HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Uncategorized

May 24

Innovation Policy: Beyond Digital and Cleantech

So, earlier this month, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star which lays out, as clearly as possible, where the current government’s thinking is with respect to Innovation policy.  Some of it is good, but some of it is dreck.

Let’s start with the good stuff :

“Innovation is fundamental to our continued growth and job creation, and it’s impossible to predict where and how disruption will happen. It can be in a start-up garage in Vancouver, a mine in Saskatoon, or a fishery in Saint John.”

Ok, so the mining in Saskatoon reference is a little odd (there’s exactly one mine in the city, a salt mine which straddles the city limits) , but that aside the Minister seems to understand that innovation (that is, the act of creating new business processes so as to add value) is something that needs to happen economy-wide.  And it’s something that needs to be bred into companies’ DNA.  So far, so good.

What’s a bit disturbing, though, is how quickly Bains goes from “this is something everybody needs to do” to “we’re going to be great in digital! We’re going to invest in cleantech!” and other forms of highly sector-specific boosterism.  Now, I get that governments want to be seen as leading us all towards the industries of the future and reaping the political rewards of said leadership, but man there is some serious cognitive dissonance at work here.  You can’t simultaneously believe that innovation policy is an economy-wide thing and then start babbling about how you plan to plough money into specific sectors.

Bains seems to have difficulty distinguishing between “innovation policy” and “innovation sectors”.  There is a difference.  Innovation policy, as Dan Breznitz underlines here, should focus on helping new technologies and business models flourish.  By definition, this policy has to be economy-wide, because these new technologies and models don’t exist yet.   “Innovation sectors” is a jargon-y term (used much more in Canada than elsewhere if Google is any guide) meaning roughly “sectors which attract a lot of venture capital”, or in practical terms: ICT, cleantech and biotech.

To be fair, Bains isn’t alone: most governments in Canada have this problem.  This is why so many of their innovation policies are scarcely more than “Digital! Cleantech! Woo!”  And there’s nothing wrong (in principle) with in trying to promote digital or cleantech sectors.  But we have to come clean that doing so is industrial policy, not innovation policy.  Similarly, Science policy is not innovation policy.  Neither is growth policy, and neither are policies promoting entrepreneurship.  They all feed on one another. They all (in theory) can complement one another, but they are different.  And if you confuse them the result will be bad policy.

Like I said, pretty much everyone starts their innovation policy with “Digital! Cleantech! Woo!”  And universities and colleges are complicit in this because that’s the easiest way for them to get their hooks into whatever flood of money is going to come out of government when innovation talk gets going.  But the mark of good innovation policy is the extent to which it transcends this kind of simplistic formula.  Here’s hoping the Liberals figure out how to do this in the next few months.

May 17

How Rich are China’s Universities?

Last week, Mike Gow at the Daxue blog linked to some interesting data recently published by the Chinese government with respect to the budgets of the country’s top universities.  It only covers those institutions which report to the Ministry of Education (and therefore misses some important institutions like the University of Science and Technology of China (which reports to the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (which reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).  It suggests that, at the very top of the Chinese system, there are some jaw-dropping amounts of money being spent.

Let’s focus just on the C9 schools (the Chinese equivalent of the U-15/Russell Group/AAU/G-8, or at least on the seven for which data was provided).  Here is the data for 2015-16:

Table 1: Income & Enrollments of Top Chinese Universities

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*From Wikipedia.  I know, I know, but it’s all I had.

**Using the Big Mac Index to covert from RMB to USD at rate of 3.57 to 1

Now, the jaw-droppingness of these figures depends a lot on whether you think it makes more sense to compare institutional buying power based on market exchange rates or based on purchasing power parity (PPP).  For universities, which pay salaries in local currency but compete for staff and pay for journals and scientific journals in an international market, there are some good arguments either way.  It should also be noted that it’s not 100% clear what is and is not in these figures.  Does Tsinghua’s figure include the holding companies that own shares in all of Tsinghua’s spin-off businesses?  Unclear.  My guess would be that it includes income from those businesses but not the businesses themselves – but it’s hard to know for sure.

