Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Uncategorized

September 06


Guys!  I’ve got it solved!  This whole funding thing!

You know how Liberal MPs are taking up the entire back-to-school season with on-campus announcements of Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) money?  It’s annoying, right?  I mean this is money isn’t some “favour” delivered through hard work and pork-barrelling by the local MP.  It’s technocratically-determined funding decided upon by a professional public service.  And yet all the universities and colleges have to go through this rigamarole, saying “thank you” to the local MP, and having pictures taken that can be used ad nauseam in local media.

OK, I get it.  Politicians need to get “credit”, and it’s not just about personal political advantage (though I suppose that never goes amiss).  It’s important that the public knows how their money is spent and media “events” help with that process.  To that extent, it’s perfectly legitimate.   But why is it legitimate for some types of spending and not others?  Why do the feds get these heaps of publicity for a few hundred million dollars when provinces hand out over a billion dollars a month every year?

That’s not a novel observation on my part, or anything.  Everyone has had this discussion of course.  It hasn’t exactly passed unnoticed that announcements of capital projects (especially ribbon-cuttings) get more fanfare than announcements of operating grants. And there’s a too-smug, too-certain line that everyone knows about how “if only we could do ribbon-cuttings for operating grants” then politicians would give money for that, too.

Now, there’s at least some truth to this.  Relative to operating grants, universities and colleges have been getting more money for capital these past fifteen years or so.  And presumably the ability to get good press out of announcing such funding has at least some small role to play in it.

But do we really know that we can’t hold media events for operating grant announcements?  Or have we just never tried?

I mean, clearly, the fact that the money has already been announced is no barrier to getting media out to events.  Every last dime of SIF has already been announced weeks ago.  Hell, last week the Science Minister showed up at Humber College to re-announce changes to the Canada Student Loans Plan that had not only been announced five months ago but which had actually gone into effect four weeks previously.  Timeliness and novelty are clearly not the issue.

Some people might say: “ah, well, you can’t announce operating grants because they aren’t new.”  But this is small-time thinking.  There’s almost always a part of the funding that is new, even if it’s only 1 or 2%.  And what that money is funding changes quite a bit every year.  One year it might be buying RECORD LEVELS OF ENROLLMENT, and in another SIXTY NEW PROFESSORS AND A NEW CENTER FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES.  Tie it in with some kind of re-announcement about new goals, multi-year agreements, whatever, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide news event.

Not a ribbon cutting, maybe, but a reason for provincial politicians and institutional officials to be pleasant to one another in public, to explain to the electorate what their money is buying, and have some photos taken.  And who knows?  If people are right that positive media is what begets more capital funding announcements, maybe it’ll help bring operating grants back up a bit too.

So come on, institutional government-relations types and provincial media-flack types.  It can’t be beyond your wit to organize some media for all that massive public investment.  Give it a try.  It can’t be any less legitimate than this interminable parade of SIF announcements to which we’re currently being subjected.

September 02

New Thoughts on Innovation Policy

A new book on innovation policy came out this summer from a guy by the name of Mark Zachary Taylor, who teaches at Georgia State.  The book is called The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries are Better Than Others at Science and Technology and to my mind it should be required reading for anyone interested in following Canada’s innovation debate.

First, things first: how does Taylor measure how “good” a country is at Science & Technology?  After all, there are lots of ways of measuring inputs to tech, but not many on the outputs side.  The measure Taylor selects is patents.  And yes, this is highly imperfect (though it does correlate reasonably well with other possible measures like multi-factor productivity), but Taylor doesn’t over-egg the data.  For most of the book, his interest is less in scoring countries and then using various types of regression analyses to come up with explanations for the scores; rather, he tends to group countries into fairly wide buckets (“Most innovative”, “mid-level innovative“, and “rapid innovators” showing rapid progress like Korea and Taiwan).  Canada – probably to the surprise of anyone who follows innovation policy in our country – comes up as one of the “most innovative” along with Japan, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. This may either be a sign of us being too tough on ourselves, or Taylor being out to lunch (I’m a bit unsure which, to be honest).

