Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Politics

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

September 11

Party Platform Analysis: The Greens

So, we’ve been in this ghastly election period for several weeks now, but it’s just starting to get interesting, with parties releasing actual platforms.  I’ll be putting together briefs on each of the parties as they come out, starting today.

Let’s start with the Green Party, which is the first to have released a complete platform.  This platform is slimmer than the sprawling 185-page monstrosity the Party had up on its website for the first weeks of the campaign, and which contained all sorts of fun stuff, like family policy that had been outsourced to Fathers 4 Justice.  It’s slicker, and presumably represents what the party thinks are the most salable bits of their full-range of endorsed policies.

So, here’s what they say they’ll do on post-secondary education.  First, they are going to abolish tuition fees for domestic students, progressively, by 2020.  Second, they will lift the 2% cap on annual increases to the Post-Secondary Student Support Program to First Nations (though why this would be necessary if tuition was eliminated isn’t entirely clear).  Third, they have a plan to cap federal student debt at $10,000 (again, with tuition eliminated from need, not entirely clear this would be necessary).  Fourth, they will abolish interest on student loans (what’s left of them), and increase bursaries (though why you’d need to if tuition was abolished, and loans capped, isn’t clear).  This, it says, will “jump-start the Canadian economy”.  On top of that, the Party says it is unacceptable that youth unemployment is twice the national average (though, in fact, internationally this is on the low side), so it will be spending $1 billion per year to employ students directly through an Environmental Service Corps.

On science policy, there is a lot about “evidence-based decision making” (though this seems to be conspicuously absent in post-secondary policy), and a promise to restore funding to scientific endeavours within the Government of Canada (e.g. at Parks Canada, Health Canada, etc.), but nothing whatsoever with respect to granting councils.

The costing for all of this is somewhat dubious.  The party puts the cost of eliminating domestic tuition at a mere $5 billion, which is about $3 billion short of where it is, and probably closer to $4 billion by the time the plan is supposed to be rolled out (seriously – just multiply the 1 million domestic university students by average tuition, and you get a number bigger than what the Greens seem to be assuming).  But on the other hand, they’ve probably over-budgeted on student debt relief; they have this costed at $2.5 billion in the year of maximum costs (it declines after that), whereas I can’t see how it would cost more than $1 billion even if they didn’t get rid of tuition (briefly: average federal debt of those with debt over $10,000 is about $19,000, and only 46% of the 200,000 or so who graduate each year have federal debt over $10,000, so 92k x $9,000 = $888 million).  So while the Party clearly hasn’t a clue what it’s talking about in terms of costing, at least the errors aren’t all in the same direction.

To its credit, the Party is planning to partially pay for this ambitious agenda by cutting $1.6 billion in education tax credits. But that still leaves a net bill of about $4.5 billion (their numbers – about $7.5 billion in actual fact) in 2019-2020.  And for what?  To make education cheaper for people who already go?  To transfer billions back to the upper middle-class?  To be – as the intro to the policy suggests – more like Germany and Austria, where access rates are actually significantly worse than they are here?

What should we think of such a platform?  Well, even if we ignore the fact that it’s a massive net transfer of wealth to the upper-middle-class (such benefits as the poor would receive from lower tuition would be counteracted by the loss of offsetting subsidies) it’s a pretty poor showing.  Is there really nothing better we could do in higher education with $8 billion than to make it cheaper?  What about using that money to hire more professors?  Do more with IT?  Invest in research?

No, apparently it’s all about cheaper.  And for what?  To be more like Germany and Austria, which have lower access rates than we do?  This is stupid policy made by people who can’t count.  The Greens can and should do better than this.

More as the parties release platform details.

