HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Politics

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

November 12

Explaining the #FeesMustFall Movement

One of the more interesting policy debacles in higher education this year has been the fracas over tuition fees in South Africa, which has led to what some are calling the biggest set of anti-government protests since the end of apartheid.  Here’s what you need to know:

The protests began when universities announced fee hikes for the coming year.  On average, the fee hikes were in the 6% range, which was relatively modest given a persistent inflation rate of just under 5%, and additional cost pressures due to a falling rand (the rand is 14 = 1 USD at the moment, up from 8 = 1 USD three years ago).   This kind of increase is not unusual in South Africa, but for a variety of reasons, this year the increases brought students out into the streets in very large numbers.

There were, near as I can tell, three factors at work.  The first is generalized discontent with the ANC government (animosity that is by no means restricted to students).  Though the party can still win over 50% of the vote in elections, a lot of that support is residual loyalty for its fight against apartheid rather than approval of current policies; and since today’s students were mostly born after Mandela was released from prison, they feel less loyalty to the party than do older South Africans.  Economic growth is fading (partly due to falling commodity prices, partly due to government incompetence, particularly on energy and power generation), which means no progress on persistently high unemployment among blacks.  And if there is one file where the government has underperformed the most over the past twenty years, it’s education.  The problem is worse in K-12 than  in universities (though colleges are a right mess), but the repeated failure to sufficiently increase expenditure in higher education is a persistent failure.

The second issue is with respect to student aid.  Though the government has massively increased outlays, it has also massively increased loan losses.  Up until about seven years ago, the National Student Financial Aid System (NSFAS) had the continent’s best record of loan repayment (about 60%).  Then, the government decided – on what many regard as quite spurious grounds – to make it harder for NSFAS to collect the loans, and repayment plummeted to about 20%.  This was good news for graduates of course: more money for them; but it effectively raised the price of increasing access.  One of the casualties of that was an inability to expand  middle-class families’ access to loans, a group who subsequently feel very squeezed.

The third factor was an uptick in student militancy this past March with the #RhodesMustFall campaign.  This started at the University of Cape Town where students wanted to remove a statue of the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes (they succeeded).  This morphed into a wider set of protests about the progress universities have made in transforming themselves since 1994, in particular with respect to the progress of black academics.

So with all this kindling, the relatively small sparks of what vice-chancellors thought was a run-of-the-mill tuition increase turned into a major conflagration, which went under the heading #FeesMustFall (a play on the earlier Rhodes campaign).  At first the government tried to straight-arm the students, with the Higher Education minster (and Communist party chief) Blade Nzimandize claiming maladroitly that he would start his own #StudentsMustFall campaign.  When that didn’t work, the ANC began trying to co-opt the protest, claiming students’ views as their own.  Eventually the protests grew so large that President Zuma eventually froze all fees for a year, and compensated institutions to the tune of 80% of the cost of the freeze.  But the ANC has also taken steps to give itself unprecedented authority to massively intrude on universities’ autonomy, so that it can more directly control costs and remove inconvenient administrators.

The fee freeze took some of the sting out of the protests, but it also emboldened some protestors who want to see South Africa move to a free fee system.  Given that participation rates for whites are between three and four times higher for blacks, this is a curiously regressive idea (and may explain why whites were seemingly so much more prominent in the #feesmustfall protests than in those for #rhodesmustfall).  The head of South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Trust, Nico Cloete, skewered the idea in a University World News column this weekend (read it here; it’s long but very good), saying rightly that in a society as unequal as South Africa, “affordable higher education for all” is a necessary goal, but “free higher education for all” is morally wrong.

Which is dead on, frankly.  Fix student aid so the poor get more grant aid and the middle-class get more loan aid, sure.  More money for universities to maintain quality?  Sure (South Africa has an amazing set of universities for a middle-income country, but that’s at risk over the long-term).  But spending more money to make it free for the already highly privileged?  South Africa can and should do better than that.

