HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

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March 21

Worst Higher Education Article of the Decade (So Far)

Stop the presses.  I have found the worst education article of the decade so far.  It is by Don & Alex Tapscott, and it is called The Blockchain Revolution and Higher Education.

How dumb is it?  Solar-powered flashlight dumb.  Tripping over a cordless phone dumb.

The problem is that because it’s Don Tapscott and he is – for reasons that are completely beyond me – treated as some kind of national gem, no one ever calls him on his deep wrongness when it comes to education (remember the time  he dramatically announced that in the third week of January 2013 was the week universities changed forever?), so the likelihood is that some people may take this article seriously.  And this would be a terrible mistake because it is nonsense.

A little background.  A blockchain is a distributed database which is both secure and decentralized – something which has interesting applications in finance, electronic money (eg. bitcoin) and contracts.  Some also claim it will have a huge effect on creative industries because it solves a host of intellectual property issues, but this is more speculative, and it requires a whole lot of legal and policy changes, which at this point are pretty speculative.

But databases, no matter how funky and tech-y they are, don’t have many educational uses.  Imagine for a second we are back in 1981 and someone wrote an article about how Higher Education was about to go through a Lotus 1-2-3 Revolution.  They’d probably have been dismissed as fantastical dreamers.  Those were better days: sadly, no one will think of doing this to the Tapscotts.

Now, if you can get past the start of the article where the authors claim the internet hasn’t actually changed how companies do business (yes really) you will come to the claim that bitcoin will revolutionize education in four ways., to wit: student records, pedagogy, student debt and “the meta-university”.  The heart of the argument here is that blockchain is going to create a sea change in records management.  Now, student records are admittedly still fairly clunky.  And it’s possible (as I noted back here) that in a decade or so that people will come up with universal CVs that will standardize and revolutionize the way people describe credentials and achievements.  And it’s even possible that once that happens people will be able to record those certificates and achievements on blockchain.  But then…so what?  Blockchain’s main advantage is that records can’t be altered, which means it could be a great way of dealing with fraudulent records.  But that’s not really that big of a deal.  It begs the question, for those of us not in the habit of producing fraudulent records, what exactly are the benefits of blockchain?

Well, according to the Taspcotts, it basically comes down to the idea that blockchain could let you record competencies and skills in a reliable way, thus changing the way universities work completely.  Huge, massive, changes.  And once everyone knows reliably what skills and competencies you have, most of the machinery around universities disappears and higher education becomes just one big worldwide open-learning park, and those people who can demonstrate through blockchain that they have certain skills and competencies will be paid to teach others the same things and poof! No more student debt.

Honestly, I’m not making this up.  This is their claim.

The fact that we are having trouble figuring out skills and competencies outside narrow professional frameworks?  Irrelevant.  The fact that badges and other such newfangled credentials aren’t really being embraced by employers because they are often finicky and vague)?  Irrelevant.  The fact that you still need institutions to actually manage the learning process and institutions to measure outcomes (they do not, I acknowledge, need to be the same institutions)?  Irrelevant.  The fact that not having blockchain is no barrier to people paying students to teach other skills and yet no one does it because that’s not really how education works and blockchain changes nothing in that respect?  Irrelevant.

Is higher education over bureaucratized, insufficiently innovative, in need of a jolt?  Sure.  But a piece of code doesn’t fix all that.  There are lots of other problems – often genuine political problems – which have to be solved before the alleged minor blockchain revolution can happen.  And just because it can happen doesn’t mean it will.  The kind of higher education system the Tapscotts seem to want is a type which – to quote Tressie McMillan Cottom – really only appeals to free-ranging autodidacts.  For other learners, the kind of institutions the Tapscotts want is a deeply alienating one.  But techno-fetishist windbags never let issues as small as “what customers want” get in the way of a good fantasy.

In sum: Worst. Higher Ed Article. Ever.  Or pretty close to it.  A pretty much textbook case of how you can be a tech guru while understanding literally nothing of how the world works.

 

March 20

There is no Fourth Industrial Revolution

I am seeing an increasing number of otherwise thoughtful people in Canadian university and research circles going around talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.  They need to stop.

