HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Policy

September 12

NDP Leadership Race Notes

So the deadline to sign up for the federal NDP leadership passed a couple of weeks ago, and the first deadline for the mail-in ballots is next Monday.  So what to make of the four candidates and their views on post-secondary education?   Based on their platforms and a series of responses to a questionnaire on Science policy from Evidence for Democracy (responses available here), my take is as follows:

Jagmeet Singh.  Nothing.  He has a lot of policy proposals on various topics but effectively nothing on skills, education and how to pay for them.  He is also the only one of the four candidates specifically avoided making any commitments at all with respect to the Naylor Report.

Charlie Angus.  On the skills side Angus says he would “establish a labour market partners’ forum so government can work with labour and other stakeholders to develop programs and make Canada’s labour market development programs more accessible by lowering the eligibility requirement.”  I am not entirely sure what this means, though the use of the term “eligibility requirements” seems to imply that he’s talking about skills acquisitions as being entirely tied to Employment Insurance, which is somewhat restrictive (even though Angus does simultaneously promise it to make it easier to qualify for EI).

On post-secondary generally, Angus says he would work “towards a comprehensive education accord with the provinces that eliminates tuition, ensures adequate funding for research, sets standards for mental health and sexual assault policies, and improves working conditions for students, staff and adjunct or contract faculty on campus,” which suggests ambition if not a totally firm grasp on how federalism works (also: no price tag attached).  He also says he wants to eliminate interest on Canada Student Loans (bad idea), put new money into PSSSP for Indigenous students and extend it to include bridging programs, increase weekly loan limits for all students and better harmonize federal & provincial retraining programs (all excellent ideas).  And finally, with respect to Science, Angus is pro-Naylor (committed to implementing the report, full stop) and anti-superclusters.

Guy Caron.  For a former CFS chair, Caron is awfully quiet about PSE (then again, as an MP from Quebec, his perspective may have changed somewhat).  From an income standpoint, his Basic Income scheme – everyone over 18 gets their income topped up to at least equal Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut Off  would pretty much take care of the need to increase student aid any time soon.  But also in Caron’s platform is a genuinely intriguing mention of an “Activity Account for Lifelong Learning” which is describes thusly: “financed by contributions from workers, employers, and the federal government, the account will enable its holder to finance lifetime learning and job retraining. It would be portable so that if the individual moved or switched jobs, the account would migrate with them”.  The notion is not developed further, so it’s hard to say exactly what’s intended, but it sounds a lot like a mix of CPP/EI (compulsory deductions) with RESPs (government top-ups) for personal use.  In principle there’s much to like about this kind of idea though it’s worth remembering that a badly-implemented version of this idea cost the UK government hundreds of millions of dollars back in 2001.  Caron also supports full implementation of the Naylor report.

Niki Ashton.  This is the big one.  Ashton promises to:

  • Eliminate tuition fees, as per the proposal made by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  That would cost $3.5 Billion, and still depends on a) provinces being willing to pick up half the bill, and provinces being willing to accept massively different levels of federal support to so (basically, provinces currently doing most would receive the least under this program, leading to the obvious problems I described back here).
  • Reduce tuition for international students to “affordable levels”.  No financial details as to what possible mechanism would compel institutions or provinces to go along with this, or whether it has even occurred to her that most HEIs would sharply reduce intake of international students if this ever happened (unless the feds ponied up a couple of extra billion in compensation).
  • Eliminating interest on Canada Student Loans and doubling the repayment threshold so students do not need to repay loans if earning under $50,000.  It’s hard to tell from the platform, but this looks like a retroactive commitment – that is, it applies to all outstanding student loans.  That’s an expensive commitment, since international evidence shows that raising the threshold usually has significant knock-on effects in terms of lifetime repayment rates.
  • Increase funding for Aboriginal PSE.  Basically the promise here is to fulfill the TRC recommendation to get rid of the 2% cap (which the Trudeau government already ditched last budget), fund the backlog of First Nations applicants and include Metis students in this funding arrangement.
  • Increase funding for graduate students and “equalize research funding across disciplines”.  My interpretation of this is that it means increasing the SSHRC budget relative to those of NSERC and CIHR, but it’s not 100% clear.
  • With respect to Naylor’s recommendations, Ashton carefully says she is committed to “addressing” them, but carefully avoids any comment at all on the big issue of a $1.3 Billion increase in funding.  The bits she likes involves “re-balancing” funding and handing more money to grad students, post-docs and early career scientists.  If one were being uncharitable, one might suspect that she cares about government funding for science mainly as an income support mechanism for scientists rather than a means for actually performing scientific endeavours.

No argument from me on the Indigenous funding, but apart from that, my comments on Ashton’s platform are largely the same ones I had on the Green Party platform in the 2015 election (to which this bears more than a passing resemblance): so many billions of dollars, and not one of them going to increase the quality of provision or increase the number of student seats.  It’s all about cheaper.  Such a waste.

