HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: international

February 28

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Senegal

Hi all.  I’ve been in Dakar, Senegal this past week, developing a student program here.  Here’s a quick snapshot of the place:

Senegal is home to francophone Africa’s oldest university, l’Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), sometimes known simply as the University of Dakar.  It’s one of the few institutions on the continent that predates independence.  For a very long time, it was the country’s only university – francophone African countries were slower to expand higher education opportunities than anglophone, for reasons I’ll get into shortly – and, in fact, it still accounts for about 90% of enrolments in the public system, and essentially 100% of its prestige programs.

As in most of Africa, Senegal started allowing private universities to operate in the early 1990s.  For a long time, these were few and small.  But then, in the past decade, their numbers shot up, from about 30 in 2000 to around 110 in 2010.  A handful of these – mostly management schools – had the scale to offer quality education, but with an average enrolment of 200 students, the sector as a whole struggles.

The reason francophone Africa was so slow to expand higher education is that national governments couldn’t afford it.  That’s not just because they were poor, but also because the prevailing model involved zero tuition, bursaries for (nearly) all, plus free/subsidized meals and accommodations.  The only way to keep costs down was to slam tight the lid on student numbers.  That was workable until the 80s baby boom started hitting universities fifteen years ago (hence the surge in private university numbers).  It made even less sense once the effects of universal primary and universal secondary education began to be felt, and the number of university-eligible students grew.

At this point, some bright light in government decided that the way to deal with this problem was to guarantee university education to everyone with a baccalauréat (the French kind, the one you get after high school).  Financially, this made so little sense that a series of hasty moves were made: tuition fees were implemented – with undergraduates now asked to pay $60/year, master’s students $120, and doctoral students $180.  (For comparison, the privates tend to charge between $1,750 and $2,250/year in fees.)  This provoked a couple of weeks of riots and some burned mini-buses, but the government held firm, and eventually the students paid up and went back to class – although this turned out to be a problem because, with the bacc guarantee, there were now far too many students.  UCAD, bursting at the seams, could accept only about 70% of the required students.

This led the Senegalese government to an innovative policy solution: namely, taking 6600 first year students, and paying the better private schools to educate them.  In the short-term, this works for everyone: UCAD gets some relief in student numbers, privates get some extra money, and government gets to keep its promise.  But with first year student numbers projected to increase by 10-15% per year as far as the eye can see, it’s at best a temporary solution.

The Senegalese government has finally discovered that la gratuité n’est pas rentable.  Future expansion is going to mean more students paying more money, in both the public and private sectors.  Given its status as a regional leader in higher education, it could herald the start of major change in higher education policy right across francophone Africa.

February 06

When the Times Higher Education Rankings Fail The Fall-Down-Laughing Test

You may have noted the gradual proliferation of rankings at the Times Higher Education over the last few years.  First the World University Rankings, then the World Reputation Rankings (a recycling of reputation survey data from the World Rankings), then the “100 under 50” (World Rankings, restricted to institutions founded since the early 60s, with a methodological twist to make the results less ridiculous), then the “BRICS Rankings” (World Rankings results, with developed countries excluded, and similar methodological twists).

Between actual rankings, the Times Higher staff can pull stuff out of the database, and turn small bits of analysis into stories.   For instance, last week, the THE came out with a list of the “100 most international” universities in the world.  You can see the results here.  Harmless stuff, in a sense – all they’ve done is take the data from the World University Rankings on international students, foreign faculty, and international research collaborations, and turned it into its own standalone list.  And of course, using those kinds of metrics, geographic and political realities mean that European universities – especially those from the really tiny countries – always come out first (Singapore and Hong Kong do okay, too, for similar reasons).

