Higher Education Strategy Associates

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November 05

African Higher Education – What Should Be On Everyone’s Radar

Here are the basic things you need to know about Africa as a higher education market:

1) It has a fast-growing population, with lots of young people to be educated.

2) Large bits of it – mostly the English and Portuguese bits, less so the French-speaking ones – are getting rich off the commodity boom. Ghana, in particular, is going gangbusters right now. This means higher education is now much more affordable than it used to be.

3) However, the demand for higher education vastly outstrips the ability of governments to pay for higher education (in part because public universities keep getting more expensive as professors demand their share of the commodity boom via higher wages). As a result, over the last decade hundreds of private universities have opened in Africa to cater to students who can’t get into one of the “prestige” public universities such as Kampala’s Makerere University or Accra’s University of Ghana.

4) There’s a really big demand for graduate education – and virtually everyone wants to go abroad for it, what with the state of graduate education on the continent being as dire as it is. The US and the UK are obviously top choices, but Canada – if we ever bothered to show up and promote ourselves – would be a good second choice in most of Anglophone Africa (we’re already there in francophone Africa, albeit against lesser competition).

5) But the demand for foreign education doesn’t mean cost is unimportant. In East Africa the most common foreign destination for education is Malaysia, where English and Australian universities have branch campuses. The reason? Quick degrees and low cost of living.

6) Regional integration is going gangbusters. Travel between countries in West Africa is commonplace, and there is now also common West African school leaving exams, which simplifies admissions from the region. Similarly, the countries that used to form British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania) are integrating quickly, and attracting other partners (e.g. Rwanda) as well. These, too, are becoming a common higher education area.

7) A number of countries allow foreign providers to establish campuses, though in some cases they might require a local partner. There are excellent opportunities for foreign institutions to set up and serve not only the country in which the institution is based, but also neighbouring countries, particularly where mobility is already high.

Small investments in Africa now could pay off very big in the future. Yet right now, Canada badly lags the US in setting up partnerships on the continent. It would be worth someone’s while to change that.

November 01

Non-solutions in search of a problem

I thought the Globe’s recent Our Time to Lead series was pretty good. The high point, pretty obviously, was Erin Anderssen’s kick-off piece and the low-point, equally obviously, was Don Tapscott’s context-free piece of techno-fetishist weirdness. On the whole, it was a good sign for what seems to be an increase in coverage on educational issues. However, I do feel the Globe slipped a bit with its very final article; namely, a policy prescription for a “national strategy” for students.

I don’t want to get too down on the Globe specifically because I think this “national strategy” language is pretty hard-wired into English Canadians and I think the Globe was just trying to speak to that audience in a language they understood. The problem is the thinking itself, which is much more widespread and problematic.

For reasons which escape me, large numbers of Canadians outside Quebec are under the seriously mistaken impression that the federal government is the “senior” (i.e. more important) level of government in Canada, and that any problem which is important should therefore be handled at that level. (For a reality check, do read Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1957 essay “Grants to Quebec Universities”, in Federalism and the French Canadians which thoroughly and amusingly demolishes this argument.)

But when you look at the actual arguments in favour of a “national strategy”, they don’t add up to anything like a case for federal or even pan-Canadian action. Take that Globe article, for instance. The alleged rationales for a “national” solution are:

  1. A need for a better mix of theoretical and practical education
  2. A need for a national accreditation system
  3. A need for more credit transfer across provincial boundaries
  4. A need for a universities to be less stuffy about accepting college credit for transfer
  5. A need to nudge more students into high-demand fields (à la Florida)

Personally, I have my doubts that all of these are actually problems, but let’s take it for granted for the moment that they are and that they require a response. What exactly, is the advantage to having a national strategy over a series of provincial strategies? Would BC institutions be better off if their programs were accredited in Ottawa rather than Victoria? Would SIAST students benefit if the locus of credit transfer policy moved from Regina to Gatineau?

“National” policy making would be slower if it involved inter-governmental negotiations and of significantly lower quality if it were done unilaterally by Ottawa. If you want policy to be speedy and fit-for-purpose, it needs to stay where it is. In Canada, “national strategies” for higher education are a solution looking for a problem.

