Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Uncategorized

August 17

Measuring Teaching Quality

The Government of Ontario, in its ongoing quest to try to reform its funding formula, continues to insist that one element of the funding formula needs to relate to the issue of “teaching quality” or “quality of the undergraduate experience”.  Figuring out how to do this is of course a genuine puzzle.

There are some of course who believe that quality can only be measured in terms of inputs (i.e. funding) and not through outputs (hi, OCUFA!)  Some like the idea of sticking with existing instruments like the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE); others want to measure this through “hard numbers” on post-graduate outcomes like employment rates, average salaries and the like.  Still others are banging away at certain types of solutions involving testing of graduates; HEQCO’s Essential Adult Skills Initiative seems like an interesting experiment in this respect.

But there are obvious defects with each of these approaches.  The problem with the “let’s-measure-inputs-not-outputs” approach is that it’s bollocks.  The problem with the “hard numbers” approach is that unemployment and income among graduates are largely functions of location and program offerings (a pathetic medical school in Toronto would always do better than a kick-ass Arts school in Thunder Bay).  And while the testing approach is interesting, all that testing is a bit on the clunky side, and it’s not entirely clear how well the data from such exercises would actually help institutions improve themselves.

That leaves the old survey stalwarts like NSSE and CUSC.  These, to be honest, don’t tell us much about quality or paths to improvement.  They did when they were first introduced, 15-20 years ago, but each successive survey adds less and less.  To be honest, pretty much the only reason we still use them is because nobody wants to break up the time-series.  But that’s an argument against particular surveys rather than surveys in general.  Surveys are good because they are cheap and easily replicable.  We just need to find a better survey, one that measures quality more directly.

Here’s my suggestion.  What we really need to know is how many students are being exposed to good teaching practices and at what frequency.  We know from various types of research what good teaching practices are (e.g. Chickering & Gamson’s classic Seven Principles for Good Practice).  Why not ask students about whether they see those practices in the classroom?  Why not ask students how instructional time is used in practice (e.g. presenting content vs. discussion vs. group work), or what they are asked to do outside of class?  And not just in a general way across all classes, the way NSSE does it (which ends up resembling a kind of satisfaction measurement exercise and doesn’t give Deans or departmental chairs a whole lot to work with): why not do it for every single class a student takes, and link those responses to the students’ academic record?

Think about it: at an aggregate faculty or institutional level – which is all you would need to report publicly or to government – the results of such a survey would instantly become a credible source of data on teaching quality.  But more importantly,  they would provide institutions with incredible data on what’s going on inside their own classrooms.  Are certain teaching practices associated with elevated levels of dropping out, or with an upward shift in grades?  By tying the survey to individual student records on a class-by-class basis, you could know that from such a survey.  A Dean could ask intelligent questions about why one department in her faculty seem to be less likely to involve group work or interactive discussions than others, as well as see how that plays into student completion or choice of majors.  Or one could see how teaching patterns vary by age (are blended learning classes only the preserve of younger profs?).  Or, by matching descriptions of classes to other more satisfaction-based instruments like course evaluations, it would be possible to see whether certain modes of teaching or types of assignment result in higher or lower student satisfaction results – and whether or not the relationship between practices and satisfaction hold true across different disciplines (my guess is it wouldn’t in some cases, but there’s only one way to find out!)

So there you go: a student-record-linked survey with a focus on classroom experiences on a class-by-class could conceivably get us a system which a) provides reliable data for accountability purposes on “learning experiences” and b) provides institutions with vast amount of new, appropriately granular data which can help them improve their own performance.  And it could be done much more cheaply and less intrusively than wide-scale testing.

Worth a try, surely.

August 10

Ontario’s Quiet Revolution

Last year, the Government of Ontario announced it was moving to a new and more generous systems of student grants.  Partly, that was piggybacking on a new and enhanced federal grants and partly it was converting its own massive system of loan forgiveness and tax credits into a system which – more sensibly – delivered them upfront to students.  For most students from low-income backgrounds, this means they will receive more in grants than they pay in tuition.

