Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Politics

Elections, political parties and platforms, other political issues and processes

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?

February 11

“Corporate, Neo-liberal Universities”

Yesterday, we examined Jamie Brownlee’s claim that government’s were engaging in “austerity” in order to ensure that universities became “corporatized”.  The conclusion was that you have to use some pretty idiosyncratic definitions of austerity to make the term stick even half-way; and even then, it’s impossible to make the charge stick after about 1995.  But what about the more general charge of universities becoming “corporatized”?  Does that have any traction?

The main problem with examining this claim is that the word “corporatization” – much like the term “neoliberal” – can mean pretty much anything one wants it to mean.  I went and checked Brownlee’s PhD thesis for this (available here); in the course of the first few pages, he offers up a number of quite different definitions, without really remarking either on how different they are, or on their implications.

For instance, he says:  corporatization” (refers) to the process and resulting outcomes of the ascendance of business interests in the university system.”  Which is fine I suppose, though it depends quite a bit on how one defines “business interests”.

But there are loopier definitions referenced, too: “Corporatization in the university context involves providing businesses with the means to socialize the risks and costs of research while privatizing the benefits, and to accrue advantages through the transfer of technology to the private sector. It subsidizes the retraining of the corporate workforce through a vocational and technically-oriented curriculum, at the same time as increasing marketing opportunities for corporations and bolstering the perception of business legitimacy in higher education”. 

So here, the notion of research externalities simply goes out the window.  How about the idea that some basic research should be publicly-funded because there are types of research that the private sector will not undertake, as it cannot efficiently capture all its benefits?  That’s now twisted into some kind of corrupting evil because the resulting transfer of technology can be described as a “subsidy” to the private sector.  Also, in a description that will amaze engineering faculties worldwide, simply having a technically-oriented curriculum is now a form of corporatization.

Here’s another gem of a definition, which describes a corporatized university as: an institution that is characterized by processes, decisional criteria, expectations, organizational culture, and operating practices that are taken from, and have their origins in, the modern business corporation. It is characterized by the entry of the university into marketplace relationships and by the use of market strategies in university decision making”.

The first part of that sentence is magnificent in its scope.  Virtually anything could be described as an “operating practice”, which has its origin in the modern business corporation.  “Making biweekly payroll”, for instance.  Or, “actively finding efficient ways to run things”, or the dreaded “finding out if people are doing their jobs and rewarding them accordingly”.  How terrible.  How neo-liberal.

(An aside: I hear lots of cheap talk about “neo-liberal universities”, but nothing about “neo-liberal hospitals”, which are far more advanced than universities at using management techniques that find their origins in the modern corporation.  Why is that?)

The second half, the bit about market relationships, is in some ways even better than the first.  Now the mere existence of tuition fees, or even the notion of student choice, can be used as evidence of “corporatization” because anywhere where money changes hands obviously implies corporatization.  In fact, even a no-tuition system where institutions are paid on some kind of enrolment-basis might be described as “corporatized” or “neo-liberal”, because there would be (horrors) an incentive for universities to enrol more students, and that might lead them to use “marketing techniques” to persuade students to come – which of course is prima facie evidence of corporatization!

(Another aside: I recently saw someone on twitter claim that the increasing numbers of bureaucrats in universities was due to rankings, league tables, and other forms of neo-liberal control.  This is perhaps the first time in recorded history that neo-liberalism has been charged with the crime of increasing public-sector employment.)

So, are Canadian universities “becoming more corporatized”?  Well, if you define corporatization as, effectively, “taking any steps at all to ensure revenue and expenditure balance”, then yes, they are becoming more corporate all the time.  And a good thing, too: because in the real world the alternative to so-called “neo-liberal” universities are either bankrupt universities or much smaller, more access-restricted universities.  Which one would you pick?

February 10

False Charges of Austerity

A few weeks ago, Jamie Brownlee (who I believe is a graduate student at Carleton University) published a piece in Academic Matters (available here) in which he developed a two-part notion.  First, he argued that universities had become “corporatized”, and second, he believes that governments played a big role in this by de-funding universities through austerity.  I will deal with the corporatization argument tomorrow; today, what I want to do is demolish the idea that universities have been subject to austerity in Canada.