November 10

An Update on England’s Teaching Excellence Framework

Last week, the UK Minister for Business Innovation and Skills (which is responsible for higher education) released a green paper on higher ed.  It covered a lot of ground, most of which need not detain us here; I think I have a reasonable grasp of my readers’ interests, and my guess is that the number of you who have serious views about whether the Office For Fair Access should be merged into a new Office for Students, along with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is vanishingly small (hi, Andrew!).  But it’s worth a quick peek into this document because it puts a bit more meat on the bones of that intriguing notion of a Teaching Excellence Framework.

You may remember that back in the summer I reviewed the announcement of a “Teaching Excellence Framework” wherein institutions that did well on a series of teaching metrics would be rewarded with the ability to charge higher tuition fees.  The question at the time was: what metrics would be used?  Well, the green paper is meant to be a basis for consultation, so we shouldn’t take this as final, but for the moment the leading candidates for metrics seem to be: i) post-graduation employment; ii) retention rates; and, iii) student satisfaction indicators.

Ludicrous?  Well, maybe.  At the undergraduate level, satisfaction tends to correlate with engagement, which at some vague level correlates with retention, so there’s sort of a case here – or would be if they weren’t already measuring retention.  Retention is not a silly outcome measure either, provided you can: a) control for entering grades (else retention be simply a function of selectivity), and b) figure out how to handle transfer students.  Unfortunately, it’s not clear from the document that either of these things has been thought through in any detail.

And as for using post-graduate employment? Again, it’s not necessarily a terrible idea. However, first: the regional distribution of graduate destinations matters a lot in a country where the capital city is so much richer than the rest of the country.  Second: the mantra that “what you study matters more than where you study” works in the UK, too – measuring success by graduate incomes only makes sense if you control for the types of degrees offered by each institution.  Third: the UK only looks at graduate incomes six months after graduation.  Presumably, a longer survey period is possible (Canada does it at three years, for instance), but the only thing on the table at the moment is the current laughably-short period.

So, there’s clearly a host of problems with the measures.  But perhaps even more troubling is what is on offer to institutions who do “well” on these measures.  The idea was that institutions would pay attention to “teaching” (or whatever the aforementioned load of indicators actually measures) if doing so allowed them to raise tuition above the current cap of £9,000.  However, according to the green paper, the maximum an institution will be allowed to increase fees every year is inflation.  Yet at the moment CPI is negative, which suggests this might not be much of an incentive.  Even if inflation returns to 1% or so, one has a hard time imagining this being enough of a carrot for all institutions to play along.

In sum, this is not a genuine attempt to find ways to encourage better teaching; rather, it is using a grab-bag of indicators to try to differentiate the sector into “better” and “worse” actors, and in so doing try to create more “signals of quality” to influence student decision-making.  Why does it want to do this?  Because it desperately wants higher education to work like a “normal” market, the government is trying to rationalize some of its weirder ideas about how the system should be run (the green paper also devotes quite a bit of space to market entry, which is code for letting private providers become universities with less oversight, as well as market exit, which is code for letting universities fail).

Though the idea of putting carrots in place to encourage better teaching has value, an effective policy would require a lot more hard thinking about metrics than the UK government appears willing to do.  As it stands, this policy is a dud.

November 02

Pure vs. Applied Science and an Easy Win for the Liberals

OK, y’all probably know that I’m not particularly a fan of the terms “pure” and “applied” science (outside of physics and cosmology, most science is applied, to some extent), with “pure” science being a post-World War II political construct. Long-time readers will also know that I am generally unimpressed with the whole “any move away from ‘pure’ science is a step towards barbarism” cant: major science powers can and do spend a heck of a lot of money on applied research (Fraunhofer institute, anyone?).  But that doesn’t mean something isn’t seriously out of whack in Canadian science.

For arguments’ sake, let’s say there are two buckets, one called “100% pure science” and one called “100% applied science”.  What’s the right amount of money for a government to put into each of them?  No one knows.  The answer presumably differs somewhat by country, and is based on the nature of other elements in the innovation ecosystem: business, venture capital, supply chains, etc.  But in Canada, at the granting council level at least, the “pure science” bucket is and always has been way, way, way larger than the applied bucket.