Now, while the new federal grants came into place last week (yay!), the new provincial program isn’t due to be introduced until 2017-18.  But the *really* important piece of the Ontario reform actually won’t kick in until even later.  As I noted back here, it’s the move to “net billing” (that is, harmonizing the student aid and institutional application systems) which has the most interesting potential because now students will see net costs at the time of acceptance rather than just sticker costs.  It has been generally appreciated (in part because I keep banging on about it) that this will be revolutionary for students and their perceptions of cost.  What is not as well appreciated is how revolutionary this change will be for institutions.

Currently, Ontario universities use merit scholarships as a major tool in enrolment management.  At the time students are accepted, institutions offer them money based on their grades.  The scale differs a bit between institutions (an 85% might get you $1,000 at one university and $2,000 at another), but the basics of it is that over two-thirds of entering students receive some kind of financial reward, usually for one year.  It’s a total waste of money for institutions, but everybody does it – so no institution feels it can stop doing it.

But the effect this money has on students is predicated on the fact that the institutional award offer is the first time anyone has talked about money with them.  In our current system of student aid, you have to be accepted at an institution before you can apply for student aid.  Even $1,000 is a big deal when nobody else is offering you any money.  But as of early 2018, students will learn about their institutional award at exactly the same time as they find out their student aid award.  How will that affect the psychology of the money being offered?  No one knows. How should universities therefore adjust their policy?

Bigger questions abound.  “Net billing” implies that institutions will know the outcome of a student’s provincial need assessment before the student does.  Will they be allowed to adjust their own aid offers as a result?  Could the province stop them from doing so even if they wanted to?

What will new letters of acceptance look like?  When an institution tells a student about tuition, aid, and “net cost”, will they be required to lump all aid together, or will they be allowed to label their own portion of the aid separately?  You would think institutions would fight hard to keep the label on their own money but prohibiting labeling might be the best way to cut down on these scholarships and re-direct the money to better use, something I advocated a couple of years ago.  With no labellings, there would be no incentive to spend on this item, and institutions could back away from it with no opprobrium.  We’ll see if institutions are actually that shrewdly or not.

Even if they do retain the right to separate labeling, what will the effect on students be?  Getting an offer of a $1,000 merit scholarship is undoubtedly psychologically different than receiving a $1,000 scholarship on top of a $6,000 need-based grant.  And when placed in context with a tuition fee, the effect may vary again.  In other words, we’re heading into a world where Ontario universities – who collectively spend tens of millions of dollars a year on these scholarships – have literally no idea what effect they will have in the minds of the people they are trying to attract.  I suspect we may see one or two institutions re-profile their aid money and head out in very new strategic directions as a result of this.

Universities have a lot of business-process work to do to make net billing work over the next 12 months or so.  But more importantly, they have some big strategic decisions to make about how to dish out money to students in the absence of much hard intelligence.  How they react will be one of the more interesting stories of 2017-18.

July 25

The low-wage graduate problem

The week before last, the Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) put out a report (available hereon trends on low-paid employment  in Canada from 1997 to 2014 (meaning full-time jobs occupied by 20-64 year olds where the hourly earnings are less than 66% of the national median).  It’s an interesting and not particularly sensationalist report based on Labour Force Survey public-use microdata; however one little factoid has sent many people into a tizzy.  Apparently, the percentage of people with Master’s or PhDs who are in low-wage jobs (where the hourly earnings are less than two-thirds of the national median) had jumped from 7.7% to 12.4%.  This has led to a lot of commentary about over-education, yadda yadda, from the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and so on.

This freak-out is a bit overdone. I won’t argue that the study is good news, but I think there are some things going on underneath the numbers which aren’t given enough of an airing in the media.

