HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Politics

June 08

That Andrew Scheer Free Speech Promise

That Andrew Scheer Free Speech Promise

You may recall that a few weeks ago I profiled the higher education/science/youth proposals of the various Conservative Party leadership hopefuls.  You may also recall that the candidate who eventually won the context, Andrew Scheer, had one proposal that distinguished him from the rest of the pack, to wit:

In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”.  He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP.  Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.

Scheer elaborated on this just once in the media, so far as I can tell, telling the National Post on April 19th  of troubling trends on campus “a pro-life group having its event cancelled at Wilfrid Laurier University; a student newspaper at McGill refusing to print pro-Israel articles; and protest surrounding University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson for his views on gender pronouns.”

A lot of people are scratching their heads about this.  What the heck is that all about? they wondered.  Does he actually mean it?  And how would that work, exactly, anyway?

Let’s take those questions separately.

What the heck is this about?  It is hard to see any pressing cases of people who were simply not allowed to speak led to this statement.  The stuff at Wilfrid Laurier was perhaps childish but no one was prevented from speaking.  The McGill Daily is perhaps wrong in its editorial policy, but freedom of the press also means the freedom not to publish things.  And students at U of T are presumably as free to criticize Jordan Peterson as Peterson himself is free to be an obnoxious jerk.

There certainly have been cases where speakers have been shouted out or prevented from speaking on campus because of protests but not recently (I can think of two off the top of my head: Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia in 2002 and Anne Coulter at the University of Ottawa in 2010.)  If we broaden the complaint to other things like taking down “free speech walls” because of perceived derogatory comments, or preventing abortion rights groups from displaying pictures of aborted fetuses at tabled in busy hallways because it’s gross and upsetting, you can probably come up with stuff that is slightly more recent.   But I suspect he’s really reacting to south-of-the-border stuff that happens to make the news up here, in particular the events at Middlebury College, a tony liberal arts school in Vermont where controversial social scientist Charles Murray was fairly violently and crudely prevented from speaking back in January.

(If you want a really exhaustive compendium of perceived slights to free speech in Canadian universities, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms provides one annually in its Campus Freedom Index, the 2016 edition of which is available here).

So if there’s no urgent policy problem here, what’s it about?  My guess is that roughly akin to Stephen Harper’s anti-census position.   It’s a way of throwing meat to the party’s populist faction without actually adopting a fully populist platform.

Does he actually mean it?  Hard to tell, but my guess is that he does, at least to the extent that he wants to be able to have a platform to talk about unaccountable lefty cultural institutions.  It’s not a loosely-worded pledge: specific exemptions have been carved out for faith-based institutions (part of Scheer’s base), which I think suggests this isn’t something he came up with on the back of a cocktail napkin. Plus, in his victory speech, he went out of his way to repeat the pledge, which he was in no way obliged to do.  And he got a huge cheer from the crowd for doing so.  Antithetical to higher education sensibilities it may be, but it plays with the base.

(And yes, it has been pointed out a few times that among the people who might be most put out about this would be the pro-Israel types who try to stop the “BDS/End Israeli Apartheid” rhetoric on campuses, and who were a particular target of Tory woo-ing during the Harper years.  I think the safe assumption is that Scheer knows and doesn’t care).

How would that work, exactly, anyway?  This of course is the big question, and the one that has most people scratching their heads.  Presumably there would be some kind of complaint process: but to whom would the complaint be addressed?  What kind of body in Ottawa would have the ability to a) judge whether or not an institution was or was not promoting a culture of free speech and b) the power to order a remedy in the form of full or partial removal of funding from federal granting councils?  Does Scheer really think an administrative body could do this?  How would institutions not litigate both of these decisions into outer space?

Also, how does Scheer imagine that provincial governments – you know, the ones which actually have the constitutional responsibility to run and regulate postsecondary education – will react to any intrusion into their jurisdiction?  Can you imagine, for instance, how the Andrew Potter fiasco at McGill would have escalated if Andrew Scheer had taken Potter’s side?  The province, which genuinely lost its mind on the subject for about a couple of days (one major newspaper ran a piece comparing Potter to Rwandan genocidaires), would have gone berserk if Ottawa had tried to meddle.

