HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Ontario

October 22

Scenario Planning for Ontario and Quebec

Yesterday, we looked at data from 2004 to 2012 to examine income and expenditure trends for Canadian universities, and found that salary and operating budgets were both moving up at a pace of around 4.4% per year in real dollars.  Today, I want to do a bit of scenario planning for the country’s two largest provinces using the same technique of focussing just on operating grants, tuition, and salaries. 

Ontario

Ontario sits in between two divergent trends – real public funding has been stable or declining for many years, while tuition revenue has been increasing by about 8% per year, thanks mainly to the influx of international students.  As a result, since 2009, operating budgets have been increasing by 3.8% per year, which has been enough to deal with salary mass rises of 3.9% per year.

But can Ontario keep up that pace?  We’re already at the start of a phase where domestic enrolments are declining, and at best government income is going to decrease by about 1% per year in real terms (according to the government’s own budget papers, future increases will be 1%, less than the recent norm of 2%).  So a best guess at what’s going to happen is that government income trajectory will remain negative, and the 8% per year budget increases will start to trail off somewhat.  If this happens – and of course this still depends on ever-increasing international student numbers, which is by no means assured – then current levels of salary mass increases can be tolerated.

But what if things don’t go as planned?  What if international student numbers don’t offset losses from declining domestic student numbers?  What if the Wynne government decides to make one significant cut (say, 5%) in budgets this year to finally get the deficit under control, now that they have a majority government?  In this case, assuming no change in salary mass trajectory, salaries would rise to 82% of combined operating grant and tuition, from 76% today.  That may not sound like much, but let me turn those words around and phrase it another way: in order to accommodate current levels of growth in the salary budget, in a pessimistic scenario, the non-salary portion of the operating budget – light, heat, scholarships, lab supplies, etc. – would need to be cut by 25%.

Figure 1: Budget Scenarios for Ontario, 2012-13 to 2017-18

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So the quick summary here is: If you want salary mass increases to continue, find ways to bring those foreign students in.  Otherwise, you either have to accept massive cuts to non-salary areas or a cut in salary growth.

Quebec

The situation in Quebec is both more straightforward and more problematic than in Ontario.  There, the government has already signalled it will cut funds in nominal terms next year in order to balance the budget.  The only question is what happens afterwards – and I have assumed here that spending will rise again at the rate of projected GDP growth.  Tuition revenue growth was never as high in Quebec (5% per year in real terms) as it was in Ontario, as Quebec doesn’t attract as many international students – there is no obvious reason to think this will change.  On the other side of the ledger, salaries as a percentage of total income is 87% of combined government grants and tuition, compared to 76% in Ontario (if you’re wondering why Quebec universities feel poorer than Ontario ones, there’s your answer right there).  You can come up with other scenarios, of course, but most plausible ones look worse than this.

Put these factors together and you get a pretty ugly picture.  Operating budgets are simply not likely to grow much in the short term, so even a continuation of current salary trends – a 2% real increase per year, or about half what it is in Ontario – would mean salaries rising from 87% of income to 91.4% of income.  Meaning, in short, that without a change in salary policy, Quebec universities would have to cut a third of their non-salary budget in order to make ends meet.

Figure 2: Budget Scenario for Quebec, 2012-13 to 2017-18

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Whichever way you look at it, the numbers are ugly.  Compression of salary mass seems almost inevitable in Quebec; for Ontario to avoid the same requires institutions to continue a not-necessarily-sustainable trend of enrolling ever-increasing proportions of international students.

Tomorrow, we’ll get out of central Canada and see how things stack up elsewhere.

July 28

Coming Soon to Ontario: a British Columbia Solution

Unless you’ve been out of the country, or under a rock, for the last couple of years, you’ll be at least vaguely familiar with the concept that the province of Ontario is broke.  So broke, in fact, that it has departed radically from previous practice and, back in 2012, effectively froze physicians’ pay for two years.  Not individual physicians, of course – but on aggregate.  A zero overall increase.  And the government is now working to try to extend this freeze for another couple of years.