October 30

Setting Tuition

Some interesting news out of Florida last week: Governor Rick Scott (or rather, a task force he created) wants to set tuition in so as to encourage enrolments in the sciences and engineering; so, basically, he’s proposing that tuition in those disciplines remain frozen for a number of years while at the same time allowing it to rise in disciplines deemed less “worthy” (arts, business, etc.).

There are some fairly obvious drawbacks to this idea: not everyone is equally skilled at these subjects and so cannot equally take advantage of the incentive, there are fairly large windfall gains to people already inclined to those disciplines, and – my favourite – if there’s really a need for those kind of skills, surely it’s the labour market’s job to adjust through rising wages, not the government’s to adjust through tweaking tuition.

Nevertheless, it raises a useful question: what’s the right way to set tuition? It basically comes down to just a few options:

Make it Free: A bad idea for a whole bunch of reasons, but it has the benefit of being consistent.
Equal Fees Across All Disciplines. Ditto. Simple to understand and implement.

Let the Market Rip: Also probably a bad idea (for first degree programs at any rate), but there’s an intellectual purity to it.

Differential Fees Based on Private Returns: Doctors pay more, social workers pay less. This is the Canadian model, to the extent institutions are allowed to get away with it (which is to say, with second-entry programs); otherwise we’re closer to the “equal fees” model.

Differential Fees Based on “Social Need” or Labour Force Planning: This is essentially the Florida proposal (Estonia has a version of it too, and some Canadian provinces use student aid to accomplish the same thing through the back door). Basic problems include working out what future needs (social or otherwise) really are and why public funds should be used to set market signals on employers’ behalf.

Differential Fees Based on Cost of Provision: This would have some of the same winners and losers as fees based on private returns, but not all. Law would be cheaper, fine arts a lot more expensive.

It would be nice if, once in a while at least, we could actually discuss these models and make conscious choices between them. It could get a bit confrontational, of course, but presumably grown-up societies can handle a bit of that. Sadly, being Canadian, we shy away from this and make tuition policy the way we always do (i.e. “whatever it cost last year, plus a couple of percentage points”). Score nil, again, for rational policy-making.

July 09

Just Over the Horizon

Recently I was asked about what I thought the big upcoming challenges – beyond the regular budget stuff – were for universities and colleges. From the shortest-term to the longest-term, my answer was:

Not Getting Ahead of the Metrics Game. A perennial topic, but no less important for that. In every recession, governments re-double their efforts to manage the system through metrics. The odds are very strong that government-designed metrics are going to be goofy in the extreme (anyone remember KPIs based on student loan default rates?). If institutions sit back and say “quantitative metrics are bad,” governments will impose metrics anyway. Institutions need to engage with metrics and come up with their own good performance measures before they get less useful ones imposed on them.

Internationalization Backfires. Right now, everyone assumes that funding holes can be plugged with international students. How long do you think it will be before the nasty cries of cries of “foreigners are keeping Canadians out of Canadian universities” begin? Will it start when the percentage of foreign students hits 15%? 20%? 30%? Nobody knows, but there has to be an upper-bound. Intriguingly, U.S. public flagship institutions – who after decades of ignoring the undergraduate market are suddenly going gangbusters on international recruitment – seem to be tacitly settling on somewhere between 15-20%. A lot of big Canadian schools are already close to or above that.

The Switch from Jobs to Productivity. As the labour force shrinks, so too will unemployment. While jobs for youth is a big deal now, it won’t be too long before tightening labour markets mean that jobs will be chasing youth, not the other way around. Two consequences: one, the opportunity cost of PSE will rise, making it harder to attract domestic students and two, no one is going to care about how many of your graduates get jobs. Rather, they will focus on the much crunchier question of whether your graduates help improve productivity and competitiveness and so help pay for our welfare state. How will that be measured? Interesting question.

