Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Trends in Higher Education

June 06

Governance, Stress-Tests, and Preparing for the Worst

It’s the little things that worry me.  The slowdown in China.  The continuing failure of the Euro-zone to grow.  The fact that the ratio of the US Stock Market Cap to GDP is approaching the levels seen right before the crashes of 2001 and 2008.  Our economy might muddle through, or it might not.

Now add on to economic uncertainty the clear evidence that governments are showing decreasing enthusiasm about supporting higher education – nationally, there’s been a real decline in provincial higher ed funding over the past four years to the tune of about three percent.  Better than some sectors, certainly, but also very problematic, given that our universities essentially seize up if their budgets don’t grow at least 3.5% per year.  Oh, and throw in the clear reluctance of most governments to let tuition rise to compensate for any funding cuts.

Given all this, I’d say there’s a reasonable chance that universities in more than one province are heading for budget cuts on the order of 10% or so.  It’s likeliest in Ontario, but it could happen pretty much anywhere.

Is anyone ready for that?  Does anyone have a plan in their back-pocket that would help them get through that kind of restructuring.

I can hear all of you rolling your eyes.  Of course not – who does that?

Well, almost everyone, really.  Any business worth its salt has some pretty clear contingency plans if revenue drops.  Colleges don’t have exact contingency plans per se, but they pretty much all measure break-even points on a per-program basis; if required to cut, they would be able to produce plans very quickly.

But universities?  It is to laugh.  They’ll plan for growth until the cows come.  But plans to shrink?  Never.

Yet, it’s not as though they can claim blindness to the danger.  It’s not as though universities don’t remember the 1990s, when double-digit cuts occurred.  It’s not as though cuts on a limited scale aren’t already happening.  Despite the dangers, universities continue to merrily sign agreements with faculty that commit them to large expenditure increases in the future (Hey!  U of Ottawa!  Yeah, I’m looking at you!) instead of focussing on contingency plans.

I can sort of understand the reluctance of administrators to take this step, given the predictable faculty backlash.  What’s more puzzling is the absence of any pressure on institutions from their Boards of Governors on this score.  Our whole system of university governance is based on spheres of competence: academics run academic affairs through Senate, while Boards – supposedly filled with men and women with a modicum of business nous – are supposed to take care of the money.  And yet, more often than not, “taking care of the money” means dong fundraising or small-ball stuff like advising on endowment strategies.  It doesn’t seem to involve asking hard questions about the medium-to-long term solvency or stress-testing institutions to see how they’d fare if things go south.

Yet it should.  The risks institutions face are getting bigger each year.  A crash may not happen; but if it does, we’d all be better off if our responses were based on thoughtful long-term plans rather than the usual beheaded chicken routine that universities seem to prefer.  Boards of Governors are the ones best-placed to make it happen.  They need to step up and do so.

May 28


Once upon a time, we thought that to indulge in serious thought, scholars needed to be protected from the hurly-burly of commerce and politics.  That’s why an awful lot of American campuses were built out in the middle of nowhere (eg. Dartmouth, Princeton, U Illinois, U Indiana, U Virginia, U Washington), and why many of the medieval universities of Europe have walls – both were strategies to keep out the riff-raff.

Nowadays, of course, we think exactly the opposite.  Urban universities and colleges are hip and cool.  They’re in the middle of booming cities, interacting with businesses, and collaborating to fix social problems.  And though one might think this development is just a bunch of Richard Florida-esque hipsterdom (Cities! Knowledge! Vague connection between the two!), in fact, it has to do with a much larger and more fundamental change in the nature of universities themselves.  As far as universities’ goals and self-image is concerned, there’s a new Sheriff in town.  And its name is “permeability”.

As far as teaching and learning goes, some types of permeability are actually already ingrained into North American universities in ways that European universities are only starting to catch on to.  You can be permeable in terms of credits – making institutions welcoming to students who already have collected credit elsewhere. You can be permeable in terms of time – allowing students to start and stop their programs regardless of age or the length of time it takes to complete a set of credits (this may sound mundane to people in the Anglosphere – in most of the rest of the world, however, this kind of stud is either in its infancy or might as well be science fiction).