That makes good sense.  Health care costs have historically risen at several percentage points above inflation, and have squeezed other parts of the provincial budget (education has held out OK, all things considered, but other budget lines have been less well-protected), and physician costs are a major item in the health care budget.  And so saving money in this area is to be welcomed, even if it is at the expense of physicians – who are a politically tricky group to offend.

So what might the provincial government think of the post-secondary sector handing its employees raises of 3-4% per year, on aggregate?  Do you think aggrieved doctors won’t point to this anomaly during this pay round?  Can you imagine any possible rejoinder the government could offer that would make the least bit of sense?

Don’t you think maybe this situation is about to come to a rather sudden end?

For whatever reason, universities in Ontario have not been able to resist rising wage pressure from full-time faculty.  Despite money getting tighter, they have felt compelled to sign agreements that are plainly beyond their means (Hel-LO, University of Ottawa!).  Some university presidents, unable to deal with this problem on their own, are saying that they need government to step in to play “bad cop”.

What does the “bad cop” look like?  Well, take a look at how BC has handled wage negotiations over the last few years.  There, universities (and all other public sector entities) are given a biennial mandate with respect to employee negotiations.  In 2010 and 2011, the deal was: negotiate what you like, but the net cost of any new compensation deal cannot exceed zero.  In 2012 and 2013, that was changed to: there could be increases, but they had to be balanced dollar-for-dollar with efficiency savings in other areas.  The 2010-11 arrangements, in conception at least, are close to the approach Ontario has taken with its physicians.  And it worked pretty well, at least in the sense that it has kept costs down with a minimum of political fuss.

Not everyone in Ontario agrees that the province needs to take the bad cop approach.  Quite a number of university presidents (you can probably guess which ones) oppose asking the province to legislate on their behalf; not only do they feel it morally incumbent on universities to manage their own books, but also it is tactical suicide to ask governments to legislate – once you go down that road, there’s no telling where they’ll stop micromanaging universities’ affairs.

The problem is, those presidents haven’t exactly been too successful at reigning-in costs, either (hello again, University of Ottawa!).  So it seems almost inevitable that some sort of BC-like solution is on the cards.  The idea that profs could gain 15% in salary over four years, while physicians get zero, simply isn’t politically tenable.

May 27

Ontario Platform Review

The current Ontario election is possibly the most depressing one I’ve ever lived through.  I agree entirely with Laval’s Stephen Gordon, who describes the province as the northern equivalent of Argentina: formerly great, and utterly unable to deal with decline.  Kathleen Wynne isn’t quite Cristina Fernandez, of course, the Liberals aren’t quite Peronists, and Toronto FC sure ain’t Boca Juniors.  But there are still enough parallels to make you go “hmmmm”.

Anyways, where do the three parties stand on post-secondary education?  It’s harder than you’d think to tell, because neither opposition party seems to have put a whole lot of thought and care into their platforms and the associated costing (read Jim Stanford’s quite astonishing deconstruction of the Tory jobs numbers here, for instance).  Still, to the extent intentions can be teased out from current documentation, here it is in a nutshell:

Institutional Grants: Assuming the Liberal Platform is the 2014 Budget, then institutions can look forward to four years of one percent increases in government grants.  Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP have promised any increase at all (though see below on NDP tuition promise).

Student Assistance: The New Democrats say they will make provincial loans interest-free.  Assuming this is not retroactive (that is, it only applies to loans issued in 2013-14 onwards) this is a pretty cheap proposal because the province already forgives about two-thirds of the provincial loans it issues.  My calculation suggests that, at most, this costs about $10 million in year one, and evens out after about four years at a cost of between $30 and $40 million.  The Liberal platform offers nothing more than a re-iteration of how great their 30% tuition rebate grant is.  The Conservative platform says it will eliminate the rebate at a savings of $450-500 million.  This, they claim, is in line with recommendations of Drummond commission, but that’s not actually true; what Drummond actually asked was for all aid, including the grant, to be “reshaped” and made more targeted.   Removing the grant won’t actually save what the Conservatives say it will; the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant will necessarily rise somewhat to compensate.