The Research Model Breaks. Government invests in curiosity-driven university research because they think it has a trickle-down effect which leads to more generalized productivity gains. Yet the actual evidence in favour of that proposition isn’t exceptionally good. Even in the U.S., this belief only dates back to the early 1970s – and can anyone really say that productivity gains from science are better now than they were in the much more centralized research ecosystem of the 1940s, 50s and 60s? And what happens if productivity-obsessed governments conclude a new model is therefore needed?

Only the first of these is imminent; but the rest aren’t far over the horizon. Forewarned is forearmed.

June 22

Adieu, Mon Vieux, a la Prochaine

Since vacation time is upon us, we thought we’d share a few higher education-themed jaunts we’ve been dreaming of:

1) Phagwara, Punjab

Phagwara is home to the best-monikered university in the world: Punjab’s Lovely Professional University. Yes, really, that’s what it’s called – it was founded by India’s Lovely group, which specializes in agricultural goods. This would be worth a trip just to say you’d been. If there’s a more awesomely-named university anywhere, we have yet to hear it.

2) Los Angeles

To ride on Traveler, the horse belonging to the USC Trojan. In 2004, this animal received a $2 million dedicated endowment – which has since grown to closer to $3 million – which must rank among the least useful acts of philanthropy of all time.

3) Any place where Michael Vipperman tries to get a job this summer

Just so we can ask his prospective employer whether, after loudly declining his degree on stage last week, his principles extend to refusing to put the degree on his CV.

4) Winston-Salem, North Carolina & Providence, Rhode Island

To see the two best school mascots in the United States: the UNC School of the Arts’ “Fighting Pickle”, and Rhode Island School of the Arts’ talismanic “Scrotie”. Yes, it’s what you think it is. Photos here, but we wouldn’t recommend scrolling down to Scrotie’s entry while you’re at work. Anyone who tries to tell you Fine Arts students are more refined than those puerile jocks, just show ‘em this.

Unfortunately, since we don’t really do vacations here at HESA Towers, we’re going to have to keep these trips for another time. But since we know most of you take holidays at this time of year, this blog will also be taking a break. We’ll be off the air for the next ten days, before coming back on July 3rd with a reduced summertime program of “One Thought to Start Your Week”. Regular daily service will resume on August 20th.

Meantime, we’d like to ask all of you a favour. Over the past ten months, we’ve posted just over 90,000 words in this blog. If we’re going to do it again next year, we’d like to make sure that we’re keeping our audience informed, engaged, entertained and not too enraged (though if we aren’t provoking you once in awhile, we probably aren’t doing our job). Let us know what you really like and what you really don’t like. Tell us how we can improve. We’d sure like to know.

Have a great summer.

May 16

Learning From Other Policy Areas: Housing

Sometimes, I think we spend too much time trying to learn from policy in other countries and not enough time learning from related policy areas in our own country.

Take housing, for instance – probably higher education’s closest relative in policy terms. Choosing a home, like choosing an undergraduate degree, is a major decision with enormous financial implications, but both can be foreseen many years in advance, allowing people to plan for the purchase. Shelter and education are both considered to be “rights,” but we ask people to pay for them both. In addition to their status as public goods, a substantial benefit of both housing and higher education are private. The subsidy picture is a similar mix of non-repayable aid for the poor (grants in our field, social housing and housing vouchers in the other), and assistance via loans for everyone else (CSLP, CMHC insurance). Finally, both are to some degree positional goods; not every degree is from Harvard, not every house is in Westmount, and the location of your alma mater/house determines its value to a substantial degree.

So, what can we learn about ourselves from looking at housing?

First, education policy is big on encouraging savings – so why is there no Canada Education Savings Grant equivalent for housing? (Ok, arguably the home mortgage interest tax deduction in the U.S. is pretty close.) But in Canada, I’d guess the reason we don’t is that everyone would think it’s a stupid idea to help those most able to help themselves. So why doesn’t that logic apply to education too? Hmmm.

Second, housing policy also has a much more limited view about the state’s role in minimum provision. There is a “right to housing,” but that tends to mean things like emergency shelter, a spot in sometimes quite decrepit social housing, etc (that is to say, a good which is significantly inferior in quality to what most people have). In higher education, on the other hand, that right is seen as a right to a shot at just about any form of education, provided you think you can pay back the loan.

