HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

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April 18

Naylor Report, Take 1

Naylor Report, Take 1

People are asking why I haven’t talked about the Naylor Report (aka the Review of Fundamental Science) yet.  The answer, briefly, is i) I’m swamped ii) there’s a lot to talk about in there and iii) I want to have some time to think it over.  But I did have some thoughts about chapter 3, where I think there is either an inadvertent error or the authors are trying to pull a fast one (and if it’s the latter I apologize for narking on them).  So I thought I would start there.

The main message of chapter 3 is that the government of Canada is not spending enough on inquiry-driven research in universities (this was not, incidentally, a question the Government of Canada asked of the review panel, but the panel answered it anyway).  One of the ways that the panel argues this point is that while Canada has among the world’s highest levels of Research and Development in the higher education sector – known as HERD if you’re in the R&D policy nerdocracy – most of the money for this comes from higher education institutions themselves and not the federal government.  This, that say, is internationally anomalous and a reason why the federal government should spend more money.

Here’s the graph they use to make this point:

Naylor Report

Hmm.  Hmmmmm.

So, there are really two problems here.  The first is that HERD can be calculated differently in different countries for completely rational reasons.  Let me give you the example of Canada vs. the US.  In Canada, the higher education portion of the contribution to HERD is composed of two things: i) aggregate faculty salaries times the proportion of time profs spend on research (Statscan occasionally does surveys on this – I’ll come back to it in a moment) plus ii) some imputation about unrecovered research overhead.  In the US, it’s just the latter.  Why?  Because the way the US collects data on HERD, the only faculty costs they capture are the chunks taken out of federal research grants.  Remember, in the US, profs are only paid 9 months per year and at least in the R&D accounts, that’s *all* teaching.  Only the pieces of research grant they take out as summer salary gets recorded as R&D expenditure (and also hence as a government-sponsored cost rather than a higher education-sponsored one).

But there’s a bigger issue here.  If one wants to argue that what matters is the ratio of federal portion of HERD to the higher-education portion of HERD, then it’s worth remembering what’s going on in the denominator.  Aggregate salaries are the first component.  The second component is research intensity, as measured through surveys.  This appears to be going up over time.  In 2000, Statscan did a survey which seemed to show the average prof spending somewhere between 30-35% of their time on research. A more recent survey shows that this has risen to 42%.  I am not sure if this latest co-efficient has been factored into the most recent HERD data, but when it does, it will show a major jump in higher education “spending” (or “investment”, if you prefer) on research, despite nothing really having changed at all (possibly it has been and it is what explains the bump seen in expenditures in 2012-13)

What the panel ends up arguing is for federal funding to run more closely in tune with higher education’s own “spending”.  But in practice what this means is: every time profs get a raise, federal funding would have to rise to keep pace.  Every time profs decide – for whatever reasons – to spend more time on research, federal funds should rise to keep pace.  And no doubt that would be awesome for all concerned, but come on.  Treasury Board would have conniptions if someone tried to sell that as a funding mechanism.

None of which is to say federal funding on inquiry-driven research shouldn’t rise.  Just to say that using data on university-funded HERD might not be a super-solid base from which to argue that point

April 17

British Columbia: Provincial Manifesto Analysis

On May 9th, our left-coasters go to the polls.  What are their options as far a post-secondary education is concerned?

Let’s start with the governing Liberals.  As is often the case with ruling parties, some of their promises are things that are both baked into the fiscal framework and will take longer than one term to complete (e.g. “complete re-alignment of $3 billion in training funds by 2024”), or are simply re-announcements of previous commitments (page 85-6 of the manifesto appears to simply be a list of all the SIF projects the province already agreed to co-fund), or take credit for things that will almost certainly happen anyways (“create 1000 new STEM places”…. in a province which already has 55,000 STEM seats and where STEM spots have been growing at a rate of about 1700/year anyway…interestingly the Liberals didn’t even bother to cost that one…)