Tuition:  Implicitly, the Liberal position is a continuance of a 3% cap on tuition.  The Conservatives have said nothing at all about tuition during the campaign, but if their White Paper on PSE is any guide, the policy seems to be modest, across-the-board increases, along with selective deregulation.  The NDP has proposed a tuition freeze and appears to offer partial compensation to institutions.  They offer very little detail so it’s hard to tell for sure, but assuming that the aforementioned interest-free loan promise is only for new loans, there will be about $80 million (rising to $240 million over three years) left over with which to compensate institutions for the lack of fee revenue.  If you exclude international student fees and assume no growth in student numbers, it implies that compensation will be about 2% – or, less than what fees would have brought in, so this pledge would not seem, in fact, to compensate institutions fully for the loss of revenue.

Apprentices:  The Tories really like the idea of dramatically expanding the number of apprentices, for reasons that are somewhat vague.  Their thesis is that the reason this cannot be done is because the ratio of apprentices to journeypersons on worksites is too low.  They would like to raise this ratio in order to increase the number of apprentice spots.  What this would do to the quality of instruction/supervision is not addressed.

Financial Summary:  Based on the foregoing, PSE institutions can expect the following from the three parties:

Liberals: a 1% p.a, hike in the grant, plus 3% p.a. on fees, means budget growth of 2%, plus whatever they can grab from international students.  No change on student aid.

NDP: 0% in the grant, 2% as compensation for the fee freeze means 1% growth, plus whatever can be grabbed from international students.  An extra $10M per year in interest subsidies for students.

PC: As far as can be gleaned from their official documents, the increase is 0% in the grant and likely some increase (how much is unknown) in fees.  Allegedly, student aid will fall by $450-$500 million, but in practice somewhat less than that.

Enjoy the franchise.

May 14

Trends in Applications

Some interesting trend data to review from Ontario today.

First, there’s the fact that applications from secondary schools have dropped by 3% this year, from 92,892 to 89,609 (as of the February snapshot, which for most purposes is as good as the final numbers, since something like 95% of all applicants apply before the end-of-January line).  This is a moderately big deal since it’s the first time since the double cohort that numbers have fallen.

Figure 1: Applications from Secondary Schools by Year, Ontario, 2004-14

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Some university officials have waved this away as being a result of declining population, but there’s no evidence that the population of 18 year-olds has fallen by 3%.  Statscan hasn’t published data for 2014 yet, but between 2010 and 2013 the number of 18 year-olds actually increased by 2%, even though the agency’s population projections had suggested their numbers would fall somewhat.  In the chart below, which shows the ratio of secondary school applicants to 18-year-olds over time, I average Statscan’s projection with the actual annual increase for the past four years, and assume a fall of 1.6% in 2014. So even accounting for population change, university applicant numbers are still down.

Figure 2: Applications from Secondary School as a Percentage of 18-Year-Olds, Ontario, 2004-14

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The fact that the percentage of 18 year-olds attending Ontario universities has fallen is notable, but we shouldn’t overstate the implications.  In the first place, it hasn’t fallen far – just back to where it was in 2012.  Second, these numbers are only for Ontario applicants; they don’t include all the many international students whose numbers are still rising.  Fact is, most institutions will be OK for awhile yet.

More interesting, perhaps, is what’s going on with applications by field of study.  Check out, for instance, what’s happening with the “big four” fields, which account for slightly over 70% of all enrolments.  Applications to Arts subjects have been falling for some time; in 2003, 35% of all applications were to Arts Faculties, now it is just 27% (albeit of a much larger applicant pool – in absolute numbers they are about where they were in 2003).  Science and Business have more or less kept their share of enrolments steady over time, while Engineering has seen its share grow from 8% to 11%.  That might not sound like much, but in absolute terms it represents an increase of 81%, from 5,515, to 9,984.