First of all, as CSLS explains in great detail, the two important findings are that the incidence of low-wage work in the economy has stayed more or less stable, and second, Canadians on the whole are a lot more educated than they used to be.  This leads to a compositional paradox: even though all seven levels of education saw increases in the incidence of low-wages (see Figure below), overall the fraction of Canadians with low wage jobs dropped ever-so-slightly from 27.9% in 1997 to 27.6% in 2014.

ottsyd 20160721-1

Now you have to be careful about interpretation here, particularly with respect to charges of “over-education”.  Yes, the proportion of grads in low-wage jobs is going up.  But the average wage income of university graduates is actually increasing: between 1995 and 2010, it rose by 6% after inflation.  And that’s while the number of people in the labour force with a university degree increased by 94%, and the proportion of the labour force with a university degree jumped from 19.3% to 28.7% (I would break out data on Masters/PhD specifically if I could, but public Statscan data does not separate Bachelors from higher degrees). 

What that tells us is that the economy is creating a lot more high-paying jobs which are being filled by an ever-expanding number of graduates.  But at the same time, more graduates are in low-wage jobs, which suggests that while averages are increasing, so is variance around the mean.

Another factor at work here is immigration.  Since the mid-1990s, the number of immigrants over 25 with university degrees has increased from 815,000 (23.2% of all degree holders) to 1.87 million (33% of all degree holders).  It’s not clear how many of those have graduate degrees (thanks Statscan!) but I think it’s reasonable to assume, given the way our immigration points system works, that the proportion of immigrants with advanced degrees is even higher.

The problem is that immigrants with degrees – particularly more recent immigrants – have a really hard time in the Canadian labour market, particularly at the start (see a great Statscan paper on this here).  To some extent this is rational because the degrees and the skills they confer are genuinely not compatible (see my earlier post on this), and to some extent it reflects various forms of discrimination, but that’s not the point here.  There are over one million new immigrants with degrees over the past fifteen or so years, many of them from overseas institutions.  The CSLS-inspired freak-out is about the fact that over the past 17 years the number of degree-holders has increased by 450,000 (of which 130,000 are at the Master’s/PhD level).  Simple logic suggests that most of the problem people are seeing in the CSLS data is more about our inability to integrate educated immigrants than it is about declining returns to education among domestic students.  I know the data CSLS uses doesn’t allow them to look at the results by where a degree was earned, but I’d bet serious money this is the crux of the problem.

So, you know, chill everybody.  Canadian graduates still do OK in the end.  And remember that comparisons of educational outcomes over time that don’t control for immigration need to be taken with a grain of salt.

June 16

Ciao for Now

So, this is my last blog for the academic year.  For the next couple of months, I may blog occasionally if something interesting happens (but to be honest it would have to be exceptionally interesting to get me writing); you can expect normal service to resume a week or two before Labour Day.

What to make of this past year?  At a campus level, I think the main story is about governance.  Partly it is a question of good governance procedures: a number of institutions are frankly behind the times when it comes to basic principles of openness (those of us who use institutional data could have told you about universities’ default setting on openness years ago, but whatevs).  That’s irritating but fixable.  What’s new is the claim from some quarters that universities are irredeemable until Board compositions are fixed so that Boards no longer have external appointees in the majority.

What people seem to have forgotten is that the alternative to external board majorities is direct micro-management by government.  The entire point of external Board majorities is to reassure government that faculty foxes are not guarding the henhouse of public funds.   They are the shield with which universities protect their autonomy vis-à-vis governments.  If they disappear, government would essentially have no choice but to micromanage institutional budgets and then we might as well become Malaysia or Romania.   Could external board members be chosen with greater care and given more training?  Sure.  Could they be replaced?  Nuh-uh.  But this simple political truth seems to elude many – so I expect more clashes along this faultline next year, too.

Nationally, the story of the year was pretty simple.  For many years now, post-secondary education has been winning at the federal level and losing at the provincial level.  This dichotomy intensified this year as a new government came to power in Ottawa which was not only open to dropping more money on the sector, but also actually willing to listen to the sector’s priorities before dropping said cash (both novel and welcome).  There’s no obvious reason why this story will change next year.  And while everyone for the moment is focused on the Innovation Policy Review (which I’m fairly sure will end up being industrial policy focused on IT and cleantech rather than actual innovation policy, but hope springs eternal), the real sleeper story for next fall is the Science Policy review and the possibility that some of our science-funding granting bodies may be merged.  This is welcome in principle, but the resulting turf wars should be epic.  Stay tuned.