But put that aside: what’s important about this book is that it provides a good, critical tour d’horizon of the kinds of institutions that support innovation (research universities, patent protection, etc.) and explicitly rejects the idea that “good institutions” are enough to drive innovation forward.  This seems to me to be quite important.  Much of the innovation commentariat loves playing the game of “look-at-that-institution-in-a-country-I-think-does-better-than-us-we-should-really-have-one-of-those” (think Israel’s government-sponsored venture capital funds, for instance).  The riposte to this is usually “yeah, but that’s sui generis, the product of a very special set of political/institutional factors and would never work here”.  And that’s true as it goes, but Taylor goes a bit further than that.

First, he focuses on how open a country is to both inward and outward flows of knowledge and human capital.  Obviously, higher education plays some role here, but on an economy-wide basis, the real question is: are firms sufficiently well-networked that they can effectively hire abroad or learn about market opportunities in other countries?  Taiwan and Israel have worked this angle very effectively, cultivating ties with targeted groups in the United States and elsewhere (my impression is that Canada does not do this in anything near the same level – one wonders why not).

Second, Taylor doesn’t just stop at asking the question of how nations innovate (answer: they design domestic institutions and policies to lower transaction & information costs, distribute and reduce risk, and reduce market failures in innovation).  He also tries to get at the much more interesting question of why countries innovate.  Why do Finns innovate like mad and Norwegians not?  Why Taiwan not Philippines?  Or, for that matter, why the US and not us?  Institutions play some role here, but it’s not the whole story.  Culture matters.

Or, in Taylor’s telling: perceptions of internal and external threat matter.  His argument is that everywhere, the urge to innovate is countered by the wailings of bereavement from those who lose from technological innovation.  In many countries, the political power of losers is sufficient to create a drag on innovation.  Only in places where the country feels an existential threat (e.g. Israel, Taiwan) do political cultures feel they have the necessary social license to ignore the losers and give the innovators free rein.   Taylor calls this “creative insecurity”.

I have to say I don’t find this last bit entirely persuasive.  The bit about losers having too much power is warmed-over Mancur Olson with a tech-specific focus (Taylor goes to some length to say it’s not, but really it is). and while the second part is a plausible explanation for  some places -Singapore, say – his attempt at formalization requires some serious torquing of the data (Finland cannot credibly be described as being under external threat) and/or some very odd historical interpretations (Taylor’s view that Israel was under greater external threat after 1967 than before it would probably not be accepted by many mid-east specialists).

That said, it arguably does explain Canada.  Our resource base gives us an undeniable cushion that other advanced countries lack.  We lack external threats (and since the late-90s we lack internal ones too).  Frankly, we’re just not hungry enough to be top-of-the-pack.  Even in parts of the country that should be hungry – Nova Scotia, for example – there’s simply not that much appetite to sacrifice dollars spent on social policy to make investments in innovation. See, for instance, the carping over Dalhousie’s participation in the MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program.

Say it softly: as a country, we might not be cut out for this innovation stuff.  Sure, we like spending money on gee-whizzy tech things and pretending we’re at the cutting edge of this, that or the other, but it’s a long way from that to actually being innovative.  Innovation is tough.  Innovation causes pain and requires sacrifice.  But Canadians prefer comfort to sacrifice:  we can’t get rid of harmful dairy monopolies, our national dress is fleece, etc.

Anyways, read the book.  And have a great weekend.

September 01

Reminder: Hot Jobs and Hot Careers Never Last

There was an interesting piece in the National Post last week about unemployed professionals in the Alberta oil and gas industry.  In amidst the occasional whine about the oil industry being so unloved by the rest Canada, there is a serious article about what happens to people in specialized professions when the economic tide swings away from that profession.  Some quotes:

Philip Mulder, spokesman for the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), said its geoscientists are faring badly in the current climate because they are predominantly employed in oil and gas…PetroLMI/ENFORM, which tracks labour market trends in the sector, said 145,000 people worked directly in oil and gas extraction, pipelines and services in the province on average in the first four months of 2016, down from 176,000 during 2014. Meanwhile, 17,300 were unemployed on average during the first four months of 2016, up from 6,500 during 2014. The rest left the industry by moving elsewhere or to other sectors, retiring, going back to school.

Lemiski, 33, studied for eight years at the University of Alberta to earn a degree in geology and a master’s in earth and atmospheric sciences.  He started his career six years ago as an exploration geologist at Talisman Energy Inc., but was laid off when the company ran into financial difficulties and cut its exploration program. He found work at Nexen Inc., owned by China’s CNOOC Ltd., as a petrophysicist, but that didn’t last long and he was back on the street in March.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Times are obviously tough for professionals in this industry and it’s hard not to sympathize with people whose profession is vanishing under their feet.  But let me simply point out that this situation could have been predicted by anyone a) with half a brain and b) who remembers what the early 1990s recession was like in Alberta.  Cyclical industries are just that – cyclical.  They rise and they fall.  That’s fine until people forget that both are equally likely.

