Higher Education Strategy Associates

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July 08

The Size and Purpose of Government

Ever wonder why it seems like higher education is always in a financial trouble?  One big reason can be found in Agatha Christie’s autobiography.  Reflecting on her station in life as a young woman early last century, she noted in her memoirs how she never thought she would ever be wealthy enough to own a car – nor ever so poor that she wouldn’t have servants. 

In today’s world, of course, this makes no sense at all, since almost everyone has a car and almost no one has servants.  But 100 years ago the relative price of labour was such that it made perfect sense.   The lesson here is that over time, labour tends to rise in price relative to machines. 

Continually improving production efficiency is absolutely fabulous when it comes to consumer durables.  It means that cars are  a fraction of their former cost, while being faster, safer, and more reliable.  It means that for a couple of hundred bucks, anyone in the world can have more computing power in their cellphone that existed in the entire world in 1970. 

But the effect in labour-intensive industries is just the opposite: relative to other sectors, prices rise continually.  If everything were purchased privately, this would be no big deal – people would just adjust their budgets to spend the savings they make in one area (durable, machine-produced goods) and spend it on the other (labour-intensive goods). 

But here’s the problem: a few decades ago, society decided that most of the important labour-intensive industries – mainly health and education – needed to be in the public sector.  This limits the ability of individuals to shift consumption from one sector to the other because we constrain the ability of individuals to spend on their own education and health-care.  So the only way large-scale shifting between labour-intensive and capital-intensive goods can happen is through taxation.  For obvious reasons this complicates things.

So here’s the deal. The cost of providing a given standard of health and education will go up and up and up, no matter what anyone does.   We can either pay for that by taxing a heck of a lot more to fund those services (and hey, why not?  With cheaper consumer durables we require fewer post-tax dollars to keep ourselves clothed, sheltered and fed), or we can ask/allow citizens to pay for a greater part of the services they receive, or some mix of the two.  Those are the only choices.  Despite this, what governments across Canada are doing right now is the exact opposite of this.  They are freezing taxes while preventing these services from raising money themselves through new fees.   

As a long-term strategy, this is leading nowhere but failure and mediocrity.  We need to stop pretending we can avoid hard decisions on this.

June 24

The THE’s Top 100 under 50

So, last week the Times Higher put out one of its two subsidiary sets of rankings called the Top 100 under 50 – that is, the best “young” (under 50 years old) universities in the world.  The premise of these rankings is that young universities don’t really get a fair shake in regular rankings, where the top universities, almost all from before World War I, dominate based on prestige scores alone.  That the THE would admit this is both excellent and baffling.  Excellent because it’s quite true that age and prestige seem to be correlated and any attempt to get rid of bias can only be a Good Thing.  Baffling, because once you admit your main annual rankings exercise is strongly affected by a factor like age which an institution can do nothing about – well, what’s the point?  At least with the Under-50s a good score probably tells us something about how well-managed an institution is; what the main rankings tell us is more of a mystery.

These rankings  interesting because they highlight a relatively homogeneous group of institutions.  Few of these are North American because most of our institutions were built before 1963 (from Canada, only Calgary, SFU and Vic make this list  and they’ll all be too old in a couple of years).  They’re an intriguing look into the world’s up-and-coming universities: they’re mostly European (and exactly none of them are from the People’s Republic of China).

But there is some serious wonkiness in the statistics behind this year’s rankings which bear some scrutiny.  Oddly enough, they don’t come from the reputational survey, which is the most obvious source of data wonkiness.  Twenty-two percent of institutional scores in this ranking come from the reputational ranking; and yet in the THE’s reputation rankings (which uses the same data) not a single one of the universities listed here had a reputational score high enough that the THE felt comfortable releasing the data.  To put this another way: the THE seemingly does not believe that the differences in institutional scores among the Under-50 crowd are actually meaningful.  Hmmm.

No, the real weirdness in this year’s rankings comes in citations, the one category which should be invulnerable to institutional gaming.  These scores are based on field-normalized, 5-year citation averages; the resulting institutional scores are then themselves standardized (technically, they are what are known as z-scores).   By design, they just shouldn’t move that much in a single year.  So what to make of the fact that the University of Warwick’s citation score jumped 31% in a single year, Nanyang Polytechnic’s by 58%, or UT Dallas’ by a frankly insane 93%?  For that last one to be true, Dallas would have needed to have had 5 times as many citations in 2011 as it did in 2005.  I haven’t checked or anything, but unless the whole faculty is on stims, that probably didn’t happen.  So there’s something funny going on here.

