HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: tuition

February 04

Lessons from Scandinavia on the Value of Tuition Fees

Whenever you hear somebody complaining about higher education funding in Canada, it’s usually only a matter of time before someone says “why can’t we be more like Scandinavia?”  You know, higher levels of government funding, no tuition, etc., etc.  But today let me tell you a couple of stories that may make you rethink some of your philo-Nordicism.

Let’s start with Denmark.  The government there is trying to rein public spending back in from a walloping 56% of GDP, and bring it back down to an only slightly less-imposing 50% by 2020.  And it’s doing this while the economy is still weak, and while oil prices are falling (Denmark has some North Sea oil so, like Canada, it tends to see low oil prices as a negative).  So cuts are on the way across many services, and higher education is no exception: universities there will see cuts of 2% in their budgets for each of the next four years.  Over to Finland, where it’s the same story in spades.  Nokia as a technological saviour/massive boost to government coffers is long gone, and economic contraction in Russia is hitting Finnish exports hard.  With the economy declining and the government trying to stay out of debt, the government there also laid out cuts to many services, including higher education: there the hit is a cut of roughly 13% out to 2020.

Now, in North America, when you hear about cuts like this you tend to think “oh, well, at least the government will let institutions make some of it back through tuition, either by increasing enrolment, or raising fees, or both”.  And in general, this attenuates the impact of funding cuts (unless of course you’re at Memorial in which case you are plain out of luck).  But remember, these are free-tuition countries.  By definition, there is nothing that can attenuate the cuts.  And so that 2% per year cut for the next four years in Denmark?  The University of Copenhagen has since announced a first round of cuts equaling 300M DKK ($62 million Canadian), equal to about 5.5% of the university’s operating budget, and that will involve cutting 500 staff positions.   Those cuts in Finland?  The University of Helsinki has decided to cut almost 15% of its staff positions.

Total reliance on government looks good on the way up; much less so on the way down.  That’s why tuition fees are good.  You know students will pay tuition fees every year, which makes them more dependable than government revenue.  Fees balance the ups and downs of the funding cycle.

Another thing tuition fees do is to provide an incentive for institutions to accept more students; if institutions can’t charge tuition and aren’t funded according to student numbers, their inclination will be to accept fewer students, thus undermining the “access” rationale for free tuition.  And this seems to be the case in allegedly-access-friendly Sweden, where enrolment in first and second degree programs has actually been in decline over the past few years.

Total Bachelor’s/Master’s Enrollment at Swedish Universities, 2007-2014

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I know what you’re wondering: is it a demographic thing?  No.  The 2015 version of the annual report, Higher Education in Sweden (which is a great report by the way… one of those documents you wish every country could publish), makes it clear that the ratio of applications-to-acceptances for students with no previous post-secondary education (i.e. 18-19 year olds) has actually been rising for the last few years (from 2:1 to 2.5:1).  And it’s not a financial thing either: between fall 2010 and fall 2014, real expenditures at Swedish universities increased by 12%, or so.

So what’s going on?  Well, a few things, but mainly it seems to be that universities prefer to get more dollars per student than actually increasing access.  And I mean, who can blame them?  We’d all like to get paid more.  But I genuinely cannot imagine any jurisdiction in North America – you know, big, bad North America, with its awful access-crushing neo-liberal tuition regimes – where reducing spaces while government expenditures were increasing wouldn’t be considered an absolute scandal.  Yet this is what is happening in Sweden, and apparently everyone’s OK with it.

Total reliance on government funding can make universities complacent about access.  Fees can incentivize institutions to actually admit more students.  Fees have a role to play in access policy.  The data from Scandinavia says so.

January 20

The Inter-Generational Equity Thing

I see that one of my favourite student groups, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA), has come out in favour of a tuition freeze.  Fair enough; not many students endorse fee increases, after all.  But the stated rationale for wanting one is a bit disappointing – mixing, as it does, poor historical analysis with poor generational politics.

Here’s their thinking:

In 1980, student contributions to university operating budgets in Ontario, which include tuition and fees, were only 18 per cent. In 2014, accounting for inflation, that number reached 51 per cent. I’m no financial planner, but I do believe that if I invest 33 per cent more into something—I should probably receive a comparable amount in return, or at the very least, expect to.