There is no such thing as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  It is a catch-phrase made us by Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum (the Davos folks), which he developed in an eponymous book released in late 2015.  I read it.  It’s dreadful.  Seriously, seriously awful.  No redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

The argument lies in the same kind of shallow “Digital! Clean Tech!  Woo!” analysis that seems to animate Navdeep Bains, our Minister for pro-IT Industrial Policy.  Essentially what it comes down to is that after a long China-driven commodities super-cycle, everyone is interested in more knowledge-intensive industries.  And a bunch of these seem to be (emphasis on seem) to be on the tipping point of some interesting transformations that might have deep economic ramifications: autonomous vehicles, AI, nanotech, quantum computing, materials science, energy storage, etc.  But all of this does not a revolution make.

Generally, economic historians posit that there was one starting in Northern England built around textiles in the eighteenth century, one around mechanical mass production starting in and around Detroit in the early 20th century, and – maybe, this is still disputed – one based around computers and information technology starting in the 1960s/70s/80s (depending on who is telling the story).    The question is really whether all these new technologies that Schwab is so excited about are really new or just extensions of the It revolution of the late twentieth century.  Schwab claims it is because of three factors: “velocity” (change is happening more quickly), “breadth and depth” (some handwaving about “unprecedented paradigm shifts”) and “systems impact” (something about transformation across industries that also looks like a lot of handwaving).  But as several articles noted at the time (see here, here and here), this is fundamentally unconvincing.  All of these new showy technologies are children of the information revolution, and there’s no sign of any radical break in the economy or the pace of technological change that would make us think that there’s been some “revolutionary” break.  Is change occurring?  Of course.  But change has been occurring for decades, even centuries, sometimes at a much faster pace than today.

Now, sure, some might point to the huge amounts of money now being poured into alleged growth industries, like “Clean Tech” (or the “Green Economy” as its sometimes called).  Our Minster for Shaking Hands with Tech Executives, for instance, likes to talk about Clean Tech being a “$3 trillion industry”.  But a lot of that has to do with creative re-labelling of existing economic activities.  So, for instance, one major study which hyped the value of this economy includes in its definition of green tech large swathes of the construction industry (energy efficiency!), the automobile industry (lower emissions!), sewage collection (it’s about waste!)….you get the picture.  Important?  Yes.  But improvements in these areas are mostly about slow transformation of the economy, not some kind of big break with the past. Not, in other words, revolutionary.

And of course, a lot of the hype about these new technologies is just that: hype.  Everyone is talking about driverless automobiles, but there’s no certainty that the legal issues surrounding them will allow them on the road in major numbers for at least a decade (who is at fault if a driverless car gets into an accident?  Who will insure cars if there is ambiguity about this?)  AI sounds like a huge market, but a lot of it has to do with re-classifying what used to be called “software” as AI.  Nanotechnology has been the tech of the future for at least 15 years; biotech for 30.  Etc, etc.  There’s lots of groovy science out there, but turning it into industrial or consumer products at scale is tricky and doesn’t come quickly.  And because modern capitalism isn’t patient, that means a lot of money for product development is going into things which fundamentally don’t raise productivity.  As Peter Thiel once said, “we dreamed of flying cars, we got 140 characters”.

And even if some of these do manage to make it to market, there are some real questions about how much they will change living standards.  If you’re in any way inclined to call yourself a techno-optimist, I really urge you to read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and fall of American Growth, which painstakingly reconstructs the last 150 years of American economic history (it works equally well for Canada, though), and suggests both that a) the high growth rates of the mid-twentieth century were a one-off, never to return and b) that most of the major changes to the workplace due to the It revolution have already happened.

So in any case, if you’re tempted to try to join the Davos buzzword crowd and throw the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” into a conversation, just don’t.  In a few years, when that term has been properly consigned to the dustbin of history, you’ll thank me

March 17

Lower Ed

It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.

Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.

What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.

As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.

The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?

The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.

Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.

McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?

Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.

 

March 14

The Free Tuition Impulse

A few weeks ago I presented yet more evidence about why free tuition was mostly a subsidy for the rich and was unlikely, on its own, to do very much with respect to equalizing access (scroll through here and here if you really want to read me on this subject, though I imagine most of you are pretty familiar with my spiel by now). Someone asked me: “why don’t people like the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) get this?  Surely they can read the evidence, why would they persist in touting a solution which is manifestly regressive”?

