Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: international

January 22

Higher Education in Developing Countries is Getting Harder

Here’s the thing about universities in developing countries: they were designed for a past age.  In Latin America, the dominant model was that of Napoleon’s Universite de France – a single university for an entire country, which was all the rage among progressives for the first half of the nineteenth century.  In Africa (and parts of Asia), it was a colonial model – whatever the University of London was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities (the bigger ones, anyway) in Anglophone Africa are set up to do now.  We think of universities as being about teaching and research; by and large, in the global south, universities were about training future governing elite and transmitting ideology.

Of course, for a long time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge institutions in the direction of modernization.  By and large, the preference seems to be something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies, more of an emphasis of knowledge creation, etc.   This has been a tough shift, and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.

The problems are manifold.  If you want research, you need PhDs.  In much of Africa and Latin America, less than half of full-time academics have them.  And because only PhDs can give PhDs that’s a pretty serious bottleneck.  A few years ago, South Africa announced that it wanted to triple the number of PhDs in the country.  Great, said the universities.  Who’s going to train them?

And of course you need money, but that’s in exceedingly short supply.  Money for equipment, for instance (quick, how many electron microscopes are there in sub-Saharan African universities?  Take out South Africa, and I’m pretty sure the answer is zero).  But also money for materials, dissemination, conferences, etc.  In some African flagship universities, close to 80% of money for research comes from foreign donors.  That money is welcome, of course, but it means your research programs are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programs.

As for being market-focused: how does that work in countries where 80% of the formal economy is dominated by government and parastatals?  What’s even the point of building up a good reputation for graduating employable students when public sector HR managers aren’t allowed to discriminate between universities when hiring?

Now, making things worse are some fairly worrying macro-economic trends.  Not the commodities collapse, thought that doesn’t help.  No, it’s the secular change in the way development is actually happening; specifically, that countries are starting to de-industrialize at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity (a phenomenon that economist Dani Rodrik explains very well here).  To put it bluntly, countries are no longer going to be able to get rich through export-driven manufacturing.  There aren’t going to be any more Taiwans or Koreas.  In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.

This, to put it mildly, places enormous pressure on countries to have institutions that are knowledge-intensive and market-oriented.  When human capital trained for services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in a society that already has a major manufacturing base.  Simply put, no good universities, no development.  And that’s a world first because the developed world – including China – got rich before it got good universities.  It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.

But it’s a job for which these universities are simply not ready.  In Africa at least, even when the nature of the challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but also they simply lack entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialization projects.

Getting a whole new set of challenges when you’ve barely got to grips with the old ones is a tall order. It’s a structural issue that international development and co-operation agencies need to think about, and invest in more than they currently do.

January 15

Political/Economic Risk and International Student Recruitment

A couple of big events occurred internationally over the last few weeks, which will matter to folks in the international recruitment field.  Briefly, they are:

1) The Saudis are pulling back.  Things are moderately bad in the kingdom right now.  Their gambit of driving down the price of oil in order to run the American fracking industry out of business is not working as quickly as they hoped, and may have re-established an era of cheap, $50 (or sub-$50) oil for the foreseeable future. (And yet Jeff Rubin still gets paid to dispense expertise.  Life is not fair.)  Plus they’ve gotten themselves stuck in a costly war in Yemen.  Result: Government deficits running at 12% of GDP.

Now, this isn’t the end of the world because their sovereign wealth funds are sitting on roughly a gazillion dollars in assets, and they can draw those down for awhile.  But still, economies have to be made, and that’s a tricky business in a country where the social contract is that the al-Sauds pay for everything in return for everyone agreeing to let slide the fact that the al-Sauds own everything.  Put it this way: foreign scholarships aren’t top of the list for cutbacks, but they’re not at the bottom, either.

It seems the way this is going to play out is with typical Saudi opacity.  Very quietly, schools are being told they are no longer eligible to be in the program.  It seems to have little to do with quality of individual schools or programs – the entire Atlantic region suddenly got cut off last month.  How many schools will this eventually affect?  Too soon to tell.  But even top schools need to be looking towards 2020 (the program’s current end-date) and wondering what comes next.

