Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Now Reading

Book reviews, responses to articles, etc.

October 16

A Guide to Canadian Campuses, 30 Years On

On Saturday, I spent a lovely morning at Mount Allison talking to their Board of Governors.  Afterwards, I scooted across the Nova Scotia border to Amherst, which is home to Amy’s, one of Canada’s most remarkable used bookstores.  There I found a host of historical higher ed treasures (had to make a quick trip to Giant Tiger to buy a bag to get them all on the plane home), the most amusing of which was Linda Frum’s Guide to Canadian Universities, which – to the utter horror of the Canadian university sector – was published 30 years ago last month.

If you weren’t there in the late 1980s, you’ll have no idea about this book or its impact.  It was a bible for hundreds of thousands of university-bound kids.  Pre-internet, pre-rankings, how else could you find out about ALL THE UNIVERSITIES in one convenient place for the low price of $14.95?  And, packed as it was in bitchy, knowing sarcasm, it felt like it was delivering the straight dope in a way that no metrics-laden ranking exercise ever could.  Not that Frum’s dope was necessarily accurate.  Her research mostly consisted of spending a day on each campus and chatting to one or two senior admins and clutches of undergraduates over lunch in a cafeteria or java in a coffee shop.  Superficial, sure, but hundreds of times more informative than anything else available at the time.

Now, there is lots wrong with this book.  Its mere existence is an indictment of the closed nature of Canadian publishing (who asks an unknown 24 year old to write a major book and name it eponymously unless they are the offspring of a famous broadcaster?).  And it carries a huge whiff of Toronto snobbery, particularly towards smaller universities.  But in its way, it’s genius, and a quick re-read today is worth an hour or two of your time, for three reasons.

The first is that as a period piece it captures some aspects of university life that we’ve nearly completely forgotten today.  The most interesting one has to do with entrance averages, which were clearly – contrary to the way most people seem to remember it – a whole heck of a lot lower then than they are now (the description for York, for instance, ends with “if you want to live a little, and you can afford it, you’d be smart to take your 70 to Acadia, St. FX, Dalhousie, Memorial, UNB or Trent.”)  The occasional comment about having to wait a month to see first-run movies in Halifax, or the pulling power of student unions to attract up-and-coming music acts (Billy Idol played Brock Student Union?) speak to a very different, pre-Internet, entertainment culture that is mostly forgotten.


The second is that while the book is very often completely unfair (not surprisingly given its research methods), it is nonetheless hysterically funny.  No one write this way about higher education any more, and it’s a shame because it’s very engaging to the non-specialists.  My favourites:

“When people say McGill is a great institution, they really mean is that Montreal is a great city. Put McGill in Tuktoyaktuk and they wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic”

“Queen’s students are absolutely head over heels in love with their school, not to mention themselves”.

“If only to keep up appearances, Western has a faculty”

The third and final reason to re-read it is to reflect on what has and hasn’t changed in Canada in thirty years.  Change the names of which on- or near-campus bars and restaurants are “hot”, and double (or in some cases triple) the enrolment numbers at each university, and a lot of this book still seems pretty accurate, which speaks to how durable institutional cultures and reputations are.  That said, some things do change: I’m pretty sure Acadia is no longer the preppy haven it was in 1987, and the description of UBC is completely jarring (“Before OPEC, no matter what UBC did it couldn’t help being the best school west of the Ontario border; now, UBC is a great Canadian university on its way down…the best professors and graduate students are deserting to accept higher salaries over the Rockies”).

One thing I really remember from that time is how much universities hated the book.  The principal criticism was that it was too subjective.  If only we could have some *real* analysis of institutions – you know with facts and data and stuff.  Four years later, Maclean’s came out.  Universities hated it.  Didn’t contextualize institutions enough.  Moral of the story: there’s no way to both compare universities and make them happy unless you conclude they are all brilliant.  Worth keeping in mind when reading criticisms of institutional comparisons.

And do read Linda Frum’s Guide to Canadian Universities if you can find a copy.  An entertaining trip down memory lane no matter what you think of it.


