Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Now Reading

Book reviews, responses to articles, etc.

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.

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.

June 04

Institutional Strategies: Simulacra or Reinvention?

I recently had the chance to read a re-issue of Simon Marginson and Mark Considine’s, The Enterprise University: Power Governance and Reinvention in Australia.  It’s a heck of a good read; among those currently writing about higher education, Marginson’s probably got the best turn of phrase around.  Some of it – around managerialism and the role of research expenditure in cementing it – seems a bit dated now, in the sense that no one would any longer find it surprising.  And the section on governing boards is a bit Australia-centric.  But the chapter on institutional diversity is so brilliant that everyone in Higher Ed should read it.  (Ministers and deputy ministers should read it four or five times.)  It’s that good.

In this chapter, Marginson & Considine consider how diversity works in practice.  In Australia – much like in Canada – there is a hierarchy of institutional prestige, based mainly on the order in which they were created within their state/province.  We call it the G-5, they call it the “Sandstones”, but it’s basically the same thing.  Then there are the “Redbricks” (roughly, the rest of the U-15, plus maybe York, Simon Fraser, and Guelph), “Gumtrees” (no real direct equivalent as a class, but think Brock/Laurier), “Unitechs” (Ryerson, maybe) and “New Universities” (the new-ish universities in BC and Alberta).

When  the authors examined these institutions they found that, despite “vertical” diversification, there was no attempt to diversify horizontally – in fact, quite the opposite.  As soon as Australian universities gained the freedom to control their own program mix, they all moved pretty swiftly to offer a pretty similar and comprehensive mix of programming. At the same time, all institutions were trying to become more research-intensive, with varying degrees of success.

(Is this sounding familiar yet?  Good.)

Marginson & Considine note the forces of isomorphism at work: some of it comes from the fading power of the disciplines (considerably more advanced in Australia than North America), some of it comes from the incentives provided by funding formulae, and some of it stems from the model of prestige that serves to reinforce the existing power of the Sandstones.  Basically, there’s no percentage in trying to be anything other than mini-Sandstones – which is why most institutional strategy in Australia is just a “simulacra” of strategy.  It isn’t real, it’s just a hollow, low-risk attempt to copy what the big schools do (for an example of this in Canada, see Western).

That said – and this is the bit that I found fascinating – Marginson & Considine still found three ways in which Australian institutions managed to diversify and re-invent themselves, if only a little bit.  One was by being the “entrepreneurial university” and engaging in some private fund-raising activities (e.g. commercial consultancies, bespoke training for companies, etc.), the second was by going big on globalization and international students (by which they mean not just attracting students from abroad, but also providing training or setting up campuses overseas), and third was specializing in distance education.

What’s fascinating about that?  The fact that nearly all Canadian institutions have piled on the second one, leaving the first and third essentially untouched (yes, we have distance ed specialists like Athabasca, but they were set up as a specialist school – no one has tried to reposition themselves through greater distance ed efforts).  The fact of the matter is that no school has ever felt threatened enough to do anything other than copy the big boys – to offer anything other than a simulacra strategy.

I wonder if that will change anytime soon?

June 03

STEM, Shortages, and the Truth About Doctoral Education

Harvard’s Michael S. Teitelbaum came out with an interesting new book last month called, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.  Though it’s a very US- focused book, it’s worth a read as a corrective to the occasional hysterics that people have in Canada about our alleged STEM crisis.

The book starts with a wonderful chapter called “No Shortage of Shortages”, which suggests that the current STEM-shortage panic is the sixth in the US since Sputnik.  He also eviscerates the various employer- and research university-led reports that precipitated the most recent crisis talk (Innovate America, Tapping America’s Potential, and Rising Above the Gathering Storm), and shows that the evidence backing up these claims for crisis  simply don’t hold up.  What does hold up are the structural incentives that exist for various groups to claim there is a crisis when there is none: universities get more money, professors get more grad students, and employers get more PhDs, or more H1-B visas to enable the hiring of foreigners.

An interesting question Teitelbaum raises is whether it might be possible to create a board or agency with the responsibility of declaring when certain occupations are indeed in shortage.  He correctly lists a whole bunch of structural reasons why it might be difficult to find a respected neutral body that interest groups wouldn’t immediately try to undermine, but he does raise the interesting example of the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee, which has the responsibility of advising government on when shortages in specific skilled professions has become sufficiently acute to merit changes in immigration law.  Certainly something to think about with respect to our own Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program.

But to my mind the most important chapter – one everyone in higher education should read – is the chapter on the U.S. Academic Production Process.  He makes the point that the production of doctoral students is a function of research grant availability, not of demand for services of doctorally-educated graduates (and certainly not of the needs of academic institutions for new faculty).  Universities want doctoral students (and increasingly, postdocs) because over time, they have become the go-to form of scholarly labour that university research labs require in order to work.  If they have more money – say, if the US government increases the NIH budget by 100% over five years – there will be a huge explosion in the demand for doctoral students, which is entirely unconnected to the labour market demand for doctoral graduates.

