Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: In the News

Get rid of this, says Alex

September 16

And the Winner is…

OK, all that data I gave you last week was fun, but let’s get back to the serious business of snark.  I know you’ve all been waiting to hear the winner of the “Worst Back-to-School Story” competition.  And so, without further ado:

Stories reporting on the CIBC World Markets report about how students were choosing the “wrong” subjects received nominations from a number of you.  However, while these were indeed irritating, I don’t feel that they really achieved the level of awfulness commensurate with this award.

Runner-up was a Globe online piece by Zander Sherman, who, if you’ll recall, wrote a seriously terrible book on education about a year ago.  His prescription for improving higher education’s real problems was to send it back to the twelfth century, with Latin, Greek and hazing for all.  It’s not clear if he was attempting satire, given that his antipathy is to compulsory education; but if satire was his aim, it didn’t work.

But this year’s winner, without a doubt, was Gary Mason’s article, University Students: Another Day Smarter But Deeper in Debt.  Slathered with inaccurate, misleading, or totally out of context data, it really stood out from the field.

Here’s my annotated guide to this wretched article:

















Bravo Gary, and thanks to all our contestants.  Your contributions make the back-to-school period what it is today.

August 27


I love back-to-school time: the joy, the energy, the sense of limitless possibilities.  It’s almost enough to make you forget about the tsunami of dreadful journalism that accompanies it.

There are basically three reasons for bad back-to-school journalism.   First, higher education is complicated; it doesn’t lend itself to the simplistic narratives required for 800-word articles.  Second, there’s a serious lack of decent data about higher education in Canada, what with the Millennium Scholarship Foundation gone, HRSDC no longer funding any decent Statscan surveys, and provinces and universities holding on tightly to their own data on the grounds that someone might use it to compare them against other provinces/institutions (and that would never do!).  In this data vacuum, interested parties with their own agendas find it easy to peddle all sorts of demented, half-true factoids to journalists; hence, the frequent appearance of stories based on “data” which simply aren’t true.

The third problem is the lack of outcome measures.  Everyone wants “good” education, but no one knows what that is.  So journalists tend to fall back on input measures: small classes, students per professors, etc., which inevitably lead to a weird mythologizing of university life in the 1970s.  Nothing wrong with the 1970s of course, but it somehow never quite clicks with op-ed writers that a major reason life was so great for students back then was that access was restricted to a fairly small elite, and that the comparative “failures” of today’s universities are largely the result of expanded access.  This was a central failing of last year’s worst back-to-school-article, by Carol Goar.

In this year’s worst-back-to-school article derby, we already have an early contender from Vancouver Sun columnist, Douglas Todd – which the excellent Melonie Fullick has already skewered, here.  Todd’s piece gives a lot of column inches to the views of a single professor who doesn’t like foreign graduate students much, and claims that these foreign students cost tax payers more than they bring-in.  On closer inspection, one realizes that the “evidence” comes from a single, 11 year-old article about graduate enrolment in America.  Why either a tenured professor or a serious journalist would think that old data from one national policy context would tell you anything at all about the economics of education in another country and context is beyond me, but there you have it.

I’ll be announcing my worst-story winner on September 16th – if you have any suggestions, do let me know!  As a guide, I thought I’d provide you all with a “Bad Education Journalism” Bingo Card.  Each square represents a cliché, inaccurate piece of data, or trope borrowed from the US with no corresponding Canadian data.  Play with your friends!  See which articles cover the most squares!

Bad Back-to-School Journalism Bingo
















April 01

A Persistent Problem with Truth

When it comes to the subjects of debt and tuition fees, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the least trustworthy source on earth.  They lie.  Constantly.

To see the latest collection, just look at this press release, which averages roughly one lie per paragraph.  For instance:

“Since 2006, tuition fees have increased as much as 71 per cent in Ontario”.  The words “as much as” are doing a lot of work here.  For the vast majority of programs, the 5% annual increase has meant an increase of about 47%. And for full-time students benefitting from the 30% rebate, it’s only 17% – which is less than inflation.

“Average student debt after a four-year degree is $37,000 for debt from public and private sources”.  No, that’s the average for the small proportion (12% or so) of students who have debt from both public and private sources.  Across all students with debt, it’s in the $26,000 range.  Across all students, it’s about $16,000.

“The Ontario Liberals committed to reducing tuition fees by 30 per cent in the last election…”. No, they committed, quite specifically, to a rebate of 30% for full-time undergraduate students from families earning under $160,000.

“… their Ontario Tuition Grant has reached fewer than one-quarter of students in the province”.  As I pointed out, here, this is only true if you include 300,000 college part-timers taking less than one course per year, 60% of whom are having their education paid for by their employers.  Which, since no one thinks they need a tuition break, is pretty dubious.