October 05

Why Companies Value(d) Higher Education

I recently read the book A Perfect Mess: the Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Larabee.  It’s very good – in fact, the first two chapters are for my money the best short history of pre-1900 American higher education ever written.  I’m going to refer to this book a few times over the next couple of weeks.  But today, I want to talk about an engaging little passage he penned about how business came to view college (that is, American “college”, our universities) as an indispensable pre-requisite to white collar jobs.

There was a time, of course, where this wasn’t the case.  Well after the Civil War, medicine and law remained jobs filled through apprenticeship rather than something that required higher education.  Andrew Carnegie famously said he had known few young men who were not injured by a higher education system that stamped the fire and energy out of them.  The conversion of men like Carnegie into boosters rather than detractors was key to higher education becoming a mass phenomenon.  If business had kept that attitude, the system today would look completely different (mainly, it would be much, much smaller).

So what was it that changed?  According to Larabee, business leaders came to appreciate college because of changes both in the structure of higher education and the structure of business.  Business changed because management – that is, the general ability to apply verbal and cognitive skills to organizations problems – became more important.  And higher education provided this training in three ways.

First, the importation of German ideas about how to run universities led to an increased emphasis on giving students broad assignments which they would need to work out on their own.  This gave graduates experience with the kind of autonomy and problem-solving needed in the modern workplace.  Second, the need to navigate the complex formal and informal social, academic and administrative hierarchies of the university gave graduates the skills needed to navigate the similarly complicated hierarchies of modern corporations.  Third, the socialization process that colleges put students through to promote institutional loyalty (the arrival of intercollegiate sports at the turn of the twentieth century was a big help here) was also important: businesses value loyalty highly.

It’s a persuasive theory, and I think it also speaks to what may be wrong in the college/business interface in the present-day as well.  If you look at universities, they’re still training and socializing students much as they always did: problem-solving, hierarchy-navigating, and loyalty-inducing (granted, that third one has been much more prominent in American and Japanese institutions than it has elsewhere, but the point is this hasn’t become any less important over time no matter what the starting baseline).  But business has changed.  Partly, it’s about speed but I would argue it is more about permeability.  In an age of flatter corporate hierarchies, young trainees are required to deal at a fairly early stage to deal with actors outside the companies in order to get things done.  They are doing front-line sales and communications more often.  They are dealing with external suppliers more often.  Success in the new business world relies not simply on navigating the internal environment, it requires a lot more horizontal networking and engaging with external hierarchies.

And this, I would argue, is something higher education – be it in colleges or universities – hasn’t yet figured out how to impart.  And it’s not entirely clear that the Work Integrated Learning fad du jour is a solution, since all that really does is transpose a student temporarily from one hierarchy to another.  (To be clear: I’m not saying WIL isn’t valuable, I’m just saying it doesn’t solve this particular problem).

I should emphasize that I’m not carping here.  It’s not obvious to me how universities could actually give students this kind of experience, and many may well say either that it’s impossible or that they shouldn’t try.  Fair enough.  But just remember that if institutions can’t perform their training/socializing role to employers’ satisfaction, there’s no reason to think higher education will continue to receive the public support it currently does, either.

Given that, working out how to give students those kinds of experiences – either in class or through extra-curricular activity – is probably worth a ponder.

September 21

Flagship Universities vs World-Class Universities

Almost since the “world-class” university paradigm was established fifteen years ago, the concept has faced a backlash.  The concept was too focussed on research production, it was unidimensional, it took no account of universities’ other missions, etc. etc.  Basically the argument was that if people took the world class university concept seriously, we would have a university monoculture that ignored many important facets of higher education.

The latest iteration of this backlash comes in the form of the idea of “flagship universities”, promoted in the main by John Aubrey Douglass, a higher education expert at UC Berkeley.  Douglass’ idea is essentially that what the world needs is not more “world-class” universities – which he dismisses as being overly focussed on the production of research – but more “flagship” universities.  What’s the difference?  Well, “flagship” universities are – essentially – world class universities with a commitment to teaching top undergraduate students, to providing top-level professional education and to a mission of civic engagement, outreach and economic development.  Basically, all flagship universities are world-class universities, but not vice-versa.  They are world-class universities with a heart, essentially.