There are two possible answers to this question.  One is that in fact they have not read the evidence.  It exists, and they know it exists, but just haven’t read it.  As long as they don’t read the work which falsifies their notions, they can continue to hold these notions. To  paraphrase Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to read something, when his salary depends upon his not reading it”.

I actually got confirmation of this the other day on Twitter.  I was trying to get CCPA’s chief economist David MacDonald to explain why CCPA holds diametrically opposed positions on universal electricity subsidies (bad because they go disproportionately to the rich) and PSE subsidies (awesome, because they benefit the poor – which actually they don’t always, but that’s their story and they are sticking to it).  Basically, his two lines of defense were “it’s a public good” and “it doesn’t matter if most benefits go to rich because if we make education cheaper more poor students will go”.  The first, even if you assume he meant “there are positive externalities to higher education spending” (which is true) rather than “it fits economists’ description of a public good” (utterly false), is not a 100% sensible rationale as it arguably also applies to electricity to some degree (i.e. “there are positive externalities to people not freezing to death in their homes”).  But the second is ridiculous.  We know for a fact that tuition levels have almost nothing to do with access rates in part because targeted student aid actually works.  So I pushed him on it.  “Have you really read nothing about access problems in zero-tuition jurisdictions?  I asked.  Have you never looked at the rather substantive literature on finances and access”?  No reply.  Which, I think, tells you what you need to know.  People like David MacDonald and the CCPA simply do not want to know.  But that’s only half an answer: why don’t they want to know?  If they know that free tuition is ineffective as a remedy and regressive in distributional outcomes, why support it?  What other agenda is at play?

Well, a few years ago, when I was at a small event on Chile looking at the issue of tuition, I finally came to understand this problem.  A colleague and I were asking our Chilean counterparts: why do you want to make tuition free?  You must know it will make very little difference in access to higher education.  To which one of our counterparts replied:  the point is to get rid of the market.  The market must not decide in higher education.”

And so it is in Canada, I think.  The anti-tuition people are not fundamentally pro-access (though that is how they rationalize their position), so much as they are pro-state.  I suspect it’s partly due to a left-ideological stance which generally favours greater state involvement across the economy, but also partly to a naïve view about what would happen inside universities if the need to satisfy the market ever disappeared.  Such as: that public money would magically replace private money and continue to grow at a pace vastly outstripping inflation forever after.  Such as: nasty private sector Board member would be replaced by bureaucrats or more sympathetic public appointments or – better yet – make academics a majority on governing boards.   And magically, contrary to every bit of evidence from continental Europe, government running 100% publicly-funded universities would be less intrusive and meddling in institutional affairs than they currently are.

Once you realize that the free tuition argument is really a government vs. market argument and not a “how do we best equalize opportunities argument”, it becomes perfectly clear why evidence on the efficacy of tuition in promoting access doesn’t faze the usual suspects.  They don’t actually care about access.  They care about resisting the market.   The access stuff is just sheep’s clothing.

March 03

Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – A Summary

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some of the big changes going on in higher education globally.  To wit:

  • Higher education student numbers are continuing to rise around the world. This massification in many countries is being accompanied by stratification.  Getting a “distinctive” degree at a prestige university remains hard; going abroad remains a good way of getting it.  So increases in international student numbers are likely to continue, ceteris paribus.
  • Institutions in developing countries are unlikely to increase their global prestige level any time soon. Climbing the ladder costs money most developing-world governments don’t have, and in any case, the definition of prestige is changing in ways that make it difficult for universities in developing countries to follow.
  • Demographic forces have been a significant part of the rise in global student numbers; however, for the next decade or so, these trends will not be quite so favourable (though by 2030 they should be trending positive again).
  • Similarly, the end of the commodity super-cycle means a lot of countries that were getting rich off the rise of countries like China are no longer getting richer, in developed-country currency terms, anyway (and even India is not doing well by this measure). This means at least some potential international students are looking for cheaper alternatives.

So what does all this mean?  How do we sum up these trends?

First of all, we need to stop all this nonsense talk about international higher education being a “bubble”.  It’s not.  The fundamentals of demand – rising numbers of students wanting a prestige degree – are strong, as are developed universities’ market position as a purveyors of prestige degrees.