Figure 3: Arts, Science, Business, and Engineering Applications as Percentage of Total, Ontario, 2004-14

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But look a little more closely at the data, at some of the smaller fields of study, and you can see some really amazing shifts in numbers.  Nursing, by some distance, is the “hot” discipline (not surprising, given the 100% placement rate and the $50K plus starting salaries), with applications increasing by close to 150%.  Social Work has seen applications double, and Math applications are up almost 90%.  Fine Arts applicant numbers have stayed very stable over the past decade; only Journalism has seen a major negative shock, with applications down by over a third from their 2008 peak.

Changes in Application Numbers, Selected Fields of Study, Ontario, 2004-14, Indexed to 2004

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The disciplinary enrolment shifts are of significantly more importance than 1-year changes in total enrolments.  They show that, over time, students do in fact respond to changes in labour market conditions, but that it may take a few years for the response to be evident.  Quite properly, students might want to see sustained evidence of change before committing to a different field of study.  And that’s a good thing, whatever the usual Labour Market whiners might say.

January 07

How Universities Are Becoming More Labour-Intensive

Yesterday, I showed how universities in New Brunswick were – despite welcome new promises of stable funding from the provincial government – facing problems because salary increases were going to eat all the available new money.  Some of you possibly thought I was being alarmist.  But it’s easy enough to show how this can happen.  In Ontario, it already has.

For data here, I pulled the financial statements for the last five years at the “Big 8” (Toronto, Waterloo, Western, Queens, Guelph, York, Ottawa, and McMaster), which comprise about 75% of all university spending, and hence are a pretty good proxy for the university system as a whole.  It’s not as good as Stastcan data; but, on the other hand, it gives me something past 2011, which is the most recently-available Statistics Canada/CAUBO report.  And here is what it shows:

Figure 1: Total and Salaries/Benefits Expenditures, 8 Largest Ontario Universities, 2009-2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expenditures at these institutions rose from $7.4 billion in 2009 to $8.6 billion in 2012, before falling back to $8.45 billion in 2013.  That’s a 14% nominal increase, which is about 6% after inflation – not bad.  Meanwhile, salaries and benefits rose from being 59% of overall budgets to being 63% of overall budgets.

Now that doesn’t sound so bad, either.  But let’s look at the same data another way:

Figure 2: Increases in Total and Salaries/Benefits Expenditures, 8 Largest Ontario Universities, 2009-2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This looks considerably less good, doesn’t it?  As new money has come in and permitted higher spending, salaries and benefits have eaten fully 92% of the increase.  This, friends, is the consequence of increasing salary mass by 5% per year, when income is only growing at 3%.

And the consequences for the rest of the budget?  After salary increases, the Ontario 8 only had $83 million to put into non-salary areas.  On a base of about $3 billion, that’s an increase of about 3%, but after inflation, that’s actually a 4% reduction, i.e., a fall of about 1% per year.  And of course much of that money is earmarked for things like research, so in terms of disposable income, it’s likely that the figure is actually much higher.

Outside Ontario, we don’t see quite the same pattern.  I pulled 7 other comparable institutions (UBC, Alberta, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, McGill, and Dalhousie) and found that on the whole they spent a greater proportion of their money on salaries (66% in 2013, compared to 63% in Ontario), but that there was no sudden change in the way money was spent (only 67% of new expenditure went to salaries, meaning the average went unchanged).  That said, there were differences inside this group.  Most actually managed to decrease their salary-to-total expenditure ratios; the two exceptions were Alberta (where salaries took 86% of all new expenditure) and McGill (where they took an astounding 179% of new expenditures).

For a set of institutions that endlessly bang-on about how hi-tech they are, Ontario universities are apparently one of the very few industries in the provinces that are becoming more labour intensive over time.  And that won’t change until compensation increases start coming into line with increases in income.