What’s gone wrong with Canadian Science is not that we’ve been taking money out of the pure bucket and putting it into the applied bucket – I know that’s more or less the media narrative on this, but it doesn’t actually describe what’s happened.  No, the issue is that little by little, the entire pure research bucket is getting dragged towards the applied bucket.  Every time the government demands a business co-funder, every time they ask for more “real-world applications” of a potential project, they pollute the pure science bucket.  The 100% applied bucket did get marginally bigger during the Harper years.  But of far more importance is that the 100% pure bucket gradually became an 80% pure bucket, and then a 70% pure bucket, etc., etc.

(I suppose we could argue percentages here, but that’s not really the point – you get the idea.)

To be fair, the start of this shift actually pre-dates the Tories; certainly some of this was underway by the time Chretien left office.   But virtually all reasonable observers now think this shift has gone too far.  Yes, doing “translational” research is important, but moving to the point where the translational aspect of research is the centre, and the basic research just an add-on – as CIHR recently did – is simply ass-backwards.

So here’s a simple thing the Liberals can do to win massive acclaim, without spending an extra dime: call the granting councils in, and tell them to unbundle their pure and applied research efforts.  You could probably even cut a little bit off the “pure” budget and throw it into the “applied” bucket – so long as the “pure” budget gets dragged from the 70% mark back towards the 100% mark.

(Again, we could argue percentages, but life’s too short.)

The point is, there isn’t a scientist in the country that thinks putting everything in a hybrid pure/applied system has worked.  It can be changed for the better, at no cost.  This should make it a no-brainer for the new government – provided the higher education community can get its act together to advocate loudly, consistently, and quickly.

October 20

OK, Everybody Take A Valium

Heady scenes last night.  We have a new government with a strong mandate.  And it’s not the by-now reviled Conservatives.  It can seem like a whole new world is emerging.

But as far as PSE is concerned, very little actually changed last night.  Higher education is mostly a provincial responsibility, and nothing that happened can change the fact that most provincial budgets are in a parlous state, and few governments (bar perhaps Alberta’s) seem much interested in spending on post-secondary education.

Did anything change federally?  Well, tone.  I would bet the phrase “commiting sociology” won’t be used as a term of abuse any time soon.  But as I have noted in a platform analyses here, here, and here, the Liberal platforms contains: i) no new transfer money for provinces; ii) no new money for granting councils; and, iii) no new money (or not very much anyways) for student aid – though they are promising a major and welcome re-jig of student aid, which will be to the benefit of some students from below-median income families.

That’s not very good news, but there is a base that can be built upon.  This is a government that will be more sympathetic to the concerns of the knowledge economy than the last one.  They likely can be brought round to the merits of basic science, provided that there are convincing answers for improving private sector innovation.  And to the extent that significant improvements can be made without spending a dime (do read Jim Woodgett’s A Decade of Mishandling  Science in Canada for more on this), I suspect there will be some willing ears in government.

But it’s not going to happen on its own.  The whole post-secondary community needs to speak with a single voice on this.  And it needs to speak quickly.  The basic policy framework for the new government will be set in weeks, not months.  Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

October 16

Election 2015: Last Thoughts

Voting day Monday.  So before y’all head out to the polls, here are a few last thoughts on each party’s position on post-secondary education, science, and innovation.

One: The Green platform is a vacuous embarrassment.  If you’re voting on higher ed issues, do not vote for this.

Two: It is an excellent thing in this election that all three major parties decided to focus their PSE initiatives specifically on families from below-median incomes.  The Tories are doing it through targeted measures on educational savings, the NDP and Liberals are doing it through new student grants (with the latter paying for it by taking tax credits away, thus actually raising prices for richer families).  No universal tax credits.  No schemes to lower tuition.  Just intelligent, targeted programming.  I’m immensely heartened by this.  It implies there is hope yet.

Three: Well, sort of… because pretty much all of the Science/Innovation policy on offer is pretty depressing.  Yes, lots of good stuff from Liberals and New Democrats about restoring freedom to science, creating various types of official science councils/advisors, restoring the long-form census, etc. etc., but when you get right down to it what’s on offer is this:

Liberals: hundreds of millions of dollars to incubators and accelerators.  Nothing to universities or colleges.