Specifically, Brownlee makes the following claim: “By the time the federal Liberal’s thirteen-year reign was over in 2006, Canada’s university system was a shell of its former self. Federal and provincial government funding for university teaching and non-sponsored research fell from more than $17,900 per student in 1980-81 to $9,900 in 2006-07.”

So, let’s start with the choice of describing government expenditure in per-student terms rather than in actual terms.  Between 1980-81 and 2006-07, the number of full-time equivalent students enrolled in Canada increased by 92% (headcount numbers increased somewhat less than that because full-time numbers rose, while part-time numbers did not).  So even if we take Brownlee’s numbers at face value (more on that below), what he’s saying is that total government investment actually increased over those 26 years.  Now, obviously there’s an argument to be had about whether total expenditure or expenditure per-student is the “right” measure.  But to not even mention the fact that government expenditure actually increased is plain dishonest.

There’s a second issue here.  Massification *always* entails a reduction in per-student expenditure.  No system in the world gets bigger by spending the same amount of dollars per student: the point is to take advantage of economies of scale.  Exclusively citing per-student investment is quite simply not prima facie evidence of austerity.  For instance, between 1975 and 1986, West German spending per-student fell by 26%.  Between 1975 and 1983, Dutch spending per-student fell by 30%.  And in Denmark, between 1975 and 1983, per-student expenditures fell 23%.  Are these all therefore examples of vicious neo-liberal austerity?  Or are they, I don’t know, simply what happens when the denominator rises more quickly than the numerator?

Now, on to the specific data points: Brownlee claims “federal and provincial spending for university teaching and non-sponsored research fell from $17,900 per-student to $9,900 per-student”.  I can’t replicate this figure.  First of all, there is technically no category in CAUBO’s Financial Information of Universities and Colleges for this.  You can look at income by source (i.e. federal, provincial) and expenditure by function (i.e. instruction and non-sponsored research), but not both together.  So there’s that mystery.

Assuming that what Brownlee means is federal and provincial income for general operating expenditures (i.e. excluding research, capital funds, etc.), my talented data maven Jacqueline Lambert and I can’t come up with numbers that even vaguely replicate his.  Using FIUC for the income data and USIS/PSIS for student data, we get the following:

University Operating Income from Government Sources, 1980-81 and 2006-7 (in $2013 constant)







Maybe there’s an honest misunderstanding about data here, but this looks like a fall of 11% or 18%, depending on which set of student numbers one uses, not the 45% decline Brownlee reports.  And quite clearly, in terms of total expenditure, we see an increase of 58% in real dollars.  Austerity?  Please.

And more to the point, nearly all of the decline in per-student spending happened in the first half of the period in question.  Canada more or less hit bottom in 1996-97, since which time government expenditure per-student has bounced up and down, but has basically stayed within a relatively narrow band of between $9,800 and $11,200 per-student.  Thus, even by Brownlee’s own inaccurate view of what constitutes austerity, one would have to concede that the evidence is pretty thin.

Government Operating $ per FTE, 1981-2013














Tomorrow: thoughts on charges that universities are becoming “corporatized”.

February 05

The Dilemma of Western Education in Saudi Arabia

I see that Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne recently took offense to the fact that Algonquin College is operating a male-only vocational college in Jazan, Saudi Arabia, calling the arrangement “unacceptable”.

What should we make of this?

First of all, let’s be clear about women and higher education in Saudi Arabia.  There are a lot of them; in fact, far more women attend post-secondary education than men in the country.  They just don’t – for the most part – attend the same campuses.  Often campuses get “twinned”, so you get male and female universities quite close to one another – sometimes taking the same courses from the same instructor, only with the women watching via cctv, and so in effect having a distance learning experience.

Aside: I did some work for a bridging-program for an outfit associated with the country’s only undergraduate co-ed university, Al-Faisal University, which was launched a few years ago.  It was “co-ed” in the sense that men were allocated the bottom two floors of the building, while women were allocated the top two floors.  Classrooms were on the second floor, but also had balconies that could be entered from the third.  So men and women could both be in the same room as the teacher, but could not see each other because they were on separate floors (there are some photos here if you want to get a sense of this).  This was deeply weird, but does represent progress in a way.

