HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Uncategorized

April 29

Free Harvard Fair Harvard

Harvard has a unique Governance structure.  Basically, it has two boards and no Senate.  One of the two boards – the Board of Overseers – is composed entirely of Harvard alumni.  It has thirty members and the membership turns over a bit each year with annual elections.  This year’s annual election is a bit of a doozy.

Back in January, an alumni and businessman by the name of Ron Unz submitted a slate of candidates – which included consumer activist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader – on a “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” platform.  His double-barreled manifesto, as its name implies, is to get Harvard first use some of its vast endowment to reduce tuition and second to move to a system of race-blind admissions.

What should we make of this?

Well, the first demand is ludicrous.  75% of Harvard graduates end up with no debt, either because they come from wealth and can afford the fees or have income sufficiently low that they received something close to a full ride (technically, Harvard doesn’t give a full-ride in the sense that a student will be expected to work a few hours a week no matter what, but it’s awfully close).   In practice, for a family of 3 with no assets outside of housing and retirement funds, income needs to be about $150,000/year before the aid package drops below the level of tuition (you can play with Harvard’s net price calculator here.  Pretty clearly then, making Harvard “free” genuinely would only benefit those with very high family income.  And frankly why would anyone want to do that?

The second demand is trickier.  The slate is making quite a bit of hay out of data that Asian-American students are being discriminated against in the application process.  Unz himself wrote quite a fierce piece on this in 2012, which suggested that as far as Ivy League admissions are concerned, Asians are the “new Jews” – a reference to the fact that Ivies imposed much higher entrance requirements on Jews than gentiles prior to WWII so that the former did not swamp the latter and drive away all those nice WASPs to whom the Ivies were in fact beholden for fund raising (this story is told in excellent detail in Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which is a history of admissions and the concept of merit at Ivy League schools).  Unz in effect argues – and it is difficult to disagree with him, based on the evidence – that increasingly the group that is “paying” for affirmative action (that is, policies which give Black and Hispanic students preferential access to spots at Ivy League schools) is Asian-Americans, not whites.

There’s no doubt that Unz’s narrative is troubling (though it should be noted not all his claims appear to be factually correct).  That said, his solution here is effectively to end affirmative action.  Given the extent to which Harvard graduates dominate public life in the United States, ending affirmative action would have an enormous effect on the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to access some of the upper corridors of American society.  Add that to the fact that Unz has in the past funded groups with some fairly unpleasant white supremacist associations, as well as sponsoring ballot initiatives against bilingual education, and you can see why some people think that behind Unz’ pre-occupation with fairness for Asian-Americans lie some much nastier anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudices.

The presence of the Unz slate has prompted the formation of an opposing “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard” slate, which is vigorously defending the current admissions system.   The balloting is by mail, and results will be announced on May 26th.  The results will be closely watched, particularly in a Presidential election year.  If Harvard’s own alumni – a group which you’d think would be in the tank for the Democrats – votes against affirmative action and for spending more endowment money on the richest of the rich, it will cause some interesting ripples in the campaign.  For that reason, I think it’s quite unlikely to come about, but then again I wouldn’t have guessed Ralph Nader would ally himself with this set of ideas, either.

April 27

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (2)

This is part 2 of a two-parter on how Canadian universities spend their money.  All the stuff about what data I’m using, caveats thereto, etc., are available in yesterday’s post.  If you missed yesterday, go catch up here.

First, two small mea culpas from yesterday.  First, due to a cut/paste error, part of the data on student services that went out yesterday was slightly off, but has now been corrected on the website.  Second, I neglected to mention that the student services figures included money from operating budgets for grants and bursaries, which accounts for some of the wide differences between institutions.  Sorry.

OK, onwards.  Let’s focus first on the two spending categories we didn’t take a look at yesterday; namely, “Administration” (meaning, mostly, central administration) and “External Relations” (meaning mostly government relations and fund raising).  This is shown below in table 1.