There are two things which could undermine this.  Demographic headwinds might mean that universities would need to do more to increase the percentage of students studying abroad in order to keep up the trends (rather than simply relying on the overall trends in increased participation).  Clearly, recent economic setbacks and currency slides in a number of countries make it more difficult to do this, at least if you’re an institution in one of the countries where the currency remains strong.  If, like Canada, you’re not, then this is a chance to steal a march on countries who either have strong currencies (the US) or who through some sort of policy lobotomy have decided they don’t want international students (the UK).  In any case, international student numbers have held up for the last few years in the face of these headwinds: the real test is what happens if economic growth starts to stall in China.

The other potential game-changer is one I alluded to a couple of times last year (see here and here); which is whether or not sending-country governments start to deliberately shut off the taps, deny students exit visas, and begin discriminating against graduates of foreign universities in the labour market.  A year ago, that might have sounded crazy; today, such moves are by no means unthinkable in Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.  Others may follow.

In short, there is risk today in the world of international student mobility.  But it is political rather than economic.  All we can do is keep plugging away and hope that the global situation does not get worse.

In the meantime, the OTTSYD be taking a break for reading week, and will return to our regular schedule on March 13.

March 01

Under-managed universities

I have been having some interesting conversations with folks recently about “overwork” in academia.  It is clear to me that a lot of professors are absolutely frazzled.  It is also clear to me that on average professors work hard – not necessarily because The Man is standing over them with a whip but because as a rule academics are professional and driven, and hey, status within academia is competitive and lots of people want to keep up with the Joneses.

But sometimes when I talk to profs – and for context here the ones I speak to most often are ones roughly my own age (mid-career) or younger – what I hear a lot of is about work imbalance (i.e. some professors are doing more work than others) or, to put it more bluntly, how much “deadwood” there is in universities (the consensus answer is somewhere between 20-30%).  And therefore, I think it is reasonable to ask the question: to what extent do some people’s “overwork” stem from the fact that some professors aren’t pulling their weight?

This is obviously something of a sticky question, and I had an interesting time discussing it with a number of interlocutors of twitter last week.  My impression is that opinion roughly divides up into three camps:

1)      The self-righteous Camp.  “This is ridiculous I’ve never heard professors talking like this about each other, we all work hard and anyway if anyone is unproductive it’s because they’re dealing with kids or depressed due to the uncaring, neoliberal administration smashing its boot into the face of academia forever…”

2)      The Hard Science Camp. “Well, you know there are huge differences in workload expectation across the institution – do you know how much work it is to run a lab? Those humanities profs get away with murder…”

3)       The “We’ve earned it” Camp “Hey look at all the professions where you put in the hours at the start and get to relax later on. We’re just like that. Would you want to work hours like a junior your whole life? And by the way older profs just demonstrate productivity on a broader basis than just teaching and research….”

There is probably something to each of these points of view.  People do have to juggle external priorities with academic ones at some points in their lives; that said, since most of the people who made the remarks about deadwood have young kids themselves, I doubt that explains the phenomenon. There probably are different work expectations across faculties; that said, in the examples I was using, my interlocutors were talking about people in their own units, so that’s doesn’t affect my observation, much.  Perhaps there are expectations of taking it easier as careers progress, but I never made the argument that deadwood is related to seniority so the assumption that this was what caused deadwood was… interesting).  So while acknowledging that all of these points may be worthwhile, I still tend to believe that at least part of the solution to overwork is dealing with the problem of work imbalances.

Now, at some universities – mainly ones which have significantly upped their research profile in the last couple of decades – this might genuinely be tough because the expectations of staff who were hired in the 1970s or 1980s might be very, very different than the expectations of ones hired today.  Places like Ryerson or MacEwan are obvious examples, but can also be true at places like Waterloo, which thought of itself as a mostly undergraduate institution even into the early 1990s.  Simply put, there is a huge generational gap at some universities in how people understand “the job” because they were hired in totally different contexts.

What strikes me about all of this is that neither management nor – interestingly – labour seem to have much interest in measuring workload for the purpose of equalizing it.  Sure, there’s lots of bean counting, especially in the sciences, especially when it comes to research contracts and publications and stuff like that.  But what’s missing is the desire to use to adjust individuals’ work loads in order to reach common goals more efficiently.