August 26

October 20th

Policy-making in Ottawa is like a huge river, moving in a slow stately procession, and only occasionally providing excitement if you hit some rapids.  It’s not like Washington, which – for all its vaunted “gridlock” – is actually more like an ice jam: there is a lot of pressure in the system, and things can move pretty quickly if the jam breaks somewhere.  Partly it’s because of our Westminster system, and our tradition of party discipline: there are not many independent policy actors on the hill, and hence, not many points where interest groups can exert leverage.  Add to that a relative lack of genuinely independent intellectual life in Ottawa (government and interest groups are dominated by policy analysts – Canada has no real equivalent to the Brookings Institute, or even the New America Foundation), and what you’ve got is a shop that doesn’t absorb new ideas easily.

All of which is to say that changes of government represent one of the very few times where new ideas get a hearing.  And while it’s far from assured, there’s a significant chance that there will be a new government on, or shortly after, October 19th – the Tories haven’t seen a poll putting them in majority territory in years, and it seems unlikely that either opposition party will keep them in power, either with votes or abstentions.  So October 20th is going to be the crucial date for policy entrepreneurs.

A new government comes to power with only a limited idea of what it’s going to do.  Party platforms don’t come close to covering all areas of government activity, so new ministers are winging it on most files.  Most post-secondary files come under the “winging it” category: apart from a Tory promise on tax breaks for apprenticeships, and a Liberal promise for more money for Aboriginal students, there’s been nada in the platforms so far, and as I said back here, that’s probably not going to change. Also, if there is a change of government, the new cabinet will be pretty raw: apart from Mulcair, there’s no one on the NDP front bench who’s ever held a cabinet seat at either a federal or provincial level; among Liberals, there are a dozen or so who have the “Honorable” prefix, but only Ralph Goodale, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum had substantial portfolios for any period of time.  Whether a new cabinet is red or orange, or a combination of the two, it’s actually going to be pretty green (but not Green).

Now, if you’re in the business of selling policy ideas, green cabinets are the best kind.  They have little allegiance to the status quo, are interested in new ideas, and cynicism hasn’t yet set in: they will never be more open to new ideas than they are at the start of a new government.  But – and this is the important bit – they have to be new ideas.  New governments may want to replace old policies, but they won’t do it by re-adopting even older ones.  There has to be an element of progress involved.

In higher education, there aren’t a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound.  On student aid and transfers, frankly, they’ve done little that opposition parties wouldn’t have done themselves.  Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it’s small ball from a government perspective.  Where a big re-think is needed is on research.  Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: “bring back the status quo ante”.  That’s a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn’t excite new ministers.  If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.

October 20th is fast approaching.  And this kind of window rarely opens twice.  Time to get cracking on some new approaches.

(corrected from the original and the version that went out via email to reflect the fact that the election is on the 19th, not the 18th.  That was a bad goof on my part – sorry)

August 24

Welcome Back

Morning, all.  August 24th.  Back, as promised.

School starts shortly.  The new crop of frosh were born in 1997, if you can believe that – to them, Princess Diana has never been alive, and Kyoto has always been a synonym for climate change politics (check out the Beloit Mindset List for more of these ).  Stormclouds line the economic horizon.  It’s going to be an interesting year.

In the US, progress on any of the big issues in higher education are likely to be in suspension as the two parties spend months figuring out who their candidates are going to be.  On the Democratic side, the presumptive candidate, Hilary Clinton, has put forward an ambitious plan for higher education, which, barring an absolute sweep at the polls, has almost no chance of passing Congress.  On the Republican side, no one apart from Marco Rubio seems to care much about higher education, except for Scott Walker who seems to want to use higher education as a punching bag, much as his idol Ronald Reagan did fifty years ago.

Overseas, the most consequential potential development is in the UK where – if the government is to be taken at face value – for the first time anywhere, measured quality of teaching might meaningfully affect institutional resources. In the rest of Europe, the ongoing economic slump looks set to create new problems in many countries: in Finland, where GDP contracted for the third year in a row, government funding will be down roughly 8% from where it was last year.  And that’s in one of the countries that thinks of itself as being particularly pro-education.  Germany, Sweden, and (maybe) Poland look like the only countries that might resist the tide.