Conservatives: lots of tiny research promises: $24M for advanced manufacturing hubs, $45M to Brain Canada, $150M to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.  $4.5 Million for – I cannot believe I am writing this – Lobster Biomass Research (clearly, the Tories are in thrall to “Big Crustacean”).  Some of this might end up at universities (the Brain Canada money, for instance), but this is small bones.

NDP: The only party to actually suggest giving money to the granting councils (yay!), they budgeted a grant total of $55 million for the next four years.  Or about 25% of what inflation is likely to be (boo!), meaning the real value of council funding will continue to fall.

Greens: negative money for research because they’re going to shut down anything related to GMOs or Atomic Energy.  Because, you know, evidence-based policy-making. (Did I mention not to vote Green on higher ed issues?)

All of which is to say, scientists who want to communicate the need for more investment in basic research need to go back to the drawing board. Because on this evidence, something is going seriously wrong.

Four:  Nobody even mentioned the idea that we should touch transfer payments and get money to institutions that way. If you grew up watching politics in the 80s and 90s (as I did), this is almost unfathomable.  But it possibly represents a matured understanding of how the Federation is supposed to work.

Five: If you rank the parties on how much money they want to throw at students, access, and PSE institutions, it would look like this:

1) Green – several bazillion dollars (who’s counting?).

2) NDP – somewhere north of $1 billion.

3) Conservatives  – somewhere south of $100M.

4) Liberals – In net terms, according to their own manifesto $0 (in practice possibly higher than that).  But a more effective re-arrangement of existing dollars.

One probably shouldn’t get too depressed by this. Thinking back to the Tories: they’ve never campaigned on more money for research, but they always found a way to come up with something in every budget.  It might not have been quite what people wanted, and it might not have been as large as people would have liked, but there was never nothing.  Manifestos give you the baseline, not the entirety of a new government’s plans.  Improvisation happens.  Science can still get more than is on-offer here; it just needs to up its game.

Go vote.  And to Hull-Aylmer’s Greg Fergus, the best PSE candidate in this election: in bocca al lupo.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

October 05

Party Platform Analysis: The New Democrats

I’m going to have to go a little off-piste for the analysis of the New Democratic platform, because its launch was so odd.

The platform was unveiled last Thursday morning.  In Saskatoon.  While Mulcair himself was in Montreal.  This meant that the  event was not covered by any of the national press (the biggest outlet that filed a story was the Ottawa Citizen).  The announcement itself was unaccompanied by any backgrounder, which meant that many key details were missing, including cost estimates.

On a purely political level, this is incomprehensible.  It seems as if the party didn’t actually want their proposal to be covered.  But why make a billion-dollar (see below) spending commitment if you’re not going to publicize it?

Then again, maybe it’s better no one made a big deal about it given some of the silly things their candidates said at the event, such as “debt is up 30% since 2006”, which may be true if you look at federal loan volume, but that’s because so many more people are going to school.  You know, because of access.  In fact, over that period, the incidence of debt is down slightly, while the average value (in real dollars) is up slightly, making the whole file a bit of a wash.  Another candidate made a different, utterly ridiculous statement: “governments shouldn’t profit on student loans!”  I don’t know whether she got that line from Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump (both have said it), but it’s not even vaguely true, and suggests she knows nothing of how income from student loan interest funds the in-school zero-interest period, the repayment assistance program, and covers the substantial losses the program experiences with defaults.

Anyways, it’s too bad the packaging of the event was so embarrassing, because the substance isn’t so bad.  The details, as we know them, are as follows:

First, the NDP proposes to spend an extra quarter of a billion dollars over four years on student grants.  That’s all we know.   Is it to enrich the current Canada Study Grants (i.e. more money to the same people), or is it to extend the current Canada Study Grant (i.e. give the same money to more people)?  Or is it for something new entirely?  We have no idea, because the NDP – unlike the other three parties – declined to provide more backgrounders about its policies.  Why this is considered acceptable in this day and age is a question for others to answer.