Anyways, if I’m ranking these platforms, Angus probably edges it.  His PSE accord idea is unworkable, but the pledges on Indigenous education and harmonizing training funding are good.  Caron would come second for the originality of his learning account idea.  Ten points to Ashton for thinking PSE is important, another ten for her position on Indigenous education but minus several hundred for the actual, wasteful substance.  Singh is simply missing in action.

The first round of voting takes place October 2nd; should extra ballots be required, they will take place on the following two weekends.  Best of luck to all.

August 28

Welcome Back

Morning all.  Hope you had a good summer.  To welcome you back, let’s take a quick look at state of play in the sector as we start the academic year.

In Canadian PSE, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of doubt about where things are headed this year.  Post-Naylor, we’re going to be talking research, research, research.  If you doubt this, take a look at Universities Canada’s recent budget submission.   As always, there are three “asks”; for the first time I can remember all three asks are about research.  It’s clear that scientists – particularly those in health-related fields who have been jerked around the most in recent years – have been making their voices heard and that University Presidents at least are responding to that pressure by making this issue central to higher education lobbying for the next twelve months.

(I think this is poor form, actually.  Less than two years on from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not an enormous amount of progress immediately evident, I’m not sure how appropriate it is to not have something on indigenous education this year.  But I’m not in charge.)

“Superclusters” will probably get a lot of mileage as they get announced in the run-up to the budget next winter.  Apparently the competition – which is supposed to have five winners – received 50 applications, each of which was supposed to have at least one post-secondary education partner.  However, we’ve also been told that only 20 PSE institutions’ names were attached to these proposals.  From this we can deduce that i) it’s likely that a handful of institutions’ – no prizes for guessing which ones – are on three or more proposals (rumour has it one is on no less than 18), and either ii) almost none of these proposals have more than one participating PSE institution or iii) there are a lot of the same institutions over and over again.  If it’s the latter then the program has basically abandoned the idea of clusters being geographic in nature and this program basically is back to Network Centre of Excellence but with some private enterprise attached.  Which defeats the purpose of this stuff, in my view.  No self-sustaining cluster gets by on research alone. It gets by more than anything on having lots of trained workers of various kinds.  And that means colleges and polytechnics *have* to be part of the mix.  If they’re not then this whole thing is a conceptual failure from the get-go.

(But hey, this is Ottawa.  No one’s ever going to measure the results.  And even if by some miracle the policy’s was found officially wanting, presumably they can always claim that it’s because they didn’t spend enough money.)

While much of the attention will be focussed on Ottawa, remember we live in a federal country.  For most institutions, the real game this year will be in provincial capitals.  2018 is going to see elections in Ontario (June) and Quebec (October).  Combined with a minority legislature in British Columbia, what we have is a situation where the country’s three largest provinces – all of whom have budgets which are more or less in balance – are going to be in spending mode for the next twelve months.  Not everyone is going to share in this bounty, of course. My guess would be that Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan are going to see continued or intensified restraint and from what I hear Alberta is about to find out exactly how miserable a tuition freeze combined with zero funding growth can be.  But still, for the sector as a whole, what we have right now is possibly the best alignment of the constellations we’ve seen in about a decade.

Outside Canada, I think the big stories are going to be in Brazil, Russia, where the lingering effects of the commodity price collapse have left state budgets in very weak shape to fund higher education; in England the chaotic combination of Brexit and a historically incompetent/cowardly government will surely provide some entertainment, while in the US the twin topics of free speech on campus and the dismantling of many Obama-era improvements in student policy – particularly in the area of oversight of private colleges – will get top billing even if President Trump’s own ideas about student aid are surprisingly generous.

Here on this blog, I’m hoping to shift topic areas slightly this year.  Often last year I felt I wasn’t adding much to discussions beyond what I had already contributed in the previous five years, and I do worry sometimes about the blog feeling stale.  I hope this year to be able to focus a little bit more on areas I’ve dealt with less fulsomely in the past: particularly, colleges & polytechnics and on international PSE (the latter with a bit of a data focus).  Also, at some point this fall we will be moving to accept advertisements. We’ll see how all that goes.

And with that: have a good year, everyone.  Let’s get to work.

March 22

The Next Big Skills Policy Agenda

So today is budget day.  If the papers are anything to go by, there’s something big-ish in there about “skills” which will no doubt be presented as some massive benefit to the country’s middle class (and those trying to join it). I have difficulty imagining what might be announced since most skills policies are in the hands of the provinces.  But what I do know is that skills policy is an area long overdue a makeover.

The labour force is aging.  Any new burst of productivity – essential for rising incomes – is going to have to come from older workers, not newer ones.  Part of that is going to have to come from firms making greater capital investments – that is, better machines and IT infrastructure for workers to use.  But part of it is going to have to come from more intensive and continuous skills upgrading on the part of workers’ themselves.  And this is a problem, because historically Canada has been uniquely bad at achieving a culture of skills upgrading.  Go back year after year, report after report, and it’s the same story: where continuous upgrading is concerned, it tends to be concentrated among people who already have high levels of skills.  Those that have get, those that do not, do not.