Table 1: Per-Student Expenditure, Selected Categories of Non-Academic Activity

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A couple of obvious points here:

  • Compared to the spending categories we looked at yesterday, the gaps between 75th and 25th percentile are smaller (in other areas, the gap was usually 2:1; in these categories it is closer to 3:2).  This suggests that on the whole, institutional spending patterns vary less in these central admin functions that they do in areas like libraries and ICT.
  • On the other hand, the institutions at the top and bottom of the range seem to be much more outliers.  At the high-cost end, there are probably two things going on.   First, some tasks are pretty common and have to be done no matter what the size of the university, so small institutions  tend to look expensive on a per-student basis (for example: a $400,000 p.a President at a school with 40,000 students is $10/student; a $200,000 p.a President at a university with 2,000 students is $100/student).  Second, recall that the “central administration” category does vary a bit from school-to-school, and so some of this may be about oddities in reporting.
  • Most of the schools that spend small on “external relations” are part of the UQ system.   Basically, when you’re so close to being 100% government-funded and controlled, you don’t lobby or look for external money, hence your costs go down.

Figure 2 puts together all the data from the different expenditure categories.

Table 2: Per-Student Expenditure, all non-academic categories

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Three major points here:

  • The per-student costs at very small universities is really stratospheric.  Universities clearly have some fixed base costs that require large student numbers in order to make them bearable.  From a public policy perspective, that either makes it important to ensure institutions are a minimum size, or that funding formulas provide a base amount for fixed costs in addition to per-student funding.
  • Keeping a rein on non-academic costs matters.  The difference in costs between an institution at the 75th percentile of overall non-academic costs and a 25th percentile institution is $2,950 or pretty close to half a year’s worth of average tuition at a Canadian university.  That’s a lot of money which could be used for other purposes (or cut in order to provide cheaper education, though that wouldn’t be my choice.
  • Actually, it’s even more than that.  If an institution could emulate the spending of the 25th percentile institution in each individual category – that is, a library cost like UQAM’s ($509/student), an ICT cost like Carleton’s ($508/student), physical plant costs like Laval’s ($1,331/student), Student Services costs like Winnipeg’s ($958/student), administration costs like St. Thomas’ ($1,604/student) and external relations’ costs like Manitoba’s ($285/student), you’d have total non-academic costs of just $5,195 – that is, $3,800 less than the 75th percentile institution and $2,200 less than the median one.

But of course, one might protest: does anyone really want to be in the 25th percentile of spending on this stuff?  Don’t great universities spend a lot of money on this stuff?  Isn’t spending more money on things like Libraries and ICTs a sign of quality?

Well, maybe.  To some extent, you get what you pay for.  But welcome to the central paradox of university management: you can’t simultaneously demand prudence and excellence if the only indicator of greatness is how much money you spend.  It’s why outcome metrics matter; and why those who oppose them, in the end, simply promote waste.

April 25

Who Should Sit on Boards of Governors?

Western Canada seems to be ground zero for talking about Board composition these days.  Take, for example, folks at UBC getting upset that government appointments to the Board of Governors lack a certain diversity (i.e. they all come either from old Vancouver money or the tech sector).  The Government of Alberta has decided to not automatically re-appoint any Board members whose terms are up for renewal (this actually is not something specific to universities – it’s part of a more general effort of De-Baathification of all provincial boards which have been stacked with appointees by a single party for the last 44 years). 

This raises the question: what should a Board of Governors look like?

Governing Boards in North America have a pretty simple history.  The first universities were set up by groups of local worthies (which usually included a lot of the local merchant class) to provide liberal education, mainly to train teachers and clergy.  Those universities were very small – the President was often the only professor, though he may have had a couple of assistants to help with tutorials and recitations.  Tuition was not enough to keep these institutions funded, so there were regular contributions from the local worthies.  Since the President was spending their money, they had a real interest in making sure the President was hewing closely to their views on education.  Boards of Governors were therefore primarily instruments of accountability, a way of ensuring that Presidents (and, as the schools got bigger, his employees) did not get too far out line.

Now, as governments started to take over the funding of universities, the importance of local worthies’ money diminished.  But the principle of “the payer calls the tune” remained in most places.  At public universities, Governing Boards still payed the same role, but their members were named by governments, not local committees.  Boards weren’t necessarily partisan, but appointments certainly tended to follow the party in power (this is still the case pretty much across Western Canada).  The argument at UBC is essentially that the Board looks too much like the party in power and not enough like “the province as a whole”.  This is an accurate observation, but difficult to see how in practice how this could ever be changed; on the whole, governments tend not to divest themselves of patronage opportunities.