A final point: the geographical distribution of top schools will surprise many.  Twelve schools from the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) made the list, but only one school (State University Campinas) from the BRIC countries did.  That tells us that good young universities are probably a seriously lagging indicator of economic growth – not a category to which many aspire.

June 14

Summer Break

Hi all.

It’s time for me to step back from the blogging for a few weeks.  As of Monday, we’ll be switching to a “One Thought to Start Your Week” until the middle of August; that will let me catch up a bit on things and get prepped for the fall.

I want to say thanks to all of you for reading and commenting.  I learn a lot from your feedback and I’m very grateful for all of it, even when you’re (sometime correctly) chewing me out.  The thousands-strong readership is a really interesting cross-section of academia, and includes hundreds of people from outside Canada as well (what, I always wonder, do they make of it? Are they here for the solid policy analysis or just the Glen Murray jokes?  Mysteries abound.)

But I would like, if I may, to make one tiny request before leaving you  alone (mostly) for the summer: if it’s not too much trouble, could you take a minute to tell me what you like and don’t like?  What should I be writing about more?  What should I be writing about less?  I kind of get the impression that most of you enjoy it when I stick it to the “MOOC fetishists” and do my myth-busting thing about labour-market outcomes – but what else do you like?  I’d really love to know.

In any event – have a great summer and get some rest.  I have a feeling next year’s going to be a big one.



May 03

The End of CREPUQ and its Implications

So, the Conseil des Recteurs et Principaux des Universites du Quebec (CREPUQ) died this week, after the number of institutions pulling-out of the alliance rose to eleven.

The basics of the dispute are simple.  The big research universities are starving for cash; they’d prefer to get it from tuition fees if they can (students are a more dependable source of income than flighty governments), but they’ll take it via the funding formula if they have to.  From the Laval/Montreal perspective: not only did the UQs shaft research universities on tuition by not backing the Charest plan, but now they’re screwing them on the funding formula by cozying up to a PQ plan that rewards institutions based on contributions to access, rather than research.  So instead of “so-so-so… solidarité”, it’s “so-so-so… so long, and don’t let the door hit your behind on the way out”.

I’m sure Pauline Marois and Pierre Duchesne couldn’t possibly be happier.

In Quebec, the main consequence will be that certain elements of the HE quality assurance process, which universities – via CREPUQ – used to manage themselves, will now end up in government hands.  But the impact of this implosion outside Quebec is worth watching, too.

At the federal level, we’re at ease with the idea that colleges and universities can have overlapping memberships: ACCC has been joined by Polytechnics Canada, and AUCC now shares the higher education field with the U-15, the Association of Canadian Comprehensive Research Universities (ACCRU), and, just this week, the U-4.  But representation by separate, non-overlapping agencies hasn’t happened yet.

But now the precedent has been set, both in Quebec and in British Columbia, where the research universities and the rest have had different representation since forever.  As dollars become scarcer and institutions become more concerned with their own slice of the pie, and less with the health of the sector as a whole, could we see the same thing happen in Toronto, or federally?

COU probably isn’t in trouble.  A benefit of having largely ignored calls for differentiation from Ian Clark and Harvey Weingarten is that the university sector sees itself as having a fairly common set of interests (increased graduate students for all!).  Federally, it’s a different story.  Already, there are a number of institutional heads who prefer investing their personal time and energy in U-15 issues rather than AUCC: it may just be a matter of time before a couple of them decide their financial investment should be similarly focused.

If it happens, the instigator will be from Quebec or Alberta.  Bank on it.

April 17

An Avalanche of Nonsense

I wasn’t going to write about the ludicrous new higher education paper, released last month by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled, An Avalanche is ComingI didn’t think it had enough exposure to warrant it.  But, since the Globe has now seen fit to publish an extract, I can go whole hog.