Part of the problem here is funding.  That’s why we sometimes see government get interested in handing money either to individuals or to firms (for example, the Canada Jobs Grant) to subsidize training.  But I’d argue that money is at best a partial barrier to more training.  A larger barrier is time.  And a lot of existing institutional practices are as much a hindrance as a help in this regard.

Workers don’t have a lot of spare time.  They have jobs, kids, parents, families: all of which make time a scarce resource.  We don’t normally think of time as something governments can control, but they actually do have a couple of policy levers they could pull, if they wanted to.  First, they could create incentives or entitlements to time-off for the purpose of training/re-training.  This idea was mooted 35 years ago in the Macdonald Commission report as a “Time Bank” – every year, workers would accrue a certain amount of time off specifically for the purpose of training.  It would no doubt be a colossally unpopular move among employers, but is still probably something worth considering (and might not create that much dissension provided it was fairly applied across all workplaces and didn’t create free-rider problems).

But the other way to make more time available to people is to radically re-consider the nature of the credentials being sought.  Universities, God Bless ‘em, have never seen a labour market problem they couldn’t design a 1- or 2-year Master’s Degree to solve.  The problem is a) not everyone wants to do a year of full-time study (or the part-time equivalent over a longer period of time) and b) who really wants to wait until next September to get started if you just got laid off last week?

From an adult learners’ perspective, the best thing in the world would be credentials that are both shorter and continuously available.  The latter can be solved to some extent simply by throwing money at it.  Continuous intake is relatively easy if you have more instructors to teach more classes at different times of the year.  Putting a greater fraction of classes online could conceivably bring some economies of scale that would assist in the process.

But the bigger problem is reducing the length of credentials.  In theory, there is a pretty clear way forward, which are called “stackable credentials”.  Many institutions use some variant of this: thirty credits equals a certificate and once you bunch three certificates together you get an applied degree, or something along those lines.  But even the notion of thirty credits can be kind of off-putting if what you think you need is just a minor skills upgrade. What is needed is a trusted provider (which usually means a non-profit provider) to come up with a way to come up with smaller-duration credentials which actually convey to employers a sense of competency/mastery in particular fields, and which could also combine over time (i.e. “stack”) into more traditional credentials like diplomas and degrees.

What’s the government role in this?  Well, the problem is really one of co-ordination.  Individual campuses can experiment with short credentials or competency-based credentials all they like: if employers don’t understand the credentials, they will be worthless.  What is needed is collective action – someone has to corral institutions to work together to create new credential standards, and someone needs to corral business to talk about what feature they would find most useful in new, shorter credentials.

That may sound like a job for somebody like the Business-Higher Education Roundtable.  But frankly, some coercion is called for here.  My guess is if BHER floated this you’d probably get a few Polytechnics showing up to play (because it’s the kind of thing they do) and no one else.  But government has the muscle and dollars to make this happen a heck of a lot more quickly and efficiently.

Now, note I say “government” and not “the Government of Canada”.  It would be better all around if provincial governments, who constitutionally are the ones in charge in this area, took the lead.  But one could argue that the feds – provide they stay the hell away from directly funding institutions or getting too far into the curriculum weeds themselves – could at least nudge the key players towards the table.

Bottom line: if we want higher labour productivity we have to get much more serious about creating opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills.  Since the key pressure point for skills upgrading is time, we need to create new, shorter pathways to meaningful credentials.  That means shorter, stackable credentials.  These will need to be designed by employers and institutions together, but the quickest way to start this program runs through governments.  And there’s no time like the present to get started.

March 15

What Is Innovation/Innovation Policy, Anyway?

I write and tweet a lot about innovation policy, mainly with respect to my frustration with our current government’s two-dimensional views on the subject.  I’ve been meaning to write a piece on how to do innovation policy right, but based on a number of conversations I’ve had with folks, I think it’s important first to deal with the question of: “what is innovation” and “what is innovation policy”? Because frankly these terms are getting slung around with such abandon that they appear to have lost all meaning and many people are simply dismissing the policy area as a large waste of time.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to sympathize with this point of view.  This week in a Vancouver Sun op-ed, UBC President Santa Ono described innovation as “a never-ending exchange between the realities of today and the potential of tomorrow.”  To which I think most people would respond with a heathy “you what, mate?”

More helpfully, Ono also included in his article the OECD definition of Innovation: “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations.”  Even apart from any methodological difficulties in tracking this, it is still a bit tricky as a definition.  For instance, not everything which is new is beneficial or adds value. Crystal Pepsi comes to mind here.

But more broadly, the best way to think of innovation as a policy goal is: can a country/province/whatever become a place where people can put new ideas into practice easily and quickly.  It doesn’t have to be a “new product” (although Canadian governments sometimes act like this is what it means); it can also be a new process.  And it need not be strictly in the commercial sphere; innovation in the public sector is important, too.

Or, at a broader level, how can we be more like Estonia and less like Greece?