But meanwhile, as public universities acquired an ever-increasing appetite for prestige and money, they looked to Board members to have other skills.  The first was an ability to raise funds, which tends to make them seek out people exactly like the old local worthies (if you need to ask a rich person to donate money, it helps if the person doing the asking is another rich person who has already donated).  But other needs are important, too: Boards need members with enough knowledge to oversee the increasingly complicated property and financial deals on which universities are embarking, enough judgment to understand how the university should deal with major sources of financial risk, etc.

So here’s the trick.  You need boards whose members collectively have the ability both to cheerlead and fundraise for an institution, provide it with specialized knowledge and talent whilst simultaneously holding its senior management (via the President) to account generally on behalf of the both the democratically-elected government of the day and the general citizenry.

Simple?  Not by a long shot.  And what makes it more complicated is that no one has the luxury of composing an entire board to get an adequate mix of talents.  That’s not just because most Canadian boards have a variety of elected positions in addition to those either selected by governments (in most of western Canada) or by the institution itself (more common in eastern Canada), but because Board membership turns over slowly and so the mix of talents (and hence the gaps in needed talent) are constantly changing.

So with respect to the Alberta New Democrats’ attempt to make big changes on the province’s university boards, there is both opportunity and danger.  Opportunity because the policy of not automatically renewing anyone’s term means they can change board composition quickly if they think something is amiss; danger because there’s a worry about jettisoning too many people with specific, needed skills in a bid to make the new boards “look like” the province (or “act as NDP agents”, as the case may be). 

Basically, boards are tricky.  Getting them right is a serious, delicate business.

April 22

Keeping Some Perspective

Much yelping in the twittersphere this week over a story in The Independent re: Edinburgh University.  To wit:

“Edinburgh University has come under fire for planning to introduce a new monitoring policy to check where employees are when they are out of the office.

Campus staff are now required to tell university management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or more – a rule that until recently only applied to international staff in accordance with Home Office policy.

Under the new rules, all schools and departments at the university have been asked to put in place “sensible and proportionate arrangements” to monitor staff whether they are on leave, working from home, working on campus or away from the university…”

Now, this pretty clearly is a solution in search of a problem.  Professors are professionals.  They’re on-campus when they need to be (classes, meetings) and the rest of the time, frankly who cares?  As long as they are producing in terms of research (admittedly, this assumes expectations about research production are clear and unambiguous, which is not always the case) and they are available by phone/email, there is no problem.  Creative, productive people work wherever they feel most productive.  Everybody gets that, even Edinburgh.

The University isn’t saying “you must be on campus all the time”; it’s saying “hey let us know when you’re not on campus”.  And they’re probably not using it to track people hour by hour; more likely they just want to root out the odd Professor Piercemuller trying to work at an overly long distance.  But the fact is a) the university is requiring people to take an irritating minute out of the day to write to tell them someone where they are and b) the policy will make everyone feel as if they might be being monitored.  What problem could Edinburgh have that was serious enough to wish to irritate staff to that extent?

On the other hand, it is important to keep things in perspective.  In literally any other line of work, letting the boss know where you are is not optional but expected.  The fact that this is not the case in universities speaks to the fact that Professors have achieved a kind of magical status of acting like freelancers while still drawing a steady paycheck.

Now, I sometimes wonder if everyone in academia understands how unbelievably privileged this arrangement really is.  For instance, when I see people on the internet conclude that what Edinburgh is doing “violates academic freedom” or that having to tell your employer where you are is tantamount to acting “under the shadow of the police”, my thoughts are basically “get a grip”.

Edinburgh’s decision affects professors’ privileges, not their rights.  It doesn’t seem to be a very good decision – seems to me the downside to staff morale and institutional culture likely outweighs.  But the quickest way for academics to get tarred as being out of touch elitists is to start ranting about how something that is 100% normal for 99% of the population is the forerunner of jackbooted fascism.