2) Brazil is suddenly hostile to overseas education.  Go back a couple of years and everybody loved Brazil.  They were spending money like nobody’s business on foreign scholarships through their Science Without Borders Program.  But things have been going sideways for Brazil lately for reasons eloquently described in last week’s Economistand the repercussions are severe.

Back in September, the government imposed a 40% cut to the program, which basically meant they could not accept any new students.  Now, a new draft law has been put forward, which places a tax of between 5 and 33% on any tuition fees paid outside the country (and yes, that does sound difficult to police – I think it’s only going to apply to fees paid through an agency, but it’s hard to tell from the article).

Of course, stories like this always bring up the dreaded question: what if the China market tanks?  Regular readers will know I am skeptical about talk of any China “bubble” in higher education, let alone a pop: in my view, political risk will likely increase the short-term flow of students rather than decrease it.  So there’s no need to get too panicky.  But these events should remind people that a sustainable recruitment policy requires some geographic diversification.

June 03

International Speed-Dating in Boston

I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.

In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.

In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.

And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.

Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.

January 26

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia for the past ten years (after effectively being regent for the ten years before that, due to his brother King Fahd’s incapacitation from stroke), died last week.  There can have been very few individuals who have had a greater effect on their country’s system of higher education.

Perhaps his best-known initiative was the creation of his eponymous institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Opened in 2009 near Jeddah, KAUST made headlines because of its lavish construction and endowment ($20 billion worth – third in the world after Harvard and Yale) and its attempts to recruit star faculty from around the world.  KAUST to date hasn’t set the world on fire – for all the money on offer, there aren’t a lot of serious scientists interested in moving to Saudi Arabia, even if women are allowed to drive and be unveiled within the university’s heavily guarded compound – and there is some truth to the jibe that there are more buildings than professors.  But it’s early days yet, and KAUST remains an interesting strategy to try to build the elements of a knowledge economy to help the country eventually transition away from petroleum.

The outside world focused on the KAUST story because it was a big, single institution, a contained story that fit the money-to-burn Gulf Arab stereotype.  But Abdullah’s agenda wasn’t simply about KAUST.  Over the course of his (effective) 20-year reign, 36 new universities were built in Saudi Arabia.  Enrolment in universities rose nearly sixfold, from a little over 200,000 to 1,200,000, the majority of whom are women.  Gross enrolment rates went from 18 to 50.  Few countries anywhere can match that kind of record.  Perhaps even more significantly for the outside world was his creation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which funded Saudis to get their education in the west, primarily the United States.  The Scholarship sends 125,000 students abroad every year at a cost of about $2 billion (Canadian universities collectively receive about 9% of those students).

With Abdullah’s death, many people wonder about the fate of KASP and KAUST: what will be their fate under King Salman?  My guess is that KAUST is considerably more vulnerable than KASP.  That may seem counterintuitive since the former has an endowment while the latter’s funding is recurring, but the politics are different.  KASP benefits a lot of middle-class Saudi families, there is much demand to go abroad for school, and in the wake of the Arab spring, Gulf monarchs tend not to cut back on popular subsidies.  KAUST may have its own massive endowment, but it still faces financial challenges if corporate donations slow.  Saudi Arabia doesn’t tax corporations, but companies that work there do get a lot of “suggestions” about what causes they should support, and in what amounts.  What causes get supported has a lot to do with the interests of whoever’s running the country; hence, a change of regime is likely to affect patterns of philanthropy.  Unlike KASP, KAUST is seen to benefit foreigners as much as it does Saudis and would therefore make an easier target.

How do we evaluate such a legacy?  The problem is that Saudi Arabia challenges many western notions about higher education.  Though we shrink from talking openly about universities’ “civilizing” function because it’s deeply uncool in a post-colonial world, the fact is most of us in the west still implicitly believe in that function.  Yet despite all these impressive increases in educational attainment – even western education – Saudi Arabia remains in our eyes a deeply uncivilized kind of place: the beheadings, the floggings, the misogyny all evoke notions of barbarity.  The spread of higher education in the country has done precious little to change that.  Whether that says more about Saudis or about higher education is an exercise for the reader.

November 28

Better Know a Higher Ed System: India (Part 2)

If you look at India’s higher education system, there are essentially two problems.