Now, as you can imagine, this is tricky because no one actually knows how to be more like Estonia (or Denmark, or Finland – pick a Nordic-ish country).  We can sort of describe what makes them the way they are, but there is no road map to getting from here to there.  But basically the critical questions are:

  1. How do we get ideas to generate and circulate faster?  (This goes back to the Paul Romer question I posed back here).
  2. How do we get people to turn ideas into practical ideas to create new/improved products and processes?
  3. How do we ensure that new products and processes do not get stamped down simply for reasons of inertia or protecting vested interests?

Some of these issues lend themselves to direct government spending.  Some of them are about regulations and incentives, which governments can also change.  And finally, some of them are issues of culture (institutional and otherwise) which is an altogether trickier terrain.

Governments can address the skills part of this through education.  Funding more doctoral students, attracting more top profs, etc. leads to more Highly Qualified Personnel and hence generating more ideas at the frontier of science.  Funding of basic science also plays a role here.  Governments can change the nature of secondary and undergraduate of education in ways that might make workers more likely to be problem-solvers, idea generators and early adopters of other people’s new ideas/technology.  It can incentivize entrepreneurialism through tax policy and to some extent through grants and – maybe, the jury’s still out – education as well.  But culture plays a big role here and credible ideas for how to shift this are thin on the ground (though I think we can all probably agree that a strategy of having Ministers go around encouraging people to “take risks” and “think outside the box” has, to put it politely, a low probability of success).

As for the third part, not squashing new products…obviously regulatory and competition policy really plays a role.  But again, part of it is cultural, and takes place inside firms and other institutions, areas where policy does not easily reach.  Take the medical products industry: how do you combine a culture of looking after patient safety with a culture of encouraging innovation (which by definition means making mistakes on the way to success)?  Or how do you get companies to pursue innovations which may make existing profitable product lines less profitable?

Evidently, this is complicated stuff.  In some ways it is easier to step back and say what Innovation Policy is not.  It is not Science Policy, which is about deciding how to invest in basic research – though Science Policy affects Innovation Policy for obvious reasons.  It is not Growth Policy, which is about finding the highest rates of economic growth in the short term, because Innovation Policy is in the end much more concerned with developing ideas which will matter 10-20 years out than what will boost growth right now.  It is definitely not Industrial Policy, because it is about economy-wide pre-conditions for industry, not about picking winning industries because they seem to be “hot”.

(I have recently been informed that the Ministry of Innovation actually includes my daily blog posts in its media monitoring.  If whoever is in charge of this operation could mark up that last section IN HUGE RED INK before slipping a copy to Minister Bains, that’d be awesome.  Thanks.)

So that’s my take on the meaning of innovation and innovation policy.  Tomorrow: what an ideal policy looks like.

February 27

Can Ottawa Do Innovation?

The National Post’s David Akin had a useful article last week entitled Canada Has Failed at Innovation for 100 years: Can The Trudeau Government Change That?  Read it, it’s good.  It’s based around a new-ish Peter Nicholson article in Canadian Public Policy which is unfortunately not available without a subscription.  But Nicholson’s argument appears to be: we’ve done pretty well our entire history as a country copying or importing technology from Americans: what exactly is it that Ottawa is going to do to “shock” us into becoming a massive innovator?

Good question.  But I have a better question: does it make any sense that the federal government is leading on these kinds of policies?  Wouldn’t provinces bet better suited to the job?  Knee-jerk centralists (my guess: probably half my subscribers) probably find that suggestion pretty horrific.  But hear me out.  There are a number of really good reasons why Ottawa probably isn’t best placed to lead on this file.

First: innovation policy is to a large extent is about people and skills.  And skills policy has been fully in the hands of provincial governments for over twenty years now.  We accept that provincial governments are closer to local labour markets and local business for skills purposes.  Surely the same is also true for innovation?

Second: Canada is huge.  We’re not like Singapore or Israel or Taiwan, where industries are essentially homogenous across the entire country.  We are more like China or the US, where a single industry might look completely different in one part of the country than another.  If you haven’t already read Run of the Red Queen: Government, Innovation, Globalization and Economic Growth in China by Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree, I recommend it.  Besides showing how innovation can be profitable even when it is not of the “new product”/”blue sky” (a truth to which our current government seems utterly oblivious), it shows how the structure of a single industry (in this case, IT) can be utterly different in different parts of a single country.  That’s also true in Canada.  And it’s why it’s tough to draw up decent national policies on a sectoral level.

(A corollary to that second point, which I made back here: because the country is so big, any government attempt to play the “cluster” game in the name of improved innovation is bound to get wrapped up in regional politics pretty quickly.  Anyone who’s watched Montreal and Toronto’s unseemly jockeying for a single big federal investment in Artificial Intelligence will know what I mean.)

Over the course of the past twenty years, of course, many provinces have set up their own innovation ministries or agencies.  But apart from the partial exceptions of Ontario and Quebec, they tend to be poor cousins of the federal ministry: understaffed and not especially well-resourced.  As a result, they’re not at present any more effective than Ottawa in driving innovation.  But that could change with more effective investment.  And of course, Ottawa would always have a role to play: if nothing else, its authority over competition policy means it will always have levers which it can and should use to promote innovation (even if at present it seems extremely reluctant to use this particular lever).