It starts off with bog-standard, “sky-is-falling” stuff: the global economy is a mess (true, but presumably temporary), the cost of higher education is increasing faster than inflation (true since the beginning of time), the value of a degree is falling (in most countries it hasn’t), and “competition is heating up” (MOOCs, basically).  Somehow, these weak propositions add up to the argument that, massive change is inevitable.

The paper goes on to posit that the modern university is essentially a bundling of ten different “features” (in actuality, a weird amalgam of inputs, throughputs, and outputs), to wit: research, degrees, city prosperity, faculty, students, governance/administration, curriculum, teaching & learning, assessment and (student) experience.   The impending “avalanche” will occur because technology and economics are permitting some unbundling of these services, and because in each of those ten areas, universities – allegedly – face growing competition.

For instance, the paper claims that universities’ dominance in research is being challenged by “think tanks” (hilarious – I await the Fraser Institute’s next paper on the Higgs Boson); it also claims – seriously – that the student experience is being challenged because it can be replicated by “meet-ups, youth clubs, and learning communities”.  As for the rest, it’s all basically MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs – they’re going to change everything, don’t you know!

There is this fantasy out there – shared by silicon valley types and big money consultants, alike – that just because unbundling can happen that it will happen.  Sure, it happened in the music industry – but that’s not a universal experience.  It hasn’t been the case, for instance, in the real estate industry – mostly because the idea of going DIY on the biggest financial decision of your life scares the bejesus out of most people.  And if you asked me whether higher education is closer in nature to music or housing, my answer would be pretty obvious.

I urge people to read the paper in order to get a sense of just how unhinged the higher education’s self-styled “revolutionaries” can actually get.  Though the paper ends with some sensible points about the need for institutions to sharpen their value propositions, these recommendations in no way flow organically from the wholly evidence-free view that student demand is collapsing in the face of MOOCs.  The notion this paper peddles – that positive change requires massive disruption – isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous.  It needs to be countered.

February 13

If University Presidents had a Union

It occurred to me while writing that last piece about salary comparisons: what if University Presidents used the same set of arguments about salary that professors do?  What if we set their salaries as a function of what a comparator set of institutions were paying?

For this exercise, I have compared the presidential salaries at each of the top eight Canadian institutions in the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities to those at the nearest comparator institutions among public universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia (for institutions outside the Top 100, where universities are grouped into bands of 50 or 100, I chose the “adjacent” institution by overall publication output).   The resultant comparators are shown below.

Canadian Universities and Closest Comparators in ARWU Rankings








I took data for Presidential salaries from a variety of sources.  For Canada, the data is from the ever-useful CAUT Almanac, except for l’Université de Montréal, which is from here.  These don’t yield perfect comparisons; one notable issue is that Alberta reports total compensation rather than salary, which makes Indira Samarasekara’s compensation look significantly higher than her comparators, for whom only data on salary is provided.  For the US, the data is from the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Berkeley to avoid the annoying paywall).  UK data is from the Times Higher Education Supplement, and Australian data is from The Australian.  Data for Australia and the UK are 2010-11, for the US it’s from 2009-10, and Canadian data comes from  the 2010 calendar.  Currencies have been converted to Canadian dollars using the 2011 Big Mac Index.  The results are shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: Salaries of Canadian University Presidents and Close Foreign Comparators













Here’s what we learn from Figure 1:

1)      Man, oh man, oh man, being a Vice-chancellor in Australia is a sweet deal.  Remember a few weeks ago when I asked why no Canadian institution had hired an Australian?  Apparently the answer is, “we can’t afford them”.

2)      There isn’t a straight line between university status and CEO pay in any country.  It’s never the top school that pays its President the most.

3)      In four of these comparisons, the Canadian President is the worst-paid among the comparators; in the other four, they’re the second-worst.  This is somewhat different than the situation among full-time academic staff, where the wage gap tends to go in the other direction.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting our Presidents could use a raise.  I’m simply pointing out that if Presidents used the same kind of arguments that faculty unions use to demand wage hikes, the data above could certainly be used to make a very persuasive case.  Sauce for the goose, and all.

Maybe “what the guy down the road earns” isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for salary comparisons.  Maybe we need some better benchmarks.