Here in Canada, the outlook remains that post-secondary education will continue to see below-inflation increases in government funding for the foreseeable future, except in Alberta where the new provincial government intends on giving institutions a big one-time boost, which may or may not be sustainable, depending on how oil and gas prices fare.  This means resources will be scarce, and in-fighting for the spoils will be fierce.  And this, in turn, means a lot of governance, a lot of wailing about “corporatization” (always a good epithet when funding decisions aren’t going your way), and – inevitably, given the recent events at UBC – a lot of arguments about resource allocations, dressed up as arguments about governance.

(In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what happened there, exactly.  I do, however, believe three things: i) in a corporate context, the statements by the Board of Governors and interim President on Gupta’s departure are actually quite easily interpretable, and don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination; ii) if/when the truth comes out, it’ll be a hot mess of grey zones, and some of the wilder conspiracy rhetoric about the departure will seem ludicrous; and, iii) any theory positing that Gupta was fired for a lack of “masculinity” by a Board Chair who not only spent millions of his own dollars to create a dedicated Chair on Diversity in Leadership, but also that replaced said “unmacho” President with Martha Piper of all people, has more than one prima facie credibility problem.)

But behind all this, there’s a broader truth that I think the higher education community is being very slow to acknowledge.  The era of growth is over.  Higher education is not a declining industry, but it is a mature one, and this changes the nature of the game.  In the aughts, Canadian university income increased faster as a proportion of GDP than pretty much any country in the world (Netherlands and Russia aside).  It was a rising tide that raised all boats.   And I mean that literally: as a share of the economy, universities grew by half a percentage point (from 1.4% to 1.9% according to the OECD, which I think is a bit of an underestimate), which is like adding more than the value of the entire fishing industry.

But those boats stopped rising a couple of years ago.  Institutions with smug strategic plans about increasing excellence need to face reality that there’s no new money with which to achieve those goals: funds for new projects are, for the most part, going to have to come out of increased efficiencies, not new money.  It’s tougher sailing from here on out – permanently.  Institutions are going to need to be leaner, better managed, and more focused.  However, the meaning of those terms are hardly uncontested in academia.

This should make for a fun year.  Looking forward to it.

June 18

Truth and Reconciliation

Earlier this month, Justice Murray Sinclair released the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  There are some elements of it that make for interesting reading from a post-secondary perspective.

(To international readers: for a period of roughly a century, the Government of Canada provided education to First Nations Students through a series of “residential schools”, which were mostly run by one of the main churches.  These places were horrific; over that century, or so, tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were separated – often forcibly – from their families, and over 4,000 died while in the care of these residential schools.  If you think of Canadians as being a polite, peaceable, and a threat to no one, do read the full TRC report for a healthy corrective.)

In any case, while there has been a lot of media focus on the report, specifically with respect to its use of the term “cultural genocide”, and its accuracy, much less attention has been paid to its recommendations.  In point of fact, these are framed as “Calls to Action”, because while the federal government created the Commission, the changes the Commission recommended require action on the part of a range of different societal actors.  One reason this section may have received comparatively less attention is that there are so many recommendations (92), and one can get lost amidst them.  I’ve extracted the ones that relate to higher education, which I think will be important to monitor and track.

The first is Call to Action 11, which suggests that the federal government increase the amount of funding for post-secondary education.  That’s fine, but upping the number of direct program dollars (for instance through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which sends $300 million+ to bands each year) doesn’t go nearly far enough.  There are some significant changes needed in the way need assessment works, as well as a better understanding at the band level of how to use the Canada Student Grants program to stretch their budgets (most bands are leaving $2,000 per year, per student, on the table because of this – see my 2009 paper on funding options for Aboriginal post-secondary students here).

Call to Action 16 asks colleges and universities to create more degree diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.  This is an interesting one.  The main reason more institutions don’t do this is that enrolment in these programs – even in institutions where you’d think there would be substantial demand, like First Nations University – are usually too low to be self-supporting.  Put simply, Aboriginal leaders are a lot keener on language programming than are Aboriginal students.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but it’s an area where outside money would be necessary to make something happen.