“… untold number of youth being shut out of accessing a college or university education every year”.  Ontario has the highest rate of combined access to university and college of any province.  If tuition has an effect, the one place it isn’t showing up is in access rates.

These aren’t honest mistakes made by idealistic youth who aren’t good with statistics.  The CFS has many professional staff who are paid to know this stuff, some of whom have been around for decades.  They know perfectly well what the real data says; they just think that that lies are acceptable so long as they’re deployed in service of their cause.

And really, why wouldn’t they think that?  Ministers still meet with them.  Journalists and opposition parties, thinking them a reliable source, regurgitate their lies uncritically all the time.  Usually, when interest groups take this kind of liberty with the truth, they lose credibility and, hence, access to power.  For some reason, CFS never face any consequences for telling lies.

But maybe, for the sake of restoring honesty to debate, it should.

March 27

Poor Barista, Rich Tradesperson

Many of you were kind enough to write in about my series on the relative value of Arts degrees versus tradescertifications, and the associated piece, which appeared in the Globe online.  I just wanted to finish off that series with a thought on how these memes are being propagated.  There are two points that I want to note, specifically.

The first is that the “BAs vs. welders” argument is always carried-out by a curious and unbalanced mix of anecdotes and data.  These stories basically all follow the same formula:

1)      The case against bachelor’s degrees tends to revolve around “over-education”, and always includes the point that some graduates work as baristas.   I spend a fair bit of time in Starbucks, and it seems to me that most baristas are students, rather than graduates, and those who are graduates are still pretty young.  This is to say, the graduate barista is a temporary phenomenon.  There aren’t a lot of aging graduate baristas; within eighteen months, they’re all either in grad school, or they’ve found a decent job.  Is this really such a big deal?

2)      The most frequent use of data is not – you’ll be shocked to hear – long-run outcome data, but data related to cost.  Tuition is up, debt is up, yadda yadda.  And yes, $25,000 debt would be freaking horrible… if barista was a permanent occupation, and the Repayment Assistance Plan didn’t exist.  But it’s not, and it does.  And so this objection is kind of beside the point.

3)      There’s never any quantitative data deployed in favour of the trades side – it’s always anecdotal.  Like this Maclean’s article, in which the entire trades side of the argument is a single case of a tradesperson in Alberta.  Partly, that’s because the data isn’t very good (you can get data by education, or by industry, but getting both is a pain), but it’s also because the available data isn’t very convincing.

Even as a data nerd, I understand that visceral examples – like, “poor baristas and rich plumbers” – carry more emotional weight than mere statistics.  I just don’t quite get why they carry so much emotional weight, when the data actively (and entirely) points in the other direction.

My second point to note about this debate is that, apart from Margaret Wente, the people who make pro-trades arguments are almost entirely male.  Now, maybe that’s because people who commentate on the labour force, and on higher education, are also mostly male, but I still think the near-total lack of women making the “more-welders-fewer-BAs” case is of some significance.

I’m Just sayin’.

March 21

HESA’s 2013 Federal Budget Commentary

On Thursday afternoon, Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, stood on the floor of the House of Commons, and delivered the Government’s eighth Federal Budget.  In lieu of an OTTSD for Friday, we at HESA have examined the document, and produced a commentary on its implications for higher education in Canada.

You can read our 2013 Federal Budget Commentary, here.

Thanks for reading.  And as always, let us know what you think.


March 05

Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings 2013

You’ll recall that yesterday, in reference to the orgy of hype that accompanies the annual release of the THE World Reputation Rankings, I made the point that universities’ reputation really doesn’t change all that much on a year-by-year basis, and that, therefore, perhaps said orgy was a wee bit overdone.

When all was said and done, five universities (Arizona, Indiana, Leeds, U Zurich, and Tel Aviv) fell out of the rankings, with a similar number replacing them (Monash, Moscow State, Freie Universitat Berlin, New South Wales, and Maryland).  Now, this might sound eminently stable – a 95% recidivism rate!  But actually, having five positions in the top 100 shift in a single year is actually relatively volatile.  What explains this?

Well, how about a change in the geographic balance of respondents?   Unlike baseball’s all-star ballot, the THE rankings doesn’t discount voting for home-town favourites.  And yes, stuff like that is happening. How else can you explain Turkey’s Middle East Technical University regularly cracking the THE’s top 100 when it doesn’t even make the top 500 in the ARWU?

THE isn’t consistent about the way it reports respondent populations, but here’s my attempt to compare the 2012 and 2013 samples:










Now, I’m sorry, but when 10% of respondents in a sample – which is meant to be globally representative – are from Australia and New Zealand (possibly more, depending on how that 12% “unspecified” pans out), you have a skewed sample.  It beggars belief to know this and still claim with a straight face that Australia’s moving from 4 to 6 institutions in the top 100 actually means something.  The least they could do is weight the results.