Second, the government plans to “eliminate interest on student loans”.  As far as I can tell, no one asked if they meant eliminate interest on all existing loans, or just those consolidated from 2016 forward, or just those issued from 2016 forward.  So we don’t know.  The fiscal consequences of this are huge.  If all loans suddenly become interest free, that’s a hit on the order of $2 billion over 4 years.  If it’s all loans consolidated (i.e. going into repayment) then my guess is this is on the order of $700 million or so, and if it is just loans issued then we are talking about maybe $300 million.

(Huge caution: my numbers are very back-of-the-envelope, based on incomplete public data and an inability to model the second-order effects of interest abolition such as savings on RAP and default.  Take it as a good-faith attempt to project costs based on limited data. And a total unwillingness of the NDP to reveal any program details or cost assumptions.)

It’s a bit difficult to evaluate the pledge without knowing the costs, but I think we can say two things about the Thursday announcement:

One, regardless of the price tag or details, this platform is substantially better than the usual NDP policy of “let’s cut tuition fees”.  It’s more targeted at students in need, and doesn’t run you into all kinds of problems of federal-provincial co-ordination (in contrast to the NDP promise on child care, which runs precisely into this set of problems).  That’s a huge improvement over most previous NDP platforms, and the party deserves some love for it.

Two, the zero-interest platform is kind of “meh”.  It’s good in the sense that it’s a benefit focused on students with need.  But no study I’ve ever seen has suggested that student loan interest rates makes an ounce of difference to access.  It’s a cost, but one small and well-hidden enough that it seems to have no bearing on the decision to attend post-secondary.  And it’s not entirely clear what problem this is designed to solve: student loan repayment burdens have fallen by more than a third over the last decade.  All this subsidy will do is raise the returns to education slightly – a windfall benefit to those who have already decided to make the investment.

A final note: the NDP appear not to be making any announcement on science/innovation.  Along with the Tories and Greens, that makes three parties who are making no commitments in these areas, which may mean something fairly dire for granting councils in future.

September 22

David Cameron, Pork, and World-Class Universities

I am going to assume that by now you have all heard about the… um… interesting news regarding British Prime Minister David Cameron, which was in yesterday’s papers.  If you haven’t, then take a quick look here.  Then come back.  Quickly.  Maybe have a shower first.

Ready?

OK, so, my first thought about this story is “I wonder what kind of day Oxford’s PR folk are going to have?”  Because, honestly, at most universities, the idea that some of your students – indeed, some of your most famous alumni – have at some time in the past been involved in on-campus porcine frottage would not be good news.  The press would want to know what the university knew about these very un-kosher sexual rituals, and when did it know find out?  Is it still going on?  Etc. etc.  And you’d have administrators running around campus worrying: what will this do to applications?  What will this do to fundraising?  Disaster!  How quickly can we close down these clubs?

(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether or not the story is true.  I think there are some very good reasons to think it isn’t.  The source, Lord Ashdown, has a well-known grudge against Cameron.  And accusations of pig-fiddling are one of the oldest tricks in the political book.  In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thomson described how LBJ had, in his Texas days, told his campaign manager to accuse his opponent of carnal knowledge of sows.  His campaign manager objected, saying they couldn’t call him a pig-f***** because no one would believe it.  To which Johnson replied: “I know, but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it”.)

But no.  On this question yesterday, silence.  No blowback at all on Oxford.  And I can guarantee you that no one – no one – at Oxford thought for a moment about next year’s application figures.  The problem is that everyone knows that whatever else Oxford may be, it’s a playground for Britain’s ruling class.  And let’s face it, the ruling class in Britain are known to get up to some pretty sordid stuff.  So in the popular imagination, it’s already only a small step from membership in the Bullingdon club to what appears to be a barnyard version of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut.  And not to single out Britain here: the same could more or less be said of Yale, with its various Skull and Bones-type societies.  And nobody (well, not many, anyway) think the worst of them.  Indeed, for a certain demographic, the presence of elite kinkiness probably increases an institution’s attractiveness.

But we can abstract from Oxford to say something more general about World-Class Universities, and it is this: being a world-class university means never having to worry about bad PR.  Alumni in a bestiality/necrophilia story? No problem!  Prestigious science faculty in bizarre twitter rant about how 14-year old Muslim children actually conspired to get themselves accused of bomb-making in order to get an invite to the White House?  It is but a laugh.  PR events that would swamp other institutions simply glide off World-Class universities’ backs.