On student aid, the mostly calamitous Ontario government got one thing deeply right with its revamp of student aid.  This particular type of “targeted universalism” is so smart that almost everyone is going to have to copy it soon.  But as New Brunswick’s misadventures in policy imitation  have shown, sometimes it’s better to slow down and have a think before jumping into things.  (To New Brunswick’s credit, their new Minister is re-thinking the policy and it’s expected the rougher edges of the policy will be smoothed off: good on the government for its willingness to take a second look) My guess: we’ll see at least one and maybe two more provinces adopt an Ontario-like system by next year – and that’s very good news.

In closing, I want to thank everyone for continuing to read this blog (even those of you who hate-read it) and especially those who write in to challenge me on what I’ve written.  I know I get things wrong all the time; I’m always grateful when people take the time to explain the error of my ways.  If you’re in Toronto this summer: let me buy you a beer.  And if not: just drop me a line anyway to let me know what you think of the blog and what I should be doing more/less of.  Feedback always welcome.

Have a great summer and see you all in late August.

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

Often, I think, I am seen as a bit of a downer on Canada.  It goes with the territory: my role in Canadian higher education is i) “the guy who knows what’s going on in other countries and ii) “the guy who pokes the bear”.  So frequently I ending up writing blogs saying why isn’t Canada doing X or wouldn’t it be great if we were more like Y, and people get the impression I’m down on the North.

Not true.  I think we have a pretty good system, one most of the world would envy if we could ever stop admiring our minute inter-provincial differences and explain our system properly.  Among OECD countries, we’re always in the top third of pretty much any higher education metric you want to use.  Never at the very top, but reasonably close.  It’s just that it’s not cheap, is all.  We’re never going to win any prizes for efficiency; countries like Israel, the Netherlands and Australia perform far better on those metrics.

But there is one area in which Canada does a fantastic job and doesn’t even realise it.  And that is the extent to which it has a strong culture of work-oriented higher education which is matched by few other countries.

Let’s start with our colleges and polytechnics, which for the most part deliver labour market-oriented professional education at a level known by UNESCO and OECD as “Type 5B” (bachelor’s degree programs are called “Type A”).  Among OECD countries only Japan and Korea do a greater proportion of young people have this kind of education.

Figure 1: Level 5 (post-secondary education) Attainment Rates of 25-34 year olds, Select OECD Countries



We sometimes hear complaints from colleges and polytechnics about not getting enough respect, but the fact is, Canada has arguably the best-funded and most successful non-university post-secondary education system in the world.  We should say it, and celebrate it.

What about the university system, you say?  Well, the University of Cincinnati may have invented co-op education, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the University of Waterloo perfected it.  Last time I checked, they were arranging over 17,000 co-op experiences for students every year.  And institutions across the country have adopted the idea as well.  Personally, I think that’s a result of competition from our excellent college sector: it keeps universities on their toes.


And OK, it’s easy to scoff at university claims that 40% of students get some kind of work-integrated learning experience because so many of them are so short-term and of not-particularly high quality, and because at least a few universities seem to care more about classifying as things as possible as “experiential” than actually creating more such experiences: but so what?  The fact that we’re having the debate at all suggests we are on the right track.  And that’s a sight better than most other countries I could name.

Now, I know some of you are going to say “but Germany! Switzerland! Apprentices!”.  And there are some admirable things about those systems (though, as I have said before), Canadians deeply misunderstand what it is apprenticeships in Germany actually do).  Namely, they aren’t post-secondary in nature (note how low Germany’s Type B score is in the figure above); rather, they’re part of the secondary system and in many ways are designed to keep people out of the post-secondary system.  It’s hard to compare out system to theirs.

So, in sum: could we do more on experiential and work-integrated learning?  Of course we could (and should).  But stop and smell the roses: compared to most places, we do a pretty good job on this stuff.  And we should acknowledge that to ourselves even if, in true Canadian fashion, we’re a little reluctant to say so to anyone else.

June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.