The most dynamic institutions in the world are the ones where it’s hardest to define where an institution ends and where other organizations begin.  The schools with the most frenetic pace of scientific innovation aren’t the ones fussing about patents and licensing, they’re the ones with the open-ended innovation agreements with business, where issues of IP rights don’t get in the way of the main goal, which is to develop productive, ongoing relationships. The schools with the most interesting students aren’t necessarily the ones with the traditional credit-based paths to completion, but rather the ones who ensure a mix of academic and applied experiences, like through Waterloo’s co-op program.  The most interesting undergraduate research projects aren’t the ones assigned by professors, but rather are the applied-research projects that come from local businesses, and are proliferating in place like Ryerson and Canada’s Polytechnics.

Permeability is less about what institutions do than it is a state of mind.  It is about openness, not just to the outside world, but also to new ways of achieving things.  It is about thinking of universities as being embedded in a vast variety of networks, rather than being a hub with various spokes (it can be a hub for some things – just not all of them).  And it’s about empowering students and professors to develop and explore their own networks, rather than assume these will be organized by the institution itself.

We’ve essentially come full-circle here.  It’s the isolated universities who wanted to function as “cities upon a hill” who look out-of-touch these days.  The most dynamic ones, far from shutting themselves off, are doing their best to turn themselves inside out, and open up as many of their functions as possible to contact and integration with commerce and society.

Permeable Universities are the model for the 21st Century.  Working out how to help them emerge is the main task of higher education policy for the coming decade.

September 19

Cultural Determinants of Data Acquisition Costs

I saw a fascinating piece in the New York Times awhile back.  It was about a trend at American universities, asking applicants if they were gay or not.  Apparently, these institutions believe that by asking students this question, they are sending a message that they are a gay-positive environment.


Americans think that transparency about identity is the path to utopia.  Enrolment statistics by race?  They’ve got them.  Indeed, they are required to keep such statistics, because of a clutch of laws designed to monitor whether or not Blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos and America Indians) are being discriminated against.

In Canada, the rule of thumb is simple: on forms used for administrative purposes, you can’t compel anyone to reveal data about identity, beyond what is strictly necessary to achieve the purpose for which the information is being collected.  So, on applications to universities and colleges, asking people’s names and addresses is about as far as you can go (provinces have different standards on whether you can ask gender – some say you can’t).  Asking about ethnicity, or aboriginal status?  Totally verboten.  Whereas in the US it’s mandatory.

What that means is that, in Canada, acquiring any data about students – other than raw numbers – requires voluntary surveys.  And those can get expensive: done centrally through StatsCan (and its levels of quality standards) they cost millions; even if you just get a decent-sized consortium together to do something, it will run into hundreds of thousands once you count everyone’s labour costs.  You can get it down into the tens of thousands if you go with an electronic survey, but then there are response bias issues (you can correct for them, but it requires someone to have already done a decent survey to begin with – and with the loss of the census long form, it’s not clear that we have such a survey).

Of course, even Canada is at least somewhat ahead of, say, France.  There, the local conception of nationalism means that state agencies are forbidden from classifying citizens as anything other than citizens.  Blanc, beur, noir: they’re all French according to the government, and its socially unacceptable to classify them as anything else.  A morally attractive stance, perhaps, but what it means is that the French have real trouble measuring social inequality in ways that matter.

All of this is simply to say, if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have statistics on ethnicity the way the Americans do, it’s this: they assume racial bias exists and keep stats to measure it.  We assume that racial bias exists, and so try to mask parts of individuals’ identities to prevent it.

April 17

An Avalanche of Nonsense

I wasn’t going to write about the ludicrous new higher education paper, released last month by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled, An Avalanche is ComingI didn’t think it had enough exposure to warrant it.  But, since the Globe has now seen fit to publish an extract, I can go whole hog.

It starts off with bog-standard, “sky-is-falling” stuff: the global economy is a mess (true, but presumably temporary), the cost of higher education is increasing faster than inflation (true since the beginning of time), the value of a degree is falling (in most countries it hasn’t), and “competition is heating up” (MOOCs, basically).  Somehow, these weak propositions add up to the argument that, massive change is inevitable.