1)      Access.  This is a big country.  And so while 13 million or so students sounds like a lot, it’s only about half what China has – and sure, China’s a little bigger than India (1.36 billion vs. 1.25 billion), but thanks to its one-child policy, it’s youth population is actually smaller, meaning that the gap in participation rates is even bigger.  And, as in any rapidly modernizing country, it has an increasing number of young people who have their sights set on going to higher education.  Accommodating them is clearly a big job.

(Speaking of access, it’s worth noting that this term doesn’t mean quite what it does over here.  Here, we think mainly about access in terms of income or, if you’re a little more Marxist in your thinking, class.  In India, “equity” usually means evening out disparities by state [which is indirectly about income, but that’s not how the question is framed], or by Scheduled Castes [SC], Scheduled Tribes [ST] and Other Backward Classes [OBC – and yes, really that’s what they call it].   Collectively, these three groups make up between 40 and 50% of the Indian population, and so one popular measure to increase equity is what Americans would [but Indians don’t] call affirmative action – 45% of spots at central universities are reserved for these groups.  State governments have forced reservation policies on private universities of a similar nature, though usually the ones not receiving government aid are required to take fewer ST/SC/OBCs.)

2)      Quality.  It is a never-ending source of dismay to Indians themselves that they have only a single institute in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (Indian Institute of Science), while China has 28.  The reason for this isn’t hard to work out.  Indian universities traditionally focused very heavily on arts and humanities; the institutions that did focus on Science and Engineering tended to be small and narrowly-focused.  Neither of those profiles wins you points in international rankings.  But more broadly, infrastructure at most Indian universities is substandard, and professorial pay is more or less designed to keep bright scientific talent in the private sector.

You’d think there’d be a simple solution to both these problems: spend more money.  But India already spends about 2% of GDP on education, with half coming from the public sector and half from fees; proportionately, that’s well above the OECD average.  And since 2007, annual real increases in funding have averaged about 7%.  But money alone doesn’t make a difference – you have to spend it the right way.  And the central government’s priority seems to be neither improving access nor improving the existing IITs; instead, a significant amount of the new money is going to create new IITs and IIMs, and distributing them further around the country.  That’s great for the upper-middle class, which frets about getting their kids into these schools the way the American upper-middle class frets about getting their kids into the Ivy League.  But it’s not clear that it does very much either for access or quality in a broad sense.

Is there a solution here?  Sure.  But it lies in some painful changes to regulation, funding and management.  More next week.

November 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System: India (Part 1)

India is a big, crazy, multi-faceted, barely-functioning-but-still-impressive-it’s-functioning-at-all kind of country.  So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that its higher education system is a big, crazy, multi-faceted, barely-functioning- but-still-impressive-it’s-functioning-at-all kind of system.

The indigenous tradition of higher education stretches back to the 6th century AD.  Back then, Nalanda University was a world-centre of (mostly) Buddhist learning, which attracted students from Nepal, China, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.  Nalanda was also the first university with student dorms, and (allegedly) developed the first library cataloguing system.  But since Nalanda was destroyed by the Mamluks in the 12th century, its influence on modern Indian higher education has been zero.  Rather, the roots of the current education system can be traced to a very small number of institutions founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the British.

As in many colonial systems, these universities both bred nationalist revolutionaries, and gave those same revolutionaries an unshakeable belief that the English education system at the time of independence was the pinnacle of human achievement and should never be altered on any account whatsoever.  Which was a bit of a problem since those institutions were almost entirely Humanities-based with little by the way of Social Sciences, let alone the hard Sciences and Engineering.  That was (almost) OK if you thought of universities primarily as a place for civil service training; it wasn’t even vaguely OK if you wanted to build an advanced economy.

The basic institutional division in contemporary Indian higher education is between “universities”, which can grant degrees, and “colleges”, which cannot; the colleges are all affiliated to universities, meaning that college students take the exams of the affiliated university and receive their credential from there (remember BC’s university colleges in the late-80s/early 90s? Like that).  Colleges don’t get to choose their affiliate university; rather, each university has a geographic “catchment area” in which it has an effective monopoly.