January 10

A Country that Actually Does International Education

Countries interested in international education basically move through three phases.  International Education 1.0 is about moving people from one spot to another – usually from a southern country to a northern one: it’s old-style, clunky, and by necessity a minority pursuit.  International Education 2.0 flips this around and gets the institutions to bring the education to students in other countries, either via online education, branch campuses, or by curriculum licensing arrangements in other countries.

(There’s an International Education 3.0, too – one which involves institutions in different countries actually merging some parts of their operations to become a genuine, multi-national single-entity.  I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but as I said last year, it could be on its way relatively soon.)

The margins on “1.0 students” can be pretty significant – which, of course, is why it’s tempting to stick with them.  The margins on “2.0 students” tend to be a lot smaller, but, in general, you can attract a heck of a lot more customers if you don’t require them to pick up and move halfway across the globe in order to consume your product.  And that’s the thing about countries that really do international education: they go where the customers are.

So, do Canadian institutions do this?  At most institutions, it usually doesn’t amount to much more than teaching a few extension courses, or professional programs in Africa, or (if you’ve got an MBA program) some joint programming with an institution in Europe or Asia.  There are some exceptions: Calgary and CONA have campuses in Doha.  Waterloo had one in the Gulf, but that crashed and burned this fall (memo to Waterloo: publishing the post-mortem would be a favour to everyone).  UNB, with campuses in Egypt and the Caribbean, is the leader in this field, but even there the total number of foreign students barely runs into the thousands.  Meanwhile, almost nobody has really got into the business of licensing courses, which is where the real numbers are.

Compare this to the UK for a moment.  Last year, UK institutions taught over 920,000 international students.  Of these, only 46% were actually studying inside the UK itself; the rest were outside the country, the majority of which (291,000 in total) were not even registered at UK institutions but rather were at “overseas partner institutions,” delivering programming leading to the award of a UK degree.

Distribution of UK International Students

So, if that’s what it looks like for a country to be serious about international education, how does Canada compare?  I’d show you if I could, but apart from students who actually show up here to go to school, no one even counts the numbers for Canada.  And this, in some ways, probably tells you more about our efforts than any actual statistics ever could.


December 21

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

I haven’t written about MOOCs in awhile, mostly because I’m finding the whole discussion pretty tedious.  They’re an interesting addition to the spectrum of continuing education offerings, and they’ll exist so long as venture capitalists and large, big-brand universities feel like subsidizing the hell out of them. Period.

The supposed “value” of MOOCs is that they deliver the same old lecture-driven process at a cheaper price.  But what should be our real priority right now: Making education cheaper, or finding ways to deliver greater value?

Imagine you’re in the early 1950s, and someone gives you the task of saving be-bop from the predations of rock and roll.  And suppose that same person hands you some piece of technology from 2012, which can deliver be-bop to the masses, at a cheaper price:  MP3s, live streaming shows, that kind of thing.  With this, you could make be-bop accessible at anytime, anywhere, and maybe even for free!  But Be-bop’s decline had nothing to do with being too expensive;  Buddy Holly was still going to kick its behind, because he had become the more relevant market choice.

In many ways, the same is true of education.  The fact that we can make the existing model of education cheaper doesn’t adress the issue of relevancy – focusing on cost when relevance is the key issue is misguided, and a distraction.

Undergraduate education has always been about preparing people for the labour market.  Back when it was a pursuit for people who either had hereditary wealth or were heading into guaranteed spots in the public service, we could pretend that higher education was about seeking Truth.  But if we’re honest, all those Truth-seekers ended up getting a pretty good financial return on their educational investments because their degree certified them as being significantly brighter than their non-degree-earning peers.

But when 70% of the youth population has some form of post-secondary education, that deal no longer works.  Having a degree no longer proves that you’re among the best and the brightest.  Graduates need something more.  And that “something more” is being a person who is engaged, effective and innovative.  When parents send their kids off to school, that’s really what their hoping their little ones will become.  Now this doesn’t mean that kids can’t study philosophy on the way to being engaged, effective, and innovative; it does, however, mean that PSE institutions need to think a lot harder about how to give students those skills.

It’s not rocket science.  Waterloo does it through its co-op programs.  Ryerson is doing it through its Digital Media Zone.  Polytechnics like NAIT who use applied research projects to drive curriculum are doing it, too.  Mostly, institutions are doing it by acknowledging the pedagogical value of interactions with the world of work, and opening themselves up to collaboration with businesses and government agencies to deliver it.  And its working.