These complications, in the end, are probably going to be used to create a graceful way to get out of the specifics of the pledge.  No government is going to put the University of Toronto’s hundreds of millions of tri-council funding at risk over a spat about personal pronouns, or yank nine figures worth of funding from McGill because it doesn’t like the Daily’s editorial policy on Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine.  But it might really want to keep those issues in the public eye for partisan purposes.

So, in the event of a Conservative victory, expect an office to be created that would report on “violations” of campus free speech, no doubt staffed by former authors of the Campus Freedom Index.  Money won’t be placed at risk, but institutions would be put on notice.  And Conservative partisans would be delighted.  Which is the real point of the policy.

One can deplore this attitude, of course.  But the point is that Scheer believes that beating this drum will increase his chances of winning power.  He’s probably not completely wrong to think that.  Wiser heads will spend time in the coming months pondering why bashing universities is popular to begin with.

April 17

British Columbia: Provincial Manifesto Analysis

On May 9th, our left-coasters go to the polls.  What are their options as far a post-secondary education is concerned?

Let’s start with the governing Liberals.  As is often the case with ruling parties, some of their promises are things that are both baked into the fiscal framework and will take longer than one term to complete (e.g. “complete re-alignment of $3 billion in training funds by 2024”), or are simply re-announcements of previous commitments (page 85-6 of the manifesto appears to simply be a list of all the SIF projects the province already agreed to co-fund), or take credit for things that will almost certainly happen anyways (“create 1000 new STEM places”…. in a province which already has 55,000 STEM seats and where STEM spots have been growing at a rate of about 1700/year anyway…interestingly the Liberals didn’t even bother to cost that one…)

When you throw those kinds of promises away, what you are left with is a boatload of micro-promises, including: i) making permanent the current BC Training Tax Credit for employers, ii) creating a new Truck Logger training credit (yes, really), iii) spending $10M on open textbooks over the next 4 years, iv) reducing interest rates on BC student loans to prime, v) making minor improvements to student aid need assessment, vi) providing a 50% tuition rebate to Armed Forces Veterans, vii) creating a centralized province-wide admission system and viii) allowing institutions to build more student housing (currently they are restricted from doing so because any institutional debt is considered provincial debt and provincial debt is more or less verboten…so this is a $0 promise just to relax some rules).  There’s nothing wrong with any of those, of course, but only the last one is going to make any kind of impact and as a whole it certainly doesn’t add up to a vision.  And not all of this appears to be new money: neither the student loan changes nor the centralized application system promises are costed, which suggests funds for these will cannibalized from elsewhere within the system.  The incremental cost of the remaining promises?  $6.5 million/year.  Whoop-de-do.  Oh, and they’re leaving the 2% cap on tuition rises untouched.

What about the New Democrats?  Well, they make two main batches of promises.  One is about affordability, and consists of matching the Liberal pledge on a tuition cap, slightly outdoing them on provincial student loan interest (eliminating it on future and past loans, which is pretty much the textbook definition of “windfall gains”), and getting rid of fees for Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language Program (which, you know, GOOD).  There’s also an oddly-worded pledge to provide a $1,000 completion grant “for graduates of university, college and skilled trades programs to help pay down their debt when their program finishes”: based on the costing and wording, I think that means the grant is restricted to those who have provincial student loans.

The NDP also has a second batch of policies around research – $50M over two years to create a graduate scholarship fund and $100M (over an unspecified period, but based on the costing, it’s more than two years) to fund expansion of technology-related programs in BC PSE institutions.  There is also an unspecified (and apparently uncosted) promise to expand tech-sector co-op programs.  Finally, they are also promising to match the Liberals on the issue of allowing universities to build student housing outside of provincial controls on capital spending.