Check your privilege, as the kids say.  There’s nothing wrong with opposing irritating and officious management decisions: just, you know, keep it in perspective.

April 19

The Balkanization of Canadian Student Aid

So, a couple of things happened late last week worth mentioning:

First, the Newfoundland Budget was released and as predicted it was a slash-and-burn exercise.  The province, facing a deficit of something like 8% of GDP, had to make major changes.  Unbelievably, the tuition freeze stayed, sort of (more on this tomorrow), but student aid took a hit.  Remember in 2014 when Newfoundland eliminated grants?  That’s over, the first $40 week in provincial aid is now a loan again.  But more importantly, the government has completely eliminated grants for students studying outside the province if their program of study is offered inside the province.  So, a law student going to Dal gets the grant, but if God forbid you want to study Science or Engineering somewhere other than MUN – it’s loans only on the provincial side (said students would still receive federal grants).

Second, the premier of New Brunswick announced pretty much out of nowhere that low-income students in his province would be free and that details would be available from the Ministry of Advanced Education “in a few days” (at time of writing we’re still waiting).  Not many details yet – from the few nuggets available it sounds a lot like the Ontario program (provincial tax credits are being axed) – which is of course a Good Thing.  But one key point did come out, namely that the grant would not be portable.  If you chose to leave New Brunswick, it would be loans only on the provincial side.

I. Am. Furious.

The extent to which young people in Atlantic Canada are treated as “resources” to be hoarded is just appalling.  It’s almost never “how can we attract young people”, it’s “how can we keep the ones we’ve got from leaving”.  From a very young age, bright young people are essentially sold a bill of goods by guidance councilors and community leaders – “don’t leave the province, it’s a betrayal to leave the province, you are our future”.   The guilt-trips are outrageous.  And now along comes provincial policies in Newfoundland and New Brunswick to use financial means to punish students who have the temerity to want to study outside the province. 

At least you can sort of excuse the Newfoundland one on grounds of austerity because financially that government really is in trouble.  But New Brunswick?  They canned a huge graduate tax rebate last year and promised to re-invest the money.  There is no way that amount of money wouldn’t cover an extension of the program to out-of-province students.  Hell, Ontario actually cut total grant + tax-credit dollars in its announcement and still managed to extend the coverage of its new grants (currently, the Ontario Assistance Grant is portable but the Ontario Tuition Grant is not – the new grant is fully portable).  Instead, New Brunswick is doing this specifically to try to divert New Brunswick students away from out-of-province schools in order to give its own universities more tuition revenue and hence obviate the need for the province itself to actually pony up some money.  Brian Gallant calls that a win; we’ll see if he thinks the same when New Brunswick lose students after Nova Scotia and PEI retaliate in kind.

Now look, I get it.  People want what’s good for their communities, and the economics of Atlantic Canada have been scary for decades.  It’s easy to retreat into a defensive shell.  But holding your own youth hostage is not cool.  Those kids aren’t resources to be hoarded; politicians need to let them go and succeed wherever they want to succeed.  Student aid should be about expanding opportunity, not limiting it.

These changes need to be reversed.  And if the provinces won’t do it on their own, the federal government should change the legislation underlying the Canada Student Loans Program to penalize partner provinces whose loan programs don’t provide mobility across Canada.  More than ever before, their programs are built around federal largesse – Ottawa should extract something in return.  And freedom to study without penalty anywhere in the country is a right worth fighting for.

April 15

Are Teaching Costs Increasing at Canadian Universities?

On Wednesday, someone took me to task in the comments section of the blog for part of my analysis on the financial situation of higher education, saying:

“The HE sector has hiked tuition up far faster than inflation citing “Increased teaching costs”. They have been unable or unwilling to provide proper costings for this.”

Is this true? Well, it depends how long a time-frame you choose to use. Let’s look at the data.

To look at “teaching costs”, we need to use data from the Statscan/Canadian Association of University Business Offices Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC) survey. FIUC divides salary costs into three categories – “academic ranks” (meaning permanent academic staff), “other instruction and research” (meaning mostly sessionals), and “other salaries and wages” (meaning non-academic staff). Unfortunately, it does not break out “benefits” costs in the same way – these are all lumped together in a single category. It also allows you to divide these up by “function” (admin, student services, libraries, etc.)