In short, it’s worth considering the hypothesis that it’s not “Canada” which has failed at innovation, but Ottawa.

January 25

The Science Policy Review

So, any day now, the report of the Government of Canada’s Science Policy review should be appearing.  What is that, you ask?  Good question.

“Science policy” is one of those tricky terms.  Sometimes it can mean science as a way of making policy (like when someone claims they want all policy to be “evidence-based); sometimes it’s about policy for or about Science, and the rules and regulations under which it is funded.  This particular Science policy review, chaired by former U of T President David Naylor is a bit narrower; as the mandate letter and key questions show, this review is fundamentally about funding.   In fact, three sets of questions about funding: funding of fundamental research, funding of facilities/equipment, and funding of “platform technologies” (which is irritating innovation policy jargon which makes a lot more senses in IT than in the rest of science, but whatever).

For the first two sets of questions, there’s a heavy tilt towards fitness of purpose of existing funding agencies.  The review’s emphasis is not so much “are we spending enough money” (that’s a political decision) but rather “does the way we spend money make sense”.  For example, one might well ask “does a country of 35 million people and fewer than 100 universities actually need three granting councils, plus CFI, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, Brain Canada, Genome Canada, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund… you get the idea.

There was a frisson of excitement last year when the UK decided to fold all their granting councils into One Big Council – might our Science Review recommend something similar?  Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that fewer councils means lest paperwork and more coherence (the reasons usually given in favour of rationalization), because policies and agendas can survive institutional mergers.  And as a colleague of mine who used to be quite high up in a central agency once said to me: the reason all these agencies proliferated in the first place was that politicians got frustrated with the traditional granting councils and wanted something more responsive.  Paring them back doesn’t necessarily solve the problem – it just re-sets the clock until the next time politicians get itchy.

This itchiness could happen sooner than you think.  Even as the government has been asking Naylor and his expert panel to come up with a more rational scheme of science management A couple of weeks ago it emerged that one of the ideas the Liberals had decided to test in their regular pre-budget focus group work was the idea of spending mega-millions (billions?) on a scientific “Moonshot”: that is, a huge focused effort on one goal or technology such as  – and I quote – driverless cars, unmanned aircraft, or “a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space designed to help people connect to the internet in remote areas or in a crisis situation”.  Seriously.  If any of you thought supporting big science projects over broad-based basic science was a Tory thing, I’m afraid you were sorely mistaken.

Anyways, back to the review.  There’s probably room for the review to provide greater coherence on “big science” and science infrastructure – Nassif Ghoussoub of UBC has provided some useful suggestions here.  There may be some room for reduction in the number of granting agencies (though – bureaucratic turf protection ahoy!) and definitely room to get the councils – especially CIHR – to back off on the idea that every piece of funded research needs to have an end-use in mind (I’d be truly shocked if Naylor didn’t beat the crap out of that particular drum in his final report).

But the problem is that the real challenges in Canadian Science are much more intractable.  Universities hired a lot of new staff in the last fifteen years, both in order to improve their research output and to deal with all those new undergraduates we’ve been letting in.  This leads to more competition.  Meanwhile, government funding has declined somewhat since 2008 – even after that nice little unexpected boost the feds gave the councils last budget.  At the same time, granting councils – most of all CIHR – have been increasing the average size of awards.  Which is great if you can get a grant; the problem is that with stagnant budgets the absolute number of grants is falling.  So what do rational individual researchers do with more competition for fewer awards?  They submit more applications to increase their chances of getting an award.  Except that this drives down acceptance rates still further – on current trends, we’ll be below 10% before too long.

Again, this isn’t just a Canadian phenomenon – we’re seeing similar results in a number of countries.  The only solution (bar more funding, which isn’t really in the Review’s remit) is to give out a larger number of smaller awards.  But this runs directly contrary to the prevailing political wind, which seems to be about making fewer, bigger awards: Canada Excellence Research Chairs (there’s rumours of a new round!), CFREF, Moonshots, whatever.  You can make a case for all those programs but the question is one of opportunity costs.  CFREF might be brilliant at focusing institutional resources on a particular problem and acting as anchors for new tech/business clusters: but is it a better use of money than seeding money widely to researchers through the usual peer-review mechanism?  (for the record, I think CFREF makes infinitely more sense than CERCs or Moonshots, but am a bit more agnostic on CFERF vs. granting councils).

Or, to be more brutal: should we have moonshots and CFREF and a 10% acceptance rate on council competitions, or no moonshots or CFREF and a 20% acceptance rate?  We’ve avoided public discussion on these kinds of trade-offs for too long.  Hopefully, Naylor’s review will bring us the more pointed debate this topic needs.

January 11

Admissions policies: Marks-Based, Broad-Based, or Random?

Though here in egalitarian Canada we don’t like to talk about it much, the fact of the matter is that universities are selective.  More people want to enter them than there are places available.  The more prestigious the institution, the greater the imbalance between demand and supply of places, thus requiring more challenging and discerning barriers to entry (though self-selection reduces actual application numbers somewhat).  The question is: on what basis should we select students?