So let me ask: are there more jobs available for university graduates? More co-op and paid internship opportunities? Are students being taught to articulate their soft skills to employers? Has the ratio of students to faculty in the classroom improved? Most importantly, are university degrees more valuable now than they were in 1980? If the answer to these questions, particularly the last one, is no, then why are students paying more than ever for a university education?

(You can read the complete document here.)

There are a number of errors here.  Are there more jobs for graduates?  Yes, of course there are.  Maybe not relative to the number of graduates, but even so, graduate unemployment rates are a lot lower than they were in the early 80s and early 90s (though of course that has more to do with the state of the economy than anything else).  More co-ops and paid internships?  Incomparably more.  In 1980, Waterloo was still about the only place doing co-op; today, the practice is widely spread (and at Waterloo itself, the number of co-op students per year is at least three times what it was back then). The only piece that’s unambiguously true here is the bit about student-teacher ratios.

If we really want to understand why students are paying more for their education we need look no further than the facts that: a) enrolments tripled, and b) the cost per-student for education got more expensive (not always for good reasons, but true nonetheless).  Governments paid for part of this – admittedly less so in Ontario than elsewhere in the country – and students paid for the rest.

And this is why we have to be careful when making comparisons over time.  Of course, we could bring student contributions back down to 18% of total costs: but remember, part of what that increased contribution bought was vastly increased access.  Anyone want to make that trade and return to a time of cheaper education for a luckier few?  No, thought not.

So that’s the analytical error.  The political error – and it’s a seductive one, I’ll admit – is to claim that every time a new generation doesn’t get something that the old generation got, it’s “unfair” and a basis to lay a claim on state resources.  But this way madness lies.  Where PSE is concerned, it’s tantamount to saying “our parents were oversubsidized and we demand the same treatment”.  Or maybe, “we’re getting a pretty good deal on PSE, but we demand that our deals be ludicrously good like they were in the 70s”.

For a whole bunch of very long-term demographic and economic reasons, today’s students are going to find it harder than the boomers, and even the Gen Xers did (also harder than the generation that passed through university between 2000 and 2005, who did pretty well).  There’s not a whole lot anyone can do about that: some cohorts just have it easier than others, and progress isn’t always linear.  Policy shouldn’t be totally insensitive to these shifts, but neither should our goal be to preserve certain benefits in amber just because “that’s what our parents got”.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments in favour of tuition freezes, or even that the “universities need to show value for money” argument is wrong.  (If it were me arguing the case, I’d push for limiting increases in student fees to whatever the increase in public funding is.)  But arguing on the basis of changes that have occurred over 35 years is a mistake; too much of the money spent over that period did too much good to be criticized.  Inter-generational arguments are trickier than they look, both analytically and politically.

January 18

Would Lower Tuition or Lower Student Debt Improve the Economy?

Short answer: not really, no.  But judging by this Chronicle Herald article last week entitled “Eliminating Tuition Fees would Buoy Bluenose Economy“, bad ideas die hard.  So let’s think this one through.

As I wrote back here, there are basically four ways to lower tuition or reduce student debt.  Government can raise taxes to pay for it, borrow to pay for it, re-allocate spending to pay for it, or reduce the cost of educational provision (i.e., cut spending on equipment and salaries).  If you choose the taxing, re-allocating, or cost-reduction methods, the net effect on the economy as a whole is zero.  Yes, students gain, but others lose, so it more or less nets out (exception: taking money from profs with a high propensity to save and giving it to students with a high propensity to spend actually probably would make a bit of a difference in the short-term, but since no one’s actually proposing that we’ll leave it aside).  Only by borrowing to reduce tuition/debt could government actually achieve the goal of a short-term boost; but then again, deficit spending on anything gives the economy a short-term boost.  What’s the case for spending it on students?

(A colleague has since pointed out to me that in theory there is a fifth option: the government could expand the money supply by printing money and using it to buy down student debt.  But that’s: a) not an option open to a provincial government; and, b) really unlikely to be used by a federal government, so I think we can confidently give this one a miss.)