For this exercise, I will restrict the analysis to expenditures under “Instruction and non-sponsored research”, and include salaries for both permanent and sessional academics. Within this category, these two groups make up about 80% of all salaries, so I’m going to assign 80% of all benefit dollars as well (this is probably an undercount because academic staff tend to have better benefit packages). Together, I will call these “core teaching costs”. I will then going to divide total expenditures on these three areas by the number of “full-time equivalent students”, which, according to Statscan, = FT students + (PT students/3.5)

Here’s what that looks like, in $2016, back to 1979-1980.

Figure 1: Core teaching Costs per FTE Student, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, in $2016

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So: a major decline in per-student core instructional costs from 1979 to about 2003, of about 20%, followed by a decade of increases – mainly on the benefits side – which saw costs rebound by 17% to bring us up to our highest point since 1980. In other words, the story is pretty mediocre if you look at a really long view, but not bad if you take a lend of a decade or so.

Now, to tuition, which is much simpler to track, using the standard Statscan tuition: average undergraduate fees across all programs.

Figure 2: Average Undergraduate Tuition, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, in 2016

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That’s a pretty simple story: flat in real dollars through the 80s’, sharp increases in the 1990s and more moderate ones since then (if one were to include subsidies like grants and tax credits, it would be close to flat since 2000, but let’s not complicate the analysis).

Now let’s compare what’s going on here over a 10 and a 35-year horizon. Figure 3 shoes that if you confine the analysis to the last decade or so, tuition and core instructional costs are rising at similar rates.

Figure 3. Tuition vs. Core Instructional Costs, Canada, 2003-4 to 2013-14, 2003-04 = 100

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However, if you extend the analysis back to say 1979, you get a completely different picture.

Figure 4. Tuition vs. Core Instructional Costs, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, 1979-80 = 100

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Why the difference? Well, mostly because the 1990s were a time of disinvestment, so in part higher tuition fees were replacing government spending, but also because between 1990 and 2005 or so there were some fairly major changes to the way universities spend their money. A lot more money went into IT, student services, scholarships (and, yes, administration), meaning that core instructional costs shrunk as a percentage of total expenditures. So my comments-section interlocutor is certainly right over the long term, less so over the short term.

That said, there is a real question about whether or not those “core teaching costs” are really meaningful over time given the appearance that an increasing portion of staff time is devoted to research rather than teaching. But that’s a debate for another day.

April 11

Those New Infrastructure Funds

I have been meaning to write about the new $2 billion “Strategic Investment Fund” (SIF), the 3-year infrastructure money-dump the Liberals announced in the budget.  However I waited a bit too long and Paul Wells beat me to it in an excellent little article called How to Spend $2 Billion on Research Really Quickly (available here).

Do read Wells’ piece in its entirety, but the Coles Notes version is:

  1. The deadline for submission is quite soon (May 9), which is kind of a crazy goal for slow-moving organizations for universities to hit
  2. The money is not a straight-out grant: matching funding is required, which could be a bit of a challenge
  3. The amount of work required to a shot of that money in terms of getting engineering and regulatory approvals, environmental assessments, providing evidence of “additionality”, “sustainability”, “meeting industry needs”, “benefiting aboriginal populations” and of course getting approval from one’s Board of Governors, is stonkingly huge.

Those are all good points.  Let me add a couple of more.

First of all, yes these things are challenging but hardly unprecedented. The timeline and process are almost exactly those seen in the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) the Tories created for the 2009 budget.  In both cases, the programs were announced with unbelievably tight timeline criteria (about two months from budget time to deadline) and the same matching funding requirement.  In both cases, the program was announced with eligibility criteria but no selection criteria.  That means we don’t really know what the government is looking for, what kinds of things it wants to see in submissions and how it will go about choosing from among the many submitted projects.  There is a margin for shenanigans here, but it’s the same margin the Tories had in ’09 and everyone seems to think that process went OK.