Today, there are roughly 550 universities and 33,000 colleges.  (In case you’re wondering, that works out to an average enrolment per college of about 500, which from an efficiency point of view is madness.)  Most universities are funded by state governments, but the central government directly funds about 40 universities (mainly prestigious ones like Delhi U.).  It also funds another 110 or so “degree-awarding institutions”, which are not technically universities – the world-famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Management (IIM) come under this heading.  There are also another 12,000 or so diploma institutions, which, if you squint hard enough, are analogous to our community colleges.

Though India is often thought of as quite statist, its higher education system has a very large private sector – in fact, pretty much the largest in the entire world.  Of those 550 universities, roughly 200 are private, as are about 19,000 of the 33,000 colleges, and 55% of the student body is enrolled in private institutions.  Complicating things still further is the fact that some private universities (mainly ones that were founded before the 1970s) receive quite substantial grants, while others receive nothing; on the flip side, cash-strapped public universities now run a large number of full-cost-recovery programs, and therefore are themselves substantially privately funded.

Managing a system like this is pretty chaotic – all the more so when you have an insane regulatory system, plus conflicting and insistent demands both to focus on access and to improve quality.  But more about that next time.

November 26

Who Owns Internationalization?

One of the first things you realize when studying how institutions deal with the process of internationalization is how fragmented authority actually is in Canadian universities – to the point where you sometimes have to wonder whether anyone’s actually in charge of the whole operation.

Part of the reason for this fragmentation  is that internationalization isn’t a single activity, but rather a process that affects a whole range of other activities in which universities normally engage.  To the extent that internationalization is about research connections, it tends to get run through a VP Research office.  To the extent it’s about recruiting students, it’s typically a purpose-built unit reporting to a Provost, but functionally linked (often uncomfortably) to the Admissions office.  To the extent that it’s about attracting foreign faculty, it’s completely ad hoc, and run by departments according to their own needs.

To the extent that internationalization is about creating agreements/MOUs with institutions all over the world, well, that’s a dog’s breakfast, because these agreements don’t all deal with the same issues.  Some are about exchanges, some are about one-way student mobility (e.g., 2+2 agreements), others are about research collaboration, etc. etc.  And because these agreements are a dog’s breakfast, it’s not always clear which bit of the university is in charge.  Sometimes it’s bottom-up: faculty members can propose agreements based around their own research interests; other times it comes from a purpose-built office that may or may not take any account of researchers’ interests.

Now, it’s not quite true to say that “no one’s in charge” of internationalization, because every one of these processes has someone in charge, at least nominally.  Operationally, identifiable people are in charge of recruiting international students, dealing with international student services, etc.  But it’s very rare to see anyone knitting the work of these various processes together into a coherent whole.  That is to say, there is lots of operational authority in internationalization, but very little in the way of strategic authority over internationalization.

In many places, this – remarkably – is seen as a plus.  A lot of people in international policy think “decentralization” is a good thing per se, because operational authority should lie closer to centres of real expertise, rather than being bottled up in a single office somewhere, so that institutions can be nimble in responding to opportunities.  That’s certainly true from the perspective of operational effectiveness, but what has largely been lost is the ability of institutions to steer internationalization policy across the various areas in a common way.  Too often there is no one making sure that what’s being done in international recruitment ties in with what is being done in research collaborations, or international mobility agreements, and so forth.

Where institutional coherence is abandoned, “internationalization” can thus look a lot like an excuse for administrators to swan around the world to no obvious discernible purpose to anyone inside the organization.  This situation pushes cynicism of internationalization well above general faculty levels of skepticism about administration.

All of which is to say: high-quality internationalization requires someone to steer all the various activities in a common, self-reinforcing manner.  Institutions don’t need to create a VP of Internationalization to achieve this; in many cases, a Provost or Vice-Provost could do just as good a job, depending on institutional culture and current priorities (the occasional support of an engaged President doesn’t hurt, either). But what is needed is sustained attention from someone who has the clout to demand some policy coherence.  Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s lacking on many campuses.

September 30

The Problem with Global Reputation Rankings

I was in Athens this past June, at an EU-sponsored conference on rankings, which included a very intriguing discussion about the use of reputation indicators that I thought I would share with you.