Or, that’s what promoters of a “flagship concept” would have you believe.  I would argue the concept is simply one of American academic colonialism, driven by a simplistic belief that all systems would be better if only they all had their own Morrill ActsWisconsin Ideas, and California Master Plans.

If you read Douglass’ book on the matter, it’s quite plain that when he says “flagship university” he means roughly the top 20 or so US public universities – Cal, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, etc.  And those are without question great universities and for the most part appropriate to the settings in which they exist.  But as a guiding concept for universities around the world, it’s at least as inappropriate as “world class” universities if not more because it assumes that these quintessentially American models will or should work more or less anywhere.

Start with the idea that to be a flagship university you have to have excellent research output.  That takes out nearly all of Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Russia and Latin America, just as the “world class” concept does.  Then you must have a research culture with full academic freedom, freedom of expression, etc (say goodbye to China and the rest of Russia).  You must also have a commitment to combine undergraduate and professional education and to a highly selective intake process for both (adieu France, auf wiedersehen, Germany), and a commitment to community outreach in the way Americans think of it (sayonara Japan, annyeong Korea).

What’s left?  Universities in anglophone countries, basically.  Plus Scandinavia and the Netherlands.  That’s it.  But if you then add in the requirement that flagships are supposed to be at the top of an explicit system of higher education institutions (a la California Master Plan), then to some degree you lose everyone except maybe Norway.

Douglass is undoubtedly right in saying the world-class universities are – in practice if not in theory – a pretty reductive view of higher education (though in defence of the group in Shanghai who came with the concept, it’s fair to say they thought of it as a benchmarking tool not a policy imperative).  But while the flagship concept cannot be called reductive, even more so than the “world-class concept” it is culturally specific and not readily exportable outside of its home context.

Universities around the world are descended from different traditions.  The governments that pay for them and regulate them have legitimately different conceptions of what they are supposed to achieve and how they are supposed to achieve it.  People happen to have got worked up about “world-class” research universities because research happens to be the only part of university outputs that can be measured with in a way which is half-way useful, quantitatively speaking.  The problem lies not with the measurement of research outputs, and not even with the notion of institutions competing with one another, but rather with the notion that there is a single standard for excellence.

The flagship universities vs. world-class universities debate, at heart, is simply an argument about which single standard to use.  Those of us in North America might prefer the flagship model because it speaks to our historic experience and prejudices.  But that’s no reason to think anyone should adopt it, too.

April 10

Evaluating Teaching

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) put out an interesting little piece the week before last summarizing the problems with student evaluations of teaching.  It contains reasonable summary of the literature and I thought some of it would be worth looking at here.

We’ve known for awhile now that the results of student evaluations are statistically biased in various ways.  Perhaps the most important way they are biased is that professors who mark more leniently get higher rankings from their students.  There is also the issue of what appears to be discrimination: female professors and visible minority professors tend to get lower ratings than white men.  And then there’s the point that OCUFA makes with respect to the comments section of these evaluations being a hotbed of statements which amount to harassment.  These points are all well worth making.

One might well ask: given that we all know about the problems with teaching evaluations, why in God’s name do institutions still use them?  Fair question.  Three hypotheses:

  1. Despite flaws in the statistical measurement of teaching, the comments actually do provide helpful feedback, which professors use to improve their teaching.
  2. When it comes to pay and promotion, research is weighted far more highly than teaching, so unless someone completely tanks their teaching evals – and by tanking I mean doing so much below par that it can’t reasonably be attributed to one of the biases listed above – they don’t really matter all that much (note: while this probably holds for tenured and tenure-track profs, I suspect the stakes are higher for sessionals).
  3. No matter how bad a measurement instrument they are, the idea that one wouldn’t treat student opinions seriously is totally untenable, politically.

In other words, there are benefits despite the flaws, the consequences of flaws might not be as great as you think, and to put it bluntly, it’s not clear what the alternative is.  At least with student evaluations you can maintain the pretense that teaching matters to pay and promotion.  Kill those, and what have you got?  People already think professors don’t care enough about teaching.  Removing the one piece of measurement and accountability for teaching that exists in the system – no matter how flawed – is simply not on.