Third, there is the way that loan assistance is targeted. Student loans are needs-tested, but CMHC mortgage insurance isn’t. Why is that? Should there be a needs test on loans? Should we introduce one on mortgage insurance? Why would we do one and not the other?

Obviously, there are some differences between the two sectors which make some policy differences natural. The most is the nature of the underlying asset; a lender can repossess a house but can’t repossess a degree. But the similarities are enough that wonks in both fields could benefit from spending more time learning from one another.

January 24

Cult Militias in the Quad

For those student affairs professionals among you who think you have it bad, consider the state of universities in Nigeria.

Prior to independence, future Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka and some friends started an anti-colonial political confraternity known as the “Pyrates” at University College, Ibadan. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, confraternities began to spread rapidly, adopting names like the “Black Axes,” the “Supreme Vikings” and (I’m not making this up) the “Klansmen Konfraternity.” Female counterparts also emerged, like the “Barracudas” and the “Black Bras”; they also began to practice much more cult-like initiation rituals, such as drinking blood, torture and even sexual assault.

During the post-1983 period of military rule, confraternities were seen as useful counterweights to pro-democracy student unions and given official access to weaponry to keep campuses tame. Though democracy has returned, cults still have a major and menacing physical presence on campuses. They are responsible for dozens of deaths – both on campus and off – and kidnappings (including of university officials) as well as significant amounts of violence and threats thereof towards academic staff (despite the fact that a few lecturers are themselves cult members) – not to mention involvement with ethnic militias.

Those of you who think I’m making this up – most of you, I’m sure – need to check out links here, here, here, here and especially here. It’s all true. Imagine Animal House with John Belushi replaced by Marlo Stanfield and co. from The Wire – that’s the state of many Nigerian campuses.

Why am I telling you this? Well, when reading up on this two things occurred to me. The first was what a great April Fool’s blog it would make (“Vince Tinto uncovers new African campus movement promoting belonging, closer teacher-student interaction”), but the second was: at the end of the day, it’s students that make a campus culture.

You can have the greatest researchers in the world, but at the end of the day, people know a university by its graduates and its students. Universities can reject in loco parentis all they want, but there’s no getting away from the fact that whatever students get up to among themselves reflect on the institution – as anyone who’s been at York or Concordia over the last decade knows all too well.

So why do Canadian universities leave so much to chance in student affairs? Why do we elevate grades over character in admissions? Why does university-led student programming essentially end after frosh week? Even absent a threat of campus death cults, why don’t reputation-concerned universities make a bigger effort on student life issues?

It seems to me that a university looking for a genuine niche could find one here.

December 16

Holiday Human Capital Lyrics Competition

We’re going to take a break from sending you Thoughts for a couple of weeks and will be back on January 3rd. But before doing this, I thought it only proper to send you on your Xmas way with some good, holiday thoughts about higher education.

One problem: I couldn’t do it. I drew a complete mental blank about how to tie those two concepts together.

Part of the problem was that I had a ridiculously wonderful song in my head. Not festive music – something better:  The Official Song of Malaysia’s National Higher Education Loan Fund Corporation (MP3), which is known in Malay as PTPTN, (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional).

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Seriously, it’s catchy, in an Asian Musak kind of way.

You can check out the original Malay lyrics here, but I feel the Google Translate version (with a little help from me) is poetic enough:

A business of a target
Knowledge to Excel
Education Funding
Generating Human Capital

A noble and pure service
Which espouses the ambition
Of eliminating differences between races, religions and nations

Stand tall
Sound Savings
Integrity with a Human Soul
Mind the Personal Skills Block
Building Civil society
In the Era of Globalization

Is that fantastic, or what?

Anyways, before signing off for the break, I thought I would pose a challenge to all of our devoted readers:  Try your hand at writing a song about the Canada Student Loans Program (or a provincial equivalent), or a ditty about human capital.  Entries to be judged on artistic merit, humour, and the ability to include ludicrous economic or bureaucratic jargon in the body of the song.

Come January, I will publish the best entrants, and the winner gets to choose the topic of a One Thought to Start Your Day.