Engaged, effective, and innovative students.  Let’s make it a watchword for 2013.

November 13

Henry David Thoreau on Need Assessment

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Canada’s system of student aid need assessment is much too complicated. Not only do we have a ludicrous number of different tax rates, but we have all sorts of weird little measures to engineer micro-equity between students. The result is a complicated system that can’t be explained to students.

How bad is it? Bad enough that some provinces don’t even bother explaining to students on their notices of assessment how they come up with the final figure. It’s not difficult: there’s a cost number, a resource number and a need number which is equal to the costs minus resources. But some governments got weary of explaining how they came to these figures (or why aid didn’t equal need if the latter was above the weekly-maximum).

This is awful for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a terrible lesson in civics. At least with tax forms, filling them in gives you an understand of why you have to pay as much as you do. Student loans are just a big black box: governments ask for personal financial information and then spit out an aid number without explaining how they got there. Student aid is the first contact most young people have with a government program and all the opacity doesn’t do the cause of active government any favours.

But the more important reason is that the lack of clarity makes it difficult for students to understand their eligibility for aid (the fact that they aren’t allowed to apply until after they’ve already made their choice of institution is an additional bad idea). Given how much we hector students about financial literacy and preparation, governments’ inability to reciprocate by providing more clarity around potential aid is a bit problematic.

These problems are extremely easily solved. Just reduce student aid to two factors: family income (parents plus kids), and tuition. That way, you could just give students a simple grid; income on one axis, tuition on the other, and voila! Need assessment so simple it would fit on a postcard. For completeness, you’d probably want one such grid for each student category (dependent at home, independent away from home, etc), but the outcome is the same – no-fuss, easy-to-communicate student aid.

Some students would undoubtedly get less under this system (some might also get more)– but what we’d lose from rough justice, we’d gain in program transparency and clarity. That’s a good deal, though: simplifying student aid will make it more understandable to precisely those on-the-margin students we most want to help.

November 09

Modularization vs. Learning Outcomes

If you’ve been near education conferences in the last year or so, the chances are that you’ve heard at least one of the two following propositions.

1)      “Modularization is the Future”.  People don’t need full degrees, they need knowledge in bite-size chunks, and they need it “on-demand”.  That means that learning needs to come in tiny little bits, and certification for learning needs to come in tiny, bite-size pieces, too.  This is partly what’s pushing the enthusiasm behind certain MOOCs and ideas like “Open badges”, but even within mainstream institutions, you’re seeing this as well.  In the US, parts of the Michigan community college system  are giving out “micro-credits” for as little as a two hours worth of classes.

2)      “Learning Outcomes are the Future”.  Part of the general movement for accountability in higher education is going to require institutions to describe expected student outcomes and figure out ways to credibly certify that students who have passed a given course of studies have in fact mastered the competencies and skills linked to those outcomes.

There’s something to both of these propositions.  The problem is, they can’t both be right, because they contradict each other in one very fundamental way.

The whole point of the learning outcomes is to allow institutions to certify with some degree of precision what kind of knowledge and skills a person who has finished a particular program of studies has.  That logic necessarily leads program design away from the  frequently smorgasboard-buffet approach to course selection which is prevalent in arts and sciences in North America, and towards program with larger core curricula.

Basically, the more “core” courses there are, the more curriculum planners can be sure that particular skills and knowledge are being taught (and, presumably, learned as well).  If learning outcomes are difficult to ensure with smorgasboard curriculum, they’re well-nigh impossible with a fully modularized one.  The point of the modularization agenda is very much about making the credentials easier to obtain, and the explicit trade-off made is the coherence of the degree being offered.

To put this another way: the learning outcomes agenda is based on a human capital vision of higher education; the modularization agenda is very much about credentialism.  The public policy rationale is probably stronger for the former, but there’s clearly a strong market rationale for the latter.  Both are important, neither will trump the other.

Anyone who says either “the future is learning outcomes” or “the future is modularization” without offering any qualifications should be ignored.  Different institutions with different missions serving different populations are – quite appropriately – going to favour different strategies.  Grown-up, pluralistic education systems are capable of having trends moving in several directions at once.

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