One final treat before I leave this topic for a few months. The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that the THE Reputation Ranking is based on two elements: a “research ranking” and a “teaching ranking”.  The even keener-eyed among you may have read the fine print to learn that, in fact, the teaching reputation is a misnomer: it’s actually a ranking of “graduate teaching”, which you’d have to figure is so correlated to research as to makes no odds – and this is, in fact, the case.  I plotted  each institutions’ score for “Teaching” and “Research” Reputation on a scatterplot, and here’s what I found:













Yes, you’re reading that right.  An R-square of .99.  Kind of makes you wonder why they bother, doesn’t it?

March 04

The Paradox of University Rankings

By the time you read this, the Times Higher Education’s annual Reputation Rankings will be out, and will be the subject of much discussion on Twitter and the Interwebs and such.  Much as I enjoy most of what Phil Baty and the THE do, I find the hype around these rankings pretty tedious.

Though they are not an unalloyed good, rankings have their benefits.  They allow people to compare the inputs, outputs, and (if you’re lucky) processes and outcomes at various institutions.  Really good rankings – such as, for instance, the ones put out by CHE in Germany – even disaggregate data down to the departmental level so you can make actual apples-to-apples  comparisons by institution.

But to the extent that rankings are capturing “real” phenomena, is it realistic to think that they change every year?  Take the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produced annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (full disclosure: I sit on the ARWU’s advisory board).   Those rankings, which eschew any kind of reputational surveys, and look purely at various scholarly outputs and prizes, barely move at all.  If memory serves, in the ten years since it launched, the top 50 has only had 52 institutions, and movement within the 50 has been minimal.  This is about right: changes in relative position among truly elite universities can take decades, if not centuries.

On the other hand, if you look at the Times World Reputation Rankings (found here), you’ll see that, in fact, only the position of the top 6 or so is genuinely secure.  Below about tenth position, everyone else is packed so closely together that changes in rank order are basically guaranteed, especially if the geographic origin of the survey sample were to change somewhat.  How, for instance, did UCLA move from 12th in the world to 9th overall in the THE rankings between 2011 and 2012 at the exact moment the California legislature was slashing its budget to ribbons?  Was it because of extraordinary new efforts by its faculty, or was it just a quirk of the survey sample?  And if it’s the latter, why should anyone pay attention to this ranking?

This is the paradox of rankings: the more important the thing you’re measuring, the less useful it is to measure it on an annual basis.  A reputation ranking done every five years might, over time, track some significant and meaningful changes in the global academic pecking order.  In an annual ranking, however, most changes are going to be the result of very small fluctuations or methodological quirks.  News coverage driven by those kinds of things is going to be inherently trivial.

February 22

The Justin Trudeau Effect

As you know, we at HESA have a national panel of students with whom we frequently commune to check the pulse of the student body.   Usually, we use this to look at students’ educational experiences.  Occasionally, though, we also use it to look at broader social and political issues.  And today, we’d like to show you what Canadian students really think of Justin Trudeau.

Why Trudeau? Well, part of the man’s narrative is that he connects with the young.  His campaign has had a few very well-attended events on campuses, such as at the University of Guelph.  On the basis of this, pundits from across the country have suggested that he has a unique ability to make youth more interested in politics and – more important for him – more interested in the Liberal brand.

Our CanEd panel results, however, show a slightly different picture.  Only 11% of Canadian students surveyed say they are paying more attention to Canadian politics as a result of Trudeau’s entry into the race.

Q. Has Justin Trudeau’s entry into the federal Liberal leadership race had an effect on your interest in Canadian politics?













Now, that doesn’t mean Trudeau’s unpopular: on the contrary, his favourable/unfavourable ratings are +13, which isn’t bad.  But by far the biggest group of students – 51% – simply don’t have an opinion of him, one way or another.

Q: What is your opinion of Justin Trudeau as a potential prime minister?













The question for the party, however, is whether or not he’s actually making them any gains.  Among those students who say they’ve become more attentive to politics, and for whom we have a prior party vote intention record (a question we ask every few months), 51% were NDP and 33% were Liberal.  Of those who say they have a favourable opinion of him as a potential PM, 37% were Liberal, 49% were NDP, and 7% were  Conservative. For comparison, our previous voter affiliations are 47% NDP, 21% Liberal, and 21% Conservative.

In sum, the “Justin Effect” is indeed making Liberal students more excited about their own party, and eating into NDP support.  But the idea that Trudeau has some generalized, galvanizing effect on youth needs to be viewed with some skepticism.