This is a simple and unarguable point, but it is rarely stated quite so bluntly.  Eventually, domestic students figure this out, and fewer go into doctoral studies.  But that doesn’t decrease the demand for this kind of labour – so institutions start reaching out more and more for foreign students, particularly from Asia.  For these students, grad student conditions (and those that come afterwards, even in a depressed labour market) still look pretty good compared to what they can get back home.  To his credit, Teitelbaum doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers to this one and, in the end, simply falls back on the idea of requiring institutions to do a better job informing prospective graduate students about the realities of the academic job market – in terms very similar to the ones I proposed back here.

Anyways – pick up Teitelbaum if you get a chance.  It’s a rewarding read.

May 30

Valuing Foreign Degrees

There was an interesting Statscan paper out yesterday that made some fascinating observations about education, immigration, and human capital.  With the totally hip title, The Human Capital Model of Selection and the Economic Outcomes of Immigrants (authors: Picot, Hou and Qiu), it’s a good example both of what Statscan-type analyses do well, and do poorly.

At one level, it’s a very good study.  It uses the Longitudinal Administrative Databank (Statscan’s coolest database – it’s a longitudinal 20% sample of all of the country’s taxfilers) to follow the fates of newcomers to Canada in terms of earnings.  What they find is that in the first few years after entry, the very large wage premiums that “economic class” immigrants (as opposed to “family class”) with degrees used to have over immigrants without degrees has shrunk substantially.  However, over the longer term, the study also finds that educated immigrants have a much steeper earnings slope than those with less education – which is to say that if you shift the lens from “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in their first three years in Canada”, to “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in the first ten-to-fifteen years in Canada”, you get a much different, and more positive story.

Now, a lot of people want to know why immigrants with degrees aren’t doing as well in the short term, even if the decline in long-term fortunes isn’t as severe as first thought.  The authors don’t answer this question, but many others have come up with hypotheses.  When you hear stories about immigrants doing worse than they used to in the labour market, even holding education constant, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.  Canadian immigration since the 1980s has increasingly been from Asian countries, so it’s easy enough to conjure up some racism-related theories about the decline.  But I want to point something else out.  Below I reproduce a table from a this recent UNESCO report on higher education systems in Asia.  It shows the distribution of university professors by various levels of qualifications.

Table 1: Highest Level of Higher Education Instructors’ Academic Attainment, Selected Asian Countries







Here’s the problem: Should we really assume that a Bachelor’s degree from Indonesia confers the same skills that one from the US or Europe does?  Probably not.  And yet every single Statscan study that looks at education, immigration, and earnings assumes that a degree is a degree, no matter where it’s earned. I understand why they would do that; how else would one judge equivalencies? And yet choosing to ignore it doesn’t help either.  The reason today’s university-educated immigrants are doing worse than the ones of 30 years ago may simply be that they have lower average levels of skills because of where they went to school.

None of this is to suggest racism isn’t a factor in deteriorating incomes for new immigrants, or that Canadian employers aren’t ridiculous and discriminatory in their demands that new hires have “Canadian experience”.  It’s simply to say that degrees aren’t all made the same, and it would be nice if some of our research on the subject acknowledged this.

March 12

The Skills “Crisis”: Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs

There’s a very slim volume out from Wharton Press called, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.  It’s by Peter Cappelli, a management professor from the University of Pennsylvania, who adapted the book from a series of articles he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 and 2011.  Not all of it applies to Canada (it’s a very US-focussed book), but enough of it does that I think it’s worth a read for everyone with an interest in the skills debate.

The book takes a simple “myth-busting” approach to the skills debate, much of which would be familiar to those of you who read this blog regularly (notably, with respect to how skills shortages are defined, and whether or not employers have considered the simple approach of “raising wages” as a way to solve said shortages).  But Cappelli makes three additional specific points that I think need to be more fully considered by everyone involved in the skills debate:

1)      Electronic job applications have revolutionized large-company hiring practices – but not necessarily for the better.  Because the internet has vastly lowered the barriers to application, companies have been flooded with applications.  Their response has been to automate the search process.  What tends to happen is that employers, in an attempt to keep numbers manageable, simply search for keywords on CVs – keywords that screen out far too many people.  This leads to a situation where the only people eligible for the job are people who have already done the job.  (There’s also an amusing anecdote about an HR firm CEO who suspected this was happening at his own company, and so sent in his own CV, incognito.  He was rejected.)