My impression is that in many departments, “workload management” means, at most, equalizing undergraduate teaching requirements.  Grad supervisions?  Those are all over the place.  “Service”?  Let’s not even pretend that’s well-measured.  Research effort?  Once tenure has been given, it’s largely up to individuals how much they want to do.  The fiercely competitive may take on 40 or 50 hours a week on top of their other duties, others much less.  Department heads – usually elected by professors in the department themselves – have limited incentive and means to get the overachievers to maybe cool it sometimes and the underachievers to up their game.

In short, while it’s fashionable to say that professors are being “micro-managed” by universities, I would argue that on the rather basic task of regulating workload for common good, academics are woefully under-managed.  I’d probably go even further and say most people know they are undermanaged and many wish it could change.  But at the end of the day, academics as a voting mass on Senates and faculty unions consistently seem to prefer undermanagement and “freedom” to management and (perhaps) more work fairness.

I wonder why this is. I also wonder if there is not a gender component to the issue.

What do you think?  Comments welcome.

February 28

The “Not Enough Engineers” Canard

Yesterday I suggested that Ottawa might be as much of the problem in innovation policy as it is the solution.  Today I want to make a much stronger policy claim: that Canada has a uniquely stupid policy discourse on innovation.   And as Exhibit A in this argument I want to present a piece posted over at Policy Options last week.

The article was written by Kat Nejatian, a former staffer to Jason Kenney and now CEO of a payment technology company (OVERCONFIDENT TECH DUDE KLAXON ALERT).  Basically the piece suggests that the whole innovation problem is a function of inputs: not enough venture capital and not enough engineers.  Let me take those two pieces separately.

First comes a claim that Canada’s Venture Capital funding is following further and further behind the United States.  He quotes a blog post from Wellington Financial saying: American venture-capital-backed companies raised US$93.37 per capita in 2006, while in Canada we raised US$45.76 per capita. Nearly a decade later, in 2015, US companies had doubled their performance, raising an average of US$186.23 per capita, while Canadian companies had only inched up to US$49.42.

There are two problems here.  First, these figures are in USD at current exchange rates.  You may remember that 2006 was an extraordinarily good year for the Canadian dollar, and 2015 less so, so this isn’t the best comparison in the world.  Second, they in no way match up with other published data on venture capital as a percentage of GDP.  The reference years are different, but the Conference Board noted that the VC funding as a percentage of GDP grew in Canada from .06 to .1% of GDP between 2009 and 2013, and now stands second in the world only to the US (the US grew from .13% to .18% while all of Europe fell back sharply).  And Richard Florida noted in The Atlantic that in terms of VC funding per capita, Toronto is the only non-American city which cracks the world’s top 20.  I am not sure what to make of these differences; I expect some of it has to do with definitions of venture capital (early-stage vs. late-stage for example).  But looking at more than one data point throws Nejatian’s hypothesis into doubt.

But the bigger whopper in this article has to do with the claim that Canada does not educate enough engineers.  Now forget the fact that the number of engineering graduates has very little to do with success in innovation, even if you define innovation a narrowly as Nejatian does (i.e. as tech and nothing else).  His numbers are simply and outrageously wrong.  He claims Canada produced only 12,000 new Engineering grads; in fact, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in Architecture & Engineering in 2014 was 18,000, and that’s excluding math and computer science (another 5,400), not to mention new graduate degrees in both those areas (another 11,700).  He claims the UK produces 3.5 times the number of engineers per capita that Canada does.  It doesn’t; there is a gap, but it’s not very big – 9% of their degrees go to engineers compared to 8% of ours (see figure below).  He repeats the scare claim – demolished long ago by Vivek Wadhwa among others – that India is going to eat our lunch because it graduates 1.5 million engineers per year.  This argument needs to go back to 2006 where it belongs: only a tiny percentage of these engineers are of the calibre of North American E-schools, and one recent Times of India  piece suggested that 93% of them were not actually employable (which sounds like an exaggeration but still points to a significant underlying problem).

Figure 1: Science & Engineering Degrees as % of Total Degrees Awarded, Selected OECD Countries

OTTSYD 2017-02-27-1

(See what I mean?  The US has the smallest percentage of undergraduate degrees in engineering and yet it leads everyone else in tech…yet apparently that doesn’t matter to Nejatian – all that matters is MOAR ENGINEERS.  I mean, if we increase our proportion of degrees in engineering by about 60% we could be as innovative as…Italy?)