Second of all, the key thing to understand here is that although the rhetoric around infrastructure is always about “new” infrastructure, the fact of the matter is given the timelines and the rules, this program will be almost entirely about renovations and re-fits. (and occasionally some expansions).  The tight timelines make it impossible to submit any build project that isn’t already in the pipeline, and the rule that the federal money shouldn’t displace already-committed money means pretty much anything in the pipeline is ineligible.  In my (admittedly non-random) quick scan of projects completed under KIP, I could only find one example of a project which was 100% new build, namely, the ART Lab studios at the University of Manitoba.

(Also – apparently U of M managed to get KIP to fund seven different projects.  Kudos to one or both of their planning shop and government relations shop).

Third, between twenty years of CFI funding plus now two rounds of KIP/SIF (let’s be honest, it’s the same program), one does start to wonder at what point we start entering into a moral hazard position where the provinces essentially opt out of the infrastructure game because they know the feds will pony up – or indeed whether we haven’t actually reached that point in several provinces.   True, the feds might respond by saying “but they can play a role by choosing the projects for which they want to provide matching funds”.  To which, if I were a provincial government, I might calmly explain that the feds should use this explanation for a rather protracted rectal examination because in effect what they are doing is blackmailing the provinces into spending on things they didn’t really intend to spend money during a period where most provinces are trying to control spending not increase it.  (I might also explain that if the federal government that when it says it wants to consult with provinces, it’s generally more effective to do so before announcing the program rather than after).

I’m sure there are many in Ottawa (including some higher education membership organizations) who think the idea of adding infrastructure to student aid and research as areas of shared jurisdiction in higher education would be just swell.  But it’s not entirely obviously to me that divorcing capital investment policy from system-level strategy is a recipe for good outcomes.  I suspect this is going to be part of a debate on “fiscal imbalances” between federal and provincial governments sometime quite soon.  Watch this space.

April 08

Overproducing Graduates For The Win!

A few weeks ago, my colleague Melonie Fullick teed off in her University Affairs column on some of the rhetoric around calls to increase the number of PhDs. Universities always like these kind of calls (and – guilty – I’ve made them myself), because they mean some combination of more money and more horsepower to do advanced research (in the Sciences at least). But universities are obviously producing a lot more PhDs than they are ever going to hire, and so, as Fullick points out, the question becomes what’s the absorptive capacity of the economy to take all these PhDs?”

I mostly agree with the points in this article – and certainly agree that we spend way too little time thinking about graduate destinations (and adjusting the content of PhDs programs accordingly). But let me suggest that there is another reason for us to increase the number of PhDs which was not dealt with either by Fullick or the folks she was taking to ask; namely, to push down the post-graduation wages of doctoral degree holders.

You’re recoiling in horror. OK, let me explain.

There are both public and private benefits to education, which is why we split the costs between government and students. But when we talk about “public benefits”, what do we mean, exactly? What does the state get out of subsidizing education? The short answer is that by subsidizing education, it increases the number of people able to attend, which in turn increases the productive capacity of the economy, which benefits everyone.

But think closely on that. How does increasing the number of students increase the productive capacity of the country? Well, let’s think about it in terms of a new technology – say teleportation – and you’ve got two countries of more or less equal size. Country A manages to produce 10 PhDs in teleportation technologies, while country B manages to produce 30. What happens then?

Well, in country B, maybe 4 or 5 get hired back in academia – which is great because they can train more teleportationists. And you’ve got 25 or so who can go into industry. Now how are firms in country A going to compete with that? They’ve only got 10 or so – and they have to fight with academia to hire some of them. It’s not just that Country A has fewer top brains to work on this task – it’s that they have more market power. And that raises the cost of R & D and likely production as well. Firms in country B won’t necessarily “win” the teleportation technology battle, but their innovation efforts will have a lower cost structure.

Now, that doesn’t mean country B will always have lower pay for teleportationists. Pay depends in part on product success and once firms in country B achieve success and become profitable, it is in their interest to raise wage levels in order to attract top talent. But at the start, the “overproduction” of graduates gives firms in country B a big head start. And if you think that’s crazy, go read up on the history of the German chemical industry: “overproduction” of PhDs in the 19th century gave firms in that country a lasting advantage that endures to this day.