2)      Hiring new workers isn’t like shopping at Home Depot.  For any given body of work that a company undertakes, many different hiring strategies exist.  You could, for instance, do a job with a few highly-skilled workers and a lot of low-skilled workers, or an intermediate number of intermediate-skilled workers.  While certain job-specific skills are necessary, companies mainly need portfolios of skills across their entire workforce.  And the most important skill is the ability to work hard and be adaptable – precisely the kind of thing that hiring managers have trouble determining from keyword searches.

3)      North America (he says the US, but I think Canada fits this definition too) is the only place in the world that thinks of companies as consumers of skills.  Pretty much everywhere else in the world, they are thought of at least partly as producers of skills, because they do radical things like “training”.   If we have elevated expectations of our post-secondary institutions, why do we not have elevated expectations of employers as well?  Sure, it’s great when colleges and universities turn out prepared graduates, talented graduates, adaptable graduates.  But fully-trained, already-able-to-do-the-job graduates?  Employers have to be more realistic, and step up to the plate themselves.

All in all, a worthwhile contribution to the debate.  Pick it up.

May 27

Higher Education Management, Hermit Kingdom-Style

Frabjous day!  I have just read one of the great higher education management tracts of all time. I’m of course speaking about, On Improving Higher Education, by Kim Il Sung.  (Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1974).

Don’t let Kim’s “communist” label fool you – what this guy cared most about was the concept of Juche  (self-reliance), which continues to be the underlying ideology of the north’s nationalist, quasi-fascist state.  As you can imagine, this meant a lot of belt-tightening.  As such, Kim’s thoughts have mostly to do with things like optimization, efficiency, and austerity.  Really, a perfect book for our times.

Pay raises, for instance are Right Out.  “As long as you make an issue out of remuneration, you cannot be a revolutionary,” says Kim, righteously noting that nobody paid Marx to write Das Kapital (the fact that Marx died before completing it might have had something to do with that, but no matter). North Korean intellectuals had the privilege of giving lectures and writing books, “and yet they insist on receiving money for this wonderful task,” Kim splutters.

Work rules, too, come under serious scrutiny.  Responding to complaints that “university and college professors lecture a thousand hours a year”, which some consider to be too much, Kim is clear: “You are wrong!  Fundamentally speaking, calculating lecture hours is not the attitude of a revolutionary.  If you are true revolutionaries who serve the people, you would never calculate the hours; you try hard by all means to work as much as you can”.

(I make the following offer to university administrations across Canada: if any of you decide to try to outflank your faculty union to the left by telling them their views are evidence of captiveness to bourgeois ideology, I’m buying the first round.)

Times were tough in North Korea in the 60s.  In order to rebuild the country after war, there was a need to get Engineers into the field quickly, leaving little time for things like, say, a final year of studies.  “They say our technicians’ qualifications are low, but in fact they are not so low”, says Kim.  “Our Engineers may have graduated a year earlier, but since they have had more training at the actual places of production, they have many merits”.  Glen Murray couldn’t have put it any better.

The same applies to student enrolment, generally.  “Providing so many students with stipends is causing a heavy burden on the state”, he notes.  The solution?  Send them to work, and have them study while working.  If MOOCs had been around in the 60s, you know he’d have been all over them.  Juche, dontcha know.

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough.  A text for our times.

March 06

Cross-Subsidies and Professional Programs

Canadian Lawyer magazine has an interesting little story about tuition rises at the University of Toronto.  Apparently, tuition there has been rising at 8% per year for some time now, and students, understandably, are upset.

That’s a pretty run-of-the-mill story.  More interesting, however, was Dean Benjamin Alarie’s defense of the hikes.  To wit:

“The cost of satisfying our obligations increases steadily over time, and without corresponding provincial [government] increases to our funding, we need to find a source to finance those inexorable budget increases.  The rate of increase of staff and faculty compensation is the product of a mix of collective bargains that have been struck and arbitration awards by labour arbitrators, and so there’s not much scope for the law school and the university generally to resist that part of the academic inflation.”

At one level, this is undoubtedly true.  Costs – mainly labour – are rising faster than inflation, and government funding isn’t keeping up; short of increasing student-teacher ratios, tuition needs to rise in order to keep things level.

But those collective bargains and arbitration awards are campus-wide, so costs shouldn’t be rising faster in law than elsewhere.  And the rest of the university gets by on something a little less that 5% per year.

So what’s driving those extra costs in law?  Universities’ financial reporting is sufficiently opaque that it’s hard to know for sure, but one has to suspect that cross-subsidization might be involved.  That is, institutions are taking advantage of the high demand for professional education to jack-up tuition, and funneling some of that money to other programs.