Call to Action 62 (ii) asks governments to provide necessary funding to post-secondary education institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigeneous Knowledge (IK) into classroom teaching methods.  Now, if there’s one thing you can’t do in Canadian higher education, it’s tell professors how to teach in their own classrooms; and IK is still pretty controversial, even though some universities – such as Trent – have gone some way to bringing it into the curriculum.  My guess is that universities will be wary of doing too much here; the saw-off will be for institutions to ask for pools of money, which can be used by faculty who who wish to adopt these changes.  In truth, institution-wide initiatives along these lines are quite unlikely.

Calls to Action 24 and 28.  These are – I think – the big ones.  They ask all the country’s law and medical/nursing faculties to introduce mandatory courses on Aboriginal law and health.  If you’re going to be a lawyer in this country, you should know about the Treaties and Aboriginal-Crown relations.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you should know about specific health risks to Aboriginal people, and their own conceptions of health and healing.  Such things are not entirely new to the sector; I believe several nursing schools already make such courses mandatory, but can we expect all professional programs to accommodate new mandatory courses – especially rich, prestigious programs in urban areas, where Aboriginal numbers are low (e.g. Toronto, Montreal)?  These are conservative academic cultures that aren’t obviously fertile soil for such ideas.  It will be very interesting to see how they react.

The real issue, of course, is whether individuals in the PSE sector will react at all.  There is nothing that binds institutions to react to these calls, let alone implement them.  But it would behoove both Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada to provide a public response to the TRC, and to declare publicly what our higher education institutions are, and are not, prepared to do in order to further reconciliation.  As a sector, it’s the very least we can do.

Meanwhile, as individual institutions announce their own reactions to the Commission, and announce changes to programming, I’ll be keeping track and posting periodic updates on the blog.  More – I hope much more – to come on this file.

June 10

Will Things Change if Harper Goes?

There is a strain of thinking in higher education that goes something like this: “everything bad in higher education funding is the fault of neo-liberals [this being a general term of abuse rather than an actual ideological signifier].  Once neo-liberals are out of office, we can get back to the good old days, and not worry about austerity”.

It seems to me that the evidence for this point-of-view is pretty thin.  Near as I can tell, neither of the main opposition parties give two hoots about higher education.  Neither of them has released any policy statements around higher education in the past year.  Trudeau occasionally makes a speech about how important it is that attainment rates hit 70% (a demographically questionable promise, which I examined here, but has yet to utter a word about how he will achieve this.

Then there’s the fact that neither party’s post-secondary critic actually seems to care very much about post-secondary education.  For yuks, I looked at the Hansard record for the New Democrats’ Dan Harris (Scarborough Southwest) and the Liberals’ Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) over the past 14 months.  I could have gone back a bit further, I suppose, but that’s about the point at which I got bored with the exercise.  It was dispiriting, to say the least.

Dan Harris has spoken four times on the subject of post-secondary education in the House in the last 14 months.  Two of these were on the same day, and on the same subject (the Canada Student Loans Program’s vehicle cost exemption rules), back in April 2014.  Since then, he has spoken once to support the striking University of Toronto teaching assistants, and once to castigate the Tories for not doing more to bring international students into the country at a faster pace.  Ted Hsu has spoken a couple of times on the subject of Science & Technology funding, generally, and specifically on the subject of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which received funding in the last budget.  But on the subject of post-secondary education, I could find nothing at all.

It’s not that either man is silent in the House.  Both men – properly – devote much of their time to local matters.  But they speak widely on other issues, as well.  Harris has risen to talk about Bill C-51, childcare, government advertising policy, and banking.  Ted Hsu has spent much of his Commons time chastising the government on the issue of the National Household Survey, and calling for a reinstatement of the long-form census.  What all of these things have in common is that they have nothing to do with post-secondary education.