Now this doesn’t work everywhere. In mature industries, particularly capital intensive ones, the spillover benefits to overproducing graduates is less because either there is less new-product innovation or because it is so capital intensive that the cost of researchers’ labour is trivial in terms of providing a cost advantage. I suppose one could argue that some benefit could be wrought by pumping out more PhDs skilled in process innovation, but to be honest I’m not sure anyone’s ever shown that process innovation rally relies on PhDs, so we can maybe rule that one out.

So maybe we need to revise Fullick’s conclusions a bit. It’s certainly true that across-the-board increases in PhD students might not be such a good idea, and that in mature industries, we do need to care about receptor capacities. But in newer industries, there’s a really good case for putting the pedal to the metal and letting the chips fall where they may. We could use a German chemical industry-like success around here.

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

March 11

How Much is a Brand Worth? Evidence from Doha

The Washington Post had an absolutely fascinating article earlier this week regarding the sums that the Government of Qatar is paying various American universities to be part of its set up at Education City.

For those who are unfamiliar with Education City, a slight diversion.  About 15 years ago the Qatari royal family got frustrated with the state of local education and hit on the idea of creating a world-class educational facility by inviting top US universities to come in and each run one faculty.  So Virginia Commonwealth was invited to set up a visual arts school, Georgetown came in to run the school for the foreign service, Weill Cornell did the medical school, etc.  (Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and Texas A&M also have campuses there).

Now this wasn’t your typical branch campus arrangement.  These institutions were not over there to make money by offering degrees for high prices.  Rather, the Qatari Royal Family was paying them big dollars to educate their students in situ (there’s a similar arrangement in place for the NYU and Sorbonne campuses in Abu Dhabi).  The universities themselves had nothing at risk: each one received its own gorgeous building fully paid for by the Qataris.

But nobody knew exactly how much they were getting until the WaPo article this week.  Using tax records, Department of Education data and freedom of information requests, the paper managed to lift the veil on the financial arrangements.  As it turns out, the Qataris are paying them, collectively, just under $405 million per year to operate their Doha campuses.  Weill Cornell rakes in the most (hey it’s a medical school) at $121.7 million, and Virginia Commonwealth the least at $41.8 million.

On their own, these are eye-watering figures.  But to truly get a sense of how insane this is, you have to look at what this translates to in per-student terms.  These are actually pretty small operations – according to the data I was able to piece together the six campuses collectively only educate about 2000 students.  So the actual expenditure per student is actually just over $205,000. 

Qatari Government Expenditure per Student, Education City Campuses

ottsyd 20160310 Doha Brand

In other words, these schools are making out like absolute bandits.  Free buildings, six figure per student incomes – this is heaven.  But the question really is what on earth possessed the Qataris to pay this kind of price?

It’s instructive here to look at what the Qataris are paying the College of the North Atlantic to run their community college a few kilometers away from Education City.  It’s the same deal – Qataris built the campus and pay an annual fee to CONA to run the place.  Details on the post-2013 CONA contract are scarce, but the first ten-year contract was worth $500 million so let’s just say it’s worth $50 million/year (the CONA Annual report gives figures in the $10-11M range, but I’m fairly sure that’s profit not operating).  But CONA educates more students than all the Education City campuses combined: with roughly 3000 in total – I make that out to be $16,500 or so per year – or about an eighth of what the cheapest institute at Education City is getting.

Now obviously, that’s not a bad deal for CONA (In comparison, the college receives about $84 mil in provincial grant in aid and tuition to educate its 8888 students in regular programming back in Newfoundland, which comes to about $9400/student), and obviously there are some differences in delivery costs for college and university programs, but they aren’t that big.  Georgetown’s campus is a pure social sciences operation, and at Canadian universities those rarely cost more than $15,000/student.  So where’s that extra money going?

Well, to student amenities, partly.  These places are like little educational wonderlands(check out Georgetown’s student life page).    But mostly, this is pure rent.  Unlike CONA, these American institutions have global prestige.  And that in a nutshell is what the Qataris are paying hundreds of millions a year for – the right to be associated with these institutions’ prestige.

That’s what brand is all about.  And apparently, it’s worth up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars per student.  Nice work if you can get it.

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