June 12

Projections From Queen’s Park

Professionally, I am a killjoy.  Most of my job involves explaining why education funding is not going to go back to the good times of the eighties any time soon.  How bad things are going to get differs from place to place, and today I want to show you why I think there’s big trouble still ahead in Ontario. 

Let’s start with the fact that government expenditures have risen sharply in recent years, as shown in figure 1.  The Liberals held expenditures steady at about 15% of GDP until the recession hit and that number jumped to 18%.  The government’s goal now is to reduce that amount – slowly – by freezing program expenditures at 118 Billion as of next year.  If the Tories get in, you can be sure that they’ll be spending even less than that.  So, unless you believe in an Andrea Horwath majority, the strong likelihood is that there is no new money coming into government coffers anytime soon.  If more money is going to go into PSE, it will have to be at the expense of other budget priorities.

Figure 1 – Ontario Government Expenditures as a Percentage of GDP

The problem is that health care cost inflation tends to take precedence in the scramble for spare dollars in provincial budgets. In Quebec, for instance, healthcare’s share of the budget grows by about 0.75% each year – meaning it will break 50% of the budget sometime towards the end of this decade, with other budget priorities increasingly cast into the background.

Ontario, seemingly, doesn’t have this problem, with expenditures staying relatively constant around the 40% mark.

Figure 2 – Health and Long-Term Care Expenditures as a Percentage of Overall Budget Expenditures

 

The problem is, this is an illusion.  Health expenditures have actually been going up by nearly 7% per year since 2001.  The only reason health care hasn’t exploded as a share of the budget is because the Liberals have been increasing all spending by a similar amount.

 Figure 3 – Annual Growth in Health Care and Total Budgeted Expenditures, Ontario, 2001-2012

 

But, as mentioned, the Ontario government is budgeting for zero growth in program expenditures through to 2018.    Any increase in health care costs has to be met with cuts elsewhere in the budget.  Indeed, if health care costs were to continue to rise at around 6% per year, that would mean cuts to the rest of the budget – including PSE – of roughly 22% by 2018.

Figure 4 – Implicit Ontario Budget Cuts, All Non-Health Budget Areas, Under Current Budget Caps and Various Health Care Inflation Scenarios

Maybe health care cost increases will be lower than 3% (even though that’s not happened in well over a decade).  Maybe PSE will be spared its full proportion of the cuts.  Maybe.  But it seems to me almost impossible to construct a scenario where money for PSE increases.  Cuts of 1-2% per year –enough to offset most of the potential gains from permitted tuition increases – seem much more likely.

Realistically, the only place Ontario universities are going to be getting any extra dollars over the next five years is international students.  Plan accordingly.

May 21

Post-Graduation Employment

The meme on “underperforming universities” these days revolves around the idea that specific fields of study – usually Bachelor’s degrees in the humanities – do not lead to good jobs.  But this depends in no small measure on what one means by a “good job”, and over what time frame one chooses to measure success.

The graph below shows data from Ontario, six months after graduation.  Between 2003-2007, the employment rate of graduates in the labour market (i.e. excluding those who chose to study) bounced around between 92 and 94%.  In 2009, the rate fell by about 7%, to roughly 86%, more or less equally across all disciplines. Some fields of study were consistently below the average – specifically, fine arts, physical sciences (which seems to include biological sciences), and engineering.  Some fields of study were well above the average, notably education and nursing.  Humanities and social sciences ended up half way between the two.

Employment Rates of Ontario Graduates Six Months After Graduation in Selected Fields of Study, 2003-2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The science figure is especially interesting, isn’t it?  Makes you wonder why there’s an S in STEM.