Finally, there are the Greens, presently running at over 20% in the polls and with a real shot at achieving a significant presence in the legislature for the first time.  They have essentially two money promises: one, “to create a need-based grant system” (no further details) and two, an ungodly bad idea to create in BC the same graduate tax credit rebate that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and now Manitoba all have had a shot at (at least those provinces had the excuse that they were trying to combat out-migration; what problem are the BC Greens trying to solve?).

Hilariously, the Green’s price-tag for these two items together is…$10 million.  Over three years.  Just to get a sense of how ludicrous that is, the Manitoba tax credit program cost $55 million/year in a province a quarter the size.  And within BC, the feds already give out about $75M/year in up-front grants.  So I think we need to credit the Greens with being more realistic than their federal cousins (remember the federal green manifesto?  Oy.), but they have a ways to go on realistic budgeting.

(I am not doing a manifesto analysis for the BC Conservatives because a) they haven’t got one and b) I’ve been advised that if they do release one it will probably be printed in comic sans.)

What to make of all this?  Under Gordon Campbell, the Liberals were a party that “got” post-secondary education and did reasonably well by it; under Christy Clark it’s pretty clear PSE can at best expect benign neglect.  The Greens’ policies focus on price rather than quality, one of their two signature policies is inane and regressive, and their costing is off by miles.

That leaves the NDP.  I wouldn’t say this is a great manifesto, but it beats the other two.  Yeah, their student aid policies are sub-optimally targeted (they’re all for people who’ve already finished their programs, so not much access potential), but to their credit they’ve avoided going into a “tuition freezes are magic!” pose.  Alone among the parties, they are putting money into expansion and graduate studies and even if you don’t like the tech focus, that’s still something.

But on the whole, this is a weak set of manifestos.  I used to say that if I was going to run a university anywhere I’d want it to be In British Columbia.  It’s the least-indebted jurisdiction in Canada, has mostly favourable demographics, has easy access from both Asia (and its students) and from the well-off American northwest.  And it’s got a diversified set of institutions which are mostly pretty good at what they do.  Why any province would want to neglect a set of institutions like that is baffling; but based on these manifestos it seems clear that BC’s PSE sector isn’t getting a whole lot of love from any of the parties.  And that’s worrying for the province’s long-term future.

August 03

A tipping point for internationalization?

Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow.  Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated.  Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it.  Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization?  We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.

The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say.  And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing.  But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.

To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping.  None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term.  Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit.  But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.

Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable.  If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers.  But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.

Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge.  Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were.  The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country.  The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point.  In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls.  This is not good.

And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries.  The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics.  In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.”  In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech.  These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more.  These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers  will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.

Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today.  Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world.  Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom.  Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.

I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it.  But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years.  Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.

July 14

Brexit

Morning, all.

Everyone’s writing a Brexit thinkpiece these days.  Literally, everyone.  I’m feeling left out.  So here’s mine.

1) Brexit isn’t a foregone conclusion.  Yes, Leave won 52% of a non-binding referendum based on a pack of lies about the results of future negotiations that would make the PQ blush.  But the UK government has yet to invoke Article 50, the clause in the EU constitution that signals a 2-year countdown to departure, and will certainly not do so until a new PM is chosen.They may not do so until after the French and German elections next year, and as the realities of negotiating a divorce sink in they may never do so (and – irony of ironies, there are not enough trade lawyers in the UK to negotiate such deals, so they are having to import them ) .  Even if they do start negotiations, the final settlement may be so far from the Leave fairytale that there would almost certainly be a huge demand for a second referendum before ratification.  So all this handwringing may be for naught.

2) Even if Brexit doesn’t happen, this episode can cause a lot of damage.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Erasmus student mobility program yet, but with racist incidents up 500% since the vote, you can bet there will fewer European students thinking London is a place they’ll feel secure.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Horizon 2020 European research scheme yet, but multi-national scientific teams have been pulling UK researchers’ names from their proposals in anticipation of Brexit.  And the idea that the UK will make up for the drop in funding?  Good luck with that.  Paradoxically, the longer the uncertainty about Brexit, the less likely the UK will actually pull the trigger; but conversely, the longer they wait, the greater the damage will be.