But when their editors start tweeting stuff – presumably as clickbait – about how shocking it is that only ONE American university (MIT, if it matters to you) makes the top 100 – you have to wonder if they’ve started drinking their own Kool-Aid.  Read that list of 100 again, take a look at who’s on the list, and think about who’s not.  Taken literally, the THE is saying that places like the University of Ireland, Maynooth, the University of Tasmania, and King Abdulaziz University are more international than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

Here’s the thing about rankings: there’s no way to do validity testing other than what I call the, “fall-down-laughing test”.  Like all indicator-systems, they are meant to proxy reality, rather than represent it absolutely.  But since there’s no independent standard of “excellence” or “internationalization” in universities, the only way you can determine whether or not the indicators and their associated weights actually “work” is by testing them in the real word, and seeing if they look “mostly right” to the people who will use them.  In most international ranking systems (including the THE), this means ensuring that either Harvard or Stanford comes first: if your rankings come up with, say, Tufts, or Oslo, or something as #1, it fails the fall-down-laughing test, because “everybody knows” Harvard and Stanford are 1-2.

The THE’s ranking on “international schools” comprehensively fails the fall-down-laughing test. In no world would sane academics agree that Abdulaziz and Maynooth are more international than Harvard.  The only way one could possibly believe this is if you’ve reached the point where you believe that specifically chosen indicators actually *are* reality, rather than proxies for it.  The Times Higher has apparently now gone down that particular rabbit hole.

January 24

Canada’s International Education Strategy – How Did It Get So Bad?

When our Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD – not DFAIT as I said a few days ago; sorry) delivers something as bad as our new International Education Strategy, an inquest is in order.  But since self-reflection isn’t exactly an abundant resource in Ottawa at the best of times, it’s an inquest we’re going to have to undertake ourselves.

Let’s start with the document’s basic failures:

  • It talks about increasing enrolment without assessing capacity constraints;
  • It shows no obvious signs of being conversant with international education markets, how students choose their destination countries, or how students subsequently choose a country of residence;
  • It spends an inordinate amount of time talking about discussions with the rarely-before heard-of “Canadian Consortium for  International Education”, which is made up mostly of Ottawa-based industry groups (e.g. AUCC, ACCC, CBIE) who – surprise, surprise – reciprocated by praising the document to the skies, despite its evident thinness.

What, you might wonder, links these points?

It seems clear that the document’s authors valued pleasing the Minister and Ottawa-based education groups more than they valued functioning relationships with provinces and institutions.  That’s a fairly common Ottawa problem.  It’s much easier to work with tame, de-fanged Ottawa interest groups, who will always say “thank you” for a new government policy no matter how silly it is, than to deal with provinces who keep rudely reminding you that education is in fact their jurisdiction.

But that’s too easy an “out”.  Lots of federal departments still talk to their provincial counterparts in a constructive way over areas of shared jurisdiction.  The Canada Student Loans Program, for instance, manages to do this reasonably well – why can’t DFATD do so?

I see three possible reasons.  The first is that the people asked to run with this file were junior, and didn’t know any better.  The second, more likely reason is that Foreign Affairs is too sniffy to talk to mere provinces (“I joined the service to go to Rome, not Regina!”).  But most likely of all is simply that the government just doesn’t care enough about this file to do a good job on it.  Partly, that’s due to the regime, but the culture at DFATD is a culprit, too.  My sense is that international education is a bit of a backwater there; people on the rise don’t stay very long.  Actually doing a good job would require lots of tedious consultation with provinces and institutions.  By the time the file actually achieved something that could be thrown on your CV, you’ve already moved on to your next rotation, so why bother?  Better to dash off something quick for an “announceable” than to do the hard work for which someone else will inevitably take credit.

If that’s true, then the problem runs deeper than a single, deeply flawed report; there’s a whole institutional culture that stand between us and good policy-making.  And the Ottawa NGOs’ habit of thanking the government any time it announces something, regardless of how inane, far from making things better is just enabling the dysfunction.  We need to deal with this.  Soon.

January 23

International Education Strategies – How Others Do It

By now, a lot of you will have read – either on our Blog or at the Globe and Mail – my rant about the new International Education Strategy, released last week by the Government  of Canada.  A number of people said they agreed with me, but wanted to know what I would have recommended in its place.  I won’t do that (that’s the stuff I charge for, folks); instead, I want to contrast emerging international education strategies elsewhere, with our own.

