HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Universities

September 21

Flagship Universities vs World-Class Universities

Almost since the “world-class” university paradigm was established fifteen years ago, the concept has faced a backlash.  The concept was too focussed on research production, it was unidimensional, it took no account of universities’ other missions, etc. etc.  Basically the argument was that if people took the world class university concept seriously, we would have a university monoculture that ignored many important facets of higher education.

The latest iteration of this backlash comes in the form of the idea of “flagship universities”, promoted in the main by John Aubrey Douglass, a higher education expert at UC Berkeley.  Douglass’ idea is essentially that what the world needs is not more “world-class” universities – which he dismisses as being overly focussed on the production of research – but more “flagship” universities.  What’s the difference?  Well, “flagship” universities are – essentially – world class universities with a commitment to teaching top undergraduate students, to providing top-level professional education and to a mission of civic engagement, outreach and economic development.  Basically, all flagship universities are world-class universities, but not vice-versa.  They are world-class universities with a heart, essentially.

Or, that’s what promoters of a “flagship concept” would have you believe.  I would argue the concept is simply one of American academic colonialism, driven by a simplistic belief that all systems would be better if only they all had their own Morrill ActsWisconsin Ideas, and California Master Plans.

If you read Douglass’ book on the matter, it’s quite plain that when he says “flagship university” he means roughly the top 20 or so US public universities – Cal, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, etc.  And those are without question great universities and for the most part appropriate to the settings in which they exist.  But as a guiding concept for universities around the world, it’s at least as inappropriate as “world class” universities if not more because it assumes that these quintessentially American models will or should work more or less anywhere.

Start with the idea that to be a flagship university you have to have excellent research output.  That takes out nearly all of Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Russia and Latin America, just as the “world class” concept does.  Then you must have a research culture with full academic freedom, freedom of expression, etc (say goodbye to China and the rest of Russia).  You must also have a commitment to combine undergraduate and professional education and to a highly selective intake process for both (adieu France, auf wiedersehen, Germany), and a commitment to community outreach in the way Americans think of it (sayonara Japan, annyeong Korea).

What’s left?  Universities in anglophone countries, basically.  Plus Scandinavia and the Netherlands.  That’s it.  But if you then add in the requirement that flagships are supposed to be at the top of an explicit system of higher education institutions (a la California Master Plan), then to some degree you lose everyone except maybe Norway.

Douglass is undoubtedly right in saying the world-class universities are – in practice if not in theory – a pretty reductive view of higher education (though in defence of the group in Shanghai who came with the concept, it’s fair to say they thought of it as a benchmarking tool not a policy imperative).  But while the flagship concept cannot be called reductive, even more so than the “world-class concept” it is culturally specific and not readily exportable outside of its home context.

Universities around the world are descended from different traditions.  The governments that pay for them and regulate them have legitimately different conceptions of what they are supposed to achieve and how they are supposed to achieve it.  People happen to have got worked up about “world-class” research universities because research happens to be the only part of university outputs that can be measured with in a way which is half-way useful, quantitatively speaking.  The problem lies not with the measurement of research outputs, and not even with the notion of institutions competing with one another, but rather with the notion that there is a single standard for excellence.

The flagship universities vs. world-class universities debate, at heart, is simply an argument about which single standard to use.  Those of us in North America might prefer the flagship model because it speaks to our historic experience and prejudices.  But that’s no reason to think anyone should adopt it, too.

August 30

A Francophone University for Ontario?

On Monday, the Government of Ontario released a proposal for a francophone university in Ontario, saying, effectively, “it’s about time we had one”.  This came as a surprise to many, who wondered “well, what about University of Ottawa, Laurentian University and Glendon College?”

But of course, none of these are truly francophone. Well, U of O is in theory but it was swamped by anglophones long ago and now does a majority of its teaching in English.  Laurentian was from its founding a bilingual university rather than a francophone one, but in practice it has not always lived up to the ideal, much to the irritation of some of its francophone staff.  And Glendon – well, Glendon’s a francophone college, but it’s part of York University, which is about as anglo as it gets.

