar issue: it has no need-based grants, because no one trusts that the tax system accurately captures parental income.  It does, however, have a need-based loan system.  When I asked someone senior there about why they trusted need-testing for one and not the other, he simply said “because people pay back the loans”.

All of which is to say that need-based aid requires that students and families trust that state institutions will deal with them fairly, and state institutions need to trust that families won’t try to lie to them (or, at least, have reasonably robust measures of discovering lies).  In Canada, we take this for granted, but we shouldn’t.   Without trust, and the transparency that tax-based verification tools provide, need-based aid simply wouldn’t exist.

April 16

De-Regulating Tuition in Nova Scotia

There seems to be a lot of interest in this Nova Scotia budget announcement on tuition-fee de-regulation, mostly from the everything-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket crowd.  In the interests of trying to keep people’s eyes on the ball, I thought I would try to put this move into some kind of context and examine what the likely outcomes will be.

(Necessary conflict of interest statement: In fall 2014, I did some writing work for the Nova Scotia Council of University Presidents, relating to priorities for the 2015 budget.  Make of that what you will.)

To start, let’s be clear about what the province has done.  It has allowed universities to do two things:

1)      For out-of-province, international and graduate students, the government has permanently de-regulated tuition fees

2)      For in-province undergraduates, tuition fees are being de-regulated for one year only, in order to allow institutions to make a one-time “adjustment” to program fees, after which tuition will return to having a 3% annual cap.

Now, some people assume that the term “de-regulation” means everyone is going to go hog-wild on fees.  But this isn’t necessarily true: remember that students will react to any price increase and this is a competitive market.  So the trick for universities is to work out the elasticity of the market – basically, how high can you jack up the price before people start looking for substitutes?

Universities essentially have two markets: “home” and “away”.   You can charge home students a heck of a lot before they will look for substitutes; they have to move away from home to find a substitute and that’s expensive – so the price differential can be quite high before a home market moves very much.   (note also that perceived quality matters – as many students leave Quebec for Ontario as the other way around, despite the substantial tuition gap).  But you can’t get away with that for “away” students in the same manner.  They are already paying substantially more than sticker price, because they are living away from home.  They already have cheaper alternatives.  How much more expensive can you make your product before turning them off?

Obviously, institutions are only going to raise fees in areas where they think demand is inelastic: that is, where a price hike isn’t going to substantially affect enrollment.  That means generally speaking you can expect fee rises to be concentrated in program where demand substantially exceeds supply.  Which means – among other things – that Arts programs aren’t likely to see big jumps.  But to add a bit of a wrinkle: the province has given universities the most flexibility over fees for group of students who are the most price-sensitive and the least flexibility over fees for those who are least price-sensitive.  Which makes for a very weird set of incentives: the pressure to go big will be highest for in-province students, because if they over-shoot on price to the high side they can always lower the price in subsequent years whereas if they price low, they won’t later be able to raise them significantly if they under-shoot.

It’s impossible in advance to say how institutions are going to take advantage of this flexibility.  Presumably strategies will vary depending on the amount of market power (i.e. excess of demand over supply) that each institution thinks it has in each of its programs:   But one lesson they should heed from the recent experience of almost-deregulation in Australia is this: make decisions quickly.  The longer uncertainty persists about what the prices will be, the longer opponents will have to raise support by suggesting the prices will be ridiculously high (King’s University Student Union was first off the mark on this one – see here – and they added some utterly ludicrous “statistics” on debt to bolster their case).  So while it goes against the grain to announce 2016 prices before Christmas, smart institutions will at the very least set out some principles that will counter the more hysterical propaganda as soon as possible.  Preferably before summer.

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 14

Students Won’t Save Us This Time

 I do a fair bit of barnstorming around Canada giving talks on higher education finance.  My audiences, by and large, split into two groups: those that remember the cuts of the late 90s and those that don’t.  The ones who don’t remember them are mostly OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD about future funding challenges (especially when I show them that – contrary to their belief – that operating income has actually been going up sharply recently).  The ones who do remember are more perplexed: we (eventually) got through the budget cuts of the 90s, and those were much bigger than the kinds of cuts we can expect in the next couple of years – what’s the fuss?

What people seem to have forgotten about the cuts of the mid-90s is that in most parts of the country (Quebec was an exception), total revenue only fell in two years – mostly in 1995 and 1996 – and was quickly restored in 1997 and thereafter.  In fact, by 2000, universities’ income was nearly a third higher than it had been in 1996.  Yes, governments cut – sometimes savagely – but universities and colleges were bailed out by students.