3) What will happen to International student flows?  Now this is where it gets tricky.  A lot of the focus right now is on EU students, and the fear that they won’t come to the UK because they will have to pay international student fees instead of domestic ones.  But domestic fees are already pretty high (and in humanities and social sciences are set well above the cost of delivery). If universities want to keep those students they could always grant concessionary fees to EU students and keep them paying exactly what they’re paying right now.  No, I think the real issue with EU students has to do with whether students still think the UK is a place they want to spend a part of their lives.  Lots of them now go assuming they can stay and work there: no more.  But it’s not clear that countries like Canada or Australia would be able to pick up on this loss.  If the point of going to London was because it was a “destination” rather than simply a chance to learn English, it’s not obvious that Melbourne or Toronto would be a satisfactory second choice.

It’s the same with non-EU students: you might think that there would be a lot of non-EU students who might be dissuaded from going either because of increasing incidence of racism or because London was no longer a way into the EU.  Since the Tories took power it’s been increasingly difficult for graduating students to immigrate anyway, so it’s unlikely to be the latter: Teresa May’s immigration saw that lot off years ago.  But the racism/intolerance thing?  That’s a vulnerability.

4) Can Canadian universities and colleges cash in on this?  Yes. Advertise a lot in Asian markets where UK currently does well.  Emphasize security and multiculturalism.  Talk about possibilities for immigration.  And do it fast, because odds are the Aussies are already there doing it.

Hope you’re all having a good summer.

June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.

March 29

Who Won and Who Lost in the CSLP Re-Shuffle

(Warning to readers: today’s blog is a long read about student aid policy.  Skip it if this kind of wonkery isn’t to your taste.)

Last week’s historic changes to the Canada Student Loans Program – which saw the elimination of the Education and Textbook Tax Credits, and an increase of 50% in Canada Student Grants – is a very complicated piece of policy to analyze.  Remember that there is no new money in this set-up: any new money given to one set of students through grants is money taken away from another set of students in tax credits.  So it’s reasonable to ask the question: “who won and who lost?” because governments sure as heck aren’t eager to spell this stuff out.

If you want to refresh yourself on the details of the tax credit/grant switcheroo, go back to our budget analysis document and read pages 2-6.  Got it?  Good.  Then we’ll begin.

Winners and losers get divided up along three axes: by geography, by “family” income, and by full-time/part-time status.  We’ll start with geography, and move down from there.

Quebec: Every single full-time student in Quebec loses $558 from the disappearance of the tax credits.  What they will get back is uncertain. The Canada Student Grants program does not operate in Quebec, so no one will “win” by getting money from that source.  Instead, the government of Quebec will receive something in the region of $500 million from the government of Canada over the next four years in “alternative payments” (that’s a rise of about 40% on what the province currently gets).  Will the government invest all that money in student aid?  We don’t know because the government is being non-committal at the moment.  If it does, how will it do so?  Again, no clue.  So we have literally no idea who the winners and losers will be in Quebec.

The Rest of Canada, Bar Ontario: Again, every single FT student will lose $558 in tax credits.  If they are considered “low-income” (I’ll come back to this), they will – once the changes are fully phased-in for 2017 – get an extra $1,000 in grants and thus be “up” on the deal by $442.  If they are not at all eligible for grants, they will be “down” $558.  What happens to the students in between – the so-called “middle-income students” – is a little unclear.

First, who are “middle-income students”?  The definition varies by province and family size (see Tables 10A and 10B here), but if you’re a dependent student from a family of four, it means (roughly) those from families earning between $45,000 and $85,000; if you’re a single independent student, it means those earning between $23,000 and $43,000 (most independent students are low-income and eligible for maximum grants, but not all of them take advantage of the program).

Now, if all you look at is the 2016-17 changes to Canada Student Grants (+$400), and you subtract the $558 in missing credits, you might think “holy cow, these middle-income students are out $158!”  Which, to be honest, I did briefly on budget night.  But the program changes aren’t ending in 2016-17.  In 2017-18, CSLP wants to stop giving out these grants as a step function, and smooth the curve, roughly like so:

Figure 1: CSG Value by Income Level, 2015-16 vs. 2017-18

Fig.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Caveats on graph: that’s for a family of four in Ontario; mileage may vary by province and family size, and we don’t know exactly what the smoothing formula will look like.)