When you throw those kinds of promises away, what you are left with is a boatload of micro-promises, including: i) making permanent the current BC Training Tax Credit for employers, ii) creating a new Truck Logger training credit (yes, really), iii) spending $10M on open textbooks over the next 4 years, iv) reducing interest rates on BC student loans to prime, v) making minor improvements to student aid need assessment, vi) providing a 50% tuition rebate to Armed Forces Veterans, vii) creating a centralized province-wide admission system and viii) allowing institutions to build more student housing (currently they are restricted from doing so because any institutional debt is considered provincial debt and provincial debt is more or less verboten…so this is a $0 promise just to relax some rules).  There’s nothing wrong with any of those, of course, but only the last one is going to make any kind of impact and as a whole it certainly doesn’t add up to a vision.  And not all of this appears to be new money: neither the student loan changes nor the centralized application system promises are costed, which suggests funds for these will cannibalized from elsewhere within the system.  The incremental cost of the remaining promises?  $6.5 million/year.  Whoop-de-do.  Oh, and they’re leaving the 2% cap on tuition rises untouched.

What about the New Democrats?  Well, they make two main batches of promises.  One is about affordability, and consists of matching the Liberal pledge on a tuition cap, slightly outdoing them on provincial student loan interest (eliminating it on future and past loans, which is pretty much the textbook definition of “windfall gains”), and getting rid of fees for Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language Program (which, you know, GOOD).  There’s also an oddly-worded pledge to provide a $1,000 completion grant “for graduates of university, college and skilled trades programs to help pay down their debt when their program finishes”: based on the costing and wording, I think that means the grant is restricted to those who have provincial student loans.

The NDP also has a second batch of policies around research – $50M over two years to create a graduate scholarship fund and $100M (over an unspecified period, but based on the costing, it’s more than two years) to fund expansion of technology-related programs in BC PSE institutions.  There is also an unspecified (and apparently uncosted) promise to expand tech-sector co-op programs.  Finally, they are also promising to match the Liberals on the issue of allowing universities to build student housing outside of provincial controls on capital spending.

Finally, there are the Greens, presently running at over 20% in the polls and with a real shot at achieving a significant presence in the legislature for the first time.  They have essentially two money promises: one, “to create a need-based grant system” (no further details) and two, an ungodly bad idea to create in BC the same graduate tax credit rebate that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and now Manitoba all have had a shot at (at least those provinces had the excuse that they were trying to combat out-migration; what problem are the BC Greens trying to solve?).

Hilariously, the Green’s price-tag for these two items together is…$10 million.  Over three years.  Just to get a sense of how ludicrous that is, the Manitoba tax credit program cost $55 million/year in a province a quarter the size.  And within BC, the feds already give out about $75M/year in up-front grants.  So I think we need to credit the Greens with being more realistic than their federal cousins (remember the federal green manifesto?  Oy.), but they have a ways to go on realistic budgeting.

(I am not doing a manifesto analysis for the BC Conservatives because a) they haven’t got one and b) I’ve been advised that if they do release one it will probably be printed in comic sans.)

What to make of all this?  Under Gordon Campbell, the Liberals were a party that “got” post-secondary education and did reasonably well by it; under Christy Clark it’s pretty clear PSE can at best expect benign neglect.  The Greens’ policies focus on price rather than quality, one of their two signature policies is inane and regressive, and their costing is off by miles.

That leaves the NDP.  I wouldn’t say this is a great manifesto, but it beats the other two.  Yeah, their student aid policies are sub-optimally targeted (they’re all for people who’ve already finished their programs, so not much access potential), but to their credit they’ve avoided going into a “tuition freezes are magic!” pose.  Alone among the parties, they are putting money into expansion and graduate studies and even if you don’t like the tech focus, that’s still something.

But on the whole, this is a weak set of manifestos.  I used to say that if I was going to run a university anywhere I’d want it to be In British Columbia.  It’s the least-indebted jurisdiction in Canada, has mostly favourable demographics, has easy access from both Asia (and its students) and from the well-off American northwest.  And it’s got a diversified set of institutions which are mostly pretty good at what they do.  Why any province would want to neglect a set of institutions like that is baffling; but based on these manifestos it seems clear that BC’s PSE sector isn’t getting a whole lot of love from any of the parties.  And that’s worrying for the province’s long-term future.