So, post-secondary critics don’t talk about post-secondary education.  Presumably that’s partly a matter of personal choice and interest.  But partly, as well, it’s a reflection of how their parties see post-secondary education as a vote-winner.  If they thought there were votes to be had by speaking on this subject, they’d be talking about it.  But they don’t, so they aren’t.

And it’s not just the votes – there simply isn’t much money available to promise anything.  Both opposition parties having essentially forsworn significant tax increases, dollars for new priorities are scarce.  The Liberals have more or less blown whatever fiscal room their program might have had on a revision of child benefits; the New Democrats have made a costly promise with respect to childcare.  Economic growth is slow, and stock markets are flat, which means there will be no big windfalls to fund much by way of expansion.  New funds for PSE are going to have to come from cuts elsewhere – never a pleasant thought for a government.

None of this means that a New Democrat or Liberal government (or, horror of horrors, a coalition government) will sit pat on higher ed.  After all, the Tories never promise much on higher education, and yet always manage to find something for the sector each year, even if it’s not entirely adequate, and/or is wrong-headed.   

What this means is that there may not be as much of a change in substance and tone as some imagine.  And this isn’t because “all parties are the same”; rather, it’s that they’re all reacting to the same external stimuli.  Simply put, higher education has lost its place in the policy spotlight, and there are few rewards for spending political capital on it.

June 02

Funding Formulas 201

The last time we  talked about funding formulas, we discussed the difference between determinative and allocative formulas.  When we talk about Ontario, which is currently undergoing a funding formula review, we’re definitely talking about the latter.  The formula isn’t going to drive total spending (this remains the legislature’s prerogative), what it is going to do is decide how the total amount will be split up.

The question is: how best to do this?

At this point, it’s worth going into some history about funding formulas.  Back in the day – say, the 1960s – universities would come cap-in-hand to government asking for money for various sundry purposes (usually, there were a couple of new “wow” proposals in there to justify a big increase), and government, in-turn, would cut cheques to individual institutions for any old amount.  Eventually, governments got tired of that shtick, and decided to come up with a way to allocate funds automatically – but fairly – to avoid going through that rigamarole every year.

Over time, however, global thinking about funding formulas changed – due mainly to work done at the OECD.  It’s now no longer just about divvying up money, it’s about using money to create a set of incentives to steer the system.  Now, admittedly, when the OECD talks about using money to steer a system, it does so because it thinks it’s better for governments to set goals for institutions, and then get out of the way.  In other words, governments “should steer, not row”.

(An interesting question in Ontario, of course, is how formula spending power can be made to steer the system, when the government of the day has a predilection not just to row, but to flail around like a five year-old on a boogie board.  Should be interesting.)

Anyhow, the idea is that you can get universities to do stuff by rewarding them via the funding formula.  The question then, from a practical point of view, is: how big a carrot do you need to get an institution to do something it may not want to do (e.g. pay more attention to teaching, get research institutions to reach out more to poorer kids, etc.)?  The answer here is: “nobody knows”.  And this is a bit of a problem, especially if you’re trying to incentivize something.  Thanks to the work of Nicholas Hillman and David Tandberg, we can be pretty sure that small nudges – say, nudges that account for 2-3% of the budget, or so – aren’t going to work.  If you’re going to try something like this, you need to go big.  As in, “at least 10% of an institutional budget” big.

Now, here’s the thing: in Ontario, the government only accounts for about 40% of university funding, with the rest coming from tuition or commercial activities.  So something that puts 10% of the institutional budget at risk actually has to put 25% of government funding at risk.  And logically speaking, this means you probably can only pick one, or at most two goals for your funding formula to target.   So what should the government pick: completion rates?  Research commercialization?

It’s hard, in fact, to see how you can steer competently in a way that makes sense for all institutions, in a jurisdiction where so little institutional funding comes from government.  There is the possibility of creating individual goals for each institution based on individual missions, but now you’re getting a long way from the idea of a “formula”, something where everyone pumps the same numbers into the system, and a global result for all institutions pops out.