That’s not to say there aren’t alternatives to measuring teaching.  One could imagine a system of peer evaluation, where professors rate one another.  Or one could imagine a system where the act of teaching and the act of marking are separated – and teachers are rated on how well their students perform.  It’s not obvious to me that professors would prefer such a system.

Besides, it’s not as though the current system can’t be redeemed.  Solutions exist.  If we know that easy markers get systematically better ratings, then normalize ratings based on the class average mark.  Same thing for gender and race: if you know what the systematic bias looks like, you can correct for it.  And as for ugly stuff in the comments section, it’s hardly rocket science to have someone edit the material for demeaning comments prior to handing it to the prof in question.

There’s one area where the OCUFA commentary goes beyond the evidence however, and that’s in trying to translate the findings of student teaching evaluations (ie. how did Professor X do in Class Y) to surveys of institutional satisfaction.  The argument they make here is that because the one is known to have certain biases, the other should never be used to make funding decisions.  Now, without necessarily endorsing the idea of using student satisfaction as a funding metric, this is terrible logic. The two types of questionnaires are entirely different, ask different questions, and simply are not subject to the same kinds of biases.  It is deeply misleading to imply otherwise.

Still, all that said, it’s good that this topic is being brought into the spotlight.   Teaching is the most important thing universities do.  We should have better ways of measuring its impact.  If OCUFA can get us moving along that path, more power to them.

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.


December 15

Books of the Year

I read a lot of books.  My guess is most of you do, too.  Here are the best ones on related to higher education which I read in 2016.

The year started with a lot of hype about the “4th Industrial Revolution”, a meme propagated by the Davos Crowd and which is meant to get us all in a chin-stroking mood about the future of work (and by extension, education).  There was even a book by Davos CEO Klaus Schwab, called The Fourth Industrial Revolution.  It’s garbage.   A grab-bag of new industries, no matter how gee-whizzy, does not a revolution make.  There is no fourth industrial revolution, and people who use this term should be publicly shamed.

Slightly more interesting on the pop econ side were a bunch of books from 2015: Martin Ford’s Rise of the RobotsJerry Kaplan’s Humans Need not Apply, Susskind and Susskind’s The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human ExpertsOf these, the Susskinds’ book is the only one that  deals with the issue sensibly, as it points out that, strictly speaking, robots replace human tasks not human jobs, and that jobs are going to increasingly be re-designed to focus on tasks that computers cannot do.  For the most part, those jobs are going to be ones requiring understanding of context and empathy (higher education, take note).

It was also a year to read about innovation policies.  I wrote approvingly back here  about The Politics of Innovation, which made the bold statement that countries need to perceive some kind of external threat in order to adopt consistently pro-innovation policies (comfortable, fleece-wearing Canadians, take note).  But there was another, much more technical book on innovation from a Canadian scholar (Jingjing Huo of the University of Waterloo) called How Nations Innovate: The Political Economy of Technological Innovation in Affluent Capitalist Economies.  This book reminded me a lot of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, mainly because it uses the same shtick of running a lot of regression analyses on various types of data on OECD countries.  It’s interesting, and I certainly appreciated how Huo handled issues regarding the relationship between varieties of capitalism (co-ordinated v. laissez-faire) and varieties of innovation (process vs. product), but at the end of the day you have to believe that regression on 30 or so observations are meaningful, and I’m not sold on that.  Still, definitely one for innovation policy wonks to read if they haven’t already.

Related to issues of innovation generally were books about economic clusters and emerging industries.  Of these, the two that mattered were The Smartest Place on Earth: Why Rustbelts are Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation by Antoine van Agtmael, Fred Bakker and Christopher Lane, and Steven Klepper’s Experimental Capitalism: the Nanoeconomics of American High-Tech Industries.  The former is a lot more positive about the role of universities in clusters than the latter, but a lot of the “success” factors for university-based clusters still come down to “there’s a cluster champion with some magic fairy dust”.  Alex Ross’ Industries of the Future is an OK airplane read but I doubt anyone will remember it five years from now.