With respect to vocational training, what the Saudis did was to set-up 37 of these “community colleges” – 19 for men and 18 for women.  They then sent out tenders to colleges all around the world to run these campuses.  Algonquin won a bid for a men’s college; they bid on, but did not win, the right to run a women’s college.

So, the question is: morally, should Algonquin be running this school, or not?  Is it OK to run single-sex schools in Saudi Arabia?  My feeling is that the debate is between an uncomfortable yes and a mostly hypocritical no.

Obviously, it would be better all around if the education were co-educational.  Other campuses in the region have moved towards a co-ed model.  My understanding is that when College of the North Atlantic started running its campus in Qatar, there were discussions about whether the campus would be co-ed (the eventual saw-off: classes are co-ed, but eating and recreational facilities are single-sex).  But Qatar is Qatar, and the Kingdom is the Kingdom, and the only place where co-ed is allowed are in select private institutions sponsored directly by members of the royal family (i.e. KAUST, Al-Faisal), not in public institutions.  Basically, what you’re left arguing is that these kids are going to get taught in single-sex schools anyway, and if someone is going to teach them, it might as well be a bunch of folks from the Ottawa Valley.

The con case is, essentially: “it’s wrong to teach single-sex, and we shouldn’t muddy our hands with it”.  And fair enough.  But there are two places where this argument is vulnerable to a hypocrisy charge.  First, imagine Algonquin had won a competition for a women’s college but not a male one, or that it had won both competitions.  Would the Ontario government still be upset?  Unlikely.  So the objection is not to working in a segregated single-sex environment, but rather to working in one-half of it.  So should Algonquin have quit its male college contract when it didn’t win the women’s contract?  That’s just silly.

The larger hypocrisy case has simply to do with our attitude towards Gulf States as a whole, and Saudi in particular.  Let’s face it, it’s not education specifically that grates our consciences in dealing with these countries: it’s the whole regimentation of clothing, prohibition on driving, patriarchal she-bang, etc.  But either we’re consistent in our application of disgust, or we’re not.  Premier Wynne specifically chose not to contest the rightness of Canadians selling armoured personnel carriers to the Kingdom (which I suspect may infringe upon quite a few rights if they get used in Yemen); why apply our disgust to some areas of trade policy, but not others?

As you can probably tell, I lean a little bit towards the pro-side here, though I acknowledge it’s complicated and quite messy.  I think an equally important consideration, though, is whether the project is actually a good deal for Algonquin.  Note that, at the moment, they are losing money on the deal.  And although they maintain they’re on-track to make that money back over the course of the contract, my worry would be that the Saudi government starts “re-interpreting” contracts as their budget woes worsen.  I get the impression this may have been on Centennial College’s mind when they recently chose not to re-up their apprenticeship training contract in the Kingdom.

Still, it’s always good to be mindful of the tricky ethics of international education.  The situation is often far from straightforward.

November 30

Canadian PMs’ Higher Education Experiences

For giggles the other night, I started looking up the educational backgrounds of various countries’ heads of government.  I’ll do the other countries tomorrow; today, I thought I’d start with Canada.  Let’s do it by the numbers.

One: The number of Canadian PMs who have held PhDs.  It was McKenzie King, who earned a PhD from Harvard for his dissertation on “Oriental Immigration to Canada”. He was against it: “Canada should remain a country for the white man”, he wrote with singular obliviousness.

Three: The number of PMs offered spots at Oxford.  But only two took them up, as Louis St. Laurent declined his Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a legal career.  It’s also the number of degrees Diefenbaker obtained from the University of Saskatchewan.  Apparently, he was the first person to achieve this feat.

Four: The number of PMs who graduated from the University of Toronto, the most of any single university.  The quad in question: Martin, Pearson, Mackenzie King, and Meighen (Harper attended, but dropped out, before doing two degrees at the University of Calgary).

Six: The number of PMs who studied abroad.  Nearly all of them were in some form of political science (King, Turner, Trudeau, Campbell), though Tupper studied medicine at Edinburgh, and Pearson studied history at Oxford.  I’m fairly sure only Australia can claim more.

