Higher Education Strategy Associates

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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

October 17

The Future of Canadian R&D – Round One

The Mowat Institute showed some canny timing by releasing its paper, Canada’s Innovation Underperformance: Whose Policy Problem Is It?, on the Friday before the federal government’s Research and Development Review Panel reports. It was a real master-class in media management.

The report, authored by Tijs Creutzberg, doesn’t break a lot of new ground; in many ways it’s just a lit review, albeit a very nicely-written one. Basically, it argues two things: i) that our government innovation strategies are overly biased towards tax-credits and make insufficient use of direct cash support and ii) that there is too much overlap between federal and provincial policy instruments.

Though the first issue got the lion’s share of the media attention Friday, it’s actually the place where the report is thinnest. The report’s “evidence” basically consists of one graph which shows Canada as a policy outlier in its reliance on tax credits (not news if you’ve been keeping up with the OECD literature), and two paper citations on the benefits of direct subsidies over tax credits (one of which, if you bother to look it up, actually says nothing at all about the relative efficacy of direct support versus tax credits). Creutzberg may well be right about this, but on the evidence presented, it’s hard to tell.

On the second issue – that of carving more rational policy roles for the federal and provincial government – Creutzberg oozes good sense about the importance of place and regions in research, and then comes up with an eminently logical way of dividing up policy responsibilities between the two. The problem is that some of the recommendations come off sounding a tad too idealistic. However sensible it might be to get the federal government out of direct cluster-specific subsidies or for provinces to abjure sector-specific tax credits, it’s really, really hard to imagine it ever happening. Forget theories of federalism – those programs win votes, and politicians don’t give up vote-winners easily.

Untouched in Creutzberg’s paper is the issue of how all those federal billions that go to university research play into our research and innovation system. That is likely going to be the centerpiece of today’s paper from the Expert Panel. There’s a serious air of anticipation about this report; despite rumours of a divided panel not a single leak has taken place, which in Ottawa is about as rare as a Senators’ playoff run. It should be interesting.

Tune in tomorrow for more.

September 22

By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

There are two ways of thinking about student unions. You can think of them as being (a) populated by idealists, who only want education for all, or you can think of them as (b) actual unions, prioritizing wins (financial and otherwise) for their members – who, let’s recall, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than society as a whole – ahead of any other cause.

With that in mind, let’s look at the some recent public statements from the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter.

March 2011 – The Canadian Federation of Students says it is “disappointed” that the Ontario budget included measures to improve access by increasing spaces rather than reduce tuition fees for students who are already in post-secondary.

September 2011 – The Ontario Liberal party announces it will reduce tuition fees by thirty percent for every student from a family earning less than $160,000 per year. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says it would prefer a solution that spent more money to include families earning over $160,000 as well (who, last we checked, weren’t having problems accessing PSE).

Both incidents seem to lend themselves to the interpretation that the CFS cares only about money for all of its members. This is, of course, an entirely fair and reasonable position for a union to take.

But then, a new piece of evidence arrives that really makes you wonder:

September 2011 – CFS-O issues its party platform report card for the Ontario election. The NDP platform, which freezes tuition fees and eliminates interest on student loans, gets a B+ for affordability. The Liberal platform, which provides tuition rebates of 30% for 85% all of students, but allows base tuition to continue to creep upwards, gets a B. The report card helpfully points out that the Liberal tuition promise would cost $430 million annually, while the NDP interest elimination and tuition freeze would cost $110 million.

Even from the crude analytical perspective of “how much students get,” this makes zero sense. The only students who would be better off under the NDP proposals would be those from households with over $160,000. And while the NDP proposal does contain the holy grail of “freezing tuition,” the Liberal proposal hands students almost a billion more dollars over four years than the NDP one does.

That’s an awful lot of money to punt for the right to say that tuition is frozen, and isn’t consistent with our earlier theory about being their being solely concerned with financial wins. Rather, it suggests deep confusion about the difference between means and ends.

August 11

What Toronto Can Learn from Mike Bloomberg

Here’s an idea that deserves a lot more attention than it has received in Canada: the City of New York has issued an international RFP for schools that want to build a new engineering and applied sciences campus in the city. The winner gets $100 million and some free land. So far, over 20 universities from around the world (including the University of Toronto) have indicated an interest.

It’s brilliant: not happy with the mix of skills in your local economy? Don’t bother the provincial government. Don’t get local institutions to expand into areas in which they aren’t competent. Task an expert foreign institution to do it, and let them worry about issues like tuition, supply, demand, curriculum, etc.

Toronto has a similar problem to New York in that it has a massive hole in the local provision of education. But rather than missing subject fields like applied science, what’s missing in Toronto is an entire class of institutions. The GTA is filled with behemoths both at the university and college level because the provincial government has this weird size fetish; anyone who might benefit from a smaller school environment that is more capable of giving one-to-one instruction is simply out of luck.

Toronto should copy Bloomberg and offer two or three spots for providers to offer small, boutique liberal arts or professional institutions to fill this gap. There’s loads of land around town that is available (Downsview? The Docks?) and after a small initial investment for infrastructure, we could let the institution maintain itself through fees.

Sure, there are potential objections, but they’re easily dealt with. Worried about for-profit education? Put a rider on the contract to restrict the bidding to non-profits. Not happy that local, domestic providers aren’t being paid to do it? Well, they can compete for the award – and win it, if they are good enough. Worried about costs? We already have public institutions charging $20K or more for some programs, so it’s hardly a stretch.

If the United States of America – self-proclaimed home of the World’s Greatest Higher Education SystemTM – can mentally cope with the idea of turning to the world’s best to fill a market niche, maybe it’s time for us to think about it, too.

— Alex Usher

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