On the history of education front, there was Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities which is an enormous act of scholarship but not exactly a page-turner.  For a somewhat racier read (the term is relative) have a peek at James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origin of the Modern Humanities.  John Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University was meh (if American higher ed history is your thing, stick to Roger Geiger and John Thelin).   But maybe the best one I read all year was Tamson Pietsch’s Empire of Scholars: Universities, networks and the British academic world 1850-1939 which is a really well-done short (academic authors, take note) history which illuminates the way in which the settler universities of the British Dominions were intimately linked to one another through personal scholarly connections.

I read more books than I care to remember on global access and admissions systems.  The only one I can recommend for a general audience is College Admissions for the 21st Century Admissions, by Cornell University’s Robert J Sternberg, which details his work developing new types of testing to get at students attributes such as creativity and wisdom.  Lesson Plan, by Mike McPherson and (the since-deceased) Bill Bowen is a decent tour d’horizon of current US policy debates.  A.J. Angulo’s Diploma Mills is a very good short (again!) history of US for-profit education.  William Massy’s Re-Engineering the University is a very, very good book about financial management in universities which deserves an awful lot more attention than it has received.  If it had been this book that had gone viral in Canadian university administration five years ago rather than Dickerson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, we’d probably all be in better shape than we are today.

I do need to give a shout-out to one quite excellent work which almost no one in North America has read or will read, and that is Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education, which is hands down the best book to come out of any “developing country” on higher education in the last five years.  It’s a collection of pieces edited by Nico Cloete and Peter Maassen from work in the HERANA project, which is itself a genius project.  And from Routledge, the new book on University Rankings edited by Ellen Hazlekorn entitled Global Rankings and the Geo-politics of Higher Education is genuinely the best book ever written on the subject.  Yes, OK, I have a chapter in it and I would say that – but I genuinely think my co-contributors (including St. FX President Kent MacDonald) put me in the shade and it’s a great volume from start to finish.

But my number one book of the year?  It’s Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price.  Not because I agree with her conclusions, which involve making public 4-year universities tuition-free (I think that’s defensible for some 2-year programs, but deeply regressive at the 4-year level).  But rather because she has done such an incredible job bringing to life how tiny details of student aid policy can make such an enormous difference to the lives of students who depend on the system for money.   Her blend of research, policy and anecdote is extremely good, the stories of students trying their best to succeed in post-secondary education are inspiring, and her explanations of the minutiae of student aid policy are clear and concise.

Goldrick-Rab’s views on free tuition seem to be driven in part by frustration at all the petty problems inherent in student aid, and there’s a desire here cut through the brambles and do something radical.  What’s interesting though, is to compare her complaints about the US system to the actual reality of the Canadian system which – though far from perfect – has actually addressed many of the problems she confronts.  In particular, her view that universal benefits are preferable to targeted ones because “programs for the poor are usually poor programs” is directly contradicted in the Canadian case by things like the massively pro-low-income overhaul to student aid that we saw in Canada/Ontario earlier this year (see here and here).

But this is a quibble.  Goldrick-Rab wrote a page-turning best-seller about student aid.  I’ve been in the student aid business a long time and never thought this possible.  It’s a great book: read it.

March 31

The Development of Post-Secondary Education Systems in Canada

This is the title of a recent-ish book (subtitle: a comparison between British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, 1980-2010) edited, and largely written by Don Fisher and Kjell Rubenson of UBC, Teresa Shanahan of York U, and Claude Trottier of Université Laval.  Despite a couple of significant faults, it’s well worth a read.

The book’s main strengths are the three chapters that act as histories of each of the titular provinces.  We haven’t had a really decent history of Canadian higher education since Donald Cameron’s More Than an Academic Question, which came out almost 25 years ago now, and so this is a welcome addition.  (OK, it’s missing the other seven provinces, but these three provinces are 80% of the system, so that’s not too shabby.)  These chapters are thorough, detailed, and do a reasonably good job of mixing narrative storytelling with data analysis.  That’s no mean feat.

Where the book falls down (to some extent, anyway) is on two points, in particular: the analysis of accessibility, and the analysis of what they call marketization and neoliberalism.