Where this new institution is supposed to be different is that it will teach only in French,  And it will be governed entirely by francophones.  Which, to the francophone community, makes quite a difference. And with over half a million francophones in the province, it’s not difficult to argue that maybe such an institution exist.   But the question is: will students actually attend?  Whatever the rationale for such an institution, can it compete with Ottawa/Laurentian/Glendon – let alone anglophone institutions?

Well, here’s where it gets tricky.  The recommendation in the report suggests that the new institution be set up in Toronto, which I think strikes many people as odd because the city is not exactly known as a francophone hub.  Supporters of the ideas can turn around and note that over a third of the province’s francophone population lives in Central and southern Ontario.  That said, there aren’t many employers in the region that would put much of a premium on French education, which may limit its attractiveness to students in the area.

Perhaps more to the point: if there were significant demand for French education in the city, you kind of think that either Laurentian or Ottawa would have met it by delivering programs there.  The fact that they haven’t may suggest that predictions of thousands of students flocking to a new institution with no track record may be based more in hope than reality.

(The report itself suggests 1,000 FTE students by 2023-2024 and 2,220 by 2030.  This is pretty much a fantasy, and I suspect it owes at least something to a piece of market research which was conducted on the idea about four years ago which was – and I am not exaggerating here – the actual worst piece of social science I have ever seen.  Among many other data atrocities – bar graphs adding up to over 100%, that kind of thing – it calculated potential attendance at a new university by asking students in francophone high schools in south-central Ontario if they wanted to go to university in French but never probed about alternatives to a new university such as Laurentian, Ottawa and Glendon.   SMH, as the kids say.)

Back in the early 1990s, there was an attempt to provide French-language college-level programming in Toronto, through a new institution called College de Grand Lacs.  It failed through lack of enrolments within about five years, with Collège Boréale eventually coming in to pick up the pieces.  That’s not to say this institution will necessarily suffer the same fate; but it’s not a great precedent and probably more consideration should have been given to it in the report itself.

Now low enrolments aren’t necessarily a barrier to creating and maintaining a minority language institution.  It’s really a question of how much you want to pay and what kind of programs you expect to support.  Could Toronto support something like Nova Scotia’s Université Ste. Anne or Manitoba’s Université St. Boniface?  Almost certainly, though getting up to the latter’s status might take more time than the report suggests (getting students to go to new universities is hard– no one wants to be a guinea pig).  And if that’s the ambition, then it’s probably do-able.

But if the ambition is something more Moncton than Manitoba, then that probably won’t fly.  Like it or not, Laurentian and Ottawa will be competing for these same students: and that’s a lot of fish in a not-terribly large pond.  Bottom line: this is a manageable project if ambitions are small, but the greater the ambition, the riskier this idea becomes.

June 09

Why we should – and shouldn’t – pay attention to World Rankings

The father of modern university rankings is James McKeen Cattell, a well-known early 20th-century psychologist, scientific editor (he ran the journals Science and Psychological Review) and eugenecist.  In 1903, he began publishing American Men of Science, a semi-regular rating of the country’s top scientists, as rated by university department chairs.  He then hit on the idea of counting how many of these scientists were graduates of the nation’s various universities.  Being a baseball enthusiast, it seemed completely natural to arrange these results top to bottom, as in a league table.  Rankings have never looked back.

Because of the league table format, reporting on rankings tends to mirror what we see in sports.  Who’s up?  Who’s down?  Can we diagnose the problem from the statistics?  Is it a problem attracting international faculty?  Lower citation rates?  A lack of depth in left-handed relief pitching?  And so on.

The 2018, QS World University Rankings, released last night, are another occasion for this kind of analysis.  The master narrative for Canada – if you want to call it that – is that “Canada is slipping”.  The evidence for this is that the University of British Columbia fell out of the top 50 institutions in the world (down six places to 51st) and that we also now have two fewer institutions in the top 200, (Calgary fell from 196th to 217th and Western from 198 to 210th) than we used to.

People pushing various agendas will find solace in this.  At UBC, blame will no doubt be placed on the institution’s omnishambular year of 2015-16.  Nationally, people will try to link the results to problems of federal funding and argue how implementing the recommendations of the Naylor report would be a game-changer for rankings.