June 09

Modes of College-Going

At HESA towers, we’ve recently been looking at some data on student costs of living in various countries.  This has prompted a number of observations with respect to the ways in which higher education – however global and transnational it may occasionally appear to be – is still deeply rooted in national cultures.

One of the things that started us going down this route was looking at estimates of cost of living for American students.  Everyone of course knows that students at American universities live in relative luxury what with the hotel-style dormitories, gourmet food options, climbing walls, lazy rivers and whatnot.  But what kind of staggered us when we took a look at the data was that American students actually appear to be paying *more* once they leave campus.  According to IPEDS, On-campus cost of living is $11,795 (C$14,792), off-campus (not with parents) cost of living is $12,986 (C$16,484) (for comparison, surveys show average living costs of off-campus not-with-parents in Canada is around C$8,500).

Now take this data with a grain of salt: American cost-of-living data is not based on surveys as it is in Canada, but on a compilation of institutional estimates of costs of living (at diligent institutions this may be based on student surveys but at less diligent institutions it may be a number dreamt up with a view to making students eligible for larger sums of students loans).  But at a deeper level there is a truth here.  American families (middle-class ones anyway) do view the higher education experience in a slightly different way than Canadians do.  Up here, there is a sense that post-secondary is a time when students “pay their dues” and live frugally; in the US, college is supposed to be “the best four years” of a student’s life.  And that materially affects the standard of living we expect students to maintain which in turn affects how much students “need” in order to attend college.  And apparently, that amount is “nearly twice as much per year as in Canada”.

Or, take the UK.  This is a country where over 70% of students leave home to go to school.  This has been falling gradually from the low 90%s twenty years ago, but the fall has been very gradual and seemingly unrelated to spikes in tuition fees (the increasing proportion of students from non-white backgrounds, who may not subscribe to this cultural tradition, is a likelier culprit.  You’d think that as tuition went from $0 to $16,000 you might get a *little* bit of price response, but no: spending huge wodges of cash to live away from home is so ingrained as a being part of the “university experience” that even big increases in costs (both tuition and, if you’re studying in London, rent) make little dent in the practice. 

Of course, in some parts of Europe, it’s the opposite: almost nothing gets students out of the house in Italy and Greece (even with low or no tuition): living away from parents simply isn’t part of the DNA.  In theory that should make higher education more accessible because it’s cheaper, but there’s not much evidence that’s the case.  In Scandinavia, people tend to draw out their time in universities, entering later and spending a lot of time switching back and forth between school and the labour market (more on that here). Result: on average, Scandinavian students are a *lot* older than North American ones.  Similarly: in South Korea, males have to do (roughly) two years of universal military service, which for reasons which I’ve never been able to work out, most males do in the *middle* of their university career (a common pattern is to do military service after sophomore year), which means their time-to-completion stats look very weird.

Anyways, the point of all this is simply to  remember that while higher education is a “common” global experience which a growing percentage of the world’s youth undergo, it remains embedded in some deeply national cultures about how students should transition from youth to adulthood.  It’s a major reason why access and student aid policy doesn’t travel well; it’s also why international comparisons  of students and student outcomes need to be done *very* carefully.

June 08

Are NSERC decisions “skewed” to bigger institutions?

That’s the conclusion reached by a group of professors from – wait for it – smaller Canadian universities, as published recently in PLOS One. I urge you to read the article, if only to understand how technically rigorous research without an ounce of common sense can make it through the peer-review process.

Basically, what the paper does is rigorously prove that “both funding success and the amount awarded varied with the size of the applicant’s institution. Overall, funding success was 20% and 42% lower for established researchers from medium and small institutions, compared to their counterpart’s at large institutions.” 

They go on to hypothesize that:

“…applicants from medium and small institutions may receive lower scores simply because they have weaker research records, perhaps as a result of higher teaching or administrative commitments compared to individuals from larger schools. Indeed, establishment of successful research programs is closely linked to the availability of time to conduct research, which may be more limited at smaller institutions. Researchers at small schools may also have fewer local collaborators and research-related resources than their counterparts at larger schools. Given these disparities, observed funding skew may be a consequence of the context in which applicants find themselves rather than emerging from a systemic bias during grant proposal evaluation.”