This is a very different kind of picture.  Those just above the low-income/middle-income cut-off become massive winners – their annual grant amount will increase by almost $2,200.  However, at the other end of the spectrum, those just below the middle-income cut off – say, families making about $80K – will see changes of less than $558, and so need to be counted among the “worse-off”.

But this still isn’t the final story, because there’s another CSG change scheduled for 2018-19, which will involve extending the middle-income cut out-off somewhat (my understanding is that for our hypothetical family it will be slightly north of $100,000/yr).  That won’t help the people just below $80k, but it will make “winners” out of a number of people in the $80-100K range.

Figure 2: CSG by Income Level, 2015-16, 2017-2018, 2018-19

Fig.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Caveats on this graph are same as previous, only this time we have even less idea what the exact formula will look like.  Think of it as an artist’s rendering of a bunch of vague statements in the Budget and the Liberal Manifesto.)

Based on this, what we can probably say is that all independent students will end up as net beneficiaries (if they bother to apply for aid), as will all dependent students coming from families with incomes below $100K (bar a few with incomes in the $75-80K range).  Above that line, there will be losers to the tune of $558/year.

Ontario: The situation in Ontario is a little more complex because in addition to the CSL changes there are the similar changes to the provincial program announced in the February provincial budget.  Because the province is killing both its own education amount tax credit and its own tuition tax credit, every student (and/or their family) is losing $1,176 in combined tax relief.

Now, who actually wins and loses is difficult to tell at the moment because we really have no idea what the provincial formula will look like.  Based on a tiny sliver of information contained in charts 1.16 and 1.17 of the Ontario Budget, my understanding is that dependent students from families making under about $80,000 are net winners – in some cases by a thousand dollars, or even a bit more.  Above $110,000 it’s all net losers – students from families above this level will keep the grants they currently have but lose all their tax credits.  In between, the best guess is that all will be net losers; however, the exact amount of the loss will depend on the nature of the CSLP 2018-19 changes.

That’s dependent students – what about independent ones?  Here, it’s *very* difficult to tell.  Unlike the federal grants, current Ontario grants are restricted to dependent students, and the language in last month’s Budget is ambiguous as to whether independent students will have access to the new grants. I think it’s telling that none of the examples given in this Ontario budget backgrounder are independent students; this implies that the province simply hasn’t yet figured out what the rules for these students will be.  So for the moment we simply show how the winners and losers will break out among independent students.

(Nota bene: if you’re wondering why the Ontario change seems to have a worse winners-to-losers ratio than the federal one, it’s because money in the system is not conserved.  If you read the text of the budget carefully, you’ll note that some of the money from the eliminated tax credits is going to universities and colleges – students themselves will, on aggregate, receive less money in total after the change than before.  Less money = fewer winners.)

Part-Time Students:  You’ll notice that I’ve been focusing on full-time students: that’s because the calculus is quite different for the country’s half-million or so part-time students.  Part-timers receive a smaller amount of education and textbook credits: only $168 federally.  They all lose this amount; part-timers in Ontario will also lose an additional $100-200 or so depending on how much tuition they are paying.  The federal system makes up for this in a tiny, tiny way by increasing bursaries for part-time students – something which currently only about 13,000 students receive.  The Ontario system does not give money to part-time students at all.  So for this demographic, it seems that nearly everyone loses from the re-shuffle.

So, what do we conclude from all this?  Two things:

1)  Part-time students everywhere, and (possibly) mature students in Ontario, don’t do very well out of these changes.

2)  In the main, among dependent students at least, there will be a growing gap in net prices by family income.  In Ontario, families with below median incomes will see their net tuition fall by $1,000 or so; those with incomes in the top quartile will see an increase of nearly $1,200.  Basically, tuition is becoming a much more progressive user fee.  And that’s altogether to the good.