This is wrong for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it is by no means clear that Canadian institutions are in fact slipping.  Sure, we have two fewer in the 200, but the number in the top 500 grew by one.  Of those who made the top 500, nine rose in the rankings, nine slipped and one stayed constant.  Even the one high-profile “failure” – UBC –  only saw its overall score fall by one-tenth of a point; the fall in the rankings was more due to an improvement in a clutch of Asian and Australian universities.

The second is that in the short-term, rankings are remarkably impervious to policy changes.  For instance, according to the QS reputational survey, UBC’s reputation has taken exactly zero damage from l’affaire Gupta and its aftermath.  Which is as it should be: a few months of communications hell doesn’t offset 100 years of scientific excellence.  And new money for research may help less than people think. In Canada, institutional citations tend to track the number of grants received more than the dollar value of the grants.  How granting councils distribute money is at least as important as the amount they spend.

And that’s exactly right.  Universities are among the oldest institutions in society and they don’t suddenly become noticeably better or worse over the course of twelve months.  Observations over the span of a decade or so are more useful, but changes in ranking methodology make this difficult (McGill and Toronto are both down quite a few places since 2011, but a lot of that has to do with changes which reduced the impact of medical research relative to other fields of study).

So it matters that Canada has three universities which are genuinely top class, and another clutch (between four and ten, depending on your definition), which could be called “world-class”.  It’s useful to know that, and to note if any institutions have sustained, year-after-year changes either up or down.  But this has yet to happen to any Canadian university.

What’s not as useful is to cover rankings like sports, and invest too much meaning in year-to-year movements.  Most of the yearly changes are margin-of-error kind of stuff, changes that result from a couple of dozen papers being published in one year rather than another, or the difference between admitting 120 extra international students instead of 140.   There is not much Moneyball-style analysis to be done when so many institutional outputs are – in the final analysis – pretty much the same.

June 08

That Andrew Scheer Free Speech Promise

That Andrew Scheer Free Speech Promise

You may recall that a few weeks ago I profiled the higher education/science/youth proposals of the various Conservative Party leadership hopefuls.  You may also recall that the candidate who eventually won the context, Andrew Scheer, had one proposal that distinguished him from the rest of the pack, to wit:

In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”.  He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP.  Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.

Scheer elaborated on this just once in the media, so far as I can tell, telling the National Post on April 19th  of troubling trends on campus “a pro-life group having its event cancelled at Wilfrid Laurier University; a student newspaper at McGill refusing to print pro-Israel articles; and protest surrounding University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson for his views on gender pronouns.”

A lot of people are scratching their heads about this.  What the heck is that all about? they wondered.  Does he actually mean it?  And how would that work, exactly, anyway?

Let’s take those questions separately.

What the heck is this about?  It is hard to see any pressing cases of people who were simply not allowed to speak led to this statement.  The stuff at Wilfrid Laurier was perhaps childish but no one was prevented from speaking.  The McGill Daily is perhaps wrong in its editorial policy, but freedom of the press also means the freedom not to publish things.  And students at U of T are presumably as free to criticize Jordan Peterson as Peterson himself is free to be an obnoxious jerk.

There certainly have been cases where speakers have been shouted out or prevented from speaking on campus because of protests but not recently (I can think of two off the top of my head: Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia in 2002 and Anne Coulter at the University of Ottawa in 2010.)  If we broaden the complaint to other things like taking down “free speech walls” because of perceived derogatory comments, or preventing abortion rights groups from displaying pictures of aborted fetuses at tabled in busy hallways because it’s gross and upsetting, you can probably come up with stuff that is slightly more recent.   But I suspect he’s really reacting to south-of-the-border stuff that happens to make the news up here, in particular the events at Middlebury College, a tony liberal arts school in Vermont where controversial social scientist Charles Murray was fairly violently and crudely prevented from speaking back in January.

(If you want a really exhaustive compendium of perceived slights to free speech in Canadian universities, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms provides one annually in its Campus Freedom Index, the 2016 edition of which is available here).

So if there’s no urgent policy problem here, what’s it about?  My guess is that roughly akin to Stephen Harper’s anti-census position.   It’s a way of throwing meat to the party’s populist faction without actually adopting a fully populist platform.