I could go on, but you get the picture.  This is a terrible argument using catastrophically inaccurate data and yet it gets a place in what is supposed to be our country’s premier publication on public policy.  It’s appalling.  But it fits with the way we talk about innovation in this country.  We focus on inputs rather than processes and relationships.  We see a lack of inputs and immediately try to work out how to increase them rather than asking i) do these inputs actually matter or ii) why are they low in the first place (actually, the only redeeming feature about this article is that it doesn’t make any recommendations, which given the quality of the analysis is really a blessing for all concerned).

Could Canada do with a few more engineers?  Probably.  It’s the one field of study where incomes of new graduates are still rising in real terms, which suggests the demand could support a greater supply.  But the causal link between Engineers and innovation is a vast oversimplification.  If we want better policy in this country, we need to start by improving the quality of the discourse and analysis.  Policy Options has done us all a disservice by letting this piece go out under their name.

February 27

Can Ottawa Do Innovation?

The National Post’s David Akin had a useful article last week entitled Canada Has Failed at Innovation for 100 years: Can The Trudeau Government Change That?  Read it, it’s good.  It’s based around a new-ish Peter Nicholson article in Canadian Public Policy which is unfortunately not available without a subscription.  But Nicholson’s argument appears to be: we’ve done pretty well our entire history as a country copying or importing technology from Americans: what exactly is it that Ottawa is going to do to “shock” us into becoming a massive innovator?

Good question.  But I have a better question: does it make any sense that the federal government is leading on these kinds of policies?  Wouldn’t provinces bet better suited to the job?  Knee-jerk centralists (my guess: probably half my subscribers) probably find that suggestion pretty horrific.  But hear me out.  There are a number of really good reasons why Ottawa probably isn’t best placed to lead on this file.

First: innovation policy is to a large extent is about people and skills.  And skills policy has been fully in the hands of provincial governments for over twenty years now.  We accept that provincial governments are closer to local labour markets and local business for skills purposes.  Surely the same is also true for innovation?

Second: Canada is huge.  We’re not like Singapore or Israel or Taiwan, where industries are essentially homogenous across the entire country.  We are more like China or the US, where a single industry might look completely different in one part of the country than another.  If you haven’t already read Run of the Red Queen: Government, Innovation, Globalization and Economic Growth in China by Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree, I recommend it.  Besides showing how innovation can be profitable even when it is not of the “new product”/”blue sky” (a truth to which our current government seems utterly oblivious), it shows how the structure of a single industry (in this case, IT) can be utterly different in different parts of a single country.  That’s also true in Canada.  And it’s why it’s tough to draw up decent national policies on a sectoral level.

(A corollary to that second point, which I made back here: because the country is so big, any government attempt to play the “cluster” game in the name of improved innovation is bound to get wrapped up in regional politics pretty quickly.  Anyone who’s watched Montreal and Toronto’s unseemly jockeying for a single big federal investment in Artificial Intelligence will know what I mean.)

Over the course of the past twenty years, of course, many provinces have set up their own innovation ministries or agencies.  But apart from the partial exceptions of Ontario and Quebec, they tend to be poor cousins of the federal ministry: understaffed and not especially well-resourced.  As a result, they’re not at present any more effective than Ottawa in driving innovation.  But that could change with more effective investment.  And of course, Ottawa would always have a role to play: if nothing else, its authority over competition policy means it will always have levers which it can and should use to promote innovation (even if at present it seems extremely reluctant to use this particular lever).

In short, it’s worth considering the hypothesis that it’s not “Canada” which has failed at innovation, but Ottawa.

February 23

Garbage Data on Sexual Assaults

I am going to do something today which I expect will not put me in good stead with one of my biggest clients.  But the Government of Ontario is considering something unwise and I feel it best to speak up.

As many of you know, the current Liberal government is very concerned about sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus, and has devoted no small amount of time and political capital to getting institutions to adopt new rules and regulations around said issues.  One can doubt the likely effectiveness of such policies, but not the sincerity of the motive behind them.