Take Norway, which has just launched a new strategy designed to get more of their students to study abroad.  It has recognized that the main barrier to achieving this is financial, and has come up with better financial packages to help students go abroad.  In addition, because they have a desire to forge strategic relationships in particular parts of the globe, they are making deals to improve mobility to specific places: North America for graduate studies, Asia (mainly China) for undergraduate study.

The easy hit here is to note that the Norwegian outward-looking strategy is in stark contrast to the self-centred, mercantilist stuff that DFAIT released last week (“WE need skills!  WE need foreign students! It’s all about US!”).  The more important point, though, is that the Norwegians actually understand what “strategy” means.  They diagnosed a problem (Norwegian students not worldly enough), identified a barrier to a solution (need more money to make students more mobile), and threw appropriate resources at it.

Now compare this to our strategy.  Instead of diagnosing a problem, we picked a target out of the air – double the number of international students (Why double? Why not triple?  No clue – that’s how “out of the air” the number is).  We did not identify any barriers to the solution, other than the speed at which we can process visas.  No thought about institutional capacity factors, or reasons why foreigners might not want to come to Canada.  As for appropriate resources – $5 million for marketing, spread thinly over more than half the planet.  That’s not concentrating resources on a problem, that’s just tossing money around.  Norway 1, Canada 0.

Or take Sweden, where a number of CEOs have asked the government to re-think its policy of charging non-EU students full tuition, because it is reducing the number of young, Swedish-trained foreign graduates available to the Swedish tech industry.  Again, a goal (not enough foreign grads), a barrier (fees), and a solution (lower fees).  The Canadian strategy, on the other hand, assumes that huge cash payoffs from international student fees AND immense benefits from higher-quality immigration are both possible, and simply waves away any possible tension or trade-off between the two goals.  Sweden 1, Canada 0.

No point moaning now, I suppose.  We’re stuck with this abortion of a strategy at least until the next election.  The important thing now is to diagnose how we produced a document this bad, and how to prevent it happening again.  More on that tomorrow.

January 10

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Chile

Chile has a very diverse higher education sector, and has been subject to a lot of policy experimentation in recent years.  That makes it a case to watch, both regionally and globally.

Prior to the 1973 coup, Universidad de Chile was the country’s pre-eminent school, with campuses across the country.  But academia didn’t fare so well under Pinochet, as there were waves of arrests, exiles, and, in some cases, executions.  All of this meant that, on occasion, whole departments suddenly vanished.  U de Chile was subsequently split into a dozen smaller institutions, most becoming independent – but less powerful – public universities in their own right.

By the end of the military regime, there were 25 “state-sponsored” universities – 16 public and 9 private (mainly Catholic), which are usually referred to as the “CRUCH” universities (pronounced croossh (it’s an acronym for the Council of Rectors), all funded through a mixture of public funding and student fees (more the latter than the former).  None were really what you’d call a research university – Latin America historically has never really had many of those – but it had the usual prestige hierarchy, with the two oldest universities, Universidad de Chile and Pontifical Universidad Catolica de Chile, at the top.

But the key Pinochet-era decision was to open the higher education market to private competition.  The result was the creation, over three decades, of 35 new, fully-privately funded universities.  Few are considered anything like the equal of the older universities, academically.  Partly, that’s like private universities almost everywhere, as they tend to avoid offering programs in prestigious but capital-intensive subjects like Engineering, Science, and Medicine; but mostly it’s because a lot of them are for-profit, and are therefore seen as suspect.

Chile’s sub-baccalaureate system – 45 Institution Profesional (essentially, polytechnics) and 68 CFTs (essentially, community colleges) is entirely privately-run, the only country in the world where this is so.  The existence of these institutions is an irritant to CRUCH universities, who have responded by using their influence in the accreditation system to (essentially) impose accreditation criteria designed for universities on community colleges.  Result?  Only 2.2% of CFT programs are actually accredited.