Comparing these numbers to those of top American universities is somewhat fraught, because of the way American universities account for income from their teaching hospitals.  Thus Duke reports about twice as much income per student as Harvard because one includes medical billings and the other does not; if you correct for this, the two institutions are about the same.  Correcting as best I can for teaching-hospital income, and excluding Rockefeller University because it doesn’t really have any students and excluding Caltech (which has about $1 million/student in revenue) because it’s such an outliers and would break my nice graph, the top five in the US and the top seven in China looks like this:

Figure 1: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 US universities, in USD at PPP

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The basic point here is that Peking and Tsinghua are – on a PPP basis at least, and excluding medical income on the US side without being sure that it is excluded on the Chinese side – at least roughly in the same league as Harvard, though not quite in the same league as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.  The rest of the Chinese universities trail a bit: the poorest of these, Xi’an Jiao Tong, would be at about the level of Berkeley if you use a PPP comparison, and Florida State if you use the exchange rate.

Now let’s move to the UK, where the top five universities in terms of dollars per student are Cambridge, Imperial College, University College London, Oxford and Edinburgh.    The comparison changes quite a bit depending on whether or not one uses PPP or exchange rates.  On a PPP basis, Tsinghua and Peking would lead all UK universities; on an exchange-rate basis, they would be 5th and 6th – that is, behind Cambridge, UCL, ICL and Oxford but still ahead of Edinburgh.  Either way it suggests that, financially at least, the top Chinese universities are on a similar playing field as the top UK ones.

Figure 2: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 UK universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP

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Next, let’s go to Canada.  Here are the top five Canadian schools compared with the top seven Chinese ones.  On a PPP basis, UBC is the only Canadian university which would crack the top seven in China.  But on an exchange-rate basis, all of our top five would come ahead of Nanjing and close to Fudan.

Figure 3: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Canadian universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP

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Finally, let’s take a look at Australia, where universities are frankly much less well-funded than elsewhere.  On a PPP basis, even the weakest of the C9 – Xi’an Jiao Tong – would come ahead of the best-funded Australian institutions (Australian National University).  On an exchange-rate basis, ANU would rise ahead of Xi’an Jiao Tong and Nanjing, but would still lag behind the other Chinese institutions, by a factor of 2:1 in the case of Peking and Tsunghua.

Figure 4: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Australian universities, in USD at Exchange & PPP

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The bottom-line is that while most Chinese universities are still a ways away from the top international standards in terms of income, expenditure, research base, etc., at the very top it seems that the C9 institutions are now very much in the global elite as far as funding is concerned.  They are not yet there as far as research output is concerned – only Peking and Tsinghua make the Times Higher Top 100 and none make the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities – but that’s only a matter of time.  Rankings (and prestige) are a result of cumulative effort and financing.  Another decade with these kinds of numbers will make a very big difference indeed.

May 06

What Ottawa Spends

The Parliamentary Budget Officer did everyone a solid yesterday by publishing a really helpful compilation of federal government expenditures on higher education. According to the publication, the Government of Canada in 2013-14 spent $12.3 billion on post-secondary education (not including money for apprenticeships, training programs or labour market agreements; that includes $5.1 billion for “human capital measures”, which is mostly Canada Student Loans and Tax Expenditures of various kinds, $3.5 billion for research, three-quarters of which is from the granting councils and the remainder through various departmental programs, and $3.7 billion through the Canada Social Transfer, which is a theoretically earmarked.

The graph below shows the evolution in expenditures in nominal dollar. While the growth is therefore somewhat exaggerated because of inflation, it’s interesting to note that overall, expenditures increased by a third, from $9 billion to $12 billion, between 2005-6 and 2013-14. This would have been a very good talking point for the Tories in the last election; it’s a bit of a mystery why they didn’t use it.

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(In case you’re wondering what the bump in human capital formation spending is in 2009-10 and 2010-11, I’m pretty sure it’s the cost of the transitional measures relating to the end of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation).

The report has a nice little projection about what future expenditures in post-secondary are going to be. The PBO seems to think there’s going to be a lot of cost growth because of an upswing in student numbers. I think that’s somewhat unlikely given the demographics; on the other hand, I think there will be cost growth as an increasing number of students figure out that they are eligible for free money under the new student aid arrangements. So it’s probably a wash. In any event, here’s what’s PBO thinks the future looks like:

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The one bit of the report I find a little off is the section on who is using tax credits. The problem with analyzing the use of tax credits is that it combines parental use of tax credits with student use of tax credits. This is a problem because students are concentrated in the bottom income deciles. So if the child of a millionaire uses tax credits, it’s counted as being used by Canadians from the bottom quintile of income, which let’s be honest is a bit misleading. But still, overall, this makes a powerful point: tax expenditures are skewed to the wealthier end of society and it’s an awfully good thing that they are being phased out in order to fund poorer students.