Does he actually mean it?  Hard to tell, but my guess is that he does, at least to the extent that he wants to be able to have a platform to talk about unaccountable lefty cultural institutions.  It’s not a loosely-worded pledge: specific exemptions have been carved out for faith-based institutions (part of Scheer’s base), which I think suggests this isn’t something he came up with on the back of a cocktail napkin. Plus, in his victory speech, he went out of his way to repeat the pledge, which he was in no way obliged to do.  And he got a huge cheer from the crowd for doing so.  Antithetical to higher education sensibilities it may be, but it plays with the base.

(And yes, it has been pointed out a few times that among the people who might be most put out about this would be the pro-Israel types who try to stop the “BDS/End Israeli Apartheid” rhetoric on campuses, and who were a particular target of Tory woo-ing during the Harper years.  I think the safe assumption is that Scheer knows and doesn’t care).

How would that work, exactly, anyway?  This of course is the big question, and the one that has most people scratching their heads.  Presumably there would be some kind of complaint process: but to whom would the complaint be addressed?  What kind of body in Ottawa would have the ability to a) judge whether or not an institution was or was not promoting a culture of free speech and b) the power to order a remedy in the form of full or partial removal of funding from federal granting councils?  Does Scheer really think an administrative body could do this?  How would institutions not litigate both of these decisions into outer space?

Also, how does Scheer imagine that provincial governments – you know, the ones which actually have the constitutional responsibility to run and regulate postsecondary education – will react to any intrusion into their jurisdiction?  Can you imagine, for instance, how the Andrew Potter fiasco at McGill would have escalated if Andrew Scheer had taken Potter’s side?  The province, which genuinely lost its mind on the subject for about a couple of days (one major newspaper ran a piece comparing Potter to Rwandan genocidaires), would have gone berserk if Ottawa had tried to meddle.

These complications, in the end, are probably going to be used to create a graceful way to get out of the specifics of the pledge.  No government is going to put the University of Toronto’s hundreds of millions of tri-council funding at risk over a spat about personal pronouns, or yank nine figures worth of funding from McGill because it doesn’t like the Daily’s editorial policy on Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine.  But it might really want to keep those issues in the public eye for partisan purposes.

So, in the event of a Conservative victory, expect an office to be created that would report on “violations” of campus free speech, no doubt staffed by former authors of the Campus Freedom Index.  Money won’t be placed at risk, but institutions would be put on notice.  And Conservative partisans would be delighted.  Which is the real point of the policy.

One can deplore this attitude, of course.  But the point is that Scheer believes that beating this drum will increase his chances of winning power.  He’s probably not completely wrong to think that.  Wiser heads will spend time in the coming months pondering why bashing universities is popular to begin with.

May 31

The Financial Landscape of Canadian Universities

I was updating some old charts on sources of university income for a presentation last week and they are kind of interesting so I thought y’all might want to have a look.

The first is the total income of Canadian universities over the past 35 years, in constant dollars.  What it shows is that total income has increased in a relatively steady fashion ever since the late 1990s (the slight spikiness of the last decade has more to do with uneven endowment income than anything else).  Total income for 2014-15 was around $35 billion, or more than double the figure of twenty years earlier, even after accounting for inflation.

Figure 1: Total Income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 1 Total Income of Cdn Unis

But of course, student numbers have increased substantially over the past two decades.  In the late 1990s, we had about 650,000 university FTEs; in 2014-15 those numbers had increased to nearly 1.1 million.  So if we calculate income on a per-student basis the gains are less impressive.

Figure 2: Per-student income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 2 Per student income

Income per student stayed roughly stable through the 80s and 90 at around $23,000 per student per year in constant dollars.  Income then began to rise sharply.  For most of the last decade the figure has hovered around $31,000, or about one-third higher than it was in the 1990s.

Now, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Cutbacks are everywhere, right?  So how can there be so much money in the system?  Well, a few reasons.  The main one is that there actually hasn’t been much an increase in dollars available for operating funding.  On a per-student basis, government funds are now lower than they have been at any point this century, and if research funds are removed from the equation, then they are more or less lower than they have been at any point since these records began.  What has offset this is a rise in income generated from tuition (more on that in a second) and income from other sources (which is not the same as net income, so not all of this is available to the academic enterprise).

