Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Universities

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.

March 01

Under-managed universities

I have been having some interesting conversations with folks recently about “overwork” in academia.  It is clear to me that a lot of professors are absolutely frazzled.  It is also clear to me that on average professors work hard – not necessarily because The Man is standing over them with a whip but because as a rule academics are professional and driven, and hey, status within academia is competitive and lots of people want to keep up with the Joneses.

But sometimes when I talk to profs – and for context here the ones I speak to most often are ones roughly my own age (mid-career) or younger – what I hear a lot of is about work imbalance (i.e. some professors are doing more work than others) or, to put it more bluntly, how much “deadwood” there is in universities (the consensus answer is somewhere between 20-30%).  And therefore, I think it is reasonable to ask the question: to what extent do some people’s “overwork” stem from the fact that some professors aren’t pulling their weight?

This is obviously something of a sticky question, and I had an interesting time discussing it with a number of interlocutors of twitter last week.  My impression is that opinion roughly divides up into three camps:

1)      The self-righteous Camp.  “This is ridiculous I’ve never heard professors talking like this about each other, we all work hard and anyway if anyone is unproductive it’s because they’re dealing with kids or depressed due to the uncaring, neoliberal administration smashing its boot into the face of academia forever…”

2)      The Hard Science Camp. “Well, you know there are huge differences in workload expectation across the institution – do you know how much work it is to run a lab? Those humanities profs get away with murder…”

3)       The “We’ve earned it” Camp “Hey look at all the professions where you put in the hours at the start and get to relax later on. We’re just like that. Would you want to work hours like a junior your whole life? And by the way older profs just demonstrate productivity on a broader basis than just teaching and research….”

There is probably something to each of these points of view.  People do have to juggle external priorities with academic ones at some points in their lives; that said, since most of the people who made the remarks about deadwood have young kids themselves, I doubt that explains the phenomenon. There probably are different work expectations across faculties; that said, in the examples I was using, my interlocutors were talking about people in their own units, so that’s doesn’t affect my observation, much.  Perhaps there are expectations of taking it easier as careers progress, but I never made the argument that deadwood is related to seniority so the assumption that this was what caused deadwood was… interesting).  So while acknowledging that all of these points may be worthwhile, I still tend to believe that at least part of the solution to overwork is dealing with the problem of work imbalances.

Now, at some universities – mainly ones which have significantly upped their research profile in the last couple of decades – this might genuinely be tough because the expectations of staff who were hired in the 1970s or 1980s might be very, very different than the expectations of ones hired today.  Places like Ryerson or MacEwan are obvious examples, but can also be true at places like Waterloo, which thought of itself as a mostly undergraduate institution even into the early 1990s.  Simply put, there is a huge generational gap at some universities in how people understand “the job” because they were hired in totally different contexts.

What strikes me about all of this is that neither management nor – interestingly – labour seem to have much interest in measuring workload for the purpose of equalizing it.  Sure, there’s lots of bean counting, especially in the sciences, especially when it comes to research contracts and publications and stuff like that.  But what’s missing is the desire to use to adjust individuals’ work loads in order to reach common goals more efficiently.

My impression is that in many departments, “workload management” means, at most, equalizing undergraduate teaching requirements.  Grad supervisions?  Those are all over the place.  “Service”?  Let’s not even pretend that’s well-measured.  Research effort?  Once tenure has been given, it’s largely up to individuals how much they want to do.  The fiercely competitive may take on 40 or 50 hours a week on top of their other duties, others much less.  Department heads – usually elected by professors in the department themselves – have limited incentive and means to get the overachievers to maybe cool it sometimes and the underachievers to up their game.

In short, while it’s fashionable to say that professors are being “micro-managed” by universities, I would argue that on the rather basic task of regulating workload for common good, academics are woefully under-managed.  I’d probably go even further and say most people know they are undermanaged and many wish it could change.  But at the end of the day, academics as a voting mass on Senates and faculty unions consistently seem to prefer undermanagement and “freedom” to management and (perhaps) more work fairness.

I wonder why this is. I also wonder if there is not a gender component to the issue.

What do you think?  Comments welcome.

February 24

Four Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – Catch-up is Hard

One of the perpetual alleged threats to cross-border education is that universities in the developing world might someday rival those in the west. Once that happens, the theory goes, students won’t need to go abroad and the whole international student thing goes up in smoke. It’s not an implausible theory, but it underplays how difficult catching up actually is.

The most basic problem for universities in developing countries is paying staff. Those talented and fortunate enough to have a terminal degree (this is by no means a given at universities in many countries), are often quite mobile. Salaries not high enough at Kenyan universities? Move to Tanzania, where salaries are higher? Not high enough in Tanzania? Try South Africa. Horizons not big enough in Johannesburg? There’s always New Zealand. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite a global market – more a series of overlapping regional ones. But the point is that institutions have to pay vastly over the odds in order to keep staff.

The gaps in national pay scales are huge. In Tanzania, a full professor makes about $3000 (US) per month. That may not sound like much, but it’s about 65 times the average private sector wage. A top academic could double that by heading to South Africa, but even that is roughly six times the average private sector wage. Move to Canada or Australia and it doubles again, even though here wages of topic academics are roughly three times the average private sector wage. To put all that another way: it takes the Tanzanian state twenty times as much financial effort in relative terms in order to pay its academics a quarter of what they’d earn in the west. Now, sure, not all Tanzanian academics would make it in Western universities. Yet that’s still the price required to keep talent at home. Financially, just staying in place is a killer; moving up the quality ladder is beyond most countries’ resources.