(OK, some of you are now saying “not so fast! not all universities are selective!  What about countries like France or Germany which give automatic access to everyone who gets a Baccalaureat/Abitur? which have “open access”?  Or what about Quebec?”  Well, in fact “open access” countries are nothing of the sort – they just put the selection filter further back in the educational chain when they stream kids at age 12 or so.  Quebec is a different case: the UQs will accept anyone in possession of a CEGEP diplome d’etudes collegiales (DEC) which in global terms is pretty radical.  But selection still exists at the rest of the province’s universities).

Now, of course, in selecting students, everyone thinks we should consider “merit”.  But in most of the world, merit simply means “taking exams well”.  It means passing a set of secondary matriculation exams (e.g. in France and Germany), or a set of national university entrance exam (China’s gaokao, College Scholastic Ability Tests in Korea, etc) or even in some cases specific university entrance exams (for instance, the University of Tokyo – an exam sufficiently difficult that specially-programmed AI robots cannot yet pass.  Occasionally, as in the US or Sweden, psychometric exams like the SAT are used as well.  Are these methods fair?  Depends on your criteria.  If you think test and exam-testing are the be-all and end-all of merit, then yeah.  If not, no.  But finding alternatives is tricky.

Famously, the elite US universities went for a broader definition of merit in the 1920s, one which emphasized character and sporting ability.  Of course, the reason they did this was because their WASP donor base was getting pretty freaked out about the number of Jews getting in under the old scholastic-ability-only rules (see Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen for more on this).  That worked until the late 1960s/early1970s, when growing concern about racial inequality led some to start musing about whether elite private institutions shouldn’t be forced to accept more minority students.  Lo and behold, the definition of merit was changed to avoid clubby, exclusionary things like “character” (at least in the clubbable sense of that word) and include nice things like “diversity”.  Of course what it didn’t do was restore points for simple “academic merit” alone.  Nowadays, some see this as discriminating quite significantly against one ethnic group in particular: Asian-Americans, who by some reckonings are estimated to have a 67% lower chance of admission that a white student with similar GPAs/SATs.

In Canada, we’ve mostly relied on a portfolio of marks over high schools rather than a set of exam results, but the result is pretty similar: the academically inclined (a status yuuuugely-correlated with parental education levels) win out just the same.  Because none of our institutions is that selective, we’ve never seen the kind of crazy admissions scenes the US has, but a few selected hard-to-enter faculties have, most notably the Sauder School at UBC.  Back in the early 2000s, it took averages in the mid-90s or higher to make it in.  But the business community who hired Sauder graduates wasn’t enthused about the quality of the output: too many kids who knew math, not enough who understood leadership.  So Sauder moved to something called broad-based admissions, which basically meant a more intensive evaluation of students in order to create an entering class which was less academically focussed and more “well-rounded”.  Not surprisingly, some think this gives an edge to the white upper middle class and served mostly to reduce the number of Chinese students at Sauder (which, say it softly, may have been what the Vancouver business community meant when it said it wanted fewer kids who were “good at math”).  Yet broad-based admissions were such a success that they were introduced across the university just a few years later.

Now there are ways to run broad-based systems which don’t simply reinforce cultural capital:  the Loran Scholarships have a long track-record in doing precisely that, mainly by evaluating achievement in the context of parental background.  But most systems don’t do that, and as the University of Manchester’s  Steven Jones’ has pointed out in a couple of excellent recent articles, most attempts to broaden the base of assessment end up reinforcing privilege.  Which leaves you with a conundrum.    If you set a firm marks-based standard, you’re probably giving a huge advantage to those with better-educated parents; in a broad-based system, you’re probably giving an advantage to those with a lot of cultural capital.

Is there another way to do it?  Well, yes.  Two, as a matter of fact.  The first is to try to select on something other than academics or character.  Robert J. Sternberg, an American academic, has written an engaging book entitled College Admissions for the 21st Century which recounts his own efforts to create tests to complement the SAT/ACT by measuring things like tacit knowledge, wisdom, and creativity.  Some skepticism is warranted – Sternberg is talking his own book, after all – but it’s an intriguing effort that more should emulate.

The second way is lotteries, which have been used extensively for medical school admissions in both the UK and the Netherlands (though it is being phased out in the latter).  Usually what happens in admissions lotteries is that the bar for admission to the lotteries is set substantially below what it would be if pure competition were allowed to reign.  So, if we take the case of somewhere like the Sauder School, instead of setting the bar at a 95 or 96% average, you set the bar at say 80%: not so low as to let in just anyone, not so high as to exclude candidates who might really benefit from a Sauder education.  Maybe that gives you five times as many students as you can handle: fine, just pick one out of five of these students randomly.  In the Dutch variant, you might give a bit of an edge to higher-scoring students by giving them multiple entries into the lottery, but that’s optional.