Now, a quick peek back at figure 1 shows that the big trend of the last few years has been a decrease in government funding (the blue area) being offset by an increase in student contributions (the green area).  That’s a real trend: after a decade of student contributions sitting at around the 20% mark, they have increased in the last few years to 25%.

Figure 3: Tuition Fees as a Percentage of Total Income, Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15

May 31 Fig 3 Tuition Fees as Percentage

But before anyone goes around yelling about the evils of tuition fees, it’s worth remembering that tuition fee increases for domestic students over the past few years have been roughly inflation plus one percent.  The increases in tuition income per student, however, have been rising at about inflation plus three per cent.  How is this possible?  Simple.  International students and – to a lesser extent – increased enrolment in higher tuition programs.

This is the very simple lesson of the past half-decade.  Governments can allow public funding to erode quietly, keep domestic tuition relatively stable and institutions can make up for it all by enrolling more and more international students.  So far, it’s worked as a strategy, even if no one owns up to it actually being a conscious strategy.  But there are limits to this policy and eventually, something has to give.

It would be helpful if we started having out-loud grown-up discussions about what those limits are, and what we do when we hit them, rather than playing it all out in silence with nods and winks.  But that implies maturity among our politicians.  Based on their recent performances, I have my doubts.

May 25

Big Moves in U.S. Higher Education

The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities.  The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about.  I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.

Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t easy to explain.  Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history.  Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way.  So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.

There are two ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY).  Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige.  What’s not to like?

Two things, really.  The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this.  It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact.  For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct.  It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven

Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown.  There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this.  But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too.  No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.

The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year.  Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.

The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world.  Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs.  There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses.  And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff.  It’s a smart move all around.

You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that?  Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global?  Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”.  But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities.  There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.

Americans just have more chutzpah, period.  We could use more of it up here.

 

May 18

Electing the President

In developed Anglophone countries, we basically take it for granted that Universities are run by Presidents (or occasionally Principals) who are not only responsible to a Board of Governors, but are also selected by them.  But this is not the only way to select institutional heads.  They can be selected directly by the Ministry of Education (which still happens in many places, including China).  Or they can be elected, which is the case in much of Europe.  Indeed, in much of Europe, the concept of “academic freedom” is tied pretty closely to the “freedom” of a community of scholars to select their own chief executive (i.e. its closer to our notion of “institutional autonomy”).

And, intriguingly, in a couple of universities in Quebec.

These past couple of months, both Université Laval and Université Sherbrooke have both held elections for new rectors (Presidents).  At the former, Sophie D’Amours won a three-cornered race with 50.7% of the vote to become Laval’s first female Rector in its 350 year history.  At Sherbrooke, Dean of Medicine Pierre Cosette beat out three rivals to become the President.

Now technically, these are not campus-wide elections, as does occur in some universities around the globe.  At both Sherbrooke and Laval there are “electoral colleges” which hold the necessary votes.  These are pretty broad in their composition.  For instance, at Sherbrooke, it consists of 13 nonacademic staff members (split across 3 bargaining units), 11 chargés de cours, 30 students, 4 “external members” and 90 academic staff (some of whom also are also administrators).  At Laval, all members of the Board of Governors and Senate have a vote, as to members of three “commissions” for academics, research and student affairs (I don’t completely understand what they do or they fit in the governing structure, but they seem like super-committees of the Senate except they report to VPs rather than the Senate).  In terms of votes, the proportions are similar to Sherbrooke (fewer students, chargés de cours, and non-academic staff, more external members) with the academic representation split 70-30 or so between regular academics and academics with decanal positions or higher.  (Laval has an excellent website explaining its election procedures if you want to check it out).