This is the part where a responsible polling company tells you about details of its sample and methodology.  There isn’t room here for that, but details of our panel and methodology can be found in the introduction to any of our insight briefs, available here.

February 21

Stuff Happens: Rise of the Latinos

When you think about recent developments in American higher education, the negatives tend to predominate.  Cutbacks in state funding, soaring tuition fees, ballooning debt levels – it all leads you to believe that there’s been an enormous diminution of access.  But, very quietly, there’s been one incredibly good piece of news: a massive jump in Latino participation rates.

For decades, now, one of the biggest challenges in American higher education has been low participation rates among Latino students.  Latinos are, of course, quite heterogenous, even with respect to higher education.  Puerto Ricans in the Northeast have long had access rates similar to those of whites, while participation rates among Mexican and Central American Latinos in the West and Southwest have been persistently abysmal.  Other immigrant groups with low-education backgrounds have tended to see their participation rates rise by the time the second generation rolls around.  In many cases in the west, the Latino population was well into its third generation; it seemed, by-and-large, as if Latino youth simply hadn’t grasped the fact that higher education was increasingly necessary to succeed in the modern economy.

As Latino birthrates rose, and as that population became an increasing percentage of the general population, there were real worries in the Southwest that the persistently-low participation rates would lead to declining overall participation rates, and an increasingly de-skilled labour force.  A lot of policy attention – and some money as well – got lavished on this population, through groups like Excelencia in Education.  But for years, Latino access rates flatlined, and all this work seemed to be for naught.

Then suddenly, in the middle of this recession, the situation changed dramatically.   Between 2008 and 2011, the participation rate of Latinos, aged 18-24 years-old, who had completed high school, jumped from 36% to 46%, surpassing the black participation rates for the first time ever.  And no, this wasn’t a trick of the denominator – Latino high school completion rates were rising too, from 65% in 2005, to 76% in 2011.  In 2010 alone, the country saw an increase of nearly 200,000 Latino enrolments from the previous year (to put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the population of Quebec’s francophone universities).

Maddeningly for policy wonks who want to replicate this little miracle, it’s really not clear what prompted it.  There was no big policy shift that preceded it, for instance.  Many say “it’s the recession”, but this begs a lot of questions (e.g. why this recession, and not earlier ones?  Why isn’t it having a similar effect on black enrolments?).

Sometimes, if you work at something long enough, stuff just happens.  That’s bad news for social scientists who like to link cause and effect, but good news for America’s Latinos.

January 15

Those “Lost Generation” Stories

I see Maclean’s is cashing in on the zeitgeist with yet another story about a “lost generation“.  These stories always cover the same arc: Find a young, bright, hardworking, recent graduate whose career, for one reason or another, hasn’t hit lift off; blame this situation on the recession, even though that link can’t really be proven; provide some cod-economic arguments as to why this state of affairs is permanent; repeat.

But we should know it’s not true, because we’ve seen this film before; both the early 80s and early 90s also had “lost generations”.  Each time the term crops up, there are reasons why “this time is different”, but they’re mostly hogwash.  That Maclean’s article lists five such reasons, none of which stand up to much scrutiny.

i)     The decline of central Canada’s manufacturing sector, and the union jobs it sustained;

True, but those jobs never went to university grads anyway – so how is this relevant?

ii)     Relentless cost-cutting by corporations;

OK, but most of the people being profiled are actually looking for public sector careers.  And private sector jobs are actually up over the past few years.

iii)     The demographic bulge of older workers occupying high-skilled, well-paying positions;

Older people always have better jobs than younger people – that’s not news.  And since the labour market is currently stable – new entrants are closely matched by new retirees –  the “bulge”  argument is simply not true.

iv)     Parents who pressed their kids into university, hoping they’d get prestigious, white-collar jobs; 

Ah yes, the over-supply argument.  Problem is, there’s no good evidence that the pay of university graduates is falling; and as for youth unemployment, it’s about the same as its always been – twice the general rate of unemployment.  That strongly suggests that problems are cyclical

v)     and, Universities and colleges who indulged that urge, despite the changing demands of the labour market.

WHAT changing demands of the labour market?  How have university degrees become less necessary in the labour market over the past twenty years?  Or, if we’re just talking about grads since 2009, how exactly were universities supposed to be aware of the bust in 2005-7, when they accepted these students in the first place?

Here’s the deal:  some cohorts – like the classes of 2002-7 – get lucky.  They graduate into boom times and never really know what it’s like to struggle for a job.  Other cohorts are less lucky.  They graduate into periods of high unemployment and life sucks for awhile.  But eventually things improve.

Remember the characters in Douglas Copeland’s Generation X?   They eventually became the people that today’s journalists say are hogging all the good jobs. It got better for them; it will get better for the present lot as well.

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