First, on accessibility.  It’s pretty clear from the text that accessibility is defined entirely in terms of tuition fees.  Their look at student aid is superficial.  In particular, the insistence on comparing Quebec’s efforts to other provinces without taking into account the Canada Student Loans Program indicates they don’t understand the system very well.  (There’s a similar problem on R&D and the role of granting councils – the absence of a section on federal policy occasionally makes it difficult to understand what actually happened.)

What the authors do instead, in contravention of nearly all the international literature, is make a distinction between accessibility (i.e., fees) and “participation” – which is what everyone else would call accessibility.  They proceed to do two things: first, they directly compare combined college/university participation rates across the three provinces without mentioning the fact that PSE in Quebec lasts five years, while in the other provinces it’s four years.  This makes Quebec look slightly better than the other provinces, which most analysts would say is not entirely warranted.  Second, they are then surprised (really?) that even with this juking of the stats, participation rates in QC are not higher then they “should” be, given the tuition differences.  This suggests a view of access/participation that is particularly one-dimensional, and not informed by much actual literature on the subject.

And yet the issue of fees is a central one in this book.  At least one of the book’s authors – my guess would be Fisher – is really desperate to make as much hay as possible out of “marketization” in higher education, and then use this as evidence of a “neoliberalism” in which “competition” and higher fees are believed to be a spur to quality.  And while there are definitely people out there who believe this trope, the evidence that anyone in either Ontario or BC ever believed it is pretty thin (in fact, both governments introduced new external monitoring bodies to oversee quality assurance).  Yes, the Harris Tories and Campbell Liberals both allowed tuition fees to rise (as did the the NDP and Liberals in Ontario, albeit at slower rates), but allowing tuition fees to rise and “marketization” (let alone “neoliberalism”) are not one and the same thing.

There are lots of goods for which government shares costs with individuals: public transit, for instance.  The province and city put in some dough, but individuals have to pay to use the service.  Over the past couple of decades, costs have risen.  In 2005, here in Toronto, I could get on the TTC for $2.50.  Now, it’s $3.25, a 30% increase in nominal terms.  Now, if I went around telling everyone we had a neoliberal transit system because of a change in costs – irrespective of how much each government puts into the service – people would think I was mental.  Yet that’s effectively what this book argues with respect to higher education, to its distinct discredit.

So, the history is good, but the analysis ranges from decent to terrible.  Still, I urge you to pick up this book if you’re a Canadian higher ed buff.  It’s worth it, flaws and all.

January 29

Asleep at the Switch…

… is the name of a new(ish) book by Bruce Smardon of York University, which looks at the history of federal research & development policies over the last half-century.  It is a book in equal measures fascinating and infuriating, but given that our recent change of government seems to be a time for re-thinking innovation policies, it’s a timely read if nothing else.

Let’s start with the irritating.  It’s fairly clear that Smardon is an unreconstructed Marxist (I suppose structuralist is the preferred term nowadays, but this is York, so anything’s possible), which means he has an annoying habit of dropping words like “Taylorism” and “Fordism” like crazy, until you frankly want to hurl the book through a window.  And it also means that there are certain aspects of Canadian history that don’t get questioned.  In Smardon’s telling, Canada is a branch-plant economy, always was a branch-plant economy, and ever shall be one until the moment where the state (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) has the cojones to stand up to international capital and throw its weight around, after which it can intervene to decisively and effectively restructure the economy, making it more amenable to being knowledge-intensive and export-oriented.

To put it mildly, this thesis suffers from the lack of a serious counterfactual.  How exactly could the state decisively rearrange the economy so as to make us all more high-tech?  The best examples he gives are the United States (which achieved this feat through massive defense spending) and Korea (which achieved it by handing over effective control of the economy to a half-dozen chaebol).  Since Canada is not going to become a military superpower and is extremely unlikely to warm to the notion of chaebol, even if something like that could be transplanted here (it can’t), it’s not entirely clear to me how Smardon expects something like this to happen, in practice.  Occasionally, you get a glimpse of other solutions (why didn’t we subsidize the bejesus out of the A.V. Roe corporation back in the 1960s?  Surely we’d be an avionics superpower by now if we had!), but most of these seem to rely on some deeply unrealistic notions about the efficiency of government funding and procurement as a way to stimulate growth.  Anyone remember Fast Ferries?  Or Bricklin?