There is certainly a case in Nova Scotia at least for spending some money on controlling student debt.  This is not a province that spends a whole lot on student aid – as we at HESA noted in our work on net prices, entitled The Many Prices of Knowledge.  Nova Scotia is for most students, by most measures, one of the most expensive places to study, so there’s not much doubt that some targeted assistance is in order. But free university tuition for everyone is obviously regressive, so making a case for that option is much harder.

The article doesn’t address the issue of regressivity but it does make quite a different case, which is that a province in as bad a demographic and economic situation as Nova Scotia needs to toss a bone to its youth.  And for what it’s worth, that’s true: the situation for youth in Nova Scotia is pretty dire, and out-migration is a serious issue.  But if that’s the problem you’re trying to combat, why give the biggest subsidies to that section of youth who: a) mostly come from better-off families; and, b) are likeliest to be making high salaries in the future?  Why direct money to them and not youth who haven’t accessed PSE?

If Nova Scotia really wants to do something big and bold, something that will attract or retain youth, and isn’t quite as brutally regressive, it should think about creating a type of tax rebate for all youth – say a 50% reduction on provincial taxes for anyone born within the last thirty years.  That’s a heck of a message to send to young workers – and one that might resonate outside the province as well.  And yes, okay, it’s still regressive, but likely less so than free tuition because at least it includes some benefits to those who don’t attend PSE.

Worth a thought, anyway.

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.

September 16

An Argument About the Effects of Tuition Reductions

At various times in the past (herehere, and here, for example), I have made the argument that lowering tuition fees is regressive because the benefits will accrue to people who are either the children of the wealthy, or people who will be wealthy, or both.  I have also said that where neither of those conditions is true (for example, some types of community college programs), there is a reasonable case for free tuition.

As a rule, people who disagree with this position make one of three tactical responses.  The first is to hurl abuse, usually with the word “neo-liberal” thrown in for good measure.  These people we can safely ignore.  The second is to take the Hugh McKenzie-CCPA route, which is to say it’s OK to have these kinds of transfers to the rich because they pay more taxes than everyone else.  This is not prima facie idiotic, but it’s a very, very difficult argument to make as a progressive.  In fact, you can only really make it through a syllogism like this: “I am progressive.  I made a statement.  Therefore the statement is progressive”.  Evaluate as you will.

But there is also a (rarer) third response, which says: “ah, but you’re only looking at ceteris paribus results.  Surely free tuition would bring all sorts of new students to the table, and change the benefit calculus.”  Now it is undeniably true that *if* there was a massive shift in demand, then my argument would be wrong.  So let’s look at that *if* – how likely is it to happen?  What would have to happen in order for such a shift to take place?

Let’s look at this logically: would lower fees make anyone less likely to want to attend higher education?  No.  So any shift is not going to come from a fall in demand from upper-income groups, it’s going to have to come from a surge in demand from lower-income youth.  That’s possible, though unproven. There is, for instance, no data from either Manitoba or Newfoundland to suggest that this is what happened when they reduced tuition over a decade ago.  But let’s assume for the moment it’s true.

Now, you have to ask the question: even if aggregate demand increases, are universities likely to take in more students as a result of fee reductions?  Unless you’re also assuming that governments are going to spend a whole extra wad cash for expansion, on top of cash for eliminating fees (NB: the Green Party plan for free tuition in Canada does not do this; neither does the Chilean free tuition experiment), the answer here is “probably not” (or at least not much).  But if the supply of spaces is more or less fixed, then for any benefit-shifting to happen, additional students from poorer backgrounds are actually going to have to displace richer kids in order to close the gap.  Poor kids in, rich kids out.  That’s not an impossible outcome, but given that: a) universities ration places through grades; and, b) youth from higher-income families have an advantage in terms of academic preparation (go see any number of PISA studies on that one), it seems very unlikely.

But let’s suspend disbelief, and assume governments ARE in fact prepared to both reduce price and expand capacity.  What wold happen then?  Well, we don’t know, really.  But we do know that governments have been expanding university capacity tremendously over the past 15 years – partly through higher funding, and partly through higher fees.  And as far as we know (and admittedly we don’t know as much as we should), access has in fact been widened, at least as far as ethno-cultural backgrounds are concerned.  But that raises a question: if you can improve access simply by increasing capacity, why not just do that instead of spending all that money to also make it free?