What’s distinctive about Chile is the diversity of its funding channels.  There’s a public subsidy for the CRUCH universities, which is mostly historic rather than formula-driven, and a different, voucher-ish public subsidy for private universities able to attract students with high scores on the national university-entrance exam.  There’s one student loans program for CRUCH universities, and another, much less subsidized, program for everyone else.  Add in some half-hearted attempts at performance-contract funding, a dozen or so bursary programs for various target groups – plus, of course, the fact that as a percentage of GDP, Chile’s private contributions to higher education are among the highest in the world (nearly 1.5% of GDP), and you can see why the policy environment is fairly chaotic.

Now, add into all this the fact that President-elect Bachelet has promised to make all education free.  What does that mean in a system which is 70% + private?  No one knows.

Stay tuned.  This will get interesting.

December 16

Three to Watch

A few years ago, Jamil Salmi put together a neat little book called, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, in which he noted that there were basically three ways to make a world class university: you can upgrade existing institutions (what most governments do), you can merge them (the French approach), or you can build entirely new institutions from scratch.

That last option sounds ludicrous to most people in western countries.  Who would bypass existing institutions which, over time, have have received billions of public dollars, and start a new one from scratch – wouldn’t that be a waste? But there are countries where this kind of approach conceivably makes sense: countries lacking in strong extant research universities, countries strong enough to ignore complaints from existing universities, and countries with shedloads of resource money with which to pursue this goal.  So far, three countries fit the bill: Saudi Arabia, Kazhakstan, and the Russian Federation.

The Saudis’ King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) is the furthest along of the three.  Having started life with a $10 billion endowment from King Abdullah, it’s been able to attract some top scholars simply because there’s so much money floating loose here for research (“detailed grant requests?  We don’t need no stinkin’ detailed grant requests!  Have another laboratory!”).  It’s even co-ed – though, since it’s all behind a walled, guarded compound, it’s hard to see any larger social movement being started as a result.

Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University seems the longest shot of the three.  The money’s there, but the academic talent isn’t – and frankly, naming your new temple of free thought after a President-for-Life probably doesn’t send the best message to prospective academic staff.  Like KAUST, Nazarbayev has gone out and signed a shedload of academic co-operation agreements with big, “world-class” institutions in order to get a bit of a halo; but hiring’s not going well, let’s put it that way.

The third, Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (“Skoltech”), is actually just one part of a new tech hub (Skolkovo), which is meant to recreate Silicon Valley, with Skoltech playing the role of Stanford.  Skoltech, a joint venture between the Skolkovo project and MIT, is actually a bit of a sideshow within the Skolkovo project, and certainly doesn’t have quite as grand a set of ambitions as either KAUST or Nazarbayev.  And though it all seemed to be off to a promising start, there’s now questions about funding, and there are persistent rumours that, as a project of former-President Medvedev, its future under President Putin may not be so bright.

It will be interesting to chart these institutions’ progression over the coming years.  At the moment, you’d likely bet on KAUST being the one to be in the best shape five years from now – already, it is producing some important scientific outputs; but, over the much longer term, Skolkovo, with its heavy tech links, might end up being the most intriguing of three.  Only time will tell.

November 28

Some Free Advice for the Parti Quebecois

So I see that the Government of Quebec, far from hitting their zero deficit target this year, is in fact going to come in with a deficit of about $2.5 billion.  This means that, not only will the “reinvestment” in higher education – the money that was going to compensate institutions for not getting their promised tuition increase – not come any time soon, but it’s better than even-money that there’ll be cuts this year instead.

Two points:

1)      Hey, CREPUQ!  Still think the “playing it quiet” strategy in the spring of 2012 was such a hot idea?  Congratulations on such a well-executed plan.

2)      Man, Quebec universities need to find some revenue sources.

That second one is a bit of a problem, of course.  The PQ has indexed domestic tuition to some form of inflation, and, as I understand it, the Liberals have agreed to this policy as well – so that’s out.  It could charge differential fees to out-of-province students, but they already tapped that well back 1996, so that’s out too.

So what about international students?

There are two oddities about Quebec’s international student fee policy.  One is the policy of having regulated fees in some disciplines (e.g. arts, science) and de-regulated fees in others (e.g. engineering and business).  Institutions get to keep all the money they take from students in de-regulated programs, but in regulated ones, any money received over and above what domestic students pay gets clawed back by the Ministry (yes, really).  The second oddity is that international students from la francophonie pay Quebec tuition.