April 12

Access: A Canadian Success Story

Statscan put out a very important little paper on access to post-secondary education on Monday.  It got almost zero coverage despite conclusively putting to bed a number of myths about fees and participation, so I’m going to rectify that by explaining it to y’all in minute detail.

To understand this piece, you need to know something about a neat little Statscan tool called the Longitudinal Administrative Database (LAD).  Every time someone files an income tax form for the first time, LAD randomly selects one in five of them and follows them for their entire lifetime.  If at the time someone first files a tax return they have the same address as someone who is already in the LAD (and who is the right age to have a kid submitting a tax form for the first time), one can make a link between a parent and child.  In other words, for roughly 4% of the population, LAD has data on both the individual and the parent, which allows some intergenerational analysis.  Now, because we have tax credits for post-secondary education (PSE), tax data allows us to know who went to post-secondary education and who did not (it can’t tell us what type of institution they attended, but we know that they did attend PSE).  And with LAD’s backward link to parents, it means we can measure attendance by parental income.

Got that?  Good.  Let’s begin.

The paper starts by looking at national trends in PSE participation (i.e. university and college combined) amongst 19 year-olds since 2001, by family income quintile.  Nationally, participation rates rose by just over 20%, from 52.6% to 63.8%.  They also rose for every quintile.  Even for youth the lowest income quintile, participation is now very close to 50%.

 Figure 1: PSE enrolment rates by Income Quintile, Canada 2001-2014

PSE by Income Quintile

This positive national story about rates by income quintile is somewhat offset by a more complex set of results for participation rates by region.  In the 6 eastern provinces, participation rate rose on average by 13.6 percentage points; in the four western provinces, it rose by just 2.8 percentage points (and in Saskatchewan it actually fell slightly).  The easy answer here is that it’s about the resource boom, but if that were the case, you’d expect to see a similar pattern in Newfoundland, and a difference within the west between Manitoba and the others.  In fact, neither is true: Manitoba is slightly below the western average and Newfoundland had the country’s highest PSE participation growth rate.

 Figure 2: PSE Participation rates by region, 2002-2014

PSE by region

(actually, my favourite part of figure 2 is data showing that 19 year-old Quebecers – who mostly attend free CEGEPs, have a lower part rate than 19 year-old Ontarians who pay significant fees, albeit with benefit of a good student aid system.)

But maybe the most interesting data here is with respect to the closing of the gap between the top and bottom income quintile.  Figure 3 shows the ratio of participation rates of students from the bottom quintile (Q1) to those from the top quintile (Q5), indexed to the ratio as it existed in 2001, for Canada and selected provinces.  So a larger number means Q1 students are becoming more likely to attend PSE relative to Q5s and a smaller number means they are becoming less likely.  Nationally, the gap has narrowed by about 15%, but the interesting story is actually at the provincial level.

Figure 3: Ratio of Q1 participation rates to Q5 participation rates, Canada and selected provinces, 2001-2014

Q1 to Q5 participation rates

At the top end, what we find is that Newfoundland and Ontario are the provinces where the gap between rich and poor has narrowed the most.  Given that one of these provinces has the country’s highest tuition and the other the lowest, I think we can safely rule out tuition, on its own, as a plausible independent variable (especially as Quebec, the country’s other low-tuition province, posted no change over the period in question).  At the bottom end, we have the very puzzling case of Saskatchewan, where inequality appears to have got drastically worse over the past decade or so.  And again, though it’s tempting to reach for a resource boom explanation, nothing similar happened in Alberta so that’s not an obvious culprit.

Anyways, here’s why this work is important.  For decades, the usual suspects (the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives) have blazed with self-righteousness about the effects of higher tuition and higher debts (debt actually hasn’t increased that much in real terms since 2000, but whatever).  But it turns out there are no such effects.  Over a decade of tuition continuing to increase slowly and average debts among those who borrow of over $25,000 and it turns out not only did participation rates increase, but participation rates of the poorest quintile rose fastest of all.

And – here’s the kicker – different provincial strategies on tuition appear to have had diddly-squat to do with it.  So the entire argument the so-called progressives make in favour of lower tuition is simply out the window.  That doesn’t mean they will change their position, of course.  They will continue to talk about the need to eliminate student debt because it is creating inequality (it’s actually the reverse, but whatever).  But of course, this make the free-tuition position even sillier.  If the problem is simply student debt, then why advocate a policy in which over half your dollars go to people who have no debt?