The paper goes on to posit that the modern university is essentially a bundling of ten different “features” (in actuality, a weird amalgam of inputs, throughputs, and outputs), to wit: research, degrees, city prosperity, faculty, students, governance/administration, curriculum, teaching & learning, assessment and (student) experience.   The impending “avalanche” will occur because technology and economics are permitting some unbundling of these services, and because in each of those ten areas, universities – allegedly – face growing competition.

For instance, the paper claims that universities’ dominance in research is being challenged by “think tanks” (hilarious – I await the Fraser Institute’s next paper on the Higgs Boson); it also claims – seriously – that the student experience is being challenged because it can be replicated by “meet-ups, youth clubs, and learning communities”.  As for the rest, it’s all basically MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs – they’re going to change everything, don’t you know!

There is this fantasy out there – shared by silicon valley types and big money consultants, alike – that just because unbundling can happen that it will happen.  Sure, it happened in the music industry – but that’s not a universal experience.  It hasn’t been the case, for instance, in the real estate industry – mostly because the idea of going DIY on the biggest financial decision of your life scares the bejesus out of most people.  And if you asked me whether higher education is closer in nature to music or housing, my answer would be pretty obvious.

I urge people to read the paper in order to get a sense of just how unhinged the higher education’s self-styled “revolutionaries” can actually get.  Though the paper ends with some sensible points about the need for institutions to sharpen their value propositions, these recommendations in no way flow organically from the wholly evidence-free view that student demand is collapsing in the face of MOOCs.  The notion this paper peddles – that positive change requires massive disruption – isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous.  It needs to be countered.

March 14

The New Normal: Students First, Institutions Last

There’s a new dynamic at work in Canadian higher education.  And it should scare the bejesus out of everyone who cares about the sector.

Consider the following:

In Alberta, where the Conservative Government last week cut operating budgets by nearly 7%, and institutions have been told to forget about offsetting through tuition fees, the student aid budget rose by almost a quarter.

In Ontario, the Liberal Government won re-election last year on a platform of no more money to institutions over four years (a pledge matched by all other parties), combined with a 30% discount in tuition for full-time undergraduates.  The Ontario Tories do seem to want institutions to be able to raise a bit more money via tuition fees in carefully selected programs.

In Nova Scotia, the provincial government commissioned Tim O’Neill to tell them how to save the higher education system, then ignored his report, then cut higher education budgets by a little more than 10% over the last three years (with more cuts to come).  Student aid, increased in the early years of the government, was spared those cuts.

At the federal level, it’s not much better.  The left-ish Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)’s annual Alternative Federal Budget fell into the same pattern: Add $1.7 billion to provincial transfers for PSE, but attach strings so it had to be used to reduce tuition.  Despite committing almost $4 billion in spending to the sector (some of it repurposed from tax credits), the only new money that might flow to higher education from the AFB proposals would be through expanded PSSSP funding to First Nations students.  The rest?  It goes to students, in one form or another.

The pattern is clear.  From east to west, from left to right, the pattern is the same: protect students (and their families), cut the institutions.

Some increases in student aid are justifiable, of course.  And Canadian PSE institutions are generously funded by international standards, and so should find a way to adjust to these cuts, at least in the short-term.  But there’s a deeper problem here.  If we’ve reached the point where the question of how to least inconvenience students and parents trumps the provision of quality education, the sector has a serious long-term problem on its hands.

At root, it’s a collective failure to convince the public that they’re getting value-for-money in PSE.   Until people are convinced otherwise, the demand for cheaper education is going to trump the demand for better education.  Priority one for everyone in the sector is to reverse that dynamic.

February 28

The Future of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

The extent to which MOOCs will be a genuinely revolutionizing force in higher education is going to depend on three things:  their pedagogy, their ability to convert learning into useful credentials, and their business model.  At the moment, it’s hard to see how MOOCs are succeeding on any of those criteria.