Academic prestige matters.  Built up over enough time it can shield you from pretty much anything.  If you don’t think that’s a motivating factor in institutions’ prestige-seeking activities, you’re simply not paying attention.

September 18

Party Platform Analysis: The Conservatives

Back again for some more election platform analysis.  This week: the Conservatives.  But first, a caveat.  Part of the problem with trying to analyze party platforms in a 326-day election is that one’s rhythm gets all thrown off.  In a five-week campaign, all of the announceables are pretty much there in the first 21 days or so, so you more or less know when a party’s done announcing things.  In this election, we’re weeks into the campaign and we can’t be completely sure if the parties are done announcing things, unless, like the Greens, they actually publish the entire manifesto at once (an idea which, judging by their behaviour, the other parties find ridiculously passé).  So what I’m about to analyze is the Conservative platform as of Wednesday the 16th of September.  It’s possible there is a little more to come, but I have a feeling there isn’t – if I’m wrong, I will add some analysis later in the campaign.

Now, I should start by acknowledging that there loads of people in PSE who won’t care a fig what Conservatives promise, because they think the Harper record consists entirely of some kind of “War on Science”.  Long-time readers will know I’m not a fan of that theory: treatment of science and data within government (e.g. the long-from census) has been pretty horrible, but they haven’t done so badly on funding of academic science.  Arguably, by historic standards, their support has been the second-best of any government in Canadian history.  Their problem, however, is that first place goes to their immediate predecessors.

Anyways, the Tory strategy on higher education in this election seems to be to go with small, but tightly-targeted promises.  The first, released a couple of days after the election call, was a change to the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (not to be confused with the much sillier Apprenticeship Completion Bonus). This credit targets employers, which is the right focus, since they are the ones who control the supply of apprenticeship “places”.  Currently, it provides employers with a non-refundable tax credit of up to 10% of wages paid to each first- and second-year apprentice employed, up to a maximum of $2,000 per employee.  The tweak announced on August 3rd was to include third- and fourth-year apprentices, and bump the maximum reclaimable amount to $2,500.

This is one of those “meh” announcements.  Does it do a lot of good?  Probably not.  The credit makes sense in first and second year because those employees are noobs who require so much supervision that they don’t always add value.  By their third and fourth year, however, apprentices are getting hired because they add value to an employer, not because there’s a tax break involved (and in any case, in a lot of companies, the people doing the taxes don’t always talk to the HR people who make hiring decisions, so the logic model here of how this increases the supply of spaces isn’t perfect).  But on the other hand, it doesn’t do a lot of harm either.  It’s small ball – I didn’t see a cost estimate for this, but it’s got to be somewhere in the $30-50 million range.

The other, better announcement had to do with improvements to the system of Canada Education Savings Grants (CESG).  You remember those?  Introduced in 1998, they initially paid a 20 cent top-up on every dollar placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), up to a maximum of $400/year (later increased to $500).  About ten years ago the system was tweaked to create something called an A-CESG, which changed the top-up rate on the first $500 contributed to 40 cents on the dollar for families in the bottom income quartile, and 30 cents on the dollar for those in the second quartile.  In early September, the Conservatives announced they would raise those top-ups again, to 60 cents and 40 cents, respectively.

Some of the usual suspects dismissed this announcement out-of-hand because “savings are only for the rich”.  That’s idiotic – it’s right there in the design that this money only goes to families with below-median income.  In that sense, this is a tight, targeted, progressive measure.  But like with the apprenticeship credit, you have to wonder if it’s actually going to change anything.  Why give more money to people who are already saving, rather than – say – adjusting the Canada Learning Bond (which essentially kick-starts RESPs for low-income families by making a $500 initial donation) and making it an automatic benefit,  instead of an application-based one?  It’s not so much that it’s a bad promise; it’s just less effective than it could be.

This, to my mind, sort of sums up the Conservative record.  They can be counted on to do something every year for post-secondary education: just not always the most effective thing.

Next week: probably the NDP, if they’ve fully release their platform.

Page 4 of 15« First...23456...10...Last »