It’s the Ontario result in particular that matters: it proves that a high-tuition/high-aid policy is compatible with a substantial widening of access.  And that’s good news for anyone who wants smart funding policies in higher education.

April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.

 

Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph

 

The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

April 10

Evaluating Teaching

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) put out an interesting little piece the week before last summarizing the problems with student evaluations of teaching.  It contains reasonable summary of the literature and I thought some of it would be worth looking at here.

We’ve known for awhile now that the results of student evaluations are statistically biased in various ways.  Perhaps the most important way they are biased is that professors who mark more leniently get higher rankings from their students.  There is also the issue of what appears to be discrimination: female professors and visible minority professors tend to get lower ratings than white men.  And then there’s the point that OCUFA makes with respect to the comments section of these evaluations being a hotbed of statements which amount to harassment.  These points are all well worth making.

One might well ask: given that we all know about the problems with teaching evaluations, why in God’s name do institutions still use them?  Fair question.  Three hypotheses:

  1. Despite flaws in the statistical measurement of teaching, the comments actually do provide helpful feedback, which professors use to improve their teaching.
  2. When it comes to pay and promotion, research is weighted far more highly than teaching, so unless someone completely tanks their teaching evals – and by tanking I mean doing so much below par that it can’t reasonably be attributed to one of the biases listed above – they don’t really matter all that much (note: while this probably holds for tenured and tenure-track profs, I suspect the stakes are higher for sessionals).
  3. No matter how bad a measurement instrument they are, the idea that one wouldn’t treat student opinions seriously is totally untenable, politically.

In other words, there are benefits despite the flaws, the consequences of flaws might not be as great as you think, and to put it bluntly, it’s not clear what the alternative is.  At least with student evaluations you can maintain the pretense that teaching matters to pay and promotion.  Kill those, and what have you got?  People already think professors don’t care enough about teaching.  Removing the one piece of measurement and accountability for teaching that exists in the system – no matter how flawed – is simply not on.

That’s not to say there aren’t alternatives to measuring teaching.  One could imagine a system of peer evaluation, where professors rate one another.  Or one could imagine a system where the act of teaching and the act of marking are separated – and teachers are rated on how well their students perform.  It’s not obvious to me that professors would prefer such a system.

Besides, it’s not as though the current system can’t be redeemed.  Solutions exist.  If we know that easy markers get systematically better ratings, then normalize ratings based on the class average mark.  Same thing for gender and race: if you know what the systematic bias looks like, you can correct for it.  And as for ugly stuff in the comments section, it’s hardly rocket science to have someone edit the material for demeaning comments prior to handing it to the prof in question.

There’s one area where the OCUFA commentary goes beyond the evidence however, and that’s in trying to translate the findings of student teaching evaluations (ie. how did Professor X do in Class Y) to surveys of institutional satisfaction.  The argument they make here is that because the one is known to have certain biases, the other should never be used to make funding decisions.  Now, without necessarily endorsing the idea of using student satisfaction as a funding metric, this is terrible logic. The two types of questionnaires are entirely different, ask different questions, and simply are not subject to the same kinds of biases.  It is deeply misleading to imply otherwise.

Still, all that said, it’s good that this topic is being brought into the spotlight.   Teaching is the most important thing universities do.  We should have better ways of measuring its impact.  If OCUFA can get us moving along that path, more power to them.

April 07

CEU and Academic Freedom

Let me tell you about this university in Europe. It’s a small, private institution in which specializes in the humanities and social sciences. It’s run on western lines, and is one of the best institutions in the country for research. And now the Government is trying to shut it down, mainly because it finds the institution politically troublesome.

Think I’m talking about Central European University (CEU) in Budapest? Well, I’m not. I’m talking about the European University of Saint Petersburg (EUSP), which has had its license to operate revoked mainly because of its program of studies on gender and LGBTQ issues. And I’m kind of interested in why we focus on one and not the other.