In short, we know a way to improve access, and it doesn’t involve making higher education free.  Conversely, we know that making higher education free, on it’s own, is very unlikely to change the social composition very much (i.e. it won’t be effective on its own terms), and therefore will provide extraordinary benefits to children of upper-income families.

September 01

The Tennessee Promise

So, yesterday I talked about a big increase in access in the UK, which seems to have little to do with tuition fees.  Today, let’s talk about a developing story in the United States, where a lowering of net prices seems to have had a big impact on access.

You may recall that in the US over the last couple of years, there has been a growing movement for free community college, something that President Obama picked up on earlier this year.  But before Obama picked up this baton, free community college had already been introduced in Republican Tennessee, where governor Bill Haslam had turned something called “the Tennessee Promise into law in 2014.

Technically, the Tennessee Promise is not “free tuition”.  It’s only available to students entering straight from high school (which is a bit weird in terms of design, but whatever).  Students have to be full-time, maintain a 2.0 average, meet regularly with a mentor, and perform eight hours of community service per term.  And technically, what it does is reduce your tuition to zero after all other forms of aid and scholarship are taken care of (this is what is known in the business as a “last dollar” scholarship).  If you apply for the award and meet the terms, government will cover your tuition to the point where your net price is zero.  For a good number of people, this means free tuition with minimal strings attached, so let’s just call it free tuition.

Now, you might expect that with this kind of incentive, enrolment might rise a bit.  And you’d be right.  According to very early results, the number of freshmen is up 29.6% over last year.  Obviously this is a pretty impressive result, but before we get too excited, we should probably find out a little more about where these new students are coming from.  Are they “new” students, or are they mostly students who would have gone to a 4-year college, but have chosen 2-year instead?  And what about students’ financial background?  If you’re poor enough to be anywhere near maximum Pell grant ($5,775), the Tennessee Promise provides no additional aid, because tuition at Tennessee Community Colleges is about $4,000.  So it may well be that what the Tennessee Promise is doing is providing aid to people higher up the income ladder.  This is a little inefficient, but since (as I noted back here) community college students tend to come from poorer backgrounds anyway, this is not as regressive as it would be if it were implemented at 4-year colleges.

We should be able to answer these questions in a few weeks (yes, Canadians, in some places data is available in weeks, rather than years).  Even though Tennessee does not track applicants by income the way the UK does, the state’s excellent annual Higher Education Fact Book does contain two pieces of data that will help us track this.  The first is college-going rates by county, which will help us understand whether the jump in participation is concentrated in higher- or lower-income counties, and the second is the percentage of students who are Pell-eligible.  I’ll keep you up-to-date on this when the data is out.

The most intriguing possibility here is that rates of attendance for Pell-eligible students might be rising, even though the Tennessee Promise provides no actual added benefit for many of them.  It may well be that simply re-packing the way we frame higher education costs (“it’s free!”) matters more than the way we actually fund it (“your tuition is $4,000, and you also have a grant for $4,500”).

This would have significant policy ramifications for us in Canada.  As we noted last year in our publication, The Many Prices of Knowledge, many students at Canadian community colleges face an all-inclusive net price that is negative, or very close to it.  Similarly, poor first-year university students in both Ontario and Quebec have negative net prices.   No one knows it, because we package aid in such a ludicrously opaque fashion, but it’s true.  And if the Tennessee data provides evidence that the packaging of aid matters as much as the content, then it will be time for Canadian governments to re-evaluate that packaging, tout de suite.

August 31

An Interesting Story about Access in the U.K.

Remember how, in 2012, tuition in England rose by about $10,000-$12,000 (depending on the currency exchange rate you care to use) for everyone, all at once?  Remember how the increase was only offset by an increase in loans, with no increase in means-tested grants?  Remember how everyone said how awful this was going to be for access?

Well, let me show you some interesting data.  The following comes from UCAS, which, at this time of year, does daily (yes, daily!) reports on “accepted applicants” (that is, applicants who have been offered a place at universities for the term commencing in a couple of weeks).  Figure 1 shows what’s happened to student numbers from families in the lowest income quintile since 2011, which was the year before the tuition increase.

Figure 1: Number of Accepted Applicants from the Lowest Income Quintile, England, 2011-15

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Big increase, right?  Over three years, it amounts to 19.8%.