Also – just from the perspective of a higher education guy – Smardon’s near-exclusive focus on industrial research and development is puzzling.  In a 50-year discussion of R&D, Smardon essentially ignores universities until the mid-1990s, which seems to miss quite a bit of relevant policy.  Minor point.  I digress.

But now on to the fascinating bit: whatever you think of Smardon’s views about economic restructuring, his re-counting of what successive Canadian governments have done over the past 50 years to make the Canadian economy more innovative and knowledge-intensive is really quite astounding.  Starting with the Glassco commission in the early 1960s, literally every government drive to make the country more “knowledge-intensive” or “innovative” (the buzzwords change every decade or two) has taken the same view: if only publicly-funded researchers (originally this meant NRC, now it means researchers in university) could get their acts together and talk to industry and see what their problems are, we’d be in high-tech heaven in no time.  But the fact of the matter is, apart from a few years in the 1990s when Nortel was rampant, Canadian industry has never seemed particularly interested in becoming more innovative, and hence why we perennially lag the entire G7 with respect to our record on business investment in R&D.

You don’t need to buy Smardon’s views about the potentially transformative role of the state to recognize that he’s on to something pretty big here.  One is reminded of the dictum about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.  Clearly, even if better co-ordination of public and private research efforts is a necessary condition for swifter economic growth, it’s not a sufficient one.  Maybe there are other things we need to be doing that don’t fit into the Glassco framework.

At the very least, seems to me that if we’re going to re-cast our R&D policies any time soon, this is a point worth examining quite thoroughly, and Smardon has done us all a favour by pointing this out.

Bon weekend.

December 10

Reports, Books, and CUDO

It’s getting close to that time of year when I need to sign off for the holidays (tomorrow will be the last blog until January 4th).  So before then, I thought it would be worth quickly catching up on a few things.

Some reports you may have missed.  A number of reports have come out recently that I have been meaning to review.  Two, I think, are of passing note:

i) The Alberta Auditor-general devoted part of his annual report (see pages 21-28) to the subject of risk-management of cost-recovery and for-profit enterprises in the province’s post-secondary institutions, and concluded that the government really has no idea how much risk the provinces’ universities and colleges have taken on in the form of investments, partnerships, joint ventures, etc.  And that’s partly because the institutions themselves frequently don’t do a great job of quantifying this risk.  This issue’s a sleeper – my guess is it will increase in importance as time goes on.

ii) The Ontario auditor general reviewed the issue of University Intellectual Property (unaccountably, this story was overlooked by the media in favour of reporting on the trifling fact that Ontarians have overpaid for energy by $37 billion over the last – wait, what?  How much?).  It was fairly scathing about the province’s current activities in terms of ensuring the public gets value for money for its investments. A lot of the recommendations to universities consisted of fairly nitpicky stuff about documentation of commercialization, but there were solid recommendations on the need to track the impact of technology transfer, and in particular the socio-economic impact.  Again, I suspect similar issues will crop up with increasing frequency for both governments and institutions across the country.

Higher Ed Books of the Year.  For best book, I’m going to go with Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, which I reviewed back here.   I’ll give a runner-up to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, about which I wrote a three-part review in March (here, here, and here).  I think the thesis is wrong, and as others have pointed out there are some perspectives missing here, but it put a lot of valuable issues about the future of higher education on the table in a clear and accessible way.

Worst book?  I’m reluctantly having to nominate Mark Ferrara’s Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education.  I say reluctantly because the two chapters on the development of Chinese higher education is pretty good.  But the thesis as a whole is an utter train wreck.  Basically it amounts to: China is amazing because it is spending more money on higher education, and the US is terrible because it is spending less money on higher education (though he never bothers to actually check how much each is spending, say, as a proportion of GDP, which is a shame, as he would quickly see that US expenditure remains way above China’s even after adjusting for the difference in GDP).  The most hilarious bits are the ones where he talks about the erosion of academic freedom due to budget cuts, whereas in China… (you see the problem?  The author unfortunately doesn’t).  Dreck.