Seven: Of the last nine PMs, seven have dropped out of a university program at some point.  Turner dropped out of a graduate program in Paris (after completing his Rhodes – the man was no dummy).  Both Trudeau and Campbell dropped out of doctoral degrees at LSE.  Both Mulroney and Clark dropped out of Dalhousie Law School.  Harper dropped out of U of T, before ending up at Calgary; and our current Prime Minister dropped out of an Engineering program at Polytechnique (in which he enrolled after getting degrees at McGill and UBC).  And we wonder why there’s never been a big push in Canada on retention/completion.

Eight: The number of Prime Ministers with law degrees.  Additionally, Macdonald, Thompson, and Borden passed the bar without attending law school (we didn’t have any in the very early days), and Thompson even went on to found the Dalhousie law school from which two of our later Prime Ministers dropped out.  So that makes eleven lawyers out of 23 Prime Ministers.  Personally, I think this explains a lot about our country.

Eighteen: The number of Prime Ministers with university degrees.  Of the five who did not have one, three were the aforementioned lawyers.  The other two were Alexander Mackenzie, who apprenticed in Stonemasonry, and Mackenzie Bowell who had a teaching diploma (not a higher education credential back then) from a long-defunct Normal School in Hastings, Ontario.

Ninety-Six: The number of years since we’ve had a Prime Minister without a degree (Borden).  In the US, the equivalent figure is sixty-three (Harry Truman), whereas in England it is eighteen (John Major).

November 18

The Radical Implications of David Turpin’s Installation Speech

David Turpin was installed as President at the University of Alberta earlier this week.  His inaugural speech was good.  Very good.  Read a shortened version of it here.

(Full disclosure: I spoke at a leadership function at the University of Alberta in August, for which I received a fee.  The University has also recently purchased two of our syndicated research products.  Make of that what you wish.)

The speech starts out with what I would call some standard defences of the university, which any president would give: we seek truth and knowledge, we innovate, and we create jobs, yadda yadda.  Where it gets interesting is where he starts his appeal to the provincial government.  Let me quote what I think are the key bits:

“Our task continues to be to ask unexpected questions, seek truth and knowledge, and help society define, understand and frame its challenges. Our goal for the future is to find new and innovative ways to mobilize our excellence in research and teaching to help municipal, provincial, national and international communities address these challenges.”

Note: the truth/knowledge tasks “continue”, but now we’re adding a “goal” of mobilizing the university’s talents to address “challenges”.  And these are not just abstract challenges.  Turpin gets very, very specific here:

To our municipal partners: We will work with you to address your major goals on poverty reduction, homelessness, downtown revitalization, infrastructure renewal and transportation.

To our provincial partners: We will work with you to strengthen a post-secondary education system that serves the needs of all Alberta’s learners. We will provide our students the educational experience they need to seed, fuel and drive social, cultural and economic diversification. We will advance social justice, leading reconciliation with our First Nations and protection for minorities. We will conduct research to sustainably develop Alberta’s wealth of natural resources and improve Albertans’ health and wellness.

These are really specific promises.  If I’m a municipal or provincial official, what I hear from this is “Cool! U of A is going to be my think tank!  It’s going to put expertise at my disposal in areas like poverty reduction and economic diversification”.  That may or may not be Turpin’s intent, but it’s what they will hear.  And that’s well beyond the traditional role of a university in Canada, and in some ways beyond even some of the “state service” commitments that exist in US Land Grant institutions.  Sure, ever since von Humboldt, universities have been there to serve and strengthen the state, but I think the way Turpin is articulating this is genuinely new.

Now, no doubt the University has enormous resources to help achieve all of these things.  But those resources are mostly faculty members and grad students.  And while the university can ask them nicely to help folks at city hall/the legislature when they come calling, the question is: what’s in it for the profs and grad students to drop what they’re doing and go help the city/province (especially if they feel they have better things to do)?  Is the expectation that staff will do this out of a collective desire to contribute to their communities, or will incentives be put in place?