There’s nothing wrong with cross-subsidization, per se.  We do this between lower-and-upper year students all the time.  Arguably, the entire rationale to run higher education through universities (as opposed to a collection of discipline-based schools) is precisely to allow cross-subsidization between departments.  But this gets progressively harder to defend as fees rise.  If I’m paying 30% of the costs in my program, and someone else is only paying 25%, there’s an implicit cross-subsidy, but it’s not enough to necessarily get excited about.  On the other hand, if I’m paying over 100% of program costs, I’m going to get a little tetchy.  Students will pay it, of course – and gladly so, if the value of their degree is seen to be high.  But in a recession, when the short-term value of degrees is questioned, it’s a really tough sell.

Alarie says his challenge is to try to explain to students the university’s financial situation so they can better understand these cost increases.  In fact, that’s a challenge for the whole sector: as tuition rises, so too must financial transparency – including on cross-subsidies.

January 07

Those Big, Bad, “American-style” Program Reviews

Hi everyone, and welcome back.

The best education story of the winter break was almost certainly the Globe piece on program reviews at Canadian universities.  Despite an inane headline (when it comes to a policy’s unsuitability, nothing unites Canadian bien-pensants more than claims to an American origin), it’s an important piece about a useful process occurring at universities across Canada.

HESA has directly contributed to two of these exercises (you can see some of our work, here), and with that experience I think there are a couple of points in the article which bear greater exposition.  In particular, while the idea of conducting program reviews has received recent impetus from the writings of Robert Dickeson, the idea that Canadian institutions have adopted Dickeson holus-bolus is simply not true.

Dickeson’s key insights – the ones that attract everyone to his book – are that spending decisions at universities should be informed by some kind of insight about the relative quality and efficiency of different programs, and, in turn, this requires the creation of an indicator set which allows like-to-like comparisons.  He also suggests a number of possible indicators, the specifics of which one can fiddle with as the local need requires.  So far, so good.

Dickeson’s work is a less useful guide, however, when it comes to the espousal of  Jack Welsh-style ranking –and-yanking.  In his system, every indicator gets weighted and scored, all scores are aggregated, and the worst-performing units are cut.  Conceivably, this approach makes sense at cash-strapped American state institutions where shared governance is less in evidence than it is in Canada – although I’d argue there are still better ways to use the data.  Up here, this approach would lead to a faculty revolt within minutes.

Another problem with Dickeson’s approach is his desire for data at the level of programs, rather than departments.  Most of the data he advocates for simply doesn’t exist at the program level in most institutions, and trying to deal with this issue can waste a lot of energy.  What would make more sense in Canada is to look at quality at the departmental level (which can be done relatively easily), and keep the program-level focus at the level of economics (i.e. how much money is being gained/lost by each program).

Taking a more rigorous approach to analyzing the academy won’t please everybody; there will always be those who say that the data can’t capture everything, or will whine about the need for an appeals process, or some such thing.  But bills have to be paid.  Decisions need to be taken.  And it’s better to make those decisions based on real data than on the squeaky-wheel basis that has historically predominated in Canadian universities.

September 27

The Reading List: Three Thumbs Up and a Meh

It’s been awhile since I updated the reading list, so, without further ado:

Science in the 20th Century and Beyond by Jon Agar. Less a history of scientific discovery as it is a history of contexts and manners in which science was practiced over the past century. In this interpretation, what gave American science the edge in the 20th century was less the massive inflow of talent from Europe than it was (a) the closer integration of scientists and engineers (the latter being very important in instrumentation) and (b) the ability of Americans to manage the discovery process in an industrial fashion (e.g., Bell Labs, the Manhattan Project). It’s also enlightening on the subject of how commercial problems, in one way or another, have always had a decisive factor in shaping the scientific agenda. For such a broad and important topic, it’s a very well-written survey.

The Roots, Rituals and Rhetorics of Change: North American Business Schools after the Second World War by Mie Augier and James March. This is intellectual history the way it is supposed to be written. It’s the story of how a few key individuals and institutions (RAND, the Ford Foundation, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University) managed to create an intellectual movement in favour of changing and upgrading an entire field of university activity. Though you’d never know it now, the move to create a modern business school was consciously based on the process of reform that had swept through the field of medicine forty years earlier. The last third of the book could have used a better edit, but it’s still worth a read.

How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan. This book, which looks at the economic incentives which face individuals and institutions engaged in science is almost certainly the best book on public policy and higher education published anywhere in the world this year. For obvious reasons, it’s fairly U.S.-focussed, but even that is in some ways enlightening; I for one had absolutely no idea the extent to which American universities were built on soft money (being a V.P. Finance at one of those schools must be absolutely terrifying). It’s a lucid sweep over an enormous literature which isn’t often tackled in a systematic way. If your job in any ways relate to making policy on science and research, this needs to go on your reading pile.

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President by William Bowen. Presidential memoirs are rarely very entertaining. Bowen’s is mercifully short, but far too Princeton-centric to be of interest to most. Plus it’s suffused by that seriously pompous tone that male American university presidents tend to have. Why can’t they be more like Josh Molina in The Big Bang Theory?

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