Basically, system steering gets a lot tougher for governments if they’ve already allowed institutions to become mostly student-funded.  This is something Ontario is about to discover in a big way.

May 28

The 2016 Presidential Race

I’ve been spending a bit of time in the United States the last couple of weeks (Indianapolis, Boston, Washington DC), and one of the things I’m noticing is the extent to which political discourse – which, ludicrously, already centers around the 2016 Presidential Race – is focussed on issues in higher education.  Specifically: issues of tuition and student debt.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it’s an enormous shift from about ten years ago, when higher education first started to inch into the news.  Back then, it was about competitiveness: how can we use higher education to gain a march on all these various Asian countries (usually India and China) who suddenly  appear to be eating Americans’ lunch.  Back then, higher ed was relishing the attention – finally, a Sputnik moment, to push higher education back to the forefront of the political debate (Sputnik being a positive thing in American higher education, because it brought about a huge burst of spending on university science).  Now, no one is talking about a higher education bonanza.  No one is talking about quality.  To the extent anyone is talking about putting up new public money, it is meant to be used to make education more affordable.

(In Canada, of course, we’re way ahead of them.  This is the feed-the-student-starve-the-campus routine that we’ve seen for the last four years.)

On the Democratic side, it’s President Obama’s proposal for free college tuition that is setting the tone of the debate.  Bernie Sanders, trying to outflank Hillary Clinton to the left, has been an outspoken proponent.  Martin O’Malley (remember Mayor Carcetti, from The Wire?  He’s based on O’Malley), the only other semi-serious contender, talks about “debt-free college”, but his actual policy proposals involve expanding and improving income-based repayment, and allowing college students to refinance their loans at lower rates of interest.  Clinton, meanwhile, has said she supports Obama’s free college plan, but then went on to say that debt is caused by more than tuition, which implies that her thinking actually lies in other areas (most likely: more Pell grants, more tax credits, and tougher regulation of for-profits).

Action on the Democratic side of the ledger isn’t all that surprising: they’ve owned the higher education file since 1992, when Bill Clinton became the first ever candidate to successfully campaign on the issue.  What’s more interesting is the amount of attention being paid to higher education by Republican candidates.

Among currently declared candidates, Marco Rubio has shown the most audacity, backing a relatively serious access and completion agenda.  He has co-sponsored legislation backing so-called “human capital loans”, and has also called for the creation of a national unit-record data base to collect better data on student outcomes.  This has made him something of a darling among centrist wonks who think he might herald a new age of bipartisanship in higher education.

That may be clutching at straws: a number of other Republican candidates seem to be trying to run based on their ability to beat the living crap out of colleges: Governors Jindal (Louisiana) and Walker (Wisconsin) both introduced stonking cuts to higher ed in their budgets this year, mostly to show how tough they are on feckless elites (a Republican meme that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 run for the California Governor’s office).

The presence of differences in policy thinking in both parties means it’s sure to be a topic of debate right through the primaries (i.e. for another ten months or so).  Stay tuned.

May 25

Free Tuition: A Rocky Rollout in Chile

So the big news last week in Santiago was the announcement of the start of the “free tuition” plan, which was part of President Michelle Bachelet’s election platform in 2013.  Only it’s not quite free tuition, and it’s still not clear how it will be paid for.

I’ve written previously (back here) about the Bachelet promise, and the potential difficulties with implementing it in a country where most higher education is provided by private institutions, and forced nationalization is expressly prohibited in the constitution.  To those difficulties have been added the fact that the big tax hike the government thought would finance its reforms to compulsory and post-secondary education isn’t in fact going to raise quite as much money as previously expected, due mostly to a slump in the price of Chile’s main export, copper.   Not to mention the fact that the President herself has seen her approval ratings crater due to corruption allegations regarding her son.