CUDO: You may recall I had some harsh things to say about the stuff that Common University Dataset Ontario was releasing on class sizes.  I offered a right of reply, and COU has kindly provided one, which I reproduce below, unedited:

We have looked into the anomalies that you reported in your blog concerning data in CUDO on class size.  Almost all data elements in CUDO derive from third party sources (for example, audited enrolment data reported to MTCU, NSSE survey responses) or from well-established processes that include data verification (for example, faculty data from the National Faculty Data Pool), and provide accurate and comparable data across universities. The class size data element in CUDO is an exception, however, where data is reported by universities and not validated across universities. We have determined that, over time, COU members have developed inconsistent approaches to reporting of the class size data in CUDO.

 COU will be working with universities towards more consistent reporting of class size for the next release of CUDO.

With respect to data concerning faculty workload:  COU published results of a study of faculty work in August 2014,  based on data collected concerning work performed by full-time tenured faculty, using data from 2010 to 2012. We recognize the need for further data concerning teaching done by contract teaching staff. As promised in the 2014 report, COU is in the process of updating the analysis based on 2014-15 data, and is expanding the data collection to include all teaching done in universities by both full-time tenured/tenure track faculty and contract teaching staff. We expect to release results of this study in 2016.

Buonissimo.  ‘Til tomorrow.

November 13

A Ministry of Talent

My friend and colleague, Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation in the United States, recently wrote a book called America Needs Talent.  It’s a short, popularly-oriented account of how human capital drives the economy, and what countries and cities can do to acquire it.  One of the suggestions he makes is for a federal “Department of Talent”, which is intriguing as a thought experiment, if nothing else.  So let’s explore that idea for a moment.

To begin, let’s be clear about what Merisotis means by “talent”.  He’s painting with a very broad brush here.  Yes, he means “top talent” in the sense of highly qualified scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.,  but he’s also talking about the talents one acquires through post-secondary education: everything from car repair to microbiology.  So when he says “Department of Talent”, what he’s really talking about is a “Department of Skills”, just with a much less vocational sheen.

Most of Merisotis’ argument could be transported to Canada (albeit in somewhat muted form, given the differing nature of the two countries’ federal responsibilities).  The primary goal of any government is (or should be) to raise levels of productivity.  No increase in productivity, no increase in standard of living (or standard of public services).  So there’s always a need to come up with better ways to think through how a country can raise its overall skills profile.

Yet at the federal level, we split up that responsibility among four ministries (warning: I have not yet bothered to learn the snappy new names the Trudeau government has bestowed upon departments).  In Canada, we have an Industry/Science Ministry, which plays a huge role in developing scientific careers, and fostering skills/knowledge through science-business relationships.  We have a Human Resources Ministry (now on its sixth name in twelve years), which supports training and learning in a variety of guises.  We have an Immigration Ministry in charge of bringing people into the country, which sort of co-ordinates with Human Resources in working out labour market needs, but not necessarily in ways that maximizes skill acquisition.  And finally, we have a Foreign Ministry, which is increasingly interested in attracting foreign students, and that has knock-on effects for immigration down the road.

And so, genuine question: why not hive-off the bits of all of those ministries that focus on talent development and acquisition, and stick them into a single ministry?  Why not create an organization with a singular focus of making our talent pool across all industries better?  It’s not impossible; in fact, Saskatchewan already tried it for several years with a ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration (an experiment recently unwound for reasons that remain obscure).

I think the quick and simple answer here is that changing bureaucratic chairs is not the same as changing actual policy orientation, and still less about changing results.  In reality, you might create a lot of churn, with very few actual results.  Still, the thought experiment is a useful one: who is in charge of ensuring that Canada always has the best talent at its disposal, in every field of endeavour?  Who makes sure that our education and immigration policies are complimentary?  Given the nature of our federation, this is always going to be a distributed function, but it seems to me that we don’t actually pose questions this way.  We talk about programs (how can we improve student loans?) or institutions (how can we increase the number of community college seats?), but only rarely do we talk about what the final talent pool will look like.

So, while a Ministry of Talent might make not make a lot of sense, there’s still much to be gained by talking about ends rather than means.  A “Talent Agenda”, maybe?  Something to think about, anyway.

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