Oh my God – they have lower success rates because they have weaker research records?  You mean the system is working exactly as intended?

Fundamentally, this allegedly scientific article is making a very weird political argument.  The reason profs at smaller universities don’t get grants, according to these folks, is because they got hired by worse universities –  which means they don’t get the teaching release time, the equipment and whatnot that would allow them to compete on an even footing with the girls and boys at bigger schools.  To put it another way, their argument is that all profs have inherently equal ability and are equally deserving of research grants, it’s just that some by sheer random chance got allocated to weaker universities, which have put a downer on their career, and if NSERC doesn’t actively ignore actual outputs and perform some sort of research grant affirmative action, then it is guilty of “skewing” funding.

Here’s another possible explanation: yes, faculty hired by bigger, richer, more research-intensive institutions (big and research-intensive are not necessarily synonymous, but they are in Canada) have all kinds of advantages over faculty hired by smaller, less research-intensive universities.  But maybe, just maybe, faculty research quality is not randomly distributed.  Maybe big rich universities use their resources mainly to attract faculty deemed to have greater research potential.  Maybe they don’t always guess quite right about who has that potential and who doesn’t but on the whole it seems likelier than not that the system works more or less as advertised.

And so, yes, there is a Matthew effect (“for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance”) at work in Science: the very top of the profession gets more money than the strata below them and that tends to increase the gap in outcomes (salary, prestige, etc).  But that’s the way the system was designed.  If you want to argue against that, go ahead. But at least do it honestly and forthrightly: don’t use questionable social science methods to allege NSERC of “bias” when it is simply doing what has always been asked to do.

June 07

Improving Higher Education in Africa Through Philanthropy

My reputation in Canadian higher education, for better or for worse, is that of being “the guy who knows what’s going on in other places”.  This credits me with a lot more knowledge than I actually have. But it does occasionally prompt people to ask me some interesting questions.  Recently, someone (hi, Krista!) asked me: so what would you say to someone who has a few million dollars to spend, and wanted to spend it on improving higher education for sub-Saharan Africans?

That’s a really good question.  So here’s my answer. 

What most people are inclined to do, as a first pass, is to create scholarships which allow promising African students to study abroad.  The Mastercard Foundation, for instance, did this as its first initiative.  But while this provides life-changing opportunities for the individuals selected, it does virtually nothing for the continent because by and large students who leave don’t come back.  Mastercard, to its credit, figured this out after a couple of years and changed tack.

So the next option is to try to find ways to fund African universities themselves.  One thing Mastercard now does is fund scholarships at selected high-quality African universities such as Ashesi University in Ghana or the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town.  This is a better idea than sending students abroad (it’s cheaper for one thing, so a given amount of money can help more people) and the institutions can use the income to improve their facilities and offerings.  That’s not bad.  But we can still do better.

Let’s start at the top.  African nations have collectively adopted a lot of high-sounding policies about Science, Technology and Innovation, but frankly the policy capacity of African governments to make this happen is pretty low.  If government capacity is the issue, it’s time to focus training on public servants, few of whom have a strong sense of how higher education and the private sector can and cannot support one another to support innovation.  Take 500 or so public servants from across African public sectors, run constant short-course training over three years through established African public policy institutes such as the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) or the Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI).  The cost of something like this could be in the low millions; the effects across the continent could be lasting and significant. 

Want something more ambitious?  Try expanding the models of higher education available in Africa.  There’s nothing like a good Canadian Polytechnic or north European “University of Applied Science” anywhere.  Someone should build and fund one for a decade or so – and spend big so that it’s something people want to emulate.

Not big enough yet?  Well, how about actually creating an African peer-reviewed research fund?  One of the problems with creating genuine African research flagships is that an enormous portion (in some cases as much as 90%) of their research budgets come from donors with specific research agendas.  The money is welcome, but shifting donors priorities make it difficult to develop an indigenous research capacity.  The World Bank’s decision to create a few dozen “African Centres of Excellence” is a step in the right direction, but it’s still in a sense “big science” – why not take the same approach and seed African science through thousands of small ($15-20,000) curiosity-based grants?  $100 million over five years could have a heck of an impact.