The announcement last week left a lot of questions unanswered.  Free education, the President said, would now be available to “el 60% de los estudiantes más vulnerables”, which sounds like 60% of students, but based on the number of students estimated to benefit – roughly 250,000 students, or a quarter of the total – actually seems to mean “students from the poorest three income quartiles”.  There was no explanation of how institutions would be compensated for taking students.  And the President added a curious phrase, saying that students would be able to “accedan a la gratuidad completa y efectiva, sin beca ni crédito”. One hoped that the intention here was to underline that she meant free tuition and not just free net tuition (i.e. where grants offset the cost of fees).  However, some – including the academic and former Minister Jos Joaquin Brunner – have wondered whether it might mean that those who receive free tuition will lose eligibility for student aid.

Weirder by far is the President’s decision to simply exclude some institutions from the process.  Universities that are members of CRUCH (an acronym meaning “Council of Rectors”) – 16 public and 9 private universities that make-up the older (pre-1973) higher education system – were included, as were a selection of the country’s Institutions Professional (basically, Polytechnics), and its Centros de Formacion Tecnica (basically, community colleges).   But the country’s 35 private post-1973 universities were pointedly left out of the program.  No reason for this was forthcoming; and in case you’re wondering, it’s not solely because they are private, as all the IPs and CFTs are private, and they were included in the scheme.  One senses that some decades-old animosity between university sectors is playing-out here.  Whatever the reason, it puts Chile in the weird position of giving free tuition to median-income students attending a CRUCH university, and giving nothing beyond loans to students from the bottom of the income scale studying in the same program at a private university.

In theory, the government is committed to implementing full, across-the-board free tuition at some later date.  But it’s unclear exactly when this will happen and, given the situation in the private universities, whether it will in fact cover all forms of education.  Will it, for instance, cover graduate studies?   Will it cover 7 or 8 years of undergraduate education (currently the norm), or only the first 4 or 5?  Most importantly: how are institutions going to be compensated for taking all these students for free?

Hopefully, all of these questions will be resolved expeditiously.  But with only seven months remaining until the implementation date, Chileans are still in the dark about a lot of important details.

May 19


One of the favourite terms being bandied about on campuses these days is “mismanagement”.  According to some, everything would be fine if it weren’t for “mismanagement” – if weren’t for “mismanagement”, there would be no money problems, and life would be simply swimming.

The problem is that it’s not 100% clear what people mean by “mismanagement”.  It seems that, in fact, there are a few possible definitions:

1)      Malfeasance: This does happen occasionally, more often than not in areas related to construction and facilities management.  This is mismanagement, if not in the overt sense, then at least in the sense of not having adequate controls.

2)      Slip-ups/errors in judgement: To err is human.  In every big organization, mistakes are made every day.  These things tend to be fairly minor in scope, but intensely annoying if for some reason the mistake affects one’s own work.  Still, it’s unlikely that universities and colleges are more afflicted with these than any other large complex organization.  There’s a reason Dilbert is set in the private sector, for instance.  

3)      Paperwork: Judging by the whinging that goes on, many academic staff seem to equate paperwork with over-management, which by definition (to some) is “mismanagement”.  As with slip-ups, this kind of stuff is pretty routine in large organizations, and is not specific to post-secondary education.  Try working in government.

But actual mismanagement is none of these things.  Mismanagement is where people are systematically prioritizing, or spending money, on the wrong things (e.g. spending millions on a lazy river, for instance, or where resources are being over-committed to a particular project or line-item to no good effect – e.g. paying your President twice in the same year).  This does happen of course, but on the whole the amounts of resources involved are trivial compared to overall institutional spending.

The problem is that “wrong things” are in the eye of the beholder.  Thus, there is a noticeable tendency these days for academics with a grudge to assign the term “mismanagement” to activities with which they disagree (and that, by definition, means less money available for one’s own pet projects).  Spending “too much” on internationalization, prioritizing field of study A over field of study B or – god forbid – constructing a new building?  Obviously, the institution is being run by cretins or saboteurs who “mismanage” funds!  In some cases, this might be mismanagement; more often, it’s simply a difference of opinion about how to achieve institutional goals.