“Oh well”, say the zero-tuition true believers, “this doesn’t prove anything.  What really matters is what happened to students from higher income backgrounds.  Surely, being less bound by financial constraints, their numbers grew even more”.

In a word: nope.  The rate of accepted applicants increased by more than three times faster for students from the bottom quintile (quintile 1) than it did for those from the top (quintile 5).  Of course that’s partly because they have a lot more room to grow: there are still about three times as many accepted applicants from the top quintile as the bottom quintile.  But the point is: contrary to expectations, the gap is closing.

Figure 2: Change in Number of Accepted Applicants by Income Quintile, England, 2011-2015, Indexed to 2011

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“Ok”, say the skeptics; “let’s look at counterfactuals: what’s going on in neighbouring countries, where policy didn’t involve a massive tuition fee increase?  What about Wales, where tuition stayed at a little over £3,000, or Scotland where tuition is free (for Scots: English kids still have to pay the £9,000)?”

Fair question.  Figure 3 shows what happened to students from the lowest income quintile in all three countries: in Scotland, rates of accepted applicants are up by 28%, in Wales by 21%, and in England by 17%.

Figure 3: Change in Rate of Accepted Applicants, England, Scotland, and Wales, 2011-15, Indexed to 2011

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“A-HA!”  Say the usual suspects.  “Clear evidence that free is better!”  Well, maybe.  But before declaring victory, why not look at rates of accepted applicants for low-income students across these three countries?   That is: what percentage of all youth from the bottom income quintile actually reach the stage of being “accepted applicants”?

Figure 4: Accepted Applicants from Bottom Quintile Families as a Percentage of all Bottom Quartile Youth, England Scotland, And Wales, 2011-2015

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Quite a different story, isn’t it?  Turns out that in horrible, vicious, neo-liberal, £9,000 tuition England, 18% of lowest-income quintile youth apply, and are admitted to university.  In idyllic, equality-loving, £0 tuition Scotland, the figure is not much more than half that, at 10%.  So let’s just say that the evidence claiming fees explain participation rates, and changes thereof, is pretty limited.

But getting beyond the issue of fees, I think there’s a bigger story here.  Right across the UK, regardless of tuition fee regime, there is a massive uptick in participation from low-income students over the last couple of years.  Clearly, something is going right there with respect to low-income students.  Is it a change in aspirations?  Expectations?  Academic preparation?  As far as I know, no one has published on this – I have a feeling everyone was so keyed on explaining expected declines in participation that no one was set up to explain the opposite.  But whatever is going on, it’s a success, and other countries would do well to learn from it.

June 05

Random Crazy Thoughts About Funding Formulas

A few days ago, I attended a meeting of an advisory group on the review of the Ontario University Funding Formula. I can’t of course tell you what went on inside the meeting, but I thought I would share with you some of the (creative? crazy?) ideas that I had while inside them.

One issue which has popped up both in Ontario and in some meetings I had in DC last week, was the problems created by having money automatically fund enrolments. Now obviously money has to track enrolments to some degree – big universities need more money than little ones, expensive programs need more money than cheap programs, etc, etc. But on the other hand making the relationship direct creates an institutional incentive to deal with every cost problem by just chasing more students, which may not be socially optimal. Indeed, it leaves institutions open to the charge (not always entirely fairly) that they care more about getting people in the door than making sure they graduate.

So here’s an idea: since tuition fees rise directly with enrolment, institutions already have an incentive to chase bodies. Why not switch the funding formula incentive entirely to completion as Denmark does with its “taximeter” system? Completions are probably correlated about .75 or .8 with enrolments, which means that it wouldn’t cause a massive dislocation; you could probably up that to .9 or so if you funded based on an “expected completion metric” which took into account the quality of the incoming students (so, for instance, Queen’s would have to show much higher completion rates than Algoma to get the same money because the entrance averages of its students is higher).

Compounding the money-follows-enrolment problem is the fact that no formula I’ve ever been able to locate ever makes a distinction between the cost of an average student and the cost of a marginal student. This is on the face of it ridiculous: the 15,000th student at any institution is a heck of a lot cheaper to educate than the first or even the 5000th. And while yes, actually calculating marginal costs is a mug’s game and you certainly wouldn’t want to try to work that out in a funding formula, it’s not impossible to include a taper in the funding mechanism. That is, the first 100 in a particular field of study might be worth X, the next 100 might be worth .9x, the next 100 .8x, and so on and so forth. Easy enough. Why not do it?