One of the tools the Government of Ontario wishes to use in this fight is more public disclosure about sexual assault.  I imagine they have been influenced with how the US federal government collects and publishes statistics on campus crime, including statistics on sexual assaults.  If you want to hold institutions accountable for making campuses safer, you want to be able to measure incidents and show change over time, right?

Well, sort of.  This is tricky stuff.

Let’s assume you had perfect data on sexual assaults by campus.  What would that show?  It would depend in part on the definitions used.  Are we counting sexual assaults/harassment which occur on campus?  Or are we talking about sexual assaults/harassment experiences by students?  Those are two completely different figures.  If the purpose of these figures is accountability and giving prospective students the “right to know” (personal safety is after all a significant concern for prospective students), how useful is that first number?  To what extent does it make sense for institutions to be held accountable for things which do not occur on their property?

And that’s assuming perfect data, which really doesn’t exist.  The problems multiply exponentially when you decided to rely on sub-standard data.  And according to a recent Request for Proposals placed on the government tenders website MERX, the Government of Ontario is planning to rely on some truly awful data for its future work on this file.

Here’s the scoop: the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development is planning to do two surveys: one in 2018 and one in 2024.  They plan on getting contact lists of emails of every single student in the system – at all 20 public universities, 24 colleges and 417 private institutions and handing them over to a contractor so they can do a survey. (This is insane from a privacy perspective – the much safer way to do this is to get institutions to send out an email to students with a link to a survey so the contractor never sees the names without students’ consent).  Then they are going to send out an email to all those students – close to 700,000 in total – offering $5/per head to answer a survey.

Its not clear what Ontario plans to do with this data.  But the fact that they are insistent that *every* student at *every* institution be sent the survey suggests to me that they want the option to be able to analyze and perhaps publish the data from this anonymous voluntary survey on a campus by campus basis.

Yes, really.

Now, one might argue: so what?  Pretty much every student survey works this way.  You send out a message to as many students as you can, offer an inducement and hope for the best in terms of response rate.  Absent institutional follow-up emails, this approach probably gets you a response rate between 10 and 15% (a $5 incentive won’t move that many students)  Serious methodologists grind their teeth over those kinds of low numbers, but increasingly this is the way of the world.  Phone polls don’t get much better than this.  The surveys we used to do for the Globe and Mail’s Canadian University Report were in that range.  The Canadian University Survey Consortium does a bit better than that because of multiple follow-ups and strong institutional engagement.  But hell, even StatsCan is down to a 50% response rate on the National Graduates Survey.

Is there non-response bias?  Sure.  And we have no idea what it is.  No one’s ever checked.  But these surveys are super-reliable even if they’re not completely valid.  Year after year we see stable patterns of responses, and there’s no reason to suspect that the non-response bias is different across institutions.  So if we see differences in satisfaction of ten or fifteen percent from one institution from another, most of us in the field are content to accept that finding.

So why is the Ministry’s approach so crazy when it’s just using the same one as every one else?  First of all, the stakes are completely different.  It’s one thing to be named an institution with low levels of student satisfaction.  It’s something completely different to be called the sexual assault capital of Ontario.  So accuracy matters a lot more.

Second, the differences between institutions are likely to be tiny.  We have no reason to believe a priori that rates differ much by institutions.  Therefore small biases in response patterns might alter the league table (and let’s be honest, even if Ontario doesn’t publish this as a league table, it will take the Star and the Globe about 30 seconds to turn it into one).  But we have no idea what the response biases might be and the government’s methodology makes no attempt to work that out.

Might people who have been assaulted be more likely to answer than those who did not?  If so, you’re going to get inflated numbers.  Might people have reasons to distort the results?  Might a Men’s Rights group encourage all its members to indicate they’d been assaulted to show that assault isn’t really a women’s issue?  With low response rates, it wouldn’t take many respondents to get that tactic to work.

The Government is never going to get accurate overall response rates from this approach.  They might, after repeated tries, start to see patterns in the data: sexual assault is more prevalent in institutions in large communities than in small ones, maybe; or it might happen more often to students in certain fields of study than others.  That might be valuable.  But if the first time the data is published all that makes the papers is a rank order of places where students are assaulted, we will have absolutely no way to contextualize the data, no way to assess its reliability or validity.