Or, finally, there’s the biggest challenge of all: re-designing the African university from the current model where all learning is assumed to happen in the presence of a teacher (and students therefore spend 35-30 hours in class per week), to a more North American model where students are expected to do more on their own and are therefore only required to spend 15 hours per week in class (I’ve written about this in more detail back here.  Quite simply, further massification is going to be impossible unless teaching gets less intense, but tradition and faculty interests make it difficult to see how this process will start.  But using philanthropic dollars to found a half-dozen universities to revolutionize the system?  Teach north-American style with a whole new, leaner production-function?  Now that would be a genuine game-changer, one that would open up enormous new possibilities for the entire continent.

June 06

Non-profit Islands in a For-Profit Ocean

One of the most irritating, head-bangingly simplistic slogans in Canadian politics is “no to for-profit healthcare”.  It’s one thing to suggest that there should be no financial barriers to accessing healthcare; it’s another to suggest getting rid of “profit”.  I mean, the entire system is based on profit.  You think the companies who build hospitals and clinics don’t make profit?  That the companies that sell heath software or medical equipment, or you know, actual medicines, aren’t in it for profit?  That doctors who band together in clinics and bill the government for services aren’t making profits?  There is profit oozing from literally every orifice of the healthcare system – all we’ve done is found a way to disguise this while at the same time ensuring that finances are never a barrier to accessing urgent care.  Pretending that we don’t have profit in the system is just a way of diverting attention from genuine issues about cost-control and quality of service provision.

The situation is similar in higher education.  There’s all this sniffing about the profit-motive in education, but the fact that our institutions can act as (mostly) little non-profit islands is entirely dependent on the existence of the large for-profit ocean in which they sit.  Libraries?  Whether it’s humble low-volume monographs or big scientific journals, the entire enterprise of scientific communication is for-profit.  Ditto scientific equipment, pretty much anything related to IT (including software) and, usually, managing food on campus. But that’s just scratching the surface.  If you really want to see how many for-profit businesses exist along the margins of the higher ed economy, go to a National Association of Foreign Student Administrators (NAFSA) expo sometime.

First off, there are enormous numbers of people who want to sell you insurance.  Health insurance is a bigger deal in the US than chez nous, obviously, but even up our way we need insurance for all sorts of university activities, not least of which is to cover study abroad.  The foreign study business also has all sorts of room for travel agents, people who can arrange custom-built short-term programs in exotic locales, and provide students with foreign internship and work opportunities, or even with semesters at sea.

But all that is nothing compared to the businesses that strive on helping institutions bring students to their campuses.  Agents are the least of it.  Want international students to have a place to live near campuses?  There are companies which specialize in identifying and recruiting students through social media campaigns (my favourite NASFA exhibitor this year was one such company which provided Oculus tours of various campuses, mostly because it was the first time I got to use Oculus and see with my own eyes how inexplicable the $2 billion valuation really is).  There are businesses that specialize in the building and operating of private student residences, and others which specialize specifically in kitting out rooms with student bedding and furnishings.  Does your immigration system sometimes require students to get background checks?  There are companies that specialize in that.  Does your international faculty need to negotiate international tax preparation?  Again, there are specialists in this. 

Is this all stuff universities could do on their own?  Maybe.  But few could do all of them well without the assistance of for-profit companies.  That’s why universities turn to such companies: to be more efficient and provide higher-quality services at a reduced price.

And that’s the point here: the line between where non-profit universities end and for-profit businesses begin is a hazy one.  It’s a moving target, constantly changing based on the relative competencies of universities and the private sector.  Sometimes universities need to use more such services, sometimes they need to use fewer. 

To quote Deng Xiaoping: “it does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”.  This is a matter which should be dealt with purely pragmatically.  Caution and skepticism about private vendors?  Sure.  But recognize the great potential they bring as well.

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