One thing about this kind of selection procedure: it tends to reward insiders.  Not always: in the 1990s, Francois Tavenas managed to get elected at Laval despite being a Vice-principal at McGill at the time (though he wasn’t a total outsider having spent much of his career there).  But on the whole you’re not going to get outsider candidates like Santa Ono or Richard Florizone using this method (flip side: you’re probably not going to get a Karen Hitchcock either).  It’s a system less likely to challenge entrenched academic interests.  People may legitimately disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.  At a practical level it’s not clear to me that these two universities are actually managed that differently than other Quebec universities (francophone ones, anyway).  Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone in Quebec make that case (though granted I spend a lot less time there than I used to).  After all, they are trying to attract the same staff, dealing with the same government, operating under the same regulations.  Elected and theoretically beholden to their constituencies they may be, but they’re still mostly facing the same sets of incentives as Presidents who are appointed by Board of Governors, so maybe there’s not that much of a difference.

This might be heresy in continental Europe, where internal autonomy over top appointments are sacrosanct (Danish academia has just spent months freaking out over a proposal that government might name Board chairs), but it’s probably worth a deeper dive than I can provide here to find out.  All you higher education grad students out there: there’s a killer doctoral thesis in this.

May 17

Diversity in Canada Research Chairs

One of the hot topics in Ottawa over the past couple of months is the issue of increasing diversity among researchers.   Top posts in academia are still disproportionately occupied by white dudes, and the federal minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, would like to change that by threatening institutions with a loss of research funding.

There’s no doubt about the nature of the problem.  As in other countries, women and minorities have trouble making it up the career ladder in academia at the same rate as white males.  The reasons for this are well-enough known that I probably needn’t recount them here (though if you really want a good summary try here and here).  There was a point when one might reasonably have suspected that time would take care of the problem.  Once PhD completion rates equalized (until the 1990s they still favored men) and female scientists began making their way up the career ladder, it might have been argued, the problem of representation at the highest levels would take care of itself.  But it quite plainly hasn’t worked out that way and more systemic solutions need to be found.  As for Indigenous scholars and scholars with disabilities, it’s pretty clear we still have a lot of pipeline issues to worry about and equalizing PhD completion rates, in addition to solving problems related to career progression, is a big challenge.

Part of what Ottawa is trying to do is to get institutions to take their responsibilities on career progression seriously by getting them each to commit to equity plans.  Last October, the government announced that institutions without equity plans will become ineligible for new CERC awards; earlier this month, Kirsty Duncan attached the same condition to the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.

(A quick reminder here about how the Chairs program works.  There are two types of awards: Tier 1 awards for top researchers, worth $200,000/year for seven years, and Tier 2 awards for emerging researchers, worth $100,000/year for five years.  There are 2000 awards in total, with roughly equal numbers of Tier 1 and Tier 2 awards.  Each university gets an allocation of chairs based – more or less – on the share of tri-council funding its staff received, with a boost for smaller institutions.  So, University of Toronto gets 256 chairs, Université Ste. Anne gets one, etc.  Within that envelope institutions are free to distribute awards more or less as they see fit.)

The problem is, as the Minister well knows, all institutions already have equity plans and they’re not working.  So she has attached a new condition: they also fix the demographic distribution of chair holders so that they “ensure the demographics of those given the awards reflect the demographics of those academics eligible to receive them” by 2019.  It’s not 100% clear to me what this formulation means. I don’t believe it means that women must occupy 50% of all chairs; I am fairly sure that the qualifier “of those eligible to receive” means something along the lines of “women must occupy a percentage of Tier 1 chairs equal to their share of full professors, and of Tier 2 chairs equal to their share of associate and assistant professors”.

Even with those kind of caveats, reaching the necessary benchmarks in the space of 18-24 months will requires an enormous adjustment.  The figure I’ve seen for major universities is that only 28% of CRCs are women.  Given that only about 15-18% of chairs turn over in any given year, getting that up to the 40-45% range the benchmark implies by 2019 means that between 65 and 79% of all CRC appointments for the next two years will need to be female and probably higher than that for the Tier 1s.  That’s certainly achievable, but it’s almost certain to be accompanied by a lot of general bitchiness among passed-over male candidates.  Brace yourselves.