Clearly, this doesn’t give you “the best” students, if you define “the best” as doing well on exams or being elected student council President.  But that’s the point.  It gives you a good class of students without creating educational arms races which produce either the gruesome test-taking cultures of East Asia or the nauseating college admissions industry of the US.  As such, it deserves to be in wider use.

December 01

Important Changes to Canada Student Loans

The last federal budget made one large signal improvement to student assistance: the abolition of the education tax credit, and the re-investment of that money into an improved Canada Student Grant. Less remarked upon was a promise to simplify need assessment. Now the details of that effort are emerging, and they are pretty interesting.

The change has to do with the student contribution rules. In the Canadian student aid system, various forms of student income and assets are considered “resources” and the more resources you have, the less need you have and the less aid you can claim. If you have no resources at all you can usually get maximum aid, but as resources rise, aid is effectively clawed back. Different forms of income have traditionally been assessed in different ways – summer earnings were clawed back at one rate, in-study earnings were clawed back at another. Personal savings in one’s one name (as opposed to RESPs) were clawed back effectively at 100%, as were scholarships (subject to an exemption of $3000). All these different clawback rates were confusing, they required students to provide a lot of data (student aid forms would be a great deal simpler without all this) and – in theory at least – they discouraged work.

The new CSLP need assessment system aims to correct all of this. Instead of assessing all these different sources of income, under the news students will simply be required to make a flat personal contribution of between $1,500 and $3,000, based on family income (Crown wards, students with disabilities, students with dependents, indigenous students will see this requirement waived and not be required to produce even the minimum resources). Any income they earn above that level – whether through work or scholarships or what have you – will be theirs to keep; there will be no further clawback on that income. This of course also provides a lot of scope to simplify student aid forms.

What will the impact of this be? Well, it’s a two-sided coin. On the one hand, there is no doubt that students will have more income at their disposal and that should help with issues of retention and student poverty. At the same time, a reduction in assessed resources will mean an increased in assessed need which in turn will drive higher borrowing. Ceteris paribus, that means higher student debt, although presumably the increase in Canada Student Grants will offset this somewhat. That’s not necessarily bad – as I’ve shown before , student loan burdens are currently a lot smaller than they were fifteen years ago thanks to lower taxes and interest rates. As a result, it’s likely most borrowers would be able to shoulder more debt. But it’s a trade-off: more money today will mean more burden tomorrow.

There are some other changes worth noting as well. The most important – and from a personal point of view the most satisfying – has to do with required spousal contributions. Eleven years ago I wrote a piece called I Love You Brad But You Reduce My Student Loan Eligibility, which outlined the absolutely ludicrous expectations re: spousal contributions embedded in the Canada Student Loans Program. At the time, the clawback was effectively 80% on all income over $12,000 which was – and I am using the technical term here – totally bananas. It effectively cut off anyone with a working partner from student assistance. As of next year, the threshold for contributions will be raised substantially (the exact level has not yet been fixed but my impression is that is probably in the $30,000 range) and expected contributions will only amount to 10% of marginal income over that level. That’s excellent news: it’s going to put much more financial resources at in the hands of adult learners in married or common-law relationships. Similarly, CSLP plans to cease treating money obtained by First Nations students through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) as a resource – thus giving those students access to much more money as well.

Overall, this is the biggest change to need assessment since the introduction of the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act in 1994. But there is a catch to all this: because student loans are a joint federal-provincial responsibility, for these changes to work smoothly both federal and provincial governments have to agree to assess things similarly. But these changes cost money and provinces don’t have much of it. Ontario and Alberta have already essentially adopted the flat contribution policy, but it’s not clear either will accept the rest of the package, although I have a hard time imagining Ontario not doing so. The others, though: there is at least a chance that some will choose not to go along with the deal, and stick to the current system of need assessment (in program jargon, this is called “dual assessment”). In such provinces, there will be no simplification of the student aid form because the province will still require the various pieces of information about different types of income. And dual assessment makes it harder, not simpler, to explain aid awards. But since Ontario and Alberta make up something close to 75% of the Canada Student Loans Program, the feds may not be that fussed by other provinces not making the leap.

In any case: the Canada Student Loans Program is making things a lot easier for students and that is to be applauded. It might not work out quite as well as it could because of some legitimate difficulties provinces face in following suit. But overall: this is really good news. Kudos to those in Ottawa (and Gatineau) for making it happen.

November 03

The European Way of Student Services

One of the delights of working in international higher education is that while higher education is pretty much isomorphic the world over, it’s not entirely so. There’s not so much variation that expertise isn’t transferable, but not so little that you can’t be learn something new by appreciating another country’s system.  One are of particular interest is student accommodations and student services.

In North America we take it for granted that student services and residence are a responsibility of institutions – who else would do it?  But there are at least two answers to that the private sector could do it, or a public corporation not associated with a particular institution could do it.

If you hang out near universities for any length of time in Australia, for instance, you’ll see plenty of private-sector solutions for student housing. Companies build cheap, small-ish dorms (50-100 occupants) near universities, and rent them to students.  Which university?  Doesn’t matter.  So long as you’re a student, they’ll rent you a small single apartment.  It’s nothing special – IKEA to the max – but for someone looking for something cheap and full of fellow students, it makes a lot of sense.