First, let’s get down to brass tacks about what’s going on at Central European University (CEU). This Budapest-based institution, founded by George Soros 25 years ago during the transition away from socialism, is a gem in the region. No fields of study were more corrupted by four decades of communist rule than the Social Sciences, and CEU has done a stellar job not just in becoming a top-notch institution in its own right, but in becoming a bastion of free thought in the region.

The Hungarian government, which not to put too fine a point on it is run by a bunch of nationalist ruffians, has decided to try to restrict CEU’s operations by legislating a set of provisions which in theory apply to all universities but in practice apply only to CEU. The most important of these provisions basically says that institutions which offer foreign-accredited degrees (CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which handles most accreditation of overseas institutions) have to have a campus in their “home country” in order to be able to operate in Hungary and be subject to a formal bilateral agreement between the “home” government and the Hungarian one (CEU does business on the basis of an international agreement, but it’s between Hungary and the State of New York, not the USA). There is, as CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff (yes, him) says, simply no benefit to CEU to do this: it is simply a tactic to raise CEU’s cost of doing business.

So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is not an attack on academic freedom the way we would use that term in the west. We’re not talking about chilling individual scholars here. The ruling Hungarian coalition couldn’t care less what gets taught at CEU: what bothers them is that the institution exists to support liberalism and pluralism. What we’re talking about is something much broader than just academic freedom; it’s about weakening independent institutions in an illiberal state. It’s also about anti-semitism (the right wing in Hungary routinely refer to CEU as “Soros University” so as to remind everyone of the institution’s Jewish founder). Yet somehow, the rallying cry is “academic freedom”, when plain old freedom and liberalism would be much more accurate.

I wonder why we don’t hear cries for academic freedom for EUSP, where in fact the academic angle – the university’ research program in gender and queer studies being targeted by a homophobic state – is much more clear cut. Is it because we reckon Russia is beyond salvation and Hungary is not? That would certainly explain our anemic reaction to increasing restrictions on academic freedom in China (where criticism of government is fine, but criticism of the Communist Party is likely to end extremely badly). It would explain why Turkey has faced essentially no academic consequences (boycotts, etc) for its ongoing purge of academic leaders.

I don’t mean to play the whole “why-do-we-grieve-bombings-in-Paris-but-not-Beirut” game. I get it, some places matter more in the collective imagination than others. But I actually think that CEU’s decision to portray this as an academic freedom issue rather that one of freedom tout court plays a role here. We can get behind calls for academic freedom (particularly when they are articulated by English-speaking academics) because academic freedom is something that is everywhere and always being tested around the edges (yeah, McGill, I’m looking at you). But calls for just plain old “freedom”? or “Liberalism”? The academy seems to get po-mo ickies about those.

Frankly, we need to get less squeamish about this. Academic freedom as we know it in the west does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of underlying societal commitment to pluralism and liberalism. If we only try to defend the niche freedom without defending the underlying values, we will fail.

So, by all means, let’s support CEU. But let’s not do it just for academic freedom. Let’s do it for better reasons.

April 06

Lessons from Mid-Century Soviet Higher Education

I’ve been reading Benjamin Tromly’s excellent book Making the Soviet Intelligentsia: Universities and Intellectual Life under Stalin and Khrushchev. It’s full of fascinating tidbits with surprising relevance to higher education dilemmas of the here and now. To wit:

1) Access is mostly about cultural capital.

There were times and places where communists waged war on the educated, because the educated were by definition bourgeois. In China during the cultural revolution, or in places like Poland and East Germany after WWII, admission to higher education was effectively restricted to the children of “politically reliable classes”, meaning workers and peasants (if you wondered why urban Chinese parents are so OK with the punishing gaokao system, it’s because however insane and sadistic it seems, it’s better than what came before it).

But in the postwar Soviet Union, things were very different. Because of the purges of the 1930s, a whole class of replacement white-collar functionaries had emerged, loyal to Stalin, and he wanted to reward them. This he did by going entirely the opposite direction to his east European satellite regimes and making access to higher education purely about academic “merit” as measured by exams and the like. The result? By 1952, in a regime with free tuition and universal stipends for students, roughly 80% of students had social origin in the professional classes (i.e. party employees, engineers, scientists, teachers and doctors). The children of workers and farmers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, had to make do with just the other 20%.