Happy Holidays, and see you in January.

December 14

Can Universities Compete?

There’s a basic problem with trying to get universities to compete with one another: most of them are structurally incapable of following any coherent competitive strategy at all.

Michael Porter posited that there were basically three generic types of competitive strategies.  Those competing on a broad scale could compete on cost (e.g., WalMart), or they could compete on product differentiation that allows them to charge a premium (e.g., Apple, Mercedes-Benz).  A third option is to limit oneself to a particular niche and compete in a very small market (e.g., Porter Airlines, which only tries to serve a few destinations).

Universities have a hard time restricting themselves to niches, as breadth is one of the things that distinguishes universities as an institutional type. Competing on cost is also extremely difficult for them to do. That’s not just because of their well-known tendency to conflate quality and expenditures; it’s because low-cost (and hence low-margin) strategies tend to work through expanding production and becoming a high-volume producer. Needless to say, exorbitant physical infrastructure costs make this an unviable strategy for all physically-based universities (though distance and e-learning providers can obviously make it work).

That leaves only product differentiation as a viable strategy. But deep down, this idea scares everyone because higher education is an almost comically conservative and isomorphic industry; what Harvard and Stanford do, virtually everyone else wants to copy, to at least some degree. At the margins, there are some value-enhancing alternate delivery models, with Waterloo’s co-op model probably being the best (McMaster could have done it with problem-based learning, but was so conservative that it never fully capitalized on its medical school’s breakthrough). But even that’s too much for most; hence the rush to differentiate on meaningless points such as food quality.

So – no strategy, no differentiation, just individual universities all providing the same services with some different marketing attached and hoping people will think they’re a “brand.”  This kind of thing leads governments to believe that institutions are really undifferentiated and should be treated like utilities; institutions, meanwhile, think their “brand” status entitles them to think of themselves as luxury goods.

November 11

Why are Toronto Students so Friggin’ Miserable (Part 5)

Last week in our series on student satisfaction (and Toronto students’ lack thereof) we looked at how students’ perception of institutional character – specifically, things like having applied curricula, seeming open to new ideas and offering a supportive environment – correlated with student satisfaction. This week, we’re still on the issue of character, but students’ own characters rather than those of their institutions.

The 2012 Canadian University Report survey asked students how much they agreed, on a one to nine scale, with a series of statements about themselves (e.g. “I am an athlete”). There were eight statements in total, corresponding to “athlete,” “political junkie,” “environmental activist,” “artist,” “technological guru,” “career oriented,” “studious” and “I like to live it up.” (We were unable to ask the more direct question – whether or not students would describe themselves as “liking to party” – because no institution wants to be labelled a “party school” as a result of the CUR).

It turns out that only three of these eight statements have any important relationship to overall satisfaction (Figure 1). The ultimate trifecta of satisfaction? A studious, career oriented student who likes to live it up; the average satisfaction of a student who rates themselves as a nine on all of these measures is 7.5 out of nine.

This, by the way, makes you wonder why any institution would want to avoid being called a party school since such a status is likely to be associated with high levels of satisfaction. To at least some extent, the University of Western Ontario’s continued long-term success in having top satisfaction ratings (which it likes to talk about) is because of its status as a party school (which it would prefer not to talk about). It’s two sides of the same coin.

But back to our longer-term question: does any of this explain why Toronto students are so miserable? Can Toronto institutions’ low satisfaction levels be explained because students there are less likely to describe themselves as “career oriented,” “studious” or “liking to live it up”? Well, maybe a little bit.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of students who rate themselves as an eight or a nine (on a nine-point scale) on each of these three traits. Clearly, Toronto students are less likely to strongly identify with these three traits, but the gap isn’t huge – certainly not enough to explain the big gaps in satisfaction we see each year. That said, it’s worth noting that students at Ryerson – the one Toronto school that does reasonably well on the CUR’s satisfaction measure – are also the ones with the highest average scores for being career oriented and “liking to live it up” and the second-highest average scores for studiousness (behind OCAD).

More next week. Stay tuned.

— Alex Usher and Jason Rogers

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