Now, some of you will surely be scratching your heads at this point.  Aren’t STEM graduates supposed to be in high demand?  How are both getting beat by Arts grads? Three quick answers. The first is that these figures exclude people who have gone back to school (unhelpfully, the Ontario data doesn’t tell you how big a number this is).  Two is that Engineers may take longer for a job search because they are secure in the knowledge that their eventual job will pay pretty well (see below) – the pattern we see after six months is also the pattern after twenty-four, as the chart below describes. And three is that the picture does change a bit after two years.

Employment Rates of Ontario Graduates Two Years After Graduation in Selected Fields of Study, 2003-2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The classes of 2003 and 2005 had 2-year employment rates of about 96.5%.  That fell to about 95% for the class of 2007, and 93% for the class of 2009.  The fall was concentrated in education, humanities, social science, fine arts, and physical sciences; other disciplines saw less change.

Finally, there is the issue of income.  Here you see the real knock on studying in the humanities;  it’s not that they don’t get jobs – it’s that they end up in some jobs that don’t pay well.  Now, their incomes do increase about twice as fast as others between six months and two years (in the midst of a recession, they jump, on average, by 21%), but they start from a lower base.  An interesting point here, which I have made before, is that the difference in outcomes between students in the sciences and the social sciences is negligible.

Income of Ontario University Graduates Six Months and Two Years Out, Selected Fields of Study, Class of 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly, jobs aren’t the issue – students of all stripes find work soon enough.  The issue is the rate of return.  We should focus on that.

February 14

That Conservative White Paper

On Tuesday, the Ontario Conservatives released a “white paper” on Higher Education.  It’s an extraordinary document, by far the most detailed vision for PSE ever released by a Canadian political party.  Everyone in higher education should read it, even if they aren’t likely to enjoy it much.

Much of the paper revolves around the notion of reducing the cost of delivery of higher education.  For that reason, it liberally raids the ideas of Ian Clark et. al on teaching faculty, as well as the goofier elements of Glen Murray’s plans regarding online education.  On the assumption that transparency will improve efficiency, there are musings on getting administrations to better explain spending, and even a threat of legislation on financial transparency for student unions.  (Students!  Time to read up on voluntary student unionism.

Much will be made about the paper’s “College First” pledge – which suggests students should be encouraged to go to college rather than university (partly in the name of cost savings, partly due to some ideas about graduate earnings, which rely on some fairly cock-eyed data analysis), but the vagueness about how to do this suggests to me there’s less here than meets the eye.  I think a bigger deal is the idea that, in the name of excellence, there should be a mechanism to choose “elite” programs, which would receive extra investment AND be allowed to charge higher fees.  The idea that this can be determined via a set of objective metrics like graduate employment and income suggests that the paper’s authors have never examined those metrics to see how much inter-institutional variation there really is (note: there’s almost none).

Oddly, for a conservative party, this paper is a recipe for much, much heavier government involvement in the running of post-secondary education.  A few months ago, I wrote that the main difference between right and left on higher education policy in Canada was that one of them didn’t care how universities were run, while the other thought it knew how to run them better than actual university and college staff.  Well, that distinction’s gone now.  This paper is prescriptive about what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how accounts should be published.  It suggests that some tuition liberalization will be allowed, but only for programs which the government itself picks.  The only part of the system that will have less regulation are private career colleges.  They’re OK, apparently, because they’re cheap.

This is an ambitious paper which should be applauded for asking a lot of very good questions.  Ontario institutions need to spend the next few months patiently explaining why there are better answers than the ones contained in here.

January 09

They’re From Queen’s Park, and They’re Here to Help

Want to know what’s in store for higher education in Ontario?  Take a quick look at the platforms of Liberal leadership contenders.

Eric Hoskins’s five point “prescription” for a healthy Ontario omits education entirely.  Similarly, co-front runner Sandra Pupatello’s platform avoids any and all mention of education.  Ditto for Gerard Kennedy (at pixel time, he actually appears not to have a platform of any kind).