And of course, the top of a boom is precisely where people tend to forget that.  One of many examples: the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2011, saying Canada would need 6,000 geophysicists to deal with retirements between now and 2020.  Here’s a Petroleum Labour Market Information report saying that the country wasn’t training enough people, and predicting that there would be a shortfall of 1500-200 geologists and geophysicists in Alberta alone by 2022. And so of course there was a drumbeat across the west:  why weren’t those out-of-touch universities doing more to graduate more geologists?

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened of course. Back in the late 1990s the Ontario government fell for the pitch of the IT industry that there simply had to be more computer science graduates in the province or woe, disaster, earthquakes, pestilence, etc.  So the Harris government, which had hitherto done nothing but cut the bejesus out of Ontario universities, decided to spend millions to “double the pipeline” in computer sciences (i.e. double the intake of students in order to double the number of graduates).  Ontario universities took the money and implemented the plan, which delivered a record number of graduates… who hit the job market in 2002, right in the middle of the worst tech bust in history.  Cue thousands of underemployed Engineers, at least for a few years.

My point here is not that universities should ignore the labour market.  That would be silly; most students attend university to get a better job, and ignoring the labour market is tantamount to malpractice.  My point, rather, is that one has to be extremely careful about trying to time the market by shifting enrollment into specific programs.  Any job that’s in high demand today has good chances of looking very different in five years – the time it takes to design a program and get a new boatload of students through it.  All you end up with are a lot of disappointed and underemployed students.

Pay attention to long-term trends?  Certainly.  Short-term booms?  As little as possible.  Even in Alberta.

August 30

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 1)

As the school year starts, it’s always valuable to take a look at trends in incoming students.  The best tool we have for that in Canada for doing this is the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium’s triennial survey of first-year students (the most recent version is here.  It’s not the greatest of instruments: consortium membership changes from cycle to cycle, so the base population is neither equal to the national first-year population nor stable from cycle to cycle.  But since Statistics Canada is now declining to do any surveys at all of enrolled students, it’s all we’ve got, and by and large, participating institutions are reasonably representative of the country as a whole.  There’s also a problem with CUSC occasionally changing the wording of the questions, thus making time series somewhat difficult – but then again, this is an aggravating habit that Statscan has in spades.  So, with all those difficulties acknowledged, let’s begin.

Here’s my favourite chart, on the theme of visible minorities (a subject I tackled a few months ago):

Figure 1: Visible Minority Students as a Share of all First-year students, 2001-2016


Now part of the increase comes from the way this value is calculated.  The question used to simply be: “are you a visible minority?”’; it now asks directly about ethnicity and infers visible minority status on that basis (basically, if you do not declare yourself as white or aboriginal, you are considered “visible minority”).  So part of the increase may have to do with a change in the question phrasing.  But still, this is pretty impressive.  Even if you take out all the international students (not all of whom are visible minority), you’re talking 33% of all students (compared to just 22% of all Canadians 15-24%) being visible minority.  That would make Canada possibly the only country in the world where visible minorities have that kind of advantage.

Here’s another intriguing time series where the phrasing of the question makes an enormous difference: students with disabilities.

Figure 2: Percentage of Students Indicating they Have a Disability, 2001-2016


The jump in the last three years is definitely due to the way the question was posed.  In all previous years, the question was “do you have a disability”?  In 2016, the question specifically referenced nine different kinds of disability (including learning disability, which accounted for over half the responses). It then asked if the disability was serious enough to require the university to provide accommodation.  Only 32% of those listing disabilities – or 7% of all students – said yes, which brings us back down to the range of previous years.  Moral: how you ask a question matters a lot.

On to socio-economic background, which this survey measures via parents’ educational background.  This time series is a bit messed up because CUSC changed the wording of the question this year (formerly, the survey asked about each parent separately, now it just asks about “parents’” highest level).  But here goes:

Figure 3: Percentage of Students’ Parents Possessing a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher


It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these results.  Since children tend to hit university about 30 years after their parents do, this graph is to some extent just reflecting the expansion of access to university in the 70s and 80s.  But that’s not quite the whole story.  According to the census, in 2001, 17% of adults aged 45-64 possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher; in 2011 it was 21% (I know, I know, National Household Survey – but still).  So it appears as if more recent cohorts of first year students are slightly more likely to come from better-educated households than their predecessors, which is not a particularly good finding.