2)  The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.

Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.

This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.

3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.

We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere, and in the mid-century Soviet Union, everyone knew that the place to study was Lomonosov Moscow State University, end of story.

Remember Joseph Fiennes’ final monologue in Enemy at the Gates?  “In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts…”. It’s true of universities too. Pecking orders exist regardless of regime type.

4) The graduate labour market is about self-actualization

One of the big selling points of the Soviet higher education system was the claim that “all graduates received a job at the end of their studies”. To the ears of western students from the 1970s onwards, who faced the potential of unemployment or underemployment after graduation, that sounded pretty good.

Except that it didn’t to Soviet students. A lot of those “guaranteed” jobs either took students a long way from their studies they loved (“I trained to be a nuclear scientist and now you want me to teach secondary school?”) or the big cities they loved (“I’m being sent to which Siberian oblast”?) or both. And failure to accept the job that was assigned was – in theory at least – punishable by imprisonment.

Yet despite the threat of punishment, Soviet students found a way to evade the rules. Getting married (preferably to someone from Moscow) was a good way to avoid being sent to the provinces. Many simply deserted their posts and found work elsewhere. And some – get this – enrolled in grad school to avoid a job they didn’t want (would never happen here of course).

The point here being: people have dreams for themselves, and these rarely match up neatly with the labour market, whether that market is free or planned. There’s no system in the world that can satisfy everyone; at some point, all systems have to disappoint at least some people. But that doesn’t mean they will take their disappointment lying down. Dreams are tough to kill.

 

April 03

Data on Race/Ethnicity

A couple of week ago, CBC decided to make a big deal about how terrible Canadian universities were for not collecting data on race (see Why so many Canadian universities Know so little about their own racial diversity). As you all know, I’m a big proponent of better data in higher education. But the effort involved in getting new data has to be in some way proportional to the benefit derived from that data. And I’m pretty sure this doesn’t meet that test.

In higher education, there are only two points where it is easy to collect data from students: at the point of application, and at the point of enrolment. But here’s what the Ontario Human Rights Code has to say about collecting data on race/ethnicity in application forms:

Section 23(2) of the Code prohibits the use of any application form or written or oral inquiry that directly or indirectly classifies an applicant as being a member of a group that is protected from discrimination. Application forms should not have questions that ask directly or indirectly about race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, record of offences, age, marital status, family status or disability.

In other words, it’s 100% verboten. Somehow, CBC seems to have missed this bit. Similar provisions apply to data collected at the time of enrolment –a school still needs to prove that there is a bona fide reason related to one’s schooling in order to require a student to answer the question. So generally speaking, no one asks a question at that point either.

Now, if institutions can’t collect relevant data via administrative means, what they have to do to get data on race/ethnicity is move to a voluntary survey. Which in fact they do, regularly. Some do a voluntary follow-up survey of applicants through Academica, others attach race/ethnicity questions on the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) surveys, others attach it to NSSE. Response rates on these surveys are not great: NSSE sometimes gets 50% but that’s the highest rate available. And, broadly speaking, they get high-level data about their student body. The data isn’t great quality because of the response rate isn’t fabulous and the small numbers mean that you can’t really subdivide ethnicity very much (don’t expect good numbers on Sikhs v. Tamils), but one can know at a rough order of magnitude what percentage of the student body is visible minority, what percentage self-identifies as aboriginal, etc. I showed this data at a national level back here.

Is it possible to get better data? It’s hard to imagine, frankly. On the whole, students aren’t crazy about being surveyed all the time. NSSE has the highest response rate of any survey out there, and CUSC isn’t terrible either (though it tends to work on a smaller sample size). Maybe we could ask slightly better questions about ethnicities, maybe we could harmonize the questions across the two surveys. That could get you data at institutions which cover 90% of institutions in English Canada (at least).

Why would we want more than that? We already put so much effort into these surveys: why go to all kinds of trouble to do a separate data collection activity which in all likelihood would have worse response rates than what we already have?