March 22

Marketing “Free Tuition”

With a major student aid reform almost certain to be announced in the federal budget today, it’s worth pondering how the Ontario Liberals have managed to get themselves into a bit of a mess with how they’ve marketed their own changes to student aid.

The Ontario reform, as you will recall, was a shuffling of money rather than an infusion of one (note: some of the shuffling was federal shuffling, not provincial shuffling – that is, the provincial changes are predicated on the feds making changes in today’s budget.  Nobody said that last month, but it’s true.  So if you’re wondering how today’s changes will affect the provincial changes, the answer is they’re already baked-in).

The province finally noted that it was spending a heck of a lot of money on grants, loan remission, and tax credits; so much so that some students were getting more in aid than they were paying in tuition.  And so it decided – wisely – that instead of getting beat up for having high tuition all the time, it could re-purpose all those different piles of cash into one big up-front grant so that it would be more obvious that “net” tuition was zero, or close to zero.

If you read the Ontario budget papers, all of this was stated in quite careful terms.  It’s replete with sensible, cautious, and accurate phrases like “Ninety per cent of dependent college students and 70 per cent of dependent university students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive grants greater than their average cost of tuition.”  However, the Finance Minister’s speech was slightly less cautious: “For college and university students who come from families with incomes of less than $50,000, average tuition will be free”.  By the time that made it into the newspapers it became “free tuition for low- and middle-income kids”.  And it got such a decent reaction that the Liberal Party (as opposed to the government of Ontario) immediately started crowing about “free tuition” and placing Premier Wynne in front of banners with those two words on it.

This is problematic, as the Liberals themselves are starting to discover.  It’s one thing to want to give accurate information to students applying for university and college about how low their net prices actually are; it’s another thing to knowingly over-promise something.  Inevitably, there will be some students who think tuition will be free, when in fact grants are just getting bigger and are covering a greater percentage of tuition.  It probably won’t be that many students – the actual implementation date is a long way off – but in this kind of situation, it won’t take too many confused souls complaining to the papers in order for people to level the claim that the aid re-vamp is a fraud, and thus sour an initiative that was full of promise.

Basically, political comms people are awful.  Under no circumstances should they be allowed to try to make hay out of changes to complicated social programs.  Let’s hope the federal Liberals will avoid this kind of mistake.

March 21

An Orgy of Bad Policy in Saskatchewan

Two weeks from today, voters in Saskatchewan go to the polls.  You may be forgiven for not having noticed this one coming since it has barely registered in the national press.  And that’s not just because of the usual central Canadian obliviousness, or because it’s a fly-over province; it’s also because this is one of the least competitive match-ups since…. well, since the last time Brad Wall won re-election.  CBC’s poll currently gives the Saskatchewan Party a 25 point lead over the New Democrats.

Normally, when provinces go to the polls I do a detailed look at their post-secondary platforms.  It hardly seems worth it here.  Neither the Liberals nor the Greens have a chance of taking a seat so frankly, who cares?  The NDP has released a platform full of promises large and small (my particular favourite: on page 34, they pledge to put more refrigerators in public liquor stores in order to provide more cold beer options), but did not even bother to put out a costing document, which suggests not even they think they have a hope in hell of winning on April 4.  For their part, the Saskatchewan Party has put out a manifesto, which basically says “elect us and the good times will continue to roll”: no strong vision of the future, just a recounting of past glories and four small promises that add up to a total of $110M over four years.  The only manifesto I can think of that comes close to this in sheer complacency is the Liberal Red Book from the 2000 federal election.  Which, given that oil is still around $40/barrel, is quite something.

But hey, when you’re writing a daily blog, sometimes you need an easy target. So here goes:

The Saskatchewan NDP platform on PSE is pretty awful.  They want to “improve funding for post-secondary institutions” (By how much?  Who knows?  There’s no costing document).  They want to offer everyone a $1,000 rebate on tuition, which everyone knows is regressive.  They also want to convert all provincial loans, but this actually isn’t much money since Saskatchewan aid is mostly grant.  But, get this: they also want to get rid of interest on outstanding provincial loans, which is just a whole mountain of dumb since it has no effect whatever on access, and rewards people for choices they made years ago.  Offering to help borrowers in distress is sensible; a blanket interest subsidy for people who have already finished their studies implies the manifesto-writer has suffered some kind of head trauma.