At best, if the data is reported system-wide, the data will be weak.  A better alternative would be to go with a smaller random sample and better incentives so as to obtain higher  response rates.  But if it remains a voluntary survey *and* there is some intention to publish on a campus-by campus basis, then it will be garbage.  And garbage data is a terrible way to support good policy objectives.

Someone – preferably with a better understanding of survey methodology – needs to put a stop to this idea.  Now.

February 22

Notes for the NDP Leadership Race

As contestants start to jump into the federal NDP leadership race, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts promising free tuition to all across the land.  Now, I’m not going to rehash why free tuition is both regressive and undesirable (though if you really want to take a gander through the archives on free tuition, have a look here).  But I do think I can do some public service by talking about federalism and higher education, or rather: what the feds can and cannot do in this sphere.

The entire Canadian constitution is based around a compromise on education dating from 1864.  Upper Canada came to the Quebec conference with one overriding aim: representation by population in Parliament, so that their superior population would give them the most seats in Parliament.  Lower Canada agreed if and only if a second, local, and equal tier of government was created which would have jurisdiction over education and health, because over-their-dead-bodies were a bunch of (mostly) Orangemen going to get their hands on a hallowed set of (mostly) French catholic institutions.

There’s nothing in there that stops Ottawa’s ability to give money to individuals for the purpose of education.  This is why, despite all the sturm und drang, Quebec never put up a legal fight to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation: Ottawa can give cash to whoever it wants, whenever it wants.  But when it comes to dealing with institutions, their ability to direct money to areas of provincial jurisdiction is subject to provincial veto.  The provinces accept (with limits, in Quebec’s case) that the feds can flow money to institutions for the purposes of academic research.  Hence the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  They do not accept that it can send money to institutions for operating purposes.

(Historical footnote: there was a period where nine out of ten of them were prepared to accept this.  Back in the mid-1950s, there was a ruse in which the federal government handed tens of millions of dollars every year (a lot back then) to Universities Canada – then known as the National Conference of Canadian Universities and Colleges – which it would then distribute to institutions.  In theory this was a canny work-around to the constitution.  In practice, it stalled because Duplessis blew a gasket and told Quebec universities that if they touched a dime of that money, he’d take it out of their provincial funding.  Pierre Elliott Trudeau then wrote a wonderful article in la Cite called “Federal Grants to Universities” explaining why Duplessis was 100% right and St. Laurent was in kookooland, constitutionally speaking.  It’s a great article, read it if you can.  Anyway, this arrangement lasted into the 1960s, when the feds got out of this arrangement and moved into per-capita grants instead.  And that door is now shut: there is no going back through it.)

Politically, there is a fantasy shared by some on the political left that the federal government can simply re-acquire policy leadership in the post-secondary field by passing an act of Parliament and adding great wodges of cash to existing transfers… with strings attached.  I’ve previously (here) torn a strip off the idea of a federal Post-Secondary Education Act, but let me focus here specifically on the idea that a generalized fiscal transfer could actually affect tuition fees.  Let’s just imagine how that discussion would go.

Ottawa: we want to give each of you money so that you bring your tuition fees to zero.  Quebec and Newfoundland, your fees are about $3000, so we’ll give you that per student…

Ontario: Our fees are $7500 a student or so.  Fork it over.

Quebec and Newfoundland: Hold it.

I could go on here about the nuances of fiscal federalism, but basically that’s the problem in a nutshell (for my American readers: in some less disastrous timeline, Hillary Clinton is facing exactly this problem as she attempts to implement her free tuition promise for public universities). There are ways the federal government could bribe provinces into lowering tuition.  In fact, something like that actually happened in Nova Scotia as a result of the NDP-Liberal budget deal in the minority Parliament of 2005.  But you wouldn’t necessarily get them to lower by an equal amount, and you definitely wouldn’t get them to go to zero because they have vastly different starting points.

So, here’s the quick heads-up to all prospective New Democrat leadership candidates: even if it wanted to, the Government of Canada has no sensible way to eliminate tuition nationally.  If you do manage to form a government, this will be broken promise #1.  So don’t promise it.  Instead, think about ways to support students which don’t involve tuition.  There is a whole whack of things you could do with student assistance instead.  And the best part is: if you use student aid as a tool instead of tuition, you can channel aid to those who actually need it most.

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