It would be one thing, I think, if we thought Canadian universities had a real problem in not admitting minority students. But the evidence at the moment the opposite: that visible minority students in fact attend at a rate substantially higher than their share of the population. It’s possible of course that some sub-sections of the population are not doing as well (the last time I looked at this data closely was a decade ago, but youth from the Caribbean were not doing well at the time). But spending untold dollars and effort to get at that problem in institutions across country when really the Caribbean community in Canada is clustered in just two cities (three, if you count the African Nova Scotians in Halifax)? I can’t see it.

Basically, this is one of those cases where people are playing data “gotcha”. We actually do know (more or less) where we are doing well or poorly at a national level. On the whole, where visible minorities are concerned, we are doing well. Indigenous students? Caribbean students? That’s a different story. But we probably don’t need detailed institutional data collection to tell us that. If that’s really what the issue is, let’s just deal with it. Whinging about data collection is just a distraction.

March 31

The Meaning of Zero

I’ve had a lot of time over the past week to think about the federal budget. And the more I think about it, the more baffled I am about the decision to completely stuff the granting councils. I think it is either a sign of real political ineptness, or that something pretty awful is in the pipeline.

It’s not as though the Liberals are averse to spending on Science, per se. The budget dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on Artificial Intelligence, Cleantech, Superclusters, what have you. And it’s not as though they have a problem with that money going to college and universities: the AI money was clearly headed to McGill, Toronto and Alberta, winning supercluster applications are going to need universities as partners (in a rational world they should all have also polytechnics/colleges to provide technical skills training as well, but I’m not totally convinced Industry Canada understands this yet).

So why not the granting councils?

Yeah, yeah, don’t say it: the Naylor Report. Because they are waiting for the Naylor Report (which has mysteriously disappeared) and they don’t want to spend any money until it’s out because there might be a big shake-up.

(Related note: the Science Minister, Kristy Duncan, was on my Ottawa-Toronto flight this week. I asked her when the Naylor Report would be published. She said read page 88 of the budget [which says the report will be released “in the coming months]. I asked what was taking so long. She said they had just had so many consultations, it took time to read them all. I said yeah, but Naylor submitted the report on time in December, right? She said – and I quote – “well, that’s a position”. Make of this what you will, but for me at least it did not dispel the impression that games are being played.)

The problem with this thesis is that imminent future program change wasn’t a barrier to spending in some other program areas. Youth Employment Services and the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, both got very significant increases in their budgets despite the fact that the budget indicated that both would be subject to change in the near future. In those cases, the budget was written so as to show a budget bump for two years and two years only, to indicate that the government didn’t think the old structures would still be around.

So why did the government push for temporary budget boosts in other areas but not the councils? I am not sure, but I don’t see a credible answer that says “once Naylor is published the taps will flow”. I think a more likely answer is this: maybe this government doesn’t actually like granting councils as a policy tool any more than the last one did. No, there’s no “war on science” – though frankly, if it were a Conservative government that had hidden the Naylor Report and given the councils 0%, I’m pretty sure we’d be hearing that phrase 24/7.   

But I think it’s dawning on people that federal disenchantment with granting councils is not a partisan thing. The Chretien/Martin government may eventually have been good to councils (1995 budget excepted), but they also set up and funded a whole bunch of different science agencies (Brain Canada, Genome Canada, etc) precisely because they thought they knew better than the councils where science money should be spent. The Harper government wasn’t much into creating new agencies, yet was pretty consistent in funding big science projects every year outside the council structure.

One last piece of data: Universities Canada couldn’t even muster up a word on the councils’ behalf on budget night – it was all “yay MITACS and yay future Naylor report”. Seriously, their press release was embarrassing. Possibly someone in government leaned on them to give positive publicity “or else” (this has been known to happen), but possibly also that in the grand scheme of things, as long as money is coming in via clusters or AI or whatever, university administrations don’t give two hoots about the councils either. And if they don’t, why would the government?

From all of this I draw two conclusions.

One, even if the Naylor Report does result in more money for Science (and I’m not sure we can take that for granted), it’s not obvious that the councils will be the recipients of the money. The belief in Ottawa that granting councils “don’t get the job done” is deep; there is a bipartisan consensus that politicians and senior public servants, collectively, can manage the science enterprise better than scientists.