Still, in some ways, the NDP platform looks good in comparison to what the Saskatchewan Party is offering.  As some of you probably know, for the past decade or so the Government of Saskatchewan has offered a generous set of tax credits to graduates who stay within the province.  Essentially, if you are a university graduate you can reduce your payable provincial taxes by $2,000/year for the first four years that you live in the province, and $4,000 per year for the next three (if you don’t earn enough in a given year to use all of that, you can carry forward to a future year; amounts are reduced slightly for college graduates).  Add to this the usual panoply of federal and provincial tax credits, and you realize that Saskatchewan graduates who stay in the province are receiving more in tax benefits than they ever pay in tuition.

If that formulation sounds familiar, it should – it’s exactly the way Ontario finally figured out it could market itself as having “free tuition” to low-income students without spending a penny.  But the Saskatchewan Party, instead of following Ontario and transferring money to a more front-ended set of incentives, has decided to double-down on the back-end.  Their big post-secondary-related pledge is to allow graduates to take up to $10,000 unused rebate money and use it as a down payment on the purchase of a house.

Yes, I am serious.  Check it out.  Page 8.

I mean, in a way, it’s genius; a twofer tax credit, combining the middle-class’ two fondest wishes: that government subsidize both their education and their house purchases.  And if you assume the basic premise that graduates need financial inducements to stay in the province, why not make that financial inducement in the form of a housing subsidy, which physically ties graduates to the province?

But in another, deeper, way it’s a travesty.  If the Saskatchewan Party has done such a fantastic job managing the economy, why does the province still need this financial inducement to get people to stay in the province?  If the argument is that “young people need a break”, why give so much to those likeliest to succeed (i.e. university grads) and nothing to those least likely (those who never make it to PSE)?

So, yeah, Saskatchewan.  Yet another province with a bi-partisan consensus that all the specified PSE goodies should go to students and graduates rather than, you know, the actual institutions who provide the education.  Raspberries all around.

March 17

A Moment of Truth

So, next Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau will announce the new Liberal government’s first budget.  What should the PSE community expect?

Well, it’s going to be a deficit budget, we know that much.  Underlying weakness in the economy means that tax receipts are lower than expected, and the projection for a balanced budget in 2016-2017 that the Tories presented last year has now turned into a $12 billion deficit, even before an extra dollar was spent.  They’ll inflate that by another $6 billion in “prudence factors/contingency funds” (this will make subsequent recovery look better in, say, 2019-2020).  Next, add in the $10 billion in additional spending that was promised in the election, which they seem unlikely to walk back.  Then, add a couple of extra billion because certain promises weren’t costed accurately, and you’re pretty close to $30 billion in the red.

How much of that will end up heading towards PSE?  If you simply look at the Liberal manifesto (which I dissected here and here), pretty much nothing.  There will be some big, welcome changes to student aid worth noting – less tax credits, more grants, better repayment assistance – but the reform is specifically designed to be cost-neutral.  The manifesto promised exactly $0 new dollars to the granting councils, and a bit of money on commercialization, which would go to incubators, etc., rather than universities.  Transfers to provinces will go up exactly as they would have done under the Tories (and that was baked-in several years ago, so it’s not really a “new” expenditure).  Similarly, money for some programs like the Canada First Research Excellence Fund were projected to go up over time anyway – don’t be fooled by announcements of increases from the new government.

Where universities and colleges might be able to cash in on the Liberal Manifesto is in construction.  The new government has promised new infrastructure spending, and it’s possible we could see a carve-out of some of this money for “knowledge infrastructure”, in much the same way the Tories did with the KIP program back in 2009.