Not all rankings have reputational indicators; the Shanghai (ARWU) rankings, for instance, eschew them completely.  But QS and Times Higher Education (THE) rankings both weight them pretty highly (50% for QS, 35% for THE).  But this data isn’t entirely transparent.  THE, who release their World University Rankings tomorrow,  hides the actual reputational survey results for teaching and research by combining each of them with some other indicators (THE has 13 indicators, but it only shows 5 composite scores).  The reasons for doing this are largely commercial; if, each September, THE actually showed all the results individually, they wouldn’t be able to reassemble the indicators in a different way to have an entirely separate “Reputation Rankings” release six months later (with concomitant advertising and event sales) using exactly the same data.  Also, its data collection partner, Thomson Reuters, wouldn’t be able to sell the data back to institutions as part of its Global Institutional Profiles Project.

Now, I get it, rankers have to cover their (often substantial) costs somehow, and this re-sale of hidden data is one way to do it (disclosure: we at HESA did this with our Measuring Academic Research in Canada ranking.  But given the impact that rankings have for universities, there is an obligation to get this data right.  And the problem is that neither QS nor THE publish enough information about their reputation survey to make a real judgement about the quality of their data – and in particular about the reliability of the “reputation” voting.

We know that the THE allows survey recipients to nominate up to 30 institutions as being “the best in the world” for research and teaching, respectively (15 from one’s home continent, and 15 worldwide); the QS allows 40 (20 from one’s own country, 20 world-wide).  But we have no real idea about how many people are actually ticking the boxes on each university.

In any case, an analyst at an English university recently reverse-engineered the published data for UK universities to work out voting totals.  The resulting estimate is that, among institutions in the 150-200 range of the THE rankings, the average number of votes obtained for either research or teaching is in the range of 30-to-40, at best.  Which is astonishing, really.  Given that reputation counts for one third of an institution’s total score, it means there is enormous scope for year-to-year variations  – get 40 one year and 30 the next, and significant swings in ordinal rankings could result.  It also makes a complete mockery of the “Top Under 50” rankings, where 85% of institutions rank well below the top 200 in the main rankings, and therefore are likely only garnering a couple of votes apiece.  If true, this is a serious methodological problem.

For commercial reasons, it’s impossible to expect the THE to completely open the kimono on its data.  But given the ridiculous amount of influence its rankings have, it would be irresponsible of it – especially since it is allegedly a journalistic enterprise – not to at least allow some third party to inspect its data and give users a better sense of its reliability.  To do otherwise reduces the THE’s ranking exercise to sham social science.

September 19

Better Know a Higher Ed System: France

France is one of the original homelands of the university: the University of Paris was the first real university outside the Mediterranean basin, and was home to six universities by 1500 – only Italy and Spain had more at the time.  But while it has quite ancient roots, it is also, in many respects, one of the youngest systems of higher education in Europe, because the entire university system was wiped out during the Revolution, and then developed again from scratch during Napoleonic period that followed.

Unlike virtually every other system on earth, the French do not put universities at the top of the higher education hierarchy.  Instead, there are what are called “les Grandes Écoles”: peak, specialized institutions that only operate in a certain limited number of fields – École des Mines and Polytechnique for Engineering, l‘École Normale Superieur for Education, and l‘École Nationale d’Administration Publique” to train the masters of the universe.  Most of these go back two centuries – Polytechnique was an excellent spot for Napoleon to train his gunners – but ENAP actually only dates from the 1940s.

One step down in the hierarchy are the big “Instituts”, which serve as the training ground for professions, mainly in technology (IUT), but also in fields like nursing.  Universities, for the most part (medical studies excepted), are widely viewed as the dregs of the system, the catch-all for people not smart enough to make the grandes écoles, or driven enough to do professional studies.  That’s partly because they are bereft of many prestige disciplines, but it’s also because, historically, they are not centres of research.  As with many other European countries (notably Germany and Spain), the public research mission was largely the responsibility of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), which was not attached to the universities.