More tomorrow.

August 29

Welcome Back

Morning everyone.

We’re back for another term.  I hope everyone’s summer went well.  Let’s get started.

First, a quick round-up of the major events since I was last in the Daily blog business: on August 1, the new Canada Student Grants program came into effect, with all grants now 50% larger than they used to be (the offsetting bad news, the loss of a whole bunch of tax credits, kicks in on January 1).   The big Ontario scheme doesn’t kick in this year, but the New Brunswick Tuition Assistance Bursary (TAB) started at the same time as the federal program.  There’s a new Minister for Advanced Education in New Brunswick who has been given a mandate to re-engineer the TAB so that it’s design isn’t quite so cockamamie; that’s great news, but no word yet on if/when/how such a re-engineering might take place.

The new government in Ottawa hasn’t quite left its hyperactive phase, and so the government has been conducting two big consultations of note this summer, one on innovation policy and one on science policy.  The Innovation policy increasingly looks to me like a go-nowhere exercise, mainly because the Minister himself seems to have a very difficult time distinguishing “innovation” from “glitzy tech things”. Universities, of course, won’t mind this policy confusion (and may indeed be actively abetting it) because, if the government is going to be handing out money for glitzy tech things they’re going to be pretty close to the front of the line, regardless of what happens to actual innovation.

(An aside: I don’t have time to get into this now, but absolutely everyone interested in innovation policy  – especially our esteemed Minister – needs to go out and buy Mark Zachary Taylor’s The Politics of Innovation.  I’ll come back to this book later this week but suffice to say it’s a fantastic and important read.).

The other big issue in Ottawa this summer has been the increasingly weird and disturbing management flame-out at the Canadian Institute of Health Research.  Other granting councils are also dealing with stable-ish budgets (last year’s budget boost was welcome but in real dollars budgets are still below where they were in 2009) and increasing application rates, which are leading to ever-decreasing project success rates.  But only CIHR has chosen to deal with these challenges by simultaneously changing the criteria of its main funding programs AND pilotinga whole new adjudication system whose raison d’etre appears to be to avoid every piece of known good practice in terms of evaluating scientific proposals.  I’m not an expert on this stuff, so I urge you to read someone who is: Jim Woodgett, the Director of Research for the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute (for instance, this piece  and this one too).  How CIHR President Alain Beaudet has kept his job through all this nonsense is frankly a bit of a mystery; but the Minister’s office now seems to be aware of the scale of the catastrophe and so a trip to the high jump may not be far off.

Overseas the big news is mostly in the UK (Brexit and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, subjects to which I’ll return over the next couple of weeks).  Hillary Clinton made a campaign promise to ensure that 85% of American students can attend a public university tuition-free, but it isn’t getting lot of press because almost nobody believes it’ll ever happen.  Still, we seem to be in a moment where governments (Ontario, Chile, the US) are increasingly interested in making higher education explicitly free for low and middle-income students.  We’ll see who else follows that trend in the next few months.

Finally, I have one small announcement to make with respect to this blog.  As y’all know, providing the reading public with expert commentary (well, commentary anyway) is a bit of a time sink.  But also, thanks to Statistics Canada’s cost-recovery policies, it’s a money sink as well.  I know many if not most of you dig this blog primarily for the data analyses – and I prefer writing data-pieces to think pieces – but the costs of obtaining that data are getting higher all the time. 

I’ve never really tried to monetize this blog the way Academica’s Top Ten does with its job posting thing; it seems like a hassle and it annoys some readers.  But equally, I can’t really justify blowing money on the blog either, and I need about $2500/year to get the data necessary to keep the interesting stats pieces coming.  So at some point in the next few weeks, I am going to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise that amount.  If you like the data work I do and think it’s valuable for policy discussions in Canadian higher education, please consider donating.   There will be tchotchkes.

That’s it.  Have a great term everyone.


August 17

Measuring Teaching Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth a try, surely.

August 10

Ontario’s Quiet Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 16

Ciao for Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

June 06

Non-profit Islands in a For-Profit Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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