The real question is whether there is anything in there for universities and colleges if the Liberals decide – in the name of stimulus spending – to ramp up the deficit beyond $30 billion.  I don’t have a good sense of how likely this is, but there have certainly been some hints that the government may go this route.  And if this happens, all bets are off.  They won’t be constrained by the manifesto, and can do what they like.  In that case, we may see some larger investments in certain areas (personally, I’d be surprised if they didn’t find money to boost granting council spending by at least inflation, but that’s just a hunch).

However, I think we are unlikely to see two things.  First, we won’t see any new programs that weren’t clearly signaled in the manifesto (like the stuff around commercialization).  The new government simply hasn’t had time to think about more than fulfilling what they promised in the fall.  Second, I think we’re unlikely to see much of what I have called the “Fourth granting council” announcements.  Under the Harper government, we regularly saw one-off funding for specific scientific projects outside the tri-council structure.  My guess is we won’t see that on Tuesday.

If it is a minimal budget, it will be interesting to see how the PSE community reacts.  I mean, the Harper government usually received pot-shots even when it *was* investing in the area (see here for a recap, if you’ve forgotten).  Will the Liberals be given similar treatment?  I wonder.

February 26

A Great Day for Student Assistance

I was going to stay off the blog this whole week (I need a reading week, too!), but there was a budget in Ontario yesterday.  A weird and wonderful (if somewhat under-documented) budget, which is going to change the way we think about student aid, tuition, and affordability in Canada for decades to come.

Here are the basics: all of Ontario’s different grants and loan remission programs are being merged together into one big up-front grant program (all the provincial education tax credits are getting merged in there too, though I haven’t seen that actually mentioned in there).

There is absolutely no new money here – in fact, there’s actually a slight reduction because some of the tax credit dollars are going to be diverted to institutions.  It is simply a re-casting and re-profiling of existing money, which – crucially – takes all those hidden, opaque and often-delayed subsidies and turns them into grants available at the time when tuition is due.   But what that means is that all those students who currently receive more in subsidies than they pay in tuition will actually be able to “see” this for the first time.  It’s mainly an exercise in re-packaging.

But boy, what a re-packaging.  The government is now announcing what we here at HESA have been saying for some time: in “net” terms, tuition is free for low-income students.  And now, all of a sudden, you have the government, the Toronto Star, and the Canadian Federation of Students all saying tuition is “free” for low-income dependent students.  It isn’t, of course.  Fees are the same as they always were, and the offsets are reasonably similar, too.  In most cases, students aren’t getting a whole lot of new money (to the extent students are getting extra cash, it seems to be mainly those in the $50-100K family income range, but it’s hard to tell because a lot of this is still pretty sketchy, and dependent on the federal Liberals following through on their promise to revamp tax credits and grants as well).  Ignore the hype: this is not about bold new investments, it’s about changing perceptions through simplification.

And yet, the biggest change on the perception front was something that was not actually in the budget, but rather was signalled to stakeholders in the budget lock-up.  Starting in 2018-19, OSAP will be moving its processes forward in time so that students can have student aid decisions at the same time they get acceptance letters.  This means that institutions will be able to do “net billing”.  So whereas, now, students get acceptance letters, a bill for tuition, but then have to wait several weeks to find out what kind of aid they will get, in future they will receive a letter saying “Welcome to University of X; tuition is $6,500, and you have qualified for $7,000 in grants”.  The difference this will make to perceptions of affordability is enormous, and it’s a hugely positive step.  Every other province should adopt this step, immediately.

Not everybody wins.  From what I can tell, students from families above $110,000 in income or so will be slightly worse off due to the disappearance of tax credits, as will some part-time and independent students.  The first of these shouldn’t bother anybody, but the latter should.  And if you’ll allow me a small kvetch, yesterday’s announcement is probably too focussed on traditional-aged students (whose parents vote), and not enough on the mature students who are probably the least well-served by the current aid system.

But that’s for another day.  For the moment, let’s just admire this as a bold piece of policy, which renders transparent an already-generous student aid regime and thereby makes it that much more effective.  Congratulations are due to the folks at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities for cleaning away a couple of decades of kludges, and bringing some much-needed coherence to student aid policy.

And to their counterparts in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia: this is the future. What are you waiting for?

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