Another historical feature of French universities is the degree to which they have been under state control.  Legally, all faculties were part of a single “Universite de France” for most of the 19th century.  Universities as we know them – autonomous institutions that pursue their own plans and goals – are fairly recent.  If you’re being generous, they date back to 1968; in fact they didn’t reach North American levels of autonomy until the loi Pecresse in 2007 – in practice, though, the shift happened in late 1980s.  Prior to that, hiring and promotion was essentially all done through the Ministry; curricula were also laid down on national lines by expert committees run from Paris.

Recently, international rankings have been a major spur to change.  When the Academic Ranking of World Universities first appeared in 2003, it created the “choc de Shanghai” – the country was genuinely shocked at how weak its institutions were seen to be.  Much of it was down to system design, of course.  The Grandes Ecoles couldn’t compete with American multiversities because they were small, single-discipline institutions, and the universities couldn’t compete because the research was all tied up at CNRS.  But the French government, instead of standing up and saying “this ranking is irrelevant because our structures are different, and frankly our system of research and innovation works pretty well anyway”, decided to engage in a wild bout of policy-making: excellence initiatives, institutional mergers, etc.  It’s all designed implicitly to make their system look more American; though to keep up pretences, if anyone asks it’s actually about being “world-class”.

Maybe the most interesting development to watch is what’s going on at Paris Saclay – a campus that brings together roughly two dozen universities and scientific institutions in a single spot.  It’s both a federation of universities and a new independent institution.  The governance arrangements look like a nightmare, but the potential is certainly there for it to become a genuinely European super-university.  It’s not the only new university in the world whose founders dream of hitting the Shanghai Top Ten, but it’s probably the one with the best chance of doing so.

September 05

Better Know a Higher Ed System: New Zealand

We don’t hear much up here about New Zealand higher education, mainly because the country’s tiny, and literally located at the end of the earth.  But that’s a pity, because it’s an interesting system with a lot to like about it.

The country’s university system is pretty ordinary: eight universities, three of which were founded in the 19th century, and the rest founded after WWII. All of them are pretty much based on English lines, with just one – Auckland – generally considered to be “world-class”.  Rather, what makes New Zealand an interesting higher education system is what happens outside the universities.

About 30 years ago, New Zealand came close to bankruptcy; in response, the government moved to sharply liberalize the economy.  In education, this meant eliminating established educational monopolies, and widening the ability to provide education: anyone who wanted to deliver a degree or a diploma could do so, provided they could meet an independent quality standard.  Polytechnics – equivalent to our colleges – started offering degrees (in the process becoming an inspiration to our own colleges, some of whom proceeded to push for their own degree-granting status, and labelled themselves “polytechnics”), and hundreds of private providers started offering diplomas.  Despite this liberalization, the system is still able to enforce a qualifications framework, which allows people to stack lower-level qualifications towards higher-level ones – and that’s down to having a serious high-quality regulator in the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Another major system feature are the “wānangas”.  The term is a Maori word indicating traditional knowledge, but in practice the term has come to mean “Maori polytechnic” (the country’s universities all use the term “Whare Wānanga” – meaning “place of learning” – to translate their names into Maori).  There are three of these, two of which are tiny (less than 500 students), and one of which is freaking massive (38,000 today, down from a peak of 65,000 ten years ago). I’ll tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa another time, because it deserves its own blog post.  But for the moment just keep in mind that in New Zealand, wānangas are considered the fourth “pillar” of higher education (along with universities, polytechnics, and privates), and that these institutions, entirely run by Maori, have had an enormously positive impact on Maori educational attainment rates (see this previous blog for stats on that).

A last point to note about NZ is its international strategy.  Like our government, New Zealand’s aims in this area are pretty mercantilist: students in = money in = good.  It could not possibly care less about outward mobility or other touchy-feely stuff.  What distinguishes their strategy from ours, however, is that theirs is smart.  Brilliant, actually.  Take a couple of minutes to compare Canada’s laughably thin and one-dimensional policy with Education New Zealand’s unbelievably detailed set of strategies, goals, and tactics laid out not just for the country as a whole, but for each of six key sub-sectors: universities, colleges, privates, primary/secondary schools, English language sector, and educational service/product providers.  That, my friends, is a strategy.  Now ask yourself: why we can’t produce something that good?

In short, there’s a lot Canadians could learn from New Zealand – if only we paid more attention.

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