Take pedagogy.  The techno-fetishist crowd wants people to believe that, just because a course is online, it must be interactive.  But this is simply false.  Though some MOOCs are genuinely interactive, in the sense of having online tutorials and tests that provide genuine feedback on learning, many – particularly those from Coursera – are literally nothing more than traditional lectures, uploaded to the web.  As Tony Bates and others have pointed out, not only is there nothing new here, it is remarkable how much weaker the new online providers are in terms of online pedagogy compared to established online education providers like Athabasca and the Open University.  Strike one.

Next, let’s take credentials.  No MOOC provider is in the business of offering degrees.  For the most part, they aren’t even providing them for credit, although in the US the American Council for Education has now certified a handful of courses as being “of college standard”, meaning that traditional universities may now start accepting them as a form of transfer credit (though this will require a fee, and possibly some extra Prior Learning Assessment work).   For adults who are looking to pick up some knowledge or skills, or just be entertained, this is not a big deal.  For traditional undergraduates looking for a degree to start their career, it’s a deal-breaker. Strike two.

(Actually, the best defense universities have against MOOCs is precisely the signaling power of their degrees.  But they don’t like to say this too loudly because their claim on public money stems from an understanding that the value of a degree lies not in its signaling function but rather in the human capital formation it embodies.  Rhetorical contortions ahoy.)

Then there’s the lack of a business model.  EdX is currently financed by large wealthy universities doing stuff for free, Udacity is powered by VC money, and Coursera uses a bit of both.  To be sustainable, money has to start changing hands at some point.  Once that happens, students are going to want assistance and services which don’t exist in the current MOOC model, with predictable effects on enrolment.  One University of Washington course saw enrolment fall from 25,000 to 5 when a fee was charged.

Now, this isn’t immutable.  Maybe MOOCs will eventually get around all these problems and become wildly successful.  But until they do, tales of revolutionizing the undergraduate experience will remain just that: stories.

February 21

Stuff Happens: Rise of the Latinos

When you think about recent developments in American higher education, the negatives tend to predominate.  Cutbacks in state funding, soaring tuition fees, ballooning debt levels – it all leads you to believe that there’s been an enormous diminution of access.  But, very quietly, there’s been one incredibly good piece of news: a massive jump in Latino participation rates.

For decades, now, one of the biggest challenges in American higher education has been low participation rates among Latino students.  Latinos are, of course, quite heterogenous, even with respect to higher education.  Puerto Ricans in the Northeast have long had access rates similar to those of whites, while participation rates among Mexican and Central American Latinos in the West and Southwest have been persistently abysmal.  Other immigrant groups with low-education backgrounds have tended to see their participation rates rise by the time the second generation rolls around.  In many cases in the west, the Latino population was well into its third generation; it seemed, by-and-large, as if Latino youth simply hadn’t grasped the fact that higher education was increasingly necessary to succeed in the modern economy.

As Latino birthrates rose, and as that population became an increasing percentage of the general population, there were real worries in the Southwest that the persistently-low participation rates would lead to declining overall participation rates, and an increasingly de-skilled labour force.  A lot of policy attention – and some money as well – got lavished on this population, through groups like Excelencia in Education.  But for years, Latino access rates flatlined, and all this work seemed to be for naught.

Then suddenly, in the middle of this recession, the situation changed dramatically.   Between 2008 and 2011, the participation rate of Latinos, aged 18-24 years-old, who had completed high school, jumped from 36% to 46%, surpassing the black participation rates for the first time ever.  And no, this wasn’t a trick of the denominator – Latino high school completion rates were rising too, from 65% in 2005, to 76% in 2011.  In 2010 alone, the country saw an increase of nearly 200,000 Latino enrolments from the previous year (to put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the population of Quebec’s francophone universities).

Maddeningly for policy wonks who want to replicate this little miracle, it’s really not clear what prompted it.  There was no big policy shift that preceded it, for instance.  Many say “it’s the recession”, but this begs a lot of questions (e.g. why this recession, and not earlier ones?  Why isn’t it having a similar effect on black enrolments?).

Sometimes, if you work at something long enough, stuff just happens.  That’s bad news for social scientists who like to link cause and effect, but good news for America’s Latinos.