It’s clearly time for Quebec to get rid of both these policy oddities.  The first one can’t be eliminated on its own, as it will be perceived as favouring the anglo universities, and, you know, dieu nous en garde.  But if both are killed together, then there’s something in it for everyone.  McGill gets to cash-in on all the Americans who come to study Arts, and enjoy the more righteous legal drinking age, and U de M and Laval get to actually charge all those European and African students who come over for the Engineering and Business programs.

(This is where someone says: “but they’ll lose students if they charge more!”  Irrelevant.  The only issue is whether they make up the attendant lost revenue through higher fees.  Which shouldn’t be hard.)

The benefits of the francophonie tuition policy are minimal.  Heck, one of its main consequences is that the Quebec government is currently subsidizing over 700 French students each year to study in English at McGill.  So why bother?  For the Quebec government, killing it would be a cost-free way to help universities with their funding issues.  It should be a no-brainer.

November 15

Ten Years of Global University Rankings

Last week, I had the honour of chairing a session at the Conference on World-Class Universities, in Shanghai.  Held on the 10th anniversary of the release of the first global rankings (both the Shanghai rankings and the Times Higher Ed Rankings – then run by QS – appeared for the first time in 2003).  And so it was a time for reflection: what have we learned over the past decade?

The usual well-worn criticisms were aired: international rankings privilege, the measurable (research) over the meaningful (teaching), they exalt the 1% over the 99%, they are a function of money not quality, they distort national priorities… you’ve heard the litany.  And these criticisms are no less true just because they’re old.  But there’s another side to the story.

In North America, the reaction to the global rankings phenomenon was muted – that’s because, fundamentally, these rankings measure how closely institutions come to aping Harvard and Stanford.  We all had a reasonably good idea of our pecking order.  What shocked Asian and European universities, and higher education ministries, to the core was to discover just how far behind America they were.  The first reactions, predictably, were anger and denial.  But once everyone had worked through these stages, the policy reaction was astonishingly strong.

It’s hard to find many governments in Europe or Asia that didn’t adopt policy initiatives in response to rankings.  Sure, some – like the empty exhortations to get X institutions into the top 20/100/500/whatever – were shallow and jejune.  Others – like institutional mergers in France and Scandinavia, or Kazakhstan setting up its own rankings to spur its institutions to greater heights – might have been of questionable value.

However, as a Dutch colleague of mine pointed out, rankings have pushed higher education to the front of the policy agenda in a way that nothing else – not even the vaunted Bologna Process – has done.  Country after country – Russia, Germany, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and France, to name but a few – have poured money into excellence initiatives as a result of rankings.  We can quibble about whether the money could have been better spent, of course, but realistically, if that money hadn’t been spent on research, it would have gone to health or defence – not higher education.

But just as important, perhaps, is the fact that higher education quality is now a global discussion.  Prior to rankings, it was possible for universities to claim any kind of nonsense about their relative global pre-eminence (“no, really, Uzbekistan National U is just like Harvard”).  Now, it’s harder to hide.  Everybody has had to focus more on outputs.  Not always the right ones, obviously, but outputs nonetheless.  And that’s worth celebrating.  The sector as a whole, and on the whole, is better for it.

November 14

Canada’s Bologna Moment

If you can cast your mind back all of three weeks, before the Ford video(s) and Mike Duffy going kamikaze on the Prime Minister, there was some big news out of Ottawa about how a Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) had finally been reached. The finer details of the deal are still unavailable, but one thing that has been promised all along is that this deal will permit the free movement of labour between Canada and Europe.  And that’s a reason for the higher education sector to pay attention.

Freedom of movement is pretty great, when it works.  But the problem with inter-jurisdictional freedom of movement is that it’s easier to achieve in theory than in practice.  Language barriers crop up, for one thing (even within Canada, lots of anglos who would like to move to Montreal don’t because their language skills aren’t good enough for the local labour market).  There’s idiotic regulatory barriers regarding credentials, for another.  But even where a trade agreement gets rid of credential-based regulatory barriers, there’s still the problem of whether employers actually recognize what a credential means, and can hire and pay people accordingly.