This goes deep to the heart of a university’s research mission.  At research universities like U of A, tenure and promotion is based mostly on publication records, and time is supposed to be spent 40-40-20 on teaching, research, and service.  But if your provost walks down the hall and says “hey, I just met with a couple of MLAs, and they’re hoping they can borrow your expertise for a couple of weeks”, do those expectations now change?  Will tenure/promotion committees actually take into account work done for government as equivalent to work done for an academic publication?

(For those of you not native to academe, it may seem amazing that research done for public policy, something that changes the way government makes decisions in a certain area, is not rated as highly for tenure/promotion as publishing things in journals that on average are read by a handful of people.  It is amazing, yes.  But true more often than not.)

If the answer to those questions is no, then I don’t think this initiative will go far.  But if the answer is yes, then Turpin is literally talking about a new kind of university, one that is prepared to sacrifice at least some of the prestige associated with being a “world-class university” with a laser-like focus on publication outputs, in order to contribute to its community in very concrete ways.  It’s not a reduction in research intensity, but it is a different type of research intensity.

The risk, of course, is that this new type of intensity won’t come with as many dollars attached.  I hope that’s not the case.  But in any event, this could be quite an exciting experiment.  One definitely worth keeping an eye on.

November 13

A Ministry of Talent

My friend and colleague, Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation in the United States, recently wrote a book called America Needs Talent.  It’s a short, popularly-oriented account of how human capital drives the economy, and what countries and cities can do to acquire it.  One of the suggestions he makes is for a federal “Department of Talent”, which is intriguing as a thought experiment, if nothing else.  So let’s explore that idea for a moment.

To begin, let’s be clear about what Merisotis means by “talent”.  He’s painting with a very broad brush here.  Yes, he means “top talent” in the sense of highly qualified scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.,  but he’s also talking about the talents one acquires through post-secondary education: everything from car repair to microbiology.  So when he says “Department of Talent”, what he’s really talking about is a “Department of Skills”, just with a much less vocational sheen.

Most of Merisotis’ argument could be transported to Canada (albeit in somewhat muted form, given the differing nature of the two countries’ federal responsibilities).  The primary goal of any government is (or should be) to raise levels of productivity.  No increase in productivity, no increase in standard of living (or standard of public services).  So there’s always a need to come up with better ways to think through how a country can raise its overall skills profile.

Yet at the federal level, we split up that responsibility among four ministries (warning: I have not yet bothered to learn the snappy new names the Trudeau government has bestowed upon departments).  In Canada, we have an Industry/Science Ministry, which plays a huge role in developing scientific careers, and fostering skills/knowledge through science-business relationships.  We have a Human Resources Ministry (now on its sixth name in twelve years), which supports training and learning in a variety of guises.  We have an Immigration Ministry in charge of bringing people into the country, which sort of co-ordinates with Human Resources in working out labour market needs, but not necessarily in ways that maximizes skill acquisition.  And finally, we have a Foreign Ministry, which is increasingly interested in attracting foreign students, and that has knock-on effects for immigration down the road.

And so, genuine question: why not hive-off the bits of all of those ministries that focus on talent development and acquisition, and stick them into a single ministry?  Why not create an organization with a singular focus of making our talent pool across all industries better?  It’s not impossible; in fact, Saskatchewan already tried it for several years with a ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration (an experiment recently unwound for reasons that remain obscure).

I think the quick and simple answer here is that changing bureaucratic chairs is not the same as changing actual policy orientation, and still less about changing results.  In reality, you might create a lot of churn, with very few actual results.  Still, the thought experiment is a useful one: who is in charge of ensuring that Canada always has the best talent at its disposal, in every field of endeavour?  Who makes sure that our education and immigration policies are complimentary?  Given the nature of our federation, this is always going to be a distributed function, but it seems to me that we don’t actually pose questions this way.  We talk about programs (how can we improve student loans?) or institutions (how can we increase the number of community college seats?), but only rarely do we talk about what the final talent pool will look like.

So, while a Ministry of Talent might make not make a lot of sense, there’s still much to be gained by talking about ends rather than means.  A “Talent Agenda”, maybe?  Something to think about, anyway.

Page 3 of 1512345...10...Last »