One other interesting discussion to be had around funding models is the extent to which they can make systems “sustainable” (by which government means “not cost too much”). The Government of Ontario is very keen on the idea of using the funding formula to promote “sustainability” in Ontario universities. My first thought was that this was kind of nutty since a) the funding formula discussion is entirely allocative (ie. it is about how to divide the money not how much to give) and b) as I understand it, this funding formula review is not allowed to touch i) tuition, ii) collective agreements and iii) pensions. Frankly it’s pretty difficult to address sustainability if the formula can’t really take into account the largest components of revenue or costs. And yet, the central problem in institutions is getting cost increases back in line with revenue increases (see here and here).

As I’ve argued previously, there are good reasons why we might want to link total compensation to a particular percentage of total income, in much the same way that teams in professional sports do: it keeps the lid on costs when times are tight and it gives everyone in the institution an incentive to raise net revenues. Now, this particular provincial government won’t countenance doing that by interfering with collective bargaining (a problem since universities on their own don’t seem to be able to control costs very well) or by implementing the “BC solution”  where the government sets out sector-wide guidelines about the extent to which aggregate pay can rise.

But then I thought of a way around this: what if the funding formula actually fixed the proportion of compensation costs to non-compensation costs? What if the formula contained a dollar-for-dollar clawback as compensation rises above 75% of total income? Of course, there’d be all sorts of screaming, and the devil would be in the details as to how to define compensation (circumventing the limit by hiring people as contractors would be the obvious loophole to close), but I think it might actually be a very effective tool for to help institutions become more sustainable.

Food for thought, anyway.

April 16

De-Regulating Tuition in Nova Scotia

There seems to be a lot of interest in this Nova Scotia budget announcement on tuition-fee de-regulation, mostly from the everything-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket crowd.  In the interests of trying to keep people’s eyes on the ball, I thought I would try to put this move into some kind of context and examine what the likely outcomes will be.

(Necessary conflict of interest statement: In fall 2014, I did some writing work for the Nova Scotia Council of University Presidents, relating to priorities for the 2015 budget.  Make of that what you will.)

To start, let’s be clear about what the province has done.  It has allowed universities to do two things:

1)      For out-of-province, international and graduate students, the government has permanently de-regulated tuition fees

2)      For in-province undergraduates, tuition fees are being de-regulated for one year only, in order to allow institutions to make a one-time “adjustment” to program fees, after which tuition will return to having a 3% annual cap.

Now, some people assume that the term “de-regulation” means everyone is going to go hog-wild on fees.  But this isn’t necessarily true: remember that students will react to any price increase and this is a competitive market.  So the trick for universities is to work out the elasticity of the market – basically, how high can you jack up the price before people start looking for substitutes?

Universities essentially have two markets: “home” and “away”.   You can charge home students a heck of a lot before they will look for substitutes; they have to move away from home to find a substitute and that’s expensive – so the price differential can be quite high before a home market moves very much.   (note also that perceived quality matters – as many students leave Quebec for Ontario as the other way around, despite the substantial tuition gap).  But you can’t get away with that for “away” students in the same manner.  They are already paying substantially more than sticker price, because they are living away from home.  They already have cheaper alternatives.  How much more expensive can you make your product before turning them off?

Obviously, institutions are only going to raise fees in areas where they think demand is inelastic: that is, where a price hike isn’t going to substantially affect enrollment.  That means generally speaking you can expect fee rises to be concentrated in program where demand substantially exceeds supply.  Which means – among other things – that Arts programs aren’t likely to see big jumps.  But to add a bit of a wrinkle: the province has given universities the most flexibility over fees for group of students who are the most price-sensitive and the least flexibility over fees for those who are least price-sensitive.  Which makes for a very weird set of incentives: the pressure to go big will be highest for in-province students, because if they over-shoot on price to the high side they can always lower the price in subsequent years whereas if they price low, they won’t later be able to raise them significantly if they under-shoot.