This was a problem in Europe back in the 1990s before there was a standard system of degrees, as there were a riot of different credentials on offer across the continent.  A German Diplom was a five-year technical credential, a French Diplome was a 2-year intermediate academic credential on the way to an undergraduate degree, an Armenian Diplom was a secondary school credential – what employer could keep all that straight?  Far easier just to hire a local, whose credential you understand.  So, even though the principle of free movement of labour existed in the European Union, the problem of general credential recognition meant that it was limited in practice.

This problem was a big reason why Europe’s governments got behind the Bologna Process.  Only by standardizing the structure of their higher education systems could they turn de jure mobility rights into a de facto mobility reality.  And so the question for Canada now, is: will this free-labour movement actually mean anything if our higher education systems aren’t aligned with Europe’s?  Canada can’t actually become part of the Bologna Process – that’s reserved for countries which are part of the Council of Europe – but there’s nothing saying we can’t harmonize our system with Bologna Processes.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the benefits of a big shift like Bologna harmonization are in fact worth the hassle.  But there’s also no doubt that the signing of CETA means that the time to ask ourselves the big questions about Bologna, and its benefits, is now.

November 13

Using PIAAC to Measure Value-Added in Higher Ed: US Good, Australia Abysmal

A few weeks ago, when commenting on the PIAAC release, I noted that one could use the results to come up with a very rough-and-ready measure of “value added” in higher education.  PIAAC contains two relevant pieces of data for this: national mean literacy scores for students aged 16-19 completing upper-secondary education, and national mean literacy scores for students aged 16-29 who have completed Tertiary A.  Simply by subtracting the former from the latter, one arrives at a measure of “value added”, which I reproduce below in Figure 1 (the y-axis is difference in PIAAC scores; PIAAC is scored on a 500-point scale, where 7 points are considered to be equal to roughly 1 year of schooling).

Figure 1: Tertiary A value-added: Mean Tertiary A PIAAC Score Minus Mean Upper Secondary PIAAC Score

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a bit crude, though; to be genuinely comparable, one needs to control for the proportion of upper-secondary graduates that actually go on to higher education.  Imagine two countries, both of which had the same mean score among upper secondary students, but country X enrols 20% of their upper secondary graduates in Tertiary A, and country Y enrols 40%.  One would expect a larger gap between mean high school and mean Tertiary A scores in country X than in country Y because, comparatively, it’s cherry-picking “better” students.  So we need some way to correct for that.

Fortunately, the OECD’s Education at a Glance provides data both on upper secondary graduation rates, and on tertiary attainment rates by age 30 (indicators A1.2a and A3.1b, if you’re following at home).  From those two figures one can calculate the proportion of upper secondary graduates who go to university.  Since PIAAC publishes not just means, but also scores for the 25th and 75th percentiles, one can now estimate the relevant threshold PIAAC score for getting into a Tertiary program (i.e. if 37.5% of your students get a degree, then the threshold secondary score will be halfway between the mean score and the 75th percentile score).  To get a value-added figure for Tertiary A, one can take the mean score for Tertiary A and subtract this threshold secondary score, rather than the mean secondary score.  The results look like this:

Figure 2: Tertiary A Value-Added: Mean Tertiary A PIAAC Score (16-29 yr.olds) Minus Threshold Upper Secondary PIAAC Score (16-19 yr-olds)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This change in methodology only slightly changes the results: absolute scores are smaller, reflecting the fact that the baseline is now higher, but the rank order of countries is similar.  The US looks pretty good, indicating that its higher education system may compensate for a weak K-12 system; Australia’s result, somehow, is negative, meaning that average PIAAC scores for Tertiary A graduates are lower than the threshold score for secondary graduates heading to university.  Which is a bit mind-boggling, to be honest.

I’m looking for feedback here, folks.  What do you think?  Does this work as a model for calculating tertiary value-added?  How could it be improved?  I’m all ears.

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