(Some – but by no means all – of the companies building and operating student residences seem to be international in scope.  I met and chatted with representatives of one such company at NAFSA in Denver earlier this year and for the life of me I cannot figure out how this makes sense.  Every country has its own laws and building codes so where would economies of scale accrue? Still, apparently someone thinks there’s money to be made in this business.)

In Europe, however, there is a different approach: national student services companies.  In Germany, Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW), a government-funded non-profit, is responsible for a network of student residences scattered across the country an addition to canteens and counseling services at a number of universities.  In France, a similarly-organized CNOUS is responsible for residences alongside things like student exchanges. DSW also provides certain other services for students like Legal Aid and assistance in obtaining student financial assistance (DSW in some ways seems to think of itself at least partially as a protector/champion of student rights somewhat in opposition to the universities and government).  The important thing here is that residence is not tied to enrollment in a particular university.  At a given residence in Munich or Berlin you might find students from one of a number of local institutions.

Now, you can see some real advantages to this.  First, an organization which specializes in student services might be more effective in performing it than one that sometimes views it as tangential to the “main” mission (say, at your average research university).  Second, it might be cheaper and more efficient. In Montreal, why duplicate housing services across UQAM, McGill and Concordia, all of which are within five stops of each other on the city’s Green Line?  Why not stick them all together?

But what’s possible in Europe isn’t always possible in North America.  Until fairly recently in Europe, universities were much more creatures of government than North American ones ever were – having a different state agency take over part of the system was no big deal (hell, Max Planck and CNRS took over most of the research mission so why not student services?) In North America, institutions (some of them, anyway) think of student services as part of their value proposition, an element on which they compete with other institutions.  Until very recently, that notion of inter-institutional “competition” was mostly absent from the European way of thinking.

In truth, the real reason most universities in North America wold be loath to take a European route is that residences matter for alumni donations. Research on this is pretty clear: the shine people take to their university is closely related to the strength of the attachments they form while there.  And though residences aren’t the only place students form attachments, they’re high up the list.  Take residences away from the institutional experiences, and your appeal to alumni is going to be a lot weaker.

But it’s an interesting model to ponder nonetheless.  Makes you think about what the true “boundaries” of a university really are.

October 03

Peas in a Pod

A few weeks ago, there was an absolutely hysterical story on CBC about a Fraser Institute report on carbon taxes.  You can read the article for yourself, but the argument was basically this: carbon taxes are bad because they would have a disproportionate effect on people in lower income brackets.

Assuming you believe the Fraser Institute actually gives a rat’s hairy behind about people in lower income brackets, this is not an entirely stupid point; multiple studies in the US have come to this conclusion. But it depends quite a bit on the design of the tax: if you use part of the revenue to fund lump-sum transfers to poorer families to offset the effects of the tax, one can actually develop a tax which is relatively progressive (see this paper from Resources for the Future for some simulations on the incidence of different types of carbon taxes).  So yes, if you design a bad carbon tax, it probably will have regressive effects.  But design a good one and you’re off to the races.

You may at this point be asking yourself “why is Alex droning on about carbon taxes in what is ostensibly a higher education blog”?  Fair question. And the answer is: because the Fraser Institute’s argument about carbon taxes is EXACTLY the same as the CFS/CAUT/Usual suspects on the left argument against tuition.  Fees are seen as regressive because they represent a higher proportion of family income to the poor than the rich (see here for example)

Now, if we believe that CFS and the usual suspects on one side and the Fraser Institute on the other both actually believe their own argument, then we have a possibility of some radical political re-alignment in Canada.  The hard left should oppose carbon taxes, the hard right should oppose tuition fees – after all, who would want to hurt the poor?

But, as you may suspect, that isn’t the whole story.  In precisely the same way that the Fraser Institute assumes away any sensible attempt to hold the poor harmless for a carbon tax through rebates or transfers, the usual suspects on the left completely ignore grants and scholarships as an offset to tuition fees, and so exaggerate – and occasionally entirely misrepresent – the actual distributional impact of net tuition.  One of the reasons I was so pleased last year about the Government of Ontario’s decision to make net tuition “free” for low income students was not so much because it improved students’ welfare (net tuition was already less than zero for many thousands of students), but precisely because it makes this rhetorical BS harder to maintain.

Anyway, even if students grants or energy tax rebates didn’t exist, objecting to putting a price on something because any non-zero price “impacts the poor more than the rich” is insane.  You could object to every product in a market economy that way: beer, popcorn, baby formula, pistachios – they all “impact the poor more than the rich”.  The point is to raise incomes at the bottom to help people purchase more goods at less of a burden, not get rid of the price mechanism.  You’d think that a right-wing pro-market think-tank might actually grasp that.

But then of course, said right-wing think tank does understand this.  Their argument is an argument of convenience and not conviction.  In the service of defeating carbon taxes, no argument is too stupid to make.  As is the case for the usual suspects and their hatred of tuition.  Peas in a pod.

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