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(Remember though: the reason tax benefits are skewed to upper quintiles isn’t because they are worth more to those individuals. These are credits, not deductions. No, the reason they are skewed is because the children of parents from upper-income quartiles are that much more likely to attend higher education and especially universities. In other words, *all* spending on higher education gets distributed this way. Which is a prime reason why education should not be free – this is the way the benefits of such a move would be skewed).

Anyways, there’s nothing special or complicated about the PBO analysis. It’s just really nice to have all this stuff well documented and presented in a straightforward manner in one place. Kudos.

(Note: I will be taking a break from blogging next week. Back on May 16)

May 05

Massification Causes Stratification

Once upon a time, higher education was small.  Really small.  Only a very few people could enter it, and the value of a degree was enormous.  Not just in terms of skills/knowledge acquired, or the credential, but also social status.  If you’re a fan of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just look at the leap in social status and life chances that Elena experiences when she makes it to the Scuola Normale in Pisa (which, by the way, I’ve not quite figured out – why didn’t her teachers route her to the Università degli Studi di Napoli?).  It alters her life in ways far beyond what university access does today.

Now at some point – the exact timing varies by country – governments decided that higher education needed to “massify”.  Partly, this was to meet the needs of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and the services that go with it (better health care and education), but in part it was also to “democratize” higher education, and make it less exclusive.

And that’s where things get tricky.  Massification can widen access to knowledge, skills and credentials.  But it cannot widen access to status.  Status is a game of “who are the cool kids” where membership must, by definition, be exclusive.  Government policy cannot make the cool kids let people into to club.  If it tries, the cool kids will change the rules of the game (read Andrew Potter & Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell for more on this).  

Two things happens in virtually every country where massification occurs. The first is a concomitant increase in graduate education.  Partly, that can be justified in the same terms as the expansion of undergraduate education – producing more specialists, more people able to teach others, etc.  But often it’s simply an arms race.  You have a degree?  Bully for you – I have two.

The second is stratification within higher education.  As governments (or non-profit private institutions in some countries) expanded the number of institutions to meet rising demand, institutions didn’t all obtain the same level of prestige.  So another way the “cool kids” game plays out is that you start to see an increasing concentration of prestige at a very few schools: Todai & Kyoto in Japan; Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan in China; Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US.  It’s now no longer if you go, it’s where you go  (if you want any nauseating details on that from the US, I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree). You’d better believe that rich parents then do what they can to make sure it’s their kid and not someone else’s who makes into those institutions.

In Canada, we don’t see this quite as much as in other countries because of a peculiarity of our higher ed system.  We don’t have national exams, and we don’t use SATs, which reduces some of the push towards exclusivity.  We also are peculiar in the sense that our top institutions are simply gargantuan.  The top three institutions in the US accept maybe 0.1% of the incoming undergraduate class; the top three institutions in Canada accept about 10% of the incoming undergraduate population (thanks to Joe Heath and his In Due Course blog for this observation).  It simply isn’t as special to be at a top institution.  But it’s worth remembering what an outlier that makes us on the international field.

In much of the developed world what we worry about is not so much access to college or undergraduate studies; we’ve more or less got that under control though obviously there’s room for improvement.  Now we’re starting to fixate on where people go: are we creating one group of (mainly rich) students going to elite, prestigious universities and another group of (mainly poorer) students going to less elite schools?

Ensuring every student goes to an equally prestigious school is an impossible task.  Government can increase access to education, skills and knowledge; it cannot increase access to prestige.  Prestige, like “cool,” is a fixed-sum thing: you have it in part to the extent that I do not.  If that weren’t true, then your mom could be cool, for God’s sake.  And as long as access to these top schools is “merit-based” and “merit” is defined as good grades, it’s difficult to imagine ways to stop wealthier families from monopolizing positions in these schools because they are better able to pass on various academic advantages to their children.  As John Rawls said, it’s only ever possible to deal with inequality imperfectly, as long as families exist.

(There actually was one government that tried to deal with this head on. The military government of Chun-Doo Hwan in South Korea  shut down the Hagwons (cram schools) in order to try to make the university entrance system fairer to poorer students.  This tactic did not survive the country’s transition to democracy.)

There is a partial answer to this problem, and that is lotteries.  Instead of allowing the minimum admissions criteria to be bid up in a competitive manner (e.g only the top 30 applicants get a place), set a minimum threshold which maybe 200 students could meet, and distribute the places by lottery.  The Dutch do this for limited-enrolment programs and it seems to work out alright. It’s difficult to imagine Harvard doing it, but one can dream.  Because it’s hard to imagine making a serious dent in stratification without more radical measures than the ones we’re currently using.

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.

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