The bail-out occurred in three ways.  The first was simply showing up in greater numbers.  This was a bit of a surprise at the time, especially to universities.  Total enrolment had been flat at around 600,000 since the mid-80s.  But then just as the cuts started to hit in 95 and 96, the leading edge “baby boom echo” generation turned 19 (Remember David Foot?  Remember how we all had to nod to the demography-is-destiny stuff for a few years?  Good times).  A couple of years later, the participation rate started to grow, too.  Brilliant for post-secondary institutions: their core demographic was growing, and the portion of that demographic that wanted post-secondary education was growing, too.  In a word: more customers.

But it wasn’t just that universities and colleges got more customers – they got more money per customer as well.  Tuition increases?  Governments were handing those out like candy.  For those who find Ontario’s current regime of 3% annual increases unbearable consider the price hikes which occurred under Mike Harris.  1996: 20%.  1997: 20%.  1998: 20%.   Plus de-regulation of fees in graduate and professional programs.  And yeah 30% of that money was set aside for student aid, but those are still some big honking increases.

The third way students bailed out universities was more indirect.  That baby boom echo had some serious political clout behind it.  When the boomers’ kids were in school, boomers made sure universities were at the top of the agenda.  It happened quite suddenly, too.  From nowhere, higher education came to top voter’s lists of concerns in 1996, right about the time the leading edge of the echo turned 18.  It was that polling that made the federal Liberals suddenly enthusiastic about things like Millennium Scholarships, Canada Education Savings Grants and education tax credits.

Problem is that this time around, none of this is happening.  The demographic reality is that in most of the country youth numbers are shrinking, meaning likely fewer domestic students.  The political reality is that politicians are no longer so keen on higher tuition (in part, ironically, because past access gains mean that many more people now pay them, thus making them a bigger political liability).  And the social reality is that the boomers – whose children have now pretty much passed through university – are now more worried about their parents than their kids.

In short, none of the pillars of eventual recovery which existed in the late 1990s now exist.  Increasing domestic student numbers saved universities and colleges in the 1990s by producing much higher institutional revenues (overall, university income rose by nearly a third between 1996 and 2000).  They flat out won’t this time.  That’s why spending cuts loom quite large right now – and will do so until student numbers pick up again early next decade.

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.

March 24

Banning the Term “Underfunding”

Somehow I missed this when the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014 came out, but apparently Canada’s post-secondary system is now officially the best funded in the entire world.

I know, I know.  It’s a hard idea to accept when Presidents of every student union, faculty association, university, and college have been blaming “underfunding” for virtually every ill in post-secondary education since before Air Farce jokes started taking the bus to get to the punchline.  But the fact is, we’re tops.  Numero uno.  Take a look:

Figure 1: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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For what I believe is the first time ever, Canada is outstripping both the US (2.7%) and Korea (2.6%).  At 2.8% of GDP, spending on higher education is nearly twice what it is in the European Union.

Ah, you say, that’s probably because so much of our funding comes from private sources.  After all, don’t we always hear that tuition is at, or approaching, 50% of total funding in universities?  Well, no.  That stat only applies to operating expenditures (not total expenditures), and is only valid in Nova Scotia and Ontario.  Here’s what happens if we look only at public spending in all those countries:

Figure 2: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions from Public Sources, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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While it’s true that Canada does have a high proportion of funds coming from private sources, public sector support to higher education still amounts to 1.6% of GDP, which is substantially above the OECD average.  In fact, our public expenditure on higher education is the same as in Norway and Sweden; among all OECD countries, only Finland and Denmark (not included in graph) are higher.

And this doesn’t even consider the fact that Statscan and CMEC don’t include expenditures like Canada Education Savings Grants and tax credits, which together are worth another 0.2% of GDP, because OECD doesn’t really have a reporting category for oddball expenditures like that.  The omission doesn’t change our total expenditure, but it does affect the public/private balance.  Instead of being 1.6% of GDP public, and 1.2% of GDP private, it’s probably more like 1.8% or 1.9% public, which again would put us at the absolute top of the world ranking.

So it’s worth asking: when people say we are “underfunded”, what do they mean?  Underfunded compared to who?  Underfunded for what?  If we have more money than anyone else, and we still feel there isn’t enough to go around, maybe we should be looking a lot more closely at *how* we spend the money rather than at *how much* we spend.

Meantime, I think there should be a public shaming campaign against use of the term “underfunding” in Canada.  It’s embarrassing, once you know the facts.

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