This would all be fairly harmless were it not for the fact that students’ and academics’ increasing use of the term “mismanagement” is coming at a time when it is increasingly difficult for institutions to obtain funds.  Blaming institutional financial woes on “mismanagement” is tactical ineptitude of the highest magnitude because it gives government license to freeze or cut payments, and thus exacerbate the problem.  “Really?” says the Government, “It’s management ineptitude that’s causing all the funding problems, not frozen tuition or stagnant government transfers?  Gosh, I guess you don’t need this $X million in operating grants, then – just manage yourselves better and it’ll be all right.” 

Obviously, true mismanagement and malfeasance needs to be called out.  There’s never an excuse for wasting resources.  But labelling political disagreements as “mismanagement” is both wrong and harmful.  It needs to stop.

May 07

Funding Formulas 101

So I’ve been asked to act as a member of the “reference group” (that is, a group of individuals from whom advice may be sought, but which is not technically an advisory group – yeah, I know, it’s a bit odd) for the government of Ontario’s funding formula review.  Since everyone’s about open government these days, I thought I’d make public some of my views on the subject of funding formulae so you can get a sense of what I’m contributing to the discussion behind the scenes.

So, first off: does Ontario actually need a change to its funding formula?  For purely housekeeping reasons, yes.  It’s been about 40 years since the formula was last re-written, and it looks increasingly jerry-rigged (I can’t find a completely up-to-date version of the Ontario formula online, but here’s an ungated 2009 version that, minus some jiggery-pokery around education students, is still pretty much what’s in the system today).

But we need to be clear about what a funding formula amendment can achieve.  The government seems to be under the impression that a new funding system can help institutions better contain costs (it can’t), or support differentiation (it can, but only if you stretch the term “formula” to include a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly algebraic).  Other stakeholders seem to think that a funding formula change might improve financing for institutions.  This it can do in theory, but not – in Ontario at least – in practice.

At a very broad level, funding formulas come in two types: determinative and allocative.  In a determinative formula, the government plugs all the relevant numbers into a formula, and out the other end comes a number that tells the government how much to spend.  These are pretty rare: Australia has a system like this, as does the United Arab Emirates.  Governments tend to dislike these formulas because they hand control of overall spending to bodies outside of government: as long as universities keep admitting people, governments have to keep spending (in the UAE’s case, it also led to Treasury trying to meddle in the admissions process as a way to keep expenditures under control). Instead, most formulas are allocative: government determines how much it wants to spend, and then uses a formula to divide that amount between all the institutions.  That’s very definitely how Ontario’s formula works right now, and I think it is safe to say the current review isn’t going to change that.

Tinkering with an allocative formula will certainly make some universities better off, but by definition it can’t make them all better off.  Indeed, winners and losers tend to be more or less equally balanced.  You can tweak the formula to help institutions that are more research-focused, but small institutions will pay; you can put more money to fund Fine Arts programs, but other fields of study will have to lose money to balance it out.

Another thing about funding formulas: the amount of difference they make to institutional behaviour is basically proportional to the percentage of the total bill that government foots.  In Quebec, where institutions are dependent on government for 80% of their money, changes to funding formulas matter a heck of a lot more than they do in Ontario, where the government share of operating expenditures is closer to 40%.

All of which is to say: let’s not kid ourselves that this funding formula review is going to change very much.  This is a risk-averse government, which dislikes seeing too many losers.  For some reason, they have initiated a process that has the potential to create a lot of losers.  My best guess is there will be a lot of interesting ideas thrown around, which will cause a lot of angst; in the end we’ll have a model that may have a very different set of indicators and coefficients, but will leave the actual distribution of money across institutions more or less unchanged.  Think of it as a policy process as written by Giueseppi de Lampedusa: everything will change, so that everything may stay the same

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the process, and to writing more about funding formulas.  More later.

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