But while program rules allow Ottawa to use this policy tool to take this major step for gender equality, it will be harder to use it for other equity categories.  Institutions don’t even really have a measure of how many of their faculty have disabilities, so setting benchmarks would be tricky.  Indigenous scholars pose an even trickier problem. According to the formula used for female scholars, Indigenous scholars’  “share” of CRCs might be 1%, or about 20 nationally.  The problem is that only five institutions (Alberta, British Columbia, McGill, Montreal, Toronto) have 100 or more CRCs and would thus be required to reserve a spot for an Indigenous scholar.  An institution like (say) St. FX, which has only five chairs, would have a harder time.  It can achieve gender equity simply by having two or three female chairs.  But how would it achieve parity for Indigenous scholars?  It’s unlikely it could be required to reserve one of its five (20%) spots to an Indigenous scholar.

Many institutions would obviously hire Indigenous faculty anyway, it’s just that the institutional allocations which form the base of this program’s structure make it difficult to achieve some of what Ottawa wants to achieve on equity and diversity.

 

April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.

 

Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph

 

The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

April 03

Data on Race/Ethnicity

A couple of week ago, CBC decided to make a big deal about how terrible Canadian universities were for not collecting data on race (see Why so many Canadian universities Know so little about their own racial diversity). As you all know, I’m a big proponent of better data in higher education. But the effort involved in getting new data has to be in some way proportional to the benefit derived from that data. And I’m pretty sure this doesn’t meet that test.

In higher education, there are only two points where it is easy to collect data from students: at the point of application, and at the point of enrolment. But here’s what the Ontario Human Rights Code has to say about collecting data on race/ethnicity in application forms:

Section 23(2) of the Code prohibits the use of any application form or written or oral inquiry that directly or indirectly classifies an applicant as being a member of a group that is protected from discrimination. Application forms should not have questions that ask directly or indirectly about race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, record of offences, age, marital status, family status or disability.

In other words, it’s 100% verboten. Somehow, CBC seems to have missed this bit. Similar provisions apply to data collected at the time of enrolment –a school still needs to prove that there is a bona fide reason related to one’s schooling in order to require a student to answer the question. So generally speaking, no one asks a question at that point either.

Now, if institutions can’t collect relevant data via administrative means, what they have to do to get data on race/ethnicity is move to a voluntary survey. Which in fact they do, regularly. Some do a voluntary follow-up survey of applicants through Academica, others attach race/ethnicity questions on the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) surveys, others attach it to NSSE. Response rates on these surveys are not great: NSSE sometimes gets 50% but that’s the highest rate available. And, broadly speaking, they get high-level data about their student body. The data isn’t great quality because of the response rate isn’t fabulous and the small numbers mean that you can’t really subdivide ethnicity very much (don’t expect good numbers on Sikhs v. Tamils), but one can know at a rough order of magnitude what percentage of the student body is visible minority, what percentage self-identifies as aboriginal, etc. I showed this data at a national level back here.

Is it possible to get better data? It’s hard to imagine, frankly. On the whole, students aren’t crazy about being surveyed all the time. NSSE has the highest response rate of any survey out there, and CUSC isn’t terrible either (though it tends to work on a smaller sample size). Maybe we could ask slightly better questions about ethnicities, maybe we could harmonize the questions across the two surveys. That could get you data at institutions which cover 90% of institutions in English Canada (at least).

Why would we want more than that? We already put so much effort into these surveys: why go to all kinds of trouble to do a separate data collection activity which in all likelihood would have worse response rates than what we already have?

It would be one thing, I think, if we thought Canadian universities had a real problem in not admitting minority students. But the evidence at the moment the opposite: that visible minority students in fact attend at a rate substantially higher than their share of the population. It’s possible of course that some sub-sections of the population are not doing as well (the last time I looked at this data closely was a decade ago, but youth from the Caribbean were not doing well at the time). But spending untold dollars and effort to get at that problem in institutions across country when really the Caribbean community in Canada is clustered in just two cities (three, if you count the African Nova Scotians in Halifax)? I can’t see it.

Basically, this is one of those cases where people are playing data “gotcha”. We actually do know (more or less) where we are doing well or poorly at a national level. On the whole, where visible minorities are concerned, we are doing well. Indigenous students? Caribbean students? That’s a different story. But we probably don’t need detailed institutional data collection to tell us that. If that’s really what the issue is, let’s just deal with it. Whinging about data collection is just a distraction.

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