Two, Universities Canada is apparently deeply comfortable with this situation, even if not all its members are. For there to be a change in policy direction, someone is going to need to challenge the prevailing science discourse directly in Ottawa. And if it Universities Canada isn’t going to do it, it will have to be done by scientists themselves organizing and representing themselves independently in Ottawa. Sure, CAUT claims to do this, but ask a random sample of active scientists if they think this is the right vehicle for Science representation and you’d probably struggle to get into double-digits. Scientists themselves have to organize this fight, and quickly.

Three, it’s possible I’m entirely mistaken about this. Maybe the government just goofed in its messaging and there really is a pot of gold at the end of the Naylor rainbow, and Universities Canada’s behind-the-scenes work (of which I assume there is a great deal) will pay off handsomely. But honestly, at this point: would you bet on that?

March 29

Conflicting Views on Research Funding

Every year on budget night, we at HESA Towers publish a graph tracking granting council expenditures in real dollars.  This year it looks like this:

Tri-council Funding Envelopes

Research Council Funding.png

Some people really like the graph and pass it around and re-tweet it because it shows that whatever governments say about their love for science and innovation, it’s not showing up in budgets.  Others (hi Nassif!) dislike it because it doesn’t do justice to how badly researchers are faring under the current environment.  Now, these critics have a point, but I think some of the criticism misunderstands why government funds research in the first place.

The critique of that graph usually makes some combination of the following points:

  1. Enrolments have gone way up over the past fifteen years, so there are more profs and hence more people needing research grants.
  2. At some councils, at least, the average grant size is increasing, sometimes quite significantly.  That’s good for those who get grants, but it means the actual number of awards is decreasing at the same time as the number of people applying is increasing.
  3. In addition to an increasing number of applicants, the number of applications per applicant also seems to be increasing, presumably as a rational response to increasing competition (two lottery tickets are better than one!).

Now, from the point of view of researchers, what all this means is that “steady funding in real dollars” is irrelevant.  On the ground, faculty are having to spend more time on grant proposals, for fear of not receiving one.  The proportion receiving awards is falling, which has an effect on scientific progression, particularly when it happens to younger faculty.  So it’s easy to see why the situation has academic scientists in a panic, and why they’d prefer a graph that somehow shows how applicant prospects of receiving grants are nosediving.   And that graph would as be as undeniably true as the one we publish.

But, from the perspective of Ottawa, I think the answer might well be: “not our problem”.

Here’s why.  The main reason governments get into the research game is to solve a market failure.  The private sector can’t capture all the benefits of basic research because of spillovers, so they underinvest in it.  Therefore, governments invest to fill the gap.  This has been standard economic theory for over 50 years now.

So, to be blunt, government is there to buy a particular amount of science that is in the public interest given corporate underinvestment.  It is not there to provide funds so that the academic career ladder works smoothly.

Provinces and universities decided to hire more science profs to deal with a big increase in access?  Great!  But did anyone ask the feds if they’d be prepared to backstop those decisions with more granting council funds?  Nope. They just assumed the taps would keep flowing.  Academia decided to change the rules of pay and promotion in such a way that emphasized research, thus creating huge new demand for more research dollars.  Fantastic!  But did anyone ask the feds to see how they’d cope with the extra demand?  Nope.  Just hope for the best.

There’s a case, of course, to say that the federal government, via the granting councils, should be more concerned than it is with the national pipeline for scientific talent.  What’s happening right now could really cause a lot of good young scientists to either flee their careers or their country (or both), and that’s simply a waste of expensively-produced talent.  But for the feds to thoroughly get into the business of national science planning requires provinces and institutions to give the councils a more direct role in institutional hiring decisions and the setting of tenure standards.  I bet I can guess how most people would feel about that idea.

So could the government put more money into granting councils?  Sure.  Could some councils make things better by reversing their Harper-era decisions to go with larger average grant sizes?  Yes, obviously.  But let’s remember that at least part of the problem is that institutions and academics have taken a lot of decisions over the past twenty years about what research and scientific careers should look like with very little thought to the macro fiscal implications, under the assumption that the feds and the councils would be there to bail them out.

That needs to change, too.

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