Kathleen Wynne and Charles Sousa each have similar platform commitments to increasing co-op, experiential learning, etc.  In general, this is a Good Thing, of course, but there are some undertones of curricular tinkering here which should make universities slightly nervous.  Wynne also wants to provide “stimulus for increased opportunities to graduate studies” (whatever that means), greater credit transfer mobility and – funds permitting – create a scholarship to promote entrepreneurship (one suspects this idea was not focus-tested with any actual entrepreneurs).  Harinder Takhar has a grab-bag of ideas, which range from expanding public sector internships, to eliminating barriers to recognition of international credentials (good luck with that!), to something not-fully-baked about extending tuition tax credits to businesses if they pay for a student’s tuition.

Nobody, you’ll notice, is promising any actual money to institutions.  They’re all sticking by the current government’s promise – matched in the last election by both opposition parties – to not spend a new cent on higher education until 2017.

This brings us to the higher education sector’s favourite son, Glen Murray, who caught almost an hour’s worth of headlines back in November when he launched his campaign with the idea of a flashy-sounding “no-money down tuition plan”.  Here’s how he describes it:

“Our plan will allow students to attend university with no money down. Instead, they can choose to borrow for each year of study up to $4,000 for college tuition and fees, $7,000 for undergrad’ tuition and fees, and not have to repay until they get a good job after graduation.  After graduation, repayment of loans and the interest rate applied would be on a sliding scale, depending on your income after you graduate.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because student loans already work in almost precisely this fashion – something one might have hoped Murray had picked up on while he was Minister.  The only difference between this plan and the existing system is that Murray’s seems to eliminate parental contributions for that portion of the loan dealing with tuition.  That’s not a terrible idea, but it’s not new (see: this IRPP proposal from 2004) and it’s of no net benefit to anyone already benefitting from student loans.

Basically, it’s all a bit grim.  Budget accordingly.

September 28

Credit Transfer Agreements

Minor buzz earlier this week about a credit-transfer agreement between seven universities in Ontario. According to the press release, Queen’s, McMaster, Western and the Universities of Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo and Guelph have agreed to full recognition of each others’ first-year university credit.

While credit mobility generally is a Good Thing, this specific announcement puzzled me a bit. How is this actually new? Back in 1995, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada introduced the “Pan-Canadian protocol on the Transferability of University Credits,” which essentially said that ALL first- and second-year course credits across Canada should be transferable. The Council of Ontario Universities (COU), to which all seven of these institutions belong, endorsed the protocol with a couple of riders to the effect that the right of credit transfer didn’t imply a right to transfer, and that institutions could still accept or reject whichever students they wanted. At least one of the seven universities actually passed this agreement through its senate; all seven of them endorsed it – 16 years ago – through COU.

The easiest interpretation here is that most or all of the seven have in fact been ignoring their own endorsements for the past decade and a half and so the agreement is genuinely new in practice if not in theory. And it’s easy to see why: credit or degree recognition, at the end of the day, is about trust. You have to trust another institution’s academics in order to recognize them as equivalent (or better) than their own. And until now that wasn’t happening.

This trust factor is in fact a major rationale behind quality assurance regimes the world over; institutions gain one another’s trust by setting explicit standards and meeting them. But that’s not very Canadian. We don’t like explicit standards and, as a result, we have no trust. And for some reason, whenever a government (or CMEC) wants to break the deadlock, they run from the obvious (but difficult) trust-based solutions preferring instead to blunder around shouting “thou shalt recognize each others credits,” to little effect.

Clearly, these seven institutions trust each other and are prepared to treat each others’ teaching as their own. It’s not surprising: six of them are U-15 members and so view one another as equals anyway (then there’s Guelph, which we said was basically U-15 quality a few weeks ago – apparently others agree).

That’s great, but there’s a more interesting question: why don’t they trust anyone else? I’d love to just ask the seven presidents: “what would, say, Laurentian have to do to join this agreement?” The answer, I think, would illuminate much about how institutions understand the term “quality” and the dog-eat-dog nature of the fight for institutional prestige.

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