Even where top talent can be retained either through significant salaries, major research funds or linguistic barriers, the fact is that institutional prestige isn’t just a function of talent. As my friend Jamil Salmi says, it’s the product of talent, resources, governance (a critical missing factor in too many countries) – and above all, time. Prestige is a stock, not a flow. It comes from decades of consistent growth and excellence. Even if a new university pops up with billions of dollars and a few celebrity professors – say, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia or Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan – that doesn’t mean it is instantly going to gain prestige.  In fact, to be more precise: it takes decades of having graduates with great careers before anyone will think an institution to be genuinely prestigious. And not many developing-world institutions can claim such things.

And in any case, prestige is a moving target. As I noted back here, the very nature of institutional prestige is changing, shifting from being a mainly research-based institution to a mainly economic-growth-catalysing institution. And as noted back here, it’s very difficult in many developing countries for universities t play such a role, first because they have few domestic technology-intensive businesses with whom to collaborate, and second because they rarely have either the academic culture or leadership to turn them in this new direction. There are a few – NUS in Singapore, KAIST and Pohang in Korea, some of the C9 in China – that can say this. Precious few others can.

What does that mean for international education?  Prestige – however you measure it – is a lagging indicator of economic growth, not a leading one. That means that even if economic catch-up of developing countries continues, it’s going to be a loooong time before the prestige of those countries’ universities matches those of those in developed countries. That doesn’t give developed-country universities a monopoly on international students by any means; south-south student mobility is an increasing percentage of all international student flows. But it does mean that quality/prestige will remain a source of competitive advantage for these institutions for many years – maybe even decades – to come.

February 16

How to Fund (3)

You all may remember that in early 2015, the province of Ontario announced it was going to review its university funding formula.  There was no particular urgency to do so, and many were puzzled as to “why now”?  The answer, we were told, was that the Liberal government thought it could make improvements in the system by changing the funding structure.  Specifically, they said in their consultation document that they thought they could use a new formula to improve i) improve quality/student experience, ii) support differentiation, iii) enhance sustainability, iv) increase transparency and accountability.

Within the group of maybe 100 people who genuinely understand this stuff, I think the scoffing over points iii) and iv) were audible as far as the Maritimes.  Transparency and accountability are nice, but you don’t need a new funding formula to get them.  The Government of Ontario could compel institutions to provide data any time it wants to (and often does).  If institutions are “insufficiently transparent” it means government isn’t asking for the right data.

As for enhancing sustainability?  HA!  At a system-level, sustainability means keeping costs and income in some kind of balance.  Once it became clear that there was no extra government money on the table for this exercise, and that tuition fees were off the table, and they would not use the formula to in any way rein in staff salaries or pensions (as I suggested back here) , everybody said “ok, guess nothing’s happening on that front” (we were wrong, as it turned out, as we’ll see in a second).  But the bit about quality, student experience and differentiation got people’s attention.  That sounded like incentivizing certain things.  Output-like things, which would need to be measured and quantified.  So the government was clearly entertaining the idea of some output-based measures, even as late as December 2015 when the report on the consultation went out (see that report here).  Indeed, the number one recommendation was, essentially, “the ministry should apply an outcomes-based lens to all of its investments).

One year later, the Deputy Minister for Advanced Education sent out a note to all institutions which included the following passage:

 The funding formulas are meant to support stability in funding at a time when the sector is facing demographic challenges while strengthening government’s stewardship role in the sector. The formulas also look to create accountable outcomes, beyond enrollment, that reflect the Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) of each institution.

 As you know, our goal is to will focus our sector on high-quality student outcomes and away from a focus on growth. As such, the funding formula models are corridors which give protection on the downside and do not automatically commit funds for growth on the upside.

Some of that may require translation but the key point does not: all of a sudden, funding formulas were not about applying an outcome based lens on investment, they were about “stability”.  Outcomes, yes, but only as they apply to each institution’s SMA, and no one I know in the sector thinks that the funding envelope that will be devoted to promoting SMAs is going to be over five percent.  Which, given that tuition is over 50% of income, means that maybe, at best, we’re looking to about 2% of total funding might be outcome-based.  As I’ve said before, this is not even vaguely enough to affect institutional behaviour.

What happened?  My guess is it’s a mix of four things.  First, there was a change of both Minister and Deputy Minister and that’s always a crap shoot.  Priorities change, sometimes radically.  Second, the university sector made its displeasure known.  They didn’t do it very publicly, and I have no insider knowledge of what kind of lobbying occurred, but clearly, a number of people argued very strenuously that this was a Bad Idea.  One that gored oxes.  Very Bad.  Third, it finally dawned on some people at the top of the food chain that a funding formula change, in the absence of any new revenue tools, meant some institutions would win, and others would lose.  And as the provincial government’s recent 180 on Toronto toll roads has shown, this low-in-the-polls government is prepared to go a long way to avoid making any new “losers”.

Finally, that “sustainability” thing came back in a new form.  But now it was no longer about making the system sustainable, but about finding ways to make sure that a few specific small institutions with precarious finances (mostly but not exclusively in northern Ontario) didn’t lose out as adverse demographics and falling student numbers began to eat into their incomes.  Hence the language about corridors “giving protection on the downside”.  It’s ridiculous for three reasons.  One, it’s a half-solution because institutions vulnerable to demographic decline lose at least as much from lost tuition revenue as they do in lost government grant.  Two, it’s a departing horse/open barn door issue: the bulk of the demographic shift has already happened and so to some extent previous losses are just going to be locked in.  Three – and this is most important – the vulnerable institutions make up maybe 8% of total enrolments.  Building an entire new funding system just to solve a problem that affects 8% of students is…I don’t know.  I’m kind of lost for words.  But I bet if you looked it up in the dictionary it would be under “ass backwards”.

And that, my friends, is how Ontario blew a perfectly good chance to introduce a sensible, modern performance-based funding system.  A real shame.  Perhaps others can learn from it.

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