It’s impossible in advance to say how institutions are going to take advantage of this flexibility.  Presumably strategies will vary depending on the amount of market power (i.e. excess of demand over supply) that each institution thinks it has in each of its programs:   But one lesson they should heed from the recent experience of almost-deregulation in Australia is this: make decisions quickly.  The longer uncertainty persists about what the prices will be, the longer opponents will have to raise support by suggesting the prices will be ridiculously high (King’s University Student Union was first off the mark on this one – see here – and they added some utterly ludicrous “statistics” on debt to bolster their case).  So while it goes against the grain to announce 2016 prices before Christmas, smart institutions will at the very least set out some principles that will counter the more hysterical propaganda as soon as possible.  Preferably before summer.

April 09

Australian Deregulation (Again) and the Future of Tuition Fees

So deregulation in Australia now looks to be dead and buried.  But in its death throes, the debate finally coughed-up some interesting ideas about how to pay for higher education.  Here’s the re-cap:

Not long after my last article on this subject, the coalition decided to put a second deregulation bill to a vote in the Senate.  The first bill failed by two votes.  The second one, after months of lobbying and arm-twisting, failed by four.  This suggests a couple of things:

1)      Minister Christopher Pyne and the Liberal party are as thick as two short planks when it comes to parliamentary management;

2)      If you give the opposition ten full months to yell “$100,000 degrees!”, you’re going to lose.  That some degrees were going to cost $100,000 was probably inevitable, but the idea that more than a handful would do so was risible.  The problem is that there’s really no way to model the consequences of deregulating a good such as education, which is at least partially a Veblen good.  As such, there’s no great way to refute those claims.  In other words: if you’re going to deregulate, do it quickly.

So the universities aren’t going to get any new money from students, which is a bit of a problem since there isn’t a whole lot of money coming from government either.  Pyne cancelled a planned 20% cut from the 2014 budget to university finances as a sweetener to get the deal through, but now that the deal has tanked there is genuinely no telling what the government’s next move might be (and the 2015-6 budget is right around the corner).

Now, right before the bill went down, ANU economist Bruce Chapman – the inventor of HECS back in the late 1980s – entered the fray.  He was an opponent of deregulation precisely because price increases, which students could pay using HECS, wouldn’t really act as a price signal, and hence would allow institutions to run-up fees far more than was socially useful.  But unlike the Labor Party he used to work for (it’s terribly difficult being a Labor loyalist in Australia these days, because of their ineffable uselessness), Chapman actually engaged with the government and suggested an alternative.

Effectively, Chapman suggested deregulation, plus a luxury tax: institutions can raise fees, but government can (and should) reduce public funding at something less than a dollar-for-dollar rate in response. Basically, if Melbourne raises an extra $10 million in fees, the government could cut their public subsidy by $5 million.  This allows institutions to use the market to get more money, but also puts some brakes on the process.  Institutions will still get their money, but students on the whole will probably pay less than they would under full-deregulation, the government will be on the hook for less HECS debt, and the financial gap between more and less prestigious institutions will be smaller.  It’s not an entirely novel idea – the Browne Review in England proposed something similar in 2010 – but it nevertheless has merit, and  deserves some examination here in Canada, too.

Pyne now says the Chapman proposal could form part of his third (!) deregulation bill, but university presidents have had enough, and have stopped backing deregulation (some interesting comments on this here from Hannah Forsyth).  You can go nuts working out their tactical motivation for abandoning the government at this point, but to me it just looks like they’ve decided this government is a goner, politically – why waste political capital backing anything from the present government, which would certainly be eviscerated by the next lot?  Better to negotiate elements of a Chapman package with Labor once they’re in power, and can claim the idea as their own.

At the dying end of this business came another interesting idea about how to set fees, this time from the excellent Andrew Norton.  He argues (here) that an egalitarian approach to setting fees would be to equalize them on the basis of average time-to-repayment.  Since time-to-repayment is a function of income in Australia, the equivalent here would simply be to set them as a function of average income, an idea I explored back here.  On recent trends, Arts fees should be falling, and Engineering fees should be rising.  Yet somehow, over here, such a simple idea seems beyond the pale of discussion.

Australia’s higher ed policy landscape is crazy in many ways, not least of which is the way university presidents tend to form circular firing squads on many issues.  But their vigor in discussing big policy issues in higher education is bracing; a welcome